Thursday, December 18, 2014

Time to Celebrate Accomplishments: The Year-End Leadership Message

The holiday season and the end of the year have arrived.  Leaders should take this opportunity to reflect back on the work that their organizations have done over the past twelve months.  What were the significant accomplishments?  What key goals were achieved?  What lessons did the organization learn, perhaps even from some failures that took place?   What will be the key priorities in the year ahead?   Each leader should take the time to answer these questions in a thoughtful letter to the members of their organization, or perhaps in a brief recorded video.   Such a message helps celebrate the accomplishments, and it offers the opportunity to share the credit for the success of the past year.  Moreover, leaders can recognize key individuals or teams publicly.   People want to be recognized for their efforts, and simply paying bonuses for good work does not buy employee engagement.  Public praise and recognition goes a long way.   The message also offers an opportunity to show that the leaders of the organization are reflecting on lessons learned, and it provides the forum to encourage all employees to learn from their successes and failures of the past year.  Finally, leaders have a chance to build alignment, to get everyone on the same page regarding the goals and objectives for the year ahead.   How should the leader close such a message?  Yes, you want to thank everyone for their hard work and wish them a happy holiday season.  However, leaders also should take the time to ask for feedback and input.  They should encourage employees to send them questions or comments in response to this year-end message.   Leaders need to make this communication a two-way street, not a one-way broadcast.  That final step will further enhance employee engagement, and it might yield some terrific ideas on how to improve the organization. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Innovating Through Pyramid Search

You would like to innovate, and you have heard that bold innovations often come from outside of one's particular domain of expertise.  We derive breakthrough ideas by tapping into expertise from analogous fields.  I've blogged about that topic previously on this site.  However, you may find yourself asking:  Where do I begin?  How do I find an expert in an analogous field?  Which analogous field should be explored? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How To Disagree With Your Boss

Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn - a public relations and communications agency, has written a short column for Fortune about how to disagree with your boss.   I've written extensively about how leaders need to encourage dissenting views.   Often, I'm asked how subordinates can express dissent constructively and effectively.   I n this article, Bloomgarden offers a few tips.  First, she argues that one should stick to the facts.  Avoid making your case based on intuition or emotion.  Provide a sound analysis of the situation with data to support your argument.  Second, identify the costs and benefits of your proposal, as well as the costs and benefits of your boss' proposed course of action.  Try to look at both scenarios in an evenhanded way.  Finally, she says that you should "own what you're suggesting."   In other words, be specific about your willingness to take responsibility for the alternative solution, but be transparent and realistic about what you promise.  Set expectations clearly, but realistically. 

I would add a few other recommendations.  First, you have to know your audience.  How does your boss make decisions?  What types of arguments are most persuasive?   How does he or she like to see data presented?   Second, study the history of the issue.  Understand what has been tried in the past, and if it failed, examine why it did not work.  Third, seek allies and build coalitions. Don't go it alone.  Try to persuade others first, before you turn to your boss.  There's strength in numbers.  Fourth, identify and work through key gatekeepers.  Who has the boss' ear and trust?  How can you work through that person to persuade and influence the boss?  Finally, focus first on divergent thinking before trying to persuade people that their idea is not well-suited to address this particular problem. In other words, ask questions before proposing your solution.  Try to encourage the boss to think a bit differently about the situation.  Encourage them to explore other options.  That inquiry-based approach may be more effective than listing the deficiencies with their proposed course of action. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

More Interpersonal Conflict in Virtual Teams

Stanford Professor Lindred Greer has conducted research on conflict in virtual teams.  She has found that virtual teams are more likely to see task-based disagreements become interpersonal in nature.  According to Greer, 

“They can’t see the context or the nuance or even the facial expressions of the person who is engaging in this task conflict.  When people lack information — when they are uncertain about why someone disagreed with them — they are much more likely to take it personally.  This means they are going to be more emotional and their response is going to be more aggressive and more likely to escalate the conflict than what would happen with face to face teams.” 

 Greer has some tips on how to improve the functioning of virtual teams. She advocates a face-to-face kickoff of a team project whenever possible.  She argues that it can help people understand where others are coming from, and it can help prevent a knee-jerk reaction to attribute negative motives to those with whom we disagree.  Here's a video with more information from Greer on this topic:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ed Catmull: Let Your Ideas Suck

Fast Company has a great feature describing Pixar President Ed Catmull's views on innovation and creativity.  I had the chance to interview Catmull several months ago, and he has a terrific perspective on how to develop a highly creative work environment.   Here's an excerpt from the Fast Company article:

Let Your Ideas Suck

Pixar movies have multi-layered, compelling stories and are beautifully put together, but they don’t start that way. Catmull shared the process that the beloved movies go though, starting with a story that bears no resemblance to the final product. He said, "All that anyone sees is the final product and there’s almost a romantic illusion about how you got there. When we first put up something—these stories suck." For example, he shared that the first version of the movie Up included a king in a castle in the clouds. They threw everything out from that first idea except a bird and the word "up," from there it went through several other iterations with a little more of the final story emerging each time. They had to make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of failures along the way to get the final product, he said.

Speaking of Pixar, they have released the trailer for their upcoming movie, Inside Out.  It sounds like it could be another hit (14 Pixar movies in a row have achieved #1 status at the box office). 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

How Growth Ambitions Lead to Complexity... and Perhaps Lower Revenues and Profits

The Wall Street Journal reported last week on McDonald's slumping sales.  The article was titled, "McDonald’s Menu Problem: It’s Supersized."  According to the Wall Street Journal, "McDonald’s doesn’t disclose historical data on its menu’s size, but Datassential, which tracks menu trends, says there were 85 items seven years ago, and McDonald’s says there are 121 today."   What are the negative consequences of this menu creep?  The article notes, "QSR Magazine, a trade publication that studies the drive-through performance of fast-food restaurants, reported last year that McDonald’s had clocked its slowest average speed of service in the study’s 15-year history: 189.49 seconds, more than twice the chain’s goal."   

The McDonald's story is not unique.  A firm has growth ambitions, and perhaps it is even worried about slowing growth.  What does it do?  Expand its product offerings.   However, the increase in product variety and selection adds considerable complexity to the business.  As a result, operational efficiency declines, and the company's fortunes actually worsen.  In some cases, it leads to excessive manufacturing and supply chain costs;  in other situations, it decreases customer service.   Consider what happened to Lego more than a decade ago.  A desire to increase growth led to an explosion in the number of different pieces that it produced and sold.  The added complexity became a huge burden for the company's operations.  It had significant negative consequences.  Many firms face this challenge.  Before they decide that new product offerings will be the answer to growth challenges, they have to think about the impact that additional complexity will have.  Are they prepared for that?  Can they cope with the strain that new products may create on operational processes? 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Pick the Best Players - No, not exactly!

You have an important project at work.  You need to assemble a team to complete the critical task.  Who do you select?  Pick the best people, of course.  Well, perhaps not.   As  Tara Nicholle Nelson   writes in Fast Company, 

"A-players Don’t Always Make Great Team Players. Motivated by credit, praise, promotions, and raises, Superstar employees are often amazing individual contributors. But they are not always amazing to work with.  When multiple A-listers are on one team, unless the culture aggressively fosters collaboration and cooperation, they can become competitive with each other, hoard resources, and spend way too much time focusing on what each other is doing, versus focusing on beating your company’s actual competitors in the marketplace."

I have always argued that team creation should involve picking the right players, not simply the best players.  Picking the right players means thinking about how they will complement one another.  Can they fit into certain roles on the team?  Do they have personalities that will enable them to collaborate effectively?  Are they all willing to put the organization's goals above their own personal or departmental interests?