Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beginner's Mind Revisited

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few."
-- Shunryu Suzuki

"Imagination is more important than knowledge"
-- Albert Einstein

Our modern culture is one in which expertise is honored and rewarded. To move up in the corporate and academic world, more and higher degrees and certifications provide increased credibility and respect. Certainly, professional development is an honorable pursuit.

Nevertheless, many of the worlds wealthiest people never completed college. So, achieving a high level of education is not necessarily a prerequisite to professional accomplishment. In fact, a single-minded drive to become an "expert" can actually hinder accomplishment.

Expertise requires the adoption of paradigms. In order to establish what "expertise" means, one has to set boundaries and structures around a field of study, to observe patterns and create a model that is accepted by general consensus.

The very nature of the system that establishes expertise creates its own pitfalls. In particular, paradigms create a lens through which all facts about an area of study are filtered. So, when information arrives that may not fit the paradigm, the tendency is to reject, change or reinterpret the information in a way that fits the prevailing wisdom.

History is full of examples of great scientific minds whose theories or discoveries were out of line with the prevailing paradigms. Some of these individuals were put to death -- or threatened with death -- for their ideas. Yet, history proved their ideas to be correct; it was the "experts" following prevailing wisdom that were misguided.

So, does that mean one should not pursue expertise? In a sense, yes. If expertise is the goal, rather than a means to an end, then your pursuit of gaining an intimate understanding of a paradigm may cause you to reject, change or reinterpret information you receive in order to fit the model that defines an "expert" in your field.

Great knowledge combined with a "beginner's mind," however, will help you to see new possibilities in an area where you have a great deal of experience. That is one of the great balancing acts of leadership: how to acquire and use knowledge and experience, while at the same time, be open to answers that lie outside of the paradigm of your "expertise."

Einstein is an example of a great leader who found this balance. He had developed significant knowledge and experience in his field and was an expert. Yet, he was able to set the paradigms aside and look at possibilities far outside the prevailing wisdom. Though his own description of the process he used doesn't explicitly state employing a "begininers mind," that is precisely what he did. He said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." And so it is with leadership.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Three Essentials of Leadership - Part 3

"There are three essentials to leadership: humanity, clarity and courage."

-- Zen Lessons, Translated by Thomas Cleary

Part 3: Courage

In Part 2 I provided the example of a CEO that had values clarity that made her decision very clear. If the client could not be trusted to do the right thing, the best thing for her company was to walk away from the deal, regardless of the income potential. But of course, having clarity on what to do is not the same as doing it. She and her sales representative also had to have the courage to execute on their conviction.

In that example, the client did do the right thing and her company did not have to walk away from the deal. So, we don't fully know if the third essential of leadership -- courage -- would have prevailed. We do know she had the courage to give her sales person the authority to walk away, but we don't know if he would have had the courage to do it had the client continued engaging in unethical behavior.

The other two essentials of leadership are only meaninful when combined with courage.

Humanity, the ability to let your guard down, requires courage. People can and do take advantage of perceived weakness. But letting that fact prevent you from opening yourself to the possibilities that come from getting help from others makes you weak in reality, not just perception.

Having clarity of values, vision and focus is ultimately meaningless if you don't have the courage to follow through. You have to know the right thing to do and have the courage to do it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three Essentials of Leadership - Part 2

There are three essentials of leadership: humanity, clarity and courage.

Thomas Cleary -- Zen Lessons

Part 2: Clarity

Being an effective leader requires clarity -- clarity of values, vision and focus.

A colleague who is in sales recently shared with me a story about a situation he encountered in a past job in which a potential major client -- one that would have represented 10% of his company's annual revenue if they got the deal -- engaged in unethical practice against his company. They had been illegally obtaining licenses to use his company's software prior to purchasing it. Immediately upon discovery of this, the potential client was made aware of his company's knowledge of what had happened.

Just prior to the meeting in which the deal was to be made, the CEO called my colleague into her office and said, "If you don't have complete trust that they are going to do the right thing, you have my support to just walk away. You don't need to run it by me. Just walk away."

Fortunately, the client did do the right thing (the single individual responsible for the act was fired and a formal apology letter from management was issued with assurances this was contrary to their values and would not be repeated) and the deal went through. Nevertheless, my colleague's former CEO showed great clarity of values when she gave him authority to walk away from what would have been the largest deal ever for her company with a Fortune 50 company. My colleague shared that his experience working for that CEO was the single most satisfying time in his career.

If when asked those who follow you can immediately and clearly articulate where you and your organization are headed, you have clarity of vision. No other test is necessary. If your followers tilt their heads with the look of a puzzled dog when asked about your vision, you lack clarity. Or, if their answer doesn't match yours or each other's, you lack clarity. Simply asking the question -- even if you're afraid of the answer -- is a great start.

Having clarity of values and vision is essential, but having clarity of focus is equally important. This means "majoring in the majors." If you know where you're headed and what you stand for, but get bogged down in minuteae or fail to execute on the actions that will produce the greatest return on time invested, then you may not fulfill your vision. Take time to determine what activities will have the most impact toward achieving your vision and spend the majority of your time there.

In my own business, we conduct events. We've developed an internal buzzword called "salad dressing." Instead of focusing on the quality of the speaker, the value of the program content for our attendees or the value proposition for event sponsors, we spend inordinate time evaluating the quality of the salad dressing being served at the event. When we catch ourselves doing something like this, we joke with each other about not getting caught up in salad dressing issues.

Leadership clarity means knowing where you're headed, what you stand for and what actions toward your vision are essential vs. salad dressing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Three Essentials of Leadership

"There are three essentials to leadership: humanity, clarity and courage."

-- Zen Lessons, Translated by Thomas Cleary

Part 1: Humanity

Humanity is not spoken of much in the corporate world. In my post "Leaders Look Bad" I stated that leaders have the courage to look bad, to show their humanity rather than attempt to cover up mistakes. By acknowledging their own blindspots, they can engage others in the cause to solve a problem. Attempting to put on a good front while things are falling apart will only assure disaster, rather than avert it (think Enron).

How many times have you heard someone say with admiration and a sense of pleasant surprise when speaking of a CEO or high-level executive, "She was so down-to-earth, very approachable." People appreciate leaders who don't let it go to their head. Conversely, people are repulsed by leaders they deem arrogant or of whom they say "wow, what an ego."

By force of will arrogant, egocentric leaders -- or more accurately stated, people who occupy a position of leadership -- can usually get compliance from subordinates, but little more than that. Few people are motivated to "go the extra mile" when they feel manipulated or subservient.

Remember, everyone is a volunteer. Ultimately, people do the work -- whether fully engaged or just doing the minimum requirement -- because they choose to. Therefore, understanding the hot buttons that will engage them fully -- some want work to be fun, others want a challenge or competition, while others may just see the present work as a means to attain a deeper life goal, or even just a mindless and relaxing way to get out of the house -- will be more effective than trying to get better performance through coersion (stick) or cheerleading (carrot).

If someone is in a job that won't touch their hot button, there is very little you can do to make them produce at a higher level. Think about it. If you're a "work must be fun" hot button person in a boring, repetitive job, you won't be productive; you'll do the minimum necessary while you look for a way out.

Knowing other's hot buttons, of course, requires knowing them at a deeper level. It requires paying attention. It requires being human. Because unless people feel comfortable talking to you, they won't reveal their inner motivations.

Being approachable might not be your natural style. Yet, if you don't learn to let down your guard, you'll miss some important cues that could lead to more productivity from those you lead.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Leaders Look Bad

Real leaders are ethical. And they are human, which means they screw up often. By combining ethics and fallibility, leaders have the courage to look bad.

Often because of pride and ego, individuals in leadership positions would rather look good, so they hide financial losses, avoid acknowledging personal shortcomings, cover up major flaws in their business plan or tell everyone "everything is fine" when it isn't.

Being honest and straightforward even when doing so reveals your own inadequacy in managing is a hallmark of leadership. Nevertheless, we have a tendency to rationalize: "If I admit I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm supposed to be the leader here, I'll lose the confidence and respect of those I'm leading." Or perhaps the story we tell ourselves is: "I can work this through. No sense in getting everyone else worried about it. If I can find the solution, no one needs to know what's been going on."

Ironically, in both examples above, the opposite is true. In the first example, if you are willing to be vulnerable and admit you don't have all the answers, you gain others' confidence and respect. If you act as though you know what you're doing, but it becomes apparent you do not, that's when others doubt your leadership.

In the second example, you need help. Many of us are afraid to ask for help, particularly from subordinates, because we view it as a sign of weakness. Having the courage to ask for help in solving a major management crisis will actually engage others in the cause. Most people want to help and are honored that you would consider asking them for it.

I had a friend who spent time in jail because he was afraid to admit his business finances were spinning out of control. He would not inform his investors that his cash situation was a house of cards that could topple at any minute. He said he kept thinking, "I can figure a way out of this and they'll never have to know." He assured everyone "everything is fine." Well, the wind blew and the cards came down. He was convicted of fraud.

He explained that had he simply told the truth to the investors early on, admitting things were going badly, he might have been able to enlist their help -- and he certainly wouldn't have been convicted of fraud. He may or may not have avoided a lawsuit had he been honest, but having the courage to "look bad" would no doubt have kept him out of jail. The desire to look good cost him his reputation and his career.

Being vulnerable, laying ourselves open, and admitting we don't have all the answers takes more courage than trying to put on a confident, sunny facade. In the long run, the facade generally falls and we end up looking bad anyway. Only this time looking bad isn't a sign of leadership.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Change Management is Redundant

"Change Management" is a popular subject about which many books and articles are written. I find it odd. The phrase seems redundant to me.

Does any business run in "steady state?" Sometimes it seems like nothing is changing, but that is an illusion. People, priorities, the economy, markets and technology change every second of every day. What management is not change management?

Most of the change management programs, plans, software, etc. that I see for effectively implementing the change management process treat change as an event -- in particular a big event. Change management programs tend to focus on communication, overcoming resistance, employee involvement, training, etc. -- how to get people to accept a major change in the organization, such as a downsizing, merger, new focus, or a new company-wide technology upgrade.

But in my mind, these aren't best practices for big change. They are simply best practices. Strategic leadership is about thoughtful evolution. As an organization evolves -- which is constant --communication, training, working on overcoming resistance, employee involvement in the process, are all integral to moving forward effectively. Any time a staff member needs to learn a new skill or a department adopts a new process, be it major or minor, the change management skills listed above are required.

Nevertheless, I understand the need for structured change management programs in dealing with the major events. We need these programs because we forget, we get lazy perhaps. When the changes are minor, we tend to have a willingness to let people "fend for themselves." If managing evolution isn't a critical "life or death" issue for an organization the way addressing a big event is, we let our focus shift to other things.

I would suggest, though, that by not engaging in the best practices called "change management" all the time, we are setting the stage for potential fear and crisis when the next big event occurs.

On the other hand, if we establish an organizational culture where leadership helps coach, support, train, communicate and find out what barriers exist accepting changes, big or small, as they occur, then the need for a major shift of focus and approach is unnecessary when the occasional major, organization-wide change becomes necessary. In fact, if all are involved in and understand the evolution of the organization, then the next big event might not only not be resisted, but embraced.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everyone is a Volunteer Even if They Get Paid

As employers or organizational leaders, we sometimes view the contributions others make to the organization as "owed" to us. They get a paycheck, after all. Or, if they are volunteers, they "signed up for this" and owe us a commitment.

As leaders we need to recognize that everyone, even if they get a paycheck, is a volunteer.

Even though we as leaders may live under the delusion that others do our bidding because they are compelled to do so because of our position or title and their desire for self-preservation, the reality is they choose how they will do it, when they will do it, how well they will do it, and even if they will do it. If this weren't the case, then performance appraisal, discipline, etc., would be unnecessary.

Whether one uses the carrot or the stick, it is important to remember that we can only influence behavior, we cannot compel or control it. One need only consider the prisoner of war who, despite hellish torture and deprivation, is still able to choose not to be compelled -- even if doing so means annihilation. While all of us may have had "the job from hell" at some point in our careers, no one, I think, has faced the conditions of a prisoner of war in the corporate environment.

We might take the perspective, then, that those under our leadership provide their time and talent as a gift freely given. Whether we recognize it or not, people do have other options and could make different choices. If they do the job assigned, it is because they choose to provide service to us and our organization.

With this in mind, we can view leadership differently. What do we need to consider if everyone is a volunteer?

Personal Priorities: Our priorities are measured by where we put our time. If I say my family is my priority but spend all my time at work, I'm kidding myself. Clearly, whether I am willing to acknowledge it, work is my priority. Thus, an employee who truly values family more than work may choose not to do a task assigned because it interferes with family time. Being clear, then, on our volunteers' priorities can assist us in recognizing how to create an environment where the task can be done without having to compete with a higher priority. Attempting to change another person's inner priorities will only lead to frustration.

Desire to Make a Difference: One aspect of voluntarism is a desire to make a difference. Is my contribution meaningful? Does it have an impact? Sometimes, the tasks that must be performed seem meaningless and of little influence. The reality is, every action, no matter how small, is meaningful. Processes are interdependent. A simple invoice sent with the correct information, sent to the right address in a prompt manner can have enormous impact on a customer's perception of your business and their desire to continue working with you. While a salesperson may get the glory for bringing in the customer, the accounts receivable clerk may have just as much impact on your profitability. Thus, communicating the importance of even the small actions and appreciating the contribution made in the context of its impact on the success of the organization is very important.

Passion for the Cause: We willingly gift our time and talent with no expectation of return when we are passionate about a cause. What makes people passionate about a cause? It is the perceived positive impact being made in the world. Does your organization have a cause others can be passionate about? Does your product or service truly contribute to a better world? Or, maybe more indirectly, does your production of that product or service enable the organization to contribute to a better world? If so, then that should be communicated and reinforced by organizational leadership.

Other reasons people have for volunteering include:
  • Achievement: to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.
  • Recognition and Feedback: to be held in high esteem by your fellows and get a "pat on the back."
  • Personal Growth: to stretch and learn.
  • Giving Something Back: to return the blessings you have received. In the job setting, this could be someone who has had an exquisite career but now wants to teach, mentor or counsel.
  • Friendship, Support and a Feeling of Belonging: how often have you stayed in a job longer than you might have simply because you loved the people you worked with? How often have you heard that "people don't leave jobs, they leave people?"

Employees seek and stay in jobs for many of the same reasons they volunteer. Finding out what stirs their passion to volunteer can also help you determine what stirs their passion for work in general.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Set Goals With Intention but Not Attachment

A colleague and friend of mine, Jeff DeCagna, contended in a strategy training program I attended that "strategic planning is dead." He stated that we should keep a strategic focus, constantly ask strategic questions, have ongoing strategy sessions, but not lock ourselves into a specific, long-term strategic plan. Why? Because the environment changes constantly and therefore the strategy-making process must be nimble and continuous. A detailed, written document is not conducive to "changing on the fly."

There's a common acronym used in goal-setting: SMART, which stands for "Specific," "Measurable," "Attainable," "Realistic" and "Time-Bound" or "Time-Limited." It is believed that all good goals should have these attributes. The guidelines are good, as they build in some accountability.

I'd like to take the concept a little further. I suggest adding two additional attributes: "Intention" and "Non-attachment." While the SMART attributes allow for accountability, they don't necessarily foster flexibility and the ability to "change on the fly."

In addition to listing out the specifics, the metrics and time-frames for accomplishing a goal, I also like to ask what is my intention? In other words, to what end am I setting this goal? Is it really to accomplish the specifics I laid out? Or can it take shape in a slightly -- or even significantly -- different way and still achieve my intention, the direction I'm heading?

This flows naturally into the second attribute: non-attachment. Much as a static strategic plan isn't conducive to being nimble, static goals may not allow for adjustments in a changing environment. A goal as written may not keep us headed toward our intention if the wind shifts -- as so often is the case with new technology and a constantly changing socio-political and economic climate. Therefore, we might not want to become too attached to our goals. We should remain committed to our intention, but not so much to being SMART.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is That So?

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth -- that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"

-- Story from "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones"

So often in business, particularly due to its demanding and fast-paced nature, we act more like the parents in this story. We don't take the time to look deeply at the root cause of our problems. Much as "Beginners Mind" suggests that I look at each experience as though I had never seen it before -- even if I have "been there, done that" -- "Is that so?" says to me: "Don't be so sure you know the answer."

Many times we assume we know someone's motives or create a story around what someone meant when they said this or that, and we don't take time to verify the validity of our story. Maybe, because we've witnessed certain employee behaviors in the past and know how to recognize "signs," we draw conclusions without fully investigating the specific matter in depth.

I have often been sent on the wrong course in a business decision because I assumed I knew the answer but was, in fact, mistaken. Had I taken time to ask the right questions, I could have avoided the detour. I find this to be true especially in matters where emotion is at play, not simply facts. Getting to the root of facts is fairly simple. Getting to the root of feelings, opinions and viewpoints is not so easy.

Have you ever conducted an open-ended customer survey and discovered, to your surprise, that the real reasons why people are interested (or not) in your product or service are totally different than what you assumed were the reasons? I have, and it can be eye opening.

Determining the utility of your product or service from the end-user's viewpoint is, in fact, how you develop your value proposition. You don't determine the value of what you produce, your customers do. Thus, the only way you can create a "value proposition" is to ask your customers: why do you like us? Then repeat what they say to the rest of the world. Don't tell the world what you assume they want to hear about you.

Effective strategy requires fact facing and fact finding. Before acting, a good leader should take the time to ask "Is that so?" as many times as it takes to get to the root of the matter.

Give Up Hope

A popular business quote and book title, as well as a phrase that has been repeated by various politicians, including Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, is "Hope is not a strategy."

It wasn't until about a year ago that I changed my perspective on hope. I used to view hope in a purely positive light, that it was a force that kept us moving forward, the belief or faith in the idea that somehow things would work out and everything would be okay in the long run. So just hang in there.

Then I read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. In this book she said, "This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope -- that there's somewhere better to be, that there's someone better to be -- we will never relax with where we are or who we are."

Throughout my personal and business life I have used hope as a means to view present unpleasantness as a temporary setback, that I'll get through it to the other side and I'll look back on it later as a "growth opportunity." While experience has generally proven this viewpoint true, this perspective has also allowed me, by taking the long view, to avoid fully engaging in the present situation. It is a fact: all situations are temporary; knowing this can provide comfort in the present moment. But taking this comfort can also let me off the hook here and now by allowing me to take refuge in the hope that "getting to the other side" provides.

In bad economic times, the long view becomes the mantra: "We just need to ride out the storm, keep our heads down, keep moving forward until prosperity returns." While I know based on experience and as history teaches that everything is cyclical, boom and bust, growth and recession, what if history didn't apply this time? What if this time it didn't "get better?" What if this time the future held nothing but continual economic decline, contraction, an unending depression, and continually increasing unemployment not just for years, but generations -- an end to which we would never see in our lifetimes? While this is unlikely, it could happen. I wonder how well the hope created by a "long view" perspective would serve me in this scenario.

But isn't it negative "stinking thinking" to give up on hope? When I look deeply, the opposite is true. If I adopt the perspective that things as they are are as good as they're going to get, then I can adopt strategies that are reality based. I can see each moment as the "new normal." If I adopt strategies that set me up to succeed now, not "someday when the economy improves," then I don't have to place blind faith in the hope that at some point I'll get to the other side.

Acting on hope that comes from the long view or historical perspective can be limiting and ultimately lead to business failure. Adopting a business strategy based on the "bunker mentality" -- i.e., we'll "ride out the storm until prosperity returns" -- isn't necessarily wise. It usually leads to decisions such as stopping new projects, freezing sales travel, cutting back on marketing, hording cash, cutting staff and being risk averse. If the "boom" returns, maybe this strategy will seem to have worked; if not, a downward spiral will begin.

Imagine a survivalist with 5 years worth of canned food in the fallout shelter who realizes when the cans run out that it's still not safe to go outside. What then? If the survivalist had considered "what if this is the new normal," then he might have strategized a way to produce food indefinitely in the shelter.

Perhaps there is no "other side." Abandoning all hope that there is can be liberating and, ironically, a good basis for strategic leadership.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Clarity Leads to Productivity

"Business is doing a great job at changing to meet marketplace, customer and shareholder needs. And it is lousy at making work elegant -- creating clarity of choice, then providing the tools and information people need to work smarter."

-- Bill Jensen, "Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage"

In my post Strategy Plain and Simple, I stated "People inherently know what to do (i.e., develop their own task lists) if they know what the parameters are for decision making based on the organization's strategic focus."

However, being able to develop their own task lists in line with the strategic focus requires that people have the resources they need to complete the tasks. Information management is a source of unnecessary complexity in organizations according to the book Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage by Bill Jensen. Jensen describes simplicity as an information revolution whose mission is to make the complex clear.

How often have you or your staff done something "the hard way" because your couldn't find the information, training or resources you needed to do it most efficiently? Ironically, we have hundreds of technological tools available to make information readily available and targeted to specific users, often free or inexpensive.

The barrier is not technological availability or cost; rather, it is perspective. Specifically, we don't view our staff as end-users the same way we do our customers. Updating our website is a never-ending activity, and the focus usually is how to make navigating easier for the end-user. Yet, we don't put the same focus on how to help staff navigate their jobs easier, to easily find the targeted information they need SPECIFIC to their job.

How often have you taken a joyride on the information superhighway and hours later realized: I just spent half my day on the internet and have nothing to show for it? At times even when I'm trying to maintain discipline and focus on a job task, I take an information sideroad just because it's there -- the "Ooh, shiny. . . " factor.

The challenge with the sheer volume of information now available is determining what is meaningful and essential. With that in mind, organizations need to pre-route staff trips for information so that each person takes the specific route that is the quickest for them to get from point "A" to point "B." Think end-user experience.

A simple three-column spreadsheet can be the beginning of a simple, effective information management system. With "staff position" heading the first column, two questions head the next two columns:

1. What do I need?
2. Where can I find it?

Then start the list, which can be expanded and contracted as more items come up or as job needs change.

For a free, low-tech, easy approach, save the spreadsheet in Google Docs and make it available online for all staff to share and update. The document can be used to create a searchable database or simply use the search function in the spreadsheet itself.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Leap and The Net Will Appear

Although "Leap and the net will appear" is sometimes attributed to an unknown Zen source, it is, in fact, a quote by American naturalist John Burroughs. But where it comes from isn't important. It reminds me that risk is the foundation of leadership and innovation. The quote is a scrolling screensaver on my computer as a daily reminder.

In Zen Leadership, I have some unusual takes on leadership and strategy, and while I knew some of my posts would create some controversy, by and large the response has been positive. I went out on a limb with the following posts on strategy, as each goes contrary to prevailing wisdom about vision, goal-setting and other mainstays of strategic planning methodology (which, by the way IS a flawed concept):

My views on leadership, which emphasize the importance of humanity, vulnerability and humility, is also a bit different. For a better understanding, read:

For a different take on the “inside job” of developing leadership skills, take a look at:

Three Essentials of Leadership:

This blog is a key example of taking a “leap and the net will appear.” When I began writing two years ago, I only had a general idea of what I wanted to talk about, namely: simplicity, clarity, focus, and maintaining a “beginner’s mind.”

I almost didn’t start because I only had ideas – ideas, not even content – for a few posts and ran into a lot of writer’s block along the way. What I found was, as long as I tried to be consistent, over time the material for posts began to take shape naturally. I didn’t need to plan or figure it out. The net just appeared.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Haiku Strategy

"Principle I: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations." -- Leo Babauta from "The Power of Less"

In "Strategy, Plain and Simple," I summarized the difference between a strategy document that was shelved versus strategy that is integrated into the operations of an organization in one word: simplicity.

In his book "The Power of Less" quoted above Leo Babauta uses the example of the Japanese Haiku poem. Haiku poems are nature-related, just 17 syllables, written in 3 lines, always 5, 7, 5 unrhymed. One of my favorites:

A firefly flitted by:

"Look"! I almost said

but I was alone

- Taigi

The Haiku poet must carefully choose only the ESSENTIAL words. From the very structure of the poem, one is forced get to the heart of things with absolute clarity.

If you want strategy to be successful, I suggest "Haiku Strategy." Simplicity doesn't just mean limit yourself to 3 to 4 areas of strategic focus solely because people are unable to effectively focus on more than that, although that is a fact. Haiku Strategy means because people can only effectively focus on 3 to 4 areas at most, you are forced, as with the Haiku poem, to carefully choose only the ESSENTIAL areas.

Now, I would also contend, if you could keep all strategic statements, such as visions, missions, goals and strategies to 17 syllables, that would be ideal too.

Google's informal mission statement is: "Don't be evil." Four syllables. It's actual mission statement is: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Not quite 17 syllables (25 actually) but a heck of a lot closer than most organizations get. Pretty simple for one of biggest, most complex companies on the planet.

The Apple advertising slogan is "Think Different." Can you think of a company to which this simple statement more aptly applies? Can you see how employees of Apple achieve exactly that? While it may just be a slogan, if you worked for Apple, and this statement became the lens through which you made decisions, it's no surprise innovations like the iPod and iPhone become a deliverable.

In "The Laws of Simplicity" John Maeda lists 10 laws, the first of which is "Reduce" where he introduces the concept of "Thoughtful Reduction." He says, "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove." The last statement is the critical one, of course. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don't eliminate the essential, too, in your zeal for simplicity.

The work of determining what is essential, or at the very least, most meaningful and applying "Thoughtful Reduction" is, in fact, the most difficult work. While the outcome is simple, the process of getting there is not. Think again of the Haiku poem. Try writing one. It's hard. But think about how elegant, simple and clear it is when done well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Strategy Plain and Simple

Strategic planning is simultaneously considered mission critical to our organizations and the bane of our existence. We hole up our organizational leadership in a room for a day or more and cover the walls with flip chart pages.

At the end of the retreat, we feel energized, forward-thinking, ambitious. Brainstorming and banter coalesces into a brilliant 10-point plan for world domination. Then, life happens. We get back into operations and don't look at the strategic plan again until the next time we all head out for a planning retreat.

I've had this experience, but I've also seen a strategy session turn into a living, breathing systemic organizational focus that drove intention and created results. What made the difference? Simplicity.

Often strategic planning sessions look at EVERYTHING the organization does and goals are set in every area (after all, there's room for improvement in all areas, right?). The plan is a multiple page spreadsheet with goal 1, objective 1.1 and so on through goal 6, objective 6.25. The plan looks like a massive task list and none of the goals are given strategic priority. Such a deliverable is why plans get shelved.

The critical missing piece is focused priority given to those areas that are most MEANINGFUL. While there may well be six important things an organization does, all six are not equally important and equally effectively executed. (Imagine disaster struck and you could only choose 1 or 2 or 3 things the organization could keep doing. Which ones would you pick?)

The reality is people and organizations are only able to effectively focus on 3-4 or (preferably) fewer strategic priorities. If you apply the 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle to your organization, you'll inevitably find a very short list of clients, markets and/or activities drive a disproportionate share of your organization's profitability. That's where you need to focus your time.

I don't believe in detailed tactical plans (goal 1, objective 1.1, etc.) in conjunction with strategy; I only believe in strategic focus documents, strategic thinking sessions and strategy reviews.

Strategic focus documents are simple, short statements listing the 1-3 strategic focus areas you identified as being the most meaningful in advancing your competitive advantage.

Strategic thinking sessions are continuous discussions about actions to take within the strategic focus areas, adjustments to the navigation or whole new courses to set based on new information or changes in the environment.

Strategic reviews are periodic checkups on what has been accomplished so far in advancing the strategic focus areas.

Instead of attempting to have staff implement a "task list" tactical plan developed by the leadership, embed strategy in organization-wide thinking and decision making.

People inherently know what to do (i.e., develop their own task lists) if they know what the parameters are for decision making based on the organization's strategic focus. Make the strategic focus areas the key agenda items of regular, not special, meetings. This makes strategy systemic, integrated in operations, not independent of them.

At its simplest, strategic thinking sessions are an exercise in answering some basic strategic questions that determine your differentiators:

1) Which?
2) Who?
3) How?

Which market, which product, which service? Who are we targeting? How will we set ourselves apart? How do we compete?

Simply use the answers to those questions to create the parameters, the "lenses" through which everyone in the organization sees it. If they make daily decisions that lead to specific actions based on these strategic parameters, then the "task list" takes care of itself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Principles of Effective Email Management

One of the greatest barriers to effective leadership, at least for me, is the tendency to get sucked into operations instead of strategy. And in the modern age much of the operational aspect of business is tied up in email -- and increasingly, online social media, but that's not the topic today.

There are some really terrific systems for effectively managing email but I try to stick to discussing principles rather than specific techniques and systems. There are plenty of people who have literally spent a lifetime developing productivity systems, including my friend and colleague Laura Stack, The Productivity Pro (R) in her book "Leave the Office Earlier: How to Get More Done in Less Time and Feel Great About it." Timothy Ferriss also has some great advice on email in his book "The Four Hour Work Week." Another great inbox management system is espoused by Len Merson of ChaosOver Inc. And last, an inspiration for this site, Leo Babauta, author of "The Power of Less" and blogger of "Zen Habits" has outstanding, simple advice for managing email.

Suffice it to say, if you have enough email in your inbox for the scroll bar to show up, you manage email poorly. I manage multiple organizations with memberships totalling in the thousands, and those members constantly have customer service requests. Yet, my inbox is empty at the end of every day and frequently during the day. Yes, it is possible. You can do it, too (read the books or get training from the people I listed in the paragraph above if you don't believe me).

So, what are the simple principles that drive effective email management?
  1. Do not use your inbox as a "To-Do" list. This is the single most important principle. Tatoo it on your forehead. It's very tempting to leave email in your inbox as a reminder. Avoid this temptation at all costs. The list constantly grows. Over time, other emails shuffle between "to-do" emails and before you know it, an email that needed a prompt reply gets lost. Now you have to write an apology for a late reply. Turn emails into actual to-do's, calendar appointments or file them in a "tickler" file.
  2. Search and destroy. Immediately delete all junk mail, forwarded jokes, "chain" emails that a "friend who cares" sent you. Browse and delete all "fyi" emails - if no action is required, then only one action is required: read and delete (or file if you are absolutely convinced you may have to look it up for some detail later). Get a good spam program and learn how to create "rules" in Outlook that automatically send emails with specific words (e.g., Viagra) to your junk mail.
  3. Automate. Create a "rule" (or macro) for regular emails that are simply "confirmations" (shipment notifications, voicemail attachments or email faxes, etc.) that auto files them (i.e., "Fax" folder). With a rule, they never get to your inbox to begin with -- they go straight to file. Make FAQ template response emails for questions that come up on a regular basis. Or, post them to your website and just email links to the sender.
  4. Delegate. See my previous post on "Simple Delegation." It's very tempting to answer an email simply because you know the answer and it will only take a second to reply. But, if you happen to have a staff person or coworker who is responsible for these types of requests, don't answer such emails under any circumstances. Always forward them to the appropriate person. If you reply, reply with "John will get back to you on this" or cc the sender with "Sally, can you please assist Mr. Johnson with this. Thank you." This does two things: 1) the person who is responsible stays responsible and 2) the sender is now trained to go to the correct person with such questions from now on.
Much more detail on the "how-to's" of creating rules, managing files, turning emails into tasks and calendar items are available from the productivity consultants and authors mentioned previously. I highly recommend them.

In general, though, stick to the basic principles and your email should stay under control: don't use your inbox as a "to-do" list, search and destroy, automate and delegate.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Beginner's Mind

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few.”
-- Shunryu Suzuki

This quote better than any other I know points out a necessary ingredient to innovation, as well as an essential quality of great leadership. A true leader and innovator has a "beginner's mind."

Yet, I'll be the first to admit that from many years of experience in my chosen profession, my mind tends toward "been there, done that" when an employee suggests an idea I've tested in the past that "we tried and it didn't work." I always hated hearing it, so why would I say it?

What is ironic about this mindset is I've seen two people try the exact same idea; for one of them it worked, for the other it did not. The successful one found a way to execute the idea effectively, perhaps with a subtle change in approach, a different angle or simply more persistence. Or maybe the times or conditions had changed such that this time the ideal environment existed for the idea to work. Had the "expert" advice of "we tried that and it didn't work" been followed, an innovation would have died.

Knowledge and experience contribute to competence and wisdom, but they can also be a trap. They can inflate our ego leading to a closed "expert's mind."

Maintaining a beginner's mind takes great strength. It requires us to set aside our hard-earned expertise and face each business challenge, idea or opportunity as though we had never seen it before. . . even if we have, many times.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Right Concentration

Don't just do something. Sit there.

More often than not my most creative moments occur when I'm alone in a hotel room at night, sitting on a plane or waiting in the airport, at a mountain cabin, driving with the radio off, hiking, ostensibly meditating, or in bed and can't sleep unless I get up and write down my inspiration.

Great ideas rarely come when I'm "in the heat of battle" with emails, phone calls, appointments and staff interruptions -- activities which, by the way, can easily fill an entire day, not to mention many days strung together.

That said, innovation doesn't arise from "the heat of battle" activities. It arises during the calm silence, the concentration that is possible in the open, quiet space between such activities. If no such space is made, the result is more of the same.

Create space -- even if only 20 or 30 minutes, but preferably more -- for a retreat every work day. Find an empty conference room, go to a park or a coffee shop. You can stay in your office if you can maintain privacy, but it's not ideal. Don't take your computer or your crackberry unless you must. Bring only a pad a pen.

Then, just sit. In the open, quiet space, inspiration will come -- or it won't. The purpose is to practice creating the space, not specific outcomes.

Delegation Plain and Simple

If someone else can (and should) do it, don't do it -- no matter what.

If you have taken any management courses or read any management books at all, you've been told delegation is a key to executive productivity. Yet, as is so often the case, some of the simplest concepts are the hardest to implement -- like, "live in the now."

Apply the principle above with discipline. Focus just on this principle for 21 days and apply it unconditionally. Get used to hitting the "forward" key in your email and voicemail systems. Be strong.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
  • "It will be faster for me to do it than take the time to show someone else." Take the extra time to show someone else.
  • "This is urgent and requires immediate response." Make sure a staff person responds anyway and emphasize the time factor. Train the sender to not expect an immediate personal response from you.
  • "The customer expects personal attention from me." Train them to expect personal attention from someone else. (ex., "John on my staff will respond to you on this.")
  • "This just requires a short, one-word answer." Have someone on your staff respond with a short answer. This trains the sender to go to that staff person for answers from now on, not you. The length of the response has nothing to do with the application of the principle.
Keep this simple: if anyone other than you can handle the task, don't do it. No matter what.