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!
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:
Suppose 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.
Wander 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.
Associate 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?
Morph 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.
Inquire 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.
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:
Sort 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.
Order 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.
Adapt 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.
Refine 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.
Select “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.
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 Anticipate Transform Take your biggest problem and skip it Go opposite 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!
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.
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.
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? Answers
Johnny. Meat. 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
Establish priorities 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.
Measure progress 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?
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:
Strategy Revenue Profit margin End-user focus Emerging markets Operational efficiency Brand equity Other considerations 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?
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.
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 Open-minded 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!
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?