June 2010


Below are quick summaries of three recent Harvard Business Review posts.

Think and Act Like Your Customers – There are strategic advantages to knowing your competitors’ business.  There are even more benefits to knowing how your customers think and act.

Innovation: Who Else Is Doing It? – “Guys, innovation means maybe no one else is doing it. You might have to be the first. And that might be a good thing.”  How can your organization be innovative without losing the ranch in the process?  Employ “a small-wins strategy of rapid tests and trial-and-error improvisation.”

Great insights in a short post.  For example, “The courage to innovate involves a high tolerance for difference. Ideas that are presented by people who look and act differently, who are not the usual suspects, are sometimes rejected because of unconscious biases.”  For more on unconscious biases, read my post on mental models.

How to Translate Training into Results – The first principle of human performance technology is to focus on results.  This post provides recommendations for getting measurable results from your management training program.

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Toward the end of my last post I referred to forces that interfere with effective team learning, the most common being defensive routines.  I return to this topic because I believe it is a significant obstacle.  On p. 251, Mr. Senge writes “Deep within the mental models of managers in many organizations is the belief that managers must know what’s going on.  It is simply unacceptable for managers to act as though they do not know what is causing a problem.  Those that reach senior positions are masters at appearing to know what is going on, and those intent on reaching such positions learn early on to develop an air of confident knowledge.”

Can you see how this can be an obstacle to team learning?  In my experience, once a person makes up their mind about something they become closed to alternative views or a better understanding of a situation.  This applies to me too.  When this happens, communication has ended and so has any opportunity for learning.  I am not saying all managers think this way.  However, I would suggest that each person reading this should examine their thinking and behavior.  Ask yourself if this describes you.

Mr. Senge continues, “Managers who internalize this mental model find themselves in one of two binds. Some actually internalize this air of confidence and simply believe that they know the answers to most important problems. But, to protect their belief, they must close themselves to alternative views and make themselves uninfluenceable.  Their bind is that to remain confident they must remain rigid.  Others believe they are expected to know what is causing important problems but, deep down, recognize the uncertainty in their solutions.  Their bind is that to maintain a facade of confidence they must obscure their ignorance.  Managers who take on the burden of having to know the answers become highly skillful in defensive routines that preserve their aura as capable decision makers by not revealing the thinking behind their decisions.”

These are strong words.  I don’t believe the author is saying managers who are in the bind described above are always ignorant.  I believe he is saying their mindset prevents them from seeing the truth in a given situation.  Have you ever seen this?  Have you ever worked with a person who does this?  What impact does this have on the team?  Do you think this has an impact on the organization’s culture?  I would say “how could it not?”  Closing oneself off to input from others blocks the flow of energy in a team that might otherwise contribute toward a shared vision.  This atmosphere is extremely damaging to a learning culture.

As bad as this atmosphere appears, the author says it is actually worse.  On p. 255 he states, “to retain their power, defensive routines must remain undiscussable…teams stay stuck in their defensive routines only when they pretend that they don’t have any defensive routines, that everything is alright, and that they can say ‘anything’.”  When a leader falls into a defensive routine it has the effect of causing others to develop their own routines.  This is one way an counterproductive  status quo gets started.

How do you break this cycle?  The greatest gift a person can have at work or away from work is a person who will speak the truth to them, no matter how hard it is to hear.  I am fortunate to have friends who listen and confront me.  I have come to appreciate and value this.  Seek wise counsel.  Schedule a regular time to get feedback from trusted sources.  Don’t resist constructive criticism even when it is hard to hear.  Be open to making a personal change.

The world is full of teams of talented individuals who share a vision for a while, yet fail to learn.  The great jazz ensemble has talent and a shared vision (even if they don’t discuss it), but what really matters is that the musicians know how to play together.
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline p. 236

Senge’s chapter on “Team Learning” offers practical insight for helping teams benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.  The next few posts will address some of these insights.

In my experience teams often think they work together better than they actually do.  Everyone is busy and deadlines are met but is progress being made?  The concept of team learning brings together many of the elements of recent chapters, personal mastery, mental models, and shared vision.  If a team is not aligned and focused on a common goal that each member understands and supports, team learning cannot occur.

Successful team learning requires team members to share and receive information.  Sounds easy right?  What happens when you have an idea that is contrary to conventional wisdom?  Do you share it?  Can you share it?  I am not recommending or advocating that you go around telling everyone how to do their job.  What I am calling for is culture of openness where people feel comfortable sharing ideas.  This can happen formally or informally.  It all depends on the culture of your organization and the personalities of each team member.

Mr. Senge offers 3 dimensions of successful team learning.  The points below are a combination of his points and my thoughts.  My thoughts are in italics.

  1. the need to think insightfully about complex issues.  This requires individuals to think about how they do their work not just think about their work.  To do this a person must have time and freedom to analyze a situation or circumstances.  Being constantly under pressure to perform prevents most people from doing this.  Can you block off time in your schedule?  Are there ways you can be more efficient?
  2. the need for innovative, coordinated action.  Collaboration and collective intelligence has gotten a lot of attention with the growth of social media.  But collaboration does not automatically guarantee better results.  However it may reveal new opportunities or strategies. Outstanding teams in organizations develop… an “operational trust,” where each team member remains conscious of other team members and can be counted on to act in ways that complement each others’ actions.  Trust can only be built when team members are willing and able to challenge one another.
  3. seek contributions of team members on other teams.  Accountability is required for an organization to succeed.  However, accountability does not mean decisions must be made in isolation.  Team learning requires input from various points of view.  Some of my most creative experiences occur after I am exposed to something new, whether reading, listening, or discussing.  I encourage you to create opportunities to receive input from other teams.

Recognizing that these habits do not come naturally, Mr. Senge warns his readers of behaviors that prevent teams from adopting these habits.  He calls them opposing forces.  The most common of these are defensive routines.  He says we have all developed mechanisms that prevent us and others from threat and embarrassment.  Who doesn’t want to avoid embarrassment?  I try to avoid it as much as possible.  Recognizing these habits requires effort.  As noted in #1 above, we must take time to think about the work we are doing and how we are doing it.  Its easy to see counterproductive habits in others, but are we our own worst enemy?  Are we inadvertently undermining our own success?  Do we have defensive routines that are preventing others from achieving their full potential?

Team learning requires discipline.  If it didn’t we would all be good at it and do it naturally.  But it doesn’t come naturally so we have to consciously commit to share and receive.  Make appointments to share with each other.  Set aside time to reflect on your work.  Commit to learning more about the work your colleagues are doing and how they are doing it.  Below is a powerful insight into team learning.  I encourage you to take it to heart.

Individual learning, at some level, is irrelevant for organizational learning.  Individuals learn all the time and yet there is no organizational learning.  But if teams learn, they become a microcosm for learning throughout the organization.  Insights gained are put into action.  Skills developed can propagate to other individuals and to other teams (although there is no guarantee that they will propagate).  The team’s accomplishments can set the tone and establish a standard for learning together for the larger organization.

How long does it take to turn an aircraft carrier?  I often use that question rhetorically to illustrate how hard it is for large organizations to respond and adapt to changing conditions.  The response to the oil spill in the Gulf is a good example.  There are several massive organizations trying to find a way to cap the well and control the damage of all that oil.  Each of these organizations has a culture that has developed over time to ensure smooth operations.  However, when faced with a crisis it is that very culture that prevents the organization from responding quickly or appropriately.

Can a large organization develop a culture that is able to respond quickly to a crisis or opportunity?  The easiest and best examples of these types of organizations are found in the technology sector.  Steve Jobs says Apple “is organized like a startup.”  There are “no committees, just people in charge of specific areas.”  Flattening formal hierarchies and distributing responsibility is one way to improve your organization’s responsiveness.  They key to this approach is trust.  Authority over decisions is a fundamental need.  However, distributed decision making is a key to rapid response and improved productivity.

Google is another tech company that has a highly responsive culture.  According to a 2006 Washington Post article, “all engineers are allotted 20 percent of their time to work on their own ideas.”  Talk about trust!  The result is a highly innovative company that is branching out beyond its core business.  Even though Microsoft dominates the operating system market with an estimated 90% of computers running some version of Windows, it is struggling to achieve the same level of success in small devices.  Meanwhile, Google is gaining a greater foothold on the Web and in consumer electronics.

A short time ago I attended a speech by Brad Anderson, the former CEO of Best Buy.  He shared some examples of success stories from local Best Buy stores.  One example was of a manager in Alaska.  She recognized significant sales from remote locations in Alaska.  She began exploring ways to better serve people living in these locations.  The result was a dramatic increase in sales.  Mr. Anderson noted that this opportunity would never have been identified at the corporate office.  It was the awareness and actions of a local manager that made success possible.

Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”  What is not included in that quote is the lessons Mr. Edison learned.  He was committed to learning.  Are you?  The key to being innovative and responsive to changes around you is to always look for lessons in things did not work as expected.

It takes effort to learn.  Either from successes or mistakes.  We are busy.  We have deadlines.  There are endless demands on our time.  I encourage you to look at the work you are doing.

What is succeeding?  What isn’t?  Why?  What lessons can you learn?

What do you have to offer that can open new opportunities?  What can you do to empower people to perform better?  Who in your organization has innovative ideas waiting to be developed?  What can you do to foster a culture of innovation that builds off the skills, experience, and perspective of your co-workers and employees?

UPDATE: I read a news article on the ABC news website last night that illustrates my point about the gulf oil spill beautifully.  It appears the governor of Louisiana had authorized the use of barges to collect oil near the coast.  He learned yesterday that the Coast Guard had prevented the barges to continue the work because they “needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.”  I understand the governor’s frustration.  All I will say is, can’t we do better than this?

Do you have examples of this?  Have you ever been frustrated by seemingly senseless delays?  Have you ever felt like you missed an opportunity because the policies or structure of your organization limited your ability to act?

I’m back after a longer than expected break.  I just finished chapter 11 of The Fifth Discipline, Shared Vision.  In the chapter the author, Peter Senge, says “you cannot have a learning organization without shared vision.  Without a pull toward some goal which people truly want to achieve, the forces in support of the status quo can be overwhelming.”

If you are anything like me you are attracted leaders with a clear and strong vision.  I am constantly measuring a leader’s vision against my view of a situation.  The author notes that “leaders with vision are cult heroes.”  Why would that be?  Coming from an environment where the status quo was firmly entrenched, I have first hand experience with how stifling it can be.  I doubt I am alone in this.  The author spends the rest of the chapter explaining all the different ways a vision can get off track.  I’m sure you have experience with a vision that lost momentum so you don’t need me to dwell on that.  If you’re interested, get the book.

If vision is so hard to carry out, how does anyone ever succeed in seeing their vision through?  Is it perseverance?  Is it personal charisma?  The author provides a helpful insight.  “Organizations intent on building shared visions continually encourage members to develop personal visions.  If people don’t have their own vision, all they can do is “sign up” for some one else’s.  The result is compliance, never commitment.”

I believe this statement reveals why a person who can sustain a vision and see it through is viewed as a cult hero.  Look at Steve Jobs.  His recent record of success is well documented and for this he has the adoration of millions of people.  But he is more the exception than the rule.  The rest of us need to do the hard work of cultivating our own visions and the visions of others.

The downside of this is that cultivating anything is hard work.  The upside is that it can be empowering and challenging.  Empowering because people with vision are motivated to achieve.  Challenging because people with vision tend to upset the status quo.  Challenging because people with vision are often in direct opposition to compliance.

What kind of person are you?  Do you prefer compliance or commitment?  What is your vision?  What are you doing to cultivate a vision?