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0 – 5

December 13, 2012

Everyone uses rating scales, with our first introduction in elementary school. Most schools use 0 – 100 or A – F, then in college it becomes GPA of 0.0 (Mr. Blutarsky!!) to 4.0. In many areas of business, a different scale is often used: 1 – 5. The first instance I can trace is Phil Crosby’s Quality Management Maturity Grid. Lots of customer satisfaction models use a 1 – 5 score, as does the Capability Maturity Model for software engineering. A rating of 1 is out of kindness and may mask the reality that you’re nowhere. I prefer to call a 0 a zero and acknowledge people and organization’s that have at least made a start of it by giving them a 1. I use a similar scale when calibrating the level of expertise a person has in any field. It helps to making sure you have the right person for the job.

Level Descriptor Characteristics
    0     Ignorant Never heard of it
    1     Aware Minimal awareness (heard of it), but little understanding
    2     Novice Beginner’s understanding, can listen to a conversation and understand most concepts, with only limited contribution
    3     Literate Understand most everything that is said, can contribute to the conversation in ways valued by the group
    4     Fluent Know the domain in-depth, an important contributor in sorting out issues
    5     Expert Practitioner with authoritative knowledge and contributor to body of knowledge whom people seek out on key issues

The word Literate is in bold because I believe that every participant should be a 3 or better, with some 2s in the mix so they can deepen their expertise with the support of those ahead of them. So much of what we do at work uses acquired knowledge, not innate. A friend cautioned a young colleague with a stereotypical youthful hubris to study for a licensing exam because ‘nobody is born with this knowledge’. Every Expert at Level 5 started out at 0. It’s OK to be  below 3; it’s not OK to stay there. The scale is not linear; it may not be precise, but it’s probably more of a log scale. Going from 0 to 1 is so easy — just use  Wikipedia. Most professors reject citations from Wiki as not being from a scholarly work, but it can start an inquiry and lead you to deeper understanding. Knowing something about a subject enables you to know more. Knowledge has become a commodity… applying it is the value-added. But you can’t apply it if you don’t have it. So… getting from 0 to 1 is easy. How do you climb? More to follow. Stay curious.

Being Smarter

November 28, 2012

A few years back, I wrote an open letter to CEOs about making IT more valuable for their businesses. I just came across a story about GE’s new push into services enabled by IT, a move which they expect will add significant value to customers and shareholders. The era of making products and services smarter is still in its infancy… don’t miss it.

A Post About Nothing

November 16, 2012

No, this isn’t an episode from Seinfeld, or for those of a certain age, I Love Lucy. It’s about how important nothing is.

The first important context about nothing is the unmatched benefit of starting initiatives with a clean slate. Think about what your work – indeed, your life (but I’m not going there) – would be like without any baggage. No issues with people, no constraints on possibilities, nothing to preserve. It’s all good, and then you have the luxury of choosing among and pursuing the best. Alas, the real world doesn’t always permit it. But try starting every effort with the perspective of considering what would be possible if you indeed had a blank canvas on which to work. That perspective will yield insights into potential breakthroughs that would be hidden behind clutter masquerading as necessities.

The second distinction about nothing is the empowering action when you play like you have nothing to lose. One reason why immigrants make great entrepreneurs is that they often arrive with nothing, having already risked everything for a fresh start. Then with nothing to lose, they work hard to make a success of their endeavor. If you don’t feel at risk doing something, then you may not be making a bold enough commitment to achieve something important, to make a difference.

Finally, your path to achievement starts with an acceptance that almost all work requires abilities that are not innate, that you start at zero and work from there. More on that in my next post.

How have you embraced nothing?


September 27, 2012

One of the best management experiences I ever had was coaching baseball to 8-year-olds. [Huh? Keep reading…] It was enormously gratifying seeing them start out playing T-ball, then getting them to the point where they could all hit live pitching. But that’s not my enduring memory. It was teaching them a lesson in fielding that stayed with me.

I’ll never forget the astonished look on the faces of the infielders when I explained that they should throw the ball to the first baseman before he is in position. Predictably, they asked “but what if he’s not at the base yet?” I replied “don’t worry about that. Your job is to throw the ball as soon as you catch it, and you trust the first baseman to do his job by getting to first in time to catch it. If you don’t, we’ll never get anybody out.” Fortunately, they got it. It’s counter-intuitive for the inexperienced, but magic when you see the boys (alas, no girls in those days) try it and succeed.

Same lesson for the catcher with the second baseman and shortstop to catch runners stealing. If you wait to see if the other players met their responsibility to do their jobs before doing yours, you never get anybody out, and you never win.

Most business is a team sport. The team wins when each player does what his role is expected to do, and counts on others to do what they are expected to do. By agreeing to play a specific position, you declare to your teammates that you can be counted on to do what they expect, and need, to win.

In too many ways, we relate to the word accountability as questioning who will get fired if things go wrong. A better distinction is to have everyone understand what the team is counting on them for in order to make things right.

For what can you be counted on?


When We Mess Up

August 13, 2012

I just read a blog about a big screw-up at one of the airlines. [I’m shocked! Shocked!!] The late service guru Ron Zemke formulated a 5-step Recovery Process when the inevitable lapse in service occasionally happens.

An apology.  Think about the times that you wished someone from whom you expected service never acknowledged that something was wrong.  We’ve all muttered to ourselves “not even an apology”.  You don’t have to confess wrongdoing.  [But if you were wrong, own it.  No one can stand a mumbling excuse maker, and you’ll probably earn the respect of someone to whom you displayed some courage.]  Just acknowledge that you recognize the disappointment, their upset, and express regret that the incident took place.

Immediate reinstatement.  The customer didn’t engage you  to receive your best wishes, explanations, and especially not excuses.  He just wants the expected service delivered.  So get it done fast.  I’m not kidding about ‘immediate’.  Pick up the pace until you make good on the promise (or expectation).  Studies have revealed that customers feel better about service levels after a rapid recovery from a problem than they do where service problems never occur.  Go figure.  The key to redemption is speed.

Symbolic atonement.  Give the customers something for their trouble.  We all wish the restaurant manager would buy us a round of drinks when the meals are stuck in the kitchen instead of delivered to our table.  Pens, mugs, or T-shirts given away are a little too cheesy, so step up to be innovative.  Perhaps you could deliver something extra.  Or accelerate the deliverable that was down on the list of priorities but near and dear to the customer’s heart.  Maybe you could buy him lunch in the name of investing in the relationship.  It’s not extravagance or monetary value that’s important here.  It’s making tangible the fact that you want to extend yourself for your customer.

Empathy.  If that sounds kind of touchy-feely, it just means that you  express your understanding of what it cost the customer to have the service lapse.  Try putting yourself in his shoes and acknowledge that you would have been upset too.  It’s also a great opportunity to demonstrate that we understand his needs and expectations and the impact that service problems have.

Follow up.  For heaven’s sake, make sure the corrective action really solves the problem.  Get completion with the customer by verifying that the problem is really fixed to her satisfaction.  Minimally acceptable won’t cut it here.  It has to be spot-on in the customer’s eyes or it isn’t right yet.  One exception: if the customer’s upset is more anger than disappointment, know when follow-up should have a minimalist flavor.  Sometimes, you have to get out of her face before she pushes your face in, but only after you made the situation right.

There will  always be problems.  Remembering that service perceptions actually improve after rapid and effective recovery from problems, consider each problem as an opportunity to show the customer that you can be counted on when it counts most.

What’s the Purpose of Your Business?

July 17, 2012

In case you’ve been vacationing off the planet for the last 30 years, we live in the era of shareholder supremacy. Milton Friedman wrote “there is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits…”

Rubbish. Just because he was a smart, confident, articulate guy doesn’t mean he’s right. But we’ve all somehow managed to hear this statement as The Truth rather than one good man’s perspective.

The purpose of any business is to serve customers. Period. Without customers, there is no business. A lack of customers makes a business look like a hobby, or a pipedream, not a going concern. To be a going concern, the business must be sustainable, which takes a lot: a value proposition to meet current needs and wants, people, processes, technology, and capital, among others.

Capital has many forms. Investment capital. Working capital. Intellectual capital. Human capital. A perspective that I think is more valuable than Friedman’s comes from the late Walter Wriston, CEO of Citicorp: “Capital goes where it’s wanted, and stays where it’s well treated.” Capital is used to enable the productive assets of the enterprise. It’s fuel, without which the enterprise cannot move forward. In the same way that the purpose of a car is not to maximize fuel, the purpose of a business cannot be to maximize profits. But like a car without fuel, try running a business without capital (and commensurate, without profits). To preserve capital, it has to be treated well, which in the case of financial capital means generating market rates of return. For human capital, people need to see growth, recognition (and reward), and fulfillment, or they too will go where they are better treated.

Capital and the profits to sustain it are a constraint for a business, not the objective. It’s part of the rules of the game, not the purpose of the game. You have to follow this rule or you don’t get to play. Among the many stakeholders in a business, shareholders – investors — are an important group to be treated well, but they cannot be sustainably well treated if their interests always come before all others. Their satisfaction is an indirect result, not the objective.

The velocity of capital continues to accelerate, and we may need to re-think how to treat it well in the context of why, and under what circumstances, the business exists. How are you managing this challenge?

Career Objective: Becoming a Steward

July 13, 2012

If you’re in management, here’s a job to which you might aspire: being a steward.

There are all sorts of historical references that come to mind. A steward was a household servant that served food to masters in the castle. Later, a steward (or more frequently considered, a stewardess, another dated term) referred to the job of taking care of passengers’ needs on a ship, train, or plane.

I don’t mean any of that. A steward is someone who owns the responsibility to take care of something that belongs to someone else.

I once heard Arthur Lipper say that he didn’t want a manager to treat the organization’s money as he would his own. He preferred to see managers become the stewards of someone else’s money. He was referring to investors’ money, reflecting the mindset of shareholder supremacy. [Don’t get me started… my next posting will be about the importance of financial returns – within perspective of everything else the business must do.] I may disagree with his focus, but not the principle.

Stewardship is a higher responsibility than acting as if the asset were your own. Someone gave you something valuable of theirs to protect and nurture. As a manager, you have responsibility for, among many things, customer satisfaction (a low bar… how about customer delight?), safeguarding information, workplace safety, employee well-being, societal impacts, and yes, financial results, all (in most instances) where you do not have controlling ownership.

Kinda puts into perspective why financial firms must be so meticulous about trust and custody accounts, and why your selection of a babysitter may be the most important decision of your life (or should be).

When you become a steward, you’re becoming a servant leader, the top rung of the leadership hierarchy. With or without a title, you’ve become what every manager wants to be.

For managers, it’s not about how well you fared. It’s about how well the things entrusted to you fared.

Sick Like What?

June 28, 2012

I have described myself as being unreasonable, which many who know me might question. I use the term in the same context as George Bernard Shaw when he said “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” There are many situations we face where it’s easy to end up thinking any reasonable person must conclude that it cannot be done. If being reasonable leads you to where you don’t want to be, how about being unreasonable? That is, why not suspend conventional wisdom and consider possibilities that conventional wisdom often bypasses?

My favorite example comes from ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, while running the Badwater Ultramarathon in 2005. Badwater is a 135 mile race through Death Valley. No typos… 135 mile run in 125o, wind-swept desert. Here’s the account from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run:

By mile 60, Scott was vomiting and shaky. His hands dropped to his knees, then his knees dropped to the pavement. He collapsed by the side of the road, lying in his own sweat and spittle… His friends didn’t bother to help him up; they knew there was no voice in the world more persuasive than the one inside Scott’s own mind.

Scott lay there, thinking about how hopeless it all was. He wasn’t even halfway done… There’s no way, Scott told himself. You’re done. You’d have to do something totally sick to win this thing now.

Sick like what?

Like starting all over again. Like pretending that you just woke up from a great night’s sleep and the race hasn’t even started yet. You’d have to run the next 80 miles as fast as you’ve ever run 80 miles in your life.

No chance.

Yeah. I know.

For 10 minutes, Scott lay there like a corpse. Then he got up and did it, shattering the Badwater record…

Here’s what I do when someone says something can’t be done. I reply ‘I know it can’t be done… but if it could be done, what would it take… what might that look like?’ Pay attention to the answers: they are the route to the breakthrough.

Stay unreasonable.

Closing Loops

May 25, 2012

I hate open loops… no connection. Here are a couple that I have left open too long, now closing.

In my last post, About Average, I talked about average people having substantial capabilities without each having to achieve rock star status. So how do you get average people to outperform the rock stars? Through the system, silly. It starts with enrolling them in the core context of the enterprise, the mission, vision, values, and goals. It continues with having them participate in the development of the strategy, not just the deployment. It goes on with providing a deep understanding of customers and the resources available for delivering value. When it comes to forming a new team (projects are the unit of work), help them get off to a great start. Make sure the cross-functional team has a veteran or two (don’t forget military vets, too), some newbies, and a bunch of solid citizens. See to it that they decide and are committed to roles and responsibilities, team ground rules, and explicit commitments from each team member for what they can be counted on. This is the essence of accountability. I take it for granted that you have defined processes to perform the work; if not, better get busy. Finally, make sure you have the ability to provide quantifiable results as feedback to the team. Evidence-based management is table stakes.

In my Open Letter to CEOs, I referred to using IT for playing offense, or in this context, growing the business, not just in support of delivering the goods. I could write at length and command too much of your attention on this topic, so here are the highlights. In this era, information about products and services is as important as the goods themselves. Remember this formula: Value Added = Information ÷ Mass. To add value, you can increase the information or reduce the mass. Information can transform a product into a solution, making it more valuable to customers and giving you competitiveness, and in some cases, pricing power. If you want me expand beyond that, let me know in your feedback (always welcome).

I wrote about how important it is to understand how the future occurs to people. One of my trusted colleagues taught me that in a 25-year career, she proceeds from the belief that people’s actions are perfectly correlated with the way they see the future coming at them. This is not about expectations, or hopes, or even facts. We treat the future as a certainty (how often have you heard this example: ‘nothing ever changes around here’?), when in fact, it’s just a story we told ourselves. This is a primary driver of performance. For deeper, excellent insight, I recommend The Three Laws of Performance. If you prefer that I provide just the takeaways, let me know.

In Xenophilia, questions were suggested to be more important than answers. This is sometimes cynically seen as the refuge of people who don’t know the answer. Answers are indeed important, as they form the basis for action. But without questioning and inquiry into a universe of possibilities, the easy answers aren’t always the best. Per A. Einstein: ‘To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance…’.

Let me know if I have left other open loops… it’s my commitment to close them.