Posted Oct 16, 2012 03:15 PM
Ever wonder why some companies seem to effortlessly come out with one great innovation after another while others struggle to get even one new product or service out the door? There’s a reason for it.
Innovation is a complex process that involves a lot more than just throwing money at an R&D department and hoping for results. Specifically, it requires certain ways of thinking and behaving that open people up to considering possibilities and prevent them from getting stuck in the past.
Companies that innovate on a regular basis practice these behaviors on a regular basis. Companies that struggle to innovate rarely engage in these behaviors, or not at all. Then they tend to blame their lack of success on outside factors rather than what is (or is not) happening within the organization.
To find out where you stand on a continuum of these behaviors, answer the following questions.
In our company:
1. New ideas are…
C. Frowned upon
2. Risk taking is…
C. Frowned upon
3. Challenging the status quo is…
C. Frowned upon
4. Expressing conflicting points of view is…
C. Frowned upon
5. Failure is…
A. Accepted as a necessary part of the innovation process
C. Blamed on outside circumstances
6. Seeking out new sources of data (especially those outside our business or industry) is…
C. Frowned upon
7. Interdepartmental communication…
A. Happens most of the time
B. Happens some of the time
C. Rarely happens
D. Never happens
8. Collaborating with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders on new ways of doing business…
A. Happens most of the time
B. Happens some of the time
C. Rarely happens
D. Never happens
9. New projects and initiatives…
A. Almost always receive sufficient funding and resources
B. Sometimes receive sufficient funding and resources
C. Rarely receive sufficient funding and resources
D. Never receive sufficient funding and resources
10. People are recognized and rewarded for coming up with new ideas/innovative thinking…
A. Most of the time
B. Some of the time
Give yourself 3 points for every A answer, 2 points for every B, 1 point for every C, and 0 points for every D. Then visualize a straight-line continuum with zero anchoring the left side and 30 on the right.
How did you score?
25 or more
Congratulations, you’re in the innovation zone. You have a solid foundation in place for ongoing innovation, and most of the attitudes and structures needed to support it. This doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed every time. But you should succeed enough to keep you ahead of the competition and develop a reputation as an innovation leader. Senior managers should focus on continually nurturing that culture so that innovation remains an expectation rather than a “nice to have.”
15 to 24
You’re in the improvement zone. You may have the occasional success but probably struggle to sustain innovation over time. Leaders should identify which people, processes, systems, and behaviors support innovation and which ones get in the way. Then create a plan for improving the problem areas, and focus on tweaking the culture so it will allow innovation to flourish.
14 or less
Danger zone! Your customers and markets are probably already leaving you behind. Leaders need to ask some hard questions: Why is innovation not a part of our long-term strategy? What is preventing us from innovating? How can we shift the culture from one of focusing exclusively on protecting past successes to becoming open to new possibilities?
Keep in mind that innovation needs to be a long-term process, especially if you’re used to reacting to change rather than creating it. It also requires a culture that approaches it as a way of life rather than a short-term band-aid for current business problems.
So don’t expect to radically change your ability to innovate overnight. Instead, identify where you stand on the innovation continuum, then set small, achievable goals for gradually moving from the left to the right. Get everyone involved in thinking about how to improve the business, and make it safe for people to push the envelope. Over time, you’ll become the company that has everyone else in the industry wondering how you do it.
Call to action: For a REAL eye-opener, have leaders and front-line employees answer these questions, and then compare their answers.
Posted Oct 10, 2012 12:30 PM
If you’re a football fan like me, you’re undoubtedly glad to see the return of the NFL referees. The replacements did their best, but there is nothing to compare to the skills and capabilities developed over significant time by the ‘official’ referees. Overall, the situation reinforces the importance - whether in sports or in business - of having the best talent in place at the “gamebreaker” positions.
Recently, I had the good fortune of meeting head NFL referee Mike Carey. It turns out that in addition to being one of the NFL’s most respected referees, Mike also runs a very successful business. His company, Seirus Innovation (www.Seirus.com), manufactures ski and snowboarding gloves, face protection, and other cold-weather accessories.
We sat down together to enjoy a few frosty beverages, and our conversation soon turned to the similarities between sports and business. In the NFL, Mike is known for his thorough pre-game preparations and his post-game reviews to improve the performance of his crew. He sees a lot of crossover between the skills that lead to success in sports and those that enhance winning in the corporate world. For example:
Can’t manage what you don’t measure
Most people notice the refs only when they throw the flags. But their job also involves a lot of measurement: how many yards gained or lost on each play, how much time left on the clock, how many points scored, etc. Without this measurement, the game would have no meaning for the players or the fans.
The same holds true in business. Unless you track individual and team performance, nobody knows how the company is doing, which reduces people to little more than showing up to get a paycheck. You can’t win in sports with that kind of attitude - witness how often teams with the highest payrolls fall short of winning. And you can’t win with it in business either.
Provide ongoing feedback
In and of itself, measuring performance isn’t enough to win. You also have to let people know where they stand on a regular basis. Professional and elite sports gets this concept better than perhaps any other industry. This is why even the highest-skilled athletes have coaches and managers to provide performance feedback. Constructive feedback always works best. As in, “Here’s what you did and here are the results you got. Let’s focus now on improving.”
Teamwork often wins out over talent
In sports, a team with the right chemistry in the locker room will often defeat a more talented team that lacks cohesion. In his company, Mike spends a lot of time educating employees about the importance of teamwork and helping to create a sense of family. He believes that teamwork starts with caring for the person working next to you, and having an honest desire to help your teammates get better. When people believe in and support each other in pursuit of a larger goal, organizations can achieve amazing things.
Hire the whole person (not just their skills)
This goes back to creating good chemistry in the locker room. Great athletes that don’t get along with teammates and focus more on personal goals can easily undermine a team’s success. At Seirus, Mike strives to create a humanistic environment where management focuses on the whole person rather than just their technical skills. This manifests itself in their hiring process, where they look for three essential criteria:
Passion. The passion doesn’t necessarily have to be around the product, although it helps. To get hired at Seirus, a person must have a passion for being part of the team and constantly working to make it better. To quote Mike: “If a person is all in, you can train them to do anything.”
Continual learning. The best employees/teammates constantly work on developing their skills and honing their craft. They’re willing to practice, take risk, and try new things - an especially important trait in today’s business environment where ongoing innovation lays the foundation for success.
Willing to admit mistakes. People don’t like to be wrong, and often get defensive when shown their errors. But the biggest strides come from acknowledging and correcting mistakes. Athletes are taught this from a very early age. We need to teach it more in the business world. In a constructive way, but we definitely need to do it more.
Welcome back Mike and all your colleagues. These are lessons we would all do well to apply – regardless of the business or the sport!
Call to action: Find a leadership principle in professional sports and explore how it might apply to your business.
Posted Sep 25, 2012 12:00 PM
Anyone can innovate once. All it takes is a good idea, some hard work, sufficient resources, and a little bit of luck.
However, today’s business environment demands ongoing innovation to stay ahead of the pack. To make innovation a way of life for your company, get to work developing these five leadership skills:
1. Challenge your assumptions
The biggest enemy of innovation is the unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our customers, markets and businesses. And the more success we achieve based on those assumptions, the more we tend to focus on protecting the status quo versus exploring what could be.
To develop the skill of challenging your assumptions, ask: What has changed with our customers, markets, industry, or the world at large? What assumptions are we continuing to make about our business simply because we “know them to be true”? What ideas for new products or services have we come up with recently but didn’t follow through because “that will never work”?
Today’s market leaders get ahead by shedding old ideas and ways of thinking faster than their competitors. This can only happen by challenging your assumptions on a regular basis.
2. Change your perspective
The human brain tends to screen in data that proves us right and screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing point of view. As a result, we often filter, distort, or ignore the information coming in, so that we only see what we want to see.
Changing your perspective enables the brain to break out of its rigid thinking patterns and see the world in new and different ways. It opens the mind to new possibilities, and focuses your attention on what could be rather than what is or what was. It also enables you to spot new patterns and connections that others might not see – a critical factor for successful innovation.
Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas. Just the ones that get in the way of ongoing innovation.
3. Ask the right questions
Questions offer a powerful tool for opening people up to new ideas and possibilities. Too often, however, they keep people stuck in the past by focusing on the problem rather than the solution. For example: “Why hasn’t your team come up with a new product this quarter? What are you going to do differently to innovate?” These kinds of questions put people on the defensive and shut down creative thinking.
Instead, ask future, active, past tense questions that get people thinking and acting like the desired future state is already happening. For example: When we have successfully innovated, what does the new product look like? What problems is it solving for our customers? How is it bringing new value to the marketplace?
Imagining that the innovation already exists shifts people’s attention from why they can’t do something to what they did to achieve it. Once this shift has been made, the brain fills in with all sorts of options on how to achieve the goal.
4. Question the right answer
From an early age we’re taught that there is only one right answer to every problem. As a result, we often pass over potentially better solutions because we’re so sure the one we have is right.
In business, almost all problems have multiple solutions. Some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others. But very rarely do we encounter situations where there is only one right answer. To nurture ongoing innovation, forget about finding THE right answer. Instead, focus on identifying as many potential answers as possible. Then choose the best one (or combination of ones) that most supports your innovation goal.
Never settle for the first good answer, even when it seems like THE right answer. Good often gets in the way of great.
5. Stop jumping to solutions
Today’s hyper-fast business world creates a lot of pressure to make quick decisions. So we often tend to go with the first feasible solution rather than looking for better or different ideas. Not a good recipe for ongoing innovation!
To encourage your team to look for different and/or better solutions, ask, “What underlying attitudes or beliefs are causing us to see this as the best or only solution?” Then solicit alternative viewpoints from people who see things differently. For example, “It sounds like we’re all in agreement on the solution here. Does anyone see it differently?”
Ask “What if…?” questions to look beyond the solution at hand. “What if our ‘right’ answer is wrong? What if there is another way to look at this problem? What if we looked at it from the customer’s perspective; how would they solve this problem?”
Ultimately, innovation comes down to changing the way we think and learning to see the world differently. No easy task, but it can be done. And those who make it a habit will reap the rewards that ongoing innovation can bring.
Call to action: Pick one of these leadership skills and work on it for the next month.
Posted Sep 11, 2012 04:13 PM
Strategic planning is an annual event, right?
It must be, because according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, almost nine out of 10 executives said their companies developed annual strategic plans. Moreover, they developed these plans without consideration for the pace of change in their business environment.
But the real question is whether strategic planning should be an annual event. And in today’s hyper-fast markets, the answer is a resounding NO!
As market pressures drive companies to become more flexible, responsive, and able to change on a moment’s notice, the ability to execute on a strategy is rapidly becoming more important than the strategy itself. In fact, business branding expert Denise Lee Yohn goes so far as to say that in today’s environment, execution is strategy.
According to Yohn, the amount of disruption in today’s markets (and the speed at which it happens) requires a very different planning approach. Instead of setting a definite strategy and following through at all costs, companies should focus on “strategically adapting to and excelling at whatever path they find themselves on.”
In order to succeed with this approach, Yohn believes companies must focus more on having the right people and less on the right plan, replace strategic planning with strategic decision-making, and nourish a culture of discipline, action, and results.
These thoughts on strategic planning align closely with the concepts I use to create strategic agility with clients - the ability to move fast with focus and flexibility. The problem with strategic plans, even beautifully crafted ones, is that they never unfold exactly as written. Too many internal and external factors are involved for any company to implement their plan without some degree of change along the way.
But instead of making adjustments in response to changing circumstances, many leaders insist on sticking to the plan as written. They either see the changes as temporary blips to be ridden out, or they get too locked into the specifics of the plan and fail to respond appropriately to changes in markets, customers, and global conditions.
Developing strategic agility starts with changing many of your thought bubbles (beliefs, assumptions, and ‘rules’) about the strategic planning process. First, get rid of the notion that you should do strategic planning once a year because “we’ve always done it that way.” Next, let go of the idea that your plan will unfold as expected. Then accept the idea that many of the ideas, beliefs, and assumptions on which you based the plan may well become obsolete before you’re halfway through.
To adapt your plan to shifting market realities, automatically assume that your market is constantly changing (it is!), and monitor it on a regular basis. Then develop a formal process for managing your strategy. Nothing bureaucratic - just enough structure so that things get done when you get stretched too thin with other urgent tasks.
Select a time, preferably once a month but no less than once a quarter, to review your strategy. Identify any changes in your environment, and review how your strategy is unfolding compared to how you thought it would. Be sure to include external and internal forces (like the change required of employees, managers, and leaders for new initiatives), and make any necessary adjustments to your plans.
When monitoring your environment, pay close attention to uncertainties. For example, what assumptions are you making about your markets and customers, and are they still valid? What are your customers and suppliers uncertain about? What are their customers and suppliers uncertain about?
When reviewing your strategy implementation, ask: What has changed internally or externally that might alter or undermine our strategy? Is our strategy working as expected? Are we executing effectively? If not, what do we need to refine or change in order to get back on track?
Finally, focus on what needs to shift and how you can adapt to get to where you want to go. Once you determine the necessary course corrections, take action immediately.
It’s hard making decisions without having any certainty about what the future holds. But the world moves so fast that hesitation can be fatal. And once you fall behind, it can be very difficult to catch up.
Today’s market leaders are fast, agile, and able to change course with a minimum of disruption. Make the development of strategic agility (execution) a priority for your organization, and watch your competitors struggle to catch up with you!
Call to action: Gather your team and explore what has changed since you created the plan and what you need to do about it.
Posted Aug 28, 2012 12:01 PM
Today’s hyper-fast business markets require making one decision after the other, often without pausing to fully think through the consequences. And as we all know, it only takes one bad decision to tick off your boss, sink a business, or even ruin your day.
If the stress of making decisions has you bouncing off the walls, try playing a fun game we loved as kids -- dodgeball. Only in this case, you’re dodging decisions rather than a round, rubber ball. When the decisions are coming at you fast and furious, here are 10 easy dodges to take the heat off and keep you in the game (even if you are playing not to lose).
Show me the data! In today’s information overload world, this is one of the most common decision dodges. Even when overwhelmed with data, leaders can easily say they don’t have enough information to make a decision. So they gather ever more data as a means of delaying decisions while their customers and markets leave them behind.
It’s not my fault. This dodge typically occurs when faced with difficult or unpleasant decisions, or when no easy solution presents itself. It’s also a favorite tactic of managers who fear the disapproval or enmity of their direct reports. When a tough decision presents itself, the decision dodger says, “If it weren’t for (insert name), this never would have happened!” He then enlists others in playing a blame game rather than actually solving the problem. The truly skilled dodger keeps a long list of names on hand at all times.
Let’s kick it upstairs. In this dodge, the individual or team hopes someone will make a decision - as long as it’s not them. The easiest way to pass the buck is to elevate the decision to a higher level and let someone else handle it.
Let’s put our heads together (and do nothing). Have you ever been to a meeting where the discussion goes on and on and nothing ever gets decided? Welcome to decision dodge #4. All the conversation makes people feel like they’re accomplishing something. But at the end of the day, no decision is reached.
Waffles, anyone? This dodge typically occurs in situations with two reasonably clear solutions. Like a kid trying to decide between a chocolate or strawberry ice cream cone; the team waffles back and forth between the two alternatives. Unlike the kid, who eventually chooses a flavor in order to get the cone, the team never quite takes that final step to come up with a decision.
The “yeahbuts.” In this dodge, people have no trouble making decisions. But as soon as they do, someone chimes in with, “Yeah, but…” and proceeds to offer a litany of reasons why the decision shouldn’t be made, thus delaying any action.
Risky business. Most organizations become risk adverse as soon as they begin experiencing success. So when a decision requires stepping outside normal boundaries, procedures, or ways of thinking, people scramble out of the way by saying, “We can’t do that!” Or, “That’s not the way our industry does it.” Or, “What are you thinking? No one does it that way!” This dodge gets played at all levels of the organization.
The self-yeahbut. This one plays out exactly like the regular yeahbut, except that the person making the decision comes up with all the reasons why it shouldn’t be made before anyone else can chime in. This dodge runs rampant in organizations that always punish failure.
The lifeline. Remember the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” When contestants didn’t know the answer, they were allowed to call a friend to get help. Organizations frequently put off making decisions or taking action by calling in a consultant. If the decision goes wrong, they can blame the consultant, preserving everyone’s egos and their jobs.
It’s not my job. The most time-honored and revered of all decision dodges typically occurs when someone not only doesn’t want to make a decision, but also hopes that someone else doesn’t make it. The trick is to dodge the decision as tactfully as possible without actually coming out and saying, “It’s not my job.” In corporate America, this dodge has been elevated to a high art form.
I hope you enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek look at a serious problem for today’s companies. Remember, good humor almost always has some truth in it. If your organization struggles to make timely decisions, start paying attention to how people dodge them. Then develop ways to support people making decisions rather than avoiding them. Dodgeball may be fun for kids, but it’s no way to run a business!
Call to action: Take this list with you into your next meeting and see how many dodges occur and who’s doing the dodging.
Posted Aug 14, 2012 12:45 PM
Another summer Olympics has come and gone, and this one was a doozy!
Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian in history. Individual and team athletes broke 38 world records. And between the expected victories and the unexpected upsets, the games held enough drama to keep us on the edge of our seats for two action-packed weeks.
Perhaps most impressive were the nine world records set in the swimming pool. This may seem pedestrian compared to the Beijing Olympics, where swimmers obliterated 25 world marks. But after the high-tech bodysuits that led to most of those records were banned from the pool, experts predicted it would take years before swimmers would beat those times.
So how did nine world records manage to fall? I like American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s explanation.
"When they banned the suits after 2008, everyone started thinking that there won't be another world record broken for a while," he said. "But I broke one last year, and so did (Chinese swimmer) Sun Yang. So people started saying, 'You know what? It's possible. This can actually happen.' So they started believing, and once you start believing, anything can happen."
I agree with Mr. Lotche. If you want to win -- in sports or in business -- you first have to believe it’s possible. Then you paint a clear picture of what winning looks like. And then you go out and achieve it by focusing on it relentlessly. That’s why I constantly stress the importance of having a clear definition of winning in business. If you don’t know what it looks like, how can you believe it’s possible? And if you don’t believe it’s possible, how can you accomplish it?
Today’s swimmers are bigger and stronger. And they’ve developed new stroke techniques and changed their training regimens to get faster in the pool. But more important, their coaches have convinced them that the records can be broken -- even without the high-tech suits. Once they believe that, anything is possible.
The Olympics also reminded us of several other factors that contribute to winning.
One of the best examples of envisioning success came from a platform diver who wasn’t expected to medal but ended up winning bronze. In the post-competition interview he was asked what he did that enabled him to win a medal. He replied, “I don’t know. I just saw myself standing on the podium and then went out and performed my dives.” It doesn’t get more tangible than seeing yourself standing on a podium with a medal around your neck. So however you define it (and for many athletes earning a medal of any color represents a win) visualizing winning is a key ingredient for success.
Set people up to win
I don’t know how much the top medal-winning countries like the U.S., China, Russia, and Great Britain spend on their Olympic athletes. But there’s no question they provide their athletes with the best coaches and training facilities in the world. In business, we don’t necessarily need to build world-class training centers for employees (although that’s not a bad idea!). But we do need to provide the coaching, training, and resources that give them the best chance of winning.
Give timely performance feedback
Did you watch any of the gymnastic or diving competitions? As soon as the athletes completed a routine or climbed out of the pool, they headed straight to their coaches for feedback on their performance. If we want to win, we’d better be giving feedback on a regular basis. If employees have no idea how they’re performing, how can we expect them to get better?
Believe it or not, one of my favorite moments from this Olympics occurred during a TV commercial. Immediately after Rebecca Soni’s record-breaking swim in the 200-meter breaststroke (broadcast tape-delayed during prime time), AT&T ran a commercial about the “new possible.” It showed a young, wet-haired girl intently watching Soni’s swim on a cell phone. At the conclusion of the race, she went to a small white board stuck to her refrigerator and underneath the word “goal” wrote Soni’s winning time of 2:19.59.
Now, every time she opens the refrigerator door (which occurs many times each day for most teenagers), her goal will be staring her in the face. Now that’s a focus on winning!
What are the “refrigerators” in your business, the places where you can post your vision of winning so that you see it several times each day? And what will you write on it? Your answers to these questions may make the difference between winning the gold or not even making the podium.
Call to action: Start a discussion with your direct reports, your team, or your department about how you can get more focused on winning.
Posted Aug 7, 2012 09:45 AM
They say that we live in the Information Age. That may be true, but many days it just feels like the Distracted Age.
From the time we get up in the morning until we lay our heads on the pillow at night, we’re bombarded with information from countless sources. Advertising, email, voice mail, texting, Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, iPods, iPhones, blackberries – the list goes on and on.
And yet, the problem isn’t so much the amount of information; it’s that it all seems urgent. This sense of urgency makes it hard to tell what we really need to attend to now, what can be delayed, and what can be ignored altogether. These constant interruptions make it increasingly difficult to focus on the task at hand. Which, in turn, makes it increasingly difficult to stay focused on winning.
That’s why I keep a sign in my office that says, “Of what you do today, what will have an impact a year from now?”
If you read my blog on a regular basis, you know that I’m big on visual reminders as a way of staying focused on the goal. This sign is perhaps the most important one I use because it reminds me that what seems urgent today may actually have little impact on the big picture. It reminds me to pause for a few moments, review what I have planned for the day, and make sure I focus on those tasks and activities that support reaching my destination.
Regular readers also know that I love to ask “what if…?” questions to get people thinking differently and looking at the world from new perspectives. So here’s a few “what if...?” questions for you:
What if you started each day by taking three minutes to ponder whether what you have on your agenda for the day will really matter a year from now?
What if you paused briefly to get really clear on the progress you will make towards winning, including what you’ll do today and, probably more importantly, what you won't do?
What if you made a habit of organizing your day around winning rather than around interruptions and things that seem urgent but really aren't?
I can hear the excuses already: “I’m too busy!” “I have too much to do!” Or, “I don’t have time for that!” But the fact is we have the same amount of time others have and have always had. We just allow ourselves to get distracted much more easily.
Granted, the technology that pervades modern life and puts built-in interruptions at our fingertips colludes with this. But we’re the ones who decide what we direct our time and attention to and what we ignore. And that’s why taking the time to organize our day around winning is so critical. The mind follows what we focus on. And when we focus on winning, we dramatically improve our chances of achieving it.
When we get clear on winning, we can make better decisions. We’re not so easily distracted because we know what needs to get done. We can discuss winning and share it with others, so that we can measure progress in a myriad of ways. We can give more productive and impactful feedback. And we can align others to our vision of winning without invalidating our thoughts on their performance.
Here’s the tricky part: organizing our day around winning doesn’t just mean getting better at time management. It does us no good to work more efficiently on the wrong things. Instead, it’s a process of starting each day by identifying the highest priority tasks and activities that deserve our attention, and then refusing to let the onslaught of interruptions interfere with what we need to do.
Obviously, some interruptions require immediate attention. Suppose, for example, your best customer calls and says they’re about to take a hike due to poor service. That would certainly fall under the criteria of making a difference a year from now. When you apply that criteria on a daily basis, you’ll be amazed at how many tasks, activities, and interruptions can fall by the wayside with no ill effect.
The one trait that ALL winners share -- whether in business, sports or personal life -- is they focus on the right things. Pausing to organize your day around winning will get you focused on the right things and drive the results you need to achieve in order to win.
Call to action: Make a commitment tomorrow to start your day by pausing to ask: will what I do today make a difference a year from now? Try it for three days and see what happens.
Posted Jul 24, 2012 12:58 PM
Citius, Altius, Fortius!
The Summer Olympics are upon us. And over the next three weeks, more than 10,000 athletes from around the globe will do their best to go faster, higher and stronger. In the process, they will push the boundaries of what is currently considered humanly possible, and remind of us what can happen when we follow a dream.
The Olympics make for great entertainment, especially now that we can watch just about every single event on TV or computer. We can also learn a lot from these premier athletes and from the games themselves.
Focus on Winning
What I admire most about Olympic athletes is their ability to focus on winning. As the games approach, each and every one of them will be crystal clear on winning, on doing whatever it takes to get the gold. During the games, they will set new records and new standards for winning. Some will achieve gold and some won’t. But every one of them will show up prepared and ready, having spent their energy and time focused on winning for the days, weeks, months, and years proceeding the games.
Watching the games will be exciting and energizing as we hear the stories of struggle, previous defeats, and support necessary to get there. We’ll rejoice in the victories, cringe and perhaps even cry at the defeats or falters. We’ll hold our breath and sit mesmerized as the athletes demonstrate the discipline, focus and commitment it takes to be a winner.
The Olympic Games will compel us to want to achieve – in our own ways. So how will you respond? What race will you decide to run, and how will you begin or continue your journey to the gold? Who will support you, and how will you remain aligned to do what it will take to do it? And what will winning look like when you get there?
The Power of a Compelling Vision
The Olympic games couldn’t take place without a huge volunteer base. When the British Olympic Committee first began planning nearly a decade ago, they asked for 70,000 volunteers. When they actually began recruiting in 2010, they received 240,000 applications. During the games, they expect these Olympic supporters to contribute a total of 8 million volunteer hours! What could your business accomplish with that kind of passion and commitment?
The Olympics inspire people like few other events on the planet. The pageantry, the drama, the coming together of different people and cultures for a common cause -- people want to be a part of these things. And they give up weeks or months of their lives, without compensation, to be a part of it.
The Olympics make us feel a part of something bigger. Simply by watching we feel better about ourselves and the human race in general as we get reminded what people can accomplish when motivated by a powerful goal. How does your business connect employees to something bigger than themselves? As the leader, what will you do to inspire people to greater heights?
It never happens the way you expect
Originally, Great Britain estimated it would cost £2.7 billion to stage the games. In 2007, they raised that figure to £9.3 billion. The latest projection from Parliament’s public accounts committee puts total costs at closer to £11 billion. Much of this increase is being driven by security costs, which have nearly doubled from £282 million to £553 million. What a price to pay for three weeks of goodwill and sporting competition!
The correlation to business is that the plan almost never unfolds as expected. Markets change, costs go up, new competitors arrive, unexpected events occur. Which is why today’s organizations need to develop strategic agility -- the ability to move fast with flexibility without losing focus on the goal – in order to win.
In today’s hyper paced world, each one of us is running a race every day – in our organizations and in our personal lives. Do you have the clarity, focus, and commitment to win? Or are you just running all over the place?
You may not have the physical abilities of an Olympian, but you do have a brain that you can use to focus on a goal as powerfully as any Olympic athlete. You also have something you do, or could do, incredibly well. Whether it involves running your business, being a great parent, supporting your community, or whatever you choose – put your talents to work with your incredible brainpower and you, too, can achieve Olympic status. And in doing so, you can accomplish what others think is impossible!
Call to action: Select one area of your business or personal life that you want to improve on. Then identify three ways you could focus more intently on winning in that area.
Posted Jul 17, 2012 11:33 AM
Your #1 job as a leader is to create a compelling vision of winning, then keep yourself and everyone else in the organization focused on it with laser-like intensity. Are you focused on winning and moving towards it each day, celebrating milestones along the way? Or do you play to not lose?
When an organization lacks a clear destination, it usually has many ill-defined ones. Employees feel unmotivated and uncommitted. Time, talent, and resources get wasted on products and projects that go nowhere. And people end up working on their own personal agendas rather than doing what’s best for the company. They think they’re doing the right thing, but directions changed and someone forgot to realign them.
Having a clear definition of winning provides focus and clarity at the individual, team, and organizational level. It gets everyone aligned and moving in the same direction. And it motivates and inspires people to perform at their best. When employees know where they’re going and what they need to do to get there, it becomes much easier to reach your destination.
So, how do you get clear?
Pause to think about what really matters: what does winning look like for you? What do you need to do -- as individuals and as an organization -- to win? What will it look like when you have won?
Answer these questions with as much specificity as possible. For example, identify the key operational and financial metrics that you will have achieved. Paint a picture of what your workplace and culture will look and feel like when you have won -- what attitudes, beliefs, and core values will the organization be living by?
Identify the skills, knowledge, tools, technologies, and abilities you will have acquired or enhanced in order to win. What organizational structures will be in place? What new products or services will you have brought to market? What new customers will you have acquired? How will you have leveraged the customer relationships you already have?
Share it with everyone in your ecosystem. Not just employees, but customers, vendors, suppliers, partners, alliances -- anyone that has a stake in helping you win.
Instead of presenting your vision of winning like a quarterly financial report, make it come alive! Use it to inspire people. Talk about why winning is important to you personally, and why you feel so passionate about where the organization is going. Link your vision of winning to the bigger picture by letting people know how they will have made a difference in the world when you have won. At the same time, point out what’s in it for them when the organization wins.
Keep it up!
To stay focused on winning, also get clear on what you will not do. Then make sure those things don’t sap your time, energy, and attention. Make a list of all the major initiatives and big projects that no longer fit your definition of winning and shut them down.
Most leaders know intuitively when a project no longer makes sense because the goals have gotten out of sync with changing market realities. Yet they still cling to the belief that they can somehow squeeze some mileage out of a dead horse. Don’t let outdated assumptions and thought bubbles prevent you from getting those obstacles to winning out of the way!
Help your organization stay focused by setting clear individual goals that link directly to the organization’s key strategies for winning. Then give ongoing feedback on how they and the organization are doing. You’ll know you’re communicating enough when every employee can answer these questions without hesitation:
What are my top priorities?
What are the three primary objectives I need to achieve this week/this quarter/this year?
How will I know I have been successful after I have worked so hard this week/month/quarter?
How will we know when we have won as a team? As an organization?
As the leader, you set the tone for your entire organization. Does your language and behavior reflect a relentless approach to winning? Or does it reflect a willingness to settle for being second best….or less?
Take the assessment below and pause to consider what you need to focus on today.
Playing to Win Self-Assessment
Respond to each prompt with a “Yes”, “Somewhat” or “Not at all”
We have a crystal clear definition of winning for our organization
We communicate our definition of winning to all stakeholders on a regular basis
Employees at all levels understand and can articulate our vision of winning
Leaders constantly talk about why winning is personally important to them
Employees understand what’s in it for them when the organization wins
We regularly review and eliminate projects and initiatives that no longer support our definition of winning
Employees throughout the organization can articulate their three primary objectives for the week/quarter/year
We play to win every day in every meeting rather than playing for second best
If you did not respond “Yes” to all of these, consider what you can begin doing differently right now to refocus and stay aligned to winning. If you are not playing to win, why are you playing?
Posted Jul 10, 2012 12:40 PM
Did you catch any of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials on TV? Talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!
The look of joy on the face of a young athlete as they realize they’ve made their first Olympic team is priceless. Conversely, the pain and disappointment of veteran swimmers who realize their time has come and gone always bring a lump to my throat. Either way, the Olympic trials reinforce the importance of not just focusing on winning, but getting very clear on your specific definition of winning.
In swimming, the goal is to win the race, right? Not necessarily.
For premier swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte -- who both expect to win multiple gold medals at London -- winning means securing their expected spot on the team while expending as little energy as possible. But they also use the races to evaluate their performance relative to where it needs to be for the Olympics, and to identify areas for improvement.
For the second echelon of swimmers, it’s a different story. Winning simply means making the Olympic team. Once on the team, they can worry about winning an Olympic medal. But until they earn that coveted spot, they devote every ounce of energy to doing what it takes to get there.
And for the up-and-coming swimmers with no realistic chance of making the team, winning may simply mean swimming their best time and gaining valuable experience for the next Olympic trials four years down the road.
As with many sports, Olympic swimming offers up several lessons that translate well to the business world:
Make the goal tangible, visible, and powerful
Often, swimming races are so close that we can’t visually discern the winner from second, third, or even fourth place. Just ask Dara Torres, who missed out on a sixth Olympic team by nine-hundredths of a second. The human eye can’t even blink that fast! Yet for Torres, it washed four years of intensive training down the drain.
To avoid human error, all timing is done electronically, with highly sensitive touchpads on the pool wall. That’s why top-performing swimmers have a saying that helps them visualize the goal: get your hands on the wall. Don’t worry about your time. Don’t look around to see who’s ahead or behind. Simply put your head down and get your hands on the wall before anyone else. What could your business accomplish with such a clear and compelling definition of winning?
Sweat the details
From minute adjustments of their goggles and caps to the positioning of their hands entering the water on each stroke, the top swimmers focus on every little detail. If you think it doesn’t make a difference, consider that Michael Phelps twice bested Ryan Lochte by less than one-tenth of a second.
In both races, it looked like Lochte held a slight lead heading into the wall. But in each case, Phelps did a better job of keeping his head down and maintaining perfect trim. This tiny fraction of a difference enabled him to get his hands on the wall first and nose out his rival. In business, the key is not just to sweat the details, but to make sure you sweat the right ones.
Swim your own race
In swimming, as with any other sport, you have to know your competition. More important, you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and then swim your own race. Time and again, an overanxious swimmer went out too fast and had nothing left at the end of the race. Or they went out too slow and couldn’t make up the difference on the last lap. And time and again we heard the winner say, “I saw him/her going out fast, but I just focused on swimming my own race.”
In business, we need to watch what our competitors do, especially those who excel at bringing innovation to the marketplace. But ultimately we have to focus on what we do best. When what we do best no longer fits the marketplace, then we need to adjust by developing new strengths. But market leaders invariably focus on “swimming their own race” rather than obsessing over what the competition is doing.
Premier athletes have known and used a core set of winning principles for decades. In business, I often find that we work hard but don’t know or stay focused on what will really make a difference to winning (hint: it’s not by checking your smart phone or device constantly). Get clear, get it visual, get the details right and stay focused on your race, your definition of winning! In the meantime, go USA!
Call to action: Imagine “going for the gold” in your business. What does it look like for you?
Posted Jul 3, 2012 12:45 PM
The dog days of summer are almost upon us, and everything is heating up. When the temperature soars and we want to cool down, few things hit the spot more than an ice-cold soda, lemonade, or beer.
When things heat up, it’s also a good time to cool down your business. And no, I don’t mean slowing down sales or drinking beer at work. I’m referring to giving it a “cold eye” review, whereby someone not involved with a particular system or process looks at it with fresh eyes to identify possible areas for improvement. When done well, the cold eye review often uncovers the obvious (things that were missed previously because people are so used to them), and occasionally discovers the unique.
Here’s how it works:
Identify a cold eye subject
Think about the products, systems, or processes in your organization that have remained the same for an extended period of time. What have you been doing the same way for so long that nobody even thinks about why you do it that way any more? And don’t be afraid to cast a cold eye on your organizational sacred cows -- those products, projects, ideas, and ways of thinking that are usually considered off limits for discussion.
Set the stage
Cold eye reviews are often perceived as a threat, especially by employees who remain entrenched in old ways of thinking and acting. To break the ice, conduct several brief meetings and/or conversations to introduce the process, outline the benefits, and sketch out a plan to address any areas considered for improvement.
Create a timeline
Set specific dates for conducting the review and sharing the feedback with everyone involved. Without firm dates, the cold eye process may never get past the good intentions stage.
Select the reviewer(s)
Ask a person/people from outside the business unit, team, function, or even the company to serve as the cold-eye reviewer. The less they know about the area being reviewed, the better. Ideally, cold eye reviewers will exhibit these qualities:
Respected within the organization/industry
Good communicator (asks insightful questions!)
Good problem solver
Diplomatic (able to give advice appropriately)
Has broad experiences and worked in multiple environments
Most important, cold eye reviewers should approach the project as an opportunity to support, assist, and improve, not prove themselves right while making others wrong.
Conduct the review
Have the “owner” of the system or process provide an overview/orientation of the current state. Then have the reviewer ask questions like:
How long have you been doing it this way? Why?
What one thing have you always wanted to change?
What’s the biggest barrier to the process being more efficient, faster or higher quality?
What one thing do you think senior management does not want changed?
If you were in charge of this on your own, what’s the first thing you would do differently?
What takes the most time/resources in this process?
What if you eliminated this role/step/ingredient?
If you had to cut the time it takes to get it done by half, where would you cut?
What do you think our competitors do differently?
If you could create this process or product from scratch, what would it look like?
If money was no object, what tools or equipment would you replace and what advantage would that give you?
Feedback and action
Have the reviewer report back to management on what he or she learned. Based on that feedback, brainstorm ideas for improvement, create action plans to implement the best idea(s), and set a timeline for implementation.
To enhance the cold eye review, make the process somewhat informal to provide as much comfort as possible to participants. At the same time, create an environment where no question is out of bounds by clearly stating that you expect people to be pushed, prodded, and provoked. In meetings, visibly support rigorous questioning by thanking those who do.
Also, keep in mind that the owner of the area or process will need to be actively involved. A cold eye review is something done with them, not to them. Their role is to remain open to questions and feedback, and note opportunities for improvement.
Finally, keep in mind that a cold eye review does not work when forced on an organization. If a team, area, or business unit is not open to the process, find out why, and explore ways to change their resistance into active involvement.
Call to action: Identify an area of your business where a cold eye review would likely uncover significant opportunities for improvement. Then select a cold eye reviewer and get started!
Posted Jun 26, 2012 12:21 PM
I had one of those defining moments in life the other day.
I went to the doctor for a minor ailment, and for the first time I noticed that the person wearing the stethoscope was younger than me!
My prevailing view of the world says that authority figures – doctors, judges, teachers, etc. – should always be older than me. Or at least they should look older. So, naturally the situation triggered all kinds of thought bubbles in my head. She’s too young to be a doctor. She can’t possibly have enough experience to make the right diagnosis. She can’t be as good as doctors who are my age…and on and on.
Of course, she made the right diagnosis, and shortly thereafter the thought bubbles in my head began to subside. Then it occurred to me how often age-related thought bubbles crop up in the business world.
We currently have four generations of workers in the US based business world, each one holding different ideas, attitudes, and thought bubbles about the workplace and about each other. This can lead to ongoing communication problems, especially with more gen-Xers and millennials starting to move into positions of responsibility.
Nowhere is clear communication more important than in the area of feedback. Here are a few suggestions on how to give effective feedback to each generation (keeping in mind that I am making some broad generalizations here for the sake of simplicity!).
Traditionalists (1922 to 1945)
Traditionalists look for public recognition, responsibility, and acknowledgement of accomplishments – both individually and for their team. They believe that “no news is good news,” and prefer not to be bothered with what they consider mundane details or “little things” that might help.
Their communication style is straightforward and tactful, and they can be receptive to feedback if provided to them in the same manner. However, traditionalists tend to defer to their supervisors, so you may need to encourage them to participate in performance reviews (as opposed to just listening) by actively soliciting their view.
In the absence of feedback, traditionalists will watch closely for other signs of their contributions. These include getting invited to meetings (positive) or being questioned in a meeting (negative).
Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964)
Baby Boomers also desire public recognition for a job well done, and like to receive it from their manager and peers. They have a high need for control, and providing effective feedback helps them feel more in control of what to work on and how to work on it. They also require a bit more feedback than traditionalists, and want the documentation to back it up.
Boomers tend to dislike conflict while valuing personal growth. Therefore any constructive feedback should be approached as a growth opportunity. Boomers also like group discussions, so you can use teams to solicit team feedback. Without regular feedback, boomers will ask, look for, and interpret behavioral signs (usually negatively), especially if they’re not getting any individualized development input.
Generation X (1965 to 1980)
Gen-Xers are motivated more by how their actions contribute to the organization’s success. Therefore, feedback should include how their individual progress impacts the company and its achievements. Gen-Xers also desire ongoing recognition from their boss because of their experience and mindset about competing in the workforce.
This is the first generation that asks for feedback, although they tend to ask cautiously so as not to sound too pushy. They also enjoy constant learning, so feedback can be presented in ways that offer opportunities to grow and develop. Devoid of feedback, gen-Xers will start looking for other opportunities, either inside or outside the organization. More than any other, this generation will fill the void with negatives and quickly move to protect their personal brand.
Millennials (1981 to 2000)
Also known as “Generation Y,” millennials live in a world of social networking, where feedback is a part of everyday activity. More than any other generation, millennials crave positive reinforcement and seek to validate their value to an organization. To address these needs, provide daily acknowledgement of their contributions or redirect them immediately if they need to do something different. Don’t withhold feedback until the next scheduled meeting.
Millennials are just as likely to give feedback as they are to receive it. However, most are not skilled at giving it, and will likely require coaching or training to give it effectively. In the absence of feedback, millennials typically assume everything is okay because in their world, you get told quickly if you need to course-correct.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions. If you want your organization to win, learn how to give it in the manner that each generation prefers to receive it. It’s not about you, it’s about them!
Call to action: Retweet this blog to someone you know from each generation. Ask them what they think.
Posted Jun 20, 2012 04:03 PM
Last week I wrote about four strategies for “getting it done” in organizations. In other words, following through and executing on the plan.
But there’s one very important step that needs to happen first – making sure you’re executing on the right projects and initiatives. Otherwise, you may be getting things done that don’t support your vision of winning and don’t help the organization reach the desired destination.
To ensure that you’re getting the right things done, I recommend a strategic value ranking tool for each new initiative currently under consideration or already in the planning process. This involves ranking eight criteria (or however many you determine are relevant) to determine whether the initiative supports your vision of winning or will dilute your efforts (but feel like you are really busy).
These criteria include:
Here’s how it works:
The first criterion (strategy) measures the impact an initiative will have on achieving your core strategies. For each of the following that apply, assign a score of 5:
Directly supports a key strategy for the current year
Facilitates market penetration of a targeted sector
Enhances market share capture/retention
Furthers brand building
Furthers customer acquisition or retention
Addresses a confirmed customer need
Is necessary for long-term growth
For each of the following that apply, assign a score of 1:
Indirect or no clear link to current strategy (could be longer term)
Limited research or lack of clarity on sector, product needs, etc.
Limited research or lack of clarity on market share/penetration
Does not have a direct correlation to enhancing the brand
Maintains status quo with customers, with little to no value added in additional acquisition or retention of high-value customers
Customer need is unclear or speculative, or addresses more general issues versus specific known needs
Short-term oriented with little to no value in the longer-term; nice to have but not critical
The second criterion measures how an initiative will contribute to revenue. For each of the following that apply, assign a score of 5:
Has a known timeframe
Has a known direct link between initiative and revenue
A delay in implementing the initiative will have significant (negative) revenue impact
For each of the following that apply, assign a score of 1:
Has unknown or unclear impact on short and/or long-term revenue
Delay in initiative has no immediate or significant revenue impact
Contribution to revenue is longer term and more speculative at the current time
Continue this 5/1 ranking process for each of the remaining six criteria. (For a complete list of all the ranking statements, please visit this link, and download a free copy of our Strategic Value Factors Grid.
Once you have completed all eight categories, tally your scores in the matrix provided on our site.
A few things to keep in mind: this grid is not designed to be used as a mathematical formula to determine a yes or no vote on an initiative. I don’t recommend averaging all the criteria to determine a final overall score, as this could easily turn the grid into a complex mathematical process that clouds rather than clarifies your decision. And I would never recommend starting or stopping an initiative based solely on the numbers placed on this grid.
The idea is simply to get as much clarity as possible in terms of whether or not an initiative supports your core strategies. Therefore, the numbers on the grid should serve as a starting point for discussing why your organization should or should not focus on a particular initiative, and not as the final arbitrator of a yes or no decision.
This values grid also makes an excellent tool for evaluating ongoing projects that seem to have gotten off track. Your gut-feel tells you to drop the initiative, but organizational inertia keeps it going. Using this value grid can provide needed impetus for putting the brakes on existing initiatives that no longer align with your vision of winning.
Getting it done (execution) is essential for winning in today’s fast-moving markets. But only if you get the right things done!
Call to action: Pick one key initiative, new or ongoing, and apply the grid. How does it change the discussion around that initiative or help you see it in a new way?
Posted Jun 12, 2012 12:52 PM
I work with, support and present to hundreds of CEOs and business owners each year. In a world that changes as quickly as ours, they are getting more and more worried about old, entrenched ways of thinking and doing as a source of real vulnerability for their organizations. Most of them are also deeply concerned about a lack of execution and consider it one of their biggest competitive threats.
Getting the right things done involves a systematic process of rigorously discussing “hows and whats,” questioning, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability. It requires making assumptions about the business environment, assessing the organization's capabilities, linking strategy to operations and the people who will implement that strategy, and then linking rewards to performance and results.
To get it done — however you define it — make sure to focus on these four actions:
Set performance goals
Getting it done starts with focusing on where you want to go. Give yourself a target. Define excellence with as much specificity as you can. Then think about what you need to move out of the way or suspend in order to hit that target. Once you have a firm goal/destination, keep it in front of you and everyone else in the organization at all times.
Too often, we hold ourselves back from imagining a desired outcome unless someone can show us how to get there. But that’s not how our brain works best to generate and recognize solutions and methods. Creating clear outcomes is one of the most powerful skills in the world – and one of the most important for getting it done. When we have a clear target of where we want to go, the brain automatically focuses on getting there.
Once you set a target, compare your current reality with your destination in order to see the gap between the two. Then constantly define and re-define what you’re trying to accomplish and where you’re trying to go as the world around you changes.
Setting priorities isn’t difficult. Make a list all the things you do and identify which ones contribute most to reaching your destination. The challenge comes from staying focused when interruptions and unexpected work want to push those priorities aside.
We can’t avoid interruptions. But we can make informed choices about how we spend our time. How important is the unexpected work compared to what you thought you needed to get done? How long can you let your in-basket go unprocessed and all your stuff un-reviewed and trust that you’re still making good decisions?
For two weeks, track how you spend your time by listing it in one of four quadrants:
Important and urgent
Important and not urgent
Not important and urgent
Not important and not urgent
Identify how much time you spend in categories 1 and 2. Then look at what you need to shift and how you can you create a context for shifting it. There really is no magic wand on getting the right things done. You have to make informed choices (sometimes tough ones) regarding limited resources.
Many people see measurement as a means of controlling behavior or micro-managing others. In reality, it’s an essential tool for getting it done.
A scorecard can help to clarify the strategy and goals while managing alignment across individuals, departments, and initiatives. When used effectively, it becomes a communication vehicle, not a constraint for employees. A scorecard provides a variety of views into the business, and helps you maintain focus across all the important indicators.
Measurement tells a story (by tracking key financial and operational metrics) that links the measurements directly to your destination. It also forces ongoing consideration of limits, risks, and barriers.
Feel and act accountable
In an accountability-based company, people:
Understand what they and others are accountable for
Understand the consequences for not meeting clear expectations
Have the resources — tools, time, and people — to get it done
For these to happen, leaders and managers need to clearly define what people should and cannot do so that everyone understands the boundaries and decision-making authority. Leaders and managers should also encourage direct reports to exercise discretion and creativity within the defined boundaries. And they should make those boundaries wide enough so people can do their work effectively.
Additionally, managers ensure people feel appreciated for doing great work.
Employees receive regular feedback on how they’re doing. And managers have sufficient authority to provide appropriate rewards in forms that employees value.
Your current system produces exactly what it is set up to produce. If you’re not getting it done, look at these key elements and see which ones you’re not giving enough attention.
Call to action: Stop doing ONE thing today that gets in the way of getting it done. What will it be?
Posted Jun 5, 2012 11:03 AM
Last weekend I went bowling for the first time in ages. I came away amazed at how the sport has kept pace with the times. And I don’t necessarily mean that in an all good way.
This wasn’t your average bowling alley with 40 or 50 lanes and the sound of falling pins dominating the action. This upscale, boutique bowling alley had only 10 lanes, and was definitely targeted to a younger generation with short attention spans. No cheap plastic seats, greasy snack-bar hamburgers, or endless rows of beat-up black bowling balls to choose from.
Instead, we had sleek designer benches to sit on and shiny new bowling balls with colorful, swirling patterns. For food, we could choose from a full menu of restaurant items that were delivered to our seats by a smiling waitress. But what really struck me (literally) was the incessant, and very high, level of visual and auditory stimulation.
At the end of every lane, directly above the pins, sat a large, high-definition TV screen, each one tuned to a different sports channel. Indy car racing, baseball, soccer, tennis – you name it and you could watch it. In fact, as you lined up to roll your ball, it was hard not to watch it, or at least not get distracted by it.
Music blasted nonstop from ceiling speakers, so loud that you almost had to shout to talk to the person sitting next to you. And the smell of our buffalo wings, chips and salsa, and calamari (not your typical bowling alley fare!) tantalized our nostrils.
We only bowled one game, which took about an hour because of our large group. But by the end of the hour, I couldn’t wait to get out the door. My young nieces and nephews enjoyed every minute of it. I, on the other hand, felt like all my nerve endings needed a break!
Call me an old fogey, but the fact is we live in a very over-stimulated world. The real issue is not so much that we’re constantly in sensory overload. It’s that we’ve become desensitized to most of the stimuli bombarding our senses. This automatic tuning out of sensory input enables us to cope in today’s information overloaded world. But it does not serve us well at work.
Why? Because the screening out of stimuli (i.e. information) does not take place deliberately or purposefully. It most often happens just below the level of consciousness, so we don’t even notice it. And because our brain tends to see what it wants to see, we typically screen out anything that doesn’t align with the view of the world we already hold.
In business, this means that we tend to screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing views about our business and our customers. So we miss data that says our customers are moving a different direction. We overlook obvious trends and demographics impacting our business. We don’t see the competitor that comes out of nowhere to introduce disruptive innovation to our industry. And we fail to capitalize on opportunities to leapfrog ahead of our competition.
Over-stimulation also disrupts our ability to focus. Instead of zeroing in on our highest-priority activities, we spread our attention over too many tasks that may or may not support helping the organization win. I don’t see the world slowing down anytime soon, so we need to get in the habit of slowing ourselves down on a regular basis.
Throughout the day, pause from time to time to put the brain in idle. Nothing lengthy – just a few moments to quiet your thoughts and let all the “noise” around you dissipate.
To really slow down, set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day to meditate. Walk barefoot in the grass. On the drive home from work, turn off the radio and let the mind wander (but not so much that you forget about driving!). Find an idyllic spot to just sit and watch a sunset. Or just sit quietly and breathe deeply.
Our brain tells us we don’t have time for such nonsense. In reality, it only takes a few moments to disconnect from the sensory overload. The trick is to build those moments into our daily routines, so that pausing to mentally decompress becomes a welcome habit rather than a bothersome chore. You’ll be amazed at how even a few moments a day can refresh and recharge your brain.
I don’t plan on going bowling again any time soon. If I do, I’ll be sure to bring along some earplugs!
Call to action: Step away from your PC, cell phone or Blackberry, and take two minutes to mentally decompress. Do it now!
Posted May 29, 2012 12:31 PM
Not long ago, Car and Driver Magazine conducted a test to compare normal driver braking times against “impaired” braking conditions, such as drinking, texting, or checking email while driving.
The test involved a driver going 70 miles per hour (on a straight course) who was instructed to hit the brakes as soon as he saw a red light come on. The results were surprising – and sobering.
When compared to normal braking time, driving at the legally drunk limit added four feet to the unimpaired braking distance. Reading an email added 36 feet. Sending a text added an astonishing 70 feet. Way more than enough to make the difference between life and death!
Clearly, it makes no sense to check email or engage in texting while driving. It puts our own lives in danger as well as the lives of others. So why do we do it?
Blame it on that 2.7 pounds (on average) of red, white, and black matter that resides between our ears.
The human brain is a remarkable organ, yet at times it can be our worst enemy.
It comes equipped with remarkable cognitive, reasoning, and creative powers. But it also has many built-in patterns of thinking and perceiving that do not always serve us well. Two of the worst offenders are the tendency to see what we want to see and to screen out data that contradicts our prevailing view of the world.
In today’s “gotta keep moving as fast as I can” world, we’ve succumbed to the belief that speed trumps survival. So we make decisions and take actions that logically make no sense but serve the underlying belief by the brain that speed is of the essence.
We know that texting while driving can cause fatal accidents. Yet we do it anyway because our brains tell us, “I am in a hurry and whatever is on my phone is more important.” We know that drinking and driving is dangerous as well. Yet, too often, people ignore obvious signs of inebriation and climb behind the wheel. Their reasoning? “I won’t get caught,” or “No problem, I’m fine to drive.”
In the business world, these built-in brain tendencies may not threaten our lives, but they can certainly put our companies at risk.
When we get stressed (which is most of the time these days), the brain seeks comfort in what it knows and what it is familiar with. When looking to solve problems, it tends to go to what has worked for it previously. Often, it goes to what has not worked just because it’s familiar. Why do you think the phrase “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is so often and accurately used?
Blockbuster, Borders, and Kodak offer recent examples of very successful companies that got led astray by faulty brain patterns. It’s not hard to imagine the boardroom conversations that took place as leaders in these companies succumbed to the tendency to see what they wanted to see and go with the familiar:
“People won’t wait two days to get a DVD in the mail.” “They’ll never stand in line outside a grocery store to get movies from a vending machine.” “Who wants to read an e-book? People like the feel of actually turning pages.” “We can’t make any money on digital photography.”
We all struggle to keep up in this hyper-changing world. But often, the shortcuts we take as a result of our built-in brain tendencies do not serve us well. Especially those that stop us from taking the time to analyze the data, consider what has changed, and explore how we need to change with it.
Take the NFL. They’ve had data for more than a decade indicating the seriousness of player concussions. Had they really analyzed the data instead of seeing what they wanted to see, they likely would have taken action much sooner to improve player safety. But they didn’t, and now they’re facing multiple lawsuits that could cost millions of dollars. Not to mention the fact that many players’ lives have been irreparably damaged due to repeated concussions.
As leaders, we need to regularly check in with our brains to see what biases, tendencies, and thought bubbles are driving our thought processes. Otherwise, that 2.7 pounds can lead us astray without our even knowing it.
The human brain can be friend or foe. It all depends on how we use it.
Don’t text while driving, even when your brain tells you it’s okay!