Archive for the ‘Work’ Category
I have to admit upfront that this post is primarily a thinly-veiled excuse to say wonderful things about my husband. However, be assured there is an important life/work lesson here as well. My husband Patrick is in the final stages of setting up his craft brewery, and it’s been fascinating watching him travel down five parallel business-building tracks for the past year. I’m realizing that any successful entrepreneur needs to walk down these same paths. (He’s doing this much better than I did 25 years ago, when I started Proteus, but still I recognize the pathways from my start-up days.) Here’s what they are:
Facilities/Physical: From the moment he rented his brewery-space-to-be last May, Patrick has been focused on a wide variety of physical, object-related tasks, from revamping the space (cleaning, painting, putting in trench drains, having the plumbing and electrical upgraded); to speccing out and ordering the brewing system and deciding how to set it up in the space; to switching our main vehicle from a car to a truck for schlepping purposes. Almost any entrepreneurial venture – even something like a one-person Cloud-based enterprise that seems not physical at all – requires asking and answering questions about physical requirements and doing the associated tasks. Where are you going to work? What equipment will you need? What work processes will require physical space and how will you set that up?
Relationships: Patrick won’t be hiring any employees during the brewery’s early days – but that doesn’t mean relationships aren’t important to his success. He’s spent more time with his landlord, his plumber and his electrician that with most other people he knows over the past few months. And he’s working to build good relationships with a much wider group as well: his suppliers, the folks who built his brewing system, and other local brewers, just to name a few. Even if you’re starting a single-person enterprise (or at least single-person to start with), don’t underestimate the necessity of having a web of people around you who want to do business with you and are supportive of your success. If you don’t tend to those relationships, it’s really hard to accomplish almost anything.
Organizational/Admin: I now know that starting a brewery – even a small one – requires jumping through an astonishing variety of administrative hoops. The federal permitting process was a daunting seven-month journey of frustration and bureaucratic nitpicking through the bowels of the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Watching him go through it and listening to his very legitimate complaints, I was astonished that anyone who doesn’t have a fleet of lawyers and accountants to call upon ever ends up opening a brewery. The two-month long state permitting process was, by comparison, a walk in the park. Then pile on all the local requirements (building codes, business license, city council OK, etc. etc.) and the internal functional questions to be answered (How will we bill customers? What accounting program will we use?). Any entrepreneur who assumes he or she can just start producing their cool thing and make a million is courting disaster. I think for most people, this is the least fun part of starting a business – but if you don’t think through it in a pretty structured way (or work with someone who can help you to do that), and build the time and effort required into your start-up plan, your business will grind to a halt before it even starts.
Product: I’ve been truly impressed with the fact that, as he’s been fully immersed in these first three aspects of starting his business, Patrick has also been devoting a lot of time to making sure his product is extraordinary. He’s spent the whole year doing exhaustive recipe development and testing on each of his four standard beers and two seasonals. Now that his system has arrived, once he gets it set up he’ll be going through a whole new product loop of figuring out how to replicate the quality he’s achieved — at 20x the volume. He’ll be going from 5 gallon homebrews to 3.5 barrel (108 gallon) production batches. It’s all too easy as an entrepreneur to think “I’ve got a great thing – it will knock everyone’s socks off.” And yet – will it? It’s essential that you build rounds of testing, ramping up and improvement into your pre-sales start-up planning.
Marketing and Sales: And yet, just having a great product or service isn’t enough. You have to think clearly and practically about who your customers are, how you’ll let them know that you have something they need, and how to communicate that in a compelling way. This is Patrick’s least favorite part, and so the one in which I’ve been involved most involved. We’ve had many branding discussions: that is, what are we promising, and how do we want to convey that promise in words and images? Based on that, we’ve put lots of thought into naming and labelling for each beer. Since we’re now a couple of months away from having beer to sell, we’re focusing on all the decisions, large and small, needed to connect our product with a delighted customer base. For instance, we’re only selling to restaurants and bars, vs. retail, so we identified the criteria for the hospitality businesses that could be attracted to our product and price point, and then made a list of all those businesses within about a 45-minute drive of the brewery. Now we’re figuring out how to support and inspire our future customers to let their patrons know they’re carrying our beers. And then how to make it easy for those patrons – once they’ve tasted and liked the beer – to become vocal fans and advocates. In other words, even great products don’t sell themselves. Before you have product to sell, think about who your target audience is, why they need your product, and how you’ll let them know it exists and can meet their needs. And do your best to do some market-testing beforehand: it’s easy to think people will love your thing just because you do, but you need to get some independent confirmation of that love.
And, happily, Patrick just received some great independent confirmation: he sent his four standard beers (1875 Milk Stout, 1829 IPA, 1758 Witbier, and 1855 Cream Ale) out to six national competitions a few months ago. Just last week, he found out that he won awards in four of the six: 2 gold, 3 silver, and 3 bronze medals – and each of his four beers won at least once.
All of which goes to show – when you take care to walk down the right paths as an entrepreneur, wonderful things can happen along the way.
All aspects of our lives are now changing faster than at any previous time in history. I doubt that statement is surprising to you, and unlike most similarly definitive and sweeping statements, it’s true. How we live and work; how organizations are structured and how they make money; the objects available to us and the ways we use them to learn, interact and consume…
And much of the change that surrounds and impacts us is disruptive and revolutionary, vs. gentle and evolutionary. Who would have guessed, 15 years ago, how smartphones would transform most everyone’s daily routine? Or the ways in which web-based commerce would alter our habits and expectations about buying and selling? Or the extent to which we’d interact regularly with people we may not have seen for years – or ever?
So what does a leader need in order to succeed in these wild times? Fortunately, some of the most necessary skills and capabilities are the same as they’ve always been: what it means to be a good leader, for instance, and the importance of clear, honest, open communication. But there are also some brand new skills and ways of thinking that will help you “surf” this continuing wave of change.
I’m excited to let you know about a session being put on by two colleagues of mine, David Nour and Jennifer Bridges, that will offer attendees support in both these areas: timeless core skills and new tools for your toolkit. It’s called the #New NormSummit, and it’s being held in Atlanta on January 9th.
The Summit website has a lot more information about each of the day’s 4 sessions – but here’s the thumbnail version: David Nour will talk about how to keep your company’s business model relevant through adaptive innovation; Seth Kahan will focus on how to engage people in creating change rather than imposing it on them; Roger Young will share the power of Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to problem-solving; I’ll share our model for becoming the kind of leader that people will follow – no matter what changes arise.
I think it’s going to be fun, thought-provoking, and useful – my favorite combo. I’d love to see you there…
I’ve noticed lately that lots of senior executives believe they’re delegating fully when they’re really not. Full delegation means that you’ve transferred the responsibility for achieving an outcome to another person, and because you have faith in their ability to fulfill that responsibility, you actually let go of it.
“Let go of it” means you don’t think about whether or not they’re doing it, you don’t pester them with questions on a daily basis, you don’t give direction to their people about how to do it, you don’t second-guess their decisions about it, you don’t leap in and start doing parts of it without asking, and you don’t “stand in for them” – take phone calls with their partners, share progress reports with the organization, etc. – unless they ask you to do so.
I’m convinced that partial delegation is to blame for a lot of the inefficiency and bad feeling in most organizations. The execs who don’t fully delegate become bottlenecks for action – too many decisions have to go through them, and even if they work 24/7, it’s impossible for them to keep up with demands they’ve created for themselves. And for those who work for them, it’s a truly demoralizing bait-and-switch. They believe their boss has given them responsibility for part of the work, and they – proudly and with a sense of their own capability – begin to do it…only to find that their boss isn’t really allowing them to do it. They most often end up feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and powerless. And those who work for them can get confused and feel caught in the middle: should they follow their boss’ direction, or the (often conflicting) direction they’re getting from their boss’ boss?
If you’re reading this and seeing yourself in it, how can you get better at delegating? If you and I were siting together in a room, I’d teach you our delegation model, and we’d practice, using a real situation of your choosing. But since that’s not happening, here are a few ideas that could help:
– Only delegate those things you’re really willing to delegate. Often, I notice that executives try to delegate projects or responsibilities that they’re not really willing to stop doing. For instance, a number of years ago I coached an exec who had been in charge of a yearly client event in Europe for many years. She tried to hand it off to someone else, but kept jumping back in. As I observed this, I pointed it out to her – and she finally realized that it was the highlight of her year, and she didn’t really want to let go of it. She ended up taking it back, and delegating other parts of her job to which she was less attached.
– Make sure you have confidence in the delegatee. Quite often, when I ask execs why they’re not letting someone do something that they’ve supposedly delegated to him or her, they tell me they’re not sure the person will do it well. My response: either make sure they have the skills and experience to do the thing before you delegate it – and if they don’t, and no one else who works for you does, and you don’t feel you can coach them in the areas that are new to them…hire better people. I’m serious. If no one who works for you is capable of taking on key responsibilities and doing them to a standard that’s acceptable to you, then you need to build a stronger team.
– Have realistic expectations. Many execs who don’t delegate well tell me it’s because they don’t believe anyone on their team will do things the way they do them. That’s probably true – everyone does things differently. But in order to delegate fully, you have to make a distinction between “doing things well” and “doing things the way I would do them.” Someone who works for you may complete a responsibility very differently than you would – rely more on others or work more independently; use a different organizing approach; be more linear or less, etc. etc. But as long as that person gets the needed outcome and doesn’t hurt key relationships – it doesn’t matter.
– Be truly willing to share credit. Leaders who delegate well are comfortable saying, “So-and-so did that – she and her team deserve all the credit.” If you have a hard time doing this, you’ll have a hard time delegating. If you can do it, though, you’re opening up your future and theirs in a powerful way. When you can fully acknowledge – to yourself and out loud – that others on your team are completing important parts of the work independently, that’s when you’ll be free to take on higher order work or a bigger job, and your folks will be free to grow and achieve their potential, as well.
Delegating fully is good for you, for those who work for you, and for your organization. I’d love to hear how you’re doing it, and what’s happening as a result…
Can you have too much of a good thing? We humans have been debating this question since long before it first showed up in print (in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, around 1600).
Most of us would say yes, having experienced the after-effects of a mega-dose of great wine, wonderful food, high-quality chocolate, or even a fantastic party.
I’ve been experiencing it lately with work: I love it – and there’s simply a great deal of it lately. I feel a somewhat conflicted about this.
First of all, I know I’m fortunate to consider work “a good thing” at a time when surveys show that roughly two-thirds of all American employees are unhappy with their jobs. Also, I take great pride in the fact that Proteus and the work we do has become so highly thought of and in demand. And finally, for someone (me) who loves more than anything to support people and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for future – having so many opportunities to do just that is marvelous: the career equivalent of a pound of Godiva truffles.
But then there are the realities imposed by living in a physical body – and one that’s got some mileage on it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m healthy, strong and full of energy…but I can’t power through a month of not enough sleep and too much travel like I could in my 30’s, 40s, or even my 50s. And there’s also the fact that, to my great good fortune, there are many other things in my life besides work that I also love – hanging out with my darling husband, kids and grandkids; spending time with friends; traveling – and a whole list of avocations as well (gardening, reading, knitting, sudoku, cooking, hiking, learning languages….the list goes on).
So what’s a work-lover to do? I’m discovering that my approach to work needs to be very similar to my approach to good food (which I also love): keep the quality high, and be sensitive to the symptoms of overdoing it.
With food, what that looks like is: don’t waste my calories on stuff that’s not worth it (junk food, things I don’t really like, poor quality), and stay attentive to my body telling me when I’ve had enough.
With work, what that looks like is: don’t waste my time on stuff that’s not worth it (tasks that others in my company can do just as well or better than I can; clients who don’t really want to spend the effort or money needed to get results; ‘rabbit hole’ conversations that suck up valuable time and mental energy) , and stay attentive to my body (and brain) telling me when I’ve had enough – when I’m too tired to think well or focus properly, or when my usual enthusiasm and hopefulness start to wane.
And just as the solution when food threatens to become too much of a good thing is simply to stop eating, the too-much-work solution is the same: stop working. Now I (like you, I suspect) can’t just walk off the job when it gets to be too much – but I can create little respites. A day, an hour, even a minute when I turn my attention to something else – or to nothing else.
Earlier today I was feeling particularly overworked. Then suddenly I was presented with some “found time.” A client session ended much earlier than expected, and I had the choice to dig into the pile of to-dos that were backlogged on my computer…or lay down on my hotel bed and take a nap.
When I woke up, I felt like a different person. And I’m convinced that the work I did post-nap was both much higher in quality than it would have been pre-nap, and accomplished much more quickly. Plus I really enjoyed doing it. And that’s the bottom line, really – if you consistently have too much of a good thing, then it stops being a good thing. If you can figure out how to have just enough of a good thing – that’s really good.
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.
courtesy of nostalgiapassages.com
I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with the idea of selling. For some reason, even from an early age, I had the idea that sales was simply about finding people who had a real need for what I had to offer. So, for instance, selling Camp Fire Girls candy in grade school held no terrors for me: I’d go around and ask people if they wanted to buy it, and if not, I’d ask the next person. I figured there was no harm in asking, even if they didn’t want it – and them not wanting it didn’t have anything to do with me; maybe they didn’t like candy, or were on a diet, or had already bought some from somebody else.
And actually, that’s pretty much how I sell today, 50 years later. I set up a conversation with someone; I listen to find out whether he or she could have a need for something Proteus offers. If so, I explain the service or product I think they might find useful. I ask if they’re interested in exploring a possible fit between their need and our offer. If not, I assume it’s because they 1) don’t see the need in the same way I do, or 2) they believe they have a better way of meeting that need that doesn’t involve Proteus. Next!
I recently read a wonderful little book, Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human, that pretty much reinforced the positive ideas I’ve had about selling for all these years.
However, it also made it much clearer to me why most people don’t view sales in a positive light – why they have a ‘cringe’ relationship with the idea of selling. Rather than seeing it as a collaborative, mutually beneficial process of finding a fit between need and offer, they see it as manipulative, pushy, inauthentic, slightly sleazy. Sales, for most people, evokes images of being glad-handed and lied to by some untrustworthy used car salesman in a shiny suit and bad toupee. No wonder people think they don’t like to sell!
The problem with holding on to that old, outmoded conception of selling is that almost all of us need to be able to sell. If you define selling, as Pink does, as ‘the art of moving others,’ we’re selling ideas, opinions, and proposed courses of action every day – to our kids, our boss, our spouses, our PTA group, our employees.
And for those of us who are entrepreneurs or freelancers, even more of our time is spent ‘moving others’ to see that fit between our business or ourselves and their need.
So it makes sense to shift our ideas about selling – and that means (you know this is favorite topic of mine) changing our self-talk. Here’s a quick and simple exercise for doing just that:
1) Ask yourself: What words come to mind when I think of myself as a salesperson?
2) Listen to the response that arises inside your head:
2a) If you find you’re thinking words like helpful, partner, problem-solver, relationship builder, mutual benefit – congratulations. You have the core mindset of a successful 21st century salesperson.
2b) If your thoughts are running more along the lines of words like rejection, pushiness, annoying, drudgery, scary – I suggest you continue on to step 3.
3) What could you say to yourself differently that’s more positive and hopeful about the idea of you selling – yet still feels true to you? I asked my husband (whose self-talk about selling is quite negative) and his response was, “I have a great product that some people will find useful. If people don’t want to buy it, it’s no reflection on me.” Great, simple, positive, accurate.
4) Once you’ve come up up with more supportive (yet still believable) self-talk, you’ll need to remind yourself of it whenever your old, unhelpful self-talk muscles its way toward the front of your brain.
Changing your mindset in this way is key to feeling differently and then acting differently about selling. And as selling starts to occupy a new place in your brain and heart, you might feel comfortable enough to explore ways to get better and better at it.
Just in case, here are two articles to support your evolution: The Unexpected Secret to Being a Great Salesperson, a post on my Forbes blog from earlier this year, and Sales Tips: 4Ways to Avoid Cold Calling, a post I wrote for the Salesforce blog.
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.