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.

Buying What You’re Selling

January 19, 2012

The New York Giants are playing the San Francisco 49ers this weekend in the NFC Championship Game. I’m rooting for the Giants… hey, I’m from New York, and although I consider myself a Jets fan (OK, Rex has a big mouth that he needs to zip), that hometown thing has a strong pull. But I acknowledge that I’m drawn to people and organizations where strong leadership and management approach show unmistakable results. The Niners are just such a team this year.

The Niners, the darlings of the NFL in the 80s and 90s, have not lived up to their reputation and standards more recently. Even last year, they were a 6-10 team. But this year, they excelled at 13-3 in the regular season and decisively beat the powerhouse Saints in the first playoff round. Yet the roster this year is almost identical to last year… so what’s different? Football fans knew the punchline before I wrote this: it’s Jim Harbaugh as Head Coach. Harbaugh took over from Mike Singleterry, who everyone knows is a great football man with a passion to win.

Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe described it this way in his appearance on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters: the team wasn’t buying what Mike was selling, but they’re buying Jim’s brand of leadership: “Who’s got it better than us? NOBODY!” Jim is selling belief in their ability, and he demonstrates how that ability is equal to any challenge.

Interestingly enough, on the other side of the ball this week, Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin tells (and tells, and tells again) his players that “the only way to win is if you believe in each other”. In fact, there is a case to be made that every NFL team has enough talent to be a winner, and many enough to be champions. The difference in most instances is the team’s chemistry and commitment to excel, stoked by the leadership.

For most of us, work is a team sport, so lessons from sports teams can provide valuable lessons. I know that turns off some people, but learning from wherever is always a good thing. I’m not big on selling, but prefer enrolling, so that a commitment to achieve something creates a breakdown for everyone if it’s not happening. But you also know that I believe that the other success factor is deployment, putting the commitment into action. The team that does that best this weekend will win.

I’m expecting a great game from both teams, so enjoy the game, have some fun, but appreciate how both teams got here… and what it says about winning.

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.]

The Key

September 6, 2011

“One thing you’ll notice if you spend very much time talking with Sam about Wal-Mart’s success. He’s always saying things like ‘This was the key to the whole thing’, or ‘That was our real secret’. He knows as well as anyone that there wasn’t any magic formula. A lot of different things made it work, and in one day’s time he may cite all of them as the ‘key’ or the ‘secret’. What’s amusing is that for almost fifty years he’s managed to focus on all of them at once – all the time. That’s his real secret.” – David Glass, former CEO, Wal-Mart

Hmmm… focusing on all the key elements all the time… sounds like a management system… but I digress…

The quote from David Glass comes from the final chapter of Sam Walton: Made in America, Sam’s autobiography. I don’t read ‘how I did it’ business books, but Sam was so likable, so accessible, so successful, I read his book when it came out in 1992 and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I most remember is Glass poking a little fun at Mr. Sam on this point. We all want to know the magic formula for successful organizations and Glass’ insight is probably the best in that it’s seldom one thing, but a lot of things considered together.

I have come to see two things as being ‘key’ (there, I said it, so go ahead and poke fun at me… but please read on) to creating the conditions for success: Enrollment and Deployment. Everything else flows from there.

Enrollment is perhaps too fancy a term for what we often refer to in other ways: buy-in, or getting everyone on the same page, or sometimes alignment. Enrollment means more. It’s having everyone committed to the same things so powerfully that if any one of those things isn’t happening, it becomes a breakdown for all. Having everyone enrolled means that you tap the full capabilities of every person and not just a few at the top. Buy-in often manifests as sincerity or compliance, not powerful commitment. Enrollment is more important than loyalty, which implies blind obedience without engaging everyone’s full energy. Enrollment results not in getting people to do what needs to be done but getting people to want what needs to be done. I learned that lesson from Michael Hammer, but I found out that Dwight Eisenhower raised the point far earlier.

Deployment means action, putting into practice what you said you were going to do. It’s wonderful to have great ideas, but as Drucker said, they are meaningless until it all degenerates into work. Work isn’t as easy to define today when so much of what we do is based on ideas more than manual labor. Knowledge work must be every bit as disciplined as physical work or it tends to manifest as groups of people talking past each other, an indication of an imbalance of much more talking than listening. Ground rules can be just as important (or more so) than process instructions to foster autonomy and creativity on the way to producing intended results. Deployment is about putting sound ideas into practice, about walking-the-talk.

Management has many responsibilities, but creating the conditions of success is prime among them. Enrollment and deployment are the foundations of achieving that goal. How does it work in your organization?

The Leader or The System?

May 20, 2011

The May 23 issue of Fortune magazine is the annual Fortune 500 edition. The lists are predictably boring, but the feature story on Apple is riveting. The picture is created from too many unattributed sources, so we can only interpret how accurate the picture may be. But our direct observations lend credibility to the story. And the story is what we suspected, or feared, or admire: Steve Jobs is the story.

Financial analysts are positively ghoulish in their anticipation of Jobs’ departure or demise. Corporations are going concerns that are intended to endure beyond their leaders. But leaders matter, and the imprints on their organizations are indelible. The impact of Jobs’ leadership has been a globally cultural phenomenon, as much or more as any CEO you can cite. The Fortune story says his impact on Apple as an organization is what we suspected, or feared, or admire: Steve Jobs is Apple.

I don’t want to diminish the commitment and contribution of a corporate population of extremely talented people, but the Fortune story puts Jobs’ fingerprints on everything. Not just the context and culture of the organization. I mean everything, from product design to food service, architecture to transportation. What remains unclear is the opening that exists for many in the organization to contribute their imagination along with their effort. Beyond fulfilling their need for affiliation with a history-making company, what’s in it for them? Why should they follow Steve Jobs and do what he, and apparently only he, wants?

For that matter, why do we follow any leader? Here’s my take.

People follow a leader when they are enrolled in the mission, vision, and values of an organization. They believe in what the organization’s all about, its core context. And they also follow courageous leaders in time of crisis, whether it’s a crisis created by declaration or by hitting a brick wall. In these instances, it’s all about the leader. Absent the crisis, the core context still matters, but people are committed to follow their leader when the leader is committed to enabling the people to systematically achieve ever higher levels of success (as defined by the context), both organizationally and personally. What results is systemic innovation from the gifts of all its people, and consequently a much higher prospect of sustainability. Despite the leader’s impact, it’s all about the people.

The day will certainly arrive when Apple operates without Steve’s hand on the wheel. I hope that day is the distant future. For all he has meant to Apple, to his family, to Apple’s people, and to all of us, I believe that he leaves a legacy greater than products, a system that continues its history by setting cultural paths for the world.

What’s your take: will Apple without Jobs diminish to mediocrity, or will Apple continue to flourish?

A Winning Season vs. A Championship Season

April 6, 2011

“In the end it all comes down to talent. You can talk all you want about intangibles; I just don’t know what that means. Talent makes winners, not intangibles. Can nice guys win? Sure, nice guys can win — if they’re nice guys with a lot of talent. Nice guys with a little talent finish fourth and nice guys with no talent finish last.” – Sandy Koufax

Those who know me know that it is my contention that average people in a great system will outperform great people in an average system. I’m being a little clever here, so lest I get caught at it, let’s pursue this point. When a Hall of Fame pitcher makes an argument for a different point of view, it deserves respectful consideration.

This issue came to mind with this week’s NCAA Men’s Basketball championship game of Butler vs. UConn. Butler’s commitment, team work, and hard work took them to their second consecutive final, but it wasn’t enough to overcome UConn’s talent surplus. So is it simply a matter of system vs. talent?

Here’s another data point: the Oakland A’s consistently outperform teams with much higher payrolls, presumably an indicator of more talented players. But how many World Series has Oakland won since the advent of Billyball, described so wonderfully in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball? Their system is sufficient to produce winners… but not champions.

Back to my being clever (as the Brits would say… not in a good way): my point about a great system outperforming great people has a few other facets. To me, the average system is no system at all, usually relying exclusively on heroics. I’ll take all the heroes I can, but I can’t plan on the heroes showing up always and exactly when needed. And something I don’t say often enough… hence this post… is that the best results (i.e., championships) are achieved by great people in a great system. A great system adapts to leverage the assets available to it. UConn played the same players but adapted in the second half by learning from experiences in the first 20 minutes and making it a rout.

The takeaway from this consideration is that, as Jim Collins first pointed out, don’t view it as an either/or tradeoff. The best results are the product of a great system and great people. The best system develops and enables the talents of the people within it. And it creates the conditions of success, whether success is defined by a winning season or a championship, by ensuring that the talent is available to fulfill the commitment.

See the system as serving and improving the people, and not people as cogs in the system.

Yeah, But We’re Different

March 14, 2011

There was an article in the March 13 New York Times titled Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. It describes Project Oxygen where Google studied why many of their bosses were so bad and the impact that had on employees’ performance and voluntary turnover. True to their roots, Google performed a rigorous analysis of reviews and feedback from employees, and derived a set of eight behaviors that characterize good managers at Google. The surprise (for Google, anyway) was that technical expertise was last on a list of abilities mangers needed to be effective.

Well good for them. It turns out that subject matter expertise is important in becoming a good boss. It’s just that the subject requiring the expertise is Management, and not necessarily the functional domain for which the manager has responsibility. And the management domain includes both the hard stuff (that is, tangible things like processes and systems) and the soft stuff (people, culture, communications). Except the soft stuff is hard (difficult) and the hard stuff is soft (easy by comparison).

Google went through a process that worked for them. They analyzed data and synthesized its relevance and purpose. It’s most common that people don’t accept a new idea (or product, or service, or whatever) until they can see (not imagine… see) their world reflected in it. So Google needed to understand what it means to be a good manager at Google before they could embrace principles the NYT Editor Adam Bryant described as ‘forehead-slappingly obvious’. I love the quote from the late Douglas Adams: ‘Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.’

Almost every organization falls back on ‘yeah, but we’re different’. And true enough, no two organizations are alike. All are distinct, yet retain fundamental similarities, especially that they are comprised of people: diverse people, drawing from and operating in different cultures, but all members of the same club.

The best management system is generative, not prescriptive. It allows you to find your way to create the organization and the future you want to have. Google found a key part of theirs.

Has your organization?