Monthly Archives: February 2013

Stop Wasting Your Training Budget

AMSKAccording the ASTD, we spend somewhere north of $150 billion per year training and developing our work force in the United States.  The question is – to what end?   What good is spending all this money if it doesn’t produce tangible outcomes that improve our organization or our business performance?  It’s akin to letting your valuable resources get absorbed into some big black hole from which nothing of value can escape.

Here is an example.  A highly respected global company engaged a group of senior executives in a leadership development program.  They partnered with a leading business school, and these high potential execs were exposed to a wide array of topics, business cases, and workshop sessions.  At the end, the feedback was stellar.  Everyone thought the program was of high quality, was enjoyable and participants were emphatic about the many useful things they learned.

Six months later, that same group was asked to cite tangible examples of how their business performance was “better” as a consequence of what they had learned, and applied from the course.   Not one could come up with anything specific.

Sound familiar?

Most CEO’s I speak to are cynical about whether training and development does anything useful.  The HR community some years ago (probably as a defensive move) started to talk about measuring the ROI on training and development.  (ASTD now even has a handbook on how to measure it – see below).  We can measure the cost alright, but as in the example above, assessing the benefits in a convincing way is not so easy.   So the logical action is to work on reducing the denominator of the ROI equation.  So we try to do the training in fewer days, with more people per session, or use more on-line methods.

Let’s focus instead on the NUMERATOR of the ROI equation.

We all understand the need to manage costs, but let’s put some more thought into how to improve the effectiveness of our training and development investments.  Here are some ideas I think will help.

Stop “check-the-box” training. So often, I see HR or learning professionals develop a thoughtful matrix of “leadership skills” that they feel every manager and employee should have.   By the time you get done with communications, performance appraisal techniques, understanding strengths and personality styles, business acumen topics and so forth; the list ends up being pretty long.   We put together a curriculum and begin signing up people and steering them to different courses based on their job duties.   While the selected topics all seem reasonable (even important), success doesn’t come from measuring the percentage of your workforce who has taken the courses.  Sitting in a class and having your attendance recorded does not necessarily equal learning.  It surely does not equal transformation. We need to demand more of our instructors, and our participants.

Think about BEHAVIOR objectives, rather than on learning objectives.  People in education typically start their course design process by thinking about the learning outcomes we have in mind (a list of things we want participants to know when the course is completed).   Then we decide what content we might deliver and how.  In some cases, we also think about how we would measure whether the participants actually learned what we taught.    I believe this focus is wrong.   Who cares what your people know?   We should care about what they are capable of DOING differently as a consequence of our courses.  If they can’t execute differently as a consequence of the learning, then our work isn’t done.

People don’t generally learn in a classroom.  They learn when the actually struggle to apply it in their own world.  That’s when the nuances, dichotomies and contradictions present themselves that force us to think more deeply.  We might be persuaded during a class to try to act differently in some important way.   We send you off after the workshop, you try to do it, and you run into some difficulty.  If it is too hard or too messy, you are likely to abandon the new methodology, returning instead to what you have done in the past, no matter how imperfect.

Wouldn’t a better approach be to design the course in segments spanning several days or weeks.  Give the participants time in between class sessions to experiment and learn by themselves.    Teach – Apply – Debrief – Coach – Teach More – Reapply.

We tend not to think this way because our list of topics is too long, and our budget is limited.  So we tend to favor breadth instead of deep learning.  This leads me to the next point.

Choose fewer topics, and go deeper.  I have often seen examples where companies will deliver a program spanning 13 or 20 topics over as many sessions, with none being more than a half-day or so.  In this case, we are just skimming the surface.   Imagine trying to teach a topic like strategy or persuasive communications in only three hours.   You can introduce some basic concepts – but they are not likely to sink in.   So think again about what things are really important to teach.  Be disciplined.   Offer the same 13 or 20 sessions, but only cover 2 or 3 topics.  Teach-Apply-Debrief-Coach-Reapply.   Shouldn’t we be aiming at deep understanding and behavior change, not superficial knowledge?

Apply, apply, apply.  Think about a learning process as being about 75% doing, and 25% formal learning.  I suggest to you that our conventional model is the reverse.  To really absorb the content – they need to practice it.   The most useful practice comes when they are doing it on a real work situation (not a theoretical in-class case example).   Here is what I mean.    We can teach the content behind persuasive communications in a half-day. All the right ideas will have been covered.   As an alternative, you could ask participants to prepare a 5-minute persuasive argument before coming into the class.   Have them present it live.  Record it and invite the class members to give each other feedback.  Then, teach some of the course content, and ask them to completely redo their presentations, incorporating what they were just taught.  Ask them to re-present and get the same type of feedback.   Now let’s take this idea one step further.  Only allow people into the class who have an actual persuasive presentation they need to develop for their work.  Maybe some need to design a customer sales presentation, and announcement about a new policy or procedure change, or a proposal for a new R&D project.   In this case everyone in class has a vested interest in learning – because they want their presentations to be awesome.   Allow only people into class who want to be there and who have a business need to fulfill.  This leads me to the next point.

Design training around a live business problem.   Let’s agree that when measuring the ROI from our learning dollars can be based on whether or not we made our business or organization better in some way.  One way to do this is to begin with selecting some important business issue or problem that needs to be solved.   Then choose a team whose assignment is to solve it.  Next, ask what skills, knowledge or insight gaps this team might lack – based on the problem, and then design the curriculum around those.  That is training with a real purpose.

For example, let’s resolve not to teach something like business strategy in strictly an academic setting.   Let’s teach it to a group who NEED to develop a real strategy for their team, department or function.  THEN, lets include some learning blocks on assessing the environment, building a sustainable advantage, planning execution initiatives, determining key success factors and metrics, mission alignment, and progress tracking.   All the while, the team is applying these ideas to their own relevant business situation.  Teach – Apply – Debrief – Coach – Teach – Reapply.

Using this philosophy, measuring the benefits of the learning becomes easier.  Did we solve the business problem?  Did we develop a killer strategy?  Did we develop an effective sales presentation that won some new business?

Other Resources

Learning & Performance Support Best Practices Study: Summary Report, by HSA Learning & Performance Solutions LLC

Stop Wasting Money on Training, by Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps

Are You Wasting Money on Management Training?, by Ron Ashkenas, in Forbes  Magazine

Handbook Of Measuring And Evaluating Training, by Patti Phillips and ASTD


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An Innovation Committee?

There has been a lot written lately about the decline in innovation, or R&D productivity in the US and elsewhere. 

Flattened OutLabor rates (in the US in particular) have flattened out, and are now in decline.  (see as an example, the chart labeled “Flattened out”)  The argument is that we are not bringing out new technologies at a fast enough pace to sustain the growth in wages.  Declining wages reduces consumer spending which accounts for 70%ish of total GDP.   And thus, some economists argue that technological innovation is a key driving force in overall economic vitality and growth.

Often over recent history, evolutions in core technologies (the internal combustion engine, electric power, oil and gas, transportation, cellular communications, computer technology) have propelled economic growth.  In the US for example, when our “innovation engine” was running well, we saw a blistering economic growth rate of about 2.5% per year.  Since the turn of this century, that rate has fallen to about 1%.

While R&D spending hasn’t dried up, some argue that the significance of what is being invented today is less than in the past.  The Economist reported on one study suggesting that R&D workers 60 years ago contributed about 7X more to economic growth as compared with their successors who are in our laboratories and engineering departments today.   I am not sure of all the reasons why, but I have read articles suggesting that our fixation with lowering risk is forcing shorter time horizons and companies to focus on smaller non-game changing projects that have more certain chances for commercial success.

Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley visionary, and founder of PayPal puts it this way, “[we grew up dreaming about] flying cars, instead we got 140 characters [in 73 different type fonts].”

So how do we re-kindle that spark of innovation?

Here is a website that suggests that one effective way to accelerate innovation within your organization is to form your own innovation steering committee.  The idea is to create a band of senior executive leaders to discuss how they could instill innovation across the enterprise.   This may be a good idea . . . creating the so-called “guiding coalition” that drives innovation.

I’m not so sure.

Innovation is not top-down driven.  It must become an embedded element of organizational culture.   The leader’s role is to find ways to encourage a prudent amount of risk taking, where it is ok to stumble along the way – so long as we learn from and improve upon it.

In my MBA class the other night we were talking about how sometimes organizational structures create barriers and we started considering ways of getting around them.  One student talked about her company (in this case a highly regarded organization) which created an Innovation Committee to whom all ideas for new stuff flowed.  She told of an example where she came up with an idea to promote conversion of some forms of information into electronic formats, which she believed would save space, and improve worker productivity.  So, she dutifully filled out the requisite forms and submitted them to the Innovation Committee.   “I received a polite thank you note from them”, she said, “but nothing ever happened.”

How many times do you suppose that outcome needs to happen before employees stop sending information on through channels?   Now in her case, she had the determination not to accept silence as an answer, and pursued her idea anyway, which is awesome.  But what if she wasn’t quite that stubborn?

It felt, listening to her, that the purpose of the Innovation Committee was to “protect” the organization form a potentially “bad” idea rather than encourage more and more ideas from anywhere.

Linus Pauling, Nobel prize-winning biochemist, was once asked how he came up with a good idea.  His response was that “it helps if you start with a lot of them”.   It is a simple idea that divergent thinking generating lots of ideas increases the odds of finding the good one.  It is one key premise behind innovation and creativity.

If you want your organization to be a product development engine, then it helps to start by being an idea engine.  In my mind this isn’t about what you write down on forms for submission to the Innovation Committee. Instead, you want supervisors, managers, and leaders who:

  • Create environments around them where ideas are valued, respected, and appreciated.  We can do this especially by encouraging ideas that contradict our own.  We can do this by sometimes challenging our colleagues saying “I’d like to hear more ideas, the ones we have discussed so far aren’t bold enough”.  We can do this by restraining our teams from diving into solutions before they have thoughtfully explored what the problem really is.
  • Promote “smart” risk taking.  We need to drop our belief that there is only one solution to a problem.  If someone has an idea that seems reasonable, why not let them explore it.  It might surprise you and work!   If not, there is both a learning opportunity for your team and a coaching opportunity for you to gain something from each failure we can apply in the future.
  • Are bridge builders.  We all know that gaining cooperation from other departments (silos) can be a challenge.   When this is too hard, our natural tendency is to focus on solutions that are mostly or totally within our control.   We narrow our focus, when a broad solution might be far better.  We might implement something, but it will be less likely to be game changing.  So, our job as leaders is to form alliances with counterparts in other departments who can help us. We need to be sales persons.  We need to offer to help them (building a sense of obligation that you can use later when you need to ask them for help).  Or, by reframing problems so that the solution benefits both groups, causing resistance to melt away and making the job of your team members easier.

If you decide to have an Innovation Committee, then at least ask them to focus their energies promoting the ideas we have spoken of above.   Get them to promote company-wide competitions for teams that generate the “best” ideas.    The prize might be a tangible budget for implementing them.  Have special prizes for the ones that link together people from multiple departments.  Celebrate and communicate the success stories.   Make it seem valued by the organization to find clever new ways of doing things.  Disseminate the knowledge.  Mayo Clinic’s famous Transform Conference started as an internal best-practice sharing session within the clinic.  It has grown from that to a global program where people come annually to talk and think together about how they can make health care better.  Notice also that the way they named it speaks loudly to what they think the purpose of innovation is.

Make your organization a bubbling caldron of ideas.  When you do, you won’t likely need an Innovation Committee to choose the projects. Your teams will know which ones can best help them.  Let your committee be an enabler, rather than a screener of good ideas.   There is a big difference.


Other Resources:

Innovation Almost Dead. Perhaps Not So In Electricity, by Peter Kelly-Detwiler, Forbes Magazine.

Has the ideas machine broken down?, from the Economist


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leading vs. Managing: Not Absolutes, but a Continuum

In my recent article “leading with Impact” backing away from the day-to-day, I discuss how difficult it is for many people to make the transition from being a working supervisor of a team to a mid-level manager.  What I am really talking about is the difference between leading and managing.   I hate the idea that we label people as either “leaders” or “managers” (with leaders thought of as being those with higher organizational rank).  I think it is more useful to think less about the nouns, and more about the verbs (manage and lead).   Every supervisor, team leader, department head or executive needs to do some of both. We have the day-to-day challenges that need to be controlled, directed or “managed”.  In addition, we need to think about  establishing priorities, setting a course, providing encouragement and inspiration, developing people and making hard choices, “leading”.

When I speak about the differences between leading and managing, some people have difficulty because they feel it is an either/or proposition.

It is not.  Every team is unique, and has differing levels of demonstrated ability to solve problems and make good decisions.    There are always times when the stakes are so high that any manager needs to roll up their sleeves and wade into the morass.   But when that represents 70 – 85% of what your work week, I would challenge you to step back a bit.

Autocratic vs Delegating ManagerWe need to think about leading and managing as a continuum – as illustrated above.   At the far left there is an autocratic space where the manager dominates decision making.  This is probably appropriate with newly formed teams when you haven’t yet assessed how much latitude to give them.    At the extreme right end of the scale the followers dominate, after having earned your trust, and you are comfortable with their ability to analyze situations and make judgments that are aligned with what you have defined as your main mission and priority.

As your team evolves, your work doesn’t decrease, but it does become different.  You are less needed to manage the tasks and transactional issues faced by your team.   Your energy, instead, is put into developing the relationships within it.   Your focus becomes more about caring for each of your people (coaching, teaching, mentoring, and encouraging each person in the way that they most need at any point in time.)  You become the link between them and the corporation’s grand strategy.   You are the bridge between your team and the other departments within your organization whose help you must enlist to face the challenges in front of you. You run interference, and develop relationships with all other department heads.    Because you are less tied down with the daily tasks and transactions of your department, you should have more time to look outside to see what is happening in the world of your customers, competitors and new technologies.   You probably attend more conferences and travel more than your subordinates and should be able to bring back new ideas, perspectives and ways of thinking that could help your team grow.

Yes,  it is a continuum, and few teams operate at the extreme ends of the spectrum.  They are probably somewhere in between.  But you should be asking yourself not only where on the spectrum you are today, but what are you doing to move your team towards the right?

The hard part is that you need to be willing to let go more than you would like.   You have to trust your team more, even though that can be both risky and scary.   But if you concur that moving your team toward the right side of the grid is beneficial, it may help you to take some inspiration from one of my favorite leadership thinkers, Professor Warren Bennis.

In his foundational book “On Becoming a Leader”, Warren Bennis produced a list of differences between managers and leaders.  Because I dislike those labels, I have edited some of them to be about the verbs:

  • Managing is about administration – having charge of something and directing it, Leading is about innovation – thinking always of the new, better, and improved ways, and influencing events to help the team move ahead with a spirit of excitement
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original – comfortable with who they are, and confident to blaze new trails
  • Managing helps maintain order, the status quo, pressing for efficiency; leading is about developing – people, systems – tools – processes
  • Managing is about stuff, systems and structure; leading is about people
  • Managing relies on control;  leading works through inspiring trust
  • Managing is about the here and now  (a short-range view); leading is about possibilities of what could be (a long-range perspective)
  • Managing is about how and when; leading is about what and why
  • Managing focuses attention on the bottom line; leading requires looking toward the horizon – seeing things before others, and insuring your organization executes course corrections as a result
  • Managing is about eliminating risks – it  imitates; leading accepts prudent levels of risk – it  originates
  • A managing mindset values the status quo; a leading mindset challenges it
  • Managers want to do things right;  leaders care more about doing the right things

So think about it.  Where are you on the spectrum in comparison with where you would like to be?   Now is a good time to begin doing something about it.

Other Resources:

Leading Versus Managing: Eight Key Differences. by  Marie Peeler, Peeler Associates

What’s the difference of management vs leadership?from the Leadership Toolbox

Or watch this 4 min video clip, by Dr. Brian Wong, the Bedside Trust (patient driven leadership in Health Care)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Are You Playing to Win, or to Play?

Play 2 WinEvery company I can think of has a strategy.  Some are documented more formally than others.    When I teach strategy to MBA students I would argue that it involves making specific choices about where and how we would like to compete with the sole purpose of producing a Sustainable Competitive Advantage vis-à-vis others in our market.   This means that a good strategy is one with the intention of winning.  And as in an intense football game, your game plan does not operate in a vacuum.   The opposing team is watching  your plays from the box at the top of the stadium, sending observations and insights to the sideline so that their executives can shift their play calling to exploit your new-found weaknesses.  Business competition is a dynamic event.

So here is a question for you – is your company playing to WIN or playing to play?

The challenge of course is having the courage to choose.    In my article (see other resources) on the Three-Box system describing three sets of strategic initiatives that companies should consider, one of the “boxes” is about addressing what programs, projects,  departments, divisions, or businesses to close, drop, or exit.   This should be as natural a part of corporate life as pruning is to a garden (something my wife has taught me).  Pruning away the unproductive or ineffective things frees up resources that can be deployed in other areas of the business that can yield better and healthier growth.

Steve Jobs had a phrase.  He called it being willing to “knife the baby”.   The imagery surrounding that phrase is so unpleasantly evocative, it’s no wonder people don’t want to do it.

So these choices are hard.  Executives can get pretty feisty defending their own “turf”, whether motivated by a genuine concern for people, or a thirst for power and responsibility.  Either way a CEO wanting to clear out the withering vines most assuredly faces strong head winds.

Many just don’t quite “get it”.

I am struck by the number of companies I see who really don’t do strategic planning at all.  What they do is planning, including building budgets and possibly deciding on what items to hold different executives accountable for.  There isn’t much strategic about it.   Many don’t see a reason to be strategic.   If you have a successful product, the market is growing and sales and profits are good; everything seems OK so “don’t fix what ain’t broke”.

The problem is, your success is likely to attract worthy competitors.  (Just ask Apple what they think about Androids.)  The next thing you know, your market share is being eroded and you’re your ink turns from black to red in the blink of an eye.   In addition, the market is subject to continuing evolution due to new technology, economic, political and social trends.    Strategy must be continually adapted to the things that today seem only specs on the distant horizon.  Time is not your friend, and there is no such thing as status quo.  You are either getting better or worse.  There is no staying the same.

Even when companies try, they don’t often get it right.   Steve Tobak’s article (see Other Resources) he criticizes Yahoo for having no sense of strategy.   In their case, they even hired a prestigious management consulting company to assess the situation.   The outcome was that the company announced it was restructuring and laying off 2,000 people.  Sure, that will bring another $200 million to the bottom line, but is that a strategy?   No, argues Tobak, strategy must be a clearly articulated plan to defeat Google, Bing, and AOL who are increasingly dominating their industry.

Even if you get the strategy right, that is not enough.

In his book Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution and Change, professor Lawrence Hrebiniak points out that while we may be able to graduate generations of smart MBA’s who can formulate interesting strategies, they don’t always succeed in the marketplace as a result of weak execution.   Some of the common missteps include:

Shifting Focus:   HP’s Carly Fiorina tries to shift the company direction by moving into services buying Lotus, and then trying unsuccessfully to buy PricewaterhouseCoopers to launch a consultancy.  In the end, she ends up buying Compaq and leads the organization on an aggressive struggle to cut costs.  In the end, she loses her job while on the search of the synergies that didn’t materialize fast enough for her Board.  (One minute, we are talking about differentiation based on superior development of services, and the next minute we are trying to play the high volume/low-cost game.   The organization doesn’t know which way to turn.)

Poor Alignment with Core Strengths and Culture:  United Airlines once launched TED, a subsidiary intended to compete with low-cost innovator (Southwest Airlines).   However United did not have a culture or set of relationships with its unions that permitted the kinds of flexible work habits used by SWA, and their intended productivity never materialized.  They also kept most of the legacy infrastructures in maintenance, scheduling, airport gates, reservations, etc. used by the mother company.  They never came close to Southwest’s cost structure and the initiative was soon abandoned.

Poor Communication:  Strategies that are hatched in the C-suite may be thoughtful, but getting the entire organization to get it is challenging.    Hrebniak says when he is hired as a consultant, he often will travel down 4 or 5 levels in the company to ask people how things are going only to learn that no one even KNOWS that a new strategy has been initiated.   A colleague of mine, Guy Hocker (former Senior VP of Strategic Initiatives for JetBlue) says that people who sat in the room for six months debating and creating the strategy may understand it, but those who were on the outside seldom appreciate the justification for it, the context within which it was created, the assumptions upon which it was based, or the key success factors to make it work.   The senior people try to explain it, but they might as well be speaking Klingon.    (The winning approach is to involve a wide swath of the organization in creating the strategy in the first place).

Lack of Clarity in the Business model:   In the C-suite we might conclude that to defeat our competitor (say Dell – who has a low-cost model), we want to compete based on superior technology (something Dell is not well equipped to provide by itself).   At the 50,000 foot level, that sounds right.   But It isn’t nearly enough to guide what the rest of the organization must do to make this strategy succeed.  We need to define What technology(ies)?   What customer segments we are developing new technology for?   How will we measure our success (Metrics)?   How much money we are willing to invest in this initiative above what we must spend on sales, marketing, IT and so forth?  What new people skills we may need to develop the products we need?    Until these pieces are defined, we don’t have an executable strategy.

Other Resources:

Do you really have a strategy? Here’s what P&G’s A.G. Lafley thinks, by James Ritchie, the Cincinnati Business Courier

Three-box system: Balancing Break-through Innovation with the short term, by Len Brzozowski

Why most business strategies fail, by Steve Tobak, CBS Moneywatch

Three Reasons Why Good Strategies Fail: Execution, Execution…, by  Lawrence G. Hrebiniak, Knowledge@wharton

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leading with Impact: Backing Away from the Day-to-Day

Talent Survey graphic

Look at the chart on the left.  It is based in a survey I ran on our website asking one simple question.   Do the numbers surprise you?   70% of people responded that they are called on to use “less than half” of what they are capable of, or say that their boss doesn’t “know how to use me”.

This seems like bad news.   Although the GOOD news is that there is a tremendous amount of untapped potential in many of our organizations that exists right under our very noses.

So why aren’t we tapping into it?

In one leadership workshop I facilitate, I often get to work with highly motivated, “high potential” middle managers.   A purpose of the program is to get them to consider their leadership style in the context of what helps produce the best output from their team members.

My observation is that often times high potential managers who are career driven, can act in ways that are self-limiting without realizing it.  They sort of fall into a trap that catches most of us (certainly it caught me during the earlier phase of my career.)

Here is the trap.

High potential middle managers are generally pretty talented.  They got where they are today because of that fact.   They are good problem solvers, comfortable with making decisions and generally possess strong technical skills related to the team, department or division they are charged with running.

They are good.  In fact, they are better than most who surround them.   They not only know it, but TAKE A GREAT DEAL OF PERSONAL PRIDE in it.  These are people who believe they add value to the business by being such effective problem solvers and decision makers.

Now take people like this, and put them in an environment where they are responsible for the performance of a unit.  People are watching the department’s output, and it is clear that the accountability for success ultimately rests on the shoulders of the department head.   This is a formula that promotes micro-managing (even when you don’t see yourself that way.)   People like this often feel that they can solve the problems better and faster than their subordinates, and it is easier and more expedient for them to do so.   In addition, they often talk during this workshop about the fact they can’t see taking the risk to delegate and empower more because failure can have career limiting consequences.

For me, one of the most difficult things to do was to let my subordinates try something their way when I was convinced my idea would likely produce a better outcome.   I always rationalized this by telling myself that the mission was paramount.

This attitude is based on a fallacy.

I have had some program participants tell me that they solve problems every day and often avoid some crisis because of their intervention in the work going on in their departments.   Well that is probably true.   So the fallacy is that if you had not solved that particular problem then a crisis would have certainly occurred.   This is not always true.  Would the problem have remained unsolved, or would someone else have “stepped up” when it was essential, dealing with the situation in a reasonable manner?

I had the pleasure to spend some time learning Marine Corps leadership at Officer Candidate School at Quantico.   One of the Marine officers put it to me this way.  “In battle, any officer may fall at a crucial moment.  I have never seen a case where, when this happened, that someone, some lower ranking Marine, did not step up and lead.  In fact, sometimes it is the person you would not have expected.”

Often I will ask the program participants at this point, what would happen in your company if we were all on a cruise right now and out of cell phone range?  Would they send home all the employees and stop taking orders because you weren’t there to tell people what to do?  No, of course not.   They would make the best decision they could under the circumstances, and either it would have worked or not.   If it worked, then it is worthy of acknowledgement.  If it didn’t, you may have some damage control to do when the boat returns to port, but even in that case, this represents a LEARNING opportunity for your team, and a COACHING opportunity for you.  If you hired good people, they will learn from the experience and be stronger for it.    Helping coach your team to learn from past experiences – isn’t that more what your MAIN job should be?

Three elements of your role.

When your team is small (say 3-5 people) everyone, including you, needs to be involved in the transactions that are the responsibility of your team.    You are more a working supervisor than a manager.   But as the organization grows in size and complexity, your role also needs to grow.   The trouble is – it seems hard to make this transition when you began as a working supervisor.   How do you let go?  When is the time right?  How do you become a manager?  Most of us accomplish this by putting in extra hours.    We have to attend meetings, file reports, do performance appraisals and develop budgets and other managerial stuff.  So, we work 42 hours, then 45, then 50 until we finally reach the point where we can’t stretch ourselves any further.  At that point, we need a new bag of tricks.  (It is a common complaint among the middle managers I encounter, that they are overworked and not managing their own work-life balance very well.)

Your job must become less about solving your people’s problems for them, and more about helping define the new problems that you want them to solve (hopefully aligned with company strategy and to the important objectives you have).    Your role must evolve to where these three things represent the principal part of your “day job”.   These are:

  • Set the Agenda – defining a purpose and direction for your team – call it mission and strategy if you wish but you need to assure everyone understands what you are trying to accomplish so that they can see how their role fits into it
  • Build the Team – hiring better, developing, training, coaching, and (the hardest part) dealing with the people who shouldn’t be there
  • Define and Create the Culture – Everyone acknowledges that we are all influenced by the culture within our organization, and it is a more powerful force than most rules, policies, or formal procedures.  So why leave culture to chance?  Be deliberate to create the environment that biases your people in a direction consistent with what you are trying to accomplish.

Think about it.  Wouldn’t everything in your world get better if you did those three things just a little better?    So, help make sure your people understand what you want to accomplish (ideally considering their ideas and input).   Get rid of the 10% of your workforce that should not have been hired in the first place, and help the others learn and grow.   Create an environment that makes it easier to do the “right” things.

Everything will get better.

So why wait?

When I present this model in class, most middle managers will say it seems logical.   However most can’t see themselves moving towards it today because the performance pressure is too intense. They feel if they back away from the daily challenges to work on the other things, then performance will suffer and then who knows what evil will ensue?

This, of course, is a delusion.  The longer you wait to start making the transition, the more you are retarding the ability of your team to learn and grow.   You also will be missing out on the opportunity to really get the best out of your people.



Filed under Uncategorized

Project Management: Are we Solving the Right Problems?

Wrong way

I have met many project managers who approach their roles with dedication, thoughtfulness, and considerable diligence.  The body of knowledge in the PM field is growing, aided by the efforts of such groups as the Project Management Institute.  Rigorous certification programs are offered around the world, and many motivated people have pursued learning the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

Yet, in spite of all this effort, the evidence shows that we are not getting better at managing projects in our organizations.

Depending on the study you look at, between 37% and 68% of projects (in the IT field) are judged to be “failures” in that they did not meet expected outcomes (70% or lower completion of objectives), ran seriously over budget (by 160% or more), or blew past their timeline goals by a wide margin (180% or more).   The data for ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and BI (Business Intelligence) projects is even worse.

So, what are we missing?

As you read through the analytical studies, a theme begins to emerge.  One researcher ascribes the shortcomings to our inability to analyze the business problems we choose to solve.   The IAG Consulting study referenced below explains the consequence in this way:  “Companies with poor business analysis capability will have three times as many project failures as successes.”

The PM solutions report referenced below asserts that the leading causes of project failures have to do with:

  • Resources: Lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of key resources, poor planning.
  • Schedules: Too tight, unrealistic, overly optimistic.
  • Planning: Based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, poor estimates.
  • Risks: Unidentified or assumed, not managed.

But like the IAG people  they concluded that the NUMBER ONE cause of project failures is related to:

Requirements: Unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise.

What makes matters worse is that even if the project is technically successful, too often it was just not worth the effort.   Who cares if we meet the requirements and meet our timeline and budget if the outcome did not materially impact our business?   Now if I reflect on my own personal experiences, I can recall numerous projects where we actually delivered on what our documented requirements were only to have the client (whether internal or external) say “well. . . thank you but this isn’t what I was imagining”, or “could you change it to do this or that instead”?   Who among us hasn’t been to that movie?   In fact I can recall a meeting with one of my past clients where we were discussing the question of requirements definition and the Senior VP of IT stood up and said to his people “if at the end the client is not happy, you just show them the requirements list!”   Yikes!  Really?  Let’s rub their face in it?  How did we degenerate into that kind of defensive action where the requirements list becomes little more than a “CYA” tool?

What was interesting to me about this example was that the executive I am describing was highly intelligent and worked for a well-regarded and quite sophisticated company.   But he was operating in a political climate where other operating executives were criticizing his team for their lack of responsiveness and effectiveness.  We are all a product of our organizational culture.

When you spoke to the project managers in that company, they, of course would describe how difficult it was to get clients to sit down and focus in a meaningful discussion about what they needed.

Why is this so hard?

I believe this is because we often ask the wrong questions.   When you sit down and ask someone what they want, they often can’t tell you.  If you show them some type of prototype, they can typically tell you what they like or dislike, but not everyone has a good imagination.   We are limited in our ability to articulate requirements because of our limited life experiences and our knowledge of what might be possible technologically.   It is hard for me to imagine something I have never seen or experienced.  This is why focus groups have gone out of fashion, as market researchers across the planet look for better ways to understand their customers.  The game is more about understanding what customers think and feel, instead of relying solely on what they say.

A BETTER line of questioning has nothing to do with requirements, but with what PROBLEMS I am trying to cope with as I conduct my job?  Let your customer service people express:

“I don’t have the information to answer customer phone questions about delivery status”; or “I feel if I had access to information about our products and pricing, I think I could sell the caller on different products or services.  Sometimes they order the wrong things”; or “we are way too slow in responding to requests for emergency service”.   Then, let your inventive technical people try to imagine how they might help with those things.  Once they have some ideas, they can share them with their client to test the viability.   Speak to them within the context of THEIR world, not yours.

creative problem solving frameworkThe Creative Problem Solving Process is one way I know to do a better job with the challenge of problem definition.  It uses an 8-step sequence of actions.   The orange section (steps 1-3) is all about understanding the problem(s) more deeply, and then choosing the most relevant ones to solve.   The yellow section (steps 5 and 6) is about generating solution ideas and choosing the best ones.  The green section (steps 6-8) is about execution planning. 

The main (and often surprising) insight is that the first three steps (1-3) consume as much as 50-60% of the time in the process! The discovery part of this section does not come from an interrogation of clients to solicit a list of requirements, but from the art of empathetic observation.    Here we are trying to go beneath the layer of superficial knowledge to gain a deeper insight into client emotions, biases, and motivations.

Too often we reject this notion because we allow ourselves to be trapped in a paradigm where we need to take immediate action, producing solutions – so that we are efficient.  I’m all for efficiency, but efficiently solving the wrong problem is not helping anyone.

Sometimes it pays to slow down.  Slower, often can be faster . . . and better.

Other Resources

Poor requirements definition is the number one reason for poor outcomes. (you can tell this article was written by a person with traditional PM training.) Why 37% of Projects Fail?

And another — which reinforces the issue that we aren’t solving the right problems (and are generally poor at defining requirements) Study: 68 percent of IT projects fail

And this one — argues that we haven’t improved at all in the last decade (in spite of the energy put into better PM skills) 62 percent of IT projects fail. Why?

Source Data from IAG Consulting, their Business Analysis Benchmark

Source Data from PM Solutions Study

A reasonable primer on “Why Do Projects Fail?: Learning How to Avoid Project Failure”

More details on the idea that sometimes slow is fast. Slowing Down to Move Fast, by Len Brzozowski

Innovation management vs. project management thinking, Design thinking: A new approach to fight complexity and failure

More on market and client intelligence gathering. Driving Innovative Strategy Through Empathetic Observation, by Len Brzozowski


Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation, Managing Teams, Strategy

Running the Gauntlet for Innovation


If you Google the phrase “Boeing Stock Price and the 787”, you will find 1.7 million references.  Now I would have to say that I did not review every one, but all of the references on the first three pages were negative and critical of the company, its leaders, or the product.  Several bordered on being “alarmist”.


As reported in the article by Brad Stone and Susanna Ray, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s carbon-fiber body and new electrical system give it a reduced weight, which allows it to burn 20 percent less fuel than the 767 midsize airplanes it’s meant to replace. The interior cabin features cathedral-like archways to reduce the sense of claustrophobia and enlarged windows that dim at the touch of a button. Because of the new, stronger composite materials, the cabin can also be maintained at higher pressure and humidity, so travelers feel fresher at landing.   A remarkable piece of technology.  But this apparently isn’t what we like to read about. 


B787 InteriorAfter a battery caught fire after landing in Boston, and another one triggered a fault on a plane bound for Tokyo, the FAA grounded the entire fleet, casing Boeing and their customers some serious heartache.


The behavior by regulators, reactions by Wall Street analysts, and reporting by the world press just makes it that much easier to see how today’s CEO’s should act with more reserve, be less tolerant of risk, and more inclined to narrower visions.   There are considerable forces that seem to conspire to punish those who push the envelope.


I was thinking about Boeing this week after making a stop at Sarasota International Airport where the organization Freedom Flight landed three beautiful WWII bombers and fighters so that people like me could walk through them.  Events like this also brought out a number of veterans, many former pilots during that war, who were there with their hats on – pictures in hand – proud to tell their stories to the people they met.


I had the extreme pleasure to be standing in line with one of these veterans.  When he was 18 years old he was stationed in the Pacific as a part of the ground crew responsible for patching up the bombers after they returned from a mission – shot up, broken and limping.   He told me how excited they were in 1942 to receive the first of the new B29 Super fortresses from Boeing.  They were bigger, carried heavier bomb loads, were more heavily armed and flew farther than the B24’s, and B17’s they  were built to replace.


On one Sunday, he recalled vividly, we were all awakened at 0300 hours (that’s early) because of a crisis.    On one of the early missions, the hydraulic lines were found to be freezing so that the bombers could not retract their bomb-bay doors.  If you were ever a bomber pilot, you know how serious a problem this could be.   It turns out that Boeing had not anticipated that our pilots would fly these planes routinely at such high altitudes (which I imagine we all would do to avoid enemy anti-aircraft fire).   In the days when the cabins were not insulated or pressurized, the temperatures could drop below freezing pretty fast.


B17The maintenance crews worked around the clock to convert the hydraulic actuators to electrical ones far more impervious to the cold.  In this case, while the oversight by the aircraft engineers was serious, the attention of everyone was on “how to fix it” and move on.  That was the environment.


I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that was not the only engineering SNAFU to have happened on the various new versions of planes that were introduced during the Second World War.   Each one was introduced as an improvement on the ones that came before.   We always sought to learn from our prior air combat experiences and bombing runs so that we could innovate and improve on prior models.  In this way we steadily came to fly higher, faster, farther, and safer than ever before.


One thing is true about innovation.  Whenever you try something that you never have before, things do not always work as planned.  Innovation has risk, and without the acceptance of some risk, no innovation is likely.   Yes, we made mistakes, but we learned from them, quickly.   We fixed the defects and built onward from there.


In today’s world where we report on your mistakes, globally, within minutes, it is no wonder that CEO’s and their Boards get skittish.  This was especially so in 2003 for Boeing when the Dreamliner project was born.  The company had just been eclipsed by Airbus as the largest airplane manufacturer on the planet. After the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, airlines were reluctant to make massive new investments in airplanes.  So perhaps while Boeings execs and their Board needed something big, they couldn’t stomach the risks associated with such a massive undertaking.  If they stumbled, so too would their stock price.


So, in addition to all the exciting new technologies introduced on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the company also conducted a bold experiment with regard to its business model.  Designing and introducing a new generation airliner is a big task, costing billions of dollars.   To reduce their own risk, Boeing decided to partner with key external suppliers who would be asked to take responsibility for large subsections of the plane which could be built by them and then shipped to Everett, Washington for final assembly.   The suppliers took on a share of the overall project risk and in return were entitled to a share of the net profits.   In total, Boeing outsourced about 70% of the components and systems comprising the Dreamliner – something never before attempted.


Coordinating the manufacture of the more than 6 million parts was no small task even if it is all happening in your own back yard.  Doing so on a global scale proved massively challenging.   Coordinating design and manufacturing in this way proved extremely complex and the project was fraught with cost overruns, technical problems, and delays.


To many this whole story is symptomatic of a larger problem – – how to create innovation in mature economies – as most Western ones are.  Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is one who has seen it coming.    In the Stone and Ray article, he is quoted as saying “There is so much incrementalism now. Even back in the ’90s there were companies like Amazon (AMZN) that were willing to do big things. That has gone out of fashion now.” Thiel points to SpaceX and the electric car company Tesla Motors (TSLA), both run by Elon Musk, as the rare examples of recent attempts to leap forward boldly. Yet Musk often gets portrayed as a quixotic dreamer. “I think this reflects the insanity of our country, that anything non-incremental is seen as insane,” Thiel says.


.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


This situation at Boeing in 2013 all seems far removed (both physically and philosophically) from the bases in the Mariana Islands in 1943 where my veteran colleague spent his later teen age years fixing what needed to be fixed in order that we could do what needed to be done.   It didn’t matter who was to blame, only what needed to be done to fix it.  Too bad we are forgetting where we came from.


Leading into the headwind


Standing up against the kind of public pressure faced by Boeing can be a challenge, but research is now revealing that innovative companies are typically led by innovative CEO’s (see the reference article by Hal Gregersen).  These are people who have the courage to ignore the noise and act in a hands-on way that demonstrates to their organization that bold ideas are indeed welcomed and anticipated.


Innovative CEO’s are innovation researchers. They read, go to TED conferences, visit supplier and competitor companies and venture out into the front lines where customers and employees live.  They ask provocative questions, and are always making surprising observations.  They network with other creative thinkers who think it is fun to speculate about the future.  They encourage idea generators inside their own businesses.  They encourage experimentation and are genuinely excited to learn the outcomes.


Maybe Elon Musk is a California nut-job dreamer.  But without people like him, would we ever take steps forward?


Do you want to be an innovator CEO?


First, stop talking—start doing. Pick a problem that matters to you. Start asking better questions about it. Make surprising observations, build on the ideas of others, build prototypes and see if you can make them work.  Get your hands dirty in invention.


You just might surprise yourself by how far your organization can go.


Other Resources:


Stanford Study Finds Going Public Hurts Innovation,by  Bernhard Warner on January 17, 2013,


Closing the Great Innovation Gap, by Hal Gregersen on June 06, 2012,


Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Decline of Innovation, by Brad Stone and Susanna Ray on January 24, 2013,


Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation, Leading, Strategy