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.

meeting-from-hell

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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Three Marks of High Leverage Change Opportunities

By: On April 15, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let’s say you just took over a major business unit of a well-known consumer services company. You were brought in from outside the industry because you had a stellar history of creating healthy growth in other consumer-oriented services companies.  Recent results have been mediocre. New competitors lurk around the corner, some of them bigger and badder than the company has ever faced.

You can see fundamental issues in the business – as fundamental as a casual attitude toward customers and the frontline employees who serve them. You know this because employee turnover at key frontline sales and service positions is through the roof. Maybe these symptoms are normal for this industry, but they’re not normal for you.

You’ve been in your role for 30-60 days. You’ve gotten out in the field and seen first-hand what’s going on with customers and employees. You’ve started collecting people to go along with your observations. You’ve sorted your insights into what’s right, wrong, unclear, and missing about this organization.

Maybe your analysis looks something like this.

Four Helpful Lists Filled In

It’s time to plan some action. But not any old action. Anyone can get busy. The relentless pressure you’ll feel to DO SOMETHING will tempt you to jump into the busy-ness pit. Stop. Think.

Look especially for high leverage change opportunities, those places where you can push a little and get a lot of result.  Here’s what to look for:

  • Avoid this!

    Avoid this!

    Push Levers, Not Rocks – Look for initiatives where focused effort on a relative few people, processes, or customers will touch many others. For instance, if your problem is improving how your sales organization interacts with customers, it will be tempting to focus energy on training front-line salespeople. That’s pushing a very large rock uphill and probably the wrong place to start. Instead, ask yourself where the high-leverage few are. Usually that’s going after sales managers or opinion leaders in the sales organization.

  • Find Double-sided Initiatives – You’re new into a culture with unwritten rules on how things run and what matters. If you want your ideas to be accepted, look for initiatives that can be positioned in at least two ways – to appeal to the existing cultural norms and to drive the organization toward the new cultural rules that you want to instill. So if the existing culture is cost and numbers driven and you want to foster a customer-obsessed culture, look for initiatives that can be positioned as reducing costs to your corporate colleagues while you emphasize the impact on customers to your own team. Avoid if possible single-sided moves that only play to the existing culture or the desired culture. If you completely conform to the current culture, you lose your edge for change. If you ignore the current culture in the zealous pursuit of change, it’s only a matter of time before the organization spits you out.

  • Select Symbolic Initiatives – Look for efforts around which you can wrap your change story. So if you’re trying to change the culture from being casual toward customers to being customer-obsessed – and you’ve chosen your sales leaders as the leverage point – be ready to explain the initiative in terms of how it supports that change and why that change is important. The argument for driving a customer referral program could go something like this:

    • “Delighting customers isn’t just a feel-good thing to do. It’s the smartest way for us to run our business and to protect ourselves from powerful new entrants to our market.”

    • “While our salespeople are the ones who most directly touch customers, our leaders are the ones who create an environment that drives how salespeople think and act. It’s our job as leaders to make selling easier over time and there’s no better way to do that than to get customers spreading the love.”

    • “We’re going to invest in and measure an initiative to help salespeople generate and track leads from referrals. But we’re going to deliver this program entirely through our sales leaders because you are the ones to make this happen.”

To make the initiative really symbolic, be ready to both publicly recognize progress and firmly deal with those who don’t get on board. And by firmly deal with, I mean potentially letting some of those people go. You don’t have to be nasty, but you do have to be resolute based on the business case and your principles.

Observe. Diagnose. Select. Act. You’re on your way.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

 

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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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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

 

Can’t Find The Right People? Maybe Your Business Model Is Busted

By: On May 22, 2013

You’re sitting around the conference room table with your fellow executive team members staring at a list of symptoms. Sales are flat or even falling. When you start to dig into root causes, you immediately notice that your company has promoted star salespeople to new areas of responsibility. Now those stars’ shoes seem impossible to fill.

This stage might not last...

This stage might not last…

The company has brought in person after person but all of them crash and burn. The pattern is the same no matter what you try:

  • New people come into your company full of energy and optimism. You tell them they’re going to be rock stars. They believe you. After all, they were high performers elsewhere.
  • For the first six months, the new folks drink from the fire hose. They learn your products and services. They get to know people. They settle into their territory or account base. Everyone is still in an optimistic version of “wait and see.”
  • For the second six months, you get the distinct impression that these previously successful people had been donors in a confidence transplant surgery. While they try to disguise it, you can tell that they’re now quietly questioning whether they were ever that good after all. Their activity levels drop as their fear and uncertainty rises.
  • This stage, however, may stick...

    This stage, however, may stick…

    For the third six months, they’ve moved to a new mental place. They blame the company. It’s not their fault that they’re struggling. The training isn’t that good. Their manager stinks. The compensation rewards the wrong things. The product is weak.

  • The new salespeople quit or get fired. After a long enough period, the leader gets fired too. And so the wheel turns. You’ve just wasted a couple of years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Any time a job defeats a succession of otherwise qualified people, not only is something busted with the job, something is probably wrong with the company’s business model. If you look at why you keep failing to fill your star spots, you’ll see the following:

  • The business model is built around the heroic efforts of a certain group of people, who have to figure out how to attract, win, and retain customers in spite of the company. Because the company hasn’t made it easy.
  • A few stars – maybe up to 15% of the people in those roles – have actually figured out how to be those heroes. This gives the role and the model some face validity since someone’s figured it out. After all, if no one could figure it out, the company would be forced to change or go bust immediately.
  • You’ve made those Freaky Few the template for success. “Hey, Brandon can do it. Let’s just look for more Brandons!!”

But it doesn’t work. If you want to grow and if growth requires more people playing this critical role, you simply won’t find enough of the Freaky Few who will want to come work for you. Even if you do, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll find yourself hostage to them. They’ll know they’re the Freaky Few and whether they’re senior executives, hot shot programmers, or front-line salespeople, they’ll know that they have you. Get ready for a regular series of offers and counter-offers from other companies as the geniuses exercise the power of being in demand.

So if you find yourself stumped by the question, “How come our salespeople (or developers, orwhatever) keep failing?” stop playing around with the stuff on the edges. Ask the more fundamental questions:

  • What is it about how we do business – how we attract, win, retain, and grow customers – that makes it so hard for normal people to do this job?
  • What changes would we need to make to our overall model to make this job – and all of our jobs – fit for consumption by normal human beings?

Addressing those questions isn’t the sales leader’s job or heaven help me, the recruiting team’s job: it’s the job of the whole leadership team. Holistic problems require holistic solutions. And that’s the job of the leadership team – to see the whole, own the whole, and manage the whole. When you do that, scale can happen. Until then, you’re at the mercy of the geniuses.

Be bright. Noonday Sun

If You Do Your Best Work Under Pressure, You’re Not Alone

By: On February 13, 2013

I was trying to pray this morning and all I could get in my mind was what happened last night. My wife and I were doing a 30-minute talk for a group of about 150 people. Being the super-organized person she is, my wife had outlined the talk for us noting where she would speak and what points I would cover. Most sections of the outline had clear talking points and examples.

One section earmarked for me basically said, “Do that thing you do here.” I had received the outline a week ago. She had dutifully shown me that section so that I could prepare.

I mulled that section over during the week. I sat at my desk. I took it with me in the backpack of my mind on a run. I drove around with it.

Nothing. Zip. Nada.

Then it happened. The host of the evening had already introduced us and the participants were doing a 10-minute group exercise. Suddenly, the ideas flowed. I scribbled furiously on the back of the carefully-printed-by-my-wife notes. Then we walked up and did the talk. My sections went OK, but the part of the talk I scribbled out just before game time was clearly my best.

I wish I could say that this was unusual. But here’s the truth. I need work and the pressure it creates. Desperately. Maybe you do too. Here’s why for me:

  • I need to eat. Duh. Work that adds value gets paid for. Then you eat. But that’s not all…
  • There’s actually some decent stuff inside of me. And I’ll bet there’s cool stuff inside of you too. But it’s buried inside me like a deep oil field that doesn’t do anyone any good until it sees the light of day. Work fracks the good stuff free. Work shapes it. Occasionally, work makes it beautiful or brilliant or useful.

I wish my work process was neater and less nerve-wracking. Waiting for inspiration to hit me frustrates me, similar to the feeling I get watching my teenage son who apparently isn’t happy unless he has his daily panic caused by staying in bed until the last possible minute and almost missing his school bus. I wish I could spell out a predictable and pedestrian pattern that has produced my best ideas. I’d probably become a millionaire and sell a gajillion books and be featured on TED which is my personal fantasy since that’s my name after all.

Prepare to be disappointed.

Here’s how it actually works:

  • Someone knows me and asks me to help solve a problem. This problem usually involves wrangling a group of skeptical Type A executives through a creative planning practice to help them decide a little thing called their future. Cue the screeching monkeys.
  • I say yes. It’s not like I don’t know how to do it – that would be malpractice – but I’m honestly going to have to figure out how to do it this time.  Because every case, while having similarities to past situations, is a bit different. It’s a bit of live at the improv. Don’t tell me you don’t do this. You do. And I’m glad you do. If we all only did the things we’ve done 1000 times before – and in the same way we did in the past –  we’d never do anything new. For that matter, we wouldn’t do anything. Except maybe eat and sleep. Which, if you can get paid to do, I say go for it.
  • Get yourselves organized!!I sit with the problem. I schedule time and work on it. I puzzle. I write notes on post-it notes and slap them on my office window secretly hoping they’ll arrange themselves in proper order like a flock of migrating geese mysteriously drawn home.
  • I struggle. I mull. I take a run. Time ticks by. I scribble in my iPad.
  • Just in time (usually), the inspiration comes. I get an idea that will crack the case this time.
  • I show up and do the work. It (usually) goes well.

I often have my most useful ideas when I’m pressing into a new arena. Those ideas have “happened” on airplanes, in the shower (too often), on runs (which is why I now carry a digital voice recorder when I run), and probably many places I now forget because I had no way to record the ideas. But one thing is certain: I only get these ideas if my mind is tuned to the How Can I Best Serve These Folks channel. If I’m on the I Don’t Want Have an Epic Fail and Look Stupid channel, I might as well fold up shop and go home. Nothing good is coming out of that.

When I told her I might blog this, my wife said, “You’re going to admit that?!?” Bless her. I think she gets ideas and inspirations through a neater, more predictable process like someone putting a quarter in a gumball machine. A coin goes in and out comes a ball of sugary goodness. The only question is what color it will be.

My process is more like plastic extrusion – pressure, heat, and smoke. And I’m not ashamed of it for a simple reason: I’m not being lazy. I’m not even procrastinating. I show up for all of those frustrating meetings with myself days and weeks before the lights go on. If I didn’t, I’d accuse myself of being slipshod and I’d fire myself.

But I can’t afford to do that because I need the work.

Three Questions To Ask If You Hate Cliffs

By: On December 4, 2012

I wasn’t in the room when Newsweek’s leaders decided to end its 80-year print run and go all-digital. But Tina Brown’s note to readers in a recent issue of the magazine reads like a textbook case of what happens when you get Altitude.

The jury is still out on whether Newsweek’s move is too late or even a clever strategy to ditch weekly publishing while avoiding refunds to current subscribers. It’s safe to say that no leadership team prefers to wait until their model is busted and their company is nearly broke to make a change.  Regardless, there’s nothing like the moment when the muddle of being stuck in the forest of everyday work transforms into the crystal clarity of surveying things from a higher Altitude.

There’s an almost audible sigh in the room. Finally. We see it. Clearly.

But don’t think that gaining Altitude comes easily. It can take a long slog through some tough questions. Let’s take a look at a few of the questions leadership teams have to muck through and imagine the food fights that probably went on at Newsweek:

  • What does our past tell us? Any organization – and especially one that’s been publishing a magazine for 80 years – has a rich history which tells a story and foreshadows the future. The trick is to find clues in the past about the company’s strengths, its deeply held passions, and the purpose it was born to serve. I imagine there were many debates at Newsweek about the importance of print publishing, the romance of holding a physical piece in your hands, the beautiful smell of ink on paper. In the end, the team agreed on a simple, unbroken thread: Newsweek is a trail-blazing, activist journal. We pioneered the use of color photos. We produced pocket editions of the magazine for GI’s in World War II. We took a stand on civil rights. That’s the thread that matters.
  • What do the current industry and consumer patterns tell us? It’s tempting to ignore the present and cling to the past. I’d guess that Newsweek had waited long enough that this was getting harder to do. Competitors are all struggling and new on the horizons are born digital organizations that were turning into unbeatable giants. Costs of print publication keep rising and ad revenues keep dropping. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to see that the math doesn’t work. The only question now is whether Newsweek should proactively try to re-shape itself or let the market take a hatchet to it.
  • What does the future hold? This is where it gets tricky.  It’s one thing to point out current patterns, but to figure out whether they’re temporary adjustments or fundamental shifts takes wisdom. And wisdom usually comes from dialogue. You can’t microwave it. I’d guess that Newsweek’s team spent hours talking through the different trends affecting their company and wrestled with questions like:
    • Are these fundamental shifts?
    • If so, what will our world look like in a few years?
    • What are the implications for us? What can we do? What should we do?

Many people delay having Altitude conversations because it takes time and they’re stuck in the monthly/quarterly grind. Some say you need a crisis to get you moving. And I guess you could wait until you have emphysema before you quit smoking. You could wait until you’re on the verge of the cliff before steering the car to safety. But waiting for the crisis – the moment when you’re on the verge of folding – is rarely the best answer. Wisdom foresees danger and opportunity in equal measure. It stops. It digs. And then it acts. And by acting, it often avoids a Tina Brown moment by getting in front of the disaster.

It’s almost 2013. The clock starts again soon. What Altitude conversations do you and your team still need to have?

What’s Your “Above All Else?”

By: On November 26, 2012

A while ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with a leader who had just finished a long, distinguished run as the CEO of a high-growth professional services firm.

She joined not long after the firm started. The early days were hairy.  Several times, she and the other founding leaders wrote personal checks to the company to be sure they would make payroll.  There’s nothing like the threat of missing payroll to focus the mind. On a corporate level, it’s a near death experience. Who wouldn’t love to have snazzy office space and a generous dental plan? But it all blows up if you can’t make payroll.

Luckily, this leader is blessed with outrageous tenacity. She strapped on her sales belt and personally took on the task of winning and delighting customers.  Her example inspired – and in some cases spurred – her colleagues to do the same.  Through a lot of hard work, they came out of the woods. Within several years, they were not only solvent but growing in size, profitability, and reputation in their field.

But… in hindsight, this leader now realizes that she never quite came out of those woods in her own head. Despite the hard-won success, she led her firm like it was still in critical condition.  Here’s how she said it over a reflective lunch:

“Back when we went through our near death experience, we knew that immediate financial results had to matter above all else. We were too unstable to do anything else.  But now I see that the era of instability ended years ago and we missed the shift.  We kept acting like we were still back there, fighting for our survival, when we needed to move forward into a different era – one focused explicitly on building the next generation of leaders for the firm.”

“What was the impact of staying focused on survival?” I asked.

“Well, we obsessed with delivering immediate financial performance above all else.  Our new people caught that bug and internalized it. But they caught a mutant form of the bug.”

“What do you mean by ‘a mutant form of the bug?’” I asked.

“The early leaders knew that the reason for chasing the financials was to build a great shared company for all of us. The newer people caught the financial part but missed the shared company part.”

I was curious. “If the first era was about survival, what should the second era have been about?”

She picked at her salad for a minute and then said, “Once we made it through the survival era, we really needed to build a culture that would produce a generation of leaders who would take our company from survival to enduring excellence.  I’m concerned that without that cultural glue, our next generation might not do what’s in the overall firm’s best interest. As smart as our people are, the firm could eat itself alive.”

You’re probably in the middle of planning for 2013 right now. Why not ask a few Perspective-building questions:

  • What eras have we come through as an organization? Most organizations have well-defined eras started by some turning point event. Those turning points could be major doors opening or closing, an acquisition, the launch of a ground-breaking product, or a major failure.
  • What mattered above all else in each era? With some thinking and discussion, you can identify the issue or outcome that trumped everything else – whether it was profit, cash flow, speed to market, exposure, or adding customers.
  • What era are we in right now? Give it a title as if it was a feature film.
  • What do we say matters above all else? Read your memos. Scan your company meeting powerpoint decks. It’s there.
  • If someone watched our actions, what would they say really matters above all else? Yes, I know your people are you most important asset. But what do those people think you really care about?
  • Have we chosen the right “above all else” focus for this era or are we living in the past? Let the debate begin. Avoiding it will only lead to your own “What might have been…”


Everyone needs an “above all else.” Just make sure it’s the right one for the era you’re in.

Three Ways to Make Leaders Greedy For New Growth Projects

By: On November 12, 2012

Trust me, you’ve been here:

You’re in your planning session. You’ve been locked in a room for a solid day or more. This hostage crisis has gotten your juices flowing. You stare at a list of promising growth projects.

Then it happens.  You have a list of promising growth projects staring you in the face and everyone in the room gets a certain look

You can almost hear the pop of circuit breakers blowing and see little puffs of smoke from people’s ears as gaskets blow.  “We already have so much – too much – on our plates.  How will we do this too?”

Perhaps in their anguished cry lies the answer.  Years ago, Peter Drucker suggested several policies for organizations who are trying to grow aggressively.  Here’s policy #1:

Abandon what is no longer productive or is a mistake.

While not novel (think of Jim Collins’ “stop doing list”), it’s one of the simplest yet most difficult policies to enact.  How often do we take the time to dig into our existing portfolio of work and say, “That project had its day. But its day is over.

One option is to shelve your new ideas for a time when you’re not as busy. But before you delay your growth projects, here are a few questions to ask:

  1. Streamline. Too often we just keep doing things the same way  even though we know they’re leaking effort all over the floor? My BPI/Lean/Six Sigma friend, Mike Posdal (aka The Process Doctor), once saved a hospital significant money in how they ran their kitchen for goodness sake! Do you think maybe we’re leaking effort too?
  2. Leverage the next layer.  One way to free up our high potential leaders is to challenge them to train one of their staff members to take over 20% of that high potential leader’s responsibilities.  Yes that takes time. Yes, high potentials may resist because they love being that go-to person.  But it will either provide additional challenge and opportunity for yet another person in the company – or reveal that these next-level team members have reached the limits of their capability and/or interest.  Which leads to…
  3. Upgrade.  I leave this to last because it tends to be expensive, time-consuming, and  emotional.  But in this age that seems to be a permanent do-more-with-less era, we can’t afford to have the people still onboard be less than stellar, eager, and with huge upside potential.  And let’s face it, there are many capable, hungry people out there to choose from right now.

So maybe the choice between over-loading our team vs. shelving those growth projects is a false one.  Perhaps there’s more capability hiding in our organizations if we just take a few moments to look.

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