Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Favorites - Goal achievement and cars like yours

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Earl Nightingale said, "You become what you think about most of the time."  You also tend to see what you think about most of the time.  When you purchase a new (or new to you) car, suddenly you notice identical cars in parking lots and along roads you travel every day.  You think that you never saw them before, but you would be incorrect.  They were there all of the time, but your brain was paying attention to something else before now. You didn't see them, and now you see them, because of selective perception.

This is why you've heard that the world you see is a reflection of yourself.  If you notice fat people it's because you're thinking about feeling fat.  When you expect people to be kind to one another, you tend to notice acts of kindness. Your brain automatically searches for evidence that supports your habits of thought.

So where does selective perception fit into your achievement of goals?  Let's ask this question:  What are you REALLY thinking about yourself and your future? Are you feeling bullish on today, ready to get out there and conquer? Or are you seeing yourself in a holding pattern, perhaps even feeling the beginning of a downward spiral? When opportunity comes knocking, are you in the state of mind that allows you to notice it?

You are engaged in selective perception every day, meaning you're not taking in every bit of stimulus that's coming your way. You are sorting, mostly subconsciously, for the information that's relevant to you for the purposes you have at hand. Now think about this for a second - how do you determine what's relevant? If your perception of stimulus is subconscious that means it's habitual. You'll notice the environmental elements that reinforce existing beliefs and existing patterns. Is your current selection  helping you to produce the results you want?

If you want to notice more opportunity, if you want to affect your perceptions in a positive way, you need to create a framework for relevance. This is accomplished by establishing a general intention, or by planning a more specific goal. Here's a simple example - you are considering buying a car. You've got a specific brand, model, and perhaps even color in mind. Suddenly everywhere you go you see THAT car - driving beside you, parked in parking lots, etc.  You've set up your selective perception to be stimulated by the sight of that car.

Part of the reason that it's stress-inducing not to have a direction is that although you're receiving stimuli from an overwhelming number of sources, you're not able to perceive them. There are limitless opportunities, but when you are not helping your brain to sort for relevance it feels like there are none.

You might not feel ready to set a specific goal yet, for any number of reasons. But if you want to kick up your selective perception, at least establish a general positive intention. If you are looking to expand your income, release yourself from the need to know HOW you're going to do it right now. Just keep that intention front and center and your brain will sort all of the incoming stimuli to help you notice the ones that are relevant to your intention.

Of course noticing opportunity is only the first step.  Acting on it is the next.  If you see a brass ring hanging out there you have to reach for it if you want it.  But that's a topic for another day.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Greater productivity without an agenda

Sometimes your job is to sit in a group and listen
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while someone is downloading information into you.  If you're in a leadership role you may be the one who is at the front of the room doing the downloading.  But if this "sage on the stage" style of meeting is your go-to method, you're missing some productivity.

When the head hondo is always at the front of the room doing the talking:

  • Information is flowing only one way, and from one person with one perspective.
  • Knowledge base from the other attendees (can't really call them participants if they are just sitting there) isn't flowing upward.
  • Cross-functional synergies aren't being identified because although attendees are sitting next to one another they aren't interacting.
  • Relationships aren't being built.
  • Ideas aren't being generated.
  • Feedback from the field isn't being shared, meaning that decisions might wind up being made with an inaccurate or outdated set of information. 
Sound meeting planning methodology prescribes that you should have an agenda, but there are times when the meeting outline should be loosely defined, if at all:

  • When relationship building is the goal, all participants need to have an opportunity to build their portion of the relationship.  It's a mutual process that one person can't presume.  Listening is a prerequisite to understanding, and understanding (at least to some degree) is a prerequisite to relationship.  They don't care what you know unless they know that you care.  This doesn't have to be mushy - respect, empathy, and demonstrated trust help to build your emotional bank account with them. Remember that relationship building is a Quadrant 2 activity - you have to make room for it now because it will help everyone later.
  • When you believe (or know) that the participants have input to share you have to make room for it.  They might need only a few minutes, but  you may come upon a situation where an individual really needs to unload.  You can't rush this, especially if the situation has big implications associated with it.
  • When you are trying to ascertain a direction rather than implement based upon a previously established direction you need to provide time for divergent thinking before you work to jell the group, converging on selected ideas.  If you rush to a conclusion without providing adequate processing time you might wind up with a result that doesn't have enough buy-in to overcome obstacles that might crop up during implementation.
If you don't have a detailed agenda with planned time allocations for each item on the agenda, at least decide how much time you are willing to invest in the no-agenda meeting.  The other participants, even if they don't know where you're going with it or don't necessarily agree with the methodology, will be willing to play along for a time. Just give them the benefit of being able to plan their day - and demonstrate to them that this no-agenda meeting does have forethought behind it.  Of course when you communicate the planned time frame it's important to stick to it.  (Exception:  if all participants agree that they want to extend the time frame because of some meaningful progress and/or insights, go ahead and add an agreed-upon additional time segment.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Six cultural habits that interfere with continuous improvement

Sometimes the obstacles to improvement in companies
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are firmly ingrained in the culture.  People have developed habits of thought that have to be redeveloped if the company's initiative to reduce defects and waste, increase speed and efficiency, etc. is to succeed.  Yes, even without doing so the business might be able to experience some uptick in performance, but without addressing employees' and leadership's conditioned attitudes and behaviors the improvements won't last.

Culture is not the only obstacle in this venture.  Continuous improvement requires the alignment of the company's structure, processes, rewards and people with the strategy. It's likely that a business committed to continuous improvement will make changes in many if not all of these factors.  But of these resources, alignment of the people resource requires the most attention.  Conditioned behavior often eludes one's notice, especially one's own behavior. You engage in it without thinking, sometimes doing the same things repeatedly even if they don't work.

Here are some of the obstacles you can often count on addressing - the scary six cultural mindsets that can dilute or even destroy your efforts toward developing a quality-focused business:
  1. Management knows best - Although your quality culture needs to be management directed, the activities within it require the involvement of employees at every level. Managers often have the most extensive formal education,but they're not the ones actually doing the work, so they are not aware of the day-to-day details that impact quality output.
  2. Not invented here - This can be a management issue, or a cross-functional one. It's easy to think that your own ideas are the best, but the people that can see beyond an idea's origin to its value and its application will win the day.
  3. It's the people, stupid, or rather the stupid people - In some organizations it's habitual to attribute poor quality to employee failings like poor motivation, inattention to detail, lassitude, etc. J. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, tells us the contrary - that 85% of poor quality is caused by bad processes. In service businesses the process impact is 95%.  Bad processes will beat good people every time.
  4. Fear motivates - Perhaps in the very short term fear can "motivate" people to do what their managers want. But if the culture routinely assassinates people for making mistakes it's unlikely that employees are going to stick their necks out to try new ideas. What will be the consequences to them if their ideas don't work? This doesn't mean that it's OK for individuals or teams to make the same mistakes over and over. The company needs to acquire a "test and measure" attitude to incorporate new ideas while managing the risk.
  5. Stick to your own knitting - Functional silos often have their own communication processes and their own cultures. The customers, however, have to interact with multiple departments. Who is managing the "white space" between them? And often the best targets for process redesign are so because they cross functional lines and are likely to have failures or delays in the hand-offs.
  6. "We're pretty good" - Jim Collins wrote that "good is the enemy of great." In addition, subjective evaluation is the enemy of good quality. Measurement is quality's friend. You need to know how much you're producing, how much it costs, how long it takes, etc. in numbers and dollars that can tell you whether you're improving or not.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Whether you sell products or services, it's about the experience

How are you measuring quality in your business?  Do you sell services, or do you sell products? When the discussion of quality arises in manufacturing, companies often (perhaps most of the time) turn their attention to their products.  They follow measurements like the number of defective parts shipped, the dollar amount of warranty cost that is being incurred, or defective parts per million produced are impacted, and so on.
What often goes by with far less notice, however, is the quality of the customer's experience.  Quality  in products is rarely a competitive advantage any more; it's expected in order for your company to have a seat at the table.  In some product categories the differences between the brands are indistinguishable by customers (now don't get all offended - we know yours are awesome).  But the response time, the courtesy of the customer service representatives, the easy understandability of the invoices - these become the differentiators that create one of three outcomes:
  1. Customer Loyalty - long-term customer relationships that bring repeat purchases and referrals increasing the lifetime value of each relationship, 
  2. Unenthusiastic, uncommitted customers that buy only until they see what they think is a better deal, or 
  3. One-time tryouts that walk back out the door. never to return 
If you want to be in better control of the customer experience you'll need to make a shift from product focused thinking to process oriented thinking.  When you take more notice of the customer experience, you measure and analyze the customer's points of connection with your company - the initial greeting, methods for taking and filling orders, documents, website - even the phone system, signage and front lobby.  Been to voice mail hell, anyone?

What kind of buying experience do your customers expect?  What experience would give you a competitive advantage?  Are your customers looking for any of the attributes on the list below?  Are you consistently delivering them?

  • Excitement - great for an amusement park, probably not great for a hospital
  • Comfort and Security - sought in many financial institutions, perhaps not so much in movie making
  • Reliability - a cornerstone of customer loyalty.  Whatever the customer expects happens every time without fail.
  • Confidentiality - nobody but you knows your information, and that's the way you want it
This list of quality service attributes could be endless, and your list could be completely different from these four.  The important thing is that you determine what your customers' expectations are and then manage processes to help to fulfill them.  The corollary to this is that you don't invent the expectations - you find out from your loyal customers just what it is about their experience with you that they value, and what they would like to see more of or less of in their points of connection.  

You might also ask potential customers what they look for, because they may be looking for something that nobody is providing yet.  Remember the advent of the television in the dentist's office?  How much easier it has become for a parent to take a young child to have teeth cleaned when they can be distracted from the procedure (or any discomfort) by watching Spongebob Squarepants?  It has become almost a standard now, but the first dentist to do it in his or her market had a competitive advantage based upon nothing that has to do with dental capability.

Your customers may not expect a carnival ride from your company experience.  They probably don't want to be on a roller coaster of sorts with you, with ups and downs and sudden changes in direction.  But start thinking beyond improving your products.  Start looking at your processes, particularly the ones that involve customer points of connection, and you will find opportunities for competitive advantage.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Your company's problem solving reveals its culture

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When you're the leader you have to look beyond working in the business and pay attention to the work that has to be done ON the business.  Those bigger-picture concerns include strategy, process effectiveness, and culture.  Process and culture support (or interfere with) the implementation of your strategy.  

You can tell a lot about a company and its culture by how problems get solved. Have you heard any of these comments in your business?
  • "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
  • "Whatever you do, don't tell Harry about this."
  • "Maybe it will go away on its own."
  • "They won't do anything, so why bother bringing it up?"
  • "Let their department handle it. It's not our problem."
  • "Maybe we should bring in a consultant."
  • "Let's form a team to figure this out."
  • "Let's not just put a band-aid on it - let's get to the root of this."
Maybe you have defined a process for handling problems - or maybe you haven't. When a company employs effective formalized problem identification and solving processes, problems tend to stay relatively small, and they are handled at the closest point to their occurrence. For example, some hotels plan ahead to deal with customer problems promptly by allocating budgets to front-line staff to resolve them - a hotel housekeeper might have the funds to buy Tylenol, toast and tea for a guest who's not feeling well. In another example, company issues are referred to a quality team to be addressed.

When there's no established problem solving process in a business it's more likely that issues will be ignored or hidden, or at the very least procrastinated or handled inconsistently.Some problems that arise might be no big deal and no major strain on the bottom line, but there are others that you had better handle right away or you'll find yourself with a mission-critical situation on your hands.

Leaders who foster effective problem solving create an environment where people aren't assassinated for making mistakes. These leaders want to hear the unedited bad news as well as the good news. Otherwise they'll be running a company based upon fiction, and ultimately it will come back to bite them.

As for followers, there are only two roles to play - that of victim or that of creator. Sometimes the victim feels that way with cause - perhaps they've shone a flashlight on a problem before and received a reprimand rather than encouragement. But other times the victim role is played by someone who feels uncomfortable with authority figures, or who considers it to be "easier" not to take responsibility.

Culture is comprised of the rules that your group shares - written or unwritten - that organize their everyday activities. Many of the culture clashes that arise do so because "insiders" assume that everyone knows the rules and will behave accordingly. When someone doesn't follow the accepted rules they show themselves as an outsider, and in some instances are disciplined for it.

When you take steps to establish problem solving processes and follow through on them, you are affecting the culture in your company.  In many instances this sort of de facto culture shift is more effective than it is for you to talk about teamwork, quality, etc. or to send people to workshops.  Problem solving processes are live learning opportunities.  The application of the learning is immediate and the results of changes become apparent quickly.  The ability to see tangible outcomes of change enhances willingness to experiment, and it enhances team members' feelings of self-determination and control over their work environment.  Involvement creates ownership, and ownership creates commitment.

If you want to change your culture you'll have to do things like incorporating formalized, communicated changes to problem solving process and behavior expectations. During the transition to new methods it often can be helpful to engage a facilitator or outside resource whose responsibility is the process while you concern yourself with the output. With a few live case practices over time your people can re-learn how they can solve problems effectively in your organization. It'll take time, though, for a new culture to develop.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Favorites - 80% of the reason why leaders fail

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So what is the secret ingredient that creates outstanding leaders?  We've talked a lot in this blog about how there are a multitude of skills and attributes that can create strength in leaders.  You can be an extrovert, an extrovert, a visionary, a servant, etc.  In addition, situations call for different leadership styles:  in times of worker inexperience or crisis a more directive style works best, while in a more stable situation with seasoned workers more delegation and a lighter hand are called for.  So instead of exploring the possibilities and the spectrum, today let's go at it from the opposite perspective.  Why do some leaders flame out?

In his book People Skills Robert Bolton said that 80% of the reason why leaders fail is lack of people skills. In the world of production it's often the super-worker who is promoted to supervisor. It's common if not typical that their people skills (or the lack thereof) is not a consideration in the decision. And so the new leaders are, in many companies, fending for themselves in the interpersonal department. They learn what they think they need to know by modeling off of someone else (sometimes a scary proposition) or by using trial and error. (Who wants to be tried and erred upon until they get it right?)

If an individual is motivated to learn he can choose to turn his head to see more of the people around him and notice their reactions, positive or negative, to the circumstances around them and the actions the leader takes. But this is slow, and reliant on pre-existing conditioning for the individual to interpret what's going on with the people around him.  This method can't be counted upon to get somebody successfully through the transformation to leadership. There are several potential obstacles to becoming the leader with effective people skills:
  • The people side of things might not be on their radar screen. It's not that they don't care - it's just that they don't see it.
  • They are focused intently on their goals, their tasks. This can be the equivalent of wearing blinders while walking down the street - you see only what is in front of you, while the opportunities and hazards might be right beside you.
  • He or she is part of a system and a culture. Remember that role-modeling comment above? If the leader is creating his/her style based upon what he sees in the company he will think he only has a certain range of acceptable behavior available to him. Put a great people person in a dysfunctional culture and unless he is the senior-most leader (and sometimes even then) the dysfunctional culture will win.
If you want to see better leadership skills that result in more productivity and greater internal customer loyalty you have several potential actions to take:
  • Check yourself first. Chances are you'll figure out (if you're willing to see it) that the behavior that they're doing that's driving you nuts is a copy of what they see you doing.
  • Build a culture that reinforces the importance of interpersonal skills. It has to start from the top of the house. Interpersonal effectiveness has to be a factor in hiring, performance evaluations, promotion opportunities, etc. if you want to get proper alignment.
  • Do some diagnostics. Assessments like the Attribute Index can help you identify the extent to which Empathy is a master or a potential blind spot for this particular person. (It's simpler to ride the horse in the direction he's already going...) Then you can determine how to proceed with selection, development, and/or support systems based upon the data you receive.
  • Make a point of developing the people skills side. Effective leadership and supervisory behaviors can be learned just like technical skills can, yet it often receives short shrift in budget priorities. Success in this skill area makes the difference between employee engagement and disengagement, voluntary turnover, high or low productivity, etc.  These are not all soft, immeasurable outcomes! You can speed up the leadership development process by addressing all three legs of the leadership performance stool - human relations skills, goal setting and goal achievement, and the attitudes and assumptions that support them.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is satisfying work a right?

After all of the recent history about economic insecurity, it
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might follow that attitudes have shifted away from looking for passion at work toward being satisfied with a J.O.B. - one that pays the bills no matter what it is. Is that enough for you?  Do you have the right to search for something you love to do, even after learning some hard lessons about economic insecurity?
Over the years Summit coaches have worked with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of startups and closely held businesses.  One common denominator of all of those is the love the owner has for his or her work.
You could be a bit cynical and assert, "Sure, the startups haven't been in business long enough to see the downside.  It's all rosy before you really get your feet wet."  But there is more to it than that.
A number of times we have overheard heard business owners say, "I'm having fun."  When asked, "Are you making money?" they respond ambiguously, which translated means "No."  The challenger bounces back with, "How can you be having fun when you aren't making any money?!"  The answer lies in the intrinsic motivation that the work has for them.  They are drawn to the work.  For right now money isn't the point.
It might seem to follow that doing work that you love means that you will make money - as a matter of fact there are books written on that topic.  They write that you don't have to subject yourself to demoralizing, boring work just to keep body and soul together economically.  But sometimes people who do the work that they love truly don't care about the money.  They would do it for free, and sometimes do.  Sometimes they underprice because they want other people to be able to have their products and services.
Making money is in itself something that some people love.  For them there is no doing it just because you want to give it to somebody.  The call of the work is wrapped around the thrill of the chase.  It's not even so much about what the profit will buy as it is about the keeping of the score in numbers and dollars.
By now you've probably read multiple articles in the news about whether Boomers will be able to retire from work, and at what age.  For the Boomers, the generation that will take 100 years to turn 50, work provides much of the meaning in life. The money is only part of the issue.  One of the implications of doing work you love is that you can't imagine retiring from something that provides psychic fulfillment to you.  Perhaps the culture of the post-work society won't be so appealing as more people choose to call their own shots and do work that they love.
So what is to happen to people who don't love their work, for whom the job is not intrinsically rewarding?  Managers will need to find ways to help them have a level of autonomy about how they do their jobs, when they do them to the extent practical.  There are tasks within jobs that can be done with dozens of variations and still provide a good result, and if the manager can provide the wiggle room within which employees can choose their preferred methods, managers will provide opportunities for intrinsic reward.
Is satisfying work a right?  You might not be able to go that far in the argument.  Economic security is economic security, although have fun putting a sharper point on what that means in today's environment.  You might have to do some things that aren't all that fun in order to achieve a bigger, more important outcome for yourself and your family.  
But the search for work you love is a worthwhile pursuit.  You have so much to offer the world.  It's a matter of tuning in to determine what your gifts are, and then seeking out work that uses them, work that attracts you.