Monthly Archives: November 2012

Putting On the Ritz: Building a Service Culture

Have you ever gone away from home on a business trip and left something important behind?  Imagine leaving your smart phone, or wallet, or last pair of eyeglasses.   To me, these would be more than a minor inconvenience – they would be a BIG deal.   Losing these would turn my world upside down (at least for a time).

To a five-year old leaving behind their ELMO doll while on vacation, this can be just as traumatic an experience.  In this case the girl, Ainsley Giorgio was on vacation with her family at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton hotel.

As reported in the Huffington Post, Ritz employee Nelson Quesada, found the doll after Ainsley and her family departed, and decided not just to return it, but to do so in the fabled Ritz Style.   Nelson decided to create a scrapbook showing various pictures documenting all the fun Elmo was having on his adventure since Ainsley left him behind.  In it, Elmo was pictured lounging by the pool, working out in the fitness center, waving to Ainsley (see photo), playing video games, and kicking back with a group of his other stuffed animal friends.

What an impact that must have had on this five-year old, as well as her parents!  When you get a WOW customer service experience right, you create an impression that could literally last a lifetime!    In addition to making a little girl feel elated, this makes good business sense, especially given the power of word-of-mouth sharing.  It also creates in the good deed doer a rush of biochemical reactions that scientists believe can reduce stress, improve one’s sense of well-being, and even improve your health and longevity!   (See the WebMD article below.)  Talk about the ultimate win-win.

What’s even more noteworthy to me is how little that action by Mr. Quesada cost his company (Perhaps 45 minutes of time, a few pages off the printer, and some postage).  In total less than $50.  If the telling of this story gets even one additional person to stay at the Ritz for just one night, they would have generated an additional $600-800 in revenue (after room, dinner breakfast and other likely charges).  Seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it?  Makes you wonder why more organizations don’t act in a Ritz-like way – especially the ones where a great customer experience is a strategic imperative.

Not Left to Chance.

At Ritz-Carlton, this service culture is not something left to chance. It is the by-product of their hiring, on boarding, culture-training, employee empowerment, and management behaviors.

Here are some of the ways the Ritz increases the likelihood that WOW service experiences are more common than in most other companies.

1)      You need to define what you stand for.   Delivering great customer service only can happen if people UNDERSTAND what it looks like.  You need to define it.   R-C has done this in a variety of ways in the Mission, their Credo, their Motto, a set of Service Values, and something called the Employee Promise.  These collectively explain what they are about, and what principles should dictate employee behaviors from the CEO down to the bellman.   (Some companies try instead to document desired actions in voluminous sets of policies and procedures.  That never works.  There are just too many unpredictable circumstances that present themselves.  What we want is employees who can instinctively act based on their understanding of core values.)

2)     Hire based on core talent, not job skills.   Many companies write job descriptions that detail the work skills needed for each position (e.g. knowledge of a particular software system).   What really matters is core behaviors or inclinations. These are not trainable, but job skills are.  At R-C, they have a list of 11 basic talents (like exactness, or relationship/engagement).  Each position in the company requires differing levels of each.  Someone in the accounting department may need lots of exactness (attention to detail) while a concierge needs more relationship/engagement skill.   Remember this maxim – Hire for talents, and then train for skills.

3)     Teach deliberately.   If certain behaviors matter to you, don’t leave them to chance.  Train your team around them.   R-C puts every new employee through a 21-day intense training program where they are taught the values and beliefs, their customer service model, how to manage a difficult guest and other items they have learned from experience will likely be encountered by employees in their jobs.

4)  Trust in your people.  Every R-C employee knows they have at their discretion $2,000 they can spend every day not just to satisfy but to WOW their guests.   If your first reaction to this is “how could they? Won’t people spend the money foolishly?” you don’t really get this.  Employees who are hired carefully, and trained well recognize it is THEIR company too, and they will spend money wisely and only when necessary (as physicians learned long ago about self-dosing of morphine by patients who typically use less when they are in control of the button).

5)    Measure it.  If you don’t measure where you stand, you can’t possibly know if you are getting better or worse.   (Did you ever play golf with someone who didn’t keep score?  If they didn’t it is because they either were ashamed of their game or didn’t care – and neither one of those is a good thing.)    R-C does random guest satisfaction surveys every month to track progress and stimulate discussions on what they could do better.

6)    Recognize it.   If you get the same rewards and recognition for delivering mediocre service as you do for providing WOW service, guess what’s likely to happen? The service quality will diminish.   We as bosses must be paying attention – trying to catch them in the act of doing it right.    When we see it, it is our golden opportunity to act.  Rewards need not be about cash.  Often a thank you or a “thumbs up” can accomplish the important goal of letting your people know their good work is noticed, and that they are appreciated.  Make it personal.

7)    Live it.  If it all stops at the end of employee orientation, then energy around what you claimed you believed in will wane.   Here is a video clip talking about something that R-C calls their line-up.  A daily meeting in every hotel across the planet where one of their 16 key culture elements is discussed for 15 minutes.  The meeting is mandatory.   At it, people share a WOW story of their own, or maybe brings up a situation they faced where they weren’t sure how to best handle it.  Everyone attends.    It is a chance to reinforce what matters.  Remember that WE (as bosses) are the CAP on service quality.   Our staff’s will not typically deliver better than they see from us.  When WE think it is important, they too will follow suit.

Other Resources:

The Science of Good Deeds: The ‘helper’s high’ could help you live a longer, healthier life, by WebMD

Lost Elmo Doll Goes on ‘Vacation’ at the Ritz Carlton, by the Huffington Post

Service the Ritz-Carlton Way, by Club Resources International

Put More WOW in Your Service, Brandt Silverman, Wiplfi Ltd

How Ritz-Carlton Maintains its Mystique, by Carmine Gallo , Bloomberg Business



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Destroying Paradigms to Unlock Breakthrough Thinking

 “Innovation: A difference that makes a difference:  imagining, realizing and spreading a new way of understanding, seeing or making things.” — Dr. Carol Strohecker

What is the biggest impediment to achieving breakthrough thinking and innovation?   I believe it is our own mental roadblocks erected around the things we already “know.”   Most of us know a lot about our business–the industry, customer behaviors, competitor strengths and weaknesses, stakeholder values and so forth.  Most of us think of ourselves as “experts” in fact.

The problem is that our knowledge (and associated ways of thinking about things) comes from our accumulated life experiences.   By definition, these are backward looking.   And while our biases and beliefs may have been formed thoughtfully, they don’t always hold in highly dynamic world.  (If the future is different enough from the past, then historical ideas and solutions may not be useful.)

  • There was a time when I would have “believed” that $0.75 was a lot to pay for a cup of coffee.  For quite some time, that was a valid conclusion . . . that is until Howard Schultz took a vacation in Italy and saw how a coffeehouse could be a social experience, and took the opportunity to purchase Starbucks in 1987 from its original high-end coffee purveyors.
  • There  was a time when many of us believed that a restaurant was a place where you sat down and people served you.  That is until Ray Kroc walked into the “McDonald’s Famous Barbecue” place in San Bernardino California and saw a fast-food revolution.
  • There was a time when we believed that our world would revolve around laptop computing, before IBM combined telephony and computing in their first PDA device introduced at the 1992 COMDEX show.  (This ultimately became the “Simon Personal Communicator” marketed by Bell South in 1994 – see photo.)

Howard Schultz initially had great difficulty attracting investors to fund his growth plans.  After all, most people KNEW that the business model would not work – based on their beliefs about how people felt about buying coffee.  (Would you have invested your money on such a bold new concept . . . $2 for a cup of coffee, even more if it had foam on it?)

Yes sir. Once we form opinions about things, they are hard to break for most of us. Our tendency to cling to our deeply held views about the world often blocks us from the kind of breakthrough thinking we would like to see more of in our organizations.

Some people do this naturally

For a small fraction of us, this is not so much of an issue.  I’m not sure if Steve Jobs is a case in point, but I believe that some of us are born with a sense of deep restlessness and continual questioning of things.  Have you ever had the experience of getting lost in a continual loop of conversation with a precocious five-year old that couldn’t stop asking WHY? These are the kids who always got in trouble at school, were a teacher’s worst nightmare, who were always balancing between being inquisitive and a “smart aleck.”  (Perhaps many of us were born this way, but had it driven out of us as we progressed through our early school years.)

In any case, most of us as adults do not have this natural tendency to be able to see things as if for the first time – free from our preconceived notions.

Breaking the Paradigms

Most of us need help to break these paradigms.  Here are four ideas to help you break out of established (and limiting) patterns of thought.

1)      Educate your team about the power of paradigms.   Give your team an intellectual understanding of what paradigms are, how our minds form belief systems, how these are both useful to us, and also what the downsides are.   This step on its own will not change anything, but it is one step in modifying behavior – modifying someone’s understanding and knowledge.

2)     Put them in an environment where questioning is the norm.   We all adapt our behaviors into our environment.  We understand the culture around us, and act accordingly.   If in your organizational culture, questioning of assumptions and the status quo is not a normal behavior, then people will not naturally go there.   For this reason bringing people into a new physical space with a skilled facilitator can help.   In an external environment, a temporary set of behavior norms can be established (as in a workshop or seminar).  People are generally willing to adapt to any established rules set by the facilitator (because they are not being asked to make a permanent change).

3)     Use immersion learning to create a new context.  Getting your team members into a new environment can help them to see things through a different lens. Examples of this would be to have them interview customers, stakeholders, do a field trip, or conduct customer observations.  With a little coaching and some help (like providing a structured interview guide along with some coaching on empathetic listening), your people will likely gain new insights about all sorts of things when they can make someone else the focus of attention.

4)     Challenge them with powerful questions.   One way to stimulate creative ideation is to ask unexpected questions that beg a new pattern of thinking.    Here is an example of what I mean, taken from a health care client learning event recently conducted by Xavier Leadership Center. In this case we were trying to get the audience to consider different strategic ideas related to their industry and health system.   Here are some of these powerful questions:

What are the rules and assumptions my industry operates under? What if the opposite were true?

  • What will my patient pool look like five years from now?  Ten years?  How will they be different from today? What will that mean for care we will need to provide?  How will we need to prepare for these differences?
  • What if our goal was to cut hospital admissions and procedures by 50 percent, what would we do differently?  (This is interesting because today’s hospital reimbursements are based on the NUMBER of procedures performed).
  • What if hospitals didn’t exist, what would we invent from scratch to serve health and wellness needs of our society?
  • If we could allocate 50 percent of what we do on prevention and wellness?  What would we do as a health system?   What would we want the outcome to be?

Such questions can be hugely powerful if they were not ones your team had previously thought about.   Being caught “off guard” can be intellectually stimulating.

What powerful questions can you think of relevant to your business?  Use them during your next strategy planning session.

Other Resources

My Challenging Life: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

Center for Design Innovation – Interview with Dr. Carol Strohecker, by Deanna Leonard, Innovation Excellence

The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

What is it like to see something “as if” for the first time?, Namukasa, Immaculate Kizito, Phenomenology Online

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Top Five Regrets at the End of Life

I know.  This is a topic that makes many of us uncomfortable.   Yet it is really important to challenge ourselves to think about what matters in our lives, NOT when the end is in view, but when we are young, vibrant and still have ample time to impact our behaviors.

We teach a class at the Xavier Leadership Center on personal leadership.  A portion of our program tries to get people to reflect on their own life goals and consider the value of creating an action plan aimed at helping to achieve them.   One part of our assessment is to get people to define how they think of themselves as leaders.  Then we seek input on how our colleagues see us.  (Often there are substantial differences).   Next we ask people to consider various dimensions of their personal and professional lives (like financial, health, personal achievement, personal relationships, family, etc.) measuring our own satisfaction with each component.   Mostly, we see that people have some significant areas where there lives are “out of balance.”   Finally, we try to get them to consider items that really matter.   What do you want your life to account for?   How do you want the world to be different as a consequence of your existence?

If you have tried to do this kind of self-assessment before, then you know how difficult it can be.  We seldom take the time to stand back as individuals, as married couples, or as a family to talk about what matters in our life, and how we want to be deliberate about living our lives in accordance with those things.

It is interesting to me that we don’t take the time to think about this topic, and yet according to one study by the Corporate Executive Board, fewer than one in three of us feel we are achieving a good balance between our professional and personal lives.  Moreover,  the Hudson Research Institute reported in one of their surveys that “work-life balance is, along with flexibility, the most important factor in considering job offers. Compensation still matters, the survey found, but it finished second (23 percent) behind lifestyle when workers were asked to name the primary reason they accepted their current positions.”

So if it is so important to us and evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of us live in an out-of-balance condition, why then are we so afraid to do something about it?

Well, here is another piece I want to bring to your attention that may (I hope) help tip the scales in your case.  Who else has a better perspective on the question of life meaning and purpose than people who are facing the end of life?   An absolutely fascinating article appeared in the British paper The Guardian, describing the work of a hospice nurse who began interviewing her patients, and recording their responses. Bronnie Ware is an Australian palliative care provider who recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  (Check out the blog when you are in the mood for some “heavy reading.”)

So what did her patients conclude?  Here are the five top regrets (from people on the way out.)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

We all feel duty bound to fulfill the expectations that other people have of us … parents, family, bosses or neighbors.   How sad is it to get the end and look back with regret about  all the things you didn’t pursue, never had time for, or were simply too afraid to go after.   Kind of makes me think about Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the acclaimed film The Bucket List about two geezers with terminal cancer who decide to hit some of their wish list items before they “kicked the bucket.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Bronnie reports that this one came from virtually every male patient she nursed.   They missed so many important events in the lives of their kids or spouse.  In the end, the rewards from all the hard work seemed not to stack up very favorably with the experiences that were missed.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

We succumb too easily to societal pressure to be polite, avoid confrontation and be positive.  So we let a lot slide.  In the end we recognize all that “water under the bridge” was not good for us, or even those people to whom we were never honest.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

You get a phone call to learn that someone you knew well (in college perhaps) has just died.  When you reflect on it you remember how important and valued a part of your life they once were, and ask yourself why you never made the effort to stay connected.  Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.    In the past 5 years, a group of my old college buddies and their spouses and I have been making the effort to get together a couple of times per year.   We sometimes rent a big house (like in the movie The Big Chill).   I can tell you that this has been an extremely rewarding experience, and when we are together, it feels just like it was back in the day.  How great it is to have them again a part of my life.  (We just got back from an Alaskan cruise).  I deeply wish we started doing this 10 years earlier.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

According to nurse Ware, “many [of her patients] did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”   We often allow such little things to get under our skin, and then to fester, until massive amounts of time have been wasted, and our emotional state hovers in the zone of unhappiness.  We all long to laugh, be silly, and feel good.

So there it is.   Will you wait until you are facing the Grim Reaper before you take stock, look back and tabulate your regrets?  If so, what an unfortunate choice that would be.   Take the time to ask yourself the deep questions not about the meaning of life, but about the meaning of YOUR life.   Start by writing your own obituary (as you would like it to read).  This is not an easy assignment.

I am reminded of another of my favorite movie classics featuring Joe Pesci as Simon Wilder.   It was called With Honors.   At the end of the movie Simon is dying of asbestos poisoning and he writes his own obituary shortly before he dies at the movie’s climax.

Simon B. Wilder bit it on Wednesday.  He saw the world out of the porthole of a leaky freighter, was a collector of memories, and interrupted a lecture at Harvard. In 50 years on earth he did only one thing he regretted. He is survived by his family: Jeff Hawks, who always remembers to flush; Everett Calloway, who knows how to use words; Courtney Blumenthal, who is strong, and also knows how to love; and by Montgomery Kessler, who will graduate life with honor, and without regret.”

What would you write about your life?  How would that differ from the version those you leave behind will write?

Other Resources

Achieving Balance in Your Life: A Blueprint for a Strong Foundation,by Erica Orloff and Kathy Levinson

Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by Susie Steiner, The Guardian

The Increasing Call for Work-Life Balance, by the staff of the Corporate Executive Board, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Work-Life Balance: A key to Job Acceptance, the Hudson Institute

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Innovating A Mature Product – The Sealy Case

We sleep on one every night.  But unless you suffer from chronic back problems, how many of us give this product (our mattress) a second thought?   Eighty percent are made from some coils, foam topper and some fabric.  Each manufacturer calls their version something different, and we can buy them with more or fewer coils, fluffier foam or softer fabric to suit our preferences.   Does it really matter which brand you buy?  Not to me.  I presume that Sealy, Simmons, Serta (not sure why they all begin with “S”) are all comparable, and I buy what’s on sale that feels comfortable for the 2 minutes I lie on it in the store. What’s the big deal?

Well, when you are in the mattress business, and the sales of your premium brand starts to plummet with new energetic competitors entering the luxury mattress segment around 2002  (made even worse after the economic melt-down of 2008) it is a very big deal.  That is what was happening to the Stearns and Foster brand of the Sealy Corporation.

Can you imagine a meeting at the corporate office where the Brand Manager stands up and says “Sales are in the toilet.  We think it is related to the economy.  Our plan is to RAISE prices by 40%!”   Can you imagine any sales leader in their right mind who would make that case?  Well, that is what they did.

To the credit of Sealy management, they decided to try a new approach, applying a creative problem-solving methodology called Design Thinking.   They partnered with the Boston office of design powerhouse IDEO (the people who became famous for inventing the first computer mouse for Apple).

Like many companies that have been around a while, their R&D/Product development department was a stand-alone group that operated in their own sort of ivory tower, bouncing bowling balls on mattresses, and such.  But the design thinking process approach they used with their Stearns and Foster problem called for a new way of working.

So, with IDEO’s help, their engineers from the Trinity, North Carolina headquarters were sent out with sales and marketing people to visit retailers in New York, Atlanta and Chicago.  They spoke to customers (yup, that’s a novel idea), interviewed retail sales clerks and they studied their competitors’ products not through the eyes of the technicians in the R&D facility, but through the eyes of the sales people who were talking to live buying customers on a daily basis.

When they watched customers on showrooms, they observed some who walked up running their hands along the mattress top, remarking about how smooth it was, or noticing the decorative patterns on the fabric.   (In some ways this seems counter intuitive when you consider that none of those attributes are ever appreciated by consumers when the product is in use.  After all, it is covered with blankets and sheets.) Yet, these things seemed to matter, no matter how irrational they may be.

The redesign team learned that unlike yours truly, many customers take their mattresses quite seriously and see them as reflections of themselves.   Mattresses needed to have a kind of personality, right down to the embossed fleur-de-lis pattern on the mattress cover that hearkened back to the early days when Stearns made seats for high-end carriages in the mid 1800s.

Armed with these new consumer insights, marketing and engineering managers from Sealy sequestered themselves in IDEO’s Boston offices for eight weeks to re-think their product design.

It was natural for Sealy – as they saw sales decline dramatically after the stock market crash and following economic downturn–to focus on cost cutting.  However, the process they followed kept the team away from the corporate bureaucracy and allowed team members to influence design not based so much on costs, but on what they were learning from customers and field sales people.   While other mattress manufacturers were cutting costs, Sealy’s creative problem solving team went the other way, adding material and labor cost, resulting in their raising prices a whopping 40 percent (from $1,000 to $1,400 per mattress)!

The results?  Since the newly designed products were launched at the end of last year, they broke all previous sales records for the product line.

Why did it work out so well? Here are some observations:

Immersion research is vital.   The final design version was pretty interesting when you consider how much effort went into improving the physical appearance of the product in the showroom. (These are insights not attainable any other way than by direct observations in the field.  You can buy your competitors products and reverse engineer them all day, and never understand how consumers FEEL when they are buying them.)  One of our biggest enemies is what we all think we already know.   We all believe we are good at our jobs (experts in fact).  We form opinions about lots of things over time, our customers, our own organization, competitor behaviors and so forth. Once we form our opinions though, we tend to hang on to them tenaciously – a dangerous thing in a constantly changing world.   So any creative process is aided by field immersion learning. Get out of your cube, your office, your building and even your industry to look at things through different lenses. I have never seen one such experience yet where observers didn’t learn important new things.

This cross-functional approach was crucial.  Getting sales, marketing, product development and R&D together to solve a problem seems so logical, but is yet too often avoided.  We never have time.  It will cost too much. It will slow us down. (Pick your favorite excuse.) Forming eclectic teams of diverse people is highly productive.  You want to surround yourself with people who don’t normally think like you do.  You then want to teach your teams to build on each other’s ideas rather than criticizing them.

As reported in the Fortune article referenced below, Allen Platek,  Sealy’s VP for new product development, reacted this way to the new way of working together to solve problems:  “[It] was one of the most fun times of my career.  Prior to this, what we did was in silos. Sales did their thing, marketing did their promotions and ads, R&D developed innovation, and then it was all thrown to operations. We had a disjointed effort.”

Get people away from the bureaucracy.   The truth is that when we are in our familiar work surroundings, we adopt many of the paradigms, biases and bureaucratic practices that normally accompany that environment.   This design work at Sealy was not done in North Carolina, but in Boston at IDEO.   There, they weren’t having people second guess them each day, posturing or trying to exert influence on the process for any reason.  They didn’t have to follow normal procedures, get approvals and so forth.  The result was speed and freer thinking. Outside facilitation can help here as well.

Senior leaders were willing to let go.  This whole process can be destroyed if senior leaders are too afraid, and decide to second guess or overrule their creative problem solving team.  Sealy executives were willing to let go and see this experiment all the way through.  They trusted their people to use their best judgment and to trust in the process as well.  An initial success encourages more experimentation and you can really build momentum.

I have been sharing in prior posts examples from public education, federal and municipal government, and now here in the for-profit sector.  We are in the throes of a similar bold experiment like this at Xavier as well, as we are guiding over 100 people in various cross-functional teams through this same creative problem solving process experience used by Sealy.  Xavier has assembled a team of globally experienced “innovation guides” and we are using Innovation as a transformative process for our entire organization.  For us it is too soon to demonstrate the success of our outcomes, but I can see that some exciting new ideas are already starting to emerge, and the we have not before seen such cross campus energy as we are working together across our own internal silos.

At Xavier we teach and guide external client teams through both Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking projects.    So pick whichever case example I have written about as a starting point: NY Public Schools, the VA in Washington (and with the 100,000 Homes Campaign), St. Vincent’s Medical Center (Birmingham AL), Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (Hanover NH), Google, or IDEO.   They all have some common threads.  Start with them, and see if you can add your own new improvements.

Finally, if you haven’t seen this before and want to see Design Thinking in practice, here is an 8-minute video showing how IDEO designed new shopping cart in five days.

Other Resources

Reinvigorating the Stearns and Foster Brand for Sealy, from IDEO

Next Generation Posturepedic for Sealy, from IDEO

Sealy goes to the Mattresses, by Daniel Roberts, Fortune/CNN

5 Innovation Secrets from Sealy, by John Kotter

IDEO helps Sealy revive its mattress sales via design, by Reena Jana, Smart Planet


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Social Innovation – Helping Homeless Vets

Volunteers in Orlando at a Homeless Boot Camp — mobilizing resources (from 100,000 Homes Campaign)

We are constantly looking for interesting examples of innovation in every facet of our economy and infrastructure.  I saw one example in an article by Ron Ashkenas called How Social Innovation is Helping Homeless Vets.It tells a success story about how even our government agencies (which many have written off as lethargic, bureaucratic and backwards, have engaged to make one problem get better.  The problem was brought to light back in 2009 when then Veterans Affairs secretary brought to light this issues.  According to the VA web site, “Veteran homelessness is a problem of national importance. According to a count on a January night in 2011, there were 67,495 homeless Veterans. And an estimated 144,842 Veterans spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program in a recent year.”

When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki issued his call to arms, the Federal government mobilized what seems to me an amazingly holistic solution to this problem including:

  • Community Partnerships A network of more than 2,418 shelters, soup kitchens, and other community partners around the United States are providing the services Veterans need to stay in their homes or get back on their feet. Combined with other community organizations, there are over 4,000 community groups working to serve our homeless Veterans.
  • Income/Employment/Benefits VA has put more than 370 currently or formerly homeless Veterans to work across the country as Vocational Rehabilitation Specialists who assist about 40,000 fellow Veterans annually.
  • Housing/Supportive Services Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), homeless Veterans are provided with Section 8 “Housing Choice Vouchers” by HUD under the HUD-VASH Program. VA provides case management services through the HUD-VASH and Grant-Per-Diem programs.
  • Outreach/Education VA works on the ground in communities to raise the awareness of Veterans and their support networks about services such as 1-877-4AID-VET , VA’s 24/7 hotline to support Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
  • Prevention VA provides grants to community groups that assist Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and their families as well in maintaining permanent housing.
  • Treatment VA supports Veterans who need a range of medical, psychiatric, vocational, or educational services through its Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans.

They also saw fit to partner with other parties working toward common goals like 100,000 Homes organization – which is dedicated to ending all homelessness in this country.  This group too seems to see a holistic solution which they describe as these following five steps (as I pointed out in my last article about NYC Schools, it helps to have a process):

  • Build the local team (who are the stakeholders who can help? A small band of passionate prophets)
  • Clarify the demand (assess the nature and amount of the need)
  • Line up the supply (campaign communities are finding brilliantly creative ways to line up housing and services, and they are sharing their successes so others can learn.  One community created a homeless boot camp that organized all related organizations that were a part of their local bureaucracy.  The result was a more than doubling of the number of veterans who could be processed and housed per month.  In San Antonio, it used to take 207 days on average to move a homeless person into some form of permanent housing.  That number is now down to 70 days.   In Detroit, according to the NY Times article by Tina Rosenberg, has gotten the cycle time down to a remarkable 20 days!)
  • Move people into housing (caringly match people to neighborhoods, housing type and cost)
  • Help people stay housed  (this is the hardest part, following up with skills training, counseling, job finding help, and other support infrastructures to help these people become successful)

Another impressive fact noted in the Rosenberg article is that many cities have “also greatly improved their focus on the most needy — the chronically homeless, many of whom are mentally ill or have substance abuse issues. Cities are not only moving faster, they’re doing that with more difficult clients. In Atlanta, for example, only 26 percent of housing vouchers used to go to the chronically homeless.  In the last 100 days, however, 93 percent go to those most vulnerable.”

So what are the innovation lessons?

Here are some innovation principles this case example highlights for us.

  • Innovation is about doing something. What I love about this story is that it highlights, for me at least, that innovation is all about DOING something.  Until it is implemented, all you have are a bunch of ideas.  These ideas are useless until they produce tangible action.
  • It helps to have focus around a problem. Secretary Shinseki delivered the call to arms that struck at the heartstrings of many across the country. How could we turn our backs on veterans who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of our nation?  It was a national disgrace that many cared about.  Framing the problem around something specific can crystallize thinking.  Finding homes for 100,000 homeless vets is unambiguous.  We can immediately focus on how to get it done.  Choosing a more general problem statement like “cure all homelessness” seems more daunting, and it is harder to know where to begin.   FOCUS is a useful tool when you want to get something done quickly.
  • Harness a team of like-minded people who care about the problem. The power to effect change (especially, but not exclusively in the public sector) is diffused across a broad range of stakeholders with overlapping geographical jurisdictions. Their differing funding streams reinforce silos and competition instead of collaboration. The key here was to invite players who had energy around the goal of solving a homelessness crisis, building a guiding coalition. The key here is that if your goal doesn’t excite the various stakeholders whose help you need, you’re dead.   Re-think your goal.
  • Create an easy-to-understand goal. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point.   The goal has to be important, and one where people can imagine tangible things that could be done.  Having a deadline also helped.  Trying to place 100 homeless people in 100 days was clear, concise, understandable, and measurable.
  • Mobilize the entire ecosystem.  In most organizations solutions to most problems span silos.   You need to engage across a broad enough front where you have all the needed resources engaged.   In this case multiple Federal, State and local agencies had to cooperate to streamline the processes, helped by religious groups, concerned community members, landlords, student volunteers, and the business community all lent a hand.  Once they were engaged, momentum was achieved by sharing success stories, and building a sense of friendly completion among communities.

Innovation can happen anywhere.   There are lots of tools and methods to help your creative thinking efforts.  But, these, without considering the human equation can leave you far short when it comes to execution.

Make what you do matter. Think about who needs to be on board.  Get them there. And imagine creatively the HOW.    You might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.

Other References:

VA’s Commitment to End Veteran Homelessness , from the VA website.

100,ooo Homes Campaign,  from their website

Teaming Up to End Homelessness, by Tina Rosenberg, NY Times



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How NYC Schools are Systematizing Innovation

Some people think innovation is about research and development or designing new and better products.   If I hear one more reference to the iPhone as an example of what innovation is, I think I will be sick.

Innovation has to do with making anything better. . . products, services, business processes, organizational strategies, the ways we lead, and the ways we do work.  The need for innovation and the tools that promote it are universal and can be applied in for or nonprofit, public or private sector, mission based of customer driven organizations.

I came across an article recently by Tom Vander Ark in Education Week, called Innovation Hub and Change Management Model. It describes a pretty interesting approach to guiding innovation throughout the largest school district in the United States.  Here are some learning points – a manifesto for leading innovation and change.

Create a Resource Center to Enable Change

The point here is that there is a body of knowledge that makes innovation happen more easily.   Before you push your people to do so, put in place the resource center to help them.

One idea in New York was to create the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation which they call the iZone.  It was created in 2010 as a community change management initiative.    The iZone is a place, (a physical space), a group of people (whose sole job is innovation thinking, planning and execution) and a network of external partners (knowledge resources to be leveraged).   They are working with organizations like Google, Harvard EdLabs, The Center for Secondary School Redesign, the Discovery Channel and many others.

The iZone is a resource hub to provide expertise to help local schools design curriculum for the knowledge age by applying technology smartly, redefining teaching roles, leveraging external real-world environments to support practical experiences and personalizing learning.

Have a Unifying Point of View

While it may seem empowering to simply tell people to “go forth and innovate,”  in practice it is much more effective when you focus your innovation efforts.

iZone started with a bold philosophical paradigm-shifting idea–to change schools from a classroom focused learning system to an individualized student-centered approach.

This is a radical change from the industrial age concept of processing students through a learning process in production-line fashion,  in batches based on their chronological age (as if that were the most relevant way to batch-process them).  Putting students at the center of the process is a stark departure from decades of tradition leaving many teachers feeling unsettled.   How do you redesign schools and curriculum from the bottom up when your work day is already jam-packed with tasks?

Make Innovation Voluntary

It is great to have the C-suite be in favor of innovative change, and to see them trying to drive it.  However, most of us react to top-down directives negatively.  Find some initial willing “guinea pigs” to be the first living case examples.  Once they achieve some initial successes, momentum will build.   From then on, make participation in innovation initiatives voluntary. (The door to change can only be opened from the inside).

In the case of NYC, they start by inviting schools to join the iZone (giving them access to these support resources), but in order to do so the school MUST AGREE to subscribe to the philosophy of personalized, student-centered learning as a way of being!  Office of Innovation director Stacey Gillett describes it this way:  “the iZone [is] a community of schools committed to personalization innovation.”

This is huge.   To participate, the school and all its connected stakeholders must first go through a process of imagining what they want to make different and then make the emotional leap to accept the philosophical perspective of the iZone.  So by the time they join, they are ready to learn and to work.

Use a Process

It is not sufficient to simply ask people to change, and then cheer them on.   Most of us  need help.

As you know from our prior articles, we think Innovation initiatives are greatly aided by having a deliberate process to guide it.  We at Xavier Leadership Center teach Lean, Creative Problem Solving and Design thinking as three specific methodologies.

Here is the process invented by iZone (see this Vimeo detailing the process.) In this case they planned six focused conferences spread out between February and June.  These participants came to learn core concepts and to share ideas.   Then they went back to their home schools to apply what they learned.   With each succeeding conference, they were pushed along the design thinking process.

  • Forming a design team
  • Informing the team (collecting information, engaging stakeholders)
  • Defining their problem(s)
  • Developing an idea for a new learning model
  • Prototyping it
  • Refining it
  • Implementing it

Have A Deadline 

Yes, innovation is an organic process that never ends.   We create ideas, implement them, learn from our successes and mistakes, and make ongoing improvements.   However, that doesn’t mean we should launch innovation initiatives without a purpose or deadline.   People work better when they can see a concrete endpoint to our initial efforts.

The iZone school community created a 1-year deadline for them to invent a new learning model.   Feb–June were allocated to learning, defining, designing and prototyping.  The summer months were created for planning implementation at the start of the upcoming school year.   Having a deadline helps us stay on track.

Choose Some Specific Initiatives

Leading an innovative change program is a blend of empowering people at lowest levels to invent solutions that best meet their needs.  No one other than them knows their issues and problems better.  In addition, however, there should be an overarching “strategic” plan that aligns the lower level activities around the overall goals and direction of the entire organization.  Empowering teams builds engagement, and connecting them to organizational strategic intent makes it powerful.    In the case of NYC schools, while each schools programs might look different on the ground, they are ALL required to be connected to this framework:

  • Next Generation Curriculum and Assessment
  • Personalized Learning Plans and Progress Tracking
  • New Student and Staff Roles
  • Flexible and Real-world learning environments

Flexible, focused, and aligned.
Decide how to Measure Success

We are not fans of innovation for its own sake.  We need to define up front what success looks like to us in sufficient detail so that we would recognize it if we actually succeeded.

In the case of the iZone schools who engaged in the Feb-June sequence of planning, they all defined measurable outcomes they believed would be impacted though the implementation of their new learning model.  Start with the end in mind.   Pick your goals and define how to measure them. Be as  multi-dimensional as you can.   (Look, for example not only at student achievement, but how about measuring teacher, community and student engagement as well?)

Here is a statement of mission for iZone:

“The iZone aims to increase student achievement in K-12, college and career by supporting innovative educational models that will best meet the needs, motivations and strengths of each student.”

It helps to have a clear understanding of purpose when deciding what to measure.

So how innovative is your organization?   We can all take a lesson from iZone and the suggested steps listed above.  The only mistake is not to start.

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Re-learning What Strategy Is

Does the poster at the left describe how your organization thinks about strategy?  When I speak with managers and executives about the topic of strategy, (or when I ask a group to describe during a workshop what a strategy is) I find there is a lack of understanding about what strategy is, and why we need to create one.  If I am honest about it, I think my understanding of strategy was pretty superficial at the time when I first was taught  it during my MBA program, and I think perhaps I was not alone.  Many of us need to re-learn the basic concepts.

I find often people can’t describe the strategy, or translate it into what they should do within their departments that supports strategy execution. For many of us, strategy is an annual event that feeds information upward together with a set of budgets and pro-forma financial statements.

What Strategy is, and Is Not

Ask yourself if YOU can define what strategy is, in just a couple of sentences.   Then, watch this brief video clip featuring Michael Porter talking about what strategy is and what some of the main mistakes are that people make.

Would you change your definition after watching this?

Strategy Must Be in Response to External Forces

While it is fine to ask what it is YOU would like to do, or how you would like to create your own business.   However, it must also be developed in response to those pervasive external forces (we call drivers) that are influencing your industry and your business.   These forces are seldom ones we can control, but our understanding them helps us imagine what we must do in response.

Here is Professor Porter speaking about the five main forces that drive (or should drive) strategy.   It has to do with understanding the external forces from competitors, suppliers and customers that drive profitability in your business.

How much do you know about your what things are driving not only you, but your customers, suppliers, and competitors as well?

You can’t Please Everyone

I don’t think I can think of any organization with unlimited resources (financial, or human).  So, almost by definition, strategy is about making CHOICES between possibilities that define:

  • What your products and services are (or not).
  • What customers you wish to serve (or not) (all markets are consisted of segments that all want something a little different.  In the airline industry, business travelers and personal vacation travelers are distinctly different.  We want to buy from people who UNDERSTAND us, and this is much easier to do and to project when you are deliberate about who you are serving.)
  • How you create value for those you are serving (some people call this your value proposition.  It answers the question “why would anyone want to buy from you?”)
  • How you will choose to deliver your value (this is not just a set of operating approaches, but reflects a set of deeply held values about how you want your organization to be)

This last point helps inform your thinking about tactical execution.   Remember this quote:

“Good tactics can save even the worst strategy. Bad tactics will destroy even the best strategy.”     —General George Patton

Deciding on what business you are in is not that difficult.  The hard part is exerting the organizational self-discipline to risk being drawn into new product-market segments without deliberation and purposeful effort.  When you end up chasing all opportunities that seem like could make a profit, you can end up unfocused, and stretching scarce resources in too many directions.  The best way to do a poor job with any one is to try to do a good job for everyone.

In addition to knowing what business you are in, the second issue has to do with what you want your brand to be about.  (How do you want customers to see and think about you?)  You can choose to compete based on being the highest quality, lowest cost, best service provider, or the most cutting edge technology provider, as some examples.  Wal-Mart and Nordstrom are both mass merchandisers, but provide two very different shopping experiences, and appeal to different customer demographics.  Here again, there is not necessarily any right or wrong choice, but you need to make one, and then act consistently with it.   If your goal is to be the low-cost provider, you may not want to be investing in elaborate corporate jets, or luxurious store decorations.

It is a team sport

It is fine to have senior execs with a strong vision, but even these people have difficulty getting everyone top-to-bottom understand it in the same way – and so, execution suffers.  A better approach is to engage people from across your organization in the process.   It can work if top execs define what, and ask the rest of the team to define HOW.   However you approach it, I think lower level people will almost always surprise you if you let them.

Not an Annual Event

If you are living your strategy every day, then it is unlikely that strategy can be an annual event at budget time.  Strategy is an organic thing.   The second you publish your strategy, the world is changing in ways you may not have anticipated.   So, the strategy must be flexible, and subject to revisiting whenever new things are happening that cause you to question some of the assumptions upon which it was initially based.

Requires Thinking and Action TOGETHER

One of my favorite strategy quotes comes from General Erwin Rommel when talking about battle plans (the Army version of a strategy is:  “Every [strategy] is a good one, until the first shot is fired.”   This is true in business as well.   We form a plan and begin to execute it.  But instantaneously, the market shifts, competitors react to our moves and the situation us highly dynamic.   So we need to think about strategy as being a circular, not linear, process.  We learn as we go, and continue to adapt tactics and strategies in real-time.  Think – plan – do – learn – re-think . . . etc.


(Sometimes these classics are well worth re-reading.   I hope some new flashes of insight will appear for you.)

What is Strategy , from HBR by Michael Porter

Strategy Safari, by Henry Mintzberg

What Strategy Is, by Balajhi Narayanasami, Business Week

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