Art of Managing—Helping Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Situation

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

“85-percent of organizational problems are system related and only 15-percent are related to people.” –W. Edwards Deming

As managers, it’s our sacred responsibility to create and continuously improve an environment and system that allows our people to do their best work.

This system that Deming speaks of is an amalgam of the values, behaviors, processes and approaches in pursuit of the firm’s core mission that define the personality of an organization. The approaches and processes around decision-making, planning, developing talent and executing on projects and core operations are all part of the system. Innovation, creativity, employee and customer engagement and financial performance are critical outcomes of an effective system.

Few managers would disagree with their responsibility and accountability for creating this effective environment. Like breathing, it’s a good idea to invest time and energy in practices that promote a healthy, efficient and effective system. In reality, many firms do a good job of this in stable markets…the operative word being “stable.”

I’ve worked in and around many organizations where the firm’s leaders point proudly to a long string of successful years and effectively suggest that they’ve cracked the code of sustaining performance. Their organizations are well-tuned for the current state, the numbers are just good enough to keep stakeholders happy and employees have that swagger of consistent champions.

And Then “It” Happens:

“It” is most often some form of disruption…an unanticipated competitor move, a new market entrant, a disruptive technology innovation or some unexpected shock to society. Regardless of the source, change becomes the order of the day and the long-successful senior leaders react to the situation in a logical fashion and begin to talk about the firm moving down a new path with new strategies or approaches.

New initiatives and projects are born and the latest books consumed in search of answers or approaches that lead to answers. And when results aren’t immediately visible, energy and enthusiasm for experimentation and innovation wane and the pursuit of new consistently loses out to the gravitational pull of the old. From investment dollars and attention, the pursuit of new is often suffocated…for what seems like perfectly rational reasons chasing today’s problems. After a period of time, the wheels on the vehicle that is the effort to pursue new begin to wobble and parts start to fly off as the firm races towards an uncertain destination via an unknown path through uncharted terrain.

With apologies for mixed metaphors, the ride begins to resemble Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing and horrifying post-presidential journey deep into uncharted portions of the Amazon, as he and his colleagues navigated all manner of disasters and dangers as they followed the aptly named River of Doubt.

Once the dangers become visible and the wobble of the wheels sensed by everyone, the fun begins. That is if you find journeying through organizational and career hell some form of perverse fun.

The Level-Up Opportunity:

This moment in time when a firm faces the critical need to change is what I describe as a Level-Up opportunity.  Level-Up opportunities typically involve individuals, teams or entire firms learning to navigate situations of extreme ambiguity and potential peril. We face them as individuals in our careers as we take on new challenges and climb the ladder of responsibility. Organizations face Level-Up opportunities as they strive to do something new…develop and implement a new strategy, move to a new market, capture a new group of customers or pursue an innovation they perceive will leverage their strengths and enhance their fortunes.

It’s somewhere during the flailing phase at the front-end of of a Level-Up situation that people recognize that the old system doesn’t work for new needs. Sure, business the old way continues just fine, after all the system is optimized for the old. However, when it comes to new, the gears grind, the engine smokes, rpms rise and speed slows to a crawl.

It’s time to change the system.

The old ways don’t work for new markets, customers, technologies or business models. It’s also at this time where too many senior leaders choose the wrong paths and tactics. Like Roosevelt’s team attempting to descend a seemingly never-ending number of treacherous rapids and falls during their journey down the River of Doubt, what worked for us at the last rapid or fall results in us smashing our canoes to bits on the rocks in this new environment, endangering lives and squandering precious time and resources.

Beware the Siren Song of Two Powerful Actions:

There are two reflexive actions by senior managers that often exacerbate the wobble. The first is a creeping belief that the people that brought them this far aren’t the right people for the journey ahead. They begin to doubt the abilities of their people to learn, adapt and succeed.

The second mistake is to assume that the organization’s structure is at fault. It’s not. It’s the strategy and system.

While there are nuggets of truth in both of these reflexive thoughts, the actions must be filtered against a clear strategy and tempered appropriately or you risk making a difficult situation impossible.

Change is difficult. Ambiguity and complexity are powerful adversaries in the fight for successful change, and while no simple list of ideas offer the absolute right answers, these seven are intended to help you strive for clarity and simplicity while learning to deal step by step with ambiguity.

Seven Ideas to Help Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Opportunity:

1. Senior Executives Must Link Arms on the New Strategy Direction. Easy words…damned difficult to achieve in practice. Most senior leaders struggle to show up in the same zip code on strategy much less end up on the same page in the same book in the same house. CEO leadership is essential here…with clarity as an absolute and once the direction is set, senior manager compliance essential. Fight it out with vigor and honor, but link arms and go forward aligned and resolute.

2. It’s Not a Strategy If No One in the Firm Understands It. The hard work of strategy begins after the boardroom brawling ends on this topic. Your job is to simplify the strategy and ensure that everyone not only gets it, but sees how they play a role in supporting it.

3. Remember, It’s Not Important to People Just Because You Said it Is. Don’t assume awareness equals either understanding or support. Your approach to strategy development and then execution task definition and implementation must get everyone involved in offering input and backing words with actions..

4. Bet on Your People First and then Acquire to Fill Key Gaps. There’s no doubt that anything new requires education, training and yes, some fresh perspectives from people immune to the firm’s dominant logic. Strive to objectively assess the skills needed for the new strategy and then focus on whether those skills can be learned, trained or whether they must be acquired. We’re too quick to assume acquisition is the answer…when the reality is that your good people are typically hungry for something big and new to do and willing to pour their hearts and souls into it. (For people who resist new learning and new directions, drop them off politely and professionally at the next rest stop. You’ve got no time to waste.)

5. Tune the Organization to Align Superpowers with Key Opportunities. Instead of assuming that a new structure is the solution….something that often emerges from these challenging and frequently political battles over change, use as your emphasis aligning the absolute best resources with the biggest opportunities. Strategy should highlight the best opportunities…now, plug in the people with the right superpowers to succeed for each key opportunity. More often than not, wholesale restructuring squanders precious time and creates confusion. The Superpower-to-Opportunity approach reduces resistance and accelerates the time to implementation so critical in this situation.

6. Use Formal Project Management Practices to Execute the Key Strategy Initiatives. Most strategies breakdown in the execution phase…not the idea phase. For your key initiatives, establish formal project teams complete with an executive sponsor, a clear charter and scope and a well define project team with priorities and targets. Then use this project-focus to provide visibility into progress and to capture lessons learned along the way.

7. Use Process Mapping Relentlessly to Support Building the New System. The work of mapping out key processes around selling, marketing, supporting, deciding, measuring etc. is priceless. Remember that the gravitational pull of “we’ve done it this way” is extremely powerful. Process Mapping helps identify opportunities for new approaches and of course, it highlights flaws, blind spots, inefficiencies and in general it supports cross-functional collaboration and learning.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deming was once asked what he hoped his legacy would be. In the interview (I paraphrase), he responded quickly with, “I’ll doubt I’ll be remembered at all.” Then after thinking about it, he offered, “I would like to be remembered for trying to help (American) companies from committing suicide.”

The seven suggestions above are not foreign to most senior leaders. They reflect some good commonsense. However, their use in synchronization is way too rare. When striving to navigate a Level-Up opportunity and adapt your system to changing circumstances, using these ideas is like breathing…a really good idea. Anything else has a bad outcome. Now, breathe…

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Art of Managing—Don’t Set Artificial Limits on Employee Involvement

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

A firm’s senior leaders and managers are supposed to feel the weight of responsibility for the health of their organization. It comes with the job. However, no one suggested they bear the weight of the worries or the burden of finding the solutions in silence and without ample support from the broader employee population.

Too often, groups of well-intended senior leaders and managers spend the lion’s share of their collective energy in discussion, debating and frankly, worrying over issues of direction and performance without drawing upon the considerable gray matter found somewhere outside the conference room doors.

Of course, failing to involve the employees in the business of your business is the mistake that keeps on giving…just in the wrong way. Instead of feeling involved and (here comes that pop management word) “engaged,” individuals are effectively placed on the outside looking in at the corporate walls and wondering what’s going on in there.

In my experience, people do their best work when they have context for “why it matters” and ample input into suggesting and implementing improvements. The “closed door” approach of self-proclaimed “open door” managers is a formula for failure. 

Sins of Omission or Commission? And Don’t Forget to Ask:

Oddly, when questioning a firm’s senior managers about my observation of the citadel like approach to working on a business, I frequently walk away concluding that involvement limitations are more sins of omission than commission. (Although, there are exceptions!)

In some instances, there’s a deep regard for how hard the employee base is working in the business and a hesitancy to ask for more. That’s noble, but short-sighted.

In other instances, I’ve found senior managers who are almost embarrassed to be asking for help on topics that they perceive are core to their jobs. Sounds like hubris getting in the way of common sense.

And for a few senior managers, my highly clinical observation is that it never occurred to them to involve more people to work on the business. Cue Homer Simpson and a loud, “Duh.”

If you are interested in increasing the flow of ideas, improving overall performance and having your employees treat their jobs like they are part owners of your business, it’s critical to get them involved in helping you work on the business. However, getting started can be awkward. Here are some ideas to help you pry open the citadel doors and let in some fresh air and fresh ideas.

6 Ideas to Jump-Start Improved Employee Involvement:

1. Share the targets and the results. The once per year vague recap, usually couched in percentages, doesn’t cut it. Share key revenue, profitability and efficiency targets AND results and explain what they mean to the firm’s situation. Get creative with this. I’ll still never forget the Town Hall Meeting where the CFO played guitar and sang the results. By the way, this is really working when the employees are active in setting the targets and pushing themselves harder to meet the targets than you ever would have.

2. Teach your employees about your business. Take a lesson from Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business. Don’t assume that employees understand terms like EBIT or the various financial metrics you use to report performance. Take the time to teach them what these numbers mean and importantly, how their work impacts the numbers.

3. Share (and ask about) market and competitor dynamics. While it might be tempting to roll out your strategy plan as a first step in getting employees more deeply involved in your business, a better place to start is to help everyone understand more about the markets that you are competing in and moving towards. Use tools like Porter’s Forces or a simple P.E.S.T.E.L. (political, economic, social, technology, environmental, legal) framework to get everyone on the same page. Do this iteratively by sharing the high level view and ask for input at the departmental or team level and roll it back up and make it the company’s view of the external environment.

4. Give your customers a voice. One of the most “engaging” activities you can do is ask for input from all customer-facing groups on what’s really happening in their businesses and with your offerings. Better yet, after asking your employees, bring some customers into the process (interviews, company visits, advisory boards). Ensure that everyone from the front door to the factory floor has access to the customer insights.

5. Begin involving the employee base in strategy. The above items…sharing targets and results, assessing the external environment and cultivating a fresh view from the perspective of the customer are fairly straightforward. Getting a broader employee base involved in strategy is a journey not an event. Explain the present view and then ask for questions and begin to solicit ideas. Involve all of your managers in understanding the firm’s strategy in detail and then work with them to define a mechanism for teaching and challenging assumptions, asking questions and suggesting ideas. I don’t mean to simplify this step…it’s challenging and requires on-going, deliberate work in creating and executing strategy. As needed, ask for outside help to build the right processes and programs to make this meaningful and actionable.

6. Leverage the collateral ideas. Often times, one of the benefits of driving a process with the actions above is a flood of new ideas…many operational and efficiency oriented. Ensure that people and teams have a means for implementing the ideas and then measuring and reporting on their impact over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This isn’t a program of the month, it’s a deliberate and on-going process to gain ideas and input, and importantly to capture more of the creativity, energy and overall gray matter of a team that in the right circumstances, wants to give more. But remember, if you fail to sustain or to leverage the good input you’ll simply exacerbate the problem you set out to solve.

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Art of Managing—Beware the Lure of Strategy in a Box Approaches

image of a box with new and improved on the labelThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Strategy is one of those difficult topics that dog most management teams and most firms.

The real work of strategy is challenging, time consuming and filled with hard-to-answer questions. It requires a simultaneous out-of-corporate body experience to objectively understand market, industry and competitive forces, along with an invasive and sometimes painful self-examination around internal capabilities.

Few managers come to strategy work with a common understanding or agreement on what strategy is, much less what an effective process looks and feels like. Selecting a strategy and building out the execution program includes the painful process of choosing what not to do, something that often dies on the field of political battles or lack of decision-making discipline.

Last and not least, the groups working on strategy often have little experience working together much less deciding together. In larger organizations participants are often handicapped by lack familiarity with their colleague’s businesses or offerings. Mix in  political dynamics with the lack of familiarity and experience teaming, and you shoot any realistic near-term opportunity to cultivate high performance right in the corporate rear-end.

Given the challenges of managing an effective, on-going strategy process, it’s no surprise “Strategy in a Box” approaches are often adopted by management teams looking to add a check mark to the strategy task on their annual goals.

Recognizing “Strategy in a Box” Approaches:

While there are several variations, the process typically involves bringing a group of senior managers and functional or technical experts together with an outside facilitator for a multi-day offsite retreat.

The “process in a box” invariably starts at the top of the intellectual heap…setting vision to guide future direction. A painful (think root canal with no Novocain …but even more painful) round of group wordsmithing on a so-called vision invariably results in a gobbledygook of words that no one likes but everyone momentarily settles for just to end the pain.

After vision, there’s typically a S.W.O.T. (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) exercise…a discussion that is best described as a bias-filled cesspool of incremental and wild ass thinking on external opportunities and a superficial analysis of internal issues and capabilities. The internal assessment is often either a glossing over of capabilities or a political battle with functional or technical experts taking shots in an effort to distance themselves from criticism and gain leverage in the expected future resource battles. There’s often little preparation or external analysis, and objectivity for internal realities is horribly lacking.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsNext out of the box is a round of goal setting, where the goals become the strategies. The goals are invariably around numbers and the bigger the numbers, the better. It’s not uncommon to hear the adult version of the playground “triple dog dare,” pushing numbers higher and higher:

“C’mon, if development hits the timing window at the right cost and feature set, we can do twice that with our hands tied behind our back.”

“I think you’re sandbagging. We can do your number and then some with the right execution and management.” (Note the thinly veiled jab.)

Big numeric goals become the perceived strategy: “100 million in three years,” or, 100,000 customers or number one or two in our market.

The last tool out of the box is the action plan, where some high-level actions and responsibilities are assigned, with the middle-layer of management in the room inevitably taking on the most critical work.

After a final shake of the box, the follow-up date is set and people adjourn with smiles and handshakes, all internally secure in the knowledge that little of any value was achieved and all wondering how the heck they can avoid any accountability here.

The Alternative…Deliberate Focus on the Right Issues and the Hard Questions:

I wish I were exaggerating on the above description, but I’m not. Some form or variation of this superficial approach is what too many management teams experience when it comes to strategy work. 

The right alternative is to focus on and attack core issues. Rumelt advises us in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy to focus on the kernel of a strategy. Carefully diagnose the situation (an exercise not to be taken lightly) and then decide what to do about it at a high level. Back the diagnosis and guiding philosophy with a set of integrated actions and build from there. Much like a medical problem, the diagnosis frames and defines the follow-on regimen and measurement.

Geoffrey Moore’s framework of frameworks in Escape Velocity forces a view to the portfolio of opportunities and demands answers to the hard questions for today’s and tomorrow’s businesses from an investor’s perspective. He also appropriately segregates discussion into time horizons and cautions us to treat today’s businesses and tomorrow’s businesses very differently.

Others, including Welch’s famous 5 slides (approximately 20 questions) create a laser-like focus on the issues of strategy and opportunities and competitors and actions.

In my own experience leading strategy inside corporations and externally as a consultant, the hardest part of the process is building the discipline and teamwork to objectively tackle the right issues and hard questions. While the components included in the “Strategy in a Box” have merit…vision, assessment, goals and actions, it’s the poor process and then attempting to pass them off as the complete strategy work that I object to strenuously.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In truth, the work of strategy is hard work, however, the actual key questions to be answered are finite and very visible. The focus must be on finding or creating strength to use against weakness or to exploit opportunities. The work is much about assessing your firm’s true situation in the context of change (tastes, industries, macro forces, competitors, substitutes, technologies) and selecting a set of intelligent experiments to test hypotheses. The work demands the development of a team committed to high performance, supported by the organization and accountable for objective assessment and selection of options.

Don’t be lulled into sacrificing the rigor of the work and the accountability to key questions to a simple sounding but canned approach that doesn’t get at the right issues at the right depth. There are no shortcuts to strategy.

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Leadership Caffeine—In Praise of Mistakes Made for the Right Reasons

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

The true test of your leadership character isn’t measured by the absence of mistakes, but rather by the mistakes made in pursuit of growth and learning AND how you conduct yourself once you’ve made a mistake.

Show me a mistake-free leader, and I’ll show you someone hiding from the real issues confronting the business: people and strategy.

People:

People are complicated. In spite of the myriad of assessment tools at our disposal, selection is still a judgement call with all of the inherent risks and biases of human decision-making. And the challenge of aligning skills and experiences with tasks while searching for that spark that stimulates people to work at their creative best is truly much more art than science.

You will make mistakes on people. Make them for the right reasons. Taking a chance on good people for the right reasons is worth the risk every day.

Remember, character always gets a positive vote. After a certain age, character is formed and nothing you can do will alter someone’s core character. You cannot change someone. Assess character carefully. Look for behavioral examples around values, and if the view is dissonant, it’s a non-starter.

Passion and desire are powerful reasons to take a chance on someone, even if others around you suggest this person isn’t right for a role. I like betting on the underdog if I’ve done my homework on the individual. Taking chances on people who show that extra spark is part of the essence of leadership. Much like character, you cannot teach passion, you can only help it emerge.

The greatest rewards I’ve enjoyed as a leader come from those people I selected against popular wisdom because I saw something. Of course, “something” is hard to codify and I’ve been wrong here as well. It doesn’t mean I will stop taking chances.

Strategy:

Much like the challenge of selecting and inspiring people to apply their talents, strategy is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Choosing what to do and importantly, what not to do is a core management task, yet human judgement in all its brilliance and all of its flaws is once again at the center of strategic decision-making.

Even in our data-driven world, selecting and then executing a strategy is like walking through a minefield on a fresh lava-flow blindfolded. There’s a high probability that somewhere between choice of path and the journey down that path, you will misstep with painful results. Assuming the essence of the strategy is sound, often, you can recover, adapt and proceed from execution missteps. These non-fatal errors are powerful learning experiences, teaching you and everyone around you how to spot gaps, fill in blind-spots and redouble efforts to get execution right.

While many view strategy as an event, with an outcome that is carved in granite and the granite set in concrete, in reality, it is effectively a testable hypothesis backed by a series of experiments. In a military metaphor, you engage in a series of skirmishes designed to test defenses and learn terrain, and then you push to conquer the ground. These skirmishes are the teaching experiences and your mistakes here are part of the process of figuring out how to get it right. The only mistake is not to decide to take action.

The best leaders I’ve worked around understand the need for the missteps. No one actively seeks them out, but they are an inevitable part of the pursuit of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The least interesting professionals to me are those who cannot articulate a litany of mistakes on their way to their successes. The absence of mistakes…or, the unwillingness to admit prior mistakes is a character flaw and as mentioned above, there are no compromises when it comes to character. There’s no guarantee that some of your own mistakes won’t have painful consequences. Nonetheless, the mistakes made for the right reasons…in favor of great people and in pursuit of business success, are simply tickets to admission. Pay the price, take your lumps, learn and keep moving.

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Art of Managing—Sometimes You Have to Slow Down to Go Faster

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Today’s management literature is filled with references to speed. If we’re following the trends, we’re all growing more “agile” and likely “lean” in the process. We’re working in “sprints” and “bursts,” and of course, we’re “teaming” whenever possible.

Other firms are “reacting aggressively” to competitor moves and one CEO I was talking with described a “blitzkrieg move” (lightning warfare) into a new market segment. Another top executive emphasized wanted his team to be more nimble in response to competitor issues.

All of this motion may be helping our waistlines, dancing moves and cardio health, but I’m not convinced that speed is always the right answer.

Sometimes you just have to slow down to go faster.

4 Key Situations Where Pausing Before Acting Makes Good Business Sense

1. Hiring Key Talent. While you might be critically short of talent in certain areas of your business, this is one area where haste will indeed make waste that you can ill afford to create. Hire slow. Get to know your candidate over time and in multiple settings. Work hard to assess mutual culture fit and involve the candidate with his/her potential team members. The opportunity cost of a poor key hire is too big to let the need for speed govern your actions.

2. Learning to Better Understand Your Customers/Prospects. Surveys, focus groups and executive customer visits are no substitute for taking the time and doing your best imitation of an anthropologist, observing customers or prospects in their natural settings. Watching individuals interact with your offerings or, better yet, trailing them for a period and cultivating a deep understanding of “a day in their life,” is a slower moving, deliberate process that has the potential to gain more insights and ah ha moments than a lifetime of online surveys.

3. Responding to Competitor Moves. While this might seem like the perfect situation to employ instantaneous response, there are many situations where a pause to better understand the move and cultivate a thoughtful, complete response may be in order. If your competitor is playing checkers, you might want to redefine the game as chess. The danger on one hand is being lulled into an unwinnable and ongoing set of tit for tat moves that destroy value for both firms. Also, a good competitor will throw strength against your weakness and if your response is from that perspective, you end up chasing your tail for a long time. Consider a broader response. Use your superior understanding of your customers to redefine your package of offerings. Kick back with something you do very well that is meaningful to your clients and let your competitor chase you. In most cases, simply matching a response is a fool’s game.

4. Restructuring the Team/Organization. This is one that some firms engage in like clockwork, and while organizational design is indeed a competitive tool, it is one to use sparingly and only based on a crystal clear strategy. Too many firms restructure first and then look for the strategy, when the right approach is to do just the opposite. Beware the temptation to simply move boxes on charts and think you are solving something. Most often, you’re not.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I prefer adjusting my team’s cadence to the demands of a situation over an ungoverned pursuit of speed. And yes, sometimes the cadence is fast…quick cycles, sense and respond, but in the circumstances above and many others, good managers see the risks in speed and the gains from slowing to consider the next actions. This coping with speed places huge pressure on top management to clarify strategies and goals and for all members of a firm to strive to connect their work and their pace to the bigger picture. While speed is inherent in our world, sometimes it truly pays great dividends to slow down and assess the situation.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.