Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Perfectionism: A Barrier to Innovation

Source:  Best Buy
Take a look at this recent interview (start at 4:15) with Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy.   In the interview she describes how Best Buy had been piloting curbside pick-up service in some of its stores prior to the COVID pandemic.  The introduction of curbside at some stores was part of a plan to introduce the service across the store network over the course of more than a year.  Then, in a matter of 48 hours, they decided to shift the entire nationwide store network to curbside pick-up ONLY because of the COVID quarantines and shutdowns.  48 hours.  The interview asks her why it had to take more than a year to introduce such a new service prior to COVID.  Why couldn't they innovate faster?  She offers a compelling explanation of the barriers to innovation at many large firms.  Barry explains,

"As a retailer, we are geared toward perfection around process... As a brick and mortar retailer, you are not as geared to just push out a new experience and iterate quickly on the process behind it.  We are geared at putting out there a perfect SOP (standard operating procedure), and then you just run it... It was not as much in our DNA to put out there something that might not be perfect." 

Barry highlights a key barrier to innovation at many large well-established firms.  They resist introducing new products and services until they feel as though the innovation is perfect.  They don't want any failures or mistakes.  They don't want any negative customer feedback.   Yet, the desire for perfection slows them down substantially.   Moreover, it deprives them of the vital learning-by-doing that comes with soliciting feedback from customers (and front-line employees) early and often.  Every brick-and-mortar retailer, and frankly every large firm, should consider this discussion about perfectionism and ask whether it's holding their organization back too.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Stop Relying on Heroes to Get the Job Done

Source: Pixabay

Sara Brown has written a good piece for the MIT Sloan Management Review. The title of the article is "4 ways to design employee experience in the remote work era."  Brown draws on an interview with research scientist Kristine Dery. In the article, Brown & Dery argue that organizations have to reduce their reliance on heroic behavior on the part of employees to get to the job done.  Here's an excerpt:  

Companies that deliver strong employee experiences deliberately move away from a culture of heroics, in which employees often have to go above and beyond to find ways to deliver for customers, becoming “heroes” in the organization, Dery said. 

Instead of depending on heroic employees, companies should focus on processes and systems that can deliver for customers consistently and solve more complex problems. “Let’s figure those things out, and then let’s embed those into our organization, either through technology or through behaviors or through new metrics. That connection is much more systemic,” she said.  Implementing systems includes:

-Integrating operations across silos to make it easier for employees to innovate and deliver on the customer experience.
-Allowing seamless access to data and information about customers, putting power into the hands of employees to do what technology can’t do.
-Digitizing work, which allows for employee mobility — especially important now — and employee self-help.
-Using employee platforms, which allow employees to search for information and ideas, easily share knowledge, and reduce duplication.

Companies should also consider a dedicated customer experience team. “That phase where different employee experiences across the company were creating all sorts of quite chaotic decisions and responses was managed much more effectively by companies that had a dedicated [employee experience] team, that were looking at that right across the organization, and able to create more systemic accountability measures,” Dery said. These companies were able to get technology into the hands of employees faster, and could anticipate speed bumps ahead of time, instead of reacting to them after the fact.

This notion of moving beyond "heroic behavior" reminds me of the research conducted by Anita Tucker, Amy Edmondson, and Steve Spear years ago on first order vs. second order problem solving.  First order problem solving often involves heroic behavior.  It involves corrective action by front-line employees who are often going above and beyond to get the job done.  However, the same problems keep emerging, and over time, heroes don't always emerge to stop bad things from happening. Tucker and her colleagues explain the distinction and its importance:

Research on problem solving makes a distinction between fixing problems (first-order solutions) and diagnosing and altering root causes to prevent recurrence (second-order solutions). First-order problem solving allows work to continue but does nothing to prevent a similar problem from occurring. Workers exhibit first-order problem solving when they do not expend any more energy on a problem after obtaining the missing input needed to complete a task. Second-order problem solving, in contrast, investigates and seeks to change underlying causes of a problem.

So, ask yourself:  Are we too reliant on heroes in our organization?  Do the same problems keep resurfacing?  Are we thinking systemically when we examine the reasons why problems occur?

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Distinctive Strategic Positioning: Don't Panic and Just Abandon It Amidst the Pandemic

Source: Wikimedia

Suppose your firm has a distinctive strategic positioning and a powerful competitive advantage.  Then along comes COVID.   Some managers may panic and abandon key facets of the unique strategy in an effort to cope with difficult economic and social conditions.   Some firms, though, have prospered despite the pandemic, in part because they have capitalized on the fact that so many people are spending a great deal of time at home.   Stihl is an interesting example of a firm with an unorthodox strategy that has resisted the temptation to abandon distinctive elements of its business model over the years, including during the past six months.  They have demonstrated that personal relationships and interactions still matter to consumers, even in an age of increasing online transactions, curbside pick-up, and home delivery.  

Stihl is one of the world's leading chainsaw manufacturers, headquarted in Germany. A recent Bloomberg story is titled, "Stihl Still Sells Chainsaws the Old-Fashioned Way." The firm is still owned by the descendants of founder Andreas Stihl.  Here's how the article opens:

If a limb falls on your car or you suddenly need to carve a wildfire break around your house, will zip you a Husqvarna 120 Mark II chainsaw in a few days for $180.  It's not so easy with America's top-selling brand, though. On the Stihl website, no prices are shown, and once you select a product, you’ll have to click through to find a nearby dealer – typically a small hardware store – that may or may not offer delivery. It’s an anachronistic, clunky sales machine, seemingly ill-suited to shopping during a pandemic. It’s also working just fine thanks.  Stihl (pronounced 'steel') sales so far this year are up 20 percent over 2019 and in the U.S. it is on pace for the best year in its near century of business, both in terms of revenue and units sold.

The company doesn't sell through big box stores.  In fact, in the past, Stihl has boasted about not selling in these establishments.  They once runs ads saying that you wouldn't find their chainsaws in a box, not even a big box.   The ad referenced the fact that the dealer staff often assembled and taught you how to use the product before you left the small neighborhood store.  The article ends noting the loyalty of its customers:

The strategy might not make for as many transactions, but it makes for a stickier, more lucrative customer. The personal touch, apparently, still works in a digital, distanced world.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Reflecting on the Past Six Months: What's Permanent vs. Temporary?

Source: Wikimedia

In a recent Fortune article by Michal Lev-Ram, several chief human resource officers comment on lessons from the pandemic.   Here's an excerpt with a perspective shared by Grace Zuncic, CHRO at Chobani:

There are some silver linings to the current challenges facing HR officers: Being pushed to rethink the workplace, even when it happens for all the wrong reasons, can lead to fruitful results. “We were always wondering when that moment of disruption would arrive,” said Grace Zuncic, chief people officer at Chobani, and another participant at the recent event. “You never wish for it to come in the form of a pandemic, and yet, we have this opportunity to redefine how things will be done.”

Beyond just human resources, all areas of a business should be looking carefully at the changes and innovations introduced over the past six months.   Leaders need to be asking the question:  Which of these changes should stick (be permanent), and which is a temporary stopgap measure to get through the pandemic?   Some innovations clearly are delivering great value to customers, employees, and/or suppliers.  These new products, processes, and systems should stay.   Curbside pick-up at many retailers, for instance, should NEVER go away.  Customers are finding it incredibly useful and valuable.  Sorting through the changes that should stick will be crucial for many organizations.  Forced to innovate, many firms have come up with some ingenious solutions.  These should not be simply discarded if/when we return to normalcy.   We shouldn't wait for a vaccine to begin to ask questions about the permanence of new practices; that conversation should be ongoing, starting as soon as possible.  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Projecting Self-Confidence, not Self-Doubt

Source: Pixabay

Kellogg Insight recently featured some very useful advice on how to project self-confidence in the workplace by Ellen Taaffe, Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership and Director of Women's Leadership Programs at the Kellogg School of Management.   Her focus on the language people use is very constructive.  Here's an excerpt: 

On a day-to-day level, Taaffe says, you can project self-confidence by recognizing and minimizing how often you use qualifying language.

“I was recently on a call where a more junior person was sharing some good work that she had developed,” Taaffe says. “As she shared her recommendation, no one was responding. She started to speed up, audibly losing confidence before asking ‘Am I making any sense?’ I thought, Ugh. The pressure, when one is intimidated or doubting themselves, is real. It is easy to get rattled and diminish our contributions and confidence with how we communicate.”

Taaffe recommends avoiding rhetorical questions or opening qualifiers, because every “Does that make sense?” or “This may be a bad idea but…” signals doubt and indicates to listeners that the statement is less worthy of consideration.  Instead, confirm that your audience is following along using far more confident-sounding open-ended questions, such as “What are your thoughts?” or “What questions do you have?”  Taaffe also advises couching your idea in a brainstorming frame such as “What could we learn if we did…?” This has the added benefit of starting a dialogue that engages others and asks them to contribute.

Afterwards, check in with mentors and colleagues for advice about the ways your performance can continue to adjust and adapt.“

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

When It Comes to Creativity, Face-to-Face Interaction Matters

Source:  Wikimedia

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many firms have extended their working from home policies indefinitely.   People may not be returning to the office for quite some time.  We all know many of the challenges of working from home, particularly if you have young children or kids trying to engage in remote learning.   Still, for many firms, they have found that employees have been remarkably productive while not coming to the office.  Many companies have talked openly about perhaps having a substantial chunk of the workforce never return to the office again, even after COVID subsides.  Geoff Colvin of Fortune wrote recently, though, about the potential costs and risks of remote work.  He argues that creativity and innovation will suffer if we lose opportunities for face-to-face interaction.  Colvin quotes Steve Jobs, from Isaacson's biography:   “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat.  That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.” Here's a more extended excerpt, in which Colvin discusses the research on this subject:

In one of the most revealing studies of creativity in the workplace to date, researchers from MIT, Northeastern University, University of Cologne, University of Bamberg, and Aalto University studied several teams working on projects involving computer science, economics, psychology, and other fields; their findings were published in the International Journal of Organisational Design and Engineering in 2012. The subjects wore small badges called sociometers to record interactions within the teams, and the creativity and quality of the teams’ ideas were rated by peers on a scale of one to five. The results show strikingly what a deeply human experience it is to be creative in a group. The more that group members faced each other, the more creative was their output. The more they looked into each other’s eyes, the more creative they were. The more willing they were to confide in one another, the more creative they were. 

Facing each other, looking into the eyes, confiding—all those behaviors reflect and build trust. The researchers measured trust within the groups and found that it was crucial to the whole process. Their conclusion: “There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction to build up this trust.”

Monday, September 07, 2020

No Time for Ambiguous Leadership

Source: Psychology Today

Adam Bryant writes terrific articles on leadership based on his interviews with leaders in a variety of industries.  Bryant used to write for the New York Times; his most recent article was published by Strategy + Business.   It's titled, "Ambiguous Times are no time for Ambiguous Leadership."  In that piece, Bryant tells a terrific story about Tom Lawson, CEO of FM Global.  

The commercial property insurance company is headquartered near our Bryant University campus.   The firm has a unique competitive positioning in the insurance business.   Most firms rely heavily on actuaries to evaluate risk.  FM Global relies on engineering and science to develop an in-depth understanding of the risk of various practices and systems. Then they apply their knowledge to help mitigate their clients' risk. As Jenny Chao, senior research scientist at the firm, told the New York Times several years ago: "I blow things up to try to predict and prevent explosions. I also test products designed to prevent explosions and make recommendations on how clients can avoid risks."

In Bryant's article, he explains CEO Lawson's philosophy about clarity of communication.  Lawson argues that employees will fill any vacuum with speculation and assumption.  Sometimes, leaders aren't aware of the subtle signals being interpreted and misinterpreted by employees.   Here's an excerpt from Bryant's article:

Tom Lawson, the chair and CEO of FM Global, a property insurance company headquartered in Johnston, R.I., shared a similar story. “As I was moving up through the different management positions, I learned the hard way about how people can interpret a message,” he told me. “I was running our research group, where we have a lot of science Ph.D.s. One morning, it was rainy and horrible as I drove to work. I got to the parking lot, which was full, so I had to park far from the building and walk through the pouring rain without an umbrella. I was drenched and running late for a conference call.

“So, I walked right past the receptionist, didn’t talk to anybody, went into my office, and shut the door. I did my conference call and then forgot to open my door when it was over. About three hours later, our head of research knocks on the door. He said, ‘Can I talk to you? We’ve got a problem. Everyone’s saying that the company’s in financial trouble and that our research is going to get outsourced.’ I said, ‘What?’ Then he said, ‘You walked right into the building on the day we released our financials, and you didn’t talk to anybody. You shut your door and you locked yourself in.’”

Lawson added: “In fact, our financials were fine, and I told him the story of what happened, and he started laughing. I spent the rest of the day walking around, telling people that everything was fine. But it was a great example of how your actions can be misinterpreted. If you don’t communicate, people will make up narratives themselves, and those narratives may be negative.”