Friday, September 30, 2011

Beware the sledgehammer as a persuasive tool

The other day a group of workplace peers met, and the conversation turned to the giant waste of time they endured on a daily basis from handling a single operational problem, over and over again.  One person's estimate was that he had to troubleshoot it as much as fifty times - that's 5-0 - in a single shift.  And the whole group was frustrated that, although they brought it up to their leadership, nothing has been done to correct it.  This is a problem with the fundamentals that has direct customer impact, and these employees have been taking a lot of flak because of it.
In addition, the employees were quick to answer when asked what they would do with their found time once the issue was resolved, and to a person they responded with the answer that their manager would love to hear - and she wasn't even in the room.  This persistent operational issue is standing between them and a key growth strategy of the company, and nothing is being done about it.
So the conversation shifted to theories of why they hadn't been heard by management, or why management has not chosen to prioritize the issue for resolution.  And ultimately the group came to the conclusion that the message has not been conveyed in a manner that motivates the powers that be.  In fact, the message-bearer has been cast as a Negative Nellie for continually calling attention to the issue.
In the process of being persuasive, authenticity comes through, and typically works to your advantage.  Being real works better than over-dramatizing or stretching the truth, because when you are being authentic you bear no risk of being uncovered as inaccurate and thereby losing your credibility.   Just like honesty is not the same as full disclosure though, directness is not the same as "the sledgehammer."  Put yourself in the other person's shoes.  You like to know what another person's concern is, but you typically don't like being hit over the head with it.  And neither do the people that you need to help you get things done.  Realistically speaking, if you are using the sledgehammer, you are increasing the odds that you are being pegged as a troublemaker.  And that results in your concerns going to the bottom of the pile, even when they have merit.
So how can you, the problem-identifying party, become more effective in leading upward, convincing management that they need to be on this issue right away?  Don't use a communication sledgehammer.  Instead, follow these guidelines.
  1. Gather data.  You need to know the facts about the size of the issue and its impact on the company.  How many incidents have you had?  How much time or money did it cost to handle it each time it arose?  Is it trending up (worsening), staying at a consistent level, or trending down (resolving itself)?
  2. Convert your data to a picture.  Graphs are quite articulate in telling the trend story - it's obvious regardless of the raw numbers involved when the line is going up or the bars are going down.
  3. Start by sharing your data privately to the lowest level that can resolve the problem.  Typically this means going to your immediate boss if you do not have the latitude to solve it on your own.  (And frankly, if you can solve it on your own, why are you sending it upstream??)  If you instead choose to unveil your work in a meeting or other public setting, you run the risk of embarrassing your boss and thereby placing him or her on the defensive.  This is a sledgehammer moment, and it isn't good if the goal of all this is that you want your boss to go to work on this issue on your behalf.  Nobody works well with a giant lump on their head.
  4. Describe the action you have taken so far, and the outcomes of that action as part of your communication.  If you have already been proactive to resolve the problem within your authority level you are more likely to be heard.  Your value to the company increases when it becomes apparent that you are not just adding things to your boss's plate of work because you're too lazy to figure it out yourself or because you want to show off your problem-finding prowess. 
  5. Consider your communication channel carefully.  Verbal, in-person communication is the least formal and allows you to be in the moment to field questions, etc.  Oral communication, though, can be open to more misinterpretation, and because there is no record of it, can cause your message to be forgotten, even remembered incorrectly.  If you document in writing, your audience literally can "get the picture" and has it to refer to later.  Written communication becomes a permanent record and can be passed all around your company, so check your grammar and spelling.  Also check your tone - no personal attacks in writing.  That's a sledgehammer popping out from around a hidden corner.
  6. Think about the decision influencers and stakeholders.  Nobody likes to feel like they are in the dark about their job.  In addition, there are times when you need a bit of additional (ahem) leverage to obtain action.  Putting key people on your cc list can help to get action even if the main recipient of the communication is being unresponsive.  Tread carefully here, because this could be another sledgehammer moment.  You could cause somebody important to lose face (figuratively speaking, of course), and that won't work in your favor in the long run.
  7. Choose your battles.  You expend political capital when you point out problems, and you don't want your input to be discounted on account of volume.  Prioritize based upon customer impact, cost to the company, etc.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kathryn and you at 100 years old

What will you be like when you're old - whatever that term means to you right now?  If you're a Baby Boomer, the official "now I'm old" number is probably moving rapidly upward.  Sixty is the new forty, perhaps?  Eighty the new sixty?  Not yet ready to take up the rocking chair? 
It's said that aging isn't for sissies, and everyone "d'un certain age" winds up looking in the mirror at some point and wondering where all of the creases and gray hairs came from.  Most people start to notice some creaks and kinks as time marches on.  But the question "How long will I live?" needs to be accompanied by the question, "In what manner will I live?"
An email arrived this morning informing of the death of a 100-year-old woman.  She wasn't just any woman - she was the mother of one of my most influential childhood mentors and a member of my church.  Kathryn specified in her will that I sing at her funeral, an honor for which I am grateful.  And her passing caused me to think about how one goes about becoming a centenarian.
Certainly the prerequisite is to live to one day more than 99 years and 364 days.  But how does a person behave in order to make it to that landmark?
According to 2009 World Bank World Development data, average life expectancy in the US is 78.7 years.  Kathryn exceeded that by more than twenty.  Twenty.  I can tell you some things that I know about her, and perhaps that will shed some light on her accomplishment.
  • Kathryn stayed physically active and physically fit.  Only near the very end of her life did Kathryn refuse to take her physical therapy, when she said it was because "Those people were so fat.  How would they know what's good for me?"
  • As you might be able to tell from the prior bullet, Kathryn didn't mince words.  She said what she thought.  Like it or not, people knew where Kathryn stood on things.  Could that have contributed to her longevity?
  • She loved to paint, and donated some of her works to church, and to other charitable organizations.
  • Kathryn knitted, and knitted, and knitted.  It was only about one year ago, when she was almost 100 years old, that she stopped knitting baby booties to donate to a nearby hospital.
  • Kathryn was an active church-goer.  Even when she became frail enough that she needed to use a walker in order to navigate, Kathryn would be seen perched on the bench inside the church door, all dolled up in a brightly colored outfit and waiting for her ride.  It's been documented that being active in a church and having a spiritual life seem to be contributors to a healthy lifestyle and reduced likelihood of early mortality.
Can you envision yourself at 85 years old, or even 100 like Kathryn?  What will you do to get yourself there?  Will you still be contributing?  Will you still be active and involved? 

If you can see yourself there, what do you need to start doing now to prepare yourself?  This isn't only about having financial resources, although staying in good health tends to involve the consumption of more financial resources as you age.  But are you preparing your attitude for your physical changes?  Are you thinking about how you might still have ample opportunity to make your mark on the world?  Or are you standing by, waiting to see what is going to happen to you (no matter how old you are right now)?

You might have as long as Kathryn to be on the planet.  But being alive isn't the same as living.  And living, really living to the fullest no matter your age, is a choice that's yours to make.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The chains that bind

Strings attached by rao_anirudh
Strings attached,
a photo by rao_anirudh on Flickr.
To what are you attached, and what are the attachments' implications for you?
Effective attachment to a primary care-giver figure has been found to be a key ingredient in human development.  The environment of security, reliability and love helps the child focus on things other than having his or her needs met.  Without effective attachment, or in cases of disrupted attachment due to abrupt separation from a primary caregiver, problem behavior and difficulty in social interaction can result.
In the world of personal development - the adult arena - the subject of attachment comes up again, but with a slightly different context.  Sometimes an attachment is made to a person or to some material object because it fulfills an emotional or psychological gap.
James Harvey Stout, author of The Human Handbook, describes attachment this way:
"When there is an interaction between two material objects (e.g., two people), these material objects can be considered to be "graphical user interfaces" between the two souls."  One individual (the "subject" for reference here) is attracted by an archetype in the other.  An archetype is a recognizable pattern of behavior, like that of a "teacher," or a "mother," regardless of whether or not the object is actually a teacher, a mother, etc.
Attachments are like magnetic fields, created by the subject's need for a particular type of energy from that other person or object.  In interaction among people, the subject's intuition leads him or her to look for the energy they need in the other person, and the other person does the same intuitive matching process with the subject.  As long as the need for that type of energy is sustained, the attachment continues.  Then once the need is over, the attachment goes away. 
A classic example of developmental and thereby usually temporary attachment to an inanimate object would be a toddler's attachment to a blankie or soft toy.  The object provides the comfort that would otherwise be sought directly from the child's primary caregiver.  So the object provides the child with the capability for soothing.  Once the child doesn't need the blankie any more, he or she stops carrying it around.
In longer-term attachments, sometimes there is a blockage that prevents the intuitive matching process from occurring.  A young man's ego might be fragile enough that instead of interacting authentically with a desirable young woman, he chooses to say things (true or untrue) to impress her.  In effect, his ego "pollutes" the interaction and prevents an effective exchange of archetypal energy with her.  The pollution prevents the satisfactory energy exchange, so both individuals go on with unfulfilled needs.
Inappropriate attachments to other people, even to inanimate objects, can highlight instances of unresolved needs.  Peter Shepherd, transformational psychologist, says, "If we try to escape from the task of learning to respond appropriately (i.e., intuitively) in the archetypal situations which that person evoked with us, we might seek a relationship with someone else -- but are likely to repeat the same dynamic, the same blockage to an authentic interaction. "  Multiple divorces on the part of one individual are sometimes the result of the recurrence of this blockage, interrupted energy and therefore the same problems after each trip to the altar. 
Attachments work symbolically and subconsciously - "I'm attached to my sports car because I don't feel successful without some physical evidence of it."  In the case of this sports car owner, one material attachment is likely to be followed by another, sometimes in an accumulation of possessions,  all because the learning process has not yet been allowed to occur.
When it seems that the same problems cycle back over and over again, it's because next time around the same archetypal field elements will still be there, and they will
  1. lead us compulsively (through the force of their trapped energy) to re-create the archetypal conditions in which those fields were polluted so that we can
  2. try again to maintain a link to our intuition during our interaction with the archetypes such that
  3. we are generating the particular thoughts, images, and energy tones which facilitate (rather than impede) the flow of energy between ourselves and the person.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Predicting performance - science or crystal ball?

We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievment by ManojVasanth
We shall reach greater and
greater platitudes of achievment,
a photo by ManojVasanth on Flickr
It is understandable that, given recent economic history, companies would be a bit skittish about adding to staff.  Cash is cash, and when a business or an individual feels at risk, a pile of greenbacks in the bank can help keep the night sweats away.

One of the other reasons, though, that companies are slow to hire or make hiring mistakes is their desire (but inability) to predict performance.  How can you be reasonably assured that the person in front of you will earn his or her paycheck and truly contribute to the company's bottom line?

Various tools and strategies have come to the aid of human resources departments and business owners seeking to manage hiring risks:
  • Personality and aptitude assessments taken by candidates as part of the interviewing process
  • Competency modeling
  • Credit histories
  • Interviewing methods specifically designed to uncover not only the applicant's prior experience, but also the thought processes behind their actions and the subsequent results
Unfortunately, while these tools and strategies may be somewhat helpful, there are many other variables in performance that compromise their effectiveness in predicting whether this job candidate sitting in front of you is going to cut the mustard.  Some of these variables include:
  • Training foundation they received (or didn't receive) in their previous job.  Aptitude doesn't necessarily mean automatic competency, and in some companies new hiring wasn't the first expense to be cut due to economic pressures - training was numero uno on the chopping block.
  • Work environment in their previous job.  Management is cause and performance is effect.  Certainly there is a shared responsibility between managers and their employees.  An individual has a responsibility to do his or her best.  But in an energy and morale-zapping work setting even the best worker material can tend to underperform.
  • Attitudes and assumptions about potential.  The individual's own habits of thought about how much is possible to achieve, and also the employer's preconceived notions have impacted and will impact how well they perform.  Experience can be a help or a hindrance here, because experience can lead to conditioned thinking (either they have it or they don't) that might or might not apply to this particular person sitting in front of you.
  • Institutional biases for or against "type".  Certain assumptions are so well ingrained into the corporate psyche that they are incorporated into decision making without conscious awareness.  It is illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc.  However, incidental opportunities of pet projects or social inclusion (or exclusion) can carry over into performance.  Being hired is one thing - fitting in is another entirely.
Ultimately a huge part of the performance equation is not in the employee himself or herself.  It's in the work processes and leadership of the employing company.  From a leadership perspective, supports for peak performance include:
  1. Communicated strategy, including where the individual fits into the picture.
  2. Effective orientation and training (simply watching a predecessor isn't effective).
  3. Clear communication of performance expectations and desired results.
  4. Employee input into work-related decisions that impact the employee.
  5. Opportunities for and openness to collaboration and discovery, two of the most effective learning methods.
  6. Individual ownership of performance feedback measurements that enable timely course-correction if necessary and identification of victories along the way.
  7. Articulated appreciation for work done.
  8. Fear-free work environment, focused on individual and corporate continuous improvement.
  9. Opportunity based upon accomplishment.
Yes, there are nonperforming employees who seem not to be able to or not want to do what is necessary to achieve the desired results.  But there are multiple responsibilities on the part of management to help the internal people resources perform.  Effective prediction of future performance is helpful, but an inexact science at best.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Who makes the better team player- a man or a woman?

Who do you think makes a better team player - a man or a woman?  An online friend shared that in his experience, when posed the question, "Who would you rather work with in a team situation?" the answer that comes back is almost always "a man."  What??
It is each individual's choice whether or not to play the gender card in the workplace, or to try to behave in a gender-neutral manner, whatever that is.  Some women work in a cultural boys' club, while some men are surrounded by women in the workplace, and either scenario can create culture clash.

Culture in a group is rarely gender-neutral from a communication perspective.  In the settings where one gender is predominant, often the cultural communication style of the dominant gender is the key to successful interaction, regardless of the actual genders of the individuals doing the interacting.
Let's use some examples from one of the leading researchers on gender-based communication differences, Deborah Tannen, PhD.
  • Men do report talk, women do rapport talk
  • In groups, men are constantly establishing and re-establishing a status pecking order, via jokes, data, insults, etc.  Women in groups work to establish level-status peer-to-peer relationships, and their vehicle to do so is sharing, often containing self-deprecating comments designed to level the playing field.
  • Men hear the message, women hear the meta-message (the message behind the message.) 
So, to follow these theories, in a team setting men would be less likely to seek the input of every team member before making a decision and proceeding.  Their assumption would be that if somebody has something to say, they will say it.  If opinions are offered, greater weight would go to the highest status person that is heard.  The result is that some female team members, waiting to be directly consulted, could wind up feeling like their contributions (and they) weren't valued.

In a team with a female style of relating some of the time is invested in conversation specifically designed to establish or re-establish the peer relationship, a task viewed by some more male-style communicators as a waste of time.  It is more likely in a women's group that each team member would be asked for input, regardless of their relative status in the group.  The intention is that the group move forward together with a solution that everyone can support.

As for message and meta-message, identifying meta-messages can be a blessing or a curse.  If no additional message was intended, the perception of a meta-message can create conflict within a group.  But in other cases the acknowledgement of information that was not directly said (the message behind the message) can lead the team to deeper insights than the spoken message could have conveyed.

Man versus woman on team play - this is more individually drawn. A woman might be acculturated or have a natural temperament that reads more "male" in communication style. And some men are quite adept at "female" means of relating in a group. As Dr. Tannen would say it, the individual that can cross the cultural divide and be effective in multiple styles is the person that will be the best team player. And the awareness and skills can be developed.

This gender-based teamwork discussion begs the question of the appropriateness of specific behaviors to the task at hand.  Leadership and teamwork methods are situational.  In crisis situations there is little time for discussion and consensus - someone has to take charge and move the group forward, and the rest have to get on board and follow.  On the other hand, better buy-in is achieved when all affected individuals have had input into the course of action.  Is a culturally male communication style better for crisis and a female style better for non-crisis situations?  Perhaps even with a task distinction, it depends more upon whether the team agrees that a good outcome is more important than anything else.  An effective team, male or female or mixed gender, does what it has to do to get the desired results.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When did Clint Eastwood become funny?

Clint Eastwood by Compulenta 2
Clint Eastwood, a photo by Compulenta 2 on Flickr.
There was a day when Clint Eastwood played the tough guy.  As Dirty Harry he clenched his jaw, squinted his eyes and delivered the line that was one of the highlights of his career:  "Go ahead - make my day."  As Josey Wales he was determined to avenge the death of his family.  And in seemingly countless spaghetti Westerns he  played the tough stranger, where he rode into town silent, mysterious and a bit threatening.

And then Clint Eastwood co-starred with orangutans.  Yes, orangutans - in the movie Every Which Way But Loose.  And audiences discovered that Clint Eastwood was funny.

Part of the humor in some of Eastwood's comedy ventures was developed from the expectation stemming from his stern appearance and prior casting.  Who would expect a laugh line to come out of that intense face?  But his comic self was in there - it just needed the opportunity to come out and be developed.

Acting is a sort of microcosm for development and change.  Actors put on characters like other people put on suits.  One month they play fearless adventurers, and the next they are tender in a romance.  But all of the dimensions that their characters reveal are already in there.  They simply need to be discovered by the actor, and cultivated by the director. 

Clint Eastwood was able to take on production and directing roles and ultimately create his own opportunities to expand his acting range.  What if he had left the decisions about his career in the hands of the casting agents?  Might he still be riding horseback or aiming Glocks at hoodlums?  After all, he made a lot of money for the studios playing those characters.

Are you allowing yourself to be typecast?  Have you decided that "I'm not that guy" or "I don't do math,"  "I'm not charismatic" or "I can't speak in public"?  How are those preconceived notions limiting your development?  And are you handing the progression of your career over to someone who might not see the additional dimensions that you have inside but have not yet tapped?

Let's shift perspectives and consider your role as developer of others for a moment.  If you are making staffing or development decisions based upon something along the lines of "they have it or they don't," you're missing the boat.  Leadership is developed.  Sales skills can be learned by individuals with diverse temperaments and styles.  Sure, some of the people who report to you demonstrate a predisposition to be effective in certain skills, or to be suited for certain roles.  But in order for them to grow beyond being cast by type, you can provide the openings for them to stretch into new space.  And who knows?  Given the opportunity, your company's Dirty Harry might just crack people up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ceci n'est pas une carote.

Ceci n'est pas une carote. by pinguerin
Ceci n'est pas une carote., a photo by pinguerin on Flickr.
Wait a minute - despite the words on the label, this bag does not contain carrots, and certainly not peeled baby carrots.  This picture caused a momentary brain cramp, and those seconds of confusion were an example of cognitive dissonance.
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance occurs when you are experiencing conflict between two different beliefs, or inconsistency between your beliefs and your behavior.  In this instance, there's a shared belief that a label on a package accurately represents the contents inside the package.  Obviously somebody messed up, and now there's a conflict that has been created between what you believe to be pretty much consistently true and your experience with this bag.
What happens when you are experiencing cognitive dissonance?
The conflict between two held beliefs creates tension, psychological stress.  For example, if you perceive yourself to be a financially responsible person and then impulsively buy a large plasma TV to watch the big game by maxing out your last available credit card, you're probably going to feel some stress or regret or guilt.  In this example your behavior is inconsistent with your belief about your character trait of financial responsibility.
How do you fix cognitive dissonance?
If you don't eliminate your cognitive dissonance, you will have to choose between the two conflicting beliefs.  Is it more important to you that you behave in a financially responsible fashion, or is it more important to you that your friends be impressed by your large television on game day?
You can resolve cognitive dissonance by using one of these strategies:
  • reducing the importance of the conflicting beliefs (You know you are receiving your big quarterly bonus next week, so you won't be maxed out on your cards for long.)
  • acquiring new beliefs that change the balance, (The new TV is more energy-efficient than the old one was), or
  • removing the conflicting attitude or behavior (Stick to your principles and don't buy the TV)
Until you identify and then resolve your cognitive dissonance (and there may be more than one conflict) you will remain in some stress.  You can reduce this underlying agitation and and improve your self-image when you identify the cognitive dissonance and work to resolve it using one of the strategies above.  Sometimes the dissonance appears to other people before you are able to notice it yourself.  When you are working with a coach, one of the goals of the relationship is for them to help you, in effect, hold a mirror up to yourself so you can see the conflicts. 

In the coaching process, new temporary cognitive dissonance is common as individuals are testing new behaviors that surpass (and thereby disprove) their previously held beliefs about themselves and the limits of their potential.  It is a process of acquiring new beliefs by stretching forward with action.  The belief catches up once it is "proven" accurate through the results of the new actions.
In other coaching cases it's the dissonance itself that leads individuals to the coaching process.  Their goal for the coaching relationship is to find effective means through which they can resolve the conflicts.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How often do you do it?

scale
Scale by AuntNanny, a photo on Flickr
Now get your mind out of the gutter - this post is about measuring your progress!

Let's start with the assumption that you have established specific, measurable goals.  How often do you need to check your metrics to see how well you're progressing?

Let's use this example, a weight-related goal.  Many programs (like Weight Watchers) recommend that you weigh yourself once per week.  The rationale is that your weight fluctuates even within a day due to variables like hydration, so to get a bigger-picture view a weekly weigh-in is sufficient.  Some people who are working hard on adapting behavior, though, weigh themselves more often - daily - to see the direct impact of their choices from just one day's food intake and exercise. 

When you are considering how and/or how often to measure, answer these questions:
  • How important is it that you achieve this goal?  If it's important you need to be on top of your progress.  If it's critical and you're not measuring interim results you are assuming undue risk.
  • How difficult or expensive is it to make a course correction?  You can't wait until 3 days before your annual physical to take off the 25 pounds your doctor has prescribed that you lose.  You can't fix your results that fast.  In addition, it's easier to make many small course corrections than it is to pull a 180-degree turn at the last minute.
  • Do you feel emotional about this topic?  Measurement helps you take an emotional topic and make it more scientific and logical.  You still might have an emotional reaction to the data, but the data will prevent you from deceiving yourself about how much progress you have or have not made.  Frequent measurement helps to reduce your all-or-nothing, pass-fail feelings by giving you many data points.  This measurement is only one in a series, in a trend.  Your measurement of today is simply a point on a graph - it's not the be-all and end-all.  And if you are measuring an emotionally-charged result (like weight is for some people) you might not acknowledge and reinforce your small steps in the right direction unless you see the proof on the scale or the tape measure.
  • Are you working to integrate behavior change?  You might need to measure more frequently in the early stages as you are working to establish new habits.  In effect you are proving it to yourself that you can do it, that you have done it, and that it is making a positive impact on yoiur results.  Then once you have integrated the new behavior into your routine you may be able to back off into less frequent check-ins.
It is possible to become obsessed by data, and it is possible to collect too much, in which case it's hard to see the proverbial forest for the trees.  But measurement is a key tool in noticing and reinforcing the actions that lead to successful results.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Walking Into The Space Between

The Space Between by colin grubbs
The Space Between, a photo by colin grubbs on Flickr.
It takes intention, planning, and then self-control for leaders to stop driving decisions and problem solving down into the organization and instead to allow room for ideas and solutions to bubble up from the front lines.  The benefits of employee involvement have been proven over and over, from saved time to reduced cost, higher productivity and higher quality.

But what tends to set leaders back a bit happens in the early stages of their letting go.  They open a space for employee decision making and front-line leadership and nobody steps into the gap.  "Isn't this what they wanted?  Isn't this what we told them we were doing?" the leaders ask themselves.  "Why isn't anybody stepping forward?  Where are all of the good ideas?"  It looks to the leadership as though people don't really want ownership of their workplace and their work processes.

Some employees might not want greater input.  For some people it's easier to sit back, follow, and then blame their results and workplace dissatisfaction on somebody else.  But for the bulk of employees, there are other dynamics at work - factors that can be overcome.
  • They aren't sure that you mean it.  They are waiting to have their hand slapped when they reach forward to take some initiative.  They have accumulated years of experience (and habits of thought and behavior) based upon the authoritarian model where they had better not get too big for their britches.  It might take time and repeated demonstrations by you, the leadership of the company, that this is what you want.  You can't instantly change employee attitudes, but you can create a different work climate - by using management methods that regularly ask for input, reward contribution, and resist the urge to punish for mistakes that come from the learning and improvement process.
  • They aren't used to doing it.  If you have been in the habit of riding into a problem on your white charger bearing a giant screwdriver, they have been in the habit of expecting you to do so.  You need to explain how you want it to work going forward, and then don't rush in to solve the next one, or the next one. 
  • They aren't sure how to do it.  Your employees have years of experience, but they don't know the protocol for bringing ideas forward, gathering support for them, testing them, measuring results and then implementing them more widely.  This is a process and quality tools issue that can readily be resolved by the leadership of the company.
  • Some might not be a fit for your new way of operating.  Most of the skills and knowledge they need for employee involvement can be trained into your staff.  You can help them be aligned with the company by working together to establish goals that serve as focus for their activities.  This is a strategy and a tools issue that can be addressed by management - you.  But there is also an attitudinal component that you cannot control.  You can influence it by the processes, reward systems, your communication content and methods, etc., but some people would rather not have this much responsibility.  They may choose to leave. 
This is not an instant process.  Culture change can take 1-3 years if you're working on it, longer to never if you're not working consciously to implement it.  Your job has several dimensions:
  1. to define what it is that you want from a big-picture strategic perspective
  2. to create (or to find) the process and structure that will help your organization get there
  3. to equip your people with the skills, knowledge, and overall direction they need
  4. to structure in opportunities for early wins
  5. to celebrate successes
It is more difficult to launch than it is to sustain.  There WILL be spaces between while people are figuring it out.  But it is your job to allow the spaces to be there so people can walk into them and lead in a way that they may never have done before.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

If this were your family budget

Cigarettes - Comments You May Have Overheard in 1955 Series shared by the Nicheprof by nicheprof
a photo by nicheprof on Flickr.
Thank you to my friend Subbu  from the Virtual Cafe for this post idea:
What would you do if this were your family budget:
• Annual family income: $21,700
• Money the family spent: $38,200
• New debt on the
family credit card: $16,500
• Outstanding balance on
the family credit card: $142,710
• Total family budget cuts: $385
It looks like this family is not on a good financial path.  (How's that for the understatement of the day?) Where would you look for the solution to the problem?  Do you think that they have made enough cuts in their expenses given the size of their credit card balance?  Does it look like somebody needs to get a(another) job to help cover the bills?  Or should they muddle through and wait to see how it looks next year?  But what if they need to replace their car between now and then?  Will they be able to qualify for a loan?  Or what if their basement becomes flooded in a passing hurricane?
My friend Subbu created this illustration  simply by removing 8 zeros from the financial statistics of the U.S. Government (tax revenues, budget, new debt, total debt, etc.).  When you take away the ideology, the upcoming election cycle, the purported desire to unseat rivals and the expectations of campaign contributors, it gets down to this.  You might want to weigh in with your legislators on how to handle this family problem.  Because if they don't make the right call you might find yourself eating nothing but franks and beans in the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Managing the Experience

Carnival Ride. by Tom Kaszuba
Carnival Ride., a photo by Tom Kaszuba on Flickr.The firs
When the discussion of quality arises, 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 is rarely the differentiator any more; it's expected in order for your company to have a seat at the table.  In some categories the differences between the physical products are indistinguishable by customers.  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. long-term customer relationships that bring repeat purchases and referrals, 
  2. unenthusiastic 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 
Management of the customer experience requires a shift from product thinking to process thinking.  Focus is placed on the customer's points of connection with the company - its people, methods for accomplishing work, documents, website - even its phone system, signage and front lobby.

What sort of experience do your customers expect?  What experience would give you a competitive advantage?  Are your customers looking for any of these?  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 could be endless, and your list could be different from these four.  The important thing is that you determine what the 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 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 rollercoaster 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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

More than open for business

Open For Business by roshangupta
Open For Business,
a photo by roshangupta on Flickr.
It's a seductive thought that as soon as you hang out the shingle for your newly established business people will start to pour through your front door and the phone will start to ring off the hook.  But don't be drawn in by the fantasy.  You are going to need more than an "Open for Business" sign to build the business you want.  Let's illustrate:
You're driving with your family somewhere beyond your home turf, feeling the pangs of an empty stomach, when you pass a small restaurent with a beckoning neon sign that proclaims "Open".  You pull into the parking lot, your family piles out and you file into the door, not even too worried about whether the food is tremendous.  You just want to eat.  Now.
You don't know whether you'll go back to that restaurant again.  That will be determined by the quality of the experience now that you're in there.  But the "Open" sign did its job.  It created the opportunity for the restaurant to snag the attention of a person (you) possessing a need they could fulfill (hunger).  And you walked in.
Think about the circumstances, though, that led to that opportunity for the restaurant to attract and now to retain customers:
  • You happened to be driving by.  If you had not been outside of your normal environs you would not have seen the restaurant or the sign.
  • You were hungry.  You had a need and you were aware of the need because of your growling tummy.
  • You could tell that the building was a restaurant.  You didn't mistake it for a bookstore or an auto parts supply.
  • You assumed that you had the capacity to buy food there.  You made this assumption based upon your prior experiences with restaurants that looked similar to this one.
  •  The appearance was inviting enough that you were not deterred from going inside.
The bullets above rely upon you the customer perceiving the need and initiating the transaction.  You had to be able to tell what kind of business it was, and to have enough visual confirmation of its legitimacy and the fit for their needs to take your family inside.
That's a retail operation.  But what if your business isn't retail?  What if your services aren't tangible, and people don't feel it in their guts when they need them?  Will an "Open for Business" sign do the job for you?  Certainly not.  You will have to go out and find your customers, initiate the activity that leads to new business.
This might sound obvious to you, but can you honestly say that you doing the activities that will help your business grow its customer base?  Or are you sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring?  Here are the facts about your potential customers:
  • Most of your would-be customers don't know what you do.
  • Many of them have a need but don't realize it.  They are busy operating their businesses, not focused on thinking and changing (improving) things.  Without some intervention (from you) they might never discover the need - and they won't be buying.
  • Some people who know what you do don't think they have the capacity to buy from you.  They might be sorting themselves out of your pipeline prematurely or unnecessarily.

Each of these three factors can be greatly influenced by you.  You can tell everyone everywhere you go what it is that you do (in manageable, nonobnoxious bites, please).  You can help people realize that your products and services solve problems that they have - even ones that they weren't aware of before they talked with you.  So go out and network, pick up the phone, talk to people, write something, do something.  But get out there.  Your sign is not enough.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Your dream of starting a business

    startup business financing by MarcoCarbajo
    startup business financing,
    a photo by MarcoCarbajo on Flickr.
    So you have always dreamed of starting a business...what do you need to know before you take that big step? 

    There are a lot of steps after the first big one, and they are all going to be up to you, so it is important to start by thinking about the "why."  Why do it?  The reasons are varied - see whether yours fit on this list, and add to it if your reasons aren't represented here:
    • Greater autonomy
    • I have a great product idea that nobody is producing yet
    • I want to be able to work from home
    • I don't ever want to go on a job interview again
    • I want to make a lot of money
    • I want to help other people become employed - in my company
    • I want to establish a legacy for my family
    • I want to contribute to the well-being of my community
    Document your reasons why - write them down - because in the less-than-fun moments of running your business you'll want to be able to remember them, and stress will keep them out of the top of your mind.

    The nitty gritty prep work
    There is a lot of ground work for you to do before you get started.  A few of the key early steps will be listed below, but here are two recommendations right out of the gate:
    1. Talk to a few owners of businesses that are fairly new.  Find out what they love, and what they hate, about it.  Sure, your passion will drive you at first and your rose colored glasses might not allow you to see the real deal right now.  ("I'll never make THAT mistake!")  But these conversations will help you do a bit of a reality check.
    2. Make an appointment with SCORE (you can find your local chapter HERE.)  SCORE mentors are seasoned businesspersons who volunteer to help people like you get started.  They will talk to you FREE to help you navigate the research and planning you need to do up front.  And they sponsor classes (typically very low cost) for specialized areas of knowledge, like business planning and QuickBooks.
    If you decide to go it alone, here are some of the other early steps you need to take:
    • Determine your desired business structure:  proprietorship, limited liability corporation (LLC), partnership, etc.
    • Choose a name and register it.  Before you get too far in love with a particular name, do a URL search to make sure your desired website address is available. 
    • Do some online and/or community research on your competition, determined by your desired geographic market for your business.  You need to know what's already out there so you can determine things like differentiating product or service features that will help people choose your company.  In addition, knowing a bit about pricing will help you make sure that you're in the ballpark competitively.
    • If there are other businesses like the one you're contemplating, consider talking to somebody who is already doing it in a different market (so they will not feel at risk giving you information.)  Why reinvent every process and learn every lesson yourself when you can learn what's already working?
    • Assemble your key advisors.  You will likely need to consult an attorney, an accountant, and an insurance agent.  Some of the tasks like registering your business name can be done yourself through online services, but if you want a higher level of certainty that you are handling things properly and making good decisions to protect yourself and your future company you're better off talking to a licensed professional.
    • Develop your business plan.  This should include your vision (what your business will grow up to be,) your external assessment (competition, economic environment, etc.) and internal analysis (what resources you already have and what you need.)  Then develop a mission (your big goal for the upcoming planning period,) critical goal categories (what MUST happen to achieve your mission) and supporting business goals.  From that foundation you will develop financial projections, and plans for sales and marketing.
    If your reasons for starting your own business are that you need incoming cash flow NOW, understand that going through these steps well take some time.  If you are in a job that you are planning to leave, perhaps it makes sense to do these early steps while you still have a steady paycheck coming in.  You can explore your idea without as much economic pressure, and will therefore be less likely to rush into an idea that would be better as a hobby.  Or left alone altogether.

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    He may not be handsome, but boy can he jump!

    Toad by Y Daigle
    Toad, a photo by Y Daigle on Flickr.
    Consider the lowly toad - his eyes bulge out of his head and his skin is all mottled and bumpy.  His front toes turn inward, and frankly, his mouth is a bit wide.  Poor thing.
    But wait a minute.  This guy can jump.  And his skin enables him to hide in plain sight.  His big old mouth helps him consume a large meal in one bite.  And those eyes - they are more than window dressing.  They can see a wide range of colors, even in dim light.  That's quite handy for a critter who has to catch fast-moving insects for dinner.  And wouldn't it be great to see in all different directions without turning your head?  The toad's lovely marble-like eyeballs help him do that, too.  They even retract into his head when he swallows, helping his food go down his gullet. (He's not blinking at you - he's eating.)
    So what does the toad have to do with you?
    On what do you focus your attention, your time and your developmental energy and resources?  If you are like a lot of people (and companies) you're focused on fixing your flaws.  You are trying to become a better time manager, or you are working to sharpen your selling and influencing skills.  You're patching the cracks and filling the holes.
    But let's think about this for a moment.  Each of the elements that make the toad less than lovely to look at are cunningly designed to help him function effectively in his environment.  If you took away the warts and smoothed out his mottled coloring, he'd stand out on the forest floor and become unable to hide from his prey long enough to hunt.  And he would become more susceptible to predators.  If his eyes weren't popping he wouldn't be able to see - or swallow.  And straight-pointing toes would cramp his jumping style.
    The toad is good at doing what the toad is good at doing.  He sits.  He watches.  He waits.  He hunts.  He eats.  He is incredibly effective just being who he is, warts and all.  Can you imagine a toad thinking, "Wow - I wish I could slither like that snake over there"?
    You have the intellect to develop yourself, to choose to modify your habits of thought and behavior.  But sometimes those habits seem intractable - they just don't want to budge.  So a few thoughts for you:
    • What is it that you are naturally adapted to doing?  What are the skills and aptitudes that are already there, but that would give you more leverage if developed further?
    • Are you focusing too much of your attention on what you can't do?  Wouldn't it be easier - and more fun - to focus on your competencies instead?  You might have the potential to move from being a pretty good singer to being a show-stopper.  That is, if you're not squandering your time trying to roller skate - a skill that has eluded you all of your life.
    • If you file off the warts and straighten the toes, will you actually improve yourself, or will you become a diluted and thereby less effective version of yourself?
    Is this telling you that you're a toad and you shouldn't waste your time trying to improve?  No.  The message to get from this is that you have natural assets, aptitudes, gifts that can serve you.  Rather than distract yourself with looking at the other guy who can slither, become the best jumper you can be.  And if you think your eyeballs are too big, just swallow when they take your picture.
     

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    How to win a debate

    It's election season again, and time for candidates on national, state, and local levels to start to show their stuff in front of would-be voters.  Photo-ops and speeches can help the public understand and choose based upon pre-selected talking points, but one of the best ways to see whether a candidate has what it takes is through a debate.  During the debate the candidate will have to go outside the margins of their standard speech (if the moderator is worth his or her salt) and will also have to stand out and compare favorably to the other alternatives.
    Who is the debate intended to convince?
    Right now at the national level the debate isn't so much about the voters as it is about the media.  After all, the media decides who to cover and how deeply.  The various arms of the media, who in ideal terms should be completely impartial, sometimes have points of view that they want to reinforce.  They identify strengths and weaknesses that they want to bring to light about a particular candidate, and then they interview throwing fastballs and change-ups, or they lob softballs in the candidate's direction. 
    In a debate situation, a successful candidate attracts positive notice by the press and works to sway the commentary to himself or herself as being the front runner.  Voters who don't follow issues, platforms and performance closely can then be swayed to jump on the bandwagon and vote for whomever the media sound bites indicate would be their best choice.
    What a good debater knows and does
    • An effective debater knows the relevant subject matter inside and out, so he or she doesn't become flustered when a question or another candidate's comments take the conversation outside of the standard talking points.  A gaffe is at least as memorable as a good zinger, and it will get replay far beyond the press.  Jay Leno, David Letterman and Bill Maher, among others, have built comedy careers on this fodder.
    • A good debater expresses himself or herself in a way that connects to the average citizen.  Some voters want intelligence in their candidates, but not expressed in a way that makes them feel stupid.  Right or wrong, relatability will often win over capability.  And heaven forbid that the candidate reveal that he or she thinks that the others are beneath them.  Remember what that big sigh during the debate did to Al Gore's image?
    • Say out loud what journalists are already thinking, and better yet, in memorable sound bites.  Remember Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy."  That was more than 20 years ago, and yet the quote re-emerges every debate season as an example of a sound bite that burned into the public awareness.
    • A winning debater inserts themselves into the conversation.  When it is early in the political selection process and there are multiple candidates on stage, the successful debater knows that they have to step into the fray.  Those that stand back and wait to be called upon won't be in the news, unless it is to say that they didn't lead.  Not exactly what a leadership candidate wants to have said about them.
    Even in leadership roles outside the political arena, politics (in the social sense) are integral to the influencing process.  So let's recap without all of the election context for a moment.
    1. Know who you are trying to influence and gear your presentation toward them. 
    2. Know your subject matter inside and out, so you can field questions or address objections that are outside of your standard talking points.
    3. Express yourself to connect with your audience.  Vivid terms and memorable phrases help your message to stick. 
    4. Address what they are already thinking.  You might know that there is resistance to something on your agenda.  Don't avoid it - bring it out and reinforce it, debunk it, or whatever you need to do to let them know that you know what their concerns are.
    5. Be out there in the conversation.  When you are not communicating you are leaving the messaging to someone else, and therefore can't influence it.  Even though you are not competing to be elected, you are competing with something else like culture, corporate inertia, misinformation and misunderstanding, etc.

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    It's not really about the money

    money by butwewillstay
    money, a photo by butwewillstay on Flickr.
    Money is often cited as one of the key areas of conflict in marriage.  It is also used as the reason why employees quit their jobs, or work at less than their full potential.  Money is seen by portions of society as a sign of success.  But none of these situations in which money is used is really about the money.
     Sure, it's measurable - if I put my 5 dollar bill on the table and you place your fifty beside it we'll both know who put more money down.  So it is used as a measuring stick for success, regardless of the fact that money and what it can do are only a piece of real quality of life.  It's the measurability, not the accuracy of the comparison, that draws people to it when they want to see how they are doing in their lives and their careers.
    "Filthy lucre" becomes the scapegoat in arguments, but what's really in dispute is not the money, but rather what money represents.
    • In a marriage the person with ultimate control of the checkbook is the partner with the greater power in the relationship.
    • In business, employees default to money as primary motivator only if they are not able to obtain job satisfaction in other ways, like contribution, creative stimulation, teamwork, or feeling in on things.
    • How much a role is paid represents the value that it holds in a society.  The value may not be logically determined by prerequisite education or skill, or what good it produces for the larger group.
    Granted, the dollar is not irrelevant.  It funds the items you need for safety and security, and until those needs are met you'll be looking for more money - most of the time.  But even in these cases, it's not really about the money - it's about the things that money provides, like a place to live, clothing to wear and food to eat, that you are working to acquire and maintain.

    Forbes magazine ran an interesting article a while back about why it's not a good idea to look to money as a motivator.  Remember Jeffrey Skilling (Enron) and Bernie Madoff, anyone?

    If you are in a dispute about money you are likely trying to treat a symptom, not cure a disease.  Look behind the money to determine what's really going on.  It's only then that you will see that money is not the enemy, or the ultimate goal.  It's only a mask.


    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    Finding your own path

    The woods at Michaux by polandjulie
    The woods at Michaux, a photo by polandjulie on Flickr.
    Here you are, in a clearing in a forest.  There is not a lot of underbrush, so you can see a way clear to walk forward.  But which path is the right one for you to take?
    Remember this from the book Alice in Wonderland?
     Alice: Oh, no, no. I was just wondering if you could help me find my way.
    Cheshire Cat: Well that depends on where you want to get to.
    Alice: Oh, it really doesn't matter, as long as...
    Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn't matter which way you go.
    The Cheshire Cat's "it depends" has to be a part of your thought process. Where do you want to go?  The answer to that first question is the prerequisite for you to be able to answer any of the others that follow.  Once you have determined your desired destination you need to ask some of these:
    • Why do you want to go there? 
    • Who is going with you?
    • What do you need to take along with you for it to be a successful journey?
    • What is (or could potentially be) blocking your path?
    • What route are you planning to take?
    You might prefer to follow the track that has been tested, marked, and followed by countless other people before you.  It might feel like a smaller risk than to find your own.  But do you know the people for whom that path was designed?  Were they taller, faster, or slower than you?  Were they afraid of heights, or able to walk great distances in one day?  How do you know that the pre-existing path is the one for you?

    This is not to say that you won't achieve your goal by following an established route.  You might.  But what if your journey is better taken by going off the blazed trail and making your own?  Have you considered that perhaps YOU are the one who is supposed to lead, to be the first on a new path?
     

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Who to the rescue?

    Rescue dog by Marc Gommans
    Rescue dog, a photo by Marc Gommans on Flickr.
    Some creatures (and people) seem to be hard-wired to help others in times of distress.  A Newfoundland charges into the water or leaps from a boat and uses his or her huge webbed paws to pull a struggling human to safety.  An ER health practitioner feels a special call to be there in the high-intensity, high-stakes environment where a moment's hesitation can mean literally life or death for another person with severe injuries or a health crisis.
    But what about the average Joe or Jane who has no emergency response training, and who has suddenly come upon a situation that seems to call for action of some sort?  Do they rise to the occasion and come to the rescue?
    The Stabbing Incident
    Apparently not - at least not consistently.  In 1968 The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published work by John Darnley of New York University and Bibb Latane of Columbia University on the topic.  The event cited as an example was a woman being stabbed to death in the middle of a street in a residential section of New York City.  Thirty-eight (38!) individuals witnessed the incident and NONE of them took action to help the woman.  The attack took half an hour, and during that time nobody even called the police, despite the fact that many of them were watching through their windows from the safety of their apartments.
    Is this a sign of weak moral fiber, or an indication of a lack of connection and empathy toward other human beings?  Does it shock you that an incident so heinous would be permitted to go on for thirty minutes uninterrupted while people watched?
    Darnley and Latane wrote about the internal conflict that occurs in witnesses in such a dangerous, high-risk situation - between social norms that call for humanitarian intervention and fears about what could happen to anyone who would intervene.  In this specific situation, individuals watching from apartment windows could tell that there were other people observing the situation, but could not tell whether or not they were taking action like calling the police.  They just stood there.
    So the internal ethical balancing act is between managing personal risk and taking blame for not following the humanitarian norm.
    Alone vs. Part of a Group - What's Different?
    If you are by yourself and you observe another person in danger or being harmed you know that if anyone is going to help this person it's going to have to be you.  Even if you feel afraid, unqualified, etc. you evaluate the situation acknowledging that the onus of responsibility is on your shoulders.  It would likely increase the odds that you would choose to intervene.  If you were one of three, five, ten, or more individuals observing a similar situation, how likely would you be to step forward and act?  Would you assume that somebody else was in a better position to provide aid, and so would choose to defer to them?  Would your fear win your internal battle, or would the humanitarian value rule the moment for you?  Would you feel primary responsibility for providing aid no matter who was in the vicinity?
    One factor that has changed the handling of emergencies dramatically since Darnley and Latane studied the stabbing incident is the advent of cell phones.  An observer of a similar situation today wouldn't have to leave the window in order to call for aid.  But despite the technological advances that make it easier to respond, the decision still needs to be made to do so.  How would you respond?  How have you responded when you have been faced with situations like these?  What are your criteria for determining whether you are willing to jump into the water?