Tag Archives: Leading change

Leading Sustainable Change: Top Down or Bottom-Up?

bottom upI was meeting with a VP in a large, well-regarded, health care organization this past week.  The company has 36 facilities spread over 21 states.  He was in charge of something called patient safety (meaning working to reduce the number of incidents throughout the system where patients could be harmed due to an error or oversight).   This mission has to do with developing and improving quality systems, changing culture, and changing processes.

As seems logical, the company created a system wide committee to study this problem and then develop a national “solution” to it.  They were already anticipating the need for a change acceleration process to overcome expected resistance to change when moving to roll out the “answer”.

Now I am sure that the people on this task force are highly competent, dedicated, and knowledgeable.  Let’s also assume that after they complete their data collection, assessment, and internal discussions, that they would come up with an awesome solution to the problem.   The next question is whether or not they can successfully execute (implement) the solution across the entire network?

I have my doubts.

There is no question that people have been successful with both top-down and bottom-driven strategies for implementing change.   There are certainly pros and cons, but I believe there are some strategies that help sustainability.

The problem.  

Here is a basic problem with the top-down method.   You take a group of smart people who comprise the “task force”.   They spend 2, 4 or 6 months together, researching, collecting data, sharing, discussing, debating, developing, improving, and summarizing a set of ideas.   By the time they are done, they have completed a masterpiece.  They now have a brilliant strategy that was well thought through, and logical.     Every word in their final report has deep meaning to all the task force members who labored so hard to produce it.   It resonates with them, because they shared the context for the exercise, they learned together, they know why they made certain choices, and not others, and why several good ideas were abandoned along the way in favor of others.

When we roll out the solution to the masses, they will often fail to comprehend, believe in, and support the proposed solution to the same degree as those who championed it.   Implementation enthusiasm is lower than desired, and people will “bend” the execution rules in ways that suit them.

You see, the most important benefit of a problem solving (or strategic planning) effort is the process itself.  By working together, the team gradually leaves behind their own individual biases, forming instead a new solution based on their newly formed common understandings and insights.

People support more fully that which they had a hand in shaping.    

One change leadership premise I now hold (though didn’t always practice) is that people will execute with far more passion and commitment ideas when they feel are their own.  In fact, I have observed many cases where even mediocre ideas were successfully executed when the people responsible WANTED to make it work.  Don’t discount passion and will power.   They can often trump intellect.

Re-think what needs central control.

I know it is logical to think there are some large system-wide issues that need to solved on a global basis.   I think it is worth challenging your assumptions about what really needs to be done so in a centralized fashion.   IT and business systems problems may be one example where central decision-making makes sense because the cost of maintaining 36 independent accounting or server systems may be prohibitive.   But what about the topic of patient safety?

Why should we conclude there is only one “right” answer to that problem?   It seems to me our job as executives is to decide whether or not an issue like patient safety is important enough to be on the top of someone’s priority list.   Senior leaders can decide that this matters, and needs to be solved.   But why not allow the people in each location to decide on what is the best way?   You might find that some units were far better, more creative, and more innovative in their solutions.  In fact, one of your local teams might have discovered some ideas that even your blue-ribbon task force would not have thought of.

As people start to attack the problem, why not simply provide a vehicle for success sharing among the units.  This could be done electronically by some internal company blog, a shared electronic “knowledge base” or by some system-wide conference where we bring together people to share their unique solutions, and to recognize the units with the best performance improvements or most innovative solutions.  From there, everyone can learn from each other and bring back new ideas to apply.

Solutions need to be aligned with local cultures.  

Most MBA and executive groups I have taught would agree that culture is a big deal.  In fact, culture drives behavior even more than do directives, policies or procedures.   So for solutions to work, they must be compatible with local behaviors and attitudes.   In one hospital, physicians may have a tradition of being in command of everything, and a top-down autocratic approach may work there.   In a different hospital, there may more of a collaborative tradition, so having nurses and administrative staff involved in different aspects of decision-making may be perfectly natural.   Imposing one solution on the other group would be an up-hill fight.

I learned this lesson in my business trying to harmonize design approaches between R&D centers in Michigan, Germany, and Japan.   I imagined great synergies, a single global design, and lots of efficiency and quality improvements.  The problem was that the cultural differences were too great among the three design teams.  They all had very different definitions about what QUALITY was, and about what constituted an elegant design.   The Japanese, for example valued simple, compact, and inexpensive solutions.   The Germans, on the other hand valued high technology, and robustness.   Getting them to think alike was nigh on impossible.  And, I was wrong for thinking they should.   Their different views were driven by the fact that their local customer bases also shared different philosophies which is what drove the design thinking in our various research centers.  Making them standardize would not have served our customers.

In the end, we did find some value in sharing ideas, but each team knew best their home situation and constraints.  They needed the freedom to adapt ideas to fit their local situation.

And so. . .

It is sometimes nice to be asked to join the global task force to solve the big problem for the organization.  But a strategy of informing and enabling local solutions can sometimes yield the best results.

Other resources:

Driving Top Down Change from the Bottom Up, by Kristen Etheredge and Damon Beyer, AT Kearney.

Combining top-down and bottom-up change management strategies in implementation of ACP: the My Wishes program in South West Sydney, Australia;  by C Shanley1, L Johnston2 and  A Walker, BMJ Supportive and Palliative care.

Advantages and disadvantages of the top-down and bottom-up implementation approaches , IBM white paper.

Implementing Scrum: Top Down and Bottom Up Approach Part 1 and Part 2, by Sean Mchugh, the Agile Zone

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Learning to Look at the World Through New Lenses

Virtually everyone I speak with says that their organizations would be better off if they were more adaptable, agile and comfortable with change and innovative.  Fair enough.

Most of us can also give a long list of reasons why these aspirations are so hard to accomplish: “Management doesn’t support us”; “Other departments don’t collaborate with us”; “We have meetings, but seldom find solutions upon which we can all agree”; and so forth.  In all my years of engaging people with this conversation I have yet to have someone explain that THEY were the problem.  That THEY were the one that was closed-minded, unwilling to compromise or to see things objectively.

It is vastly easier for us to lay the blame everywhere but at our own doorstep.

Now I wouldn’t suggest that all the impediments you may see to organizational change are probably real, may I suggest that the best place to start this struggle is with yourself.  You have complete control over yourself.  And, how on earth can you expect everyone else around you to change, if you are not capable of your own personal transformation.

Why We ARE the Problem.

Before trying to suggest solutions, let’s look first at what’s standing in the way.   For many of us who have been at our jobs for some time, we have a lot of experience, technical expertise and knowledge.  We are reasonably intelligent and have made plenty of  mistakes from which we have learned.  As a consequence of all that, we come to think of ourselves as “experts” . . . and we rightly should.


As a consequence of our experiences, we have learned many facts, seen a lot with our own eyes, formed thoughtful opinions, developed strong ideas about how the world works and developed complex mental models of predicted cause-and-effect for almost any new situation that arises.   Having these mental skills is vital to our survival in life.   But, therein lays the trap.

If you think about it, all of these mental models, opinions, beliefs and attitudes were formed from our accumulated life experiences.  These were all formed by looking backward . . . in space . . . and in time.   So picture yourself on the end of a caboose on a fast-moving train.  You are watching the scenery recede from your view, and you’re being asked to guess what it will look like out in front of the train! I am not saying there is no value in learning from the past, but surely the past is not necessarily a good predictor of the future state of anything in a dynamic, ever-changing world.

There is a ZEN concept related to conceptualization.    Conceptualization is the process by which we collect information from our senses (the raw data) and transform it into ideas.    Zen masters caution their students to recognize that our delusions become evident whenever we try to think, because the raw data can be perceived in many different ways.  Our existing karma (accumulated life experience that is returned to us), prejudices, beliefs and feelings filter the data and can often cause us to have incorrect perceptions.

So how do we get ourselves from this proverbial caboose to be up on top of the engine, standing on tippy-toes looking forward through high-powered binoculars into the future?

Looking at Things Like A Child Does

In response to this, it is helpful to develop the mindset that allows you to look at things, even familiar things, like people and situations, as if you were looking at them for the very first time.   In this way, you are suspending all you believe or think about it–all your preconceived notions–and focusing instead on finding new insights and things you may not have noticed before.   In this way you may generate new insights that improve your understanding.

Have you ever watched an infant or toddler play and interact with their world?  This bears some observation on all our parts.  Watch them play almost oblivious to our presence.   Try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling as they play, experiment, fail and try again at the myriad of tasks before them.   Such a child does not understand ego, does not yet have an “attitude,” is free from pride, arrogance and sureness.   Everything in their world is freshly seen and encountered as the Zen masters suggest.

This is the state of learning and growth we all could use more of even as (ESPECIALLY AS) we become cynical adults, who can be jaded and certain about so much.

Your natural tendency will be to return to all your long-held beliefs and attitudes, but if you can bring even some of your fresh new insights forward, you just might be marginally more open to new ideas.

This is not impossible to achieve, but it is perhaps a decidedly eastern way of thinking and being, which is practiced in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Tips from the ZEN Masters

There is a great reference below from Dr. Natalie Masson suggesting a list of 10 principles to become more Zen-like.  Here are some of my favorites.

1)      Present-moment focus – The mind can focus in so many directions:  past, present and future.   It is so powerful to be willing to suspend all you think you know from your past and focus instead – choosing to prioritize your awareness on that which is right in front of you.

2)      Non-judgment – To survive we learn how to take in new information, associate it with past experiences in our memory banks and then assign a label to it like dangerous, good, bad, right or wrong.   It is healthier, I think, to suspend judgment for a moment and simply observe your facts and situation reflecting on the sensations or thoughts without evaluating them.  You can form opinions later, after you have taken it all in, and milked from each situation the richness of insights and learning.

3)      Validation – Whatever we experience internally is valid. Period!   (Great advice for people in marriages, by the way). It is often unproductive to try to understand the reason or logic behind the experience.  Accept it as it is, and build on it.

4)      Tolerance – Our natural reaction when we experience something we don’t like (whether an experience or someone else’s ideas) is to reject or avoid them.    Try instead to tune in, not block out what’s going on and you just might find yourself becoming more tolerant for things you disagree with.

5)      Patience – Change, learning and growth are sometimes messy.   Sometimes when it seems too hard when trying to learn new things we retreat backwards toward our tried and true ways of thinking and acting.   We can generally benefit if we didn’t give up so easily.

Other Related Materials

Seeing Things Through a Child’s Eyes

Seeing the World Through a Child’s Eye  by Maria Bailey

10 Zen Principles to Help You Live Better (a tongue-in-cheek tome based on Zen Master – Yogi Berra), by Wayne C. Allen

Ten Principles for Cultivating Peace of Mind and Body, by Dr. Natalie Masson

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Why Is Change So Hard?

There is an old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  By that definition alone, it’s safe to assume the entire human race is a little bit crazy.  Let’s face it, human beings are pretty adept at falling into patterns of behavior that prevent them from authentic or meaningful change. How many people do you know whose behaviors or habits prevent them from changing—or in other words, prevent them from achieving different results? How about you? Is there something you or your organization seems to keep doing—because it can’t seem to change its behavior, habits, or actions?  Doesn’t it seem a little crazy not to change? If it does, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. Why? Because, change is hard. In fact, we humans have an excuse. We’re biologically conditioned to resist change, or more aptly, to resist being changed.  But, it is possible to change—if you have the tools, knowledge, incentive, and drive to do so.

The Science Behind Change

First we must understand why personal change is just so difficult in the first place. According to brain researcher and author of Personality, Decision, and Behavior, Gerhard Roth of the University of Bremen in Germany, “The brain is always trying to automate things and to create habits, which it imbues with feelings of pleasure. Holding to the tried and true gives us a feeling of security, safety, and competence while at the same time reducing our fear of the future and of failure.”[i] Seems to make sense doesn’t it? Habits make us feel secure, safe, and competent. If we feel this way, we are less likely to fail, to mess up, to challenge ourselves or others. Who doesn’t want to feel comfortable? Who wants to fail? Not many us.

However, that’s precisely what we need to do.

Sometimes we get too comfortable. We stay on safe ground, because we don’t know what to expect around the next corner or over the horizon. But, what if around that corner there was a chance for greater success, better opportunities, and more promising possibilities—whether it’s higher profits, innovative systems or products, or just greater influence?  Or what if by not changing we actually risk harming ourselves or our organization? Failing to see over the horizon or at least be willing to peek around that corner can leave our businesses on shaky ground, if not completely obsolete.

For example, look what happens if we fail to change quickly enough? Sometimes another an innovative entrepreneur may emerge who really changes the landscape. Remember the time (before Howard Schultz) when someone told us that we’d eventually be paying $2 for a cup of coffee? Seemed crazy then, right? Today, we have trouble buying a Starbucks coffee with just $2 in our pocket. When McDonald’s first came on the scene, many were skeptical as well. “Fast food? Why would anyone want fast food? What about good food?” Eventually people caught on. As the industry changed, people’s desires and expectations changed, too. Amazing, right?

So where do we begin? With ourselves, of course. How many of us have daily habits that harm us as individuals, whether it is lack of sleep and exercise or too much food and television? Imagine if we could just stop one of those habits and replace it with new a one that could drive change—and achieve better results? (Like reading instead of watching television or exercising first thing in the morning and going to bed earlier instead of maintaining irregular sleep.)

Now what if we changed the way we worked as an organization? What if we could reimagine our strategy or mission?  Our management style? Our products and systems? We’ll never know if we don’t change course, take a new route, and see what’s around that corner.

Some Tips for How to Implement and Drive Change

Okay, so we already know change is hard, and we also know it’s good for us. So just when and how do we implement change? Here are eight steps to making meaningful and sustainable change:

Step 1: Think about the main threats to your organization. Your environment is constantly shifting. Technology, social trends, global economic forces, customer needs, and other environmental factors are in constant flux. Failing to react to these (when your competitors are) can be life threatening for your business. So start by making a list of drivers—some of which are making things worse, and others are likely to become more important over time.

Step 2: Look outside your organization. The biggest mistake we all make is to assume we know what matters. We are, after all experts in our business. It is healthier to think about your knowledge as being flawed, and based on past experiences. Accept that the future will not necessarily be like the past, so we must always challenge our ways of thinking and how we see the world. Go out into it with fresh eyes. Talk to a customer. Visit a competitor (or do research on them). Visit other companies (even outside your industry) who are really good at something you feel could be strategically important to you (like quality, innovation, cost improvement, or customer service). Talk about what you learned. Talk about why you can’t be more like Google, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Virgin Atlantic or whomever you admire.

Step 3: Develop your Change Agenda. Make a list of change imperatives for your organization based on what you learned from steps 1 and 2. Put them in priority order. Rank them in terms of how important they are and also on how hard they will be. Select the impactful, easy ones first–win often and celebrate your victories along the way.

Step 4: Plan for the Change. Change initiatives take time and resources. A common misstep is to push your change agenda without providing the money, time, and other resources your team needs to do it well. This can become frustrating and even demoralizing. In some cases, it may be best to realign your priorities delaying other programs in favor of these.

Step 5: Identify obstacles.  Then decide which ones are real or imagined, which ones you can work around, and which ones you will have to confront head-on. Do not use obstacles as excuses not to change. Instead, see obstacles as opportunities for growth. By facing obstacles, you will naturally have to exercise personal skills like flexibility and adaptability—both requirements for effective change.

Step 6:  Do the workChange requires dedication and hard work. To break habits, you have to create new ones. You need to be consistent and unyielding. However, if you do fail, or hit obstacles, continue on. You’ll find that once you are open to change—you’re more likely to change behaviors to adapt as more obstacles come your way.

Step 7: Evaluate your change. Did the change improve a process? Did the change improve you? Is there more work to be done?

Step 8: Change something else. Change has to be an ongoing practice and approach—throughout your entire life and the life of your organization. Once you apply the skills to cope and adapt to change, you will find change isn’t so scary after all. So move on to the next thing—and keep changing.

We have helped many clients with their change initiatives.  Call us today to talk with us about how we can help you accelerate your change program.


Additional Resources

A great resource and study in how to use crisis to inspire and implement change:



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The Art of Consensus Building

Getting people to agree on anything is a challenge.

In crisis, you can rely on “management by fiat” (just decide on a course of action yourself and issue the command).  But, a little heavy-handedness goes a long way, and when you are not in crisis, people are prone to resent an overly autocratic style.  So, you are left needing to be good at reaching consensus if you want to move your agenda forward.  But, why is it so hard?

Let’s start by considering why people disagree, and the strategies that may help in each situation.

1. They do not see the situation in the same way We all look at any situation though our own lens.  Our perspectives are influenced by our different accumulated life experiences or are based on our organizational department (members of engineering, finance, IT, operations and sales – just as examples – all have a point of view based on the issues they face daily).   All of these views are “right”.  It helps to appreciate that they are so, based on different sets of data or assumptions.   The hard part is that the data and assumptions used by others are often hidden from our view.

Strategy:              Engage the broad group in a joint effort to collect data, define the problem, and research relevant facts.  (When we are all working from the same data set, it is much easier to find areas of agreement)  Many techniques are available to build a common platform of understanding.  Some include:  mind mapping, value stream mapping, doing joint research (on-line and by interviewing system participants) and sharing the data as you go.   Also, I like the idea presented by Steve Tobak in How to Build and Drive Consensus.  He says it is important that you use a formal process, and that all the participants understand what it is before you begin.  It should be one that is transparent and open, leading to a GROUP problem definition and action plan.   The process should include phases like: collecting information (group learning to inform everyone), defining the problem, developing alternative solutions, establishing criteria for evaluating them, evaluating the alternatives, and developing the execution plan.

2. They disagree on philosophical grounds.  Sometimes, people just disagree with an idea on principle.  Some people vote Republican, others Democrat.  Some believe in a woman’s right to choose, while others see abortion as murder.  Disagreements on principle generally run deep, and are very difficult to surmount.  Compromise is often impossible because all parties feel they cannot give up their core values and beliefs (just consider the stalemates that have been defining Federal policy making process lately in the United States).

Strategy:              Consider changing your agenda in favor of another where there is more common ground.  Or, wait for a crisis to occur, and use it as the common ground you need to gain consensus.

3. They are pursuing a different agenda.  Sometimes, while your idea or initiative has merit, other people have different agendas they feel are more important to them at this particular time.  These agendas may be driven by their boss, the company incentive system, your last performance appraisal, or promises you or your team have previously made.

Strategy:              Escalate this matter higher up in the organization to align priorities and goals. If your plan is truly for the good of the organization or the team, and you have sound, credible and compelling arguments in your favor, management will listen — especially if your plan is in alignment with their ultimate needs.

3. Interpersonal or emotional drivers.  Too often, our attitudes are colored by the way we feel about others, whether we like them, if we see them as a personal rival, how we judge their motivations, if we trust them, if we respect them and their abilities, and various other dimensions of company politics.

Strategy:              Form a guiding alliance of like-minded people before you begin, who share a common view and can form a core group with enough influence to press an idea even in the face of some resistance.  Accept the idea that gaining 100% buy-in may not be feasible, or may take more time and energy than you have.   Be willing to build enough momentum led by even a small group of passionate prophets to advance your idea.   In another helpful piece by Michael Wilkinson called Building Consensus The Art of Getting to YES,  he argues that you need to be willing to do some amount of one-on-one interfacing to help uncover the reasons for someone’s resistance, and seek to resolve them if you can.   (This article has several other helpful suggestions for managing disagreements as well.)

(Another interesting resource for those in the public sector is Consensus, Power and the Art of Getting Things Done by Otis White. White has several posts on related topics including forging a guiding coalition, the art of persuasion, and others.)

Also for those of you in the public sector, I would recommend the following YouTube video by Jeff Risley called Building Consensus: Overcoming Us vs. Them.  (It is 32 min long, and addresses the need to seek and exploit common value systems.)

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Time to Re-visit the Brainstorming Session

Brainstorming is a creativity technique by which a group tries to find a solution for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members. The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in 1953 through the book Applied Imagination  (an oldy but a goody).  While the idea has been around a long time, may people seem to dismiss it as an approach whose time has passed.

Why is this?

It seems to me that we are all way too mesmerized with the idea of the new “silver bullet”, tool or technique that can solve a problem for us.  We covet the idea that we imagine has eluded all smart people throughout time. We want to be the first in our company to introduce the latest and greatest thing.   Well, sometimes old ideas are really good ones.   (For example, you want to read about Strategy? . . . start with the ancient writings of Sun Tzu –  while they are 2500 years old, many people are still pretty impressed by his deep insight.)  Often, we are too quick to dismiss ideas which we try for a time, and then discard when they fail to produce immediate good results.  Perhaps the fault lies more with the fact that we didn’t do our homework, didn’t really understand the concept before we started, or applied the ideas poorly.

Brainstorming is a simple idea.  At the time Osborn released his book, there were multiple studies conducted confirming his postulation that brainstorming is more effective than individuals working alone in generating ideas.

Whether you use Business Process Engineering, Six Sigma, Lean, or other techniques to drive innovation and problem solving in your organization, all these methods involve:

  • Defining a problem
  • Analyzing it  (collecting data to better understand it)
  • Ideation (using the newly gained insights to develop creative ideas about a newer (better) future state)
  • Evaluation  (culling the list of many possibilities in to the few or the one)
  • Execution (making it happen)

In my view, the third step, “IDEATION”, is most crucial in developing innovative ideas to help you r organization.   Ideation (trendy new word) is really about Brainstorming,

Here are some points to consider from a recent article in Inc Magazine called 5 Ways to Kill a Brainstorming Session

According to Josh Linkner, “the invitation ‘let’s brainstorm about that’ typically leads to a gathering in a conference room where the convener asks for ideas then shoots them down as fast as they come up. And brainstorming sessions have come to resemble any other meeting—veering off topic, sucking up time, and causing impatience or boredom.  That’s in part because brainstorming has been compressed and made more efficient—killing its real purpose in the process.”

He offers a prescription: At all costs, you should avoid these five behaviors:

1. Passing judgment or commenting.  Let the ideas flow unfettered by common sense or judgment.   The evaluation stage must come later.

2. Tidying up.  Keep your left-brain in check.  Don’t worry about format, spelling, or punctuation.  Just let the ideas flow – sloppy and uninhibited.  (Clean-up comes later).

3. Thinking ahead.  (Don’t even think about execution or the inherent problems during Brainstorming – there is plenty of time for this later).

4. Worrying.  (Fear is the single biggest blocker of creativity.  We were taught to fear starting in Kindergarten – I think – so tell your people that every idea is a good one and invite others to build on those already up on the board.)

5. Wandering. (When the right brain is unleashed, it does get possible to get lost in the weeds and lose site of the main problem or issue.  Make sure your facilitators are adequately trained to set overly-diverting ideas aside for the time being.

 Want To See Good Brainstorming In Action?

Google is often touted as one of the most innovative companies on the planet.  Here is a clip of a portion of an actual brainstorming session.   Watch it for what you think they did well, and also what you think could have been improved.  (Just click on the picture to the left).

Whether you choose to call it Ideation or Brainstorming – it is a key survival skill in a rapidly changing world.  We need to become better at it, and it may help to revisit the tenets of what makes good creative thinking happen.

Here is another resource you may find helpful – MindTools.com.   Go create.


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Life is lived forward, but thought of backwards.

This is an edited version of a thought often attributed to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  It presents a kind of interesting dichotomy that most of us cannot escape.  To me, it suggests that the only data we have to work with when learning, is based on our accumulated life history.  It is certainly true that we can learn from past experiences, successes, and failures.  In fact, I have previously written about ideas contained in John Shuster’s new book, The Power of Your Past.

While we need to learn from it, we should never permit ourselves to be bound by it.  Applying past history to develop approaches to future situations presupposes that most environmental forces in front of us are sufficiently like those situations from which our experiential data is drawn.   Is that always a correct assumption?  Increasingly (I think) it is not.  The world is moving faster, we have more information access than ever before (and digesting it correctly is increasingly difficult), and complexity seems to be growing.

I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly drawn to the idea that the economic and stock market situation we see today may be completely unlike anything we have seen before.  It seems stunning to me, that now when I see only a 150 point swing in the DOW, I think nothing of it. Ten years ago, many of us would have been looking for a ledge to jump off.   As the Government considers fiscal and monetary policies to deal with our economic situation I question if we have we ever before faced the complexities of interlocked global economies, plunging confidence in political leaders, slow growth prospects in our most developed and largest economies, political instability across the planet (information about) which we are bombarded with at light speed, etc?  How different must these be before they are considered unconventional problems?   That, of course is hard to say.  But, it seems evident that conventional wisdom cannot always solve unconventional problems?

Business executives face the same challenges.  We all make decisions based on past proven methods and ideas that have formed the basis of our prior successes.  I was at a conference once where Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer was a speaker.  In the audience were hundreds of CEOs from all across our country.   Ballmer chastised us all for trying to plan our future courses but standing on the back of the caboose on an aging train, looking backward at the scenery as it receded from our view, while trying to imagine what was approaching the locomotive engine at the front.   (Pretty appropriate metaphor, don’t you think?  A pre-industrial age technology, in (more or less) 2-dimensional space as the platform we use to plan for an uncertain and dynamic multi-dimensional future.)

After arguing that such a decision-making strategy could not likely succeed, he challenged us to look to our children for guidance.   He said we should carefully observe our kids and consider, how they interact, learn, communicate, seek information, play, purchase things, and behave.  “Ask them”, he said, “what kind of company they would like to work for some day.” Ask them about their dreams, beliefs, and values.  Think about that . . . and then design your businesses around those things.       “Because”, he finished, “in only the blink of an eye, those kids will be your employees and your customers.”

Doesn’t that make sense?

Every young college student today in no matter what discipline, is aware of the amazing culture of companies like Zappos, Google, Apple, or Netflix.   Won’t they (in just a few short years) be imagining that all companies have similarities with them?   What will happen to your ability to attract tomorrows brightest most passionate talent if your business environment looks vastly different?

If you are unfamiliar with these new century workplaces, check out this clip on Zappos.

Yes, we need to learn from our past. But we have to become a lot better at “thinking forward”.

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The Trouble With Easy Wins

I there are many times when I have advised a client or an executive I was working with to break down large projects into small ones in order for the team to be able to rack some early “points” thus increasing confidence and building momentum.  This seemed to me a good change strategy – helping people see that if small changes didn’t produce a calamitous outcome, maybe they would be more comfortable with larger ones.   That has always made sense to me.  Start small, and then build upon those little successes.

In her recent article, Laura Vanderkam argues there is a large danger with setting up easy wins – that since we all love the feeling of accomplishment these wins can feed our short-term need, while we take our eyes off the larger prize.  She warns against the possibility that we get sort of addicted to the small accomplishments.  And, if bosses listen to the advice of Laura Trice (see my recent article – The Power of Saying Thank You) and lavish us with praise for the small things this can seem sufficiently gratifying causing a diminishment of energy expended on the main goal.

I hadn’t thought about it in that way before, but it is an interesting point.   When I think about some of the more satisfying accomplishments of my career, they were the ones I really worked hard at.  It’s like the degree of satisfaction is proportional to how hard it was getting there.

In many of the cases I can think of, the projects sometimes seemed like they would never produce success, or we were going backwards nearly half of the time.  In these cases however, we always had a leader who believed so strongly in the project (or the deadline was so overwhelming) that we were kept on course and never wavered in our effort.

Some of my more cynical colleagues argue that this business of needing small victories is partly a generational “problem” driven by what is sometimes referred to as the trophy generation.  (see this WS Journal article – The ‘Trophy Kids’ Go to Work).  The argument is that these younger people – born between about 1980 and 2001 were coddled by their parents and nurtured with a strong sense of entitlement throughout their school years where the belief was that everyone should ‘get a trophy’ or that scores don’t really matter.  When these millennials finally hit the work force, they expected a constant stream of praise and recognition.

Which side of this debate you come down on is probably related to how old you are.   So, like many things, I suppose the answer is not either or, but both.  We need to be more generous in lavishing praise, recognizing accomplishments, and having more victories to celebrate.   But we also need leadership with the vision and discipline to keep the pressure on, challenging us to strive harder in pursuit of the goals that are more important and strategic.

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