How to Make Strategy Live When You’re Not in the Room

By: On September 28, 2016

Quick. Tell me the strategy of your organization. For bonus points, tell me how your team and your role fits into that strategy. And how it affects your actions each day, especially in terms of what you choose NOT to do as a result of the strategy.

Strategy slide from Hell

Strategy slide from hell

If you’re like most of us, you’re frantically digging through your mental files for the strategy deck someone showed you months (or years) ago. In your mind’s eye, you’re scrolling past the first thirteen pages of blah blah blah with dense text and squinting at imported Excel charts. You’re wondering how those people in the strategy team missed the class on effective Powerpoint presentations, blithely putting eighteen bullets on a page in 11-point font.

And in the moments it takes to do that, your brain just says, “Stop! Forget this stupid exercise. Go back to work. Do your job. Keep your boss off your back. Leave that stuff to people who don’t have better things to do with their time.”

And that’s when you’re a member of the strategy team.


Strategy overview from hell

Imagine you’re a member of the organization just minding your own business and trying to hold down a job. In that case you don’t even bother risking a mental paper cut by digging through your mental files. You just smile benignly, wait for the person asking you to repeat the strategy to go away, turn on your heel and get back to your own little corner of the world.

This is a dirty secret of most organizations’ strategy process. They invest countless hours and most of the organization ignores the work. It’s not necessarily because employees don’t care or the strategy is poor. It’s often just because the story is way too complex. It may make sense to those who were in the room during the strategy sessions. But it may as well be the plot to Memento to everyone else.   

If strategy is coherent action in response to a challenge backed up by a rationale, this should make every leader squirm. And here’s why.

As a leader, you may have a stranglehold on the strategy, its interdependencies, and its nuances. You may be able to see the choices that are implied in the strategy, how you’re giving up one thing to get another. Maybe you can spot the useless rabbit trails a mile away and skillfully avoid them.

The problem: most of the time on most days for most of your people, you’re not in the room! Unless your company is super small or you’ve installed a secret surveillance system or you’ve invested in cloning yourself, for most of your organization’s life you’re simply absent. Sure, you show up at all of the big events and big meetings. But that’s not where coherent action actually needs to happen. Coherent action needs to happen when no one’s looking. Too often, what happens when no one’s looking is incoherent action in response to personal agendas backed up by wishful thinking.

This is why a simpler strategy story matters so much. Your job as a leadership team is not just to be brilliant and insightful and clever. On their own, these traits are lovely but over-hyped. No, you need to be clear and simple and memorable. You need to give people handles on your strategy so that they can make smart everyday strategy decisions when you’re not in the room.

A simpler strategy story usually follows a predictable storyline:

  • Here’s where we came from
  • Here’s where we are
  • Here’s where we want to go and why
  • Here’s how we plan to get there despite the terrain ahead
  • Here are the first five tactics to implement the strategy and how they fit together
Strategy Storyline

All-Purpose Strategy Storyline

If we stopped ten people in your organization and asked them about these five basic elements, how many could answer them in one or two sentences?

Your job is to make the story both simple and memorable, getting it down to one short sentence or better yet one central picture. This is why I almost always recommend bringing visual thinking into strategy work. Pictures truly are worth a thousand words, especially a thousand words in 11-point font. Brain science backs it up: a whopping 30% of the brain is dedicated to visual processing.

It’s also why I prod reluctant leaders to share strategy in the form of “chalk talks” using hand-drawn pictures instead of slide-whipping people with not-so-SmartArt-graphics-laden decks. Nothing says “I’m not invested” like generic graphics. In contrast, nothing says “I own this” more than pictures drawn by and explained by leaders.

Visual Strategist Mark Demel's take on the power of visual thinking

Visual Strategist Mark Demel’s take on the power of visual thinking

Making a simpler story is challenging. It will probably take you much longer than doing the normal 38-page Deck of Density. But you can bet your next paycheck that the next time they’re talking with a project team or a client, your people will not quote your jam packed slides no matter how brilliant your McKinsey consultant was. But they just may scribble a set of pictures of your brilliantly simple strategy on a whiteboard or a napkin when you’re not in the room. It might change how they think and feel and act. It might give them a consistent context for the everyday choices they make. Repeated over and over, it might give your organization coherent action in response to a challenge backed up by a rationale in a scaled up way.

Imagine that everyone in your organization knows why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it fits with the larger plan whether you’re in the room or not. That would make the challenge of creating a simpler story worthwhile.


Noonday SunBe Bright.

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The Moments You Live For

By: On September 7, 2015

My friend Amy tells of a woman who runs a company that makes architectural stone. She has many moments during her days – meetings, specification reviews, logistics strategy, customer visits. Those are all good moments, part of the joy and challenge of leading a company.

But they aren’t the moment.

She tells of the moment when her team is finished building a beautiful stone fixture for a customer. Something they envisioned together on a whiteboard or a PC screen has become reality, beautiful and durable and functional and tangible.

You might think that’s the moment, but not quite.

One moment: celebrating a job well done...

One moment: celebrating a job well done…

The moment this leader lives for is when her team members, gathered around the final product,  spontaneously pull out their smartphones and start taking pictures of the new installation. That’s the moment she feels the peculiar joy of a leader that comes from the intersection of making something beautiful for a customer and making great work for employees.

In addition to my consulting work, my family and I have a side business called Noonday Bread. Our model is unique: We bake two different varieties of bread most Saturday mornings. Our customers (aka Bread Fans) pre-order their bread and pick it up between noon and 3:00 p.m. at a local gourmet shop. Over the past several years, our little venture has helped us meet hundreds of people in our community and has provided excellent life experience for our boys. We use some of the proceeds to support micro-enterprise efforts in the developing world. Unlike a consulting practice, this venture is super-local and super-tangible. My kids can explain it to friends without getting that glazed look a description of my consulting job can evoke.


Converting a gorgeous hunk of dough into Bundles of Joy…

At Noonday Bread, I love a lot of moments but there are three I live for more than others. The first happens when we’re all in the kitchen shaping bread. A great big beautiful hunk of dough sits in the middle of the table. Upbeat music is playing in the background. Playful banter mixes with the sound of dough sighing as the air is pushed out of it and bench scrapers whack the table. It is a choreography of movement as we work in concert to turn 120 pounds of dough into 100 loaves of deliciousness. I love that moment.

But that’s not the moment…

Next comes what we call the “feeding frenzy.” We bake our bread to order, so most of our bread is sold before we put any ingredients into the Hobart mixer. But since it’s impossible to make exactly 102 loaves, we always make a few extra so that we’re not short. Once we know how many extra loaves we have to sell, we post a message to our Facebook and Twitter accounts announcing to our Bread Fans that we have extra loaves. We invite them to text us if they want to claim one.

Then we wait.

It takes only a few seconds for the phone to explode with life. We usually sell out within minutes. I love that moment.

But even that’s not the moment…

noonday-bread-no-bgAt our pick-up point, customers amble to the back of the shop where we’re set up. Many have a look of anticipation on their faces. We chat for a moment. We confirm their order on our customer list. They enjoy samples of that day’s bread. Then we hand over a super-fresh loaf, peeking out through the small plastic window of the paper bag. Usually, it’s still warm. Many of our customers do something instinctive: they cradle the bread in their arms, a smile of contentment creasing their faces.

That’s the moment I live for. Joy from our customers radiates back on our team. It’s why we call our loaves “Bundles of Joy.”

Light Bulb

The birth of an idea…

I’m lucky enough to have moments I live for when I consult with business leadership on strategy and building effective teams. There’s nothing like the moment when an insight flashes into the mind of a client in a strategy session – when something that was murky is suddenly clear allowing people to turn passion into action. Even better is when that insight helps the team connect their business success with doing something remarkable for the world. It’s a birth of sorts, full of potential and promise and wonder.

Ask your friends and colleagues about the moment they live for. I’ll bet it’s not when they get their paycheck, as good as that moment is. I’ll bet it’s not even when they get personal recognition, though we all like a pat on the back or the chance to walk across a stage. I’m pretty sure it’s not that quarterly review unless they happen to be masochists.

I’d put my money on this as the common denominator behind most moments we live for at work – and elsewhere for that matter. They’re the moments where we’re most connected to service, to contributing to a process that benefits others.

If you’re trying to figure out how to rally your troops around a cause, ask yourself these simple questions:  

  • What are the moments your company lives for?
  • What turns your people on beyond all reason?
  • Whom do they love serving?  
  • How do they contribute to a process that benefits others?

Figure that out and you have a bond that’s stronger than any financial incentive can create. Make it your mission to figure out how to manufacture more of those moments. And by all means, make them for yourself. That’s what will keep you charged up to face the tests that life and work so often serve up for us.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

Integrity Test

By: On August 11, 2015

CrossroadsI was in a meeting recently where a leadership team was grappling with their long-term direction. They’re doing what many leadership teams must do – trying to discern how to kick-start growth in their business. It complicates things that they work in the healthcare industry where there’s enough upheaval to make anyone feel queasy.

This has led the team to consider all kinds of growth ideas. In this particular meeting, they were exploring an idea about reaching a particular market segment, one that is super price sensitive. For a company that built its reputation on personalized service, this would be a departure.

We had a few outside experts in the room with extensive healthcare experience. As the meeting unfolded, one expert shared what another company had done to grow profitably in this price-sensitive segment. As she shared the details of the business model, it became clear that this other company had achieved its remarkable growth partly be being a little less than forthcoming with customers. Was it downright dishonest? No. But in the immortal words of one of our past presidents, it may have been truthful but not very helpful.

The punch line of the story was simple: “That company made a ton of money in this segment.”

I sat in the back of the room watching faces, starting with the leader of the business. Curiosity turned to surprise and then to… discomfort? Disgust? It was hard to put a precise word on the facial expressions, but it wasn’t good. It was the same look I see on some face when Donald Trump says how “incredibly proud” he is that he made a lot of money by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws. When someone pulls back the veil on their success and all we see is naked ambition, many of us recoil. We ask that person to please grab a towel and cover themselves.

The facial expressions in the leadership team told me one thing for sure. I knew we had stumbled on a core value. People post corporate values on walls all of the time. Usually they’re lies or wishful thinking. You know you’ve hit a true value when you’re willing to walk away from profitable revenue because the business model doesn’t fit with who you are.

My client’s company has a long history of building trusting relationships with clients and partners. They care deeply about serving others. They aren’t naive. They know that a lot of organizations and people are willing to cut corners with the truth. They know that in some cases – like the one they were hearing about in this meeting – those who are willing to make those compromises have an advantage when it comes to generating certain kinds of results. But they can’t bring themselves to conduct business in that way. It would be false. Unlike Donald Trump, results at all costs would cause them discomfort when looking at themselves in the mirror.

This is an Integrity Test. Integrity is about being truthful and upright. It’s about not fudging your expense report even when no one’s looking.

But it’s deeper than that.

Integrity is knowing what you truly stand for. It’s about grasping your real values – not the motivational posters on the wall – and living by them. Even when it costs you. Maybe especially when it costs you.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia talked about the ad her company put out during a holiday shopping season several years ago. “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” the ad blared, showing one of their high-end parkas. Of course Patagonia wants people to buy their jackets. But this wasn’t a clever piece of reverse psychology. Instead, the CEO talked about how the ad reflected the company’s core value of asking each person to have as small a footprint as possible on the Earth. That’s why they repair clothing for customers instead of simply offering replacements. That’s why they get behind low Earth-impact causes even when they have no direct benefit to Patagonia.

Ask yourself and your leadership team:

  • What would we stand for, even if it cost us in the marketplace? Usually those deep values come from somewhere in the organization’s history or the personal stories of founding members. I know of a university with roots in a religious tradition that emphasizes humble service. To this day, they’re drawn to preparing students to serve. They can’t help themselves. And I’m thankful for that.
  • When is the last time we took that sort of stand?  When did you reject a path that may have led to superficial success but would have violated your deepest beliefs? Ironically, Donald Trump is probably facing one of these moments right now. Staying true to what appears to be his core values – including achieving results at all costs within the letter of the law – will likely cost him a bona fide shot at the Republican nomination for President. This is integrity of a sort, though I wish Donald would go to the mat for something more noble than being a good Machiavellian.
  • Where can we demonstrate more integrity? There are few things more galvanizing to a team than the tangible expression of deeply held values. Look for those gray areas you’ve been avoiding, the ones that nag at you because you know they don’t really fit with your highest ideals. Search for the scary opportunity that would truly embody your company’s beliefs but carries risk or makes you stick out.

Noonday Sun
Be Bright.

The Secret To A Hopeful Planning Meeting

By: On February 24, 2014

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in a planning meeting. Your team has brain-dumped a list of great ideas that have been turned into the next wave of initiatives.  They’re inspiring. They’re feasible. They’ve won the prioritization vote. And you leave the meeting feeling defeated, because you know none of these very good ideas will be implemented.

Here’s why: there is too much clutter in the existing system. Today’s work leaves little room for new efforts. So any senior team that wants to create a great organization has to get ready for new initiatives by regularly clearing the decks. That way, you and your staff can feel excited and positive about your planning work because something productive will come of it.

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens – Photo by Jeffrey Anderson

But how do you unclutter cleverly? I decided to ask someone who has been eliminating clutter at a world-class organization for 25 years. His name is Tim Gruner and he’s the head horticulturist at Anderson Japanese Gardens, a jewel of a garden tucked away in Rockford, IL, perennially recognized as one of the top Japanese gardens in the world, and featured in garden guides. (See, for example, 55 Stunning Botanical Gardens to See Before You Die. from Emily Moore at Sproutabl.)

Tim Gruner

Tim Gruner

When you visit Anderson Japanese Gardens during the warm months, you’ll see Tim and his team out in the garden. Most of the time, they’re pruning. To you and me, it just looks like they’re cutting branches and shoots off trees and shrubs. To say we’re missing the point is an understatement.

I interviewed Tim about the art of pruning. Here are the takeaways from that interview with applications to leadership teams.

  • Context Matters: Any world-class garden is designed to create an effect on visitors. For a Japanese garden, that effect is to have humans feel connected to nature through composed scenes.

    • Leadership Application: What effect are you trying to create in customers and employees? What do you want to be famous for? Get clear on that before you start pruning. It provides you with the right mindset – the artistic eye – for the job.

  • What it’s all about (A): At a basic level, pruning keeps the garden alive by avoiding over-crowding. Tim says, “We’d lose this garden within a year if we didn’t prune it.” Individual plants need pruning so that they get enough light to stay healthy.

    • Leadership Application: How do you know if your key projects are healthy? When is the last time you examined them for signs of drift or bloat? The law of entropy applies at work just like in a garden.

  • What it’s all about (B): At a deeper level, pruning helps each plant fit with the rest of the plants around it in the “composition.” No individual plant can be managed on its own but only as it relates to the scene it creates with those around it.

    • Leadership Application: When your senior team prunes work efforts, how much of the conversation centers on how each project fits into the larger picture? Effective leadership teams design the overall work portfolio to achieve a specific strategic goal. So if a company needs to ramp up innovation to respond to a changing environment, they look at the overall weighting of their efforts and ensure that enough of them are focused on exploratory work.

  • What it’s all about (C): At its deepest level, pruning preserves the potential of the garden for future generations. By maintaining individual plants and the overall composition, you have the potential to create extraordinary experiences for people in the future.

    • Leadership Application: What pruning needs to happen now to preserve the potential of your organization for the future?

  • How to learn it: Pruning looks simple but takes years to master. Mastery starts with humility and then continues with observation of skilled pruners, experimentation under supervision, and being comfortable with the risk of mistakes.

    • Leadership Application: How intentionally do you practice the skill of pruning as a senior team? I’m not talking about the reactive cost cuts that come when business turns south or someone tells you that you must cut now. We all know what that sort of reactive exercise feels like. I’m talking about making it an art you master through regular, intentional practice.

Do some pruning before your next planning session so that your brilliant new ideas can be put into action. That way you won’t feel overwhelmed or discouraged. You’ll feel hopeful.

And if all this talk of pruning leaves you needing a Zen moment, grab a cup of green tea and check out this aerial video of Anderson Japanese Gardens shot from a drone by noted photographer Nels Akerlund.

Click below for Tim’s 60-second summary of the essence of pruning – or here for the entire 13-minute interview where Tim dives into the thinking behind pruning at a world-class garden. You’ll never look at workers pruning a garden the same way again.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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Six Beliefs Of Hazardous Organizations

By: On February 11, 2014

PoisonSome organizations should have a warning label: Caution, working here can be hazardous to your health. Complications could include high blood pressure, weight gain, insomnia, and bleeding ulcers.

Behind every hazardous work culture there’s probably at least one dangerous leader who sets the tone. Crawl a little further into these leaders’ heads. Probably, they live with beliefs that make counter-productive behaviors seem totally rational and healthy. I heard those beliefs vocalized by an administrative assistant a while ago in such bald terms it took my breath away.

I was about to start a strategy session with a leadership team. She was organizing the otherwise-empty room, setting out breakfast, dropping off snacks.

She said quietly to me, “I wish I could be here in the meeting.”

I paused, sensing something else was coming. “I mean, how do you do it?” she asked.

It’s a good question. How do I do it? I wondered.

Wait, do what?

So I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘do it?’”

She smiled slyly. “How do you get a group of senior leaders to actually work together? It must be a huge challenge.” She blinked at me knowingly. I stared back, puzzled.

“Ummm. Well, it has its moments but which challenge are you referring to?”

“Well, let’s face it. All of these people got here by stepping on others, by using and abusing people, by watching out for themselves. How do you get them to turn that off and start working together?”

Her belief system was stunning. Leaders use. Leaders lie. Leaders scrap. Because of their inherent selfishness, leaders are highly unlikely to work together.

I later learned that she had cut her teeth at a top professional services firm, one equal in reputation for excellence and aggressiveness. I couldn’t help but wonder if those formative experiences had shaped her view of leaders and work and what’s possible in a company.

Just like family backgrounds have a profound impact on how we see the world, so our early companies often shape how we see life. We pick up their beliefs and attitudes like lint – or sometimes we have an allergic reaction to them and choose to go the opposite way.

Unlike family backgrounds, we can exercise some choice about our companies of origin – at least early on in our careers. So now, when talking with young people entering the workforce, I’m going to give them a little advice: choose your company of origin carefully. We all like to believe the myth that we’re independent thinkers, impervious to the influence of those around us. It’s a lie. And we should get over it.

Here are a few beliefs you might pick up from the behaviors around you early in your career:

  • Cut-throat vs. Collaborative: If your early companies allow colleagues to be cut-throat, you’ll start to believe that you have to watch your back if you want to survive. But if your early companies expect people to help each other out – sometimes sacrificially – you’ll start to believe that loyalty and teamwork will help you thrive.
  • Corner-cutting vs. High Integrity: If your early companies are willing to bend the truth to sell stuff, you’ll start to believe that the sales goals justify the means. But if your early companies only make promises they can keep to customers, you’ll start to believe that integrity leads to long-term success.
  • Perfectionistic vs. Learning-Driven: If your early companies punish people for making mistakes, you’ll start to believe that you should keep your head down if you want to survive. But if your early companies encourage people to take smart risks, you’ll start to believe that accelerated learning is the best path to long-term earning.
  • Passive-Aggressive vs. Straight-Talking: If your early companies carefully avoid confrontation, you’ll start to believe that it’s smarter to passively resist things you don’t like instead of dealing with things head-on. But if your early companies practice constructive truth-telling, you’ll start to believe that caring enough to speak the truth is the smartest policy of all.
  • Takers vs. Servants: If your early companies only care about customers because of the profit they bring to the company, you’ll start to believe that customers are conquests or even opponents. But if your early companies show radical concern for customers, you’ll start to believe that all great work starts with the attitude of service.
  • Hype vs. Substance: If your early companies do token “community service” or “social responsibility,” you’ll start to believe that work is primarily about making money and keeping up appearances on everything else. But if your early companies have woven social responsibility into the very fabric of their business models, you’ll start to believe that great work always serves the common good as well as the bottom line.

Many of us are past those days of choosing our companies of origin. We have a stack of beliefs we’ve picked up along the way at our various employers and clients. But we aren’t powerless about this either. We aren’t doomed by the attitudes we picked up. We just have to challenge them a little bit.

Here’s how. Start by recognizing beliefs when they pop up, often in statements that begin with “all” or “none.” For example, the assistant I described above had a belief, stated bluntly as “All leaders are self-serving, Machiavellian liars.”

  • Ask yourself, “Where did I get that belief?” Play back the situations and characters who shaped that thought.
  • Ask yourself again, “Is that belief really true now? Does it need to be true now?” Does that belief pertain to your current situation or are you saddling today with yesterday’s beliefs?
  • Think for a moment about how those beliefs might be holding you back in your work today. Are they making you less trusting, less giving, more cynical, more defensive? And are those responses helping you do your best work?
  • Choose models and mentors for your future who help you do your best work with your most constructive mindset. They shouldn’t be pollyanna-ish any more than they should be hardened cynics. They should be those who are at home with the way things are, while still being their best selves.

Wherever you are, do all in your power to create your own exemplary workplace – a place where you’d want your child or your best friend’s child to have her first work experience.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Four Keys To A Successful Breakthrough

By: On November 4, 2013

Light Bulb“I’m worried about where you’re going here!” It had taken the CFO a day and a half to finally burst. He had been watching our planning session proceed, only commenting when his financial expertise seemed relevant. But after the CEO’s description of his expansive vision for the company, the CFO had finally had enough.

“What are you worried about?” Chris the CEO said, a little stunned that his normally taciturn financial sidekick had been so direct.

“You’re telling us all of the beautiful things our organization should be doing. It sounds great on the surface. You call it vision. I think it’s really mission creep.”

I felt a familiar mix of reactions to this exchange. On the one hand, I was rubbing my hands together with anticipation. This moment in the planning process can precede a breakthrough, that moment when we climb beyond superficial solutions and find creative alternatives to deep issues. This company desperately needed a breakthrough. Its market was depressed. Its products were aging. Business as usual could end up badly.

On the other hand, this moment can get messy. Though I’ve never personally experienced labor beyond witnessing the birth of my two sons, the process of a leadership team achieving breakthrough can look like collectively giving birth. There’s pain. There’s pushing. You get stuck for what seems like an eternity.

The whole experience sometimes scares people off. Teams fear getting stuck. The leader fears giving up control. Many teams either avoid the whole chaotic affair or they do a sanitized, superficial version of the process that promises safe outcomes. While tidier, there’s no baby after that approach. Maybe you get to cradle a doll that looks and coos and even pees like a baby. But the real thing comes from the mess.

After the CFO’s outburst, I called a break. I knew what was going through Chris’s mind. He had had private reservations about opening up his strategic planning process to his team, fearing that the group would slam on the brakes when he wanted to go in a different direction.

Out in the hall, Chris asked me, “How should I handle this situation?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “In the end you won’t have to lead a charge in a direction you don’t believe in. But we might just be on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Chris took a deep breath. We agreed that he would listen carefully to his team members, to understand where they were coming from, to try to find that place where their points of view intersected with his.

In other words, to wait for the breakthrough.

After the break, I called the group back together. “I’ve been talking with Chris over the break. Here’s what it looks like to me: Like many visionaries, Chris wants to stretch your organization to achieve more for your customers and stakeholders than we’ve ever even imagined. He sees possibilities. Beyond that, I think he believes that holding pat is actually a risky path, maybe even a slow death.” Chris nodded his head.

“Others in the group are worried that this expanded vision will set unrealistic goals that they will never meet. They’re worried they’re being set up to fail.  You want to succeed. And success means hitting realistic goals.” The CFO and a few others in operational roles gave knowing smiles.

“OK,” I continued. “We’re at a point in the process where it’s time to go for breakthrough. This isn’t on our agenda because you can’t plan for when it will happen. It’s a detour. But if you’re up for it, it could be very productive.”

We dove in to a rigorous and difficult conversation that had an unusual outcome: everybody got a version of what they wanted. Here’s why:

  • The team members vocalized their concerns. They needed coaxing at first. They stumbled around with their thoughts. They trod carefully, aware that they were dangerously close to stepping  on Chris’s toes. To support the process, I took their point of view and agreed with some of what they said, trying to get them to extend their necks further.

  • The leader listened. Chris hung in there on his own vision but he listened to their concerns. He supported their desire to be successful. He avoided the two usual tactics of leaders in this situation: he neither shut people down nor did he shut himself down. Together, they kept digging and waiting and believing that an answer would emerge.

  • They were honest and skillful. This is very different from being honest and unfiltered. If Chris had been unfiltered, I think he would have said that he was about to blow his stack and that he was bound and determined to expand the mission of this organization whether the team liked it or not. If team members had been honest and unfiltered, they would have rolled their eyes and said, “There you go again. You always do this. And it winds up creating messes that we have to clean up.” Neither of those approaches would have been helpful. Instead of being their worst 5-year-old selves, they were their best grown-up selves. That made a difference in how long they could hang in during the mess.

  • The mission was clear and compelling. Though it may have seemed a throw-away exercise at the time, we had spent a good chunk of time earlier in the session talking about why each member of the leadership team chose to work at this organization at this time – besides the chance to earn a paycheck. They had a surprising amount of commonality in motivation. They all wanted what was best for the company and the community it was serving. The mission was important and highly personal to each of them. Most of all, the mission was way bigger than themselves.

Even when you persevere in the labor for a breakthrough, it doesn’t always happen – at least not on schedule. And when you do get a breakthrough, it will need tender care and feeding until that fragile new life is ready to leave the hospital and venture into the big, bad world. But you dramatically increase your chances of seeing that breakthrough burst into life, seemingly out of nothing, when you navigate the mess skillfully like these folks did.


Four Alternatives To A Shouting Match

By: On September 17, 2013

You’ve been here: You’re working on a critical issue facing the organization in a cross-functional group. Maybe it’s something important like the freaking future of the company. The work of this group matters not just to the participants, but to many people who weren’t on the invitation list. And then Group Member A puts forward an idea, maybe one that would require Group Member B making some sort of change. Group Member B starts shaking his head before the thought is even on the table.

If this happens once, it’s no big deal. But sometimes it happens again. And again. And again. Over the course of a day, the pattern becomes ingrained. She says black. He says white. She says oil. He says water. Maybe the meeting is supposed to last an hour or a day, but it soon feels like a month-long hostage crisis. It may turn into a shouting match or devolve into a brewing cold war of nasty looks and snarky hallway comments, but you know one thing: nothing creative is going to happen between them and they run the risk of screwing up the atmosphere for everyone else as well.

We live in a country where this lousy way of interacting is not only becoming normal, but people make good money off it. And it’s bad. We have serious, complicated problems that require the constructive friction that comes from listening to each other, stretching our own thinking, and taking productive action. Instead we get Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and almost any comments page on many major news outlets filled with shouters. Shouting is entertaining – in a very Jerry-Springer-toxic way – but it rarely convinces. Shouting just stirs up the people who are already on your side to similarly mindless action. It’s about inciting the mob to riot.

Well, while our organizations – and our country – need plenty of revolution, rioting is rarely the way to build something beautiful. Because shouting and rioting always involve the making of winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. You don’t have to be a PhD in neuroscience to know that the human brain doesn’t do its best creative work with a gun to it. It strikes back. It runs. It shouts. It doesn’t paint a Picasso.

Next time you’re in the room and you can see the hot or cold shouting match brewing, you could try a few things: Start with yourself and the role you’re playing in this made-for-Wolf-Blitzer moment. How are you contributing to the shouting? Are you one of the shouters? Are you the host purposely throwing them into the cage to fight for sport? Are you an audience member alternately thinking “Oooh!” and “Ewww!”? Are you in the crowd, but just trying to keep your head down?

  • If you’re one of the shouters, stop and breathe. Ask yourself a question that your crazy-talk-show-guest brain can’t easily answer. Like, “What positive outcome might this other person be trying to accomplish?” or “What legitimate point might this person have?” Note: it’s hard to do this if you’ve convinced yourself that the other person is a total creep who could never even think of doing something noble. If that’s your mindset, it might be time to change the channel. Will you really get what you want by playing that tape over and over in your head?

  • If you’re the host of the show, take away the rewards for shouting. Move the conversation away from the shouters. Gently, but firmly, tell the shouters – privately if possible – “We have really important work to do here. Your input is important – but the way you’re giving it right now, and particularly how you’re interacting with Member B over there is hurting our chances of getting that work done.”

  • If you’re one of the audience members, at the very least starve the shouters from any reinforcement. Deflect their snark-tank comments on break. Refuse to be drawn into the personal aspects of the attack. Ask a question that might shock them back into thinking like a grown up, noble human. Something like, “You and I both want to get somewhere on this issue. What do you think the group needs right now if we’re going to get a good outcome?” Draw their mind from attack to service of the common good.

  • If you’re tempted to just keep your head down, ask yourself whether that’s really the best option. How does this scene play out if people like you sit on their hands? Are there others like you in the room? Could you band together and try to influence the conversation to a more productive place? Sure, intervention implies risk and may not be worth it if the powers that be desperately want a chair-heaving shouting match. But is it worth it to stay silent?

If we all rejected shouting as a change strategy – to leave the room when it’s happening, or even better to turn down the volume on the rancor and turn up the volume on the underlying legitimate issues – we’d get more done. And we all know that there is more than enough to do.

Be bright.Noonday Sun


Four Fears To Make Microsoft Great Again

By: On September 9, 2013

In the wake of Steve Ballmer’s exit from Microsoft and the announcement of their acquisition of Nokia’s handset division, many have been talking about how Microsoft has lost its innovative edge because of a culture of fear.

I think fear rocks.  If you’re human and alive, you’re afraid. Or at least you should be. Fear keeps us from doing stupid stuff as often. Fear of being a fat old man got me out of bed this morning to take a run. Fear of aggravating a gimpy knee kept that run to a manageable 4 miles.

Maybe Microsoft is just normal after all.  They’re afraid. And everyone’s afraid of something.

But over time, organizations should fear different things. Young, innovative start-ups have legit fear. They fear running out of cash. They fear being seen as normal and big and corporate. Most of all, they fear making stuff customers won’t love.

Eventually, a few of those innovative start-ups make it. A very few, like Microsoft, make it BIG. They create a buzz as the cool place to work and the company that churns out great stuff. Everyone – customers, competitors, investors, and secret admirers – wants to know about the secret sauce. People start to call, write, tweet. They want to visit, to take selfies in front of headquarters. They want to drop the inside scoop on what makes this super-successful place tick. Because we love nothing like success, even if we’re just rubbing up next to it and hoping a little of that winning fragrance hitches a ride on our clothes.

Pretty soon, the founders realize they’re riding a rocket. They grant interviews. They write books. They distill their experience into snappy lists. Eventually, they host conferences and visits for the eager masses.

Behind the scenes, something subtle but profound is shifting: their fear. Oh sure, they still have fear. But now they fear different things. They fear losing their exalted place in their social universe. They fear losing their reputations. Suddenly they realize how high they’ve risen and they develop a fear of falling.

And here’s where they unconsciously make the big mistake: they confuse the fear of falling with the fear of failing. They start taking fewer risks. As Ballmer reportedly told Microsoft’s leader of an innovative web-based word processing product ten years ago, “The company can’t afford another big bet right now.” They start to become more insular and less open to contrary ideas, aided by sycophants who keep singing their praises. They start to pretend they have answers they don’t have because they forget that humility and curiosity are virtues, not signs of weakness.

Great companies like Microsoft and Nokia – and let’s say it like it is, these two companies have been hugely successful and influential companies in the last 30 years – should be afraid. But to avoid being the combination of two freaked out companies hugging each other on the edge of their self-made cliff, they should cultivate different kinds of fear:

  • Fear of doing boring work. Any company in an industry as innovation-driven as technology should be scared to death about doing work that is seen as humdrum. The smartest, most bright-eyed talent just won’t bother going there to work anymore. Unfortunately for Microsoft-Nokia, most people aren’t turned on by the super-lucrative Windows/Office franchises and the iconic Nokia ringtone is a thing of the past.

  • Fear of a lack of big ideas. Microsoft needs to instill a healthy fear of just turning the crank. People throughout the organization should know that the ticket to not only advancement but continued employment is coming up with, incubating, and testing big ideas. You’d know Microsoft-Nokia cultivated this fear if a healthy proportion of their leaders had track records nurturing big ideas vs. maximizing big, existing product lines.

  • Fear of the cost of failure. As Rita McGrath and Ian MacMillan have pointed out, it’s not how often you fail that matters. It’s how much those failures cost. Start-ups are great at this because they have to experiment but often don’t have much cash. If Microsoft-Nokia can rediscover that spirit and hold innovators accountable for being shrewd managers of experimental resources, they can get back in the game.

  • Fear of lost learning. While managing the cost of failure is important, it’s equally important to ensure that every experiment – especially the failures – are stripped clean of all learning possible.

While shifting the culture of any company – especially one as large as Microsoft, much less the combined Microsoft-Nokia – is a daunting task, instilling these useful fears would give the company the chance to become the hot place where top talent wants to work on cooking up wow-inspiring work for delighted customers. And that would be good for everyone.

Be bright.Noonday Sun


Lessons From An Inferno

By: On August 12, 2013

Many of us read with sadness about the deaths of 19 members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting team earlier this summer. Despite their best efforts and extensive expertise, they died when they were over-run by a wildfire that even overcame their emergency shelters. Their loss reminded me of a situation that very nearly ended up similarly during a forest fire in northern Minnesota two years ago. The review of that situation led to some important lessons for us all.

The thundercloud-like effect of the smoke, Saturday evening

Pagami Creek Fire

But first, imagine this scene: A group of people on a remote wilderness lake are overtaken by a raging wildfire. They jump into canoes and paddle for their lives as the shoreline they just left explodes into 100-foot flames. Though it’s midday, the sun is blotted out by the fire’s smoke, so much so that they don headlamps. The smoke is so thick that the person in the stern of the canoe can’t even see the bow of the canoe only 18 feet away. The wind created by the wildfire whips up huge, ocean-like waves and fires embers at the paddlers like a machine gun. The canoes struggle to avoid being swamped, then surf downwind in a desperate dash away from the inferno. The campers are separated from each other and left to try to figure out how to survive in pairs.

If this were a summer movie screenplay, you’d expect Kevin Bacon to pop up as a shady character behind it all. But these are the actual terrifying circumstances faced by eight backcountry rangers during the massive Pagami Creek forest fire in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area on September 12, 2011.  (To get a sense of how big this fire was, we had smoke from the fire creating haze in Chicago, 400+ miles away.)

The team had been assigned the seemingly benign job of clearing campers out of harm’s way as the fire – thought to be miles away – proceeded across the lake-dotted landscape. They had no idea that morning that they would be fleeing for their own lives and pushing their survival skills to the absolute limit.

Here’s an interesting tidbit buried in the report: Team members had been briefed on what to do if they were overtaken by the fire. One idea was to paddle out into the lake and then ditch out of the canoe, using the water as a safe zone from the fire. Also, each member of the team had an emergency fire shelter in their gear, a high-tech foil pouch that you can huddle in if you get trapped.

When the fire approached, they got out onto the lake. And each person had a shelter handy. They hesitated before using either strategy until it was almost too late. Why?

If you were stuck in a fire, wouldn’t you assume that the millions of gallons of water sitting in that lake was your best hope? All of the planners sure did, until someone tried it in a real fire situation.

Imagine you’re in the water 150 feet from shore where 100-foot flames are exploding up the trees. You think you’re safe until you realize that very strong winds are sucking you in toward shore. It turns out that a fire this big creates tornadic winds that actually pull you toward the fire. So now you’re having to swim against this wind as hard as you can with huge waves hitting you and smoke all around searing your lungs. It’s September, so the water is chilly. And maybe you’re just a tiny bit stressed out. To say this is bad is an understatement.

So maybe the water isn’t your friend as much as you thought after all.

Then there are the rescue shelters. Why did people being pelted by embers, completely enveloped by smoke, and frighteningly close to a raging inferno hesitate to deploy their shelters? They were following training. Wilderness personnel were repeatedly told, “Deploying a shelter is an absolute last resort!” (Check out this video explaining the proper usage of this sort of shelter. The point about shelters as last resort is made explicitly at the 5-minute mark.) That teaching was smart on the surface: it prevented people from taking unnecessary risks thinking the shelter would bail them out. And it probably made the shelter manufacturer’s lawyer happy.

I’m sure the trainers didn’t intend that people put themselves in mortal danger instead of deploying a shelter. But here’s how the wilderness safety team interpreted the training: If you deploy your shelter, you’re admitting that you’re in deep doo-doo. In fact, you’re admitting that you probably made a mistake somewhere along the way.  No one wants to be that guy who admits that, especially if there’s any chance you can pull off a great escape. “I’ve got this” is a way more confidence-inspiring attitude than “Holy $#&*$#, deploy the shelters!!!” So the unwritten rule became Carry the shelter, but don’t deploy it.

In the end, all of the members of this wilderness safety team survived this crisis after a day I’m sure they’ll never forget. The full report reads like an action movie screen treatment and is well worth the read. You’ll see that while the team all made it out, they needed a huge slice of luck.

It’s unlikely you dodge forest fires in your day job. But we can – and should – learn from this case. Here are a couple of things we might take away:

  • Test your assumptions. What looks like a good option on paper might not work out in real life, especially if the conditions become extreme. So when you map out your plans, identify the environmental variables that will affect how you play the game. Then push those assumptions to unthought-of extremes. Does your plan still work? Do you know? How could you test those assumptions in a safer, friendlier environment than the real thing?

  • Watch your unwritten rules. Every organization has unwritten rules about how things should get done. Are you aware of yours? Are they serving you? If not, what can you do change them before someone takes unnecessary risk?

  • Encourage people to ask for help early and communicate what they really need. It’s normal to not speak up during emergencies. But it’s right then – during the emergency – when we most need to be our most communicative. This might also argue for building personal relationships with those in the support structure before emergencies hit whenever possible. We’re much more likely to speak candidly and listen carefully when we know the person on the other end of the line and we know they’re really in our corner.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Eleven Innovation Buzzkills

By: On June 11, 2013

Ask almost any executive what they want in their stocking for Christmas next year and they’ll say, “Innovation!” That’s why HBR and Fast Company and Inc. and every other business magazine trumpets the latest thinking about innovation. Ignore for a second the obvious reasons for this – that we Americans are hopelessly enamored of the shiny new  thing, that we’re too lazy to do the hard work of mastering something.  Worse than Innovation being over-exposed is the plain fact that we say we want to be innovative but we don’t live that way. It’s like supermarket magazines selling diets. We don’t want to live skinny, we just want to be skinny. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

If you’re grumpy about the whole Innovation thing and just want it to go away, here are eleven sure-fire rules that will snuff it out in your organization.

  1. Give him a Scooby snack!

    Give him a Scooby snack!

    Rule 1 – Feed the barking dogs. That’s right, if you want to kill innovation, be sure to focus on the urgent stuff. Urgent stuff will almost always be taking care of today’s business or tweaking things to be a little better. Innovation usually involves carving out time and money to focus on exploratory work even when the dogs of today’s business are barking their faces off. I say feed the dogs. Give them Scooby snacks. Let them wag their little tails of joy when you give them all of your energy. Pat them on the heads and thank them for saving you from Innovation.

  2. Rule 2 – Treat all the kids equally. Innovative companies have this annoying habit of being unequal. If you ask them, they’ll get all huffy and tell you that being fair and being equal are two very different things. “Feed success and starve failure” is how they put it. They throw more resources at things that are working and brutally cut off things that aren’t. How unfair is that?!? I say even failures deserve to eat. In fact, if you want to kill innovation like I do, make sure you give each effort equal resources. Avoid nasty choices and keep everyone happy. That’ll teach them.

  3. Rule 3 – Ask for good ideas but don’t tell people what you’re looking for. When any of those pesky innovation people you haven’t rooted out of your organization ask for direction on what sorts of ideas would get management support (showing you’ve utterly failed on Rule 1), tell them “Good ones!” Then smile benignly. When they bring an idea back to you, tell them, “Hmmm… well, that’s not quite it. Try again.” Don’t worry, eventually they’ll get exasperated and bring their so-called creative thinking somewhere else. Good riddance. If you do mistakenly give them clear guidelines, they might start to self-filter and stop wasting their precious time. That would be bad. Nothing teaches someone to stop trying like making them waste time.

  4. Rule 4 – Have an annual Innovation Summit. This one’s a killer and I love it. Put on a shindig each year that trumpets your focus on Innovation. Invite inspirational speakers. Spend wads of cash. Then be sure to ignore innovative projects and ventures the rest of the year. If innovation appears on your regular meeting agendas at all, put it at the end or even better after lunch when everyone is either snoozing or surreptitiously checking email on their smartphones under the desk. Pretty soon, everyone will know that innovation is a charade in your company. And kids, who doesn’t love charades? Next year, they’ll be carrying you on their shoulders at the annual Innovation Summit.

  5. Rule 5 – Slaughter failures. We all know that innovation is messy, like the invention of the Twinkie must have been. You don’t get all of that fake goodness in one plastic pouch without spilling some artificially flavored filling on the floor every now and then. Whatever you do, yell at people when stuff hits the floor. People have a hard time concentrating when their hair is getting blown back by a human hair dryer. Eventually, they’ll just stop trying new things. Better yet, when they do secretly try something and fail, they’ll hide what they learned. That way, they’ll be wasting someone else’s time by making them learn stuff the hard way. See also Rule 3.

  6. Cubicle Prison

    Stick your innovators here…

    Rule 6 – Make innovation lonely. You know what they do with dangerous prisoners? They put them in solitary confinement. Do the same thing with your innovative people. Make them learn to tap on the walls of their cubicles to share ideas. Just don’t even think of getting them together to “blue sky” or “ideate,” whatever the heck that means. Which reminds me, don’t let them hang out with consultants who have nothing better to do than invent ridiculous words like ideate.

  7. Rule 7 – Expect home runs. Here’s the great thing about innovation: it’s risky. In fact, failures far outweigh successes. So just make it known that every new venture has to be a blockbuster or your career around here is finished. That will put a nice chilling effect on 99% of the population because they’re not independently wealthy and actually need jobs. Losers! Even better, discourage people from setting intermediate metrics or identifying core assumptions. That way they’ll have a hard time learning anything (at least until it’s too late!) and they can waste more time. At the risk of being repetitively redundant, see again Rules 3 and 5.

  8. Rule 8 – Ignore your users. Down deep, those innovation freaks love making life better for users. You must starve them of this drug to cure them of the addiction. Keep them far, far away from users. Don’t collect information about your users and what their lives are really like – or even more fun, collect it but hide it. What a delightful waste of time! Have them worry about what the bosses want instead. That’s the side of the bread they should be buttering.

  9. Rule 9 – Hide the secret sauce. Whether you like it or not (and believe me, I know you hate it), your company probably has a secret sauce. There’s something you do really well – or could do really well – that would make users come back to you over and over. At all costs, don’t let your team discover that sauce. Or if they do, please please don’t let them think about how to deliver that saucy goodness consistently to more people. Let them think of it like that magic trick you do for friends that works 25% of the time. We can probably live with 25%-of-the-time magic because users hate that kind of inconsistency. See also airlines and Rule 8.

  10. Rule 10 – Take the gate off the playpen. To really give Innovation a kick up the backside, only hire kids and hipsters to your innovation teams. You and I are stinky old buzzkills and we all know it. Those kids, they have all of the answers. Except they don’t. Which is the delicious part. By only having kids on the innovation teams, you’ll get a lot of ideas but starve the teams of the pattern recognition required to make wise decisions. Then you can tell your boss that you tried the innovation thing and it didn’t work. As the kids apparently used to say, “Epic!”

  11. Rule 11 – Do knock-offs. We all know that nothing succeeds like success. So restrict your teams to only trying things that have worked elsewhere. Have them benchmark endlessly. If imitation is the best form of flattery, be the world’s biggest suck-up. See also Hollywood, book publishing and Rule 7.

Of course, you get the point that this is the way too many companies work. They want to be innovative, but they kill innovation through their unwritten rules. To actually be innovative, they’d have to flip these rules on their heads. They’d have to give up dieting and change their lifestyles. Then you couldn’t kill innovation no matter how hard you tried.

Be bright(er). Noonday Sun

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