October 19, 2015


The 8020Info Water Cooler

Highlights from the latest information for managers, leaders & entrepreneurs

1. Is Your Organization Great?

In today’s media-saturated world, organizations can become preferred employers virtually overnight as buzz builds behind them, says Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, and his wife Suzy. But how can you tell if your organization stacks up — if it’s really great? On LinkedIn, they offer these yardsticks:

  • Great organizations demonstrate a strong commitment to continuous learning: It’s not lip service. They invest in the development of employees through classes, training programs, and off-site experiences.
  • They are meritocracies: Pay and promotions are linked to performance. People know where they stand through a regular and rigorous appraisal system. “The people you know and the school you went to might help get you in the door. But after that, it’s all about results,” they write.
  • They allow people to take risks – and celebrate those who do: The corollary is that they don’t shoot those who try but fail. The risk-taking culture attracts creative, bold employees.
  • They keep their hiring standards tight: The interview process is arduous, and they find people with brains and a favourable past record.

Those four factors apply to all organizations. But there are two more, for corporations:

  • Great companies understand that what is good for society is also good for business: Diversity and environmental sensitivity are central. These firms offer flexibility in work schedules to those who earn it with performance.
  • They are profitable and growing: Their message to prospective and existing employees is “join us for the ride of your life.”

2. Why Your Strategy Isn’t Working

Consultant Todd Garretson is taken by statistics showing that 90% of organizations fail to fully and successfully implement their strategies. Advising executive teams of all sizes, he sets out on the CircleMakers LLC web site some questions to ask:

  • Do you have a strategy or a strategic plan? Too often organizations jump to tactical plans before settling on an actual strategy. “Your strategy should define a strong value proposition for your target market, the distinctive capabilities you will activate to win in that market, and a picture of how you need to organize your business to make it happen,” he writes. “Your strategic plan should feel like an instruction manual for your overall strategy.”
  • Have you put strategy before structure? Don’t pick a strategy just because it reflects the structure of your organization; instead build an organization that works for your strategy. When a sports team changes its coaching strategy, the players are adjusted to fit the new approach.
  • Who is accountable for growth? Various functional leaders are usually expected to make growth happen, but the need for growth often falls under the shadow of day-to-day priorities. Instead, establish a single person accountable for driving a cohesive approach to growing the business, unencumbered by department and political lines.
  • Are you creating more leaders? In successful organizations, the role of leaders is to create more leaders.
  • Where will you place your bets? Leaders too often spread resources too thinly across their portfolio of products and services instead of focusing on priorities. Small initiatives won’t do the trick.

3. How To Say No

Saying no to a senior leader or customer may seem unthinkable. But, as consultant Greg McKeown says on his blog, when saying yes will compromise your ability to make your best contribution, it is your obligation to decline unwanted requests. Here are three steps for delivering a “no”:

  • Affirm the relationship: Tell the person, “It’s really good to hear from you.”
  • Thank the individual sincerely for the opportunity: “Thank you ever so much for thinking of me! It sounds like such a brilliant project. I am complimented that you thought of me.”
  • Decline firmly and politely: “For several reasons I need to pass on this at the moment.”

He says that saying no is like any other skill — it can be improved through practice. Start practising with a relatively trivial request, like a lunch invitation received by email, and build your confidence in handling tougher-to-decline demands. (We also like his maxim: “If it isn’t a definite yes, it’s a definite no!”)

4. Don’t Bury Your Main Point

If you want your emails read, journalist Gwen Moran urges you not to bury your main point deep down in a long message. An email is not a manifesto, she notes in Fast Company. Keep it to one or two paragraphs, with the most important information at the top. If you must run longer, use a numbered list or bullet points to make it easier to follow — but again, don’t make your main point at the bottom of the list.

Whatever the email’s size, just before signing off make it clear what your action item or request is. “If you’re assigning responsibilities, do so,” she says. “If you’re asking for someone to take action, be clear about it. Vagaries may render your email message useless.”

5. Zingers

  • Talking Shock: Bain & Company consultant James Allen suggests following the lead of a Chinese company — after new recruits have been on board for 100 days, ask them to write a “shock report” or “astonishment report,” advising what most surprises them about their new firm. The idea is to capture first impressions before the organization’s culture begins to indoctrinate new employees. (Source: WSJ.com Blogs)
  • Workplace Realities: Three insights from HR Blogger Laurie Ruettimann: Your job is whatever your boss asks you to do, and it’s always bigger than your job description. Kindness is the best office currency. You only have your word; if you compromise your integrity, it’s over. (Source: LaurieReuttimann.com).
  • Don’t Take Over … Coach: If you do your team’s work for them, you’re not a good manager, warns consultant Katy Tynan. When one of your team members is struggling, it can be tempting to hand out answers. Instead, ask questions about what’s wrong and how to solve it, coming at the issue from all angles. (Source: HBR.com)
  • Don’t Clutter The Data: When using a bar chart, should you let the reader tell the dimensions from the measurement scale on the relevant axis, or also add a “data label” beside each bar giving the amount it represents? Presentations expert Dave Paradi suggests keeping it clean and uncluttered. When the audience needs to know exact amounts, mark those above each bar but then don’t bother with dimensions on the axis. When showing trends, leave it to the markings on the axis to provide guidance. (Source: ThinkOutsideTheSlide.com)
  • Offering A “No” Option: When your sales calls aren’t being returned, consultant Colleen Francis says it’s a good idea to advise prospects they can say no. Leave a voice mail or email saying, “If you’ve chosen to go with a different product, that’s okay. Just let me know so I don’t become a follow-up pest.” Generally they will either call you back and say that they indeed have chosen someone else, or they’ll say “no, we haven’t made a decision yet,” and apologize for not getting back to you sooner. (Source: EngageSelling.com).

6.  Q&A with 8020Info: What is “design thinking”?

Question:  Recently I was in a meeting where someone mentioned a concept called “design thinking” … what exactly is it?

8020Info President & CEO Rob Wood responds:

Other definitions are available, but we like Jon Kolko’s description in his September Harvard Business Review article, Design Thinking Comes of Age.

He describes design thinking as a set of principles that organizations apply to help people experience their “interactions with technologies and other complex systems [as] simple, intuitive and pleasurable”. It is also about helping them make sense of complexity in emotionally satisfying and meaningful ways.

Some years ago, IDEO CEO Tim Brown made a distinction between design thinking and how design has been treated historically — that is, as a downstream step that “puts a beautiful wrapper around the idea”.

Today design has come to play a more strategic role —and earlier in the development process— to create new sorts of human-centred activities, processes, services, IT-powered interactions, entertainments and ways of communicating and collaborating. It shapes the creation of beautiful consumer-electronics, or redesigns how nurses pass along patient information when they change shifts. Design thinking doesn’t ask so much about how to design a prettier bicycle, but responds to why 90% of adults no longer ride.

Design thinking tends to flow through three stages: Inspiration (the problem or idea that motivates a search for solutions); Ideation (to generate, develop and test ideas); and then Implementation.  And Kolko notes that typical methods will:

  • Focus on users’ experiences, especially their emotional ones. “An emotional value proposition is a promise of feeling.”
  • Create models to examine complex problems. Physical models, diagrams and sketches are often used to explore ideas.
  • Use prototypes to explore potential solutions. Some design tools, for example, might map the client journey to explore problems, but prototypes explore solutions.
  • Tolerate failure. “The iterative nature of the design process recognizes that it’s rare to get things right the first time,” Kolko points out. Design thinking leverages failure as learning.
  • Exhibit thoughtful restraint. This involves “deliberate decisions about what the product should do and, just as important, what it should not do.” To offer customers a clear, simple experience, designers must say “no” much more than they say “yes”.

Kolko cautions that design doesn’t solve all problems — it’s not the right set of tools for optimizing, streamlining, or otherwise operating a stable business. But it works well when you need to imagine the future and innovate in ways that are empathetic to the user of your product, service or process experience.

7.  News From Our Water Cooler:  It’s a network, not a tree.

Sometimes it’s easier to grasp a new paradigm than to apply it.

In a TED Talk last month, A Visual History of Human Knowledge, Manuel Lima documented how the tree has been the predominant visual metaphor for the structure of our knowledge for centuries. In that way of visualizing a body of knowledge, information is organized in a linear way like a trunk splitting off into smaller and smaller branches until we’re left at the end with individual leaves. And it has hierarchy.

The metaphor for our times, however, is the network. Think of a cloud with scores of interconnected dots. There is no single command centre, no leader, no hierarchy – it functions as a whole, as one interactive system. The Internet is perhaps the most prominent, pervasive example.

While we may be quick to grasp the visual difference between a branching tree and a crisscrossing network map of connected dots, we have not always transformed our thinking to apply this new metaphor in practice.

  • Network Structure: Take, for example, how differently a team functions when it operates as an integrated, interactive network of people, each bringing their own expertise, compared to one that follows a command-and-control structure typical of military tradition. It needs a different management approach.
    Or how a network of community partners who need to collaborate —sharing information and resources in complementary roles to achieve common goals— must operate in ways quite different from each “owning” a branch of the process wholly within their own organization.
  • Information Networks: The roles and contributions of customers and staff, algorithms and technologies, management and competitors are no longer distinct branches — they are interactive and commingled in a network. Frontline staff and clients can access information as easily as the top boss. Or a service desk may ask Google about a problem instead of quizzing a manager.

Perhaps it’s time to check whether our strategies and management practices have adapted to the new metaphor.

8.  Closing Thought:

“Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”