Archive for the ‘Sustained Growth’ Category

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.


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?


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.

About Average

May 1, 2012

It’s my contention that average people in a great system will outperform great people in an average system. Which begs the obvious question: so what’s average?

Like all the children in Lake Wobegon, we all tend to see ourselves as above average. One study after another (drivers are especially prone to being kind to themselves) points to a flaw in human nature that we all have too high an opinion of our capabilities. Self-esteem is a good thing, but can-do doesn’t translate into can’t-fail.

Perhaps it’s easier to describe what isn’t average. The rock star gets it faster, has deeper understanding, and makes things happen far faster than the rest of us. The laggard never gets it, and can’t seem to find his way back from lunch. The rest of us are the average.

The average person is intelligent, though not always educated. Using Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, they are self-motivated to work at something for a period of time and they get good at it. With good feedback and support, they can master their trade on an accelerated schedule. They take pride and ownership in their work. And they want to make a difference, some on a grander scale than others, but each wants to know that his efforts result in something good, personally and professionally.

My point is that the vast majority of people in organizations have what it takes to be successful, individually and collectively. Given that we have the ingredients for success, what can we do to make them into a winning team?

More to follow.

The Icing on the Nothing

February 21, 2012

My brain is wired to always be thinking about how to differentiate a business through adding value. A breakthrough that transforms the entire space would be nice, but often the value-add consists of integrating a very high level of service (with the emphasis on reliability and responsiveness, for starters) around the core product or service. Recently I have observed a number of instances where the value-add is great, but the core service is badly deficient in the minds of customers. Think of it this way: what do you do when you want to put the icing on the cake… and there is no cake? What’s the market for iced nothing? [Beyond college student eating habits, that is, which often include fried nothing and nothing parmigiana.]


This reminded me of a conversation I had with a mentor. His perspective was that 70% of people (or organizations) never advance past the core definition of a business, never see the way to add value, and so never make an impact. The next 20% can advance to the next level, but forget or forsake the core of the business and fail any way. Only 10% get to the next level of delivering the core consistently well and take the product or service to the next level.

You can argue with the percentages, but he made a great point. Maslow taught us the concept of a hierarchy of human needs. Businesses have a hierarchy of needs too, and I do mean hierarchy: don’t try to skip over rungs on the ladder or you’ll probably suffer a bad fall. There are lots of me-too businesses that can make money, but they are unlikely to be very successful, nor make an impact, nor create a legacy that endures, unless they differentiate themselves. But better/faster/cheaper has become table stakes in the marketplace.  When you come up with a great idea for the icing, you better be great at baking cakes, too. And if you’re not, fix that fast.

The Answer Is In: At Apple, It’s What We Feared

January 20, 2012

In my May 20 posting, The Leader or The System, I referenced a Fortune magazine cover story on Apple, which gave some insight into how the place works. Now Adam Lashinsky has written Inside Apple, and given us the answers we feared: despite its unparalleled success and impact, there is not a lot about how the place operates that you might select for your own organization. I recommend that you read Bob Sutton’s blog for great insight into the book, but especially what Lashinsky’s findings tell us about organizations.

Give AAPL credit for making it work, but don’t hope to be successful by copying their environment.

A New Model for Management

January 7, 2012

I wrote in my previous blog (sorry for the long lag, but those pesky Holidays have me putting family over work) that a new management model was needed to make management relevant to a new economy, one characterized by most workers performing knowledge work. [Even knowledge work is under pressure as knowledge itself has become a commodity; knowledge work in service of value creation is our focus now.] So what does the management model of the future – or today – look like?

  • It’s systematic, an integrated way of enabling the full enterprise to generate sustainable results.
  • It provides transparency for all participants and stakeholders. In this context, transparency addresses both metrics and processes. Manufacturing has long provided visibility into work-in-progress, but knowledge work has often deferred until process completion to determine the outcome. The unit of knowledge work is a project (or similar structure by another name). Projects take on different characteristics depending upon the circumstances, but they all have a plan, which the best performing organizations use to drive the work. Our visibility into projects in progress is too often reduced to Microsoft Project (great for planning, OK for tracking, lousy for reporting) or status reports that say nothing or too much.
  • Managers have a new role description, one where they are expected to be great at managing and not only subject matter experts. Managers will carry no (or at most, very little) effort to complete the work… they will be eyes-on/hands-off. They are great coaches, observing performance, providing feedback, and demonstrably committed to the success of the team and all its members.
  • The fundamental responsibility of managers is to create the conditions of success for their organizations. Managers see to it that their people have the core skills (business knowledge, alignment with the core context, understanding of processes and systems) and domain skills (practicing the latest expertise for their field of work: accounting, marketing, engineering, service, production, etc.). Managers also provide tools to scale and sustain a growing business. These include capabilities as workflow, collaboration tools, and above all, the freedom that enables front line workers to act to serve customers and innovative continuously.
  • The last aspect of the management model is actually the first. In fact, it is so fundamental that I call it the zeroth, as it becomes before everything else and only then is everything else possible. It is communications. Communications are needed to include people in the process of generating and articulating the mission, vision, values, and goals so that people are enrolled in the beginning rather than struggle to buy-in after the fact. Communications are needed to set expectations and take accountability, so that everyone knows what the team is counting on them to deliver. Communications are essential to providing safety to experiment, fostering fast/cheap failures that accelerate learning. And communications are the prerequisite to fostering a customer-focused culture in which the enterprise’s value is acknowledged and rewarded by those who count most.

The manifestation of management practices will be different in all circumstances, but the underlying attributes will have these in common. What else do you think managing in the future will require?

And lest we forget, with change ever accelerating, the future is now.

The Salt Test

November 16, 2011

You’ve probably heard of the Goldilocks test, when something is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. It’s a good metaphor, relying on the ‘I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it’ rule to invoke common sense. It may not focus enough on the outcome to help us make the right choices as we try to generate outcomes intentionally. I prefer what I call the salt test, courtesy of Bob Sutton of Stanford University. Bob’s version of it states that like perfectly salted food, leaders are best when they are perfectly assertive… managing neither too little nor too much, and you tend not to notice.

Think about the effect that salt has: use too little, and you never achieve the best outcome (a great meal), whereas using too much will completely ruin the dish. That’s a great lesson in management. Managers are prone to over-managing, which can completely ruin performance. And getting organizations to perform is the definition of management.

So how do you hit the perfect level? Add a little bit and see how it works out. If it needs more, add a little more… don’t have a heavy hand. I’ll bet you generate great results with a lot less managing than you were inclined to apply. You may find it necessary to rethink your approach and how you spend your time. That’s the beginning of an inquiry that may lead you to a managing, and performance, breakthrough. What might that look like?

[I thought you’d never ask… the topic for my next post.]