Just One Thing—Captain Obvious and The Fresh Start Effect

Retro TV CommercialI’m not certain we needed a research study to prove that we naturally appreciate fresh-starts, nonetheless, now we have one. A team at Wharton discovered (seriously?) the Fresh Start Effect, in a study that suggests, “new beginnings can prompt us to tackle personal goals,” because, “we feel empowered to leave our past selves and all their failures behind and embrace our new selves and their potential for success.”

Yes, there’s a certain “Captain Obvious” tinged with “I’ve lived this many times over,” to these findings. Anyone who has resolved on January 1 to do more or less of something can relate. Any professional who engages in regular personal, team, unit or organizational goal setting, and then monitors and refreshes the goals based on actual performance, can relate.

The study’s findings  hint at something interesting when the authors suggest, “For individuals who hope to curtail bad behaviors but struggle with initiating goal pursuit, temporal landmarks that open new time periods may prevent vicious cycles of impulsive behavior stimulated by ‘what the hell’ rationalizations.” I’m looking hard, because I suspect there’s a pony in there somewhere on improving our goal achievement.

As an aside, any sentence that isn’t referencing time-travel and uses the phrasing, “temporal landmarks,” requires some serious editing.

OK, so now we understand why health clubs fill up in January. And human nature explains why they seem to be a bit emptier by late February.

What’s the cure for human nature? That would be an interesting study.

Yahoo Misfires—Don’t Let this Happen to Your Firm

Cartoon image of a business meetingYahoo—a name left over from the boom and bust period of the dot.com world—has somehow managed to limp along in a world where many struggle to understand its value proposition. The financial markets vote with their valuations, and have recently concluded that the firm is worth no more than its holdings in the high-flying stock, Alibaba. Stated another way, the financial markets view the core Yahoo business as effectively worthless. (Note: as of this writing, there’s a good deal of swirl but little clarity surrounding the potential disposition of the Alibaba holding.)

The December 2015 issue of Forbes includes an interesting article, entitled: “The Last Days of Marissa Mayer?” Mayer is the firm’s CEO, and a former high-flying and early-stage Google Executive who has served as the face of Yahoo and the firm’s turn-around efforts for the past three years. If the article and sources are accurate, Mayer is failing as a manager and as a leader, and a big part of that failure is around the hard work of strategy.

In my recent post on strategy, I focused on the importance of the heavy lifting necessary to develop a clear, accurate diagnosis as a critical first step in building a coherent plan. The subsequent step, what strategy expert Richard Rumelt describes as, defining the “guiding philosophy,” builds on the diagnosis to frame the general approach to the situation. It’s the combination of the diagnosis and guiding philosophy that give coherence to the subsequent actions designed to seize opportunities and blunt threats. Anything short of clarity around both of these, and the prediction is in the immortal words of Mr. T, “Pain.”

The article in Forbes highlights in a very visual form the departure of key leadership and technical experts, and it reports (albeit from mostly anonymous sources) the growing frustration, tension and emotional responses to the lack of strategic clarity for the firm. The firm is in pain, and perhaps it is in its death throes. While creative destruction is inevitable in our world of change, one wonders whether a firm with the name and eyeballs of a Yahoo is aggressively striving to snatch defeat from what could be a victory.

In my work as a strategy adviser and facilitator, I see the impact of firms avoiding the hard work, introspection and experimentation that should surround an on-gong strategy process, all too often. Almost without exception, the issue is that top management has failed to take the time and put forth the effort to properly diagnose its situation. I listen to top executives and hear disparate views on the challenges and opportunities. I listen to them for clarity and unity on how they propose to move forward, and what I hear ranges from silence to cacophony.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The failure of any business is a sad affair. There are people and families and careers and dreams attached to our businesses, and when those are squandered due to ego and pride and unhealthy politics or worse yet, due to managerial laziness, it’s reprehensible. You owe it to your team and your firm to be a positive voice and catalyst in pursuit of strategic clarity, coherent actions and healthy, constant communication.

Read more in the Art of Managing Series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator/adviser. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


Art of Managing—Avoid Strategy Malpractice with a Proper Diagnosis

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsIf you’ve ever dealt with a complex medical issue, you understand how difficult it sometimes is to identify the real problem. Yet, pinpointing this problem is essential to developing the best possible treatment regimen. It can be a matter of life or death.

My oldest (adult) son suffers from an aggressive form of Crohn’s disease. He was first diagnosed as a young teen and placed on a minimal maintenance routine. We learned a few years later that his situation (location, severity, treatment) had been imprecisely diagnosed when the emergency room doctor informed us that he had summoned a helicopter to fly him to a hospital that was prepared to deal with his very life threatening complication. He navigated that—barely—and we invested a great deal of time working in the right places with experts who helped us pinpoint the type and location of the Crohn’s and develop the best possible treatment regimen and monitoring plan. The results have been great thus far.

As I dug into learning more about Crohn’s and IBS diseases, I learned a great deal about the complexity of diagnosing the problems. I spoke with too many individuals who had lived through a variation of my son’s situation—the wrong generalized treatment for a specific problem that was never properly identified.

The analogous situation takes place in business all of the time. Instead of taking the time to properly understand and diagnose the situation, managers deploy a shotgun approach with all manner of tactics, hoping to get lucky and find a winner. They’re playing fast and loose with the business and the livelihood of the firm’s employees, and this is indeed management malpractice. Sadly, it’s epidemic in our firms and government.

Much of the debate and in some quarters, outrage, over President Obama’s plan to deal with ISIS boils down to a fundamental disagreement over the definition of the problem. Critics suggest that his “diagnosis” is off and therefore his proposed tactics for dealing with the problem are fatally flawed. President Obama of course suggests that same about the thinking of his detractors. A good number of level-headed citizens I’ve spoke with admit to being uncomfortable about whether we (collectively) truly understand this situation enough to develop an approach and appropriate supporting actions.

In organizational settings, I’ve lost count of the number of times senior management team pronouncements of strategies have fallen on deaf or cynical ears from the broader employee population. While poor communication is a critical part of the problem in these situations, the root cause is that most people don’t understand the diagnosis because management failed to find and describe it. They don’t understand the analysis of the situation, the assumptions and therefore, they don’t understand the problem/opportunity with pinpoint precision. Management spouts the approach and the tactics and provides very little context for how they arrived at these ideas. People don’t understand the “Why?” and without this understanding, the “What” and “How” are out of context.

chaosThere’s a reason why we often fail to clarify situations. It’s hard work. Darned hard work, and it takes time, analysis, intense debate and the occasional and very uncomfortable leap of faith.

Rumelt’s concept of the “kernel” of a strategy (diagnosis, guiding philosophy, coherent actions) is the most powerful framework I’ve yet encountered in strategy work to help simplify complexity. The diagnosis portion is step one, and it’s the equivalent of answering: “What the heck is going on here?”

It should come as no surprise that at the beginning of a strategy refresh initiative, the participants have widely varying views of their firm’s situation. Most of those views are anchored in their silo or functional perspective and there’s no unifying diagnosis. People and teams quickly want to jump to action-plan development and bypass the heavy lifting of diagnosis. If you’ve ever been a part of a miserably facilitated strategy process, you know what I’m talking about. Let’s suspend reality and define a vision. Time for a S.W.O.T. Now, let’s describe why we can win, and then define some lofty goals and responsibilities.

This template work makes people feel like they’re making progress. However, it’s just busy work without the context of a carefully developed diagnosis. It’s malpractice if the tactics are put into play and the diagnosis remains vague or non-existent.

A more effective approach is to accept that success is defined at the front-end of the process and it starts with a proper diagnosis. Use these ideas to jump-start the work of finding the diagnosis:

  • Start with the general, “What’s going on here?” and then painstakingly explore, from the macro-trends and disruptive threats to the very specific insights gleaned from speaking with AND observing customers.
  • Understanding a competitor’s strategy is useful, mostly in deciding what not to do. Don’t assume they’ve done the due diligence on diagnosis—like you, most have not.
  • Look across sectors and technologies for external trigger events and macro trends that may present opportunities and threats.
  • Document assumptions about everything and work with experts (inside and outside) to challenge the assumptions.
  • Gain help in looking objectively at your warts and blemishes.
  • Gain help in identifying and articulating your true superpower as a firm. Sorry, you have one superpower only, not six. It’s not something general—it’s very specific.
  • Agonize over a distillation of all of this work to assess the situation. Debate the perspectives fiercely and don’t look for consensus as much as emerging clarity. Let someone with a practiced ear and kevlar skin distill and drive debate around the diagnosis.

Rumelt serves up a great number of excellent historical examples in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. One in particular, the development of a strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union after World War II is quite powerful. The essence of it, “The Russians look forward to a duel of infinite duration,” eliminated from the equation the possibility of a negotiated “peace” and set the stage for a policy of containment that can be reasonably connected to the eventual demise of that incarnation of their government. Alternatively, a diagnosis that suggested the Soviet leaders would eventually negotiate peace would have led to a different set of actions with a potentially very different outcome. Once the diagnosis is set, the general approach and supporting cascading set of actions are able to be intelligently developed.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Don’t settle for poorly thought-out, cliché-riddled statements of strategy baked in boardrooms without the benefit of fierce diligence and debate around the diagnosis. As a family, we learned the hard way that a wrong diagnosis was potentially fatal. For a business, it most certainly is.

Read more in the Art of Managing Series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator/adviser. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Leadership Caffeine™—It’s Time to Become Better Informed Leadership Consumers

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThere’s a lot of happy talk in books, on blogs and in articles about leaders and leading. From revisionist histories of yesterday’s great CEO warriors to the feel-good advice that is so eagerly consumed by the masses of workers yearning for liberation from the tyranny of lousy managers and cubicle kingdoms, there’s no shortage of opinions on how to get this act and role of leading right. I applaud the efforts, but I decry much of the advice—it lacks the critical connection to reality that we need to get leadership right in an era rightly characterized by “overload, ambiguity and conflict.”

Much of the writing and commentary on leadership and leading reads like a Made-for-TV script with much of the gory and dirty content left out and the outcome predictable—the good guys always win. It’s disconnected from reality. Other content offers quick fixes, dispensed in “Top Ten Ideas…” lists. And yes, in over 1,100 articles, I’m guilty of some of this scripting. I believe in the goodness of the words and ideas, much as I know the authors and speakers offering their guidance for the seemingly profound lack of leadership in our organizations and in our world, believe in their own words. But, we (myself included) must infuse this talk with clear, dispassionate clinical context of this damnably difficult world.

I do think that we the people—the consumers of leadership are waking up to the need for something real and substantive, much like Britain woke up to the naïve idealism of Neville Chamberlin spouting the achievement of, “Peace for our time,” with Germany in late, 1938. The resolve and work of Churchill (particularly in cultivating FDR as an ally) was needed to save Britain and perhaps the world from an unthinkable fate.

As consumers, we’re left in a quandary as to whether we trust a sitting president’s leadership in a world that grows more dangerous by the day. (We would have this issue with any leader, but there’s a creeping sense today of dissonance in the people about the situation and the perspective and subsequent actions.) The surge of a businessman and reality t.v. personality in the other party is in my opinion a commentary on people’s hunger for someone who they perceive will be both strong and protective. The rhetoric is powerful and it feeds the emotions, but it’s not entirely rational.

Interestingly, one of the top selling new books on leadership, Leadership B.S.—Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, takes a  stab at the pablum dispensed by the broader leadership complex of authors, consultants, bloggers, trainers and speakers. Pfeffer uses data and studies to debunk the prevailing myths of the leadership peddlers with the effectiveness of a prosecuting attorney building an air-tight case against the defendant. His premise is provocative and spot-on: we need to develop better b.s. detectors around leaders and leadership ideas.

So, how can all of us improve our abilities to evaluate and choose leaders wisely in our firms and in our elected officials? (Yes, this still sounds like a list, but I’ll reform one post at a time!)

Da Vinci suggested that everyone should look at issues from three perspectives: your own, an alternative and one other. In a world that is highly polarized, just taking the time to ask deep questions about your own gut views and those of others—striving to understand the core premises of ideas and approaches is a good starting point. Blind loyalty for loyalty’s sake yields mediocrity at best and invites evil to the table at worst.

Demand straight talk from those in leadership roles or from those who aspire to leadership. Turn up your b.s. detector and when it’s triggered, trust your gut and ask for clarity. A humbling moment for me in a leadership role occurred after describing a new strategic direction, a bold employee stood up and said, “I didn’t understand a single thing you just said.” Thank goodness he had the courage to speak up.

Quit expecting those in leadership roles to have all of the answers. They don’t, but they need to be remarkable at working with others to find the answers. We falsely expect our corporate and political leaders to operate on super-orbital plane where the answers are clear to them while foggy to us. Yes, on rare occasions, we run into a human operating on a seemingly elevated plane of thinking (Da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, some of the great inventors), but mostly they are very human and very fallible individuals. They need our help. Give it. Constructively.

Enforce accountability. The failure to lead—the failure to solve the problems must be met with the cold hand of rejection. Solve problems and improve conditions and you are retained.

Choose leaders that fit the situation. In many workplaces today, teams select the individual best suited to lead in the particular situation. It’s neither birthright, seniority or title, but a fitness for use. The individual serves and then reverts to a contributor role. The team members understand they are consumers of leadership, and they match the skills and abilities to the challenges in front of them, offer their support and then move on. This temporary, fitness for use merits additional exploration in all walks of our lives and firms.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m envisioning a “Consumer Reports” style grading of leaders and leadership ideas, completed with ratings for categories such as: results, predicted reliability, willingness to buy again, effectiveness in tough circumstances, propensity to offer straight talk and the ever important, backs words with actions. Now, more than ever, we need to improve our ability to select and support and guide the right people. Whether we’re talking about the futures of our firms or the safety of our citizens, it’s time for a revolution in leadership consumerism.

See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Just One Thing—Dream Big and Then Fight Like Heck

One Inch at a TimeThe Just One Thing series is intended to provoke action in pursuit of goals.

“What you see depends not only on what you look AT, but also, on where you look from.” –James Deacon

Think for a moment about that unrealized dream you put a shelf in your mental closet, waiting for “someday” when the timing is right. Is it writing the book you know you have in you? Is it going back to school for that next degree (or for your first degree)? Is it learning to play an instrument, learning a new language, starting a business or changing careers? Or, is it earning that next promotion or moving from one role into a role that matches your work with your superpower?

Our goals and big dreams often are rudely shoved out of the way in favor of the urgent issues of life as well as those activities we deem more easily achievable. Some are abandoned due to the mirage of size and complexity. “It’s too big for me to accomplish.” Or, “I’m not sure how I would even get started.”

We make excuses for ourselves, mostly, because we don’t know how to fight what author Steven Pressfield calls resistance. This nefarious quality is present in all of us. It manifests around things we care about. Our diet. Our weight. Our goals. Left to its own designs, resistance inserts itself into every important situations in our life and revels in our failures. Its greatest victories are when we fail to even get started.

Just One ThingWhatever your big dream is, the only way to truly, profoundly fail on all levels is to fail to try. This means, you have to get started. You have to find a way to grab resistance and pin it to the ground or shove it rudely into the corner. Motion beats resistance every time. Actions shove resistance back into the corner where it cowers in fear of its own failure—of its inability to derail you from something important.

But, you can’t even think about beating resistance without getting started.

The punch line to the old joke, “What’s the best way to eat an elephant?” offers more truth than humor. The answer: “One bite at a time.”

The people leading our biggest corporate initiatives long ago learned to break big visions down into small component pieces and then work on them one at a time. Some plan all of the pieces out ahead of time, and then sequence them and get started. Many others operate with a clear end goal, but focus on the bite in front of them and then pause, assess and determine where to take the next bite from in pursuit of this vision.

Much like my work in moving from the world’s worst, slowest runner to my goal of running a half marathon next Spring, the only way I’m getting there is by putting the time into the hard work of training and conditioning. Running, lifting, interval training, managing my diet are all part of my daily routine and it’s a battle. The first steps were painful and humbling. Now, I’m halfway to the goal and feeling great. I’ve got resistance on the ropes for this one and I will win.

So can you.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide whether you’ll capitulate to resistance or fight back and win. The resistance is inside of you. So is success. Just take it one bite, one step and one action at a time.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.