The Critical Inflection Point

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As the rate of change increases in speed, you may notice that your company is at a critical inflection point. This is a moment in time where something bad might happen if the organization does not stop to think.

There are many reasons for it – you’re growing fast, you’re thinking about a new product, you’re expanding your offices, or your staff is frustrated and wants change. These are all good problems to have. But if they’re not addresses, then the wheels could fly off the machine.

I’ve noticed that a critical inflection point often happens when there is a tension between competing values. For example, you want to be nimble and quick, but sometimes it’s at the expense of quality. So you try process and procedures, but it comes at the expense of innovation and experimentation. You want your staff to be empowered but the autonomy means that costly decisions may be made without you.

So how does a company stop and think? How do we leverage the power of the group without devolving into group think, confusion and inertia?

I’ve found that the answers are always within. I recently lead team meetings for Intuit and Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, and using a format called Open Space Technology we were able to use the right amount of structure to allow the group to self-organize, focus themselves and take action. Many said it was the most productive time they had ever spent with the company.

Whether you have a facilitator like me, or study Open Space on your own, here’s what you need to know: All the knowledge and answers are within your current staff and resources. We are quick to look for solutions, but they are always found within the problem itself. As Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Culture of Disruption

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Disruption is the elegant hack in business. It’s how companies outdo the competition. It’s how start-ups overthrow long established brands. And cultures that foster disruption will consistently lead the pack.

Netflix is a great example. They saw the delta, the weakness to exploit. Blockbuster customers were irate about late fees, which were exacerbated by the pain in the butt to go back to the store to return DVD’s. Netflix found a way to eliminate late fees through subscriptions, and easy mailers allowed people to stay home and simply hand them back to the letter carriers.

That in itself would be an act of disruption. But they developed a culture. They disrupted the way most companies do HR by eliminating vacation policies and giving more freedom to employees (source: ). They disrupted their own business model by shifting the focus to streaming video.

So how did they create a culture of disruption?

1. They focused on values and actually valued the employees by them.
2. They focus on great work over hard work (it’s not about the number of hours)
3. They look for those who thrive on excellence rather than job security.
4. They focus on talent rather than processes to manage the increasing complexity.
5. They keep rules few and simple, creating a context for success, rather than trying to control it.

And let’s not overlook that rather than just sitting on all of this. They chose to share it to the world through their deck. Why do that? Well, it holds their company publicly to the standards they’re setting. No turning back. No slipping. Pure commitment.

Kill the word “buy-in.”

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One of my missions is to kill the word “buy-in.” I cringe whenever I hear it.

Culture lives in language (think about it, that’s how we all do business – email, phone calls, meetings, reports, pitches. It’s all just language). So when we use a word like “buy-in” we create a sales culture, and how much do you like sales people?

To “buy” means to part with your money, to lose your resources. And I’m going to sell you, in order to get it. If we’re trying to get buy-in we resent it because we feel that we should not have to sell anything. And on the other end we feel like someone is trying to manipulate us. It’s a lose-lose.

Even if you “get buy-in’ there’s the baggage that comes with it, including buyer’s remorse – That feeling of first getting caught up in excitement, then realizing it’s not what you really wanted. Getting buy-in is a short-term plan at best.

So what can replace it? To answer that we need to look deeper and ask – where are we in agreement about what’s valuable and important? If we can align on that, the conversation is not about selling, it’s about discussing – how do we best achieve it?

Let’s use an example.

Let’s say you’re trying to get “buy-in” from the CEO to let employees make their own decisions when it comes to giving customers their money back. First realize that your desire to do this is based on your own beliefs and values. You may value empowerment and believe that individual responsibility will lead to better decisions that will help both the customer and the company. This is simply your belief. Though it would be more accurate to say this is your hypothesis and you want to test it out.

The key is to connect it to an experiment (meaning a change with a limited scope and time window, seeking to validate or disprove your hypothesis), that is grounded in a shared value.  So let’s say you and the CEO are both committed to employee happiness and a strong customer NPS score.  This is what it would look like…

“Bob, you and I are both agreed that we want to increase employee happiness and raise our NPS score. I think we can do this without spending any money by letting people make their own decisions when it comes to refunds. To keep the risk low, let’s only use the product X division over 90 days. We’ll baseline the happiness metrics and our NPS score and see how it goes. If nothing changes, we can go back to the policy manual.”

This approach takes the loaded emotions out of the equation by presenting a rational argument based on shared values. The upside potential is there, with limited risk.  No more selling. Just logic and experimentation. Try it out and let me know how it goes.

Not important? Throw an off-site.

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Here’s how you can tell if your company does not really care about a corporate initiative – You throw an off-site. What? Yes.

I’m sure you have good intentions, but there’s nothing that conveys, “Man I wish we were just done with this and could move on” like a good old-fashioned all-day off-site that everyone forgets within a few months. Because here’s the thing…

Anything we really care about, we do often. We don’t schedule it for one day a year. We do it as much as we can. Every day if possible.

If you say you value culture, and you know it’s driving the company, how could it not be part of your everyday process, thoughts, and interactions?

You can tell what’s important to a person by how they spend their time and their money. The same is true of a company. Take a look at where the focus is, what’s constantly discussed and where resources are invested. That’s what people actually value.

Now, do you want to keep it that way, or do you want to shift to what’s most important to you and make it a part of your everyday?

Thievery – The Secret to a Great Brand

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I look for themes when it comes to great cultures and brands. I also happen to be rather mischievous, so I can recognize that quality in both people and companies. So I find it rather interesting that some of the greatest brands are based on… theft.

Many people know that Zappos.com is based on a culture of service. It was a gamble at the time when every dot com company was staying away from phone service to focus on price cutting and efficiency. I asked one of the original team members what inspired them to focus on service. “Most of us came out of Nordstrom, so honestly, it was all we knew.” Service – stolen from a brick and mortar and taken online.

Take Starbucks – Howard Schultz lifted the high-end coffee cafes right out of Italy and figured out how to scale it.

Take Apple – Steve Jobs literally lifted the computers with the original graphic interface right out of Xerox PARC.

Take the United States of America. The nation/state system was taken directly from the Iroquois native Americans.

So perhaps the best innovation question to your team is not – “Who has a great idea?” But instead is “Who knows something we can steal?”

The Easy Way to Help the Homeless

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I was not going to post this as it's very personal to something I care about, but after I shared it with a good friend she was so convinced it's a great technique that she encouraged me to share it. 

So here goes…

The cause that always gets to me on an emotional level is hunger. The idea of anyone starving makes me tear up. So I donate a lot to charity water because they leverage my dollar to its highest value and help those most in need (as you know, we need water even more than we need food).  But when I walk or drive by someone with a sign that says "Hungry. Please help." I can't just walk by. 

I used to give them money until I realized I had no idea if they would really use it for food. And then I started asking them what kind of food they wanted, then I'd go out to buy it and go back to give it to them. But that would take a half hour! So I came to be resentful of the entire process. 

Then it hit me that I could get $5 gift cards for food, and keep them on me, as well as in my car. That way I didn't have to spend time buying food, but I could still know they would use it on food. Problem solved! McDonald's makes it really easy, because they're everywhere, and it lets the person decide what food they want, when they need it. And there's something about a gift card that makes it feel like a true gift. 

The thanks you get can make it very worthwhile, but keep this in mind… Have you ever been in a bad mood because you skipped a meal? Now imagine skipping several meals while sleeping on the street. You might not be in a stellar mood. So if you don't get a warm, friendly response, just smile to yourself knowing it will hit them later.