Archive for the ‘Organizations’ Category
I’ve been noticing lately how very much easier it is to focus on making good things a little better – rather than figuring out how to re-invent good things to make them fantastic. Ad I’ve also been seeing the benefits of doing the latter:
I spent the last couple of days with a client group that did a truly bang-up job of NOT going for the easy answers, even though it would have saved them a lot of time and mental energy to do so. We spent the second day doing a “re-boot” of the vision and strategy map they had created in 2013, and when we got to strategies, it was clear that the ones they had come up with last year were pretty good and still directionally correct. It would have been by far the easiest choice simply to re-commit to last year’s strategies and come up with new tactics for this year. We actually started down that path, but after a few minutes, we all kind of looked at each other and said, “This isn’t going to hit on some of the most critical new aspects of our business – imperatives that have just arisen over the past few months. We need to start from scratch.” It required about 90 minutes of brain-stretching conversation to come up with those new strategies, and another couple of hours to craft appropriate tactics, but at the end of it they had created an exciting plan for this year that has the potential to be game-changing for them.
My husband, who is in the process of creating Great Life Brewing, has come up with some really excellent beers – especially his milk stout and IPA. He recently entered his first round of competitions, and received “good” ratings, along with one “outstanding” that garnered a medal. Based on the feedback he got, the easiest thing (and perfectly reasonable) would have been to do slight tweaking of the recipes to make them a little better. Instead, he decided to experiment with a significant change to the sparging process (part of extracting the malt from the grain) to raise the specific gravity of the unfermented beer – which would address a consistent piece of feedback he’d received about the ‘body’ of the beer, and that he felt kept the “good” ratings from being “very good” or even “outstanding.” After a 12-hour dawn-to-dark brewing day yesterday: success! His new approach to sparging increased the specific gravity by a big margin – and (according to him – I haven’t tasted it yet) made an immediate difference in the taste and mouthfeel of the beer.
In both instances, these folks avoided the seduction of making things “a little better.” It’s really easy to justify that approach, to convince ourselves that we’re doing all that can be expected of us. Now understand – I’m not talking about taking the path of least resistance: shirking, or doing things badly. I’m talking about doing what most people would consider an OK job.
But I’ve come to believe that world-class individuals and organizations are most often distinguished by their willingness and ability to do the tough work necessary to make break-through changes when that’s what’s needed, and what’s possible.
And the good news is – even though it can be a lot harder (it takes more of your time, energy, focus; more risk of failure; more letting go of assumptions) – it’s so much more satisfying to make substantive, even disruptive improvement in something important that it generally feels as though it’s all been worth it, whatever the effort involved.
Just this week we had our annual Proteus company meeting – something we’ve done every fall for many years. I believe it was the best one so far: great energy; lots of fun; useful conversations and clarifications; really good connections among all of us. But for me, the most wonderful thing was this: I didn’t make the arrangements; I didn’t manage getting everyone there; and I didn’t run most of the meeting.
My excellent team members did much of the heavy lifting, and I showed up with everyone else and participated.
My job as co-CEO of Proteus has changed dramatically over the past year or so, and I’m very excited about it. The metaphor I’ve been using in describing the change: for 20+ years, I felt like I was running with a kite, trying to get it up in the air. Now, the wind has caught the kite, and my job consists of paying out the line, keeping the proper amount of tension on it so that the kite stays in the air and can go higher and higher.
The ‘wind’ is composed of a better-than-ever team of smart, well-intentioned, skilled people; better and better internal processes for doing our work; ever-more-clearly-developed and useful IP; and a wonderful momentum of satisfied and vocal clients who keep calling us back and referring us to others.
So even though I’ve had the same job on paper for 23 years, “Founding Partner and CEO” of Proteus is very different now than it was even a few years ago.
And I’m seeing that the most important way for me to make this shift is to talk less, listen more, and get very curious. In fact, I think that’s key to making any shift, but it’s especially important when something you think you know very well is shifting under you.
When we’re involved in learning something brand new to us, we tend to come in with a helpful “novice” mindset: e.g., “I don’t know know much about this; there’s a lot I need to find out.” That mindset moves us in the direction of listening and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it’s time to learn something in an area where we already think we’re experts (e.g., doing our job, running our company, raising our kids), we tend to be much less open and curious, much more focused on how it should be, on what we know (or think we do), and on telling others what we know and how it should be!
I suspect that, in today’s world, most people’s jobs change pretty significantly from one year to the next, and that no matter how long you’ve been in a particular job or company, it’s probably a good idea to come in every day with that learner’s mindset.
Michelangelo, arguably one of the most brilliant and productive people in Western history, had a stock response he used throughout his life whenever people complimented him on an achievement or an idea: he said, “Ancora imparo” – “I am still learning.”
If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.
My daughter just put something wonderful on facebook the other day. It’s about 7 minutes long, but I strongly encourage you to watch at least the first 5 minutes. Then we’ll talk about it…
I love this so much. I had no idea such a thing existed, and I’m truly fond of finding out new stuff.
I have an almost childlike joy, a sense of excitement and wonder, at discovering new things. I feel very fortunate to have retained this quality as an adult; I believe we are all born with it (watch any two-year-old exploring a new object), but too many of us have it thoroughly socialized out of us early on. We’re told that our enthusiasm is childish; we’re made fun of for not knowing things; we watch others (parents and teachers especially) act as though grown-ups are supposed to know everything…and our openness to and enjoyment of new learning gets squashed.
I used to work with someone who simply refused to acknowledge when she was hearing new information. Whenever I would tell her something that I was nearly positive she didn’t know, based either on things she had said or ways I’d observed her behaving, she had one of two responses. The first was, “Yes, that’s just like this other thing (that I’m very familiar with)” – even if it wasn’t at all like that other thing. I believe her deep aversion to admitting that she didn’t know something caused her to unconsciously shoehorn new information into old frameworks, just so she could claim prior knowledge. Her other response was simple rejection; she just wouldn’t accept the new idea or information. Sometimes she would voice her disagreement, but more often she would simply purse her lips and look disapproving. Over the years, I came to understand it as her “this is a crock and I’m not buying it for a minute” look.
Both of those responses kept her effectively blocked from learning. Over the many years we worked together, I saw how painfully slow and difficult it was for her to open up to new colleagues, acquire new skills, change her mind, see another’s perspective, acknowledge changes in other people or the business. In fact, she finally left the organization because she was unwilling or unable to make a major change that was being asked of her.
Are you in touch with your own wonder? Here’s a way to find out. Reflect on how you felt as you were watching the video above, and then answer these four questions:
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Whatever, dude,” and 10 being “Holy crap!” how impressed were you by what you saw?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I pretty much knew that,” and 10 being “I had no frigging idea,” what were you thinking as you watched this? (Recuse yourself from this question if you’re a) a physicist, b) a glassblower, or c) the maker of the video.)
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Huh,” and 10 being “I can’t wait to show this to somebody,” how excited were you about sharing your learning?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all, and 10 being a lot, how happy/excited were you to find out there was such a thing as a Prince Rupert’s Drop?
Because, in my mind, these are the key elements of childlike wonder: being impressed and charmed by new learning; being willing to admit that it’s new to you; and wanting to pass it on.
But why does this matter? I think it’s key to success in the world today. If wonder is your primary reaction to new skills, new knowledge, and new possibilities, you’ll be much more likely to thrive in this time of ours where massive, disruptive change is a constant, and where roughly 95% of all human knowledge has been discovered since World War II.
So: re-engage your inner two-year-old, and have at it.
As many of you know, I wrote a book called Growing Great Employees a few years back. One chapter focuses on how to get new people started well in your organization. I proposed that, in general, people want three questions answered when they start a new job: Who do I need to know?, How do things get done around here?, and What’s expected of me?
Not long ago a client of mine turned me on to an article published a few years ago in Business Week about the (then) emerging discipline of Social Network Analysis. I got very intrigued, and continued to research the subject.
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is “the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups, organizations, computers, URLs, and other connected information/knowledge entities. The nodes in the network are the people and groups, while the links show relationships or flows between the nodes.” I got that definition from the website of orgnet.com, a company that’s been doing SNA and providing SNA software to clients for 15 years.
I find this both fascinating and useful: SNA is a way of making visible the answer to two of those three core questions - “Who do I need to know?” and “How does stuff get done around here?”
SNA provides critical insights into how information flows (and doesn’t); who is at the core of networks of people and who’s at the periphery; where there are silos and where interaction happens freely. If used well, it can help companies take best advantage of the employees who are “examplars” – those to whom others turn for advice, knowledge, insights. It can also help organizations see “blockages” in work and information flow, and focus more usefully on how to get things unstuck.
This isn’t new – many of these concepts are at the core of Seth Godin’s latest books, for instance, and orgnet.com has a big client list – but I love the idea that this way of visualizing organizations is becoming more widespread. It’s yet another indication to me that what has historically been thought of as “the soft stuff” in organizations is finally getting recognized as key to productivity and profit.
SNA demonstrates, in a very clear and 21st century way, that people really are our most important resource.
I have to admit, the general attitude toward strategy – as boring, soulless and impractical – is a puzzle to me. In my work and in my life, I see the real power of operating with a strategic mindset every single day. And when we teach our framework for thinking and acting strategically, participants report that it provides a great way for them to bring their focus up out of the weeds, and helps them and their teams stay focused on their vision for success, and on how to address the most critical issues confronting them.
But I digress. Most people would rather do their taxes than think about strategy. In fact, when I wrote my second book, Being Strategic, a dear friend of mine in the business book world, for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me he thought it wasn’t the right book for me to write. “You’re so warm and personal,” he said, “and you have such a great way of connecting with your readers. Strategy just doesn’t seem like you: so heady and cold.” It turned out he hadn’t actually read the book yet.
I believe his assumptions are widespread. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons why people think strategy is boring:
5) No agreement about what strategy is. I have a google alert on the phrase “being strategic.” It’s astonishing to me how little overlap there is among the various meanings people ascribe to this phrase. For instance, some people use it to mean “acting only for your own benefit,” while others think it means “staying mono-focused on destroying the competition,” and still others use it as high-falutin’ way of saying “thinking like I do.” In this welter of conflicting definition, I believe people just think, I don’t know what it means – and I don’t care.
4) As practiced in most organizations, strategy IS boring. Have you ever sat in a ‘strategy’ meeting at your company? I bet you have. Complicated charts, Ben Stein clones droning on about some obscure algorithm having to do with market share as a function of cycle time, blah blah blah. And then fat binders get created, and sit on shelves, and get pulled out and referenced (maybe) in excruciating detail once a year. Oh my god, let’s all just shoot ourselves right now.
3) Mind-numbing language. As above. Somehow, most people think they’re “being strategic,” if they’re saying obscure, intellectual-sounding stuff. Here’s a quote from Michael Porter, probably the world’s best-known strategy guru: “Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.” What, now? Oh, wait, I don’t care.
2) Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you. See the above. The charts and graphs, the language, the lack of clear definition – all support the strategy consultant’s implied contention that strategy is an arcane and complex body of ancient wisdom, able to be understood and practiced only by the anointed few. Many CEOs are taken in by this and pay kajillions of dollars to be told what to do and why. Most of us, again, are thinking, Whatever, dude. Can I just do my job now?
And the number 1 reason people think strategy is boring (drum roll):
1) They don’t see the connection to real life. Because of the way “strategy” is thought of, talked about and practiced in most organizations, it seem entirely disconnected from people’s day-to-day concerns: how to do a good job; how to build positive relationships with those around them; how to get good results; how to have a reasonably good time doing it. Even those who are passionate about their jobs or about the success of the company simply don’t see how “strategy” – again as generally practiced – is going to help.
It’s a shame really, because there’s actually something extremely valuable hidden in the midst of all this. And even Michael Porter (who I love to diss) has said wonderfully clear and accurate things about the value of strategy on occasion. My very favorite quote of his is “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Because that’s it: strategy is thinking in a focused way about what’s most important and how to get there, and it can give you critical insights as to the things you shouldn’t be doing that won’t get you where you’re trying to go. How about if we define being strategic simply as consistently making the core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. In other words, thinking and acting strategically means figuring out the future you want to create for your enterprise; then getting clear about where you are now; then building a path with your colleagues – making core directional choices – for getting there. And finally, being consistent about walking down that path together.
That doesn’t sound so boring. That actually sounds reasonable and very useful. Let’s do that.
I read a great many posts and articles by and about entrepreneurs. Lately it has seemed to me that there are two basic entrepreneurial mindsets. There may well be more, and there may be variations on these themes, but these two entrepreneurial types seem to cover most of the territory I’ve observed.
Flavor #1 is the “make a killing” (MAK) entrepreneur. His or her core motivation is to crack the code on becoming wealthy. This kind of entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap not primarily to rid the world of disease-creating vermin, or give people a more humane mouse-removal option, but to exit the mousetrap business altogether with a very fat check in hand, and retire to the South of France. Now, these folks quite often create wonderful new things – but what they really want to do is figure out how to build something that can be scaled up and sold.
Flavor #2 is the “richard branson” (RB) entrepreneur. He or she is passionately committed to bringing a product or service to the world that’s better, faster, sleeker, simpler, more sustainable, more delightful, easier, etc. This entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap because he or she can see so clearly how much cooler it would be than anything that currently exists. And this person can’t wait to see how it’s going to happen. Now, this kind of entrepreneur quite often also gets rich (as witness the actual Richard Branson) and sometimes even buys a house in in the south of France – but he or she probably keeps working on the next, even cooler version of the thing while sitting on his or her terasse. Getting rich is not the point – or not the main point.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I’ve been realizing that I’m about 95% RB, and my business partner is about 65% RB and about 35% MAK (I haven’t run this by him yet – he might assess himself differently). And I see that his infusion of MAK-ness is very good for me and for the business. Without him, the business wouldn’t be growing as quickly, and we wouldn’t be thinking as much (or as practically) about creating new revenue streams that are more self- sustaining and scalable.
But I’m also watching my son – who is heavily weighted toward the RB side – having lots of difficulty finding an operating rhythm with his business partner, who is a pure, unadulterated, 100% MAK. They have these frustrating conversations where Ian focuses (passionately) on brand and how they can build a business and a reputation by giving their customers an experience and food that are uniquely attractive in a very specific way. And his partner just wants to focus on reducing food and liquor costs, increasing operational efficiencies and getting people in and out quickly, so their restaurant will blow up and turn a big profit. They’re speaking two different languages entirely, with almost no overlap, and I know that each thinks the other is…not wrong, exactly, but just not that appealing.
And it seems to me that if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s important to become aware of your primary flavor. It will help you get clear about what success looks like for you, and it will also help you make sure that your partners share enough of your mindset to speak the same language and be excited about the same future.
Which may very well include that house in the South of France, whatever your flavor.
A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations. They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”
It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor. The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work. We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family. Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome. Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living. We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.
But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand. She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand. And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us. In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.” I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.
We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.
I’ve realized lately that there’s something I love no matter what form it takes: growth. The process of something changing its form to become more complete, more mature, more fully established and able to fulfill its innate purpose – wonderful.
It’s marvelous to observe in nature; it’s why I enjoy gardening so much. Think about it: a tomato seed is tiny, almost transparent, fragile-looking. (If you’ve never seen a tomato seed, here’s a comparison: a tomato seed is about the size and shape of this capital O.) And that tiny object, when put in the ground and watered, first breaks through the ground as a little green seedling. And then over the next few months – a remarkably short period of time – it grows as tall and wide as an adult person, yields dozens and dozens of tomatoes, each of which is hundreds of times larger than the original seed.
And I’ve understood that growth – any kind of growth – requires two things: a framework for expansion and a compulsion to evolve. In nature, DNA provides that framework. The tomato seed contains all the instructions needed for the fully mature plant, as the human egg and sperm do for the adult human being.
The compulsion to evolve is the thing that fascinates me. I see it in all life: it shows up in animals as the urge to survive and reproduce; in plants as breaking through the ground, turning toward the light. It shows up in human beings as curiosity, competition, the will to create a better life for one’s children.
Earlier this week I had the chance to spend a couple of days with a very senior team in a large client company of ours. I’ve been coaching the leader of this team for the past five or six years. My intention – as is always the case when I coach – has been to offer him good frameworks for growth, and help him get in touch with his own compulsion to evolve. It’s been a joy to observe his growth, as a person and as professional, over these years.
But this time I saw his team evolving, as well, and it was so exciting to me. Over the past five years, I’ve worked with this team on 3 different occasions. This time, I saw framework + compulsion. By framework, I mean that they’re finally set up properly: they have the right people in the right roles, they’re clearer than ever on what they’re trying to do and how they’ll do it. We did some work in this session that helped clarify those framing supports even more.
The new thing though, and the most wonderful to see: the awakening of the compulsion to evolve. In previous iterations, there were people on the team who weren’tat all sure they wanted to grow as a team. This time, every single person in the room genuinely wanted to evolve into a high-performance team that will get great results and have fun doing it.
And to me, that’s as amazing as the tiny seed becoming a gigantic fruitful plant. That a group of people would come together and make a conscious decision to pool their passion, their experience and their trust in order to evolve into a new thing; a team.
A business miracle.
My partner Jeff sent me this wonderful article from The Week a few days ago. It’s a list (with definitions) of 14 words for which there are no English equivalents. A couple of them pinpoint experiences I’ve had so precisely (Koi No Yokan, in Japanese, is the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love) or are so obviously high-utility (Zeg, In Georgian, means ‘the day after tomorrow’) that I immediately wanted to co-opt them and insert them into English.
And it made me reflect on the wonderfully organic nature of language. Live languages grow like organisms: they evolve toward usefulness and away from functional dead ends; they interbreed with other languages to acquire elements that serve them better. For instance, think of all the words that we now think of as English, but that are actually borrowing of genetic material, if you will, from other languages. Words that we added into our lexicon because we didn’t have a good word in English for the concept or thing they describe. A few examples:
Kindergarten – German for “children’s garden”; a great word to describe a place where children go to grow that’s not quite a school but more than a play group
Rendezvous – In French, rendez – vous, “go to you”; a meeting, usually with one other person, at a predetermined time and place…a very useful word, and so – voila! – we now think of it as English. (Like “voila,” a contraction of vois la which means “see there” and which we use to mean lots of things, from “there you go,” to “here it so,” or “so it happens.” Also very useful.)
Pundit – In Hindi payndit is ‘a learned man, master or teacher.’ Good to have a single word to describe someone who is considered (though perhaps only self-considered) an expert on a particular topic.
And then there are all the words that morph into new parts of speech to suit a particular need. At what exact point in time, I wonder, did Google become a verb as well as a descriptive noun?
As the pace of change and the globalization of communication continues, I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings in terms of the evolution of the English language.
For myself, I’m going to just start using a bunch of these words – including Lagom (Swedish for “Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right”).
There’s a name for phrases like this: in the English language, collective nouns for groups of a specific animal are called “terms of venery.” For instance, “a pride of lions,” or “a gaggle of geese.” As I understand it, this tradition began in Europe in the middle ages – and it became a fun and fashionable thing to do to create whimsical and ever-more-exotic terms of venery. In fact, in the 15th century there was even a fad for extending terms of venery to groups of human beings (“a sentence of judges,” “a melody of harpers”).
Some of these terms are simply wonderful. “An exaltation of larks” is one of my favorites, but I also like “a murder of crows” and “a clowder of cats.” I love how these terms were created to capture some essential quality of the animal described.
Over the past couple of days, I was in Austin to attend 800CEOREAD’s Author Pow Wow – an absolutely marvelous, fun, useful yearly conference of business book authors and the people who support and partner with us in the creation of our books: publishers, publicists, social media consultants, presentation skills experts, ghostwriters, agents.
It’s so great. Spending two days with 40 smart, curious, funny, collaborative people who are trying to figure out how to teach and share important ideas in an industry that’s changing faster than we can name the changes: Exhilarating. Inspiring. Reassuring.
So, my extreme thanks to 800CEOREAD, and Pow Wow sponsors Cave Henricks Communications, Shelton Interactive, and Greenleaf Book Group.
And I’ve decided that the proper term for our Pow Wow group is “an insight of business book authors.”