Stop Mailing In Your Participation

Standard

Have you ever been part of a project or organization in which a colleague is giving only a minimal effort? This behaviour, which some call “mailing it in”, may be killing your team’s success.

For several years in the 1990’s, I participated in a programme in which I was trained to teach 50-150 person seminars. The head trainer was the most effective instructor, consistently receiving the best scores, but new trainees like me had a tricky challenge trying to figure out exactly what made him outstanding.

One of his traits was an uncanny skill: he could lead each event as if it were his last, giving attendees a fresh experience each time. As a high performer who took each seminar to a different level, he found new ways to make things compelling even when they were, on the surface, mundane.

While I couldn’t replicate his ability, it was fascinating to observe someone who never once “mailed it in.” The phrase refers to the human tendency to do the minimum possible to get by, thereby providing only a weak substitute. According to Wiktionary, the term means “to fulfill a responsibility with a minimum, rather than appropriate, level of effort”, aka “phoning it in”.

In my column a month ago about governance and leadership, I mentioned that many organization’s board members are mailing it in. I wrote: “In some of our (client’s) strategic planning retreats, they either decline to attend, fail to show up, arrive late, leave early, or spend the entire caucus distracted by email.” Or Zoom. Or a live football match on YouTube…a real episode.

But what’s the big deal? Why should you care? After all, mailing it in has been a part of Jamaican history ever since Columbus met and tried to enslave the Tainos. Their response was probably typical of all oppressed people: to pretend to be doing as much as possible while actually doing the minimum.

Here are a few reasons to highlight this tendency that may help address it in your organization.

1. An Insidious Form of Corruption

We Jamaicans often treat corruption as if it’s a novel coronavirus – a once in a lifetime event that arrives out of the blue all of a sudden, shocking us all. Consider that, in your company, corruption starts with something tiny: when someone mails it in.

In other words, whenever staff members offer up “a minimum, rather than appropriate, level of effort” they are doing more than being lazy. In fact, they are undermining the very mission of the enterprise.

Strangely enough, they could be well-intentioned. The truth is, we are imperfect, which means that sometimes we miss the mark entirely. Some departments or boards do so for years at a time, eventually doing great damage to the very cause they are trying to uphold.

However, the important part that’s missing is a tool of accountability: consistent and transparent feedback, especially in those moments when you are mailing it in. In other words, when you don’t have someone who is willing to let you know when you are merely putting in a half-effort, you are likely to slide into a micro-corruption which masses into a mission-killing culture.

To illustrate: for every Usain Bolt there is another person with equal talent. The only difference is often a lack of accountability: continuous, corrective conversations between the performer and his/her coach. Without such direct help at unexpected times, it’s hard to achieve much.

In firms with such dysfunctional cultures, pointing fingers is a wasted effort. The sad fact is, whenever a group of individuals don’t practice holding each other to a high standard on a regular basis, mailing it in becomes the inescapable, mediocre norm.

2. Lack of Role Models

Unfortunately, when this corruption leaks in at the highest level it’s a different kettle of fish. Why? We Jamaicans tend to pay a lot of attention to hierarchies.

For example, a board that fails in its basic duties (i.e. to have AGM’s, regular meetings, challenging conversations, high performing members) sends a signal to the company: it tolerates corruption.

Over time, anyone who attempts to raise the bar in any part of the organization can be thwarted. They will learn or be told that they are being unfair, or unreasonable. And if they look for support at a higher level, they find the same corruption.

At that point, staff members quit. Either they start a job-hunt or worse: they remain in the job and lapse into mailing it in. They join the club.

Sometimes, a knowledge of these two costs is enough to spur a transformation. Use them to show your organization the places where it’s killing its own success by collectively mailing it in.

Why is Email the Hardest Thing You Must Do Each Day?

Standard

What makes email the number one hated activity in corporate life? It may have little to do with the nuisance it has become, and everything to do with incomplete decisions we need to make daily.

Studies have shown that email consumes some 20% of each employee’s day. At the same time, 33% would rather clean a toilet than go through all their email. Why the aversion to a technology that’s supposed to help? Why do so many wish it would just go away?

It all comes down to friction.

Email delivers frictionless communication at scale. Today, there’s no need to use a typewriter, secretary, printer, phone or conference room to send a simple message to upwards of millions of people. As such, electronic messaging will never go away, even if it’s being slightly reshaped by apps like WhatsApp and Slack.

Its permanence and ubiquity mean that we must forever tolerate universal irritants like spam and irrelevant CC’s, but these aren’t the main reasons for all the hate. Instead, the problem we face is that of decision overwhelm.

To explain, let’s set aside messages from the non-essential newsletters, updates and birthday reminders you receive. By contrast, critical emails are ones you can’t delete with impunity: they require you to pause and think before answering.

The problem is that such messages come into our Inboxes at all times of the day, even while we are sleeping. We can’t control when people send them, so they arrive mixed in with the stuff that’s not essential. This makes it hard to focus.

However, you do have control over the following three actions. Mastering each of them can be transformational to the quality of your decision-making.

Action Mode #1 – Arbitrary Skimming and Scanning – Stop

While there are a few companies which require employees to scan their Inboxes every few minutes (thereby ruining their productivity) a clear best practice has emerged. In summary, it states one should never randomly “check” email i.e. skim. Instead, it should be a consciously scheduled activity.

What about emergencies? Savvy organizations train their staff to use other methods such as phone calls or texts for urgent communications.

The fact is, the habit of scanning email leaves you at the mercy of other people’s agendas. You end up playing electronic ping-pong, being your least effective.

The solution is to learn how to use the following two action modes for managing your incoming email.

Action Mode #2 – Light Triage – Start

Instead of skimming, you should create a handful of opportunities each day to organize incoming messages. In these triage sessions, you are rapidly dispatching messages to parts of your system (other than your Inbox) so that they can be dealt with later.

In this mode, you only offer short replies, if any at all. This isn’t the time for making decisions about the content of email messages. It’s the time for deciding which ones require actual thought and later consideration, then putting them in position, ready for the hard thinking they call for.

Action Mode #3 – Heavy Lifting – Start

These are longer periods of time devoted to making difficult decisions related to specific email messages. They need to be pre-scheduled and heavily guarded against distractions or external intrusions so that you can make quality commitments and deliver clear communications.

In essence, you are batching the hardest work you’ll do each day into a single time-slot reserved for your very best performance.

Unfortunately, most of us jump between these three Action Modes randomly when we open our Inboxes, frittering away precious time, attention and energy.

The result? You fail to realize that the kind of intensity needed for Action #2 (quick, short decisions) is different from that of Action #3 (deep thinking and major commitments.) As such, you rarely put yourself in the right mindset to do your hardest, best work. Instead, you try to squeeze email between other commitments.

Ultimately, you create problems for yourself and others. At the volumes of email typical of a manager, you never catch up, so others form a poor impression of your ability to stay on top of what (they think) is a simple chore.

The answer is to use your calendar to block separate times for Mode #2 and Mode #3 email. It’s the only way to manage the volume of decisions your job requires.

In this context, you must be continuously improving your email management as a means for making effective decisions. Do so and you’ll continue to be a competent professional who uses his/her core tools effectively.

Should Your Board Interfere with Company Strategy?

Standard

There’s a whole school of thought which states that boards should leave strategic thinking to executives. Instead, board members should only provide oversight. Does this point of view have merit?

The COVID pandemic has thrown companies’ strategies in disarray, whether they are NGO’s, public or private sector organizations. Suddenly, reliable bedrock beliefs have been suspended as evidence pours in that a new normal is being born.

Too many boards are caught off-guard. Believing that strategic concerns are the purview of executives, they have taken a hands-off approach to recent events. For some time, many have never been regular attendees at their own board meetings. In some of our strategic planning retreats, they either decline to attend, fail to show up, arrive late, leave early, or spend the entire caucus distracted by email. 

In other words, pre-COVID, they stopped providing strategic direction. Unfortunately, too many of them are public sector bodies.

Instead, they offer to ensure that the resulting plan is faithfully followed. They don’t want to “interfere.”

The folly of this thinking has recently become apparent. Here’s why.

1) COVID has collapsed the future

Our approach to running strategic planning retreats encourages companies to look 15-30 years into the future. Sometimes over protest, we explain the pros and cons of looking too far out, vs. not far enough. The key is to choose a “Goldilocks” planning horizon: one that’s just right.

Pity the companies which have chosen a horizon which is too short. Why? They’ll have to restart their planning process.

The truth is that organizations who chose long horizons already planned for the changes COVID has made urgent. The only difference is that the pandemic has brought the future closer: collapsing it. All they need to do is change the timeline.

However, a company with a too-short strategy would miss the ball entirely. They’d have to rethink everything simply because of a tactical error in forming their plan. This is where board members make a difference:  they are usually the ones pushing for longer horizons. Their absence makes this mistake more likely to occur.

2) Fresh New Eyes Are Necessary at the Top

The pandemic has shown us what it’s like to be completely blindsided. However, it should also predict which individuals will rebound first.

Those who are younger and newer to the organization have an advantage. Just observe how they adapt themselves to the use of an app such as Zoom which has assumed a central role in most companies.

Contrast this reality with some leaders. I once worked with the head of communications of a large company who hid a big secret – he didn’t know how to use Powerpoint. How he got to that position without picking up a basic tool of the trade remained a mystery.

Boards need to challenge executives to keep developing themselves. They should also welcome fresher, younger eyes into their ranks to prevent companies from becoming stale.

As such, boards need to properly estimate how in touch they are. Unfortunately, many fail to include digital strategists in the boardroom so it becomes difficult to provide proper guidance on the most challenging issues of the day.

3) Bringing Back the Best Employees

Today, CEOs’ are looking around the office, shaking their heads and wondering: “Why did I ever think we needed so many people?” Now, their suspicions have been confirmed: when some employees stayed home, and contributed little, they weren’t missed. In other words, their absence wasn’t a problem.

Can organizations simply cherry-pick the best employees, pay them a bit more and let go of the rest?

I predict that the new normal will force them to do so, within the limits of the labour laws. Outsiders may complain that they are just being greedy. However, board members may

point to the need to survive the first worldwide disruption in business to occur in our lifetime.

They are more likely to switch to a more digitally-savvy workforce that can manage itself without being watched. Individual salaries may rise by so doing, but the number of total employees may fall. Overall productivity should increase even as payroll costs are cut.

Boards should also prevent executives from rushing to return to a pre-COVID status quo which wouldn’t be sustainable. They should have a well-established point of view developed from seeing the inside operations of other companies.

These are trying times, and the cozy collegiality of the board room must give way to the committed few who are willing to take a stand in an effort to keep companies afloat. 

Organizations need their boards to jump into the fray wholeheartedly. They must intervene to make the best of a messy situation and play their part in crafting a strategy that serves all concerned.

What are your executive team’s post-COVID assumptions?

Standard

Is your company being undermined by obsolete assumptions held by some of your leaders? To move forward, they must be challenged.

In our work to develop clients’ breakthrough strategies, we try to highlight such hidden assumptions. These are often unspoken, clashing ideas which undermine the corporate strategy. When the plan needs revision, the team should uncover and sort out these differences to act as one.

Unfortunately, most companies were rushed to respond to COVID-19 and created little more than a bunch of survival tactics. Now that the lockdown is being phased out, organizations must find a way to achieve their “new normal” if they hope to thrive.

However, as they do so, they need to look past the relatively simple task of putting people back in front of their desks safely. A fresh strategy is required to suit the times. One approach is to explore the foundation assumptions which are now embedded in their old business model. For example, they should date the following common, future milestones.

  • New Coronavirus Case Level-Off Day
  • Active Case Reduction Day
  • Curfew Lifting Day
  • Employee Separation Day
  • Remaining Employee Return Day
  • Customer Re-Opening Day
  • Border Re-Opening Day
  • International Flight Resumption Day
  • End of Social Distancing Day
  • Ro Below 1.0 Day (A measure of COVID-19’s contagiousness.)

Each of these public events signals a turning point in the crisis. While they are unknowable with absolute certainty, that’s not the main challenge. The problem is that executives in your company are likely to hold different estimates for each milestone. This discrepancy could just be an interesting curiosity, except that each individual is making daily decisions based on their personal understanding.

For example, if HR believes that Employee Return Day is on June 15th, but Customer Service commits to a Customer Re-Opening Day on June 1st, there’s a big problem. The company can waste time, effort and money if the two plans aren’t synchronized.

But this list of key dates is just a start. There are a number of other assumptions which only apply to your industry, or company which need to be unearthed. Here are some of the questions I have been urging clients to ask themselves. 
Q1 – What material changes have occurred in our business? Here, I recommend you brainstorm individually and then as a team. It’s no place for group-think – the tendency for people to conform to majority thinking. Focus on concrete changes which are tangible and can be measured.
Q2 – Why does the change matter? Here you must confront aspects of your business model which can no longer work. Query what will happen if you continue the old model in this new environment.
Q3 – If the change is permanent, what were the original assumptions that must be challenged? These were embedded in the old business model, perhaps never discussed. Now, you must make them explicit.
Q4 – What are the new assumptions? Given the data you have on hand, what will you assume moving forward?

Furthermore, to make sense of your predictions, also think in terms of “confidence”. For example, if your team believes that Border Re-Opening Day will be on September 30th, apply a confidence interval to this date. You may state: “We are 50% sure that the date will fall between September 1st and October 31st.” That’s very different from being “90% sure it will fall between September 25th and October 5th. “

This additional information helps you make better decisions, introducing added flexibility where it may be needed. Of course, this is just the beginning. You should continue the regular strategic planning process I have summarized in prior articles:

1. Create a current snapshot

2. Set a target month/year that will allow a breakthrough to manifest

3. Craft measurable outcomes

4. Backcast from the future to 2020, filling the gap with necessary actions and milestones

Finally, ensure that the context of the discussion is one of exploration and innovation. The fact is, there will probably never be another moment like this in your business. Discontinuities of this magnitude rarely occur more than once in a lifetime.

Needless to say, companies that don’t revise their baseline hypotheses will be left at the starting line. In like manner, those who allow their CEO to set a bunch of flaky assumptions by himself will also run last.

Take the opportunity to make the most of this crisis by challenging the assumptions that render your old business model and strategy obsolete. Get all the members of your executive team talking to arrive at a new baseline.

Feels uncomfortable? The fact is that you are making an educated guess, then taking a bet that you are right. Regardless, your organization needs you to make such commitments so it can find success within this pandemic. 

What are your executive team’s new post-COVID assumptions?

Standard

May 17, 2020

Is your company being undermined by obsolete assumptions held by some of your leaders? To move forward, they must be challenged.

In our work to develop clients’ breakthrough strategies, we try to highlight such hidden assumptions. These are often unspoken, clashing ideas which undermine the corporate strategy. When the plan needs revision, the team should uncover and sort out these differences to act as one.

To listen to this podcast, visit Source

Crisis Favors the Digitally Bold CEO

Standard

Why are top executives getting frustrated at their teams during COVID-19? One reason: it’s obvious to them that the company needs to become a digital operation. They may also be very demanding but don’t blame them: they alone can see a joined-up world beyond the pandemic that most subordinates can’t. In the past few years, my consulting firm has implored our clients to include a digital strategist on their boards, executive ranks and strategic planning retreats. Only a tiny few have risen to the occasion, adding someone (usually much younger) to strategy discussions, which seemed to be about a faraway future.

COVID-19 has changed the timeline.

As we scan the outputs of prior client retreats we see that the long-term plans they made were painfully slow. They imagined a gradual drift into a digital world where people’s behaviors would change eventually, imperceptibly.

Today, they must make changes to go online from offline in a matter of months. However, CEO’s are having a difficult time getting their executive teams to envision a future that even their youngest employees can see. Why?

In a nutshell, each company function is lost in its own silo. Marketing, HR, Operations, IT…each is unable to lead the way. The new vision is beyond their grasp because it requires joined-up thinking.  What should CEOs’ do to accelerate the process of forging a digital transformation?

1. Forgive Weak Repetition

Many top executives get mad when their functionaries simply try to copy the offline world to the one that’s online. For example, advertising on the internet involves more than putting up digital billboards. It requires an understanding of engagement psychology, content and technology which few possess. The average marketing department won’t know how to gamify an audience, or perhaps even how to create one.

But this is to be expected. And forgiven. While initial attempts are weak, they represent a certain level of willingness, and the start of a steep climb.

However, CEO’s must insist on an unprecedented level of cooperation right away. They need to role-model an eagerness to cross internal boundaries to discover ideas and talent wherever it may be found. For example, if the new receptionist has 10,000 followers on Instagram, pull her in!

2. Focus on Underlying Business Results

To overcome the initial disappointment, executives should encourage experiments which aren’t meant to replicate old processes, but still achieve the same objectives.

For instance, a company which is used to engaging its walk-in customers in ways that make the experience special, cannot offer the usual free coffee, air-conditioning and relaxed banter. Instead, they must ask themselves why those features worked and what emotions they were intended to evoke.

In like manner, pastors that relied on the right blend of hymns, testimonies and sermons to keep congregants coming back for more can’t rely on these elements.  In these times, they need to go beyond the superficial form of these activities and find the underlying benefit that is being delivered.

In other words, they must begin all over again. Unfortunately, Facebook, Instagram and Netflix are just a single click away, along with every other online church service in the world. The only hope they have of competing is to experiment and make mistakes to learn what will deliver the a similar experience via the internet.

3. Learn New Functionality

Recently, I hosted a virtual conference that attracted several hundred global registrants. Behind the scenes of the Time Blocking Summit I was forced to pick up new tools, and with it, unique capabilities I barely understood.

In retrospect, I can laugh at my mishaps running ads on Facebook, Instagram, Quora and Google, but I had to make an effort. It was the only way to apprehend the power of these tools, which have no equivalent in the offline world.

These capabilities are highly nuanced, able to break down old barriers. For example, think of your employees using WhatsApp and Zoom to organize themselves into cross-functional teams. They do so on their own time, without the involvement of management, training themselves to using these apps to create new connections across boundaries. In the offline world, it would have been impossible.

Case in point: companies now need a private, community forum to keep dispersed staff members together. Too many executives, stuck in “Mi nuh use them ting deh” social-media prejudices, can’t lead the charge.

The COVID-19 crisis favors CEOs’ who are willing to push themselves to learn uncomfortable lessons that used to be optional, theoretical or futuristic. Today, they need to be visible role models of learning in order to lead in these extraordinary times. 

When COVID-19 ruins your “perfect” strategic plan

Standard

While your company awaits a return to business as usual, should your leadership be thinking about revisiting its strategy? Does the current pandemic mean that you should start the process all over again?

To say that the coronavirus has disrupted business is an understatement.

Even if you are still operating at this time of lockdowns and curfews, you are probably doing so under duress. Nevertheless, you must look ahead.

At some point in the future, employees will have returned to their jobs, continuing to work in the old way. However, it would be a mistake to put your effort into “returning things to normal.” Chances are, there is a new normal and you should adjust to it, rather than seek to drag your business back to an obsolete state.

For example, take the case of an owner of a funeral parlour in New York City. As an essential service, the company has not closed down. In fact, like many morticians who are willing to deal with COVID casualties, the owner is overwhelmed by the volume of deceased persons being brought in.

While this could be treated as a windfall, the long-term question is “What does this mean for business?” In other words, is there an assumption that needs to be re-examined now that funerals are being conducted so quickly, in small groups, without a service, in large numbers?

Like this company, it might be time for your team to re-examine the assumptions behind its strategic plan. Here are three steps for engaging your executives and board members.

Part 1 – Enumerate the Disruptions 
Start by making a list of the most obvious changes. When the big-ticket items are out of the way, look for the ones that are harder to see but may be just as important.

One method is to begin with a single pronounced item but then ask “Why” to determine the reasons things have changed. Then repeat the process asking “Why?” five more times, until no more answers can be found.
Leave room to add other big items as you continue, but pull them together into new strategic themes before the next step.

Part 2 – Tear-down the Old Plan
Here, you are looking for concrete reasons why the current plan won’t work. Use the results of the prior exercise if needed, but in this phase you should be ruthless. Identify the assumptions (unstated or unimagined) which have been violated by the new normal.

At this moment, you need to bring your team to a consensus point of view regarding the plan’s gaps, seeking to go as deep as possible into long-term changes. For example, have your customers come to expect a higher standard that you never predicted? Has a new technology been introduced that you simply can no longer ignore? Have you fallen behind a nimble competitor?

Part 3 Assess the Plan’s Viability
In this final step, you decide whether or not the current plan needs to be changed and to what degree.

In some cases, your plan may have anticipated the disruptions which are underway as a result of COVID-19. For example, perhaps you contemplated that within five years you would be delivering service to customers remotely using a tool like Zoom or WhatsApp.

Now, you realize, you need to do so immediately just to keep up.

Or, you may have learned that the time horizon on your old plan was too short – a common occurrence. The changes that you see happening in the next year are so dramatic, they render your plan obsolete. A brand new, long-term destination is needed.

However you assess your current strategy, the final step is to conduct a joint activity to bring it up to date. This may mean starting from ground zero.

If you believe you can escape this kind of re-examination or leave it up to the CEO or Chair to do it alone, think again. Consider that this global disruption might be the single most impactful event in your lifetime.

The fact is, some assumptions in your industry have been unfrozen. Consequently, your firm has the chance to stick a wedge into a sliver of opportunity and turn it into a crack that will never be closed. If you move quickly, you can be the first (and only) company to capitalize.

The only difference is that these things usually happen slowly, over a decade or more. Now, for a change, they are happening with lightning speed.

Why Your Kids Shouldn’t Migrate, But Stay to Run Your Business

Standard

If you own a company, should you encourage your children to one day take an ownership position? Or should they pursue a more lucrative career overseas? We Jamaicans need to challenge our habit of exporting the next generation.

“My son is a pediatrician in New York.”

There are few things that give a Jamaican parent more pride than the apparent success of their child in a foreign country. He may be miserable, divorced and barely making ends meet in a cold corner of the South Bronx, but these dull facts are disregarded in the telling of the tale.

His parents could even own a profitable business in a small town, the sole supplier of an essential good or service. Their life may be comfortable. They live well below their means as they navigate a world they understand. When the son complains about his life, they tell him to stay put – things are far worse back home.

But are they?

I lived on both sides of the equation: 21 years in the USA, returning 15 years ago. I met scores of overseas Jamaicans trapped in jobs or neighborhoods they hated. They longed to return to what they knew, but couldn’t. Few re-migrate from Canada, the UK or America even after the environment becomes hostile.

In the meantime, their parent-owners did no succession planning. Eventually, these founders passed away, forcing their children to come back to pick up the pieces. There are countless versions of the above scenario. It’s a sad accumulation of small, seemingly disconnected decisions that result in a huge loss of inter-generational wealth. Here are three new thoughts that might help.

1. Don’t under-estimate what you have here

In error, we Jamaicans often think we are “special” – facing problems that no-one in the rest of the world has. For example, someone who struggled to start their own business believes that if they had only been born in America, they would have had an easier path to success. As such, they encourage their children to migrate to a life with fewer obstacles.

Unfortunately, they don’t realize the advantage they already have. Their company has figured out how to succeed and is now a big and growing fish in a small pond. This advantage is hard to comprehend when viewed from home, but the global research is clear: most wealthy families pass on material advantages from one generation to the next. I know too many Jamaican families who ignore this fact, encouraging the next generation to abandon the massive lead their forefathers created. Sometimes it’s due to shame – a belief that what is Jamaican (or Black) cannot be good.

Fortunately, this opinion is changing but there are local families destroying value by reflexively pushing their children to study and live overseas, no matter what.

2. Don’t over-estimate the challenge of starting over

I have spoken to a few Jamaicans before they migrate, and the overwhelming impression I have is that they equate a move to another country with one to a place like Montego Bay.

In other words, they naively believe it won’t be that hard to transition. Part of the problem are the falsehoods returning Jamaicans tell. With newly acquired accents, clothes and pictures of cars, they defend their decision to migrate by exaggerating life in their new country. I did it too.

The false impression it leaves is that migrating from Jamaica is an accomplishment. In fact, it’s more a case of “swapping brown dog for monkey”. To whit: most of us know several dogs, but have never seen a single monkey. 

The truth? When I lived in the US, most Jamaicans I met wished they could return, a majority that Trump and COVID-19 have probably increased.

Why? While there are exceptions to the rule, most migrants who left family businesses behind struggle to achieve the quality of life their parents had back home. Living abroad is hard. And it’s new. Research shows that the combination delays business success and in the case of a family-owned enterprise, permanently disrupts the transfer of wealth.

3. Starting Too Late

If there is any truth to the two mistakes described above, the best time to start correcting them is as soon as you, a company owner, have children. While they shouldn’t be promised an easy ride, it’s a good idea to teach them to love and cherish the business they could inherit. One day, their appreciation may pay off if they choose to stay home to keep the chain alive. While you must not force them, their decision to continue what you began can do more than make you proud. It can build a solid foundation that serves generations to come.

How Your Organization Can Learn from Disruptions

Standard

If, like most leaders, you are struggling with the rude COVID-19 surprise, consider that this is just the beginning of a new normal. Some say there are other massive disruptions on the horizon. Perhaps one way to cope is to redefine what it means to be a learning organization.

Back in the early 1990’s I attended a training offered by Peter Senge’s company. He’s the author of The 5th Discipline – The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The concept was a great one – organizations needed to focus on learning in order to adapt to changing times. 

However, that was before the advent of email or the internet. In today’s context, what we thought were “changing times” looks to be quaint.
For example, in the past few weeks, as a leader you have been forced to become competent in pandemic crisis management. Consequently, you can now define a number of brand new terms: social distancing, self-quarantine and “non-essential worker.”

Furthermore, your organization has picked up some fresh skills, albeit in bits-and-pieces: scheduling staff to minimize contact, limiting viral transmissions, enabling work from home and determining critical functions.

To fill these gaps, you have spoken with other executives, listened to the business news, used Google searches, and perhaps even hired subject matter experts. Unfortunately, for most companies, this has been a hit-or-miss affair. In other words, your organizational learning has taken place by “Buck-Up.”

Some CEO’s thrive on high-stress challenges such as this one. But most people don’t. Instead, they want a systematic way to develop the skills and knowledge needed to coast through any future disruption. How can your organization respond effectively to the next challenge?

1. Learn from the Covad-19 Learning Gaps

The best leaders noticed that their organization was caught in a situation where critical knowledge was missing. Even if it had a generic disaster recovery plan, the nature of this disruption defies ones anticipated by textbooks.

Instead, leaders realize that the company which can learn quickly, especially in a crisis, would be the one that has the advantage. Rather than being stalled, it would rapidly assess the threat. The gaps found would be converted into learning content to be disseminated within hours to those who need to use it: board, stockholders, executives, managers, workers, customers, suppliers, et al.

Unfortunately, too many companies rely on the fact that the CEO is a smart, capable person. While this is often true (especially in small organizations) it’s a mistake to equate individual learning with organizational learning. 
The latter is far more powerful and seeks to equip the entire company with capabilities which endure long past the tenure of any particular person.

2. Empower a New Learning and Development Specialist

It’s one thing to identify the need for this kind of rapid learning, but the question is: “Who should manage it?” Most companies have shed whatever training people they once had in prior budget cuts. Plus, the landscape has changed. Years ago, employees sat in three-day Microsoft Windows or Excel workshops. Today, the idea of sitting in a classroom to learn how to use an app is a joke.

The need for this kind of trainer has disappeared.

However, at the same time, the requirement for someone to take charge of organizational learning in challenging moments is evident. But this is not the same small skill-set trainers used to have. What kind of capabilities should this individual possess?

3. The New Learning Skills

Today, this person would be a kind of crisis-manager, but not one that addresses the issue directly. Instead, they would be concerned with uncovering the learning that’s required to solve the problem in the mid-term, so that it never recurs. As such, they’d require a blend of technical and change management skills, plus the ability to respond within days, if not hours. 

In addition, this person should also be a quality diagnostician, able to discern the true learning gaps inherent in novel challenges. In a flash, they can analyze new technologies, alliances, distribution networks, supply chains, government regulations and other kinds of unique threats and opportunities. Due to the importance of their work, they would behave more like entrepreneurs than bureaucrats. 

Finally,  they would also need to think of innovative ways to get people to learn. A CTO-friend of mine developed a practice of assigning brand new technologies to members of his team. Their job? To research the area and deliver a training program to his colleagues after a month or two of intense study. It was a low-tech solution to a very high-tech problem.

This is a simple example. But it reflects the out-of-the-box thinking a learning expert would have to do to prepare your organization for its next rude surprise.

Why Strategic Planning is a Team Sport

Standard

As an executive, you must make an annual decision about your organization’s strategic plan. Should the exercise be done as a team, hire outsiders to perform a study,  or simply fall back on the CEO’s thinking? While there are pros and cons to each approach, one generally yields the best fruit.
Once your company successfully grows to a certain point, it must consider the long-term impact of its actions, and make a choice. Does it continue to allow the founder to drive the decisions on each major course of action? After all, he/she is the most knowledgeable person, and the only one who has the full-time job of thinking strategically.
However, even though CEOs are generally smart people, there comes a stage when their brilliance, and this tactic, only gets them into trouble. They find themselves alone in implementing their strategies. No-one else takes the time to understand or invest themselves emotionally. Instead, they sit back and wait for the Boss Man/Lady to do all the big-picture thinking…as usual.
In a small company with a “Snow White” organizational structure (i.e. a single strong extrovert surrounded by introverts) this approach can work. However, an enterprise that must grow by hiring talented people will eventually run into trouble. High performers either refuse to join, or leave after a few months.
An alternate tactic is to invite in an outsider. A consulting firm willingly does all the interviews, data gathering, analysis and report writing. The result is a beautifully packaged set of strategy recommendations.
However, they have actually done their client a disservice.
By undertaking the intellectual labour themselves, they also undermine the emotional commitment. In other words, by the end of the project, they believe in their ideas more than anyone else, especially those who must implement them. Even those who originally had the ideas are sidelined as they become branded by Consulting Firm X.
But there is a third tactic. You could treat the development of the strategic plan as a team exercise, like a sport: an effort in which each person must play their part. However, there are several pitfalls to this approach that need to be avoided.

1. Impartial Facilitation
The best event to forge final decisions is a strategic planning retreat. Unfortunately, most are little more than one of two extremes: a place to air opinions of all kinds without making any commitments, or a presentation of pre-agreed decisions in which people are “encouraged“ to buy-in. Neither produces satisfying results.
Instead, the most effective retreats allow consensus to build from the bottom-up. In most cases, this is best facilitated by an outsider who allows contentious issues to be brought up in a civil way that helps your team make final, binding decisions.
These new points of agreement are the entire purpose of the activity – to craft ultimate, difficult choices that close the door on other alternatives.


2. Immediate Capture
The second pitfall is to think that a hearty discussion is sufficient. In a tiny company, this approach may work as it’s easy to share information.
However, in a larger organization, these agreements must be translated into projects or initiatives which lead to wide-spread behavior changes. To ensure that this happens, your team should document the new strategy immediately after it makes decisions.
In other words, the written substance of each strategy cannot wait to be captured until the next day. If the team waits even a few hours to translate their decisions into words, you may learn the hard way that strategic conversations have a ridiculously short shelf-life. As soon as they are explored and completed, their essence begins to fade once a new conversation commences. 
The only option is for you to capture these conclusions immediately, before everyone scatters to go home.
Unfortunately, this approach is rarely taken because people believe that a fancy Strategy Report is the true final product. It’s not: the decisions your team made are far more important.


3. Instant Ownership
The last pitfall you could make is to leave the retreat without proper ownership being assigned. Overall responsibility isn’t enough: key activities may still languish due to a lack of personal accountability. 
The solution is simple: assign sponsors to each of your new initiatives, even if they don’t possess subject matter expertise. Their sole job is to shepherd the project until a manager is assigned. In fact, they may only relinquish their sponsorship years after the planning event, but when they play their role well, it keeps the retreat’s momentum going.
Every sport has its peculiar conventions and practices. Avoid these pitfalls and you increase the odds that your team will win