Inspiring a Compelling Vision

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There’s a story I like to tell to communicate the value of having a clear and articulated vision in a company. I ask my audience to imagine they’re in a contest to complete a jigsaw puzzle. There are two teams, A and B, and three rounds to the contest.

In the first round, Team A is given the puzzle pieces and the correct cover. Team B is given the same puzzle pieces but the cover to another puzzle. The audience is asked to guess which team will complete the puzzle first. Team A is the chosen winner. In the second round, Team A is given the correct cover and Team B is given no cover at all. Again the audience identifies Team A as the fastest to complete the puzzle. Finally, in the third round, Team A again gets the correct cover and each member of Team B receives a different cover. Again, Team A is predicted to be the fastest. Then I ask the audience, which version of the puzzle game most closely resembles their company. Invariably, the common response is the third; everyone has a different cover to the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation. Strategies fail or struggle because companies either don’t develop a compelling vision of what they aim to accomplish, or they fail to properly communicate the vision in a clear and consistent manner insuring that everyone is pulling together for the same outcome.

Employees by nature want to engage to make a difference. But it’s hard to experience intrinsic motivation when they don’t know where they’re going and how their effort contributes to a bigger purpose, the completion of the correct puzzle. Not only is the energy and motivation reduced, energy is being dissipated in different directions much like puzzle players arguing over the pieces they believe are part of their cover.

There are three important steps to having an organization embrace and pursue the leader’s vision.

1. Clarify the vision – some leaders don’t know themselves what their picture actually looks like. Nothing extraordinary ever happened without a leader articulating a simple and clear vision. Neil Armstrong would never have made space history in 1969 had John F. Kennedy not planted into the mind of every American the vision of a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The vision was so memorable that those of us who grew up at that time still recall it today. What vision of your organization will your employees remember long after they’re gone?

2. Make it compelling – No one has ever thrown themselves into a vision of growing sales by 10 percent or cutting expenses. That’s not a vision; it’s a goal or outcome. It’s also not inspiring unless there’s a personal connection for the individual. For someone to get behind your vision it has to become their vision. Employees will pour themselves into a compelling opportunity not because they have to, but because they want to. When they do they are following the leader for their own desire to participate in the vision. Rationing in the US during World War II was a major inconvenience for our country but companies and individuals alike willingly sacrificed in ways almost unimaginable today in their contribution to the war effort. What about your vision would move your employees to sacrifice for your cause as Americans did during the war?

3. Repeat the story often – Once, or even a few times, is never enough. Repetition matters in a big way. Hearing something occasionally reinforces with the follower that they’re hearing the leader’s vision. But hearing it often will eventually make it their vision. When it becomes their vision everything they do will be aimed at achieving it. To do that, employees need to hear it often, in different situations and from different individuals. When they start telling your story as if it were their story, you’re on your way to achieving your vision.

“Make the story big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” These are the words of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (205). While his purpose was nefarious and destructive, the basic principle applies equally well to organizations seeking to fulfill their vision. A vision that benefits everyone is one most people can aspire to and support. The process is simple but success rests in the execution.

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5 Steps to Simpler Planning

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There’s and old cliché that says companies don’t plan to fail, they just fail to plan. The truth is that while companies who don’t plan may not fail, they often fall far short of their potential and struggle more than companies that conduct some thoughtful planning.

The two most frequently cited reasons people give for not planning are that one, they don’t have time and two, circumstances change too quickly for a plan to be useful. The problem with this thinking is that managers of plan driven companies have the same issues to deal with. What they also have is the knowledge and experience to know that everything is made easier when they prioritize planning into their calendars. What they’ve learned is that even the simplest planning will put their employees on the same page and can get everyone rowing together in the same direction. If you’re avoiding planning, your people are probably less productive and may unintentionally be working against each other.

I’m not suggesting that when you plan you’ll get everything you plan for or that it’ll stand the test of time. To the contrary, you should expect to revisit and adjust the plan every six months or quarterly if you’re in a fast changing industry. Planning is not a game of perfection. It’s an imperfect process but it’s fair to say that any planning, even bad planning sometimes, is better than none at all.

The goal then is to make planning simple, easy and flexible. Here are 5 steps to make your process easier.

1. Choose one or two big goals everyone can focus on
You want the entire company to rally around the most important issues. Choose something that challenges the organization and generates energy and creativity. Engage the team in “seeing” what it will look like when the goals are reached. Be clear about what a successful outcome looks like. It’s important that the goals be communicated in positive terms that will enlist the support of the team. Dream a little.

Too many goals can confuse and de-energize a group. It’s better to have a few things completed and done well than a lot started but not finished. Too many goals may mean you’re focused on tasks instead of goals and your sights are set too low.

2. Generate the best approach to achieve each goal
Use brainstorming or a similar process with your team to compile a list of activities needed to reach the goal. Have fun with the process. Evaluate each one for its risk, affordability and likeliness to get the results you’re looking for. Don’t look for the perfect solution. It doesn’t exist. Anticipate potential problems and how you’ll deal with them, but don’t let old history or negative naysayers prevent you from trying new methods or taking some risk. What you can be sure about is that if you don’t do things different in the future, the future will look a lot like today. Change is never easy for some, but it’s necessary for everyone.

3. Commit the resources and set the schedule.
Few things will turn off a team to planning than not being given the tools or the time to put the plan into action. Make reasonable estimates of what will be needed, especially the time that needs to be put into working on activities of the goal and how it will be balanced with the ordinary work facing team members every day. Make it a priority and demonstrate your commitment to the work by making time available. New activities associated with a new goal shouldn’t be added to an already burdened staff. Be specific too about who has what responsibility and the expectation for completing the work. Too many goals are missed because assignments and deadlines were unclear, then when it gets busy, activities of the goal are the first to be set aside.

4. Implement the plan
This seems like such an easy step but I’ve seen good plans struggle and run aground due to a lack of attention to implementation. Document and circulate the actions, the persons assigned to carry out the work , and when it will be completed. Then release the team to begin.

5. Monitor and adjust
Arguably this may be the most important part of planning. Nothing will stay on track without regular attention and communication. You don’t live in a static world so you should expect to run into a few obstacles that will require the plan to change. That won’t be a problem as long as you stay on top of the plan as it progresses. Regular meetings with the team to work out the kinks and individual meetings to support and help those with the task assignments will let everyone know you’re interested and committed to the goals.

Planning doesn’t have to be difficult or sophisticated. A little effort and some common sense can have a big impact on what a business can achieve.

If you’d like to talk more about how to make planning simple and useful, respond to my post or use the “contact us” tab on this page to reach me.

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When Goals Can Hurt Us

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In 2012 Shriya Shah-Klorfine set out to conquer Mt. Everest and satisfy a personal goal she’d had since she was nine. For years she and her husband made many sacrifices including mortgaging their home to afford the $100,000 it would cost to make the assent. In May, after making the summit and beginning her decent Shah-Klorfine and three other climbers were killed in what became one of the deadliest days on the mountain.

An investigation into the accident revealed that Shah-Klorfine had not prepared adequately for the difficulty of the climb and, along with the others, became disoriented and exhausted on the treacherous decent. Despite warnings of her Sherpa guides to turn back, Shah-Klorfine was so focused on the goal that she failed to take the necessary precautions and heed the advice of her guides, which may have saved her life and that of the others. Such is the case in business with equally tragic results sometimes.

Make no mistake, I believe goals are essential to the growth and success of companies and individuals. Human beings are goal oriented by nature. I have written often about the need to set goals in ways that drive energy and creativity and I’ve described the need for leaders to inspire groups to new heights with challenging goals. Without goals we will certainly underperform our potential. However, goals set with insufficient preparation, inadequate consideration or the wrong incentives can get off track, sometimes with dire consequences. There are a number of problems that can arise when pressure or incentive puts goal attainment ahead of everything else.

  • Killing the golden goose – Over-emphasis and pressure for short term goals risks sabotaging sound long-term strategy. Under the gun for positive quarterly gains, many publicly traded companies give up decisions that may in the long-run produce better returns and sustainability. When this happens the long-term potential of the organization is sacrificed at the altar of short-term results.
  • Skipping important steps – As the Mt. Everest tragedy points out, the singular pursuit of a goal can cause individuals to take shortcuts or chances that could result in loss or worse. In 2007 Microsoft rushed the launch of Windows Vista. Pushed to meet a marketing deadline, the product was fraught with incompatibilities and problems. The shortcuts taken in the development and testing phases threatened to alienate even its most loyal customers.
  • Suboptimization – Suboptimization can occur when one goal is placed ahead of the good of the whole. Win/lose internal competitions often leave companies worse off. An organization can begin to cannibalize itself in the pursuit of competing goals. Resources will go to the fittest instead of where they’re needed the most. We tend to get what we expect and by focusing too hard on the goal, teams and individuals will win, even at the expense of the company.
  • Unethical behavior – We don’t have to look far to find examples of how overly ambitious goals fueled by the potential for large financial gain resulted in the financial ruin of companies and nearly our entire economy. Becoming so singularly focused on a goal can cause individuals and organizations to ignore fundamental principles and act in ways they would never have thought they would. The infractions can range from cheating on a sales report to fabricating financial statements and lying to investors as was the case with Enron. We often see it as a failure of character. While that may be a part, those involved often see it as the necessary actions to achieve a greater outcome. In other words, the end justify the means.

Humans are very adaptable and capable of accomplishing what’s important to them. Despite rhetoric and words, we’re good at figuring out what’s really important and responding to that. Therefore, goal setting should be undertaken carefully with an eye for potential unintended consequences. Properly placed goals with the right coaching and leadership can result in tremendous energy, creativity and positive outcomes.

Not surprisingly though, if you set goals and use pressure to get results, you’re likely to get the results you’re looking for. Likewise, when you heavily incent goals, they too will likely get accomplished. But don’t be surprised in either case to find that major corners were cut or employees bent or even broke the rules to get them done. They’re smart and the right amount of pressure or incentive can get good people to do just about anything.

If you’d like to discuss this further you can reach me through the “Contact Us” tab on the top of this page.

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The Dangerous Comfort Zone

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I like it when things go well, especially in business. Sales are steady and at a level we’re all comfortable with. Certainly they could be better but my employees are content especially after all we’ve been through. We all appreciate getting a break from the full court press for sales we’d been on for the last several years. Quality is satisfactory and productivity good enough to produce positive returns each month.

Maybe you feel the same way I do. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay where we are indefinitely. Business would be easy and we’d finally be able to reap the rewards we’ve worked so hard for. Leadership would certainly become easier. My business friends have warned me not to become too comfortable with my routine. But then they don’t really know my company. We’re different and the relative ease of the pattern we’ve grooved into is certain to keep the returns positive. After all, getting here wasn’t luck. Everyone in the company can point to the hard work and smart decisions that got us to where we are. What I hadn’t realized though, is that in my success, like the opening scene of a Rod Serling movie, we had innocently wandered into the “Comfort Zone”.

The comfort zone is a deceptively dangerous place to be. Wikipedia defines the comfort zone is “a behavioral state within which a person (or organization) operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, and usually without a sense of risk.” It is the container in which we allow our imaginations to wander. Unfortunately for some people and organizations, they live with very small containers.

On the surface it has all the characteristics of what we’ve been in pursuit of for so long. But once inside, it takes over our thinking and we become mired in complacency. That complacency results in stagnation leaving the company vulnerable to a competitive threat or market shift.

Confronting the Problem
Comfort zones are closely tied to a company’s self-image. That could be its perception of how big it can be, how good it is at what it does, what the real threats are or any other aspect of its performance. It’s an image in the mind of the leaders or the employees about the way things are supposed to be. The problem is comfort zones have a strong influence on keeping us the way we are and if you don’t escape the comfort zone you’ve limited your chance of growing out of or beyond your present conditions. If you don’t change that image you’ll just keep reproducing what you have stagnating growth and value in the organization.

Many companies have enormous potential but they have comfort zones of familiarity that have them frozen in time. It’s because part of our human nature is that we won’t let ourselves want something we don’t believe we can create. In order to expand the business, employees will need to stretch and broaden long standing beliefs about what’s possible. Good leadership recognizes that comfort zones are real and take steps to manage them.

Changing the Picture
If we’re going to grow individually and organizationally beyond where we’re presently at we’re going to have to grow our comfort zone. The key to that is changing the internal picture of how far our imagination can stretch and still be relatively anxiety-neutral. It means we’ll have to develop a new set of beliefs about what we’re capable of accomplishing. There are a few steps to help your company grow its comfort zone.

  1. The first step involves visionary goal setting. If you’ve been a local company but have aspirations of being regional, national or even international you have to see it happening before it happens. I’ve seen too many businesses set aspirational goals truly doubtful of their ability to achieve them and prove themselves right. Deliberately decide the next level or comfort zone you want to move into and make it familiar. The degree to which you can visualize yourself at the next level, making the unfamiliar familiar, the greater your chance of success.
  2. Imprint your vision and goals on the organization. You can’t impose change. You can try it but it won’t last. You have to help others change first from the inside. You’ll need employees to visualize themselves into the next level or change that’s coming or they’ll eventually slide back to the old comfort zone. Not everyone may come along. Don’t stop the growth of your company because of the restrictive comfort zones of people who don’t want to grow.
  3. Hire people who believe in the possibility of your vision. Often individuals from organizations who have already accomplished what you want to do will have the efficacy to believe that what you want can be achieved. They speak about it as a forgone conclusion. Their self-confidence can also give rise to confidence in others.

Your comfort zone is a place that feels good but is also a powerful force of resistance to growth and change in any organization. So, take that earned rest and recovery when you need it but keep asking yourself, “What’s next? What more do I want to do?” It is important to keep growing in all aspects of your personal and corporate performance. Continuously setting and affirming clear goals and expanding the size of the comfort zone are the best ways to do it.

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Making Good Decisions

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What makes a good decision?  How would I know one if I saw it?  In the last several weeks I have had a number of conversations with clients about decision making.  Each conversation started out focusing on a different issue yet each came back to “making good decisions.”  One conversation began by discussing “initiative”, several were based around “procrastination”, another was focused on “paralysis by analysis” and the most recent dealt with the fear of making a mistake.  The common root of all of these conversations was the ability, or inability, of individuals to make good business decisions.

Not all good business decisions will turn out, in hindsight, to be the best decisions.  Perfection is not a quality I am familiar with and fortunately it is not a requirement for good decisions.  The goal then is to maximize the likelihood that the decisions made turn out to be the right ones.  How does one do that?

I believe that there are four elements to making good decisions.  My experience is that if these four elements are incorporated into any decision-making process, the final choice will prove to be the best choice much more often than not.

Gather all of the information that is available.  There are two considerations that enter into this element, data and time.   Rarely in any decision making process will 100% of the data be available to you, or at least be available to you in the time frame within which the decision must be made.   The information gathering process is foundational to making good decisions.  Taking short cuts here will skew the results of the subsequent elements in the process.

Know the choices that are available to you.  Too often decision-making processes fall into the “verdict in search of evidence” category.  When we lock onto one option, we automatically lock out all other options, perhaps even the best option.  Let the data identify the options, not the other way around.  Take care to ensure that the choices you identify are feasible and implementable.

Understand the consequences of each choice.  Every decision has consequences, both intended and unintended.  Unfortunately for decision makers, the consequences are usually determined by other parties such as bosses, customers or competitors.  Evaluating the risk associated with each choice is central to good decision making.

Make the best call.  For some, this is the most difficult part of the process and frequently indicates that a less-than-thorough effort was put into the first three elements of the process.  This is where data combined with intuition can be a decision maker’s greatest asset.  Trust your data.  Trust your intuition.  Make the call.

We must also understand that not making a decision is in fact a decision to do nothing.  If the information, choices and consequences support “doing nothing”, then that would be the best call.  However, a non-decision based upon fear of consequences or failure to fully engage the process is an abdication of responsibility and will likely have consequences as well.

Each decision brings with it a unique set of challenges.  Employing a systematic approach to decision making can help ensure that no matter what type of decision you need to make, you can make it unemotionally and with confidence that you have maximized your opportunity to make a good decision.

If your organization is having difficulty with making good decisions, we can help.  Get in touch with us by using the Contact Us tab on the left side of the page or by using the information found on the Contact Info tab.

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