It’s that time of year again. And, no, I’m not referring to Christmas shopping. It’s only September, for gosh sake! I’m talking about strategic planning. This is the time of year to pause for a bit longer than usual and think and about what winning will look like next year. It’s when we peer into the future to determine where our organizations need to go and what we need to do to get there in the upcoming calendar year. It’s when we identify our top three to five strategic objectives, lay out the specific action steps needed to achieve them, and determine a realistic timeframe for reaching our destinations.
For most companies, conducting a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities & threats) analysis is an integral part of the strategic planning process. And it can be very helpful because an accurate identification of SWOTs plays an important role in determining subsequent steps in the planning process.
For those not familiar with SWOT, strengths are those areas where we excel that are not easily copied by others. Weaknesses are the risks or limitations that get in our way. Opportunities represent possibilities that we can capitalize on or leverage. And threats consist of things in the external environment that give us cause for concern. For example, what are our current competitors likely to do, and where might unexpected competitors come from?
When used properly, SWOT is a powerful planning tool. Unfortunately, many companies misuse it by getting stuck in old patterns of thinking about problems and threats rather then looking ahead to where the company needs to go and focusing on winning.
A primary goal of strategic planning is figuring out what you can do, not what you can’t. However, rather than looking for new and better ways to add value to their customers, many companies use the SWOT process to focus on blaming competitors, the economy, or other external factors for things they can’t control. As a result, they end up spinning their wheels rather than gaining any real traction to move the company toward its destination.
The key to using SWOT effectively is not just identifying your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It’s asking the right questions and using the information that gets uncovered in an appropriate manner. For example, when considering your organizational strengths, ask questions like:
•Where have we really been able to excel? •Is there something we have that we don’t use/do enough? •Is there something we can develop quickly that we can leverage? •What do others consider our greatest strength?
When considering weaknesses: •What has gotten in our way in the past? •How do we get in our own way? •What processes do we have for identifying weaknesses in the organization, and how well do these processes work? •What processes do we have for addressing these deficiencies, and how well do these processes work?
When identifying possible opportunities: •Is there a product, a customer relationship, or a market presence that we can better leverage? •Is there something we would pursue if we had more resources (people, dollars, time, etc.)? •What are our competitors most worried we will do? Should we? •What signals are critical to assessing our relationships with our market and customers?
When considering threats: •What are we most concerned about? •Are their new or different competitors likely to emerge? •Is there a potential supply problem? •Do we have good relationships with employees, vendors and customers?
It also pays to analyze and review how you conduct the SWOT process itself. Not just after the fact, but as you’re engaged in the process. For example: •What proportions of our organization’s resources go towards maintaining and enhancing the status quo? •How much time do we spend leading and nurturing new directions? •What new efforts have we started in the past year? What efforts have we stopped? •Is our long-term thinking focused on the few critical things that matter? Are we vigilantly avoiding the many possible diversions?
Becoming a leader in today’s chaotic markets requires fast, flexible, and highly adaptable organizations. Ones that anticipate and plan for change rather than react to it after the fact.
A SWOT analysis can help you achieve this strategic agility, but only if you use the information to break away from old patterns of thinking and make strategic decisions based on where you’re going rather than where you’ve been. Next year will get here before we know it. What are you waiting for?
Bias is defined as “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” In the business world, this definition also applies to concepts and ideas.
As business leaders we like to think we’re impartial, open-minded and objective in regards to new ideas, but the human brain doesn’t work that way. Our brain has a strong bias for information that supports our existing view of the world. It actively seeks out data that supports our viewpoint, and often ignores evidence that contradicts it.
Bias is a leading contributor to poor business decisions, especially during the strategic planning process. Which is why I constantly urge business leaders to make it a habit to identify their assumptions, biases, and beliefs and test them against current reality before making any major decisions. Now there’s further evidence supporting the value of this approach.
A survey by McKinsey Consulting asked executives to rate the outcome of a recent strategic decision at their companies as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, while focusing on the role that various biases may have played. The survey found that satisfactory outcomes are associated with less bias, thanks to “robust debate, an objective assessment of facts, and a realistic assessment of corporate capabilities.”
According to the survey, companies that produced positive outcomes did a better job of forecasting consumer demand and competitor reaction. They did a better job of assessing their own abilities to implement the decision. And they were also more likely to engage in certain activities that minimize bad decision-making. These include:
•Actively seeking out contrary data to ensure that key decision makers had all the information they need to make the best decision •Allowing people with conflicting points of view to openly express their opinions •Thoroughly reviewing the business case for the decision, even when senior executives strongly supported the decision •Establishing processes and lines of communication to ensure that truly innovative ideas reach the senior management level
These kinds of behaviors seem counterintuitive. Partly because they contradict the unspoken biases and assumptions that tell us we already know what we need to know. And partly because they lengthen the planning process.
It takes time to gather and analyze information, especially data that we don’t want to see or hear. It takes time to listen to everyone’s point of view, especially those that would seem to be nay-sayers. And when senior managers are chomping at the bit to make the decision and move on, it takes time (and courage) to stand up and say, “I think we need to look at this some more or in a new way.”
In today’s world, we’re all running so fast that pausing to engage in these kinds of processes feels like we’re falling behind. But if we don’t take the time to evaluate how we gather information and how we reach conclusions based on that information, we end up making decisions that can have disastrous consequences. And this is the process I call “slowing down in order to go fast.”
Slowing down to go fast starts with actively seeking out information from a variety of sources. Pay attention to trends and events outside your industry. Then look for ways to apply that information to improve internal systems and processes or to add value to customers in new and better ways.
In meetings, don’t just tolerate opposing points of view, actively encourage them! Tell people, “This is the way I see it. Now I want to hear from those who see it differently.” Make it safe for people to express their opinions, even when they contradict the prevailing point of view.
The stronger you feel about an issue, the more likely it is that unspoken assumptions are driving your position. Expose your thinking on the issue and have people push back.
How did you reach that conclusion? What about the data leads you to believe that? Have you looked at it from this angle? Even when everyone seems to be in agreement, pause and ask, “Are we missing something here? Is there another answer to this problem? Is there a better answer or set of answers we should consider?”
The next time you undertake the strategic planning process, slow down in order to go fast. And remember to check your biases at the door or at least expose them to everyone!
What do Velcro, barbed wire, and chainsaws have in common? They were all patterned after structures found in nature.
Velcro was invented in 1941 by Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral. After returning home from a hunting trip, he noticed a large amount of cockleburs stuck to his clothes and his dog’s fur. Out of curiosity, he stuck a few under a microscope and saw that each bur consisted of hundreds of little hooks that caught on anything with a loop, such as clothing or animal fur. He surmised that if he could duplicate the hooks and loops with other materials, he could bind them together in a similar fashion.
When ranchers first began raising cattle on the wide-open plains, they used the Osage orange as fencing material. But the thorny bush took a lot of time and effort to transplant and grow. Eventually, someone hit on the idea of fashioning wire fences patterned after the Osage’s sharp thorns. This innovation made it affordable to fence vast areas of land, and led to the practice of animal husbandry on a much larger scale.
Nature also provided the inspiration for the modern chainsaw. In 1946, a man chopping wood in Oregon noticed several timber beetle larvae chewing through the logs around him. A short while later, he developed a chain with interlocking links that mimicked the chewing action of their teeth. This led to the development of the first chainsaw that could cut with, or against, the grain of the wood.
These three innovative products have something else in common. They were developed using one of the most important parts of human intelligence -- our ability to form patterns.
The human brain has an amazing capacity to take in large amounts of data, sift and analyze it, and then form patterns. In our caveman days, this kind of pattern recognition coupled with instant and consistent response was a good thing. It allowed us to quickly identify predators, remember the location of food and water sources, and engage in other activities that supported our survival.
Humans also excel at forming patterns and making connections because the subconscious mind likes closure. When faced with an incomplete picture, the brain works to complete the mental image by inferring the missing information. The brain works the same way on an unsolved problem or challenge; it loves to dive right in and get the job done. Our minds fill in shapes and patterns based on our expectations and assumptions.
Connections can be based on differences as well as similarities. For example, our minds easily connect chair and table, ham and eggs, brother and sister. To enhance your ability to see patterns and make connections, start looking for them in everyday things:
•Junk mail. Scan your mail before you throw it out. What new trends do you see in advertising and marketing? What new products and values catch your eye? Let your junk mail accumulate for a month and take note of what you see when you pause and go through it.
•Popular music. What are the trends in music? Is it getting louder or softer? More intimate or more intimidating? Is it more culturally diverse? Have the instruments changed? Do radio stations play more or less variety than five years ago?
•Bookstores. Are there any consistent topics among best-sellers? What about magazine covers? What values does popular culture display? Why are they portrayed as such?
•TV shows. What are the trends in prime-time television? What kinds of characters are portrayed on family shows now? Why are there plenty of shows about doctors, lawyers, and police, and so few about scientists, politicians, and engineers?
•TV commercials. What products or services do you see advertised the most? Are there new production techniques, or are old ones being revived? What time of day are the best commercials on? The worst? Who is the intended audience for a particular commercial?
Original ideas come from recognizing new connections between familiar things and transforming them into something new. So the next time you see a pattern -- whether it comes from a beetle grub chewing through a log, or the pile of junk mail sitting on your countertop -- pause for a moment and ask yourself, “How can I relate this to something I already know well?” You’ll be amazed at what you can come up with!
And while I have much to be thankful for, both personally and professionally, I’m “thinking outside the turkey” and doing something different for this year’s Thanksgiving blog.
As business leaders, I believe it’s important that we expand our sources of information beyond the walls of our businesses and industries. This allows us to identify patterns and make connections that we might not otherwise see. I also believe it’s important to pause from time to time and ask “What if….?”
But sometimes it’s just as important to pause and have some fun. In fact, that’s a large part of what holidays are for. So this year, I’m serving up some “fun facts” that I have discovered in my personal quest for off-the-wall data sources. These come courtesy of “That’s A Fact Jack” and “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader” -- two of my favorite sources for random information.
Food plays a major role in this holiday, so I’m starting off with some fun food facts: •The world’s oldest surviving recipe is a formula for making beer. It was discovered outside Baghdad in 1850 on a 3,800 year-old Sumerian clay tablet. Two other tablets contain what are believed to be drinking songs. •25% of all the vegetables consumed in the U.S. are French fries. •17% of all American restaurants are pizzerias. •The busiest McDonald’s in the world sits in Pushkin Square in Moscow. •Soda accounts for 25 percent of all the beverages consumed in the U.S. •Starbucks spends more on employee health insurance than it does on coffee beans. •There are more Subway sandwich shops in Manhattan than there are actual subway stations. •It takes a Twinkie about 45 seconds to explode when cooked in a microwave.
Now, here are some people/lifestyle facts that say a lot about our current society: •Twelve percent of American males have shaved while driving. •A single day’s trash from New York City would fill the Empire State Building. •The Bible is the most shoplifted book in the world. •During their lifetime, the average person spends 5.5 weeks brushing their teeth. •Eighty percent of American men say that if given the chance, they would marry the same woman again. Only 50 percent of women say they would marry the same man. •More blond hair dye is sold in Dallas than any other city in the U.S. •One in 10 Americans abstains from sex. Only one in 50 abstains from television.
And closing, here are some totally random but interesting facts: •In Bangkok, there exists a 240-foot temple made entirely of broken dishes. •Charlie Chaplin once lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. (He didn’t even make the finals). •In 1994, a man escaped from a West Virginia prison using a “rope” made of dental floss. •During their lifetime, the average person sheds over 98 feet of eyelashes. •Washington D.C. has more psychiatrists per capita than any other city in the U.S.
I hope you enjoyed these and they take your brain in some new and interesting directions when you share them over your holiday dinner table. Happy Thanksgiving!
Everyone knows that innovation means coming up with the next great idea in your industry, right? Actually, there’s a lot more to it than that. Test your ability to separate innovation fact from fiction by answering the following questions true or false:
1.Innovation is the act of coming up with new and creative ideas.
2.Innovation is a random process.
3.Innovation is the exclusive realm of a few naturally talented people.
4.The biggest obstacle to innovation is a lack of organizational resources and know-how.
5.The most important type of innovation involves bringing new products and services to market.
6.Teaching employees to think creatively will guarantee innovation.
7.The most powerful way to trigger your brain is to simply ask it a question.
8.Most companies pursue incremental rather than disruptive innovation.
9.Most companies are not structured to innovate.
10.Listening to your customers is a great way to innovate.
1. False. In business, innovation is the act of applying knowledge, new or old, to the creation of new processes, products, and services that have value for at least one of your stakeholder groups. The key word here is applying. Generating creative ideas is certainly part of the process. But in order to produce true innovation, you have to actually do something different that has value.
2. False. Innovation is a discipline that can (and should) be planned, measured, and managed. If left to chance, it won’t happen.
3. False. Everyone has the power to innovate by letting their brain wander, explore, connect, and see the world differently. The problem is that we’re all running so fast that we fail to make time for the activities that allow our brains to see patterns and make connections. Such as pausing and wondering….what if?
4. False. In most organizations, the biggest obstacle to innovation is what people already know to be true about their customers, markets, and business. Whenever you’re absolutely, positively sure you’re right, any chance at meaningful innovation goes out the window.
5. False. It’s certainly important to bring new products and services to market. But the most important form of innovation, and the #1 challenge for today’s business leaders may really be reinventing the way we manage ourselves and our companies.
6. False. New ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part is turning those ideas into new products and services that customers value and are willing to pay for -- a process that requires knowledge about what your customers want and need, coupled with implementation.
7. True. Ask a question and the brain responds instinctually to get closure. The key with innovation is to ask questions that open people to possibilities, new ways of looking at the same data, and new interpretations of the same old thing.
8. True. Most companies focus on using internally generated ideas to produce slightly better products (incremental innovation). Then they strive to get those slightly better products to market as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. This approach is quicker and cheaper than disruptive innovation. But it rarely generates the results that lead to sustainable market leadership.
9. True. Most organizations are physically set up with accounting in one area, marketing in another, and management off by itself. Employees rarely interact with other departments unless they need something to get their jobs done. And leaders and departments often withhold information, believing that it puts them in a position of power. Innovation requires teamwork, communication and collaboration, not isolated silos.
10. Trick question! The answer is “it depends.” Research shows that customers can be a good source of ideas for improving existing products and services -- if you’re looking to achieve incremental innovation. However, by itself, customer research is not sufficient for generating disruptive innovation because it only uncovers expressed, or known, customer needs. Disruptive innovation solves problems that customers didn’t even know they had or were unable to clearly articulate to themselves or their vendors. It redefines the market at a very fundamental level or, in many cases, creates a new market.
If you got 8 or more correct answers, give yourself a pat on the back. If you scored between 4 and 7, I recommend some more research and work on these critical leadership skills. If you scored less than 4, wake up and smell the burnt coffee! Get some help.
If you’re not constantly looking to improve your products, services, systems, and managerial processes, you will fall behind. And once you fall behind, it can be very difficult and often impossible to catch up!
When I ask business leaders to identify which part of the innovation process their organizations struggle with the most, I typically get one of three answers:
1.We have a lot of ideas but most of them get judged as impossible or too hard to implement based on changing the way things currently are 2.We have a hard time deciding which idea or opportunity to pursue 3.We come up with a lot of good ideas but can’t seem to execute on them
Interestingly, these align exactly with the phases of innovation: discovery, evaluation, and execution.
In business, innovation is the act of applying knowledge to the creation of new processes, products, and services that have value for at least one of your stakeholder groups. Obviously, this requires more than just generating a slew of creative ideas.
In order to produce true innovation, you have to actually do something different that has value. In other words, follow through on the good ideas. This requires a very different set of skills and resources than idea generation. If you’re not getting any traction with your innovation efforts, it may be that your organization lacks the skills and competencies to complete one or more of the following phases.
Phase I - Discovery
Phase I has two basic objectives: developing core innovation competencies and generating new and creative ideas, which often includes gathering customer insights and translating them into workable ideas.
Everyone has the ability to think creatively, but most people need some training and coaching in order to bring out those latent abilities. Key activities during this phase include providing learning sessions, workshops, collaboration fairs, ideation boot camps, and other tools that teach people how to think differently.
Innovation enablers during this phase include:
•Encouraging and rewarding idea generation •Awareness of the brain’s processing and potential hurdles •Defining winning/excellence •Balancing big picture and details •Challenging assumptions •“What if?” thinking •Changing perspectives •Considering the right answer •Influencing others effectively
Key players during this phase: individual contributors and managers who encourage and support them.
Phase II - Evaluation
This phase separates the wheat from the chaff, as potential ideas and opportunities undergo a rigorous screening process. New ideas are discussed, tested, evaluated, and compared for their potential to add value to customers, generate new revenue streams, or accomplish a specific innovation goal. The primary objective is to identify the highest-value opportunities and determine the feasibility of turning them into reality.
Innovation enablers during this phase include:
•Creating and supporting an idea evaluation framework •Taking risks •Balancing day-to-day versus longer term •Accepting ideas (remain open) •Looking for “and” versus “but” solutions •Encouraging some failure (within boundaries) •Thinking cross-functionally/organizationally
Key players during this phase: managers and leaders who have set clear strategic direction and guidance.
Phase III - Execution
This phase involves making sure that the high-value opportunities identified during the evaluation phase align with your organizational capabilities. Then senior management has to commit the time, money, and resources to make the innovation happen. This is followed by close tracking of the business performance of the new product or service, as well as measuring the process used to develop the innovation and looking for ways to improve it.
Innovation enablers during this phase include:
•Continually communicating the need for innovation as a business focus/strategic mandate •Linking innovation to key strategies •Sponsoring innovation projects •Incorporating innovation reports into the business review processes •Funding innovation •Developing risk management strategies and approaches •Capturing and sharing innovation learnings •Learning from failures
Key players during this phase: senior management/leaders.
The added benefits of innovation
When innovation becomes a way of life in your organization, you get a lot more than just new products and services.
The organizational mindset shifts to one of relentless improvement, with an increased awareness of opportunities and possibilities for products and efficiencies. There is more listening, less knee-jerk defending of old ideas, and a greater understanding of, and interest in, unmet customer needs.
As individuals begin to understand their roles in the innovation process, you get more clarity on what success looks like and how to achieve it. Standards of performance increase, along with an increased willingness and ability to hold each other accountable for meeting them.
Most important, as you begin to develop a sustainable innovation approach, the emphasis tends to shift from maintaining old successes to considering new opportunities and products – a key element in staying ahead of changing customer needs rather than always trying to catch up.
If you struggle to get new products to market, ask yourself, “Where are we getting stuck? What skills and competencies do we need to develop to move forward?” When you have all the pieces in place to successfully complete all stages, innovation becomes your way of working, not a project or initiative that goes away when the next business buzzword gains prominence!
2012 is almost upon us. And I have some good news and some bad news in regards to the year ahead.
The bad news? If you think you’re running fast now, get yourself some new track shoes, because the world isn’t slowing down. In fact, it will continue to go faster and get more complex as time goes by. The good news is that we can turn this challenge into an opportunity by embracing three simple leadership strategies.
1. Get clear about winning.
I don’t mean partially clear, or sort of clear. I mean crystal clear on what winning looks like for your organization.
Become obsessive about winning, defining it with as much specificity as possible. Talk about it all the time with employees and other key stakeholders. Put visual reminders around you. Prompt yourself via your smart phone. Make sure every meeting starts out talking about winning. Embed your definition of winning into all your ways of working.
The hard part is that we can no longer define winning once, and then let it go. We now have to constantly revise and update our picture of winning as the world changes around us. We need to continually think about winning, continually fine-tune our version of winning, and continually move towards it while bringing our employees along with us.
2. Shed your outdated ways of looking at the world.
What gets in the way of winning?
More often than not, it’s our old ideas about what we “know to be true” about our customers, markets, and industries. It’s our brain’s natural tendency to screen in information that agrees with our view of the world and screen out data that contradicts it. And it’s our thought bubbles (unspoken thoughts and assumptions) that tell us what made us successful in the past will continue to make us successful in the future.
I’m not saying all old ideas are bad. But when our world changes so quickly, we need to make a habit of checking our ideas, assumptions, and beliefs on a regular basis. And by regular, I mean every few months, at minimum. Once a year will not cut it!
Start by gathering information on what you know to be true. Not what you assume, speculate or hope, but what you know to be true through verifiable data. For example, aging populations, changing employee demographics, shifting customer communication channels, etc. Then compare this data with what you think you know to be true.
Put the two data sets together and begin to explore:
•Of what we know to be true, what is no longer true? Why? •What has changed with our customers? Our industry? •What new wants or needs do our customers have? •What new services or products can we come up with to meet those needs? •How could we redefine value in our market?
3. Slow down to go fast.
I’ve been talking about this concept for several years, and it becomes even more important in 2012.
Slowing down to go fast requires pausing from time to time, challenging your beliefs and assumptions, learning to think differently, and focusing on opportunities to add value to customers in ways that nobody else is doing. It also involves setting yourself up to win by creating space for your brain to ponder, wonder, explore, and connect.
For example, start meetings by asking, “When we have done this incredibly well, how will we have done it?” This will prompt your brain to look for solutions rather than what’s in the way. Winning is about subtle shifts in language and behavior each and every day. Ultimately, it comes down to whether you’re looking for solutions or talking about, and focusing on, roadblocks.
Spotting the winners
It’s easy to tell the companies that have a clear picture of winning versus those that don’t. For example, Southwest Airlines is really clear on their mission as the low-cost provider. No baggage fees. No change fees. Constantly fine-tuning faster ways to load the airplane. They get it, their employees get it, and so do their loyal customers.
Counter this with American Airlines, which recently filed for bankruptcy. I frequently fly American because I live in San Diego and have limited options. I have no clue how their leadership defines winning, but I am guessing it varies dramatically from their flight attendants and gate personnel. I often wonder if their idea of winning is to see how badly they can tick off their passengers every day.
When it comes to winning, make sure everyone in your ecosystem gets it. Not just employees, but suppliers, vendors, partners, alliances, and even (and especially) your customers. When you’re a winner, it’s obvious to those who meet you and work with you.
Get clear on winning in 2012. Start looking at the world differently. And slow down to go fast so that you can focus on solutions rather than what’s getting in the way. Winning is not only good for your business, it’s a lot more fun!
My Thanksgiving “fun facts” blog was a big hit with readers, generating a lot of buzz (who doesn’t want something that makes life, especially those large family gatherings, easier?). So with the annual visit from the dude in the red suit almost upon us, I thought it would be fun to do another round of dinner conversation starters and brain stretchers.
Keep in mind as you read these that exposing yourself to diverse sources of information -- even those that seem to have nothing to do with your business -- is a great way to stimulate the brain and spur innovation.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite dinner table subject: body parts.
•The blue whale’s tongue weighs about as much as an adult elephant.
•After circumcision, human foreskins are sold to biomedical companies and used as an ingredient in anti-wrinkle gels. (Think about that the next time you try to take a few years off your look!)
•A single square inch of skin on the human hand contains 72 feet of nerves.
•The human ear contains about 4,000 wax glands.
•In one hour, your heart burns enough energy to raise a ton of lead three feet off the ground. A pumping human heart can squirt blood as far as 30 feet.
•One to two percent of Americans have an extra nipple somewhere on their body.
Next we move on to the amazing world we live in, which is part of an even more awe-inspiring universe:
•Need to stock up for your New Year’s Eve party? According to scientists, the largest supply of alcohol resides in a vast alcohol cloud in the Milky Way that measures 288 billion miles across.
•Saturn has such a low density, that if placed in water, it would float.
•If there was no air between its atoms, the Earth would be about the size of a baseball.
•Nearly three-fourths of all the fresh water in the world is in Canada.
•What do Eric Clapton and all four of the Beatles have in common (besides a boatload of musical talent)? All have an asteroid named after them.
•At a steady pace of 6 mph, it would take a jogger 173 days to circle the earth.
•You can tell the temperature (in Fahrenheit degrees) by listening to a cricket chirp. Count the number of chirps in 15 seconds and then add 37.
•Siberia gets so cold that boiling water poured from a pot can freeze before it hits the ground.
•The state of Alaska has 40 active volcanoes, more than any other state in the U.S.
And wrapping up again with some more totally random facts:
•Before making it big, Jimi Hendrix played as the opening act for The Monkees on several occasions.
•Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, weighed less than the rudder on the Titanic.
•One out of five American meals is eaten in a car.
•It’s about 10 times easier to shoot a hole-in-one-while golfing than it is to bowl a perfect 300 game.
•Every day, 500 Americans are injured in their bathtub.
•Keeping mothballs in your tool chest will help to prevent rust.
•A single ounce of gold can be stretched into a wire 65 miles long.
•Pope John Paul II was an honorary Harlem Globetrotter. (But could he dunk?)
•Party on! Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while drinking beer in a tavern.
Merry Christmas to all, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!
2012 (being a Leap Year) contains 366 days, 8,784 hours, 527,040 minutes, and 31,622,400 seconds. How will you spend them?
Will you be focused on winning and moving towards it each day, celebrating milestones along the way? Or will you be playing to not lose, worrying about the past, talking constantly about what went wrong, stewing about how tough markets are these days, why you can’t do something, or why customers just won’t X, Y, Z, etc., etc.?
A new year is all about possibilities, promise and potential. But making all those dazzling possibilities turn into a reality requires a real focus on, and a commitment to, winning.
When an organization lacks a clear destination, it usually has many ill-defined ones. Employees feel unmotivated and uncommitted. Time, talent, and resources get wasted on products and projects that go nowhere. And people end up working on their own personal agendas rather than doing what’s best for the company. They think they are doing the right thing, but directions changed and someone forgot to realign them.
Having a clear definition of winning provides focus and clarity at the individual, team, and organizational level. It gets everyone aligned and moving in the same direction. And it motivates and inspires people to perform at their best. When employees know where they’re going and what they need to do to get there, it becomes much easier to reach your destination.
That’s why your #1 job in 2012 is to create a compelling vision of winning, then keep yourself and everyone else in the organization focused on it with laser-like intensity.
Start by getting clear on your vision of winning. Pause to think about what really matters: what does winning look like for you? What do you need to do - as individuals and as an organization - to win? What will it look like when you have won?
Answer these questions with as much specificity as possible. For example, identify the key operational and financial metrics that you will have achieved. Paint a picture of what your workplace and culture will look and feel like when you have won - what attitudes, beliefs, and core values will the organization be living by?
Identify the skills, knowledge, tools, technologies, and abilities you will have acquired or enhanced in order to win. What organizational structures will be in place? What new products or services will you have brought to market? What new customers will you have acquired? How will you have leveraged the customer relationships you already have?
Once you have this crystal clear picture of winning, share it with everyone in your ecosystem. Not just employees, but customers, vendors, suppliers, partners, alliances - anyone that has a stake in helping you win.
Don’t share your vision of winning like you’re giving a quarterly financial report. Use it to inspire people. Talk about why winning is important to you personally, and why you feel so passionate about where the organization is going. Link your vision of winning to the bigger picture by letting people know how they will have made a difference in the world when you have won. At the same time, point out what’s in it for them when the organization wins.
To stay focused on winning, also get clear on what you will not do. Then make sure those things don’t sap your time, energy, and attention. Make a list of all the major initiatives and big projects that no longer fit your definition of winning and shut them down.
Most leaders know intuitively when a project no longer makes sense because the goals have gotten out of sync with changing market realities. Yet they still cling to the belief that they can somehow squeeze some mileage out of a dead horse. Don’t let outdated assumptions and thought bubbles prevent you from getting those obstacles to winning out of the way!
Help your organization stay focused by setting clear individual goals that link directly to the organization’s key strategies for winning. Then give ongoing feedback on how they and the organization are doing. You’ll know you’re communicating enough when every employee can answer these questions without hesitation:
•What are my top priorities? •What are the three primary objectives I need to achieve this week/this quarter/this year? •How will I know I have been successful after I have worked so hard this week/month/quarter? •How will we know when we have won – as a team, as an organization?
As the leader, you set the tone for your entire organization. Does your language and behavior reflect a relentless approach to winning? Or does it reflect a willingness to settle for just not losing, being second best….or less?
According to the Department of Labor, unemployment fell for a fourth month in a row. The current rate of 8.5% represents its lowest point at any time in the past three years.
Leading indicators also show that the economy continues to grow. Granted, it isn’t creating jobs as quickly as we would like. But economists expect that to improve during the second half of 2012. Also, employers are laying off fewer workers than they have in the past few years – another sign that bodes well for employees.
But here’s a fact that really caught my eye: the number of Americans quitting their jobs has begun to increase for the first time since well before the recession.
Generally speaking, people don’t voluntarily leave their jobs unless they already have another one lined up. Or, they have confidence that they can find a new job in a reasonable period of time. Combine an improving economy with this leading indicator and the employment pendulum appears to be swinging back to the employee side.
What does this mean to business leaders?
At the present moment, the majority of American workers are not happy campers! They’ve been let go, laid off, and cast aside. They feel mistreated, over-worked, and underappreciated. And they see banks and some large corporations raking in record profits while wages stagnate or decline.
Those who do have jobs have been stretched painfully thin to make up for understaffed organizations. They’re constantly being asked to do more with less. And they’ve all been running too fast for too long to feel much (if any) loyalty to the companies they work for.
Today’s workers appreciate having a job, but they don’t necessarily appreciate their employers. And with more employment options becoming available, don’t be surprised if your employees start migrating to other employers who will show them a bit more TLC.
One thing I have learned as a leader and manager is that inspired and employees rarely leave their jobs. If you want to avoid a mass exodus (or even the loss of a few key players) as more jobs become available, make inspiring and engaging your employees a top priority.
To inspire people:
Get clear on winning. I realize I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this one. But if there’s one record that deserves to be broken, this is it. No matter what your business or industry, people want to work for a winner! In order to win, they have to know what winning looks like for your organization. So get clear on winning, and then get going on communicating your vision of winning. And not just how you will win, but why.
Share your passion. People understand why winning is important to the organization. They also want to know what it means to you. Talk frequently about why you feel so passionate about where the organization is going and how it will benefit customers, employees, and other key stakeholders when you get there.
Connect the dots. Even when employees understand your vision of winning, they often have a hard time seeing their roles in it. Let people know -- specifically -- how their jobs contribute to winning and why it’s so important for them to perform at a high level. Also let them know how they will win on a personal level when the organization wins as a whole.
To engage your employees:
Give frequent feedback. When employees don’t know where they stand performance-wise, they think you don’t care about it. When they think you don’t care, their interest in winning wanes. That’s when they start looking for people and/or companies that do care.
Listen up! Actively solicit ideas and opinions from your employees and then pay close attention. Nothing makes people feel more engaged than having leaders and managers who take the time to hear what they have to say.
Pat their backs. I have yet to run across a quicker, easier, and more effective way to engage employees than simple recognition for a job well done. A “thank you” here. A “nice job” there. The occasional small reward, such as a handwritten thank you, Starbucks card, dinner coupon, or gift certificate can go a long way. The return you receive from these small but sincere gestures will far exceed the investment of time and/or money.
Recognition, both public and private, feeds that very deep human need to be acknowledged and appreciated for our contributions. Feed it often and individuals in your organization will be far less inclined to seek out greener pastures.
Don’t wait until you have a turnover problem. Get ahead of the curve and begin re-recruiting your best team members through some of the simple behaviors and sincere appreciation noted above!
The dictionary defines it as “showing an ability to take risks; confident and courageous.” But I like the thesaurus description much better: daring, intrepid, brave, valiant, valorous, fearless, dauntless, audacious, adventurous, heroic, plucky, spirited, confident, assured, swashbuckling…
I love the word “swashbuckling,” as it evokes images of pirates and sleek clipper ships running fast with the wind. Just imagine if we dressed up as pirates when describing our vision of winning to employees and stakeholders! Think it might change how they hear the message?
Bold can also be a word to describe your actions, your drive, your efforts, and your organization. But only if you’ve created habits and behaviors that constantly progress you and your team towards your vision of winning and excellence.
People are attracted to bold. Employees want to believe in something big. They want to pursue goals that push the limits, and they yearn to achieve something that has never been done before. They want to take bold steps to achieve their dreams and have a significant impact on their customers and the world.
The opposite approach is to be timid. And who wants to be known as bashful, fearful, apprehensive, timorous, trepid, intimidated, mousy, cowardly, faint-hearted, pusillanimous, or wimpy – especially by their customers?
Timid takes the safe course of action when the riskier one would yield much bigger rewards. Timid operates with a fear of failure mindset rather than a ”we play to win!” attitude. Timid settles for the field goal rather than going for the touchdown when it’s fourth and goal on the one-yard line. Timid may protect you from the pain of failure, but it won’t put you in a position of market leadership.
How do you get bold?
Pause and get clear on winning. But make sure it’s a big win. In football, teams want to win their divisions. But what they (and their fans) really want is to win the Super Bowl. Define what the Super Bowl looks like for your business or industry and then go out and win it!
Push the envelope. Bold doesn’t involve doing the same things over and over again. Remember the old Star Trek theme: to boldly go where no man has gone before. Fire up your Starship Enterprise and lead your company, your market, or your entire industry to a place it’s never been before. Keep in mind that what made you successful today will not necessarily make you successful tomorrow.
Project a bold image. For example, Starbucks currently has its baristas wearing red stickers about Bold. Of course, it refers to a new coffee they’re promoting. But no matter the context, the word “bold” reaches out and grabs your attention.
Think about some of the memorable tag lines or slogans that project bold. Nike’s ageless “Just do it!” Gatorade’s new slogan, “Win from within.” Apple’s “Think different.” Fed-X’s “When it positively, absolutely has to be there overnight.” Or even the Olympic phrase, “Go for the gold!” These exude bold. They draw a line in the sand and dare you to cross it. They make you want to get off the couch and achieve something big.
Act decisively. One disadvantage of today’s thoroughly wired world is that we can easily get paralyzed by information overload. The tendency to wait until we have gathered all the data before moving forward with a new project or product offering can be hard to overcome. Except that we will never have all the data.
Instead, we need to gather what we can from diverse sources and make sure we have considered as many different perspectives as possible. Then move forward boldly and aggressively, knowing that our plans will change along the way.
Most of all, position yourself as a winner by your thoughts, words, actions, and deeds. People want to align with a winner. And in today’s markets, it takes boldness to win.
If you’re not bold, what are you waiting for? Things to slow down? Fewer emails to distract you from winning? The light at the end of the tunnel (which is really a train coming at you full speed)?
The time to be bold is now! Being timid is not a goal or desired state, it is a default when we don’t pause and get it right, make it big, and stay focused on achieving something!
I was driving on the highway the other day and saw a billboard that really caught my eye.
The advertisement was promoting Mandalay Bay, an upscale resort in Las Vegas. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it said something like “At Mandalay Bay you’re not a tourist, you’re a resortist.” I immediately thought, “What a cool word -- resortist.” And what a clever way to position their product offering.
When I hear the word “tourist” it conjures up images of crowded bus rides, two-star hotels, and cheap food eaten on the run. I see families with bored, whining kids rushing from one place to another in a frenzy to take in as many of the sights as possible. I see people trying hard to blend in with the locals while standing out like sore thumbs. And I see people looked down upon by the local inhabitants, and generally unwanted except for the money in their wallets.
But the word resortist suggests something entirely different! When I think resortist, I think class, elegance, and style. I see beautiful people lounging by the pool, playing golf, or leisurely indulging whatever strikes their fancy. Resortists enjoy fine wines, glamorous meals, and superbly appointed hotel rooms. They get welcomed with open arms and treated with expert care rather than contempt. Tourists get tolerated, resortists get pampered.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit here. But the point is that language matters. When one small word can change the way we think about a product or service, it behooves us to pay close attention to the language we use.
Language also matters in our organizations, especially in the way we treat our employees, customers, and other stakeholders.
For example, do you have employees or associates? Do you have personnel or team members? Do you have customers or clients? Do you have suppliers or trusted partners? Do you have satisfied customers or advocates in the marketplace? Do you say “my” team instead of “our” team? Again, small differences in word choice can make big differences in the attitudes and perceptions of people internal and external to your business.
Think about other common phrases heard in organizations. For example, “We need to cascade this down the organization.” Down the organization? Really? What kind of message does that send? Why not use more inclusive and empowering language, like “We want to engage everyone around this issue...”?
Both approaches basically say the same thing. But if you’re one of the people being cascaded down upon, which one would make you feel more respected, included, and empowered?
Here’s the real challenge for business leaders: you can’t just use the right language. You also have to live it. Your actions have to match the words. Otherwise, it creates a huge disconnect that destroys your credibility.
The classic example is companies that proudly proclaim, “Our people are our most important asset!”, and then treat them like so many disposable parts. Most don’t do it intentionally. They’re just running so fast that they don’t pause to look at the language they use or the disconnect between that language and their behaviors.
Language can even affect the quality of your meetings. Too often, most of what you hear in meetings consists of blaming the economy, complaining about the budget, and a litany of excuses for why things aren’t getting done.
Instead of lamenting about all the obstacles in the way, try asking, “When we are insanely successful with this project, what are we doing? What data are we using to make decisions? How are we working together as a team? What information, tools, and resources are we using to achieve the desired results?”
This shift in language prompts the brain to focus on solutions rather than obstacles. It helps you figure out the “how” of getting there rather than tripping over what’s getting in the way.
Most companies do this, but only once a year. During the strategic planning process we set goals and outline what it will take to win. But then we lose that positive energy because we don’t talk about it relentlessly and obsessively throughout the year.
So pay attention to the language you use and the impact it has on your people and your organization as a whole. After all, which would you rather be -- a tourist or a resortist?
Have you ever watched the TV show Undercover Boss?
The “plot” is fairly simple. Each week, the CEO or owner of a business goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company. They typically work in different jobs and different areas of the company. And at the end of the week they reveal their true identity to the employees, who are (of course) shocked and amazed to learn they’ve been toiling alongside the head honcho without knowing it.
In the episode I watched, much of the drama appeared to be contrived for the sake of creating tension. And I found it hard to believe that none of the employees could figure out that something was up. But one part that struck me as genuine was the owner’s reaction to the challenges his front-line employees faced every day. He seemed honestly surprised to learn what they went through on a daily basis and what it took to get their jobs done.
And that leads me to the point of this week’s blog -- that most CEOs, owners, and C-level business leaders tend to view their organizations through rose-colored glasses. Meaning they often have unrealistic ideas of what goes on in their organization and how others view the company.
This unrealistic view occurs for two reasons. One, business leaders tend to be optimistic by nature. They’re problem solvers and go-getters who like to make things happen. So they instinctively pay more attention to what’s going right in the business than what’s going wrong. They tend to focus on what is possible and the future more than the past.
Two, CEOs generally surround themselves with a small group of people (the management team) who depend on the boss for their jobs. These people often tell the CEO what they think she wants to hear rather than what she needs to hear (the unvarnished truth). This often results in a leader with no real understanding of what goes on in the business on a daily basis.
Having an overly optimistic view of the business is a natural and valid bias/thought bubble for C-level executives. However, it doesn’t serve the organization well. The trick is to find ways of behaving that allow you to constantly refresh that bubble and get more in touch with the day-to-day realities of your organization.
Start by getting out of your office and spending more time with customers and employees. They will tell you what is really happening in your company. If you find it easier to connect with customers (as many CEOs do), make a point to get out of your comfort zone and engage with employees as much as possible.
One of my fellow Vistage International speakers, Kraig Kramers, recommends a great technique for finding out what’s really going on in your organization. A former CEO of eight different companies, he calls his technique W4C, or walk the four corners.
Every day, spend 20 minutes walking around your business doing nothing but talking to people and asking three specific questions: How can we improve the company? How do we fix the problems? What opportunities can we take advantage of? The key, says Kramers, is to ask them how rather than telling them how.
Next (and you’ll get plenty of time to practice this skill if you walk the four corners) is to listen actively. Go into each department or team, ask people what’s on their minds, and then listen. Suppress your natural instinct to argue, defend or explain. Just listen, and then thank people for their input.
If you find it absolutely necessary to speak, ask clarifying questions rather making than definitive statements. For example, “That’s interesting, what leads you to that conclusion? What would you recommend as a possible solution? What would you do if you were one of our customers?”
Finally, broaden your inputs and sources of data, both internally and externally. A good internal technique is the “cold-eye review,” whereby non-experts research various aspects of the business and report back to you. For example, have someone from accounting take a look at marketing and give their perspective on that area of the business.
Externally, if you don’t have some sort of system for regularly staying in touch with customers, suppliers and other key stakeholders, get one now! Focus groups, intranets, monthly lunches, etc., etc. The options are limited only by your imagination.
To lead effectively, leaders need to see things as they really are. So take off your rose-colored glasses every now and then and, like the undercover boss, you’ll be amazed at what you see!
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.
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.