Monthly Archives: October 2012

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition

Today we have joining us a guest blogger, Wayne Fisher, Ph.D. He will be blogging here periodically along with other XLC colleagues who are experts at leadership and innovation. Wayne is a lead innovation facilitator for Xavier Leadership Center’s Innovation Certificate programs. He is a  full-time creativity consultant and innovation facilitator formerly with P&G. Wayne has created a series of popular innovation workshops focused on new product development, training thousands of managers across P&G’s diverse business units and regions. These workshops and related tools provide a common language and framework for innovation, fostering collaboration across the globe, and at P&G’s Innovation Design studio, the GYM. Wayne received his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, and has been granted 14 U.S. patents.  His process expertise includes new product/process design, CPS, Technical Problem Solving (TRIZ) Design Thinking and Team Facilitation.

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition

by Wayne Fisher, Ph.D.

John Dewey famously quipped that, “A problem well defined is half solved.”  And yet, as a Creative Problem Solving trainer and facilitator, I have watched hundreds of individuals and teams struggle with this crucial phase of problem solving.

My work in recent years has uncovered three key barriers to effective problem definition:

  • over simplification of the problem statement
  • lack of penetration into root causes of problems
  • strong cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition

There are many Creative Problem Solving models in use today, but they all follow two basic principles:

1.  Define the problem, then solve it.

2.  Diverge, then converge, at each step.

I use Min Basadur’s Simplex™ method in many of my CPS workshops.  It’s a simple, robust process that works well for most business challenges.  I have also developed a toolbox that covers each step in the process – in particular the crucial first three steps of Opportunity Finding, Fact Finding, and Problem Definition.

In CPS, the primary objective of Problem Definition is to provide the stimulus for Ideation.  Superficial problem statements (“how to grow sales 20 percent”) don’t stimulate new ways of thinking about old problems.  Truly effective Problem Definition can’t be boiled down to a single sentence.  Instead, it is a complex mapping of multiple points of view and multiple levels of abstraction.  Min’s “Why – What’s Stopping” analysis1 is one effective technique for generating many divergent problem statements.  In a typical 2-day workshop, we will write 100-200 problem statements before converging on the top 5 or so for ideation.

I once ran an “experiment” with 140 senior R&D scientists and engineers from a broad range of businesses.  Working in groups of 7, one volunteer at each table agreed to be a Seeker (asking for help on a specific problem they were working on).  The other six participants agreed to be Helpers (peer resources to help define the problem).  The teams had 20 minutes to complete a root cause analysis of the problem and 10 minutes to come up with as many alternative problem statements – not solutions – as possible.

The feedback from exercise was the overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve gained more new insights into my problem in the last 30 minutes than in the previous 6 months” was a typical response.  How was it possible for six random peers, from various businesses and functions, to be such effective Helpers?

Art Markman describes one potential explanation – the Illusion of Explanatory Depth.2  Simply stated, we don’t understand our world as well as we think we do.  The more familiar the object (e.g., a SharpieTM) or the situation (e.g., our customer’s needs), the larger the gap between what we think we know and what we actually know.  The peer group, using a basic root cause analysis, helped the Seeker see an old problem with new eyes and uncover their own knowledge gaps and potential new solution approaches.

Min’s research shows that each stage of CPS tends to favor a particular thinking style.3  Effective Problem Definition favors a deliberate, thoughtful, divergent, exploratory thinking style.  Successful project leaders, on the other hand, tend to have convergent, action-oriented styles – exactly the opposite of what’s needed for effective Problem Definition!   These leaders are unlikely to have the discipline to take their team through the entire CPS process without active facilitation.

I have used Min’s profile tool to identify many teams’ potential strengths and challenges for creative problem solving.  Very often, a team’s profile will suggest a gap in the first three steps of Simplex™.  In this case, the need for active facilitation and deliberate use of tools is acute.  It is best practice is for someone outside the team to facilitate (to allow the leader to act as a full participant in the process and not bias the process).  Failing that, participants can take turns as “process owner” for those steps they are comfortable leading.

Net, my three recommendations for overcoming the three barriers to effective problem definition:

  • deliberate use of tools like “Why – What’s Stopping” to generate as many granular problem statements as possible vs. seeking the one “right” problem to solve
  • deliberate use of tools like Root Cause analysis to be explicit about what we think we know and to identify gaps in knowledge
  • active facilitation by someone outside the team who is comfortable leading the first three steps of the Simplex™ process

1Min Basadur, The Power of Innovation, pp. 84-89.


3Min Basadur, The Power of Innovation, pp. 33-40, see also

© 2012 Wayne Fisher, Innovation Guide

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Gentle Leadership

In my recent article Breakthrough Innovation, No More Mr. Nice Guy, I was intrigued by an article in an HBR blog by Simon Rucker asserting that achieving breakthrough innovations requires an aggressive, driven, assertive and even sometimes harsh personality – like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison.  This article argued that “nice” doesn’t work.   You have to be tough, unrelenting and visionary.  This made me start thinking more about this question.

Yes, we live in a world where we all value power and all it encompasses. It implies things like strength, forcefulness, decisiveness and boldness.  These are things we always associate these with success.  Most of us would describe these attributes as being desirable in our leaders.  Strong. Fearless. Unwavering.  Isn’t that what we want in our leaders?

This is especially true when we think of leaders in times of stress.  John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Winston Churchill in wartime London or J. Edgar Hoover standing up against ruthless mobsters demonstrated these traits.  These are the heroic figures we admire, write about and elevate in our films.

So maybe Mr. Rucker is right.

But what about the possibility of the opposite leadership mode, one based on GENTLENESS rather than power?   If I described “gentle leadership” as when a person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly and touches with respect – would you admire such a leader, or see them as a kind of “wuss”?

If I think about it someone who is gentle in the way outlined above, I must consider the possibility that such a person may in fact be just as courageous, strong and driven as any of the figures I mentioned above.  They just demonstrate it differently.   Which takes more strength, reacting angrily to a situation that bothers you, or demonstrating self-control – keeping your mouth closed while you reflect on your best response, then giving it in a calm and measured way?    Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama and Franklin Roosevelt strike me as people who operated more from this model.

When I think about my dad, I can tell you that on occasion he would holler at me (though only when I really deserved it).   However, I remember some occasions when I messed up as a youth, and instead of yelling at me, he would shake his head, and in a very calm voice, tell me how much I had disappointed him.  I can still see him shaking his head, sighing and gazing at me with a hurt look in his eyes.   I can tell you that those episodes stung me far more than any angry outburst he occasionally delivered.   Those gentle moments had far more impact.

Gentle Leadership is not the exercise of power and authority, but rather the exertion of influence over the feelings, thoughts and actions of others.

By this definition, it calls on very special attributes and behaviors.

Attributes of Gentle Leaders

From the article by M.S. Rao (see reference below), I found this list of gentle leadership traits.  (The explanations are mine.)

  • Character (They stand for something noble, that the rest of us view as worthy.  They behave in a consistent, transparent and authentic ways.)
  • Charisma (They evoke a sympathetic understanding, which builds rapport with others almost instantly.  They are externally, not self-focused.)
  • Conscience (They have an inner sense of what is right and wrong, and seem to act in accordance with their own internal moral compass.)
  • Conviction (They are driven by determination and passion.)
  • Courage (This is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to act in spite of it – compelled by one’s convictions).
  • Communication (They can find ways to express themselves in powerful and personal ways that make listeners feel the gentle leader  “gets them” and is speaking directly to their core.)
  • Compassion (They act with an intense sensitivity and empathy toward others along with a strong desire to alleviate the pain, suffering or sorrow they see).
  • Commitment (Their unfailing energy to carry through no matter how steep the hill in front.)
  • Consistency (They act from a core set of values that is predictable by others and breeds trust.)
  • Consideration (They always weigh their words and actions from the vantage point of those around them, offering respect.)
  • Contribution (They have an orientation toward service to others, to make a difference in the world.  They leave deep footprints.)

If you think about the people in your life that had that greatest impact on you, I wonder if you see many of the above listed attributes in them.   I know I do.

In addition to my dad, I also think about my aunt Sylvia, a Roman Catholic nun, who was the embodiment of selflessness, patience and compassion for the benefit of all of us in her life.  She was a gentle persuader, and had the persistence to keep applying her force of goodness to you, even when you weren’t interested.  She could wear you down with the power of her virtuous arguments, appealing to the goodness she knew was inside you . . . no matter how deeply buried.   While I don’t think I ever saw her pound the table or raise her voice, she was one of the strongest people I have ever encountered, in the face of some great and painful personal challenges.   By any definition, I would have to classify her as a great leader even though she didn’t command an army, and had little formal authority over anyone.

Is there a business case to be made for Gentle Leadership?

I looked for some tangible evidence of this, and found a study conducted by Professor Bård Kuvaas and Associate Professor Anders Dysvik at the Norwegian Business School.  Their team surveyed 550 employees in 75 different service stations across the country, asking them about the level of caring interest and attention their managers demonstrated toward the employees.   The findings were that the top quartile of caring managers ran stations that had 38 percent higher profits than the stations with managers in the bottom 25 percent.

So, for those of you who need empirical data this should be at least, an interesting result.

But the biggest argument I can make about Gentle Leadership, is that it enriches both the colleagues we influence and us as leaders.  I acknowledge that not everyone out there is ready to take the pledge, but I hope that you at least consider the possibility that a softer style might serve you and your organization well.

I shared with you a couple of personal examples.  Now it is your turn. Think about that person in your own life who made the largest difference in your evolution as a person.  Who was the individual who believed in you before you did, challenged you to try when you lacked confidence, helped get you up when you stumbled, and who set by their own example a standard of behavior so high you couldn’t imagine matching it?   Was it one of your parents, a sibling or a grandparent perhaps?  Maybe it was a coach, teacher or (dare I say) professor?   And it could even have been one of your bosses.   Whoever it was for you, think about how they impacted your life . . .

Now think about the people you are leading.  Consider those you are influencing in your work, your personal and your home life.   Close your eyes.  Think of them.  See their faces.  Can you picture them?

Now imagine that they were asked the same question as I just asked you.   We asked them to consider the people who made the largest difference in their lives.   Now keep your eyes closed, and imagine they are thinking the same kind of thoughts you just were . . . about YOU!

Who have you influenced today?

Other Resources:

Is America Ready for Gentleness?,  by Julie Redstone

Soft Leadership Skills Make For Hard Figures by the Norwegian Business School

Soft leadership, by Qin Tang

Soft leadership: Make others feel more important,  by M. S. Rao

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Breakthrough Innovation: No more Mr. Nice Guy?

Xavier Leadership Center is doing a great deal of work these days in the area of guiding innovation. We have reached out to develop a globally experienced network of innovation facilitators, who are skilled at what we believe to be best practice.

In general, the design thinking or creative problem solving processes fit will with the XLC leadership model that flows from the Jesuit traditions upon which Xavier University was founded.   We believe that innovation is an empowering activity that can enrich work life, but inviting people from all parts of an organization to co-create their own future.   The ideas both bubble up (from within the organization) and are focused (sort of top down) from the company strategy.   I would describe a sort of yin-yang relationship.  In essence, the strategy (which is heavily influence from top-level execs) defines what major problems need to solved (to grow our business, change our business model, modify our cost structure or redefine our customer service experience).   However, often it is the people at the mid and lower levels of an organization who have the best insights about how to actually execute.

So the innovation methodologies we teach are collaborative and involve:

  • Creating Eclectic, Diverse Teams (Based on the notion that people from different backgrounds will always see situations differently – providing much richer idea generation.)
  • Launching a Process of Joint Fact Gathering (To inform all participants more deeply about “the problem” being solved.)
  • Immersing Participants in Experiential Learning (To connect our internal teams in emotionally rich ways with the outside world, either by performing customer observations, interviews or field trips.)
  • Structuring Idea Generation (Linus Pauling said when asked “how do you get a good idea?” answered “well . . . you start with a lot!” We strive for lots of divergent thinking and then converge later.)
  • Following the Energy (In sessions where multiple ideas are emerging, usually there are a few of them that seem to heavily capture the imagination and enthusiasm of the participants.   We suggest trusting their instincts and follow the collective group wisdom.)
  • Planning the Execution (Innovation is about implementing something.  Until you do it, all you have is just a bunch of interesting ideas.  So plan the who, what, why, when of the project, considering what new data you might need, and also how to build the right guiding coalition – considering the right stakeholders).

I have seen this process work pretty effectively, and am convinced it is one that can produce some powerful ideas.  We are using this process at Xavier to lead internal transformation efforts on our campus with good results as well.   At the university, we tend to value collaborative and inclusive approaches in much of what we do, and our bottom-up methodology is well appreciated.  It is, for the most part, a polite, friendly, collegial, engaging approach to new solution generating.

This approach is “Nice.”

In a recent article from the HBR Blog Network called Why You Won’t Get Breakthrough Innovation by Being Nice, Simon Rucker argues that the kind of innovation process I am describing above, works well for incremental innovation, but not for ground breaking, paradigm crushing, world-changing innovations that we might ascribe to companies like Google or Apple.

The essence of his argument is to consider people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, these well-regarded innovators brought something else to the process.  They infused an intense determination, drive, and assertiveness needed to press forward with their inspirations to get them to fruition.   Sure, they all relied upon many colleagues and subordinates to work on the ideas, but it was their single-minded focus that was the factor that made the difference.

Interesting point.

He goes on to point out that none of these famous inventors was known for their social skills.  They were harsh, sometimes cruel, demanding, unreasonable, and intolerant of people who stood in the way of their vision.  So perhaps it takes people like that who possess incredible insight and vision, together with the determination not to let anyone stand in their way.  Certainly one can’t dismiss the end results of Microsoft, Apple, Ford or Edison.

But, I’d like to think maniacal determination may not be the only thing that works.   It seems to me that it has a lot to do with the “problem” you set out to solve at the front end, and on the questions you ask that drives idea generation in any particular direction.  If you choose tactical questions and problems on which to focus your innovation agenda, then you may not get the next iPhone-like product at the conclusion.

First, we need to recognize that no organization can only pursue breakthrough innovation ideas.  The risk is just too great.  For most of us, we are aiming at a mix of projects, the majority of which focused on incremental innovations (making better what we already do).  These are tactical, and related to improving quality, the customer experience, reduce cost, etc.    A portion of our innovation effort should be focused on game changing, bold ideas.

One method I like a lot, drives ideation from the asking of what Phil McKinney calls Killer Questions (see reference below).   These are thought-provoking ones that challenge us to think about problems from different vantage points.   I worked this past weekend with a wonderful group of physician leaders from a highly regarded hospital group.  We were discussing these types of “killer” questions:

  • If no hospitals existed at all today, what system might we invent to serve the health care needs of our community (assuming we had a completely blank sheet of paper)?
  • What would we do differently if we were paid for the people who did not ever enter a hospital and penalized for the ones who did?
  • Develop three separate strategies under these assumptions:
    • We were in the business of curing people who arrived at our doorstep
    • We were in the business of managing cost for chronic health problems (which consume about 3/4th of all health care spending in the US)
    • We were in the business of minimizing the lifetime medical costs for a definable population in our region
    • What would it take for us to reduce the number of surgical procedures by 50 percent in five years?

It seems to me that these questions can stimulate ideation in some remarkably bold ways, leading even to breakthrough initiatives.  As David Coursey suggests in his article below,  just because Steve Jobs was a jerk, we don’t need to be.

So while a Jobs/Ford/Gates/Edison style of innovation leadership does work, I am not convinced it is the only way to achieve game changing insights.

Other Resources:

Steve Jobs Was a Jerk, You Shouldn’t Be, from Forbes

Lessons Learned from Thomas Edison’s Life, from School for Champions

Introduction to the Killer Innovation Approach, from Slideshare

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Pixar’s Plussing: Creating A Culture of Dissent

Imagine you are a civil engineer, an analytic person with high standards.   If you saw your toddler working hard to build a structure out of blocks, and he turned to you asking “Daddy, how do you like my castle?”  Would you praise the child, or offer constructive criticism with a Sheldon Cooper-like biting honesty that would be sure to evoke tears?    Presumably most of us would choose the tactic of complementing the structure regardless of the way it looked.

While perhaps this approach may work well during a child’s formative years, I wonder how we learn to modify our behaviors into adulthood.   Consider that making mistakes is a pretty common occurrence in life, and at work.   I imagine most would agree that making fewer mistakes would be better, and so the ability to provide constructive feedback MUST be a natural course of events in the adult world of work.  Shouldn’t it?

Yet whether it is years of child psychology indoctrination or the fact that most of us have had bad experiences giving “honest” feedback to colleagues, but far too often, we shy away from truth and we value conflict avoidance over frankness.

The truth is no one appreciates criticism.  It is seldom pleasant, makes us defensive and can bring to the surface feelings of self-doubt that are never buried far enough from the surface.  Yet the inability to have open and honest conversations at work (and at home) can cause us to underperform in immeasurable ways.

A colleague of mine turned me on to the controversial book Imagine: How Creativity Works by John Lehrer.  It has a lot to do with the neurobiology of creativity.   One of the interesting case examples comes from the hugely successful computer animation powerhouse Pixar whom many credit with revolutionizing the world of animation in ways Roger Rabbit would never have imagined.

How does a company achieve such high levels of prowess over a decade or more (eons in the tech industry) continuing to push the envelope with each new project they complete?  Can you really create a company culture that increases the odds that creativity happens?

Well perhaps so.  There’s this thing they do at Pixar called plussing. It, simply put, is “a technique that allows people to improve ideas without using harsh or judgmental language.”  During production meetings, instead of merely shooting down ideas, every criticism must come with a plus, with a better idea attached.  The idea was initially attributed to the Walt Disney Company whose animators used this method to productively challenge themselves to press their art form further, back in the day.   Perhaps it is something that comes from improvisational theater where the cardinal rule is “accept every offer” which means that whatever line or situation your stage partners toss in your direction should be accepted and built upon.

Well, plussing is the same idea. Jim Dunbar’s research describes this Pixar example:

Consider the situation where a director is working with an animator on a scene. The director may not like much about the entire sequence. However, she will identify one aspect of the scene she does like (perhaps the movement of the main character) and then say “I like how Huck’s body twists as he swings the bat and what if he were to smile as he does that?” Now the animator has some feedback to build on. Notice that “and” does not imply judgment as the word “but” would have. Rather, “and” opens up the possibilities for discussing ideas and thoughts.”

What a simple way to train your people to think about propelling continuous improvement by making subtle suggestions building on the GOOD things within anyone’s work.  This seems far better than confronting what we dislike.  That approach slows you down, and distracts people from expending energy building things better.

I remember reading about a Disney University training exercise where one member of a group seated around the table is asked to offer a simple idea.   This person might say something like “we should create a new thrill ride based on the Avengers.”  The next person must accept this offer without question and build upon it saying something like “YES, and we can have cars built resembling each or the main characters.”  The third person then builds further saying, “And the sound track should be different based on the character whose car they are riding in.”  This continues until they make it all around the table and people gained practice building on the ideas of others.

Other aspects of Pixar’s Culture

At Pixar, everyone accepts the premise that WE ARE GOING TO SCREW UP.   That is their starting emotional state.   And it is OK that they do.  What produces success is the collective ability to recognize that when first tries are not good enough, they need to quickly try a different approach.   The company uses a process of storyboarding (making hand sketches of key scenes on paper) before converting them to a computer screen.  On a movie like Finding Nemo or WALL-E, there might be 60,000-90,000 individual story boards.   The Fast Company article referenced below cites Joe Ranft, one of Pixar’s master storyboard artists who says this about the storyboarding process: “Sometimes the first try works, while other times a dozen or more passes are required.”   Very often the first version just isn’t good enough.

At this company this continuous improvement fanaticism continues through the very end of the production process when the films are shown to test audiences.   Very often, they get even more feedback about scenes that the audiences “didn’t get” in the way the animators or directors had intended.   They don’t get frustrated . . . they just go back to the drawing board.

What in the end seems like a flawless art form is in fact, the product of tireless rework, hard work and reconstruction.   It also comes from the ability to plus their work at every step along the way.  That’s how they achieve the highest levels of execution that we marvel at on the big screen.

(Watch economist Tim Harford speak about the importance of creating a culture of dissent.)

In his new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford says he thinks that in Pixar’s unique culture preventing errors is not the goal, it is more about learning to identify them and fix them quickly and without having a negative stigma attached to you  for making the error in the first place.  After all, errors are inevitable.   Let’s stop pretending otherwise, and forget about assessing blame, and get on with the more interesting process of learning from them, and then making things better.

Other Resources

Pixar’s Motto: Going from Suck to Nonsuck, from Fast Company

How Creativity Works: It’s All In Your Imagination, from NPR

Accepting Criticism, from In-Touch Ministries

How to Take Feedback: Learn to give and get criticism, from Psychology Today

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Good – Great – Gone: More Lessons On Growth and Decline

I have written before about he topic of why companies grow  and sometimes decline.  (See 8 Leadership Lessons From Microsoft’s Malaise and How Great Businesses Decline.)

Well here are a few more interesting examples.


Do you remember Nokia?  This Finnish powerhouse used to control 40 percent of the GLOBAL cell phone market.   They did design a pretty awesome smart phone product 10 years before Apple introduced their first iPhone, but never brought it to market.  The consequence is they lost a full half of their market share, and in the last 18 months, their stock price plummeted by 70 percent!  They have had to lay off 10,000 employees.  (This is an amazing one from me in that the Nokia story was one of the first strategy cases I used when I first started teaching in 2001.  That case was about an innovative company with vision and an awesome company culture.)

Lesson:  You have to be willing to cannibalize existing product revenues with new products.    Often we won’t do it because we fear the short-term adverse consequence of declining sales.  Yet launching the new line may in fact give you precisely the jump-start you need.


Many people don’t know Canadian tech darling Research in Motion (RIM), but we all know what they make – The Blackberry.   This is another phone product that dominated the business smart phone market for several years.  According to Washington Post tech writer Steven Pearlston’s article In tech world, good to great to – gone?,  he reports that Blackberry sales have dropped by 40 percent, mountains of profits have turned to losses, and the stock trades at only 5 percent of the value it did back in 2008.  Pundits are speculating whether the company can survive.

How quickly things can change.

Lesson: The company grew beyond the competency level of their executives (at least that’s what some analysts say).  Whatever the root cause, they failed to break out of making incremental improvements to their wildly successful product, missing instead the chance for a game changing breakthrough innovation.  We often look at our world with too narrow a focus, and miss evolutions at the periphery.

Best Buy

I used to enjoy shopping there with my sons as we eagerly sought out the latest new tech gadgets available.   Best Buy always had a great selection, knowledgeable sales staff and unparalleled tech support through their Geek Squad.  Their success allowed them to pummel rivals like Sears and Circuit City, and like Wal-Mart, they helped drive many small appliance and computer stores out of business.   They seemed unstoppable.   Today, what made them great seems to be causing their decline.   Shoppers realized they could visit Best Buy to see and touch their product of choice, and then buy it from their favorite on-line retailer who does not have to pay for the overhead connected with conventional brick and mortar retailing.  (Seems like another replay of the Blockbuster Video, and Borders Books stories).  Best Buy’s new CEO is now closing and downsizing stores.

Lesson:  We don’t stop to consider how vulnerable we are. Once competitors understand your business model, it becomes easier for them to imagine how to beat you.  We instead keep focusing on what we are already good at, since it seems to be working for us.    (See also Is it Time to Kill Your Own Company?)

There is a new book out by Circuit City’s creator and first Chairman Alan Wurtzel.   It talks about what he learned from his own company’s demise.   “The reason these businesses don’t change fast enough is because what they do is still working,” says Wurtzel,

Below is a promotional video announcing the new book Good to Great to Gone.

Here is one of the most potent paragraphs I have seen in a while (from the Peggy Noonan WSJ column – see below).  It outlines Steve Jobs perspective on why companies decline:

“There is an arresting moment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in which Jobs speaks at length about his philosophy of business. He’s at the end of his life and is summing things up. His mission, he says, was plain: to “build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products.” Then he turned to the rise and fall of various businesses. He has a theory about “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.” IBM and Xerox, Jobs said, faltered in precisely this way. The salesmen who led the companies were smart and eloquent, but “they didn’t know anything about the product.” In the end this can doom a great company, because what consumers want is good products.”

Add the financial people to this mix, and you have a sure-fire formula for failure.

I am a big fan of the work by Jim Collins, who helped us understand what propelled some companies to make the leap from being good to becoming truly great.   Perhaps Wurtzel is onto a new growth business opportunity — writing the sequels to focus on how they sometimes can lose it.

Other Resources

Why RIM’s Failure Could be Your Failure Too, at

The Only Two Types of Enterprise That Really Matter, on The Elastic Enterprise: The Strategic Innovator

Peggy Noonan On Steve Jobs And Why Big Companies Die, from

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People Leave Bosses, Not Companies: Thinking About Retention

What percentage of your workforce quits each year?   If you are in the service business (like a quick service restaurant) a 60-70 percent turnover rate would not be unheard of.   For most businesses, a turnover rate of 5-10 percent per year is probably more the norm.

What does this cost?  Estimates, of course, vary but if you factor in recruiting fees, recruitment ads, pre-employment physicals, background checks, time spent on interviewing (exit and new hire), HR exit processing, new employee training, on-boarding and the lesser productivity while new workers are getting up to speed, HR professionals would guess the cost is in the range of 35-60 percent of one year’s base pay.

If your company had 1,000 employees, then you would be discharging, recruiting, hiring and training about 70 people per year.  At an average base wage cost of, say $70,000, that means you could bring an extra  quarter-million dollars of net income to your bottom line – if you could just hold on to your employees.  (Most of my HR colleagues think this estimate is on the low side.)

The retention of good people is an item of financial and strategic importance.   The cost analysis does not take into account the knowledge that leaves with the people who depart your organization, including information you might consider proprietary.

So what do you think the main reason is why people leave?   Consider first of all, that if you outright ask people, you are not always likely to get an honest answer.  People often lie about this if they fear a confrontation or an attempt to persuade them to stay on, especially after they have already made the emotional commitment to their decision to leave.  The easiest thing is to say is that they left for a higher rate of pay, or to have a lower commuting time or because another opportunity was just too good to turn down.

However, according to a Gallup poll of more than a million people, the main reason people leave has nothing to do with these things.  The number one reason (by far) they leave their current position is because of a bad boss.    That’s right, poor management costs big time.

We all know the list of bad-boss behaviors, don’t we?

  • They are over-controlling
  • Their people don’t trust or respect them (based on inconsistencies in what they do vs. what they say)
  • They don’t seem to trust, respect or appreciate their employees
  • They don’t seem to care about  them or their personal growth and development
  • They are just not competent

For all the money the corporate world spends on 360 surveys, or employee attitude surveys, the real question is why don’t we as executives have the courage to make the changes we should?   Sure, some people can improve with some training, coaching and mentoring.   But what about the others?

I am thinking of one manager of mine who was a great person – intelligent, technically skilled and loyal, but lacked key management capability.  He was a controlling, autocratic micro-manager.   We did the 360s, hired an executive coach, mentored him (and put him through immense stress, I think) for a year.   At the end, if you asked his employees did they see some improvement in his leadership, they would have mostly said yes – because they appreciated he had at least made an effort.   However, if you asked was he still a controlling, autocratic micro-manager?   They would have answered that in the affirmative as well.  For all his good traits, this manager was never cut out to be a good leader (at least not the type we were looking for).  The sooner he and I recognized this, and put him into a different role (without cutting his pay), the sooner the organization would improve.

Here are some ideas to consider:

Be willing to face the truth.  Not everyone is boss material.   When you made a bad hiring or promotion decision, be open to the possibility you got it wrong.  And, when you do, confront it!  Faster is better, and your team is counting on you to fix your mistakes.

Be fair with the person you misplaced.   If he or she isn’t performing well as boss, he or she probably already knows it.   This can be hard to admit if you are then seen as a failure.  You lose face.   So be careful how you make a reassignment. Think twice before cutting their pay, and do what you can to demonstrate to the individuals you DO really care about and appreciate them.  In the case of the manager I mentioned above, we gave him a special, newly created staff assignment where he could use his great experience and technical ability.   He saved us a ton of money, and told me later that he was having much more fun solving technical problems rather than managing people.  It was a win-win scenario.  Isn’t this a better solution than subjecting them to a year-long “Performance Improvement Plan”?

Stop teaching management skills.  Some of us want to believe great leaders are made, not born.  We hope that if we provide the right level of training on management skills (how to run a meeting, how to do a performance appraisal, etc.) then we can turn them all into effective leaders.   While these skills are useful can be learned, they don’t always transform people into über-bosses.   Instead, we need to work harder to screen boss candidates for intuitive leadership ability.  Smart people can learn skills,  but we can’t train inspiration, integrity or courage.   Who are your best leaders?  We all know them when we see them.  And, if we are paying attention, we can see it in people even before we promote them to a supervisory or managerial role.

Increase flexibility.  Work harder to design jobs around people rather than the other way around.  Build off of their strengths.  Sometimes a boss has a personality style not well suited to an existing team culture.  Respect the culture, especially when the team was performing well in the past.

Provide attractive non-managerial tracks.  Sometimes people are reticent to turn down a supervisory position because in many organizations, that is the way for pay and benefits advancement.   Why not offer career paths that lead to higher pay for people who are good at what they do and love?  We should value people who bring other attributes to work – creativity, experience, creative problem solving and high technical competence.   These should be worth paying for.  Also, recognize and congratulate your non-managers publicly – so that your employees see that you value them as much as your good managers.   Finally, think about non-cash rewards.  Send your people to a conference, give them time to work on one of their own pet projects, or develop a patent application.  There are many ways to recognize people besides money, a larger office or a premium parking space.

Related Resources

No. 1 Reason People Quit Their Jobs

People Quit Their Boss, Not Their Job

Plan for Handling Bad Bosses: treat them like toddlers


Filed under Leading, Strategy

Please Don’t Soften the Truth: Leading from Authenticity

“An honest answer is the sign of true friendship.” -Proverb

I was having a conversation with a class of people attending XLC’s Corporate University Leadership Foundations Certificate program.   They had just received their feedback from our Leadership Circle Profile (a kind of 360 feedback tool).  The survey compared how they saw themselves along various dimensions of our leadership model against how their colleagues saw them.  As you might imagine, there were many cases where wide gaps existed.

The natural first reaction to this (after the stunned silence), is to reject the data.   Sure, we can all accept the notion that we don’t always see ourselves objectively.  And, most of us believe if our employees saw us in a negative way, they would tell us.   That is not usually the case.

The root cause of this is perhaps the largest trap we all (especially managers) fall into.

It stems from a fundamental need we all have to be liked by others.    In addition, most of us do not feel we want to intentionally cause discomfort or inflict pain (emotional) on others.   While these are both fine instincts, the consequence is often that we do not speak truth to others.   We hold back, or soften our words — often to the point that our true message or feelings do not get conveyed.

A common place for this problem to manifest is during performance appraisals.   Even when we have an employee with substantial developmental needs, we don’t want to crush their spirit.  So when we make a list of 5 “weaknesses” we generally feel obliged to follow-up with a list of 5 “strengths.”  While we may think we are being “balanced” in our comments, any high school chemistry student can tell you that 5 positives plus 5 negatives = neutral.   So this balancing effort causes the employee to hear a message that is neutral or “average,” rather than “here are some important areas in which you need to improve.”

I have even seen instances where a manager had the courage to WRITE down on paper critical comments that were pretty true to his feelings, but when he sat down with the employee in a face-to-face meeting, spent most of the time telling the employee a string of complimentary things that led to confusion about the true nature of the message.

So in the short run, we think we are acting in the best interest of the employee, with compassion and sensitivity, but in the long run our lack of courage results in a grave disservice to them.   Think about it.   Some substandard employees end up spending their entire careers being reassigned, passed over for promotions and excluded from crucial project teams, all the while performing mediocre work and never told the truth about how others feel about them and their performance.   How does this lack of honesty help them?

The next problem for you is this: All your other employees know you held back with the problem employee and failed to confront their lacking performance.   You have just signaled your willingness to look the other way, to tolerate mediocrity, and possibly to create a double standard of performance expectations.  That leads to resentment, morale problems and sagging productivity.  In this case, your lack of honesty (even though motivated by the best of intentions) is effectively creating a culture of softening the truth.   We all start to value politeness and congeniality over truth.    And why would you expect them to be more honest with you, than you are with them?  You are the cap in their level of behavior!

Two Basic Philosophies

Most of us see this question of honesty in one of two ways:

1)      Pleasing is the goal.  My premise above is based on this perspective.  We instinctively try to project what we feel the listener wants to hear, as this is the way we think we gain their appreciation and approval.

2)      Truth is the goal.  This perspective is driven from the concepts of authenticity and integrity.  People  who  adopt this philosophy believe the best gift they can give is total honesty, based on all the facts at their disposal EVEN WHEN THE TRUTH MIGHT BE SEEN AS “BRUTAL.”

You can tell my bias is that the second philosophy is far better for leaders.   Our goal is not necessarily to be liked, but rather to be RESPECTED.   As long as your delivery of truth is not based in anger, cruelty, vindictiveness or any  other purpose than what is in the best interest of the individual before you, people will see this as your being authentic, rather than cruel.  (I have attached some links below on the topic of authentic leadership).

If your delivery of truth is motivated by your focus on mission objectives, on team effectiveness and the good of the whole organization, I believe people will come to accept it even if they would prefer not to hear it.  Isn’t that a better gift to them than something that makes them feel good?

Related Resources

People Skills and the Philosophy of Honesty

Being Honest addressing the idea that honesty in your personal life CAN come from a place of love.

Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George

What is Authentic Leadership, by Andrew Cohen

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Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership