Monday, June 30, 2008

Do you need it or do you want it?

high-end dog food
Originally uploaded by stshank

Good grief! What is this world coming to - doggie cupcakes, and at $2.49 apiece?! Who needs that?! (Well, if I were to be perfectly honest, my two dear unjudgmental companions do.) My dogs, sweet as they are, don't really need pupcakes. They have good food and I give them doggie vitamins to help them stay healthy. A pupcake (or a pig's ear, or a biscuit, or a dab of peanut butter on a chew toy) is something that simply enhances their life experience, or so I think, anthropomorphizer that I am.

The upside of wants

Wants work for us in that they motivate us to go the extra mile so we can have them. They are the carrot that keeps us going. They help us fulfill our image of ourselves, and our status among our peers. They can add to life's comforts - after all, why ride a bicycle and get all sweaty and tired when you can cruise into your parking space in a Lexus complete with leather interior, satellite radio and integral bluetooth? Why nuke TV dinners in the microwave when you can sit down and enjoy gourmet food where someone waits on you and does all of the dishes?

Internally, thinking about what you want can help you gain clarity, so you can determine what is the right action to take right now. If you don't know what you want you'll be a prime candidate to be pulled along by what other people want, and then later might feel regret or resentment because you haven't taken care of yourself. Asking yourself, "What do I want?" can help you prepare for difficult conversations, or it can plant the seeds for a goal that you'll pursue.

The downside of wants

The lure of the tangible things that we want (vs. that which we need) can pull us into overextending ourselves financially. Sure, it looks shiny and new, but how important is shiny and new in its function? I realize that it's pretty easy to come up with rationalizations about why you bought X. The whole pull of wants is emotional, and if someone is trying to sell to you the emotional hook is set when they give you some credible reasons to help you justify your feelings of want and pave the way for you to part with your hard-earned money.

Interaction between wants and needs

Needs are the requirements to get you to the next level of achievement in your goals- your wants. If you want to be a physician you need to graduate from medical school, you need to complete internship and residency. If you want to start a business you need adequate capital to sustain you during your startup. You must fulfill the need in order to achieve the want - it's mandatory if you don't want to fail.

Entrepreneurs have garnered billions of dollars by helping us as a society turn wants into perceived needs. We needed to be clean, and then they helped us "see" that we needed not only soap, but antibacterial soap and antibacterial hand gel. We used to need a stick to clean our teeth -now we need brushes, floss, water jets and a variety of pastes, gels and liquids to whiten, freshen breath, remove plaque, stimulate healthy gums, etc. Yesterday's option became today's requirement given effective marketing and societal acceptance.

When it gets down to it, how much of your life revolves around fulfilling needs vs. pursuing wants? What has been the impact on you? And most importantly, is that what you really want?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Expectation vs. performance

Quality is not one single standard - rather it is a perception generated by the relationship between one's expectations and the actual performance. Now don't jump out of your chairs, all of you Six Sigma fans out there. Yes, there are standards for manufacturing quality that many companies are trying to achieve. I'd like to look at it from a broader perspective for a minute.

Look at a piece of art and determine whether you think it is "good." Now consider the historical context in which it was created. The perspective of quality and innovation can change dramatically when you realize that the artist was the very first to explore, oh lets say cubism for example.

What happens when you look at the same piece of art and realize that it was done by a 6-year-old child? Holy cow - it's fantastic! You arrive at your judgment because your expectation was greatly exceeded by the artist's performance.

Have you ever been to a concert where the platinum recording group forgets the words to their own #1 hit? You're mad, right? It's your expectation that you're going to see something outstanding, hearing your favorite tune live, and by the singers and players that created it - and their performance is a disappointment.

Now for the practical applications:

  • Set expectations thoughtfully. Don't promise delivery in 30 minutes if you can't do it every time. If you think you can make it in 35 minutes, commit to 45. That way your customer's expectations will be exceeded and they'll be happy. The actual elapsed time won't be any different, but in their comparison of expectation vs. performance you'll be looking good.
  • Stretch your performance standards so you will be able to be consistent in meeting higher and higher levels of expectation. You expect a different level of service and quality at Disneyworld than you expect at the annual fireman's carnival. Develop your people and refine your processes so word of mouth from wowed customers will bring repeat business and referrals.
  • Beware benchmarking. Yes, you can watch them and develop your business to be better than the competition, and that's something. But what if the industry as a whole isn't performing well? Do you really want to be the best of the worst? Play your own game - differentiate yourself by being unique.
  • Be customer-driven in your innovation. Whose expectations are more important - yours or those of your customers and potential customers? This is a statement of the obvious, but find out what they actually want before you go through a big process of giving them what you think they want.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is your brain running on empty?

(317) running on empty
Originally uploaded by Sarajea

Do you feel like you've completely run out of good ideas? Can't see any solutions for how to handle the situation you're facing right now? At this point a good question to ask yourself is "What options have I not yet considered?"

Your brain isn't really running on empty - you've just filtered out a lot of the possibilities. This might be due to your habits of thought - "this happens, I do that" - and this time "that" didn't work and you're flummoxed. Or it might be that you've made some assumptions about what solutions are available to you. Have you decided that somebody will turn you down before you have even asked?

If you're hesitating asking someone for help because you're assuming that they'll say no, think about what you're doing. You're not only removing one of your opportunities - you're taking away their power of choice as well. They might very well want to be helpful to you but don't know how. If you ask you might help them challenge their assumption that "he'll never accept help from me."

We're trained from a very early age

  • That there is one right answer and
  • Quick is better than slow in developing and taking action on answers you find.

Horsehockey! There is not only one right answer. There are many potential paths to most results, and there isn't even only one desirable result. The key is to test and measure and see what happens.

And as for "quick is better than slow," well, that's situational. If you want to go to the movies and agonize too long over which would be the best use of your time you might waffle your way right beyond all of today's showing times. You won't be watching anything unless it's pay-per-view on your TV. But in many situations instant isn't better in the decision making department. Instant isn't necessary, and sometimes reactive answers aren't viewed with as much respect as those developed through a thought process that takes a little more time.

So, get up off your duff, take a little walk and examine your assumptions. Explore the options that you ruled out at the outset. You might very well find out that you're not running on empty after all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Situation-specific learning vs. transformational learning

Did you ever feel like you're retreading the same issues with a person? You talk with them about a particular situation, resolve it, then on the next go-around realize that they're doing the same (ineffective) behavior again? You may be able to help them shift their behavior more effectively and in a more lasting way by changing the manner in which you coach them. You can transition from situation-specific to a method that helps them transform themselves in a more lasting way.

Chris Argyris talks about individuals' theory of action, and the differences between their espoused theory and their theory in use. If you ask a person what they would do they will respond to you with their espoused theory. If you ask the same person what they actually did, their theory in use will reveal itself. Sometimes the opportunity for coaching lies in the space between what they know or think and how they actually behave.

  • If you want to help them change their action (incremental or single-loop learning) you help them identify the errors in their prior action, develop more effective actions and that will be that. The challenge in the single-loop is that it works most effectively when people are conscious of their behavior. Unfortunately, a vast percentage of the day we're not conscious - we're on autopilot acting from conditioning. Single loop or incremental change is, therefore, often temporary.

  • If you want greater impact you can can help them identify the patterns in their behavior (reframing or double-loop learning.) They analyze the process they're using by becoming observers of themselves and seeing what Argyris calls "defensive routines." They'll see that they are part of a system and can improve the system by reshaping their own thinking and behavior.

  • The ultimate in transformational learning is when you can help a person change their context (the way they they view themselves, called triple-loop learning.) In order to help this happen you will need to challenge the person's thoughts and feelings. This can be an emotionally charged process and is best done via a series of questions - the coach's best tool set.

One of the questions, spoken or unspoken, that I get from people is why they would engage a coach when they are doing coaching-style management with their direct reports. There are several reasons why it makes sense to seek outside coaching assistance:

  • Ultimately your authority over the person you're coaching is a limiting factor. They are more likely to edit themselves out of concern for how they are going to look, no matter how positive your relationship with them has been. As long as they're editing you're unlikely to uncover the real issues (frame of reference and context) that will help to increase effective behavior.

  • You are part of the system in which they operate and therefore are likely to miss potential openings. Some questions that would reveal opportunities for reframing are going to be hidden from your view because you are, to some extent, looking through the same cultural lenses they are.

  • Triple-loop learning (change in the way they view themselves) requires a level of openness and trust that is difficult to achieve when you have an authority-based relationship with the person being coached. In addition, real transformation takes time that you might otherwise want to be devoting to other employees, developing your company's strategic direction, or helping move the implementation of your plan forward.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Don't automate that process!

Originally uploaded by Stooberry

We've become such fans of technology - it provides benefits like convenience, repeatability of result, reduction in the numbers of humans we need to complete a process, and space savings in our production facilities. But if you're thinking of automating a process or taking it electronic - stop and think before you throw bundles of technology money at it.

Take this example - a company sold ad specialties, and among their most popular items were custom embroidered jackets. The jackets sold well, but the company was concerned about the number of errors they were incurring during order entry, each of which had the potential to cost $50 or more per jacket. So they decided to "take so many people out of the process" and computerize it.

The result of automation was that they made the same errors, just 7-10 times faster! Their costs associated with order entry errors grew to 7-10 times higher. The automation effort was a bust because they didn't improve the process first - they just sped it up.

Even if you're not looking at technology-related solutions you would be well-advised to take a look at processes that

  • Contain a lot of hand-offs
  • Consume a lot of cost in people, materials and/or time
  • Cross departments
  • Are high in volume
  • Are high in risk
  • Have received customer compaints
  • Involve a lot of rework
  • Are processes that you're considering automating

as targets for your improvement efforts.

Production processes are not the only fair game for process overhaul. How much more cash would you have available for operations if your billing and accounts receivable collection were more effective? How much more market share would you have if your new product development and launch processes enabled you to be the first entry into the market with innovation?

It's not just about what the people are doing and whether they're doing it fast and accurately enough. You need to know the answers to questions like:

  • Are the right people involved in the process?
  • Are there too many people involved in the process?
  • Do we have measurements to validate how well the process is working?
  • Does the process involve too many steps?
  • What do the materials in the process do?

To be blunt about it, if you throw technology money at your process without improving it first you're likely to hear a giant flushing sound in your head later. That will be the sound of your investment dollars going down the you-know-what.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Five real reasons why bosses don't delegate

Good Employee
Originally uploaded by Hell_Toupee

Every time the subject of time management comes up with leaders, delegation is the second topic to come up (after procrastination.) If delegation is so great, the solution to the time crunch, why aren't more managers doing more of it? Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. They love the work. Many leaders are promoted because not because they were great leaders, but because they were superworkers. They really enjoyed teaching in the classroom, or identifying a problem with an engine. So instead of doing the important tasks they focus on the pleasurable, hands-on ones.
  2. They are afraid that their employee won't do a good job. If the boss's name is on the project they don't want to look bad.
  3. They are afraid that their employee won't do a bad job. What if the employee is much better at the task than the boss is? Won't he or she look irrelevant?
  4. They aren't organized enough to delegate. They don't want to reveal to the world that they're 2 weeks behind on their To Do list, or that they don't know what bodies might be hidden under the papers littering their desk. So they keep their little secret close to the vest and just do it themselves.
  5. They fear or don't like the work that they'll have to do instead if they let go of the tasks somebody else could do.

There can be issues of trust and relationship around the delegation topic, and they're bigger than I can handle in a summary paragraph or two. There can also be issues of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, of being a fraud that's just short of being uncovered. Again, pretty big deals to discuss today.

But ultimately, if a leader wants to continue to progress in his or her own career the best way to do so is to groom a replacement. That happens through delegation, despite the obstacles, and once it's done the leader can transition with little ill effect into a new and exciting role.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Helping teamwork happen

Team work
Originally uploaded by komissarov_a

Sometimes leaders are under the impression that they can select a group of people for a team and "presto!" they are paddling the canoe in the same direction. But it's not as simple as all that. Yes, teams can be a great way to boost productivity and increase individuals' commitment to the company. But there are several factors you should be considering, even actively managing, to help them operate effectively.

  • Determine whether the situation calls for a team solution. Some examples include: times when rapid response is required, where there is a high level of interdependence between individuals or departments, or where issues are complex and call for a mix of skills and knowledge.
  • Make sure that the team's charter is tied to your company's vision, mission, and key goals. If it's a project team, clearly define the scope of the project so they can stay on track and achieve timely results.
  • Select the team members for diversity in experience, knowledge, perspective and thought process. You might intentionally combine some members who are focused on quick action, some who tend toward the systemic approach, and some who are concerned with the people aspects. The idea is to leverage each team member's strengths for the good of the whole unit.
  • Provide a process under which they can operate. Sometimes it's helpful to have a third-party facilitator to keep the group moving, someone who has no vested interest in the outcome. And provide data analysis and decision making tools and techniques for them, so they can make fact-based decisions rather than ego-based ones.
  • If possible provide baseline measurements for them so they will be able to see how much progress they have been able to make.
  • Clearly define the action-taking procedure. Will they need to get approvals from management persons not on the team? If so, how will you ensure that they receive the support and authority they need to function effectively?
  • Don't start with a "world peace" issue of this is one of your first formalized team projects. If you select a more manageable project you can build momentum and morale through the team's early victories.

Last (for today anyway, ) as the teams progress, remember to take time to celebrate their successes. Behavior you reward will be behavior that gets repeated - once you intentially develop a team model that's effective for your company you'll be able to replicate it as the issues and appropriate players change.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Outstanding service at The Admiral Fell Inn

I was in charge of organizing a reunion of my younger daughter's adoption travel group, and to try to spread the driving fairly among the families we chose Baltimore as our site. We had an awesome weekend, and a big piece of the great experience was the service we received at The Admiral Fell Inn, located in the historic Fells Point neighborhood on the Baltimore Harbor.
My goal as a planner was not only to bring people to the city I love to visit, but also to show them a perspective on Baltimore that they might not typically see. Fells Point is a historic district with cobblestone streets, old pubs that used to serve sailors, and easy access to the more touristy Inner Harbor area by water taxi. The Admiral Fell Inn is the centerpiece of the district, preserving the old seaport mood with 18-century furnishings, a ghost tour (it's supposedly haunted,) and tea time with period characters at 4 p.m. in the lobby.
Even before we arrived we were asked how the Inn could make our stay more memorable. One of the families arranged for a crab stuffed animal to be waiting for their preschooler on the bed in the room when they checked in. Samir the bellman greeted us at the door, handled our bags effectively, and most important to me, found out our little girl's name and called her by name every time we passed through the lobby.
Candace the "experience specialist" (that's her official title) took care of tickets for the aquarium, water taxi, and the Duck tour. We got preferred entry to the aquarium as a result and the convenience of avoiding the long ticket line at the venue. Candace also packed some little ocean toy surprises in her desk and endured our girl's LOOONG decision making process with good humor.
The lobby was filled with antique furniture, one piece of which was a gorgeous grandfather clock. Those of you with young kids know how much the door on the grandfather clock is a magnet for little hands. When the door was opened by a curious set of little fingers (not my kid's, mind you,) a little ghost was rigged to pop out. It was great, because she jumped back and left the clock alone, yet nobody told her to. Instead of enforcing the rules they reinforced the fun. Cool.
Melanie and her catering crew did a great job of taking care of our two dinners. It didn't hurt, of course, that the Admiral Fell Inn has a top-floor dining room with a deck that overlooks the harbor and its stunning views.
I received a survey the morning after we checked out and I completed in detail, including the essay question at the end, because I want the staff to know that I noticed. I mentioned the above people by name and also complimented the front desk. I don't know whether they ever get recognition for the work they do, but I liked the experience enough that I wanted to be part of the reason why they might.
I'm talking about this service story because they didn't just do the basics - it was obvious that the folks at The Admiral Fell Inn are committed to service. As a result I'm telling all of you to check it out, and I'll certainly be going back.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Making your plan implementable

When the leadership of a company puts together an aggressive plan, it's like building a castle in the sky. They've got the vision of what the company could be and they've laid out the mission for the next 24-36 months - the overall goals to help them get closer to their vision. But unfortunately, for many companies there's little or no connection between the plan and the daily activities of Joe employee.

Critical goal categories (sometimes known as critical success factors) are key to building the ladder, if you will, between daily activities and the plan. Your set of 3-8 CGCs has to meet two tests:

  1. Each must be individually NECESSARY, and

  2. Together they must be SUFFICIENT for your mission to be pretty well assured of success.

Notice that the number ranges from 3 to 8 and that's it. The idea here is to manage the critical few, and to maintain the flexibility to find numerous ways to skin the cat. If, for example, one of my critical goal categories is "Effective Sales and Marketing Activity" that means I MUST be doing it in order to meet my mission. It also means that I might experiment with different methods such as direct contacts, networking, strategic alliances, advertising, etc.

If you think you have more than 8 critical goal categories I'd suggest you look again. Most times the "extra" CGCs are actually subsets of other critical goal categories. They're methods that are assumed to be the ones that work, or they're the ones that worked in the past, so your planning team is thinking that they must be a critical part of your plan. Part of the challenge in effective planning is to challenge the conventional wistom in your company. If you do what you've always done you'll get what you've always gotten, and in many cases you're going through the planning right now specifically because what you've always gotten isn't good enough for you.

The individual CGCs might be "owned" by one person or department, or they might be shared cross-functionally. Either way, the next step in operationalizing the plan is to develop SMART goals that are subsets of the CGCs - projects that fulfill them. Ultimately many of the goals might be "test and measure" propositions. You might not know whether they're going to work before you try them. But ultimately the umbrella of the critical goal category helps you stay on track even if you have to shift gears to see the result you want.

Monday, June 16, 2008

When good enough is good enough

How difficult it is to create a perfect sandcastle! The sand has to contain enough water to cling together, but not so much that it dissolves into mud. It has to be thoroughly packed, carefully unmolded, and protected from the ravages of footprints and incoming tides. Then there's symmetry, and effective ornamentation to consider after that. My younger daughter, a bit of a perfectionist, has stomped away from numerous castle projects, tearful about how they didn't turn out the way she wanted. She's even trampled a few in anger, missing out on the joy of building because she was pursuing a standard not generally available to a 4-year-old.

The sandcastle building project is similar, really, to much we have to do. For most things perfection isn't a requirement - good enough will do. There are variables we can control, but many we cannot. We do what we can do in the time we can make available to do it - and in most cases good enough is good enough.

At some point we have to stop studying for the final exam and take it. Whatever we did or didn't do in the way of attendance and/or attentiveness will show itself in our results. Perhaps our aptitudes (or the lack of them) will be revealed in our grade. But at some point it will be time to see our result.What's important right now - that you get it perfect, or that you get it done on time?

Who decides what perfection is, anyway? Is there a standard inside you, or are you looking to someone else's definition to determine whether you did it exactly right? If you're looking for your standard in the feedback from multiple people you might be setting yourself up unnecessarily. Are they authorities on the subject? Do they really know? Or is it a matter that some people prefer blue and some prefer red? Tomato, Tomahto - that sort of thing?

Peak performance isn't necessarily defined as the pursuit of perfection. Sometimes peak performance is a lot of good enough performance. All you need is to help yourself become a little bit faster, a little bit smarter, a little bit more of whatever to win the day.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Are you living with a borrowed purpose?

I spoke with a mother recently who said, "My daughter is such a wonderful singer, I'm going to do everything I can to train her so she can be on Broadway." This wasn't just idle chatter. The mother was dead serious about the gravity of her mission - so her daughter could be the star her mother knew she could be. I felt my heart sink just a little, because I could envision that little girl on her way to living with a borrowed purpose.

A borrowed purpose is simply that - a center for one's life, one's decisions and one's activities that is chosen by somebody else. "So what?" you might ask. Perhaps that little girl has talent that she won't ever develop unless she's steered and groomed by somebody who recognizes it earlier in life than she will. And what if she isn't given the specific training and opportunities early on that will increase her odds of success later?

Here's the problem I see with borrowed purpose: that little girl might not care one bit about the theatre (and a little boy might not give a rip about football.) But because early in her life her parents took her to an endless string of shows she didn't want to see and pushed her to dancing and singing lessons she didn't want she'll fall into a habit of doing things she doesn't like to do in order to please them. It will change the dynamic of her life from one in which she orients her life around what's important to herself to one in which she orients her life around what's important to that person or persons that she loves.

There are degrees of this - it's not just a black and white situation. But if you're hating what you're doing or having a hard time summoning the energy to do what you need to do to be successful, you might want to take a look at whether your assumed purpose has really belonged to someone else. Did you choose to go to that certain college, or did your dad insist that you follow in his footsteps? Is everyone else in your family a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a musician, and you felt it was the expectation that you'd follow suit?

This discussion relates to you about yourself, but also as you look at your role as a parent. Are you expecting your children to be good at certain things, to be devoted to the activities that are important to you simply because they are important to you?

You might be thinking, "Any kid will resist practicing the piano - it's what kids do." I'll agree with you to a point. I agree that we do well by our kids to expose them to a variety of experiences and teach them a variety of skills. But ultimately their choices need to be their own. If they have grown to love music they'll start to bring themselves to practice without intervention on your part. They will be asking to join a team.

And as for you, who says that you can't do what you feel called to do? Your parents? Your spouse? Your friends? The relational pull is strong, but ultimately if you don't address your dreams and start moving to fulfill that which satisfies you deep down, you'll be looking for somebody to blame later. And that's not good for anybody.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Do you sleep like a baby?

Originally uploaded by ༺lifemage༻

When asked how he enjoys his business, a prospective client said, "I sleep like a baby - I wake up every two hours and cry!" Unfortunately his response isn't all that uncommon.

While you're awake and managing the situation of the moment some of the longer-term or more systemic issues aren't in your center of focus. When you sleep, however, your brain processes the activities of the day and organizes your thoughts. When you awaken in the middle of the night with brain cranking you'll lose more sleep than you need to until you deal with the issue. Here are some ideas on how you can stop sleeping like this baby and get some real rest:

  • Incorporate a time slot for longer term thinking, idea generation and planning as part of every day. It needn't take long - 15 to 30 minutes can make a huge difference. Close your door and remove distractions. C'mon - they can do without you for half an hour!
  • Set a law for yourself that you will do nothing work related after ___ o'clock. Give yourself a few hours to decompress and reconnect with family, hobbies, etc. before you go to sleep. Remember that your business is not your life and it's not you - it's only a part of your life.
  • Stop ignoring the elephant in the room. If there's a systemic issue in your business that must be resolved, start working on it, even if you can do only a little step at a time. Nothing relieves stress like taking action to resolve the cause of the stress.
  • Keep a pen and pad next to the bed. If you know there's something on your mind, write it down before you go to sleep. The process of writing it down will take it out of your short memory loop and prevent it from bouncing around in your head. If you awaken in the middle of the night with an active brain, write down the things you're thinking about. You should be able to go back to sleep more easily if you do so.
  • Meet your own standards during the day. Sometimes your subconscious is telling you that you've done only part of the job you know you can and should do. Give yourself a clearer head and better rest by kicking your procrastination habit, for example, or by living more consistently in alignment with your values.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When you've got a steep climb ahead...

When you're new sometimes it seems as though the path leads straight uphill. It can be so daunting that some people back away from the concept of change and newness altogether, at least the changes they can avoid. If you're choosing an uphill path or are thrust onto one, let's get some ideas from the athletes on how to attack it:

From the AttackPoint blog for climbers and orienteering athletes - "On flat terrain, a straight line is typically still the best way to get from point A to point B. But climbing up a steep hill is a whole different ballgame; the mechanics and energy costs of walking up a hill alter the way we negotiate the landscape.

"You would expect a similar process on any landscape, but when you have changes in elevation it makes things more complicated," said study author Marcos Llobera of the University of Washington. "There is a point, or critical slope, where it becomes metabolically too costly to go straight ahead, so people move at an angle, cutting into the slope. Eventually they need to go back toward the direction they were originally headed and this creates zigzags. The steeper the slope, the more important it is that you tackle it at the right angle." Llobera and co-author T.J. Sluckin of the University of Southampton in the U.K. developed a simple mathematical model showing that a zigzagging course is in fact the most efficient way to go up or down a steep slope. "

From The Northeast Bicycle Club blog - "My goals were to: 1) finish 2) not get hurt. My strategy was to basically push hard on all the rideable climbs and put lots of distance between me and my competitors since I knew the downhill sections would be super difficult."

I think these are two interesting strategies, even when you're at work and not in athletic competition. In the first you make a point to tackle your challenge from the optimal angle, and it initially might look like you're taking longer to move forward. But the advantage of the angle makes your progress easier. In the second you push while you can in order to gain a buffer of distance over your competitors for the times when the going is tough.

In the pro cycling world, climbing is a specialty just like sprinting is. Could you be a person for whom taking the steep hills becomes a strategic advantage?

Monday, June 9, 2008

When you mean no but say yes

Yes, I did it again. I agreed to schedule something and as soon as I set up the time for the appointment I realized that I had just created a heap of extra unnecessary work for myself. My calm re-entry after a week out of town would now be a 2-minute drill of getting my act together. I meant no but said yes. I've been thinking about this...

  • Sometimes we say yes because the opportunities in life can't always be scheduled. It's not always convenient to take advantage of them, so if you want them you have to pay the piper.

  • Sometimes we say yes because someone we know and like is asking us. I have a couple of gregarious friends who are awesome recruiters in this way. It's reciprocal - they'll do for you as well, but their requests aren't always convenient, nor something you might choose to do on your own.

  • Sometimes we say yes because we want to look good or be nice. It's the "should" talking, the little parental voice in our head convinces us that if we do this we'll be doing a better job of meeting the standard for behavior. Whose standard is it anyway?
  • Sometimes we say yes because we're enthusiastic in concept and we haven't thought through exactly what saying yes means. We haven't taken time to consider whether we're committing ourselves to a couple of minutes or hours, weeks, months of obligation. We haven't plugged this into the overall scheme of our goals and what we've got scheduled already.

What do you do when you've said yes when you really meant no? Do you procrastinate? Do you do it, but feel resentful all the while? Do you execute in a half-baked way so that they'll know you didn't really want to in the first place?

If you're feeling put-upon, if you're thinking that you're not performing up to the demands being placed upon you, consider the role you're playing in the conspiracy. Nobody can take you someplace you really don't want to go without your help. So stop saying yes all the time. Say yes when you're deciding and not just reacting. Say yes when the opportunity is consistent with your vision, values, and goals. Use your ability to say no to preserve time for those times when you absolutely want to say yes.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The fish stinks from the head back

Bangus fish
Originally uploaded by Eric Gozar

From my "Peak Performance - from the coach's desk" archives -

In my first several projects as an organizational coach (longer ago than I care to admit) I spent almost all of my time working with manufacturing supervisors. I loved it. I am a practical, action oriented person and here I was working with folks whose natural inclination was to do something, try something, seek concrete ways to apply what we were discussing. It was exciting seeing stuff get done and feeling the increased energy and commitment of the groups.

But there was the flaw in my working with this crowd: I only had access to a limited victory because I wasn't working with the top guy or gal too.

This was partly my problem - I didn't realize at first the extent to which management is cause and all else is effect, so I didn't do a good job of helping my clients see the connection between their own behavior and the actions of their frontline leaders. This was also partly their problem, in that the assumption they operated under was that educational credentials = sound leadership methods.

Of course as my engagements with these supervisors progressed they stormed a bit, telling me that they were fine and it was management that needed my services more than they did. I started observing more closely at an organizational level and discovered that, defensive or not, they had a point. In almost every case the off-limits behavior management had warned me about was being modeled directly off of a manager's behavior - perhaps with just a smidge of a translation for the production floor.

So here's the question to ask yourself if you're not seeing your employees perform to the level you'd like to see: "Who am I being or what am I doing that's interfering with their peak performance?" The mirror is your best first ally in sustainable organizational improvement.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Effective communication - process or personality?

From the "Peak Performance: from the coach's desk" archives:

Many times when I'm asked to do coaching under a corporate umbrella the reason is to "improve communication." That can mean a lot of different things, but I'd like to focus on one specific dimension - communication as an extension of personality vs. communication as a process. Here's what I mean:

  • Executive A has excellent relationships with her employees. They know what's going on in their department and in the company as a whole, because she makes a point of telling them. They trust her enough to give her the straight, unedited scoop about what's going on in their own areas. They know that she will take it all in without jumping to conclusions and help them talk through what they think they should do to correct any problems that have arisen. The department's performance is outstanding.

  • Executive B doesn't have the same rapport with the people who report to her. She has a very busy schedule, so they don't usually hear from her or get a chance to meet with her unless they've messed up in some way. Visiting her office is like visiting the interrogation room at the local police headquarters. As a result her staff members protect one another's backs and "don't ask, don't tell" is the rule of the day. The manager believes she has reason not to trust her employees because they have only been doing the bare minimum.

A colleague of mine once told a client never to die in his office because almost all of his staff would be suspects in his death, a funny but accurate way to tell an Executive B that he or she needs to change methods. Who (including the manager) really wants to live that way? I won't argue with you about whether Executive A is a good communicator simply because she has some natural interest in people and some natural aptitudes. The point is that there are several means by which Executive B can become more effective - using process to her advantage - to be effective in communication regardless of her personal style.

  1. Establish regularly scheduled one-on-ones with direct reports. First of all, this gives every staff member the feeling that time with them is important enough to schedule in and to stick to, even when (perhaps especially when) other issues beckon. The agenda can include what's going right as well as what needs improvement. The executive can save up agenda items so she's not creating crises through the week. At the same time the employee can also keep a list of agenda items so he's not snagging the boss at a potentially bad time at haphazard intervals throughout the week.

  2. Talk about now and talk about possibilities for the future. Everyone wins when employees' goals are being met by achieving the organization's goals. Gather ideas, set targets, talk about progress.

  3. Work to listen without judging, and when you talk describe behaviors rather than assess character, attitude, motivation. The focus is on using this conversation right now to keep channels open, and to provide information in a way that it's understandable and actionable. And whenever possible, use the employees' own input to solve the problem.

  4. Consider what other recurring mechanisms would be helpful in making sure communication happens. You might want to do a daily 10-minute pow-wow in the break room at the beginning of the shift with all production leaders. Newsletters, hard copy or e-versions can help distribute news and publicize victories (large or small) to the entire group. They are one-way tools by nature, but creating a process where staff members can contribute to it opens the door to a sense of team and enthusiasm. You can even use an internal blog as a communication tool.

  5. Effective meeting processes include making sure the agenda is relevant to all participants, and developing a method for assigning any necessary followup actions. Having some sort of visual communication tool like a white board or easel pad can also help reinforce whatever is being communicated.

  6. Choose communication methods consciously. Verbal, in person communication is more informal, dynamic, more negotiative (it's two-way,) and also more subject to change and lapses of memory. Written communication is a more formal, one-way medium, so the content is perceived as being non-negotiable. It, however, ensures that important messages are sent consistently to groups and prevents memory lapses. (Won't guarantee that it won't be tossed or misfiled, though!) Too much formal (written) communication as a percent of the total creates a top-down climate where front-line employees rely on leaders to make decisions. Too much informal (verbal) communication (by proportion) might create too much gray area and room for interpretation.

At senior levels in your organization up to 90% of issues are people related, and communication is the grease that keeps the wheels moving smoothly. Why leave this significant area to chance and personality? Create organization-wide expectations and/or processes that combine formal processes when they're called for and informal ones as well. This will enable leaders with even very diverse styles get the results you're looking for.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The myth of "you have it or you don't"

I work with a lot of owners of business startups, part of a users group that shares tools. During or after my work training a particular group of newly minted colleagues someone will inevitably ask me, "Who do you think is going to make it?" as though I will have figured it out after spending five and a half days with them. Back in the corporate setting I saw a similar phenomenon, albeit played out differently. Based upon a candidate's education, connections, intelligence, looks, etc. some managers were guessing up front what that person's potential would be.
This practice set up a sort of caste system where the perceived up-and-comers were given engineered opportunities to prove themselves - and those not judged to have great futures didn't get them. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! One of the good (and scary) aspects of working for oneself is that you eat what you produce. (I can only vaguely remember what it was like to totally blow a day of productivity and not consider the consequences.)
But one of the better aspects of being self-employed is that nobody but you gets to decide what your future is going to be. No matter what your education, your intelligence, your connections, your looks - if you do the activities necessary to attract and maintain customers you're going to be successful.
I've seen highly educated and corporately rewarded former execs blanch at the idea of being rejected on a cold call, so much so that they didn't contact prospects to start the client acquisition process. No action, no results. They disappeared from the radar screen because their pride stopped them.
I've seen incredibly intelligent people repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot by spending too much time thinking about what they need to do and not enough time doing it. I've seen analytical, quiet people who returned to their markets and laid out detailed plans for their desired futures, then methodically took one step at a time to build outstanding businesses. Then there are the self-named introverts who started out and drew clients like flies to honey because they listened instead of talking their prospective clients' heads off.
Even the finest and most intricate piece of porcelain starts out in the same form as a lot of baser items - as a lump of dirt. It requires more work, perhaps, and some skilled decoration. But who could look at that lump of dirt and guess at the mastery that would bring it to a place of priceless value?
Does it help to have good tools in order to succeed? Yes. Does it make the job easier to have certain skills, talents and resources already in place? Of course it does. Can a person stand a greater chance of being successful if they use a process that's been proven to work in a broad assortment of venues by a wide variety of practitioners? I think the answer to that is an obvious yes.
My point is that I'm done with handicapping people's potential. I've finished with sizing them up and deciding what I think their fate is. Let them show me. Let them demonstrate to me that they can develop themselves into the leaders, the owners, the human beings they dream they can be. I owe them that.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Do you have an exit strategy?

If you're like most business owners you're eating, living and breathing your business every day. Perhaps the day when you'll be winding up your work activities isn't on your mind yet. But if you were to decide to pack it in, how would you go about doing it? Here are a few questions and ideas for you to consider:
  • What is the timeframe within which you want to exit your company?
  • Is your business saleable without you in it? Some businesses are completely reliant on the skills of the owner for the generation of revenue (a one-attorney law practice, for example.) Are there processes that could be refined so that someone else could get the same results as you?
  • If you want your company to be marketable to a new owner, what would you need to do to get it ready?
  • Do you know what your business is worth if you were to sell it? Do you own a lot of assets, or is the value of the company based more upon its book of clients and projected cash flow?
  • To what extent is your retirement income depending upon the business? From a lump sum from its sale, or from ongoing cash it generates?
  • Do you currently have an heir apparent in your firm? Do they know they are your heir apparent? How ready are they to assume full responsibility for the company?
  • How ready are you to turn things over to someone else? Have you thought about your life after business ownership? Is there anything else you'd like to do with your life?

Now for some ideas for you to consider if you see your exit on the horizon:

  • Consult with an estate attorney and accountant to find out the implications if you sell the business, stay in the business, or have the business as an asset to pass on to your family. Also talk to a valuation specialist to help you determine just what you've got.
  • Develop a strategic plan for the business, or update the one you have. Incorporate your exit plans into it so you can have a smooth transition.
  • Consider coaching or other development for the people who will be taking over responsibility, especially if you're relying on the business for ongoing income during your retirement. You want them to be as effective at handling your asset as possible.
  • If you plan to transfer ownership having a solid plan and a well-developed staff will help to make it attractive to prospective buyers.
  • Get your post-business plan together for your personal pursuits. Expect a process not unlike the mourning associated with losing a loved one when you leave your company. But the loss will not feel quite as sharp if you've got some interesting new things going.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Creating a multisensory experience

Yesterday we tried a new privately owned casual restaurant for my daughter's birthday. The service was good and friendly, the food had some high spots and low spots, but the overall experience -- not so good.

I think the owners forgot that a restaurant visit is a multisensory experience, including visual and auditory input as well as taste. Several factors interfered with our enjoyment:

  • It was a very small place, OK in and of itself, but the people waiting to be seated were perched on chairs 3 feet behind my back and stared at my husband while he ate. Some sort of partial visual separation would have made a big difference in our (and I think their) comfort. It felt a little bit like eating dinner in front of drop-in guests - you didn't invite them, but you still feel a little guilty eating while they watch every bite traverse the distance between plate and mouth.
  • I think the owner considers "casual" decor to mean "easy to clean," and I get that, but the place was entirely covered with tile and mirrored surfaces. Every sound got bounced off the walls and floor, and so the overall effect was not one of more expansive space, but rather one of a constant underlying noise stress.

Not everyone consciously notices all of the aesthetic factors in your business, but many people do subconsciously, and it impacts their impressions about you.

  • I no longer visit a certain doctor because the waiting room smells like sick people.
  • There are certain textures of stationery that feel substantial and elegant and some that feel like they were purchased because they were the cheapest.
  • A business lobby communicates how you feel about having people visit, and about how well the company is doing. Yet often even though it creates the first impression its decor (and sometimes its housekeeping) is an afterthought.
  • A business colleague of mine uses customized coins as business cards, to make himself memorable. This same guy makes a practice of carrying gold dollar coins and leaving them (in generous quantities) for tips. Trust me, he is remembered by waitstaff and gets great service whenever he goes back.

Look around you today when you're visiting businesses. What are they intentionally doing re: a multisensory message for you. Is it appearance, smell, sound? What is the light level, and how are employees dressed and groomed? What, if anything, do you think they could do to enhance your experience working with them?

If you've got stories about what's working and what's not working I'd love to hear them.