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!
Posted May 22, 2012 02:33 PM
Spring is here and life is bursting out at the seams! The bees are buzzing, the flowers are blooming, and people are hard at work getting their gardens ready for the growing season.
Experienced gardeners know there’s more to just planting the seeds, laying down some mulch, and watering the soil. Creating the best environment for growth also requires getting rid of weeds and other plants that may look attractive but can prevent the plants we want from growing.
Which leads to today’s million-dollar question: if a corporate grapevine pesticide were available, would you be first in line to buy it?
Most companies have an informal information network (grapevine) and they usually thrive on negative information and speculation. As a leader or manager, no doubt you’ve had to deal with rumors in your team, department or organization, and know the turmoil they can create. However, regularly pruning your grapevine can keep those pesky rumors from growing out of control.
Here are some useful gardening tips:
An active grapevine often signals boredom
When employees get bored, they talk and create their own excitement. Grapevines can be very exciting, and bored individuals are among their most industrious feeders. You can help prevent this situation by keeping an eye on workloads, recognizing when employees are being underutilized, and reacting immediately.
Poor communication is the best grapevine fertilizer
When you communicate with people consistently and frequently, they won’t depend on the grapevine. But if you leave them in the dark on important information and individuals believe they can obtain fairly reliable facts from sources other than management, your grapevine will inevitably grow. And employees who spend time trying to find out what’s going on generally don’t produce at the highest level.
Rapid, accurate communication is especially important to younger employees who grew up with information at their fingertips. Accustomed to the instantaneous communication of the Internet, they feel left out when managers fail to answer their questions or get them up to speed on projects, changes, or organizational issues.
Grapevines can alert you to burning issues
Managers and supervisors should never get so remote from their workforce that they stop hearing employees’ concerns. Enlightened companies hold regular discussions between staff and senior managers. These discussions can be excellent opportunities for sharing accurate information and arresting any misperceptions that are causing concern and fear. It helps to cultivate rapport with a few select employees who stay tuned in to grapevine issues. These employees can let you know what burning issues are being discussed so you can address them properly.
Grapevines give you insight into the participants’ character
You can gain useful insights into how a grapevine works by watching the employees who feed into it. It’s easy to identify the most enthusiastic participants because over time information can be traced back to them. Even if they are reasonably productive, avoid blindly trusting these workers and placing them in positions of influence.
The best way to forestall major grapevine issues is to inform, inspire, and engage people on a regular basis. Tell them where the organization is headed and how their individual roles help it to get there. Share your passion for winning, and let people know how your company makes a difference in the world. And keep employees connected to the mission and goals by giving them what they say they want from their jobs:
A challenge. Most people want to make a difference. Knowing they can personally impact the business, even in a small way, is intoxicating.
Appreciation. Receiving praise for a job well done (on a frequent basis) is an incredibly powerful motivator. Never underestimate the power of a simple "thank you.”
Accountability. The majority of people want to be in charge of something, large or small, for which they have real responsibility to make decisions.
Inclusion. People desire to be involved in something greater than themselves. Employees want to know how their role fits into the big picture.
Define excellence up front so that you can manage success versus catching people doing it wrong. Constantly criticizing people after the fact (rather than proactively coaching for success) is an open invitation to hurt feelings, backbiting, and constant complaining – all of which make excellent grapevine fertilizer.
So get out your shears, prune your grapevine, and stop the damaging rumors that prevent your organization from winning!
Got a green thumb when it comes to organizational gardening? Write and tell us how you keep your grapevine from growing out of control.
Posted May 15, 2012 04:47 PM
To test your mental acuity, answer the following questions (no peeking at the answers!):
Johnny’s mother had three children. The first child was named April. The second child was named May. What was the third child’s name?
A clerk at a butcher shop stands five feet ten inches tall and wears size 13 sneakers. What does he weigh?
Before Mt. Everest was discovered, what was the highest mountain in the world?
How much dirt is there in a hole that measures two feet by three feet by four feet?
What word in the English language is always spelled incorrectly?
Billie was born on December 28th, yet her birthday always falls in the summer. How is this possible?
In British Columbia you cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?
If you were running a race and you passed the person in 2nd place, what place would you be in now?
Which is correct to say, “The yolk of the egg is white” or “The yolk of the egg are white?”
A farmer has five haystacks in one field and four haystacks in another. How many haystacks would he have if he combined them all in one field?
Mt. Everest. It just wasn’t discovered yet.
There is no dirt in a hole.
Incorrectly (except when it is spelled incorrecktly).
Billie lives in the southern hemisphere.
You can’t take a picture with a wooden leg. You need a camera (or iPad or cell phone) to take a picture.
You would be in 2nd place. You passed the person in second place, not first.
Neither. Egg yolks are yellow.
One. If he combines all his haystacks, they all become one big stack.
Okay, some of these are a bit corny. But they all illustrate several brain idiosyncrasies that affect how we make decisions in the world.
Thanks to the way our brain works, we have a very strong tendency to see what we want to see and what we expect to see. This has huge implications when studying our customers, markets, competitors, and other data that influences key business decisions.
When we only see what we want or expect to see, we miss competitive threats because our brain tells us a threat couldn’t possibly come from that direction. We miss opportunities because we only see what has worked in the past rather than what could be. And we miss major market shifts and changes in customer needs that seem obvious in hindsight but are easily overlooked when focusing on what we already know.
Our brain doesn’t like information gaps, so we tend to jump at the first answer/solution that looks good rather than take the time to examine all the data. This is especially true in a world where we receive more information every day than we have time to assimilate. Finally, our brains love to see patterns and make connections. This trait serves us well in many ways as we move through the world. But the brain doesn’t always get it right.
For example, how did you answer question #1 (be honest)? For most people, the first word that pops into their head is “June,” because the brain quickly spots the April/May/June pattern. Upon re-reading the question and analyzing the data, the answer “Johnny” becomes obvious.
And what about the man with the wooden leg? Your answer depends on how you interpret “with.” Does it refer to the man with the wooden leg or to the camera? A bit of a trick question, but it clearly illustrates how the language we use shapes the way we look at the world.
Perhaps the best example of how we miss things is the egg yolk question. Everybody knows egg yolks are yellow. But the question’s phrasing puts our attention on selecting the correct verb, so we overlook an obvious piece of data and an even more obvious answer.
We can’t change how the brain works – at least not yet. Give science another 50 years and who knows what our brains will be doing! For now, we can become more aware of how our brain works, then pause from time to time to consider what we’re missing. This includes the data we’re unconsciously screening out as well as different sources of data to counterbalance what we expect to see.
Get in the habit of teasing your brain. You’ll be amazed at what you end up seeing that you didn’t see before.
Retweet this blog to find out how clever your friends and business associates are.
Posted May 8, 2012 12:56 PM
Isn’t that a delightful word!
The first time I heard it I thought it must be a sniglet, a term coined by comedian Rich Hall in the ‘80s. Loosely defined as “any word that isn’t in the dictionary but should be,” sniglets usually involve a clever play on two or more words to humorously describe a person, situation, ability, or event that happens (or could happen) in real life.
Aquadextrous -- Possessing the ability to turn the bathtub faucet on and off with your toes.
Carperpetuation -- The act, when vacuuming, of running over a string at least a dozen times, reaching over and picking it up, examining it, then putting it back down to give the vacuum one more chance.
Elusivator - The elevator whose doors close just before you can push the call button.
Flossa Nostra - A mob of dentists who instruct you to floss, or else.
Snuggage - Personal belongings stuffed under the airline seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment.
Checking the dictionary, I discovered that confabulate is not a singlet. It’s actually a legitimate word that means “to fill in the gaps of memory by fabrication.” Which is a fancy way of saying “make stuff up.” And I thought, “Has there ever been a more appropriate word for so many things we do in the business world?”
Thanks to the way our brain works, we think we see and understand a lot more of the world around us than we actually do. We don’t like ambiguity, unanswered questions, or information gaps. And we like to be right (some of us more than others). So we often go out of our way to “explain” things even when the real explanation eludes us.
Here’s the problem: we are really bad at knowing what we don’t know. And when we don’t have all the information about a problem or issue, our brains desperately want to fill in the information gap. So we confabulate, which often leads to making critical decisions based on unfounded data.
We also confabulate when we don’t take the time to question our thought bubbles – our deeply held attitudes and assumptions about the way the world works.
We think we know what’s going on because just look how successful we are. Our customers love us! But these perceptions are often based on ideas about our customers and markets that could be six months, a year, or even several years out of date. In today’s hyper-paced world, that’s an eternity! When we confabulate, our customers and markets rapidly leave us behind.
What does confabulation sound like?
“We know what our employees really want or need without asking. Our customer relationships are in great shape. That‘s the way everyone in our industry does it, so why should we do it differently? We don’t need to slow down to plan or communicate; everyone here knows what to do. Sure it’s happening elsewhere, but technology won’t disrupt our industry.”
We hear these kinds of confabulations all the time. But we’re so used to them that we never give them a second thought. To make confabulations easier to recognize, I thought it would be fun to turn some of them into sniglets:
Assumptivity – The tendency in meetings to believe that everyone thinks and sees the world the same way we do.
Elephantoidance – The collective ability of everyone in the room to avoid bringing up the one subject that nobody wants to discuss.
Customectomy – The act of removing a formerly loyal customer from the business through arrogance, indifference, or neglect.
Pastination – The tendency to believe that what made us successful in the past will continue to do so in the future.
Recowibrate – The act of protecting the company’s sacred cows from anyone with a new or better idea.
Bubbleosity – Speaking in a meeting and being overly sure of what you think you know.
Bubbleicious – The great feeling you get when popping someone’s thought bubble with actual data.
What can be done about confabulation?
Become more aware of how the brain works. Pause to question your attitudes and assumptions. Speak up in meetings when you see things differently. Seek out new sources of data. And stop thinking you know it all about your customers and markets.
Making stuff up is bad for our companies. And that’s no confabulation!
Tweet me your confabulation sniglets. Once we compile them, I’ll publish them in a future blog.
Posted May 1, 2012 03:37 PM
Have you ever wondered why the head of a baseball team is called the manager and the head of a basketball team is called the coach? (These are the kinds of things I sometimes ponder on long airplane rides.)
The answer has to do not just with the obvious differences between the two sports, but also with how the players are coached and managed during the games. Just as baseball and basketball are two very different sports, coaching and managing are two very different activities. One has to do with directing, the other has to do with teaching.
Managing is all about telling, directing, authority, immediate needs, and a specific outcome. Coaching involves exploring, facilitating, partnership, long-term improvement, and many possible outcomes.
During a baseball game, the manager focuses primarily on strategy and managing the flow of the game. He decides who pitches and when. He positions the players in the field based on the tendencies of the batter. And he relays commands to coaches, who then tell players when to swing, when to take a pitch, and how to run the bases.
In basketball, the coach has the same authority as a baseball manager, but he gets more involved with the action on the court. He calls out plays and defensive schemes to the players, but they are then free to implement those plays (using their skills and knowledge of the game) as they see fit. During time-outs, the coach draws up plays on the clipboard. He offers encouragement, support, and suggestions. And he instructs players on how to react to many possible outcomes depending on what the other team does.
Obviously, the roles and responsibilities of a baseball manager and basketball coach overlap. But while the baseball manager focuses on authority and directing, the basketball coach works in more of a teaching/facilitating capacity.
What does all this have to do with business leadership? More than you might think.
In business, we have to be both coaches and managers. To lead effectively, we need to know when to wear which hat.
Managing involves a more directive, task-oriented style that should only be used under certain conditions. It usually produces the best results in a crisis situation, when someone has never done the task before, or when they have little or no confidence in their ability to get it done.
Coaching works best for developmental purposes, especially when you have a team of competent professionals already performing at a reasonably high level. Once you define winning for your organization, team members may need your guidance and support. But in most cases they shouldn’t need direction.
Knowing when to direct, delegate or develop is critical to managerial effectiveness. Determine which style is appropriate based on the task at hand rather than the individual. Often, people will need a combination of styles depending on the complexity of the task assigned, their experience with the task, and the competency levels required to complete it with excellence.
Direct when the employee has low to moderate competence with the skills and abilities needed to complete the task. Be sure to define excellence (what, how and when), and provide specifics (templates, examples, etc.) so the person can achieve the desired outcome. Direct when a person:
Is new in a role
Is new to the company
Is new to the client/customer
Has new job responsibilities or tasks
Has new ways of working
Delegate when the employee has moderate to high competence. Again, define excellence so both sides have clarity around the goal. Then let the employee determine the approach they will take and keep you informed as to their progress. Ask questions and provide direction and specific support when necessary. Delegate when a person has:
Some experience in the role
A track record or competence
A sensitive task or client
Confidence in their abilities
Similar ways of working
Develop when the employee has high competence and high commitment to the task. Then define excellence and get out of the way! Give plenty of recognition for successful completion of the task. Then determine the person’s next challenge. Develop when the person:
Has extensive experience
Has demonstrated evidence of competency
Has experienced similar clients or task sensitivities
Is growing new competences
Is trying new approaches
Sometimes we have to coach and sometimes we have to manage. But the more time we can spend delegating and developing, the more effective we’ll be.
Posted Apr 17, 2012 11:27 AM
Every once in a while a book comes along that really shakes up your thinking. I recently read such a book and then had the good fortune of sitting down and talking with the author.
“Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible,” by Daniel Burrus, redefines what is possible in the business world. I was so impressed after reading it that I sent Burrus an email telling him how much I enjoyed it and would enjoy chatting with him face to face. We met for a great glass of wine and had an interesting time discussing the book. Turns out we share many ideas on how business leaders can cope with today’s hyper-paced markets and high levels of uncertainty (Is it any wonder I thought he was brilliant?!)
In a nutshell, Flash Foresight presents seven principles for transforming a business:
Start with certainty
Take your biggest problem and skip it
Redefine and reinvent
Direct your future
Of these, “start with certainty” is perhaps the most important as it lays the foundation for the other six principles.
Burrus proposes that although we live in a rapidly changing world, the future is not as unknowable as we think. If we look close enough, we can distinguish between cyclic change and linear change, as well as hard trends and soft trends. Armed with this information we can then determine which parts of the future we can be right about. This allows us to build our business plans based on some certainty rather than uncertainty.
What’s the difference between a hard and soft trend?
According to Burrus, a hard trend is “a projection based on measurable, tangible and fully predictable facts, events, or objects.” A soft trend is “a projection based on statistics that appear to be tangible, fully predictable facts.” A hard trend is something that will happen in the future. A soft trend is something that might happen.
For example, the fact that we have an aging population represents a hard trend. Baby Boomers will keep getting older, and nothing can stop that. Similarly, the ability to process and store more data in ever-smaller chips continues to advance at exponential rates. The ability to share information will get faster and cheaper as technology advances. These kinds of hard trends have huge implications for businesses trying to identify future market opportunities.
Flash Foresight also reinforces a concept that I constantly discuss (and even shout from the rooftops) with clients: that the way we’ve always done it is often the biggest hurdle to our future success. Accordingly, we need to constantly question our assumptions, not just about our products, services, and customers, but about everything.
For example, Burrus points out we have moved from an economy based on physical resources to one based on knowledge. This, in turn, has caused a fundamental shift in the nature of wealth and resources. When we share a physical resource with someone, our portion of that resource depletes. But when we share knowledge, it increases. As a result, it now makes more sense in many industries to collaborate rather than to compete. Which requires a very different way of thinking about how we run our companies.
Burrus and I also talked about how success often gets us stuck, because the more we know about something, the less we see that contradicts what we know. And the more success we have, the less likely we are to change, even in the face of compelling evidence that says the change is inevitable and necessary.
To counteract the human tendency to stick with what we know, Burrus suggests redefining anything and everything about our businesses. He also recommends reinventing the old by using it in new ways, such as finding new ways to use old technologies.
Another point Burrus makes that aligns with what I tell clients is the need to fail fast -- to recognize failure quickly and act on it immediately. The problem with failure is not the failure itself, it’s that we tend to drag it out to the point where it holds us back from going after new opportunities. If you’re not failing at least some of the time, you’re not trying hard enough. But smart leadership requires knowing when to get off a dead horse.
I could go on and on about the book, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. If you haven’t read it, get it now and put it at the top of your reading list. You’ll find plenty of great ideas to help transform your business!
Posted Apr 10, 2012 09:27 AM
Last week I talked about the first phase of the creative process (divergence), which consists of stimulating new thinking by diversifying and exploring. The second phase in the process is convergence, which involves refining and choosing the best possibilities from the ideas generated during the divergence phase.
In today’s global economy, market opportunities abound. For most companies, the problem is not coming up with enough good ideas. It’s deciding which ones to follow through on. Convergence tools help to make sense of what often seems like an overwhelming number of possibilities. They enable you to narrow the range of choices in order to make an intelligent decision. And they provide a starting point from which to implement those decisions.
To get the most out of the convergence phase, I recommend using the SOARS technique:
To make sense of all the different possibilities in front of you, start by grouping them into meaningful categories. These categories might be related to time, feasibility, market demand, availability of resources, type of possibility, or any other category that would help to bring order out of the chaos.
I like to use a three-color sorting technique to simplify the sorting process. Green represents ideas that clearly fit with your criteria. Yellow is for ideas that have some fit but probably need further thought. Red identifies ideas that do not fit the criteria.
Once you’ve sorted ideas by category, rank them against pre-established criteria to create an order of preference. A basic quadrant chart that incorporates two important criteria offers a simple yet powerful way to see which ideas best fit the criteria. For example, if you choose “cost” and “feasibility” as your criteria, you end up with four distinct quadrants in which to place your ideas:
High cost, low feasibility
High cost, high feasibility
Low cost, low feasibility
Low cost, high feasibility
You can also use other criteria -- such as time to market, probability of success, relevance to customer wants and needs, anticipated return on investment, etc. -- to help you narrow down the list.
When likely possibilities have been identified, they can be expanded and adapted to create even better ideas. “Take Away” offers a simple tool for engaging in this process. Identify all the critical components of an idea, then take one away and see what you would have to do if that component wasn’t available or didn’t exist. For example, if you didn’t have access to electricity, you might start thinking about phones that didn’t have to be plugged in.
Now it’s time to start critiquing the idea by identifying weak spots and potential failure points. The goal here is to “bullet-proof” an idea before deciding to move forward with it. Start by thinking of all the ways the idea could fail, what external events might create a disaster, or who could and/or would say “no” to the idea. Then begin to brainstorm ways to avoid these possible obstacles. If the obstacles that remain are too complex, costly or difficult to overcome, the idea doesn’t pass muster.
“Dot Voting” offers a simple technique for selecting ideas. Make all of the choices available, and give each participant a certain number of dots to vote with. If you’ve established the criteria in advance, this process can be very effective for selecting the best ideas and getting buy-in from people as they see that certain concepts match the criteria more than others.
Keep in mind that ideas are only ideas until they get implemented, and implementation requires that someone take ownership. Getting the right people to take ownership of an idea is a critical piece of the process.
Also, it helps to have a process and/or methodology for turning your newly selected ideas into practical products or services. Start by identifying what innovation means to your organization. Why is it important and what will happen when you achieve it?
Choose an innovation model or approach that fits your type of business and your available resources to drive your innovation efforts. Then identify metrics for inputs, development, and output. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
Mobilize the organization by clarifying and communicating your vision of what successful innovation looks like in your business. Provide the tools and support people need. Hold them accountable for new ways of thinking and working. And keep people inspired by sharing stories of success and failure.
Hopefully, people in your organization are coming up with lots of new ideas. When they do, the SOARS technique will make it much more likely that you act on the best ones.
Posted Apr 3, 2012 11:52 AM
Creativity can sometimes seem like magic. But anyone can enhance their creative abilities simply by understanding the underlying principles and grasping one very important rule.
Creativity consists of two distinct phases -- divergence and convergence. Divergence is the stimulation of new thinking by diversifying and exploring. Convergence refines and chooses the best possibilities from the ideas generated by divergence.
Divergence is an expansive process, with the idea being to stretch the mind in order to come up with new ideas. Convergence involves a reductive process whereby you whittle the list down to only those ideas with the most potential.
The one very important rule of creativity? Separate the two phases!
Trying to diverge and converge at the same time sucks the juice out of the creative process. It leaves you with pale, lifeless ideas that never go anywhere. And it has a negative impact on future attempts to generate new ideas. So always start with divergence first, and then schedule a different meeting for the convergence process.
To kickstart the divergence process, use the SWAMI technique:
Putting yourself in imaginary situations switches on new ways of thinking. For example, if you were from Mars, what would this problem look like? If you were six years old or three feet tall, what would the future look like to you? If you could smash all the assumptions around this issue, what would happen?
To stimulate the “suppose” process, create future stories in which you think of headlines you would like to see. Then make up a story about how those headlines came to be. For example, “Company XYZ Turns Industry Upside Down!” Then describe how you turned the industry upside down. What new value did you provide to customers? How was it delivered? How did it change the industry? When you answer these kinds of questions, you can gain great insight into what new product or service to offer.
Wandering through new territory with an open mind scoops up new connections and links. For instance, you can wander through hardware or antique stores, new magazines or conferences, or even the great outdoors. It helps to use random images taken from magazines and other sources, such as photographs or postcards, to stimulate thinking about the issue you’re working on.
The less the random images relate to your problem or issue, the better. When you look at images that remind you of what you’re working on, it tends to bring up old thinking patterns. Looking at unrelated images takes the mind in new and different directions.
Deliberately create new links between objects, ideas, events, people, or processes. As you link things together that are normally not connected, you begin to see new relationships and new possibilities.
Metaphorical thinking helps with this process because it uses the qualities of one object to get you thinking about another. For example, if you’re trying to create better customer service, you might think about the qualities of a rubber ball. Rubber balls are round and smooth. They bounce. They’re resilient and not easily damaged. And they’re fun to play with.
Now, examine each of these qualities to see what ideas they might stimulate around customer service. How could you make your product or service more resilient? How could your company be more fun (easier) to play (do business) with? What could you do to get customers who have left to bounce back to doing business with you?
This involves changing various aspects of a situation by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Use the technique of brainwriting to drive the process of building on other ideas. Start by creating a worksheet with six rows and three columns of empty boxes. Have each person write three ideas in one row of boxes, then pass their worksheet on to the next person. The idea is to build on the ideas of others or use them to stimulate new ideas. Repeat the exercise until all sheets are filled.
Questions create openings. Asking great questions can unravel a mystery like a kitten batting a ball of twine. Start by asking the most powerful question for opening up new possibilities: What if…..?
For example: What if our customers ran our business….? What if we’re looking at it the wrong way….? What if we saw this in a way that nobody has seen before…? Have everyone think of 10 ways to complete the question. Then compare notes.
Once you’ve come up with several good ideas for addressing your problem or challenge, schedule a separate time to use the convergent thinking phase. Next week, I’ll share some ideas for managing that process of turning good ideas into practical application.
Posted Mar 27, 2012 04:22 PM
Great leaders think strategically.
They can understand and appreciate the current state as well as see possibilities. When dealing with today’s issues, they operate from a broad, long-term perspective rather than focusing only on short-term implications. And they can gather information and make decisions in a timely manner.
Most of all, strategic leaders know how to strike a balance between visualizing what might or could be and an effective day-to-day approach to implementation. They can look into the future to see where the company needs to go and what it will look like once they get there. And they can do this while making sure the right things get done on a daily basis.
This type of strategic leadership requires five different types of thinking. Knowing when and how much to utilize each one is the hallmark of great leaders.
Critical thinking is the mental process of objectively analyzing a situation by gathering information from all possible sources, and then evaluating both the tangible and intangible aspects, as well as the implications of any course of action.
Implementation thinking is the ability to organize ideas and plans in a way that they will be effectively carried out.
Conceptual thinking consists of the ability to find connections or patterns between abstract ideas and then piece them together to form a complete picture.
Innovative thinking involves generating new ideas or new ways of approaching things to create possibilities and opportunities.
Intuitive thinking is the ability to take what you may sense or perceive to be true and, without knowledge or evidence, appropriately factor it in to the final decision.
Until recently, most leaders could get by with critical and implementation thinking. But in today’s hyper-fast world, conceptual, innovative and intuitive thinking have becoming increasingly important, especially in industries where frenetic change represents the rule rather than the exception.
Business leaders still need to gather and analyze data, make decisions, and implement them well. But now they have to take in vast amounts of data from a more diverse array of sources. They have to make decisions much more quickly. And they have to do it knowing that everything could change overnight.
In such an environment, the ability to ponder possibilities, see patterns and connections that others don’t see, and look at the same data in new and different ways represents a formidable competitive advantage.
Some leaders seem to be born with these intuitive types of thinking skills. But since most of us are not so naturally gifted, here are some suggestions for developing these essential leadership skills.
Take time to look around. Browse business websites and read related publications to learn how other organizations have implemented various strategies in order to increase their competitive advantage.
Be willing to change directions and/or pursue new goals when strategic opportunities arise. Think about what is keeping you on the same path and force yourself to ponder whether or not you should shift plans. Consider worst-case scenarios.
When problems arise, don’t settle for a quick fix. Instead, carefully look at the problem and take the time to analyze all possible solutions. Create a checklist for yourself to trigger thoughts on long-term consequences and possibilities.
Help others in the organization feel that they are part of the overall mission and strategies by discussing it with them frequently and involving them as much as possible.
Pause and view your situation from another perspective – that of an employee, customer, supplier, etc.
Research and analyze your company’s major competitors. Create a detailed profile of each one and share it with your team. Constantly look for first-hand data rather than relying on anecdotal information.
Engage in “what-if” thinking. For example, “If we do this, how will our competitors respond? What will our customers think? What impact will this have on our suppliers and distributors? What if there is something we have not considered?”
Expand your data sources to include areas totally outside your business or industry. Analyze other industries to see what they’re doing well and how that could be adapted to your business.
Most of all, get in the habit of stimulating your mind by not thinking about your business. From time to time, go outside your office and take a walk. Turn off your processing and just soak in the sights, sounds, and scents of the environment. Let your mind wander, and allow yourself the luxury of daydreaming. You’ll be amazed at what you can come up with simply by shifting out of the critical/implementation thinking modes from time to time.
The human brain is a powerful leadership tool. It works even better when you use all five thinking types!
Posted Mar 20, 2012 01:24 PM
Most people think of Gallup as a public opinion polling company. But did you know they also conduct extensive research on performance management in the workplace?
Over the years, Gallop has surveyed millions of employees and customers on a variety of workplace issues. One very interesting fact emerges from all their research. Of all the employees Gallup has surveyed, just over half have a clear understanding of what's expected of them when they show up to work every day.
Think about that for a minute.
Almost one of out every two employees does not know what management expects from them in terms of job performance. Which means management isn’t telling them what is expected. Which means management expects employees to be mind readers. Or else they don’t care about performance.
And we wonder why excellence is such a rare commodity in the corporate world!
As leaders, the things we don’t do or say often have more of an impact than those that we do. So I took my own informal poll and came up with the top five things managers don’t do that undermine excellence in organizations.
1. Failure to define winning
Nothing is more important to creating a culture of excellence than defining what winning looks like for your organization, for teams and for individuals. Having a clear definition of winning provides focus and clarity at every level. It gets everyone aligned and moving in the same direction. It motivates and inspires people to perform at their best. And when unexpected adversity occurs, it gives people an anchor to rally around and keep their energy and spirits high.
Don’t kid yourself about the importance of this one. If people don’t know what winning looks like, what game are they playing every day…what race are they running?
2. Failure to get obsessive about winning
It’s not enough just to have a clear vision of winning. To keep employees focused on winning, you have to get obsessive about it! Otherwise, people get so distracted by everything they have on their plates that they lose sight of the big picture.
Constantly talk about the importance of winning with employees. Remind them of how it will benefit your customers, your community, and everyone in the organization when you win. Place visual cues throughout your work environment, and imbed your definition of winning into all your ways of working.
3. Not giving feedback
Today’s employees want feedback, and lots of it! Without it, people don’t know where they stand in regards to performance expectations. More important, when you don’t tell employees how they’re doing, it sends the message that you don’t care.
Without feedback, people make up information to fill the void. This made-up information is almost always negative. Giving regular feedback helps to prevent destructive “information gaps,” and strengthens relationships between employees and their supervisors. It also leads to improved work quality, increased accountability, and a higher-performing work environment.
4. Not linking individual jobs to the big picture
Most employees want to feel like they’re doing more than just earning a paycheck. That’s why it’s so important to create a clear and compelling vision of winning. But even when employees buy into your vision of winning, they often have a hard time seeing their roles in it.
Start by making sure every individual job actually supports getting to your destination. Then let people know -- specifically -- how their jobs contribute to winning and why it’s so important for them to perform at a high level. This makes it easier to set priorities, make decisions that support reaching your destination, and eliminate activities that get in the way of achieving the goal.
5. Not recognizing and rewarding great performance
As leaders, we all know we need to acknowledge and reward employees for top performance. But far too often this “important but not urgent” activity gets lost in the day-to-day pressures of getting the product out the door. If you want to sustain a culture of excellence, you’d better have a system or process in place that makes rewarding employees part of your regular routine. And I’m not talking about an automatic 1% bonus at the end of the year. I’m talking about small, ongoing, personalized rewards that show employees you really appreciate the effort they put in.
Nothing lets the air out of the excellence balloon quicker than a perceived attitude of indifference on the part of management. And nothing shouts “indifference” louder than failing to perform your job as a leader. Put these five tasks on your daily to-do list and watch your employees’ performance soar! Don’t do them and don’t be surprised by a lack of excellence in your organization.
Posted Mar 13, 2012 04:24 PM
What would you do if your best customer closed the account and went to your biggest competitor? (And no, jumping off a cliff is not an option!)
Seriously, what would happen if your key suppliers suddenly tripled their prices? How would you respond if a new technology made your current business model obsolete overnight? What if a computer hacker broke through your security system and stole or compromised all your customer data?
As business leaders, we don’t generally like to think about these kinds of worst-case scenarios. And therein lies the problem. We don’t like to think about these things, so we don’t spend much time thinking about them. When an unexpected crisis occurs, we get caught off guard and are forced to react rather than respond with our highest-level thinking.
Of the companies that do plan in advance for unexpected events, many use a process called “scenario planning.” This typically involves gathering data from political, social, economic, and demographic areas, and then using that information to predict the likelihood of future trends or events that might impact that business.
Scenario planning first gained prominence during the 1970’s when companies like GE and Dutch Royal Shell invested a lot of time and resources in the process. Although some Dutch Royal Shell senior executives said the scenarios had minimal impact on the company’s major strategic decisions, scenario planning gained a foothold in the business world, and is currently practiced by many companies.
Given the rapid pace of change in today’s world, we all need to spend some time looking ahead and planning for possible contingencies. But as commonly practiced, scenario planning has some major flaws that limit its effectiveness.
Scenario planning tends to be a lengthy process that sucks up a lot of time and energy. It relies on the outdated premise that the future is at least somewhat predictable. And the typical scenario planning approach is simply too slow and conservative for today’s hyper-paced world. By the time we get through collecting and analyzing data and creating plans to deal with the imagined scenario, the world has changed to the point that our data may already be obsolete.
I recommend a different approach, called “pre-thinking.”
Pre-thinking doesn’t attempt to predict the future or even plan for it. Rather, it describes what is possible and considers how we might respond to those possibilities. A very informal process, pre-thinking doesn’t require think tanks, committees, or formal meetings. And it doesn’t produce lengthy reports or recommendations. It’s simply a matter of pausing from time to time and asking, “What if….?”
For example, what if the economy picks up in the next three to six months? What if it remains flat for another year? What if it declines? Or, what if a new competitor suddenly enters our market in a way that makes our business model obsolete? What if a natural disaster wipes out our production plant?
Pre-thinking should also consider opportunity as well as potential disaster. For example, what if we could find a way to compete online that has never been done in our industry? What if we begin using social media to give our customers more choices than they have ever had? What if we solve our customers’ biggest challenge or address their most frequent complaint?
Whether pondering disaster or opportunity, the point is not so much to come up with definitive answers to these questions, but to visit and stretch our brains by considering different possibilities.
One of the biggest dangers for business leaders is holding on to outdated ideas and assumptions and getting stuck in old ways of thinking. Pre-thinking challenges us to reexamine our ingrained notions about how things work, and opens the door to new and different ways of seeing the world.
Pre-thinking also helps to expose personal and organizational blind spots. It enables us to react quicker and with more confidence to unexpected events when they do occur. It allows us to take advantage of opportunities before others see them. And it helps team members to develop different viewpoints and perspectives.
Best of all, we can engage in pre-thinking any time, anywhere. In the shower. On an airplane. Driving home from work. While eating lunch. Regardless of where it takes place, pre-thinking stretches the mind and gets us exploring things we otherwise wouldn’t explore. The more we can engage our brains in pre-thinking, the better our ability to respond when something does change. And in today’s world, it will change.
The future may be more unpredictable than ever. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ponder it. Fifteen minutes of pre-thinking a day will give us more flexible, nimble minds that are better equipped to lead our organizations through these uncertain times.
Posted Mar 6, 2012 04:33 PM
Thirty years ago, Tom Peters published an incredibly influential business book, In Search of Excellence.
In it, he defined eight characteristics of excellent companies: a bias for action, staying close to the customer, autonomy and entrepreneurship, productivity through people, clear and compelling organizational values, focusing on what you do best, operating with a lean staff, and finding a balance between having enough structure without getting stuck in it.
These principles remain good guides to this day. However, the business world has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 30 years, and the time has come to redefine what excellence means. In today’s world, excellence is more than a set of principles. It’s a set of beliefs, ways of thinking, a matter of discipline, and ways of focusing.
Excellence starts with getting very clear on the end state you wish to achieve (winning) and relentlessly driving towards it every day. Excellence requires knowing when to push on (even when you don’t have all the information or the perfect solution), but doing it well and constantly refining as you forge ahead. Excellence means accepting only the best, and understanding that when it is not given that you, as the leader, are at least partly responsible.
Excellence reveals itself in the language you use, the questions you ask, the people you surround yourself with, and how you interact with others. For example, do you show up on time for meetings? Are you present in the moment? Do you listen actively to employees and direct reports? Are you aware of the biases and thought bubbles you bring to the table? Do you take steps to minimize their impact on your decision-making, or at least explore others as well?
In today’s hyper-fast world, excellence requires building flexible, nimble organizations that can quickly adapt to rapidly changing markets without losing sight of their vision of winning. Creating this type of organization starts with three critical elements.
First and foremost, you have to know where you’re going and why. When faced with adversity (or opportunity), having a crystal-clear definition of winning keeps the company from going off in too many directions. It enables clear and consistent decision-making, not only in terms of what you will do as an organization, but also what you will not do.
When things change very quickly, as they do in today’s chaotic markets, it can be easy to fall into a reactive mode. A new technology enters the market… how do we respond? A competitor introduces a new product that easily tops ours…how do we respond? An innovation from a completely different industry suddenly disrupts our business model….how do we respond? Having a clear definition of winning serves as your north star from which to navigate these critical strategic decisions.
Getting clear on winning represents the starting point for excellence. Keeping your people focused on winning is the engine that will get you there. As the leader, you live and breathe the vision, mission, and strategy every day (or at least you should!). But for the people in the trenches, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the big picture. Excellence requires making winning a daily objective for your people as well.
How? By constantly communicating your company’s definition of winning in as many ways as possible, and with as much specificity as possible. Start every meeting with a quick reminder of the goals. Post visual cues and “brain prompts” throughout the company. Clarify how individual jobs and teams contribute to everyone winning. Reward individual and team behavior that moves the company closer to winning. The more you keep people relentlessly focused on winning, the better your chances of achieving it.
People won’t buy into your vision of winning unless they feel connected to the organization. Connection starts with having a powerful vision people can believe in and feel good about. Keeping it going requires a variety of leadership behaviors that often get overlooked in the rush to get the product out the door.
To help people feel connected, give honest, candid feedback on a regular basis. Set clear performance expectations for each job, and hold people accountable for performing at the required level. Solicit ideas and input from people at all levels of the organization, and listen. When adversity rears its head, let people know why and how your company will still win.
Most of all, make sure your actions align with what you are saying. In an environment where employees have rightfully grown to distrust leadership, personal integrity is an essential precursor to excellence.
Clarity, focus, and connection are the hallmarks of corporate excellence in the 21st century. What will you do today to create them in your organization?
Posted Feb 28, 2012 04:06 PM
FastCompany recently released its list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies
Many of the names on the list come as no surprise, especially the top three (Apple, Facebook, and Google). But what caught my attention was the diversity of companies and industries represented.
Technology and Internet companies dominate the list (again, no surprise). But what did surprise me was the number of industries making the list that you might not expect to see, such as higher education, healthcare, and fast food chains. As this list indicates, with the right attitude and approach, innovation can happen in almost any sector of the business world.
Even UPS, with its conservative brown uniforms and laser like focus on efficiency of movement, made the list! How could a company whose business model consists of schlepping packages from one place to another be considered a leading innovator? It all depends on how you define innovation.
Too many companies see innovation as merely coming up with new products or services. Certainly, that’s part of it. But at its core, innovation is all about thinking differently than you have in the past. It’s about finding new ways to improve internal systems and processes. It’s about coming up with better, faster, and cheaper solutions to your customers’ most pressing problems.
As with any list of this nature, people can disagree about who belongs on it and why. But clearly, each of the companies on the FastCompany list made a significant break with the way things are always done in their industry. In doing so, they have positioned themselves as market leaders and redefined the value that people receive from their product or service.
Let’s look at why FastCompany recognized some of these companies as the best innovators, starting with the top three:
Apple: For redefining what cell phones can and can’t do, and how people will interact with their phones (through Siri technology). And for constantly introducing new products/technologies that force others to play catch-up.
Facebook: For continually finding new ways for people to share information with each other.
Google: For making the transition from a single product into a diversified web power.
To see how innovation can happen in many different ways, consider some of the names you might not expect to find on the list:
NFL: For the willingness of team owners to push the boundaries of the industry by establishing a venture fund that will allow them to invest in businesses that can “further incite fan passion.”
Southern New Hampshire University: For using technology to transform a traditional bricks-and-mortar university into what may soon become the country’s largest online not-for-profit education system.
UPS: For solving it customers’ biggest annoyance (missed deliveries) with the launch of MyChoice, a free service that gives consumers a day’s notice regarding the impending arrival of their package.
Chipotle: For going against the industry norm by using fresh, sustainable foods (rather than processed ingredients), and for telling consumers the truth about what goes into their meals.
Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital: For bringing low-cost, high-quality health care to more than a billion impoverished people in Southern India through a relentless focus on cutting costs and improving efficiencies.
James Corner Field Operations: For redefining the boundaries of landscape architecture to create “intimate green spaces out of industrial urban blight.”
LegalZoom: For disrupting the legal industry through low-cost online products and services, including new online consulting services.
Many companies on the list have vast resources to fuel their innovation efforts. But innovation doesn’t necessarily require deep pockets or huge R&D departments. What it does require is thinking differently.
From time to time, pause for a moment to ask questions like:
In our business/industry, what have we “always done this way”?
What have we gotten so comfortable with that we stopped looking for new and different ways to approach it?
Why do we always do it that way?
How can we do it faster, better, or cheaper?
What unsolved problems or unmet needs do our customers have?
Who in our industry is doing anything about those problems?
How could we solve them in a way nobody has ever done before?
Answer these questions in a meaningful way and you might just find your company on someone’s top innovator’s list.
Posted Feb 21, 2012 05:37 PM
Success in business is a wonderful thing. But it’s also a double-edged sword.
As companies experience success, their emphasis tends to shift to protecting and maintaining the status quo versus considering new opportunities and products. Unfortunately, clinging to what has worked in the past puts the brakes on innovation. It also puts you out of touch with your customers’ changing needs -- a dangerous circumstance in today’s highly volatile markets.
If you’re trying to innovate but not having success, see if any of these apply to your organization.
1. Stuck thinking. This occurs when individuals and teams get so locked into old ideas, attitudes, and assumptions that they don’t take the time to update them. If you haven’t asked yourself within the last three to six months, “What has changed about our customers, our markets, and our industry?” you’ve just taken your first step toward anti-innovation.
2. We’ve always done it that way. When the organizational focus shifts to protecting the status quo, people stop looking for new processes or solutions. When problems arise, people tend to default to the solution that looks most like what has worked in the past rather than exploring new ideas or different ways of doing things.
3. Playing not to lose. As leaders spend more time protecting current assets rather than defining and executing edge-centric strategy, the organizational mindset changes from “play to win” to “play not to lose.” This subtle shift in attitude has a profound impact on how decisions get made and how people behave at all levels of the organization.
4. Customer disconnect. Who has time to talk to customers anymore? We’re running as fast as we can just to get the product out the door! Besides, we know what our customers need and we know the best way to give it to them, right? You won’t hear this attitude spoken out loud. But if you look closely, you can see it driving behavior on a daily basis. If you’re not talking with customers, it also means you’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, it’s just a matter of time before you’re no longer relevant to their world.
5. The lone ranger approach. In many companies, one team or small department gets tasked with innovation. That’s like asking a single NASA engineer to develop a new rocket ship to take us to Mars. Innovation requires a combination of skills and talents from all areas of the organization. It does not flourish in isolated silos or hidden corners of the organization.
6. Failure not an option. Most organizations don’t tolerate failure very well to begin with. And once the mindset shifts to protecting the golden goose, failure becomes anathema to the organization. But failure goes hand-in-hand with innovation. If you’re not failing to some degree, you’re not trying or pushing hard enough.
7. Follow the leader mentality. Too often, attempts to innovate occur as a response to a new entry into the market or an existing competitor’s innovation. However, true innovation leads the way rather than attempting to catch up. Don’t ignore what your competitors do in the marketplace. But don’t let it drive your innovation efforts either. Figure out where your customers will need you to be in six months to a year and get there first.
8. Weak hires. Companies looking to protect their success often make a subtle shift in hiring. Rather than new ideas and new energy, people get hired for their ability to “come in and hit the ground running.” Which is another way of saying they won’t rock the boat. As the overall talent level begins to decline, so do new ideas, new thinking, and successful innovation.
9. Lack of know-how. Employees need to have the appropriate skills and abilities to discover, evaluate, and execute on the best ideas. If you don’t invest the time and money to constantly develop those skills, don’t expect people to innovate on a consistent basis.
10. Unrealistic expectations. As success begins to slip away, management often begins looking for that one “killer” product or idea that will save the company or at least prolong the life of the cash cow. This tendency to put all the resources into one make-or-break innovation effort usually ends in disaster and disappointment.
Remember, innovation should always link directly to your strategy. And it works when it becomes a way of life rather than a one-time event. Stop clinging to past successes, update your thinking constantly, and you will find it much easier to innovate and thrive in today’s hyper-paced world.