Friday, September 26, 2008

Niceness Hurts the Organization

Getting real in what you do as an organization and how you do it often requires a change in your organizational culture. Changing organizational behavior and organizational mindset is imperative to creating high performance teams that are able to create and accomplish highly relevant goals and objectives. One of the most common starting points that I find sadly pervasive in many organizations is a culture of niceness that weighs down most all group (more than 2 people) discussions. The effect is lack of realism, lack of team cohesion, and lack of enthusiasm, lack of real direction, lack of an ability to align to a changed business environment.

A culture of niceness is one where members are perfunctory. They show up at meetings, they pay attention, they offer support when it is safe, and keep quiet when they disagree. Often, they offer their reservations or add-ons to a discussion among their peers long after the meeting is over, completely defusing the effectiveness of the leader and completely eliminating the possibility of the group working as an effective team with collective knowledge and collective thinking abilities.

The result is that what is most likely to get done is more of the same because it is comfortable and the grooves of behavior (we know how to do this, we have always done it this way, this is easy for me because I don't have to think about it) are well worn. This can really threaten an organization's relevance and sustainability. It can also dampen the heft of the work environment to the point of being rather mind numbing for those interested in generative, robust work.

Why do we value niceness? Obviously we value niceness because we want to have pleasant, friendly connections with people. Because we spend so many hours at work, it is common to seek to fill a need for friendship, connection, and intimacy with our work associates. Most people, by nature, seek harmony and avoid conflict like the plaque. Most people value saying something nice and acceptable over the truth - think of the old scenario of do you like my hair?
And, you don't but you say that you do because you don't want to hurt someone's feelings.

A couple of things must be brought to collective understanding in cultures that are wrought with niceness. First, why we are here? We are here to fulfill the mission or the business objectives collectively. The member is personally there because he or she offers skills toward that end. First and foremost, it must be understood that we as members of this organization have a defined, mission-driven job to do. That has to come first over all inter-personal needs. How can we best accomplish that job? Through effective teamwork and effective leadership. Leaders must lead with vision, consistency, clarity, and boldness. Teams need to be cohesive, collectively skilled and motivated, and effective at working together. This takes full engagement from all, honesty, and collaboration. If you are not sharing information for the team to utilize in fulfilling the mission, then you are hurting the team and the organization as a whole. If you are sharing your ideas and opinions outside the group, then you are limiting the ability and opportunity for the group to cohese and develop thinking skills and collective knowledge. People engage in these behaviors routinely and often without awareness because they value their selves, their own personal comfort, more than they do their team or the mission: It's just a job. Or, that makes me uncomfortable. Or, someone else will bring that up. Or, I didn't feel comfortable saying that. This behavior is an indication of a lack of skill, a lack of trust, disengagement, lack of buy in or understanding of the mission, and/or lack of leadership. Most often it is a combination of many of these things. Conflict is healthy, productive, and necessary for an organization to make full, enlightened, well thought out decisions. It is not the job of the leader to think for everyone. He or she absolutely needs others full input and diverse perspectives.

If this looks and sounds familiar, you have some work to do in managing your organizational culture and climate in order to develop effective, reliable, high performance communication and teams. Why bother? Read that mission statement again. Think about what the organization is paying you to do and the trust they have put in you to do it: Is it to be comfortable or to deliver results?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ground the Strategic Plan in Realism

A good strategic plan is grounded in realism and born of imagination. An organization's efforts are wasted in formulating a strategic plan if they do not take the necessary, and often painful, first steps of understanding fully who we are, what we do, how well we do what we say we do, and the current environment in which we are operating on a local, regional, national and global level. You also have to ask, do future customers want what we do, how we do it? And, you best get real in your answers. Only when you bring an honest assessment of these elements to the planning table are you able to design a way forward. Knocking the sugar-coating from the environment and actually objectively quantifying your current state of operations and affairs is critical to planning for your future.

Using a completely different set of skills, planning for the future requires imagination and fancy, as well as critical thinking abilities. You must be able to imagine what it will take for your organization to find alignment with the world as it will be in 6 months to two or three years from now. Someone on your team must be able to see the future that you will plan to create. You must see it whole and work backwards from there to fill in the action steps and time table. If you take the opposite approach and try to build the future by extending from where you are now, you have perpetuated, very logically, the status quo. Unless you can argue convincingly that the status quo is relevant in the changed and ever-changing environment of the future, your logical efforts are suicide.

Forget about the staid and steady 3 to 5 year strategic plan that is neat and laid out and incrementally wise because market forces do not shower that sort of stability on anybody in any industry anymore. For a modern, viable, realistic strategic plan for the 21st century, know from the onset that it must be dynamic and flexible, pliable and expandable in order for your organization to respond to changes in your industry, your customer base, the economy, technology, etc, etc.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Realism is Source of Good Decision

One vital and radical move toward better decision making is to foster realism. Too often organizations are guilty of looking at the world the way that they would like it to be, chronically engaging in a sort of happy, comfortable group think or grand organizational delusion. This can be amplified and perpetuated in cases where most people in the organization have little or no contact with people in the industry outside the walls of their workplace. People inside organizations often think we all love each other and love what we do, so customers will love us, too. It's not that simple or that "all-about-me-the-peppy-provider."

Customers makes decisions about your product and what it does for them. Customers search for products (and services) that fill a need. It is all about them, the customer. Customers buy your product (or service) based on its quality and performance in meeting their needs. So, the organization's thinking must start here: customer first; quality always. Ask yourself and those in your organization realistically, what does it take to accomplish customer first, quality always?

What is needed in order to reach and support good strategic decision making is looking at the world the way it is, even when the reality of the way the world is conflicts with our desires, comfortable level, current knowledge base, and values about how things should be. Organizations, which are wrought with group think for many reasons, have to remember that the day they start situating things for the comfort and benefit of the people inside the organization is the day they start to go out of business. The reason is because customer needs and customer comfort has to come first. The auto companies and the airlines should be able to sound off on this paradigm shift from tremendous painful experience. This benefit mentality, which is complex and complicated, coupled with a complacency which denies reality and a sense of entitlement, has just about killed off all of the auto and airline mainstays - the very people who forever considered themselves invincible. Where are they now? Undergoing a tremendous, public, expensive, extensive reality check.

Organizations with leaders who can infuse reality based on the now, and those willing to learn to do it, will be the victors, especially as we head into strange new realities and market alignments that are coming as our bubbly economy adjusts. And check this reality: don't think because you are not a airline or auto company or because you are not big that it does not matter. Customers are savvy and in touch with their needs, and they vote with their dollars. Customers use the same analytical framework whether they are looking for a doctor, a dentist, a car, a lawyer, a new vacuum, a college, or a preschool. Don't kid yourself or let the people in your organization cloud reality. I heard a organization leader say, unfortunately more than once, "we are not a real business." Reality check: then what are you, besides deluded?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sustainable Decision Making

One of the hardest things in my view that a leader has to do is to change or alter something that he or she has put into place. This makes continual progress and innovation especially difficult for a manager or leader who has been in place for a long period of time because they have put so much into place over time. Leaders with longevity can become very attached to the status quo, as if they were nearing the end of a finish line, or reaching a finish point or final destination. This is a mental trickbag because the last thing a good businessman wants is to reach the end of their business. There is not an end and should always be new beginnings. This realization alone, or lack of it, is the source of much exhaustion and frustration for many, many leaders.

Good leaders make decisions with tremendous deliberation: input from inside the organization, analysis of outside trends and movement, worst case scenario analysis, cost/benefit analysis, cost of doing nothing analysis, and more. Because much time and effort is expended, leaders become emotionally attached to the decisions they make. Becoming emotionally attached to a decision itself or a course of action deemed strategic at the time, makes it hard, as writers say, "to kill the darlings." And, it is "killing the darlings" that makes a leader able to continually stay in touch and aligned with current market needs and conditions.

A better tack, in my opinion, is to become emotionally attached to the decision-making process, not the decision or outcome itself. One must become not only emotionally attached and energized by the decision-making process; he or she must trust the process, and work to make their decision-making processes full and expansive and trust-worthy. Tweaking the ends and outs of how decisions are derived, what input is considered, what input is customarily not considered but should be, etc. is invaluable to a leader who wants to be at the helm of a sustainable organization. Past decisions should reflect the best available thinking available based on input, time, and talent at the time. Thus, a leader should reflect and learn from the past, but not be wed to it.

Become wed to thought leadership and forward thinking that continually drives improvement, innovation, efficiencies, and downstream leadership in each department of your organization. Model "killing the darlings" for each member of each department of your organization in order to keep the place rolling strong.

What needs to be decided today to keep this business competitive, relevant, sustainable, on course, an industry player?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Mr. Friedman's newest book - Hot, Flat, and Crowded - rallies the cry for America to become the leader and innovator as only Americans can be in the new field of ET - energy technology. Friedman predicts that the ET boom will be akin to the IT (information technology) boom in that it will be a game-changer. More than that, Friedman sees ET as the ticket to the United States' sustainability and respectability in the world.

Article from Wired magazine on Friedman's newest book: Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Thomas Friedman on Charlie Rose (video)

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Bold, Fresh Perspective at RISD

On September 12, John Maeda will be inaugurated as the 16th president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). RISD was founded in 1877 as one of the country's first colleges to offer a combined education in arts and design. RISD is one of only 35 colleges and universities that offer dual art and academic accreditation - see Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD).

While Maeda has been a university professor, he has never worked in education administration. He is a designer. He is best know for design the Reebok "Timetanium."

In a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, "Design for Learning: RISD Gets a New Type of President," Maeda admits, "I don't know how to do this job! But, I know how to learn! I love to learn!" How refreshing that a university would tap someone who is creative and industrious and not wed to the "we have always done it this way" mindset. He can't be because he has never done college presidency before. RISD is setting themselves up for an organizational growth mindset and freshness and new perspective that comes with naivete. There is real courage and boldness to this choice that will yield a leg-up on innovation.

What does Maeda bring? The succinct answer is his mind and his energy. Art is about learning to see and problem-solving, in that order. One must be able to see clearly and anew what a problem is. To do this one has to ask obvious questions to tease out entrenched, subliminated assumptions and beliefs. One also has to be comfortable with developing a sense of what if..., why not?... and imagine....all stances of inquiry that lead to vision. Artists/designers make things go together, sometimes loosely connected yet exciting things. More organizations should consider this sort of fresh boldness that is much more likely to lead to innovation and renewal.

Mr. Maeda is a consummate blogger. Check out his blogs:
Our (and Your) RISD
The Laws of Simplicity
Simplicity at the MIT Media Lab
Technohumanism/Technology Review MIT

The Reebok Strucess by John Maeda

Monday, September 1, 2008

Are We Going To Abilene?

Everyone needs cool friends. Cool friends is Tom Peters' term, and one can get lost investigating his list of cool friends. Were I to have a list like he does! I, however, was meeting with one of my cool friends the other day and, as often happens, he introduced just what I needed to further my thinking on my thought project du jour. I have been thinking a lot about meeting culture: if it is good or bad, effective or wasteful, necessary or ancillary.

Here is what my cool friend offered me: The Abilene Paradox. Here is the story that it comes from:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. His daughter says, "Sounds like a great idea." His son-in-law, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it." The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The son-in-law says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The daughter says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored. The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted.

I didn't know its name, but I recognized this behavior from the work I have been doing around meetings. Why do we allow the need for a harmonious group to trump the need to make sound, full, focused decisions? The answer is: because we are human. So, the strategy is to learn to recognize this tendency or need in our meetings and groups, and to learn to guard against it so that better decisions that further the mission of the organization are derived.

Some questions to use as a start:

Do we value honesty and truthfulness?
Are we inclusive of multiple perspectives?
Do we attach ideas and perspectives to their owners in an unhealthy way? (A version of Kill the Messgenger)
Are we comfortable and skilled in the analytical process of making a full decision?
Are we afraid of new information, new input, and new ideas because of where they might lead us?
What is not being talked about or said, and why?
Do we understand and strive to do what it right for the organization or what is comfortable for our self?
What if we disagree? What does that tell us?
What can the leader do without full, open, honest input?
How can the leader stop us before we go to Abilene?