Emergence of excellence

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Two separate sources talked about the same issue today. Designing the conditions for success.

In planet money, the weekly podcast discussed the issue of job creation. The conclusion, job creation is not about one act of leadership. It is not necessarily about raising taxes (which could work) or lowering taxes (which could also work). It is about creating the optimal conditions in which jobs emerge.

Seth Godin discusses a different issue all together but so similar: customer service. Godin explains that it is not only about the person who actually provides the service, but actually many times, about how the environment was designed:

Too often, we blame bad service on the people who actually deliver the service. Sometimes (often) it’s not their fault. Sadly, the complaints rarely make it as far as the overpaid (or possibly overworked) executive who made the bad design decision in the first place. It’s the architecture of service that makes the phone ring and that makes customers leave.

And I ask you, as a manager, what are you doing to design an environment which enables emergence of excellence? Are you focusing on the conditions that support success? Why not?


How can we make employees go the extra mile…?

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Bruce Temkin wrote today about how contact centers need to redefine their purpose; their raison d’être and that made me think about an interaction I had with a kind of a contact center.

I am in the process of applying for a Ph.D. in business administration. This means I have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy. Because I am applying to a number of universities I need to make sure I follow the specific rules of each university. As an international student, the number of forms I need to fill and rules I need to comply is just enormous and I admit that I constantly get confused. As a client in this situation, I can attest that it is very easy to determine if a website is truly user friendly or not.

Anyway, in one of the applications I had a specific problem with one form which I wasn’t sure if I need to fill out or not. I sent an email to the Ph.D. admission office and got a reply. The reply said something like: “We think we know the answer, but we are not sure. You should contact the graduate admissions office”. I could not understand why they could not give me a straight answer, but I sent an email and the correspondence to the graduate admissions office. The reply said something like: “We don’t really know. You should contact the international student office”.

Think about how many service failures you can spot in this scenario. First, the fact that I could not even be sure by reading the instructions on the website. Then, when I approach someone who should be my contact point, he passes the responsibility back to me and points me somewhere else. This somewhere else turns out to be the wrong place and points me to a third place.

A few days ago I wrote about standing out as a manager after being inspired by a Jon Gordon blog post. It was so easy to stand out here. How would I have felt if the first representative wrote an email to me saying: “I was not sure of the answer so I contacted the graduate admissions office for you, turns out, it is the international students’ office that is responsible for this. Their answer is X. ” Honestly, they are working for the same organization. Shouldn’t that be clear? Isn’t that the obvious answer as it involves seeing me as a human being?

I am interested not only the fact that as a customer I feel like I did not receive adequate service but especially in the question what in the environment, culture and structure of the university makes employees refuse to give adequate service? What could these people managers’ have done to make sure that the reply will satisfy me? What is needed to make sure people go the extra mile to stand out?

I am not sure I have the answers. I know that an approach of Next as Seth Godin describes it today is part of the problem. I am guessing that rules have something to do with this approach. And I am guessing that these employees don’t see their service as a true calling.

What do you think?


What you aren’t seeing

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I started reading Bob Sutton’s Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company and came across this quote:

The British and U.S. air forces were concerned because many of their planes were being shot. They wanted to use more armor, but were not quite sure where to put it. Wald put a mark on every bullet hole in the airplanes that returned from battle. He found that two major sections of the fuselage – one between the wings and the other between the tails – had far fewer bullet holes. He decided to put the armor in these places, where he saw fewer, not more, holes. Why? Because it stood to reason that the planes were hit randomly. The planes he analyzed had not been shot down! So it was the holes he wasn’t seeing – in the planes that weren’t returning – that needed extra protection.

It reminded me of a concept I wrote about a few times before in my blog – the missing piece (see: 1, 2, 3).

We are so focused on one side of the question or issue, that we forget to consider the opposite side.

Instead of asking – how can we improve the product to attract more customers? – we should try asking – what will happen if we stop completely using the product? Instead of asking – what can I do to help my employees become better? – we should try asking – what am I doing that is preventing my employees giving their best work? Instead of asking – what is preventing me from reaching excellence? – we should be asking – what should I do in order to reach excellence?

It is not that the first questions are not important. They are. It is just that by changing our point of view, even just for the point of changing it, we open new directions and dimensions.

What is not there is sometimes just as important as what it there. Let’s try shifting our focus to the other side.


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Listening and not listening at the same time

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Dan Pink writes about a subject matter that I find important for every aspect of business and management (and politics). The concept of “listening to your customers”:

Give customers what they want.

It’s a sturdy principle of business, one that most of us endorse. But it’s also a principle that can carry seeds of its own demise.

Leadership and management are not a popularity contest. While listening to your clients, peers, employees etc. is not only important it is a must, knowing when to ignore them or do something they can’t even think about is just as important. As I wrote a few months ago:

I don’t know about you, but if a few years ago somebody would have asked me what do I want my cell phone to do, there is no way I would have said: “Oh, you know what, I want it to react to movements when I move it around so I can play games with it”. I don’t know it for a fact, but I think the people at apple just put that quality into the Iphone without people telling them that is what they want. And that is a one great quality for a product. That is a way to make it a purple cow.

It works with customers just as well as it works with employees. In all fields of life, the work of great change makers was first criticized, misunderstood and fought against. “Why the hell do we need that?” the critics ask. But the change makers are the ones that make an impact on our lives. This is the difference between incremental innovation and radical innovation. One improves on what you have; the other changes the rules of the game. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I have asked people what they wanted, they would have said: ‘a faster horse’”. This is how Pink summarizes it:

Enhancing a category is cool; creating a category is cooler. Providing people what they want is a smart tactic; giving people something they didn’t know they’re missing is an even smarter strategy. Listening to the customer can be helpful; listening to your own voice can be revolutionary.

Every word here can be applied to customer service, development of new products and more importantly, management of people. Listening to them is good. But giving them what they want is not always best. Like giving employees answers – they would want it, but it is not good for them. And this reminded me of what I was trying to say about effectiveness and efficiency:

What the definitions don’t tell us is the focus. Efficiency is about marginal improvements. We take the current situation and try to make it better. To make the most of what we have. To do better with what we have. And that is a very useful skill. But it rarely leads to huge leaps. And it rarely breaks the boarders and provides levels of performance we haven’t thought possible. Effectiveness, on the other hand is about change. Is about finding a better fit to our goal. It is making something work better, not in the margins, but in the core of its being. It is about finding the right solutions to the right questions. If you make something more effective, you are changing the way it works, re-inventing it (maybe a bit more similar to term Efficacious). And you are focused on the long-term effects.

Everybody will tell you that you should listen to your customers. But everybody tells you to do that, everybody else is doing it too. Why don’t you try to listen to them, but not listen to them at the same time? Now that is something special.


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Did we fire anybody?

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I never bought anything from Zappos. I actually haven’t heard about it until last year. I came to learn more about it when it was bought by Amazon a while ago and we had an interesting debate among my classmates at AGSM MBA 2010 class about whether it was a smart move or not. But the more I hear about the company (and I wrote about it before: 1, 2) the more I come to appreciate it.

It turns out that a few days ago, Zappos had a little problem with pricing in one of their sister websites. The pricing issue meant that many products were sold for a small percentage of their original price for about six hours. This meant a loss of … wait for it… $1.6 million (gasp!).

Now, mistakes happen. Even big ones. The question is as managers and leaders, how do we cope with mistakes and prevent them in the future. Look what Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, writes about the incident:

To those of you asking if anybody was fired, the answer is no, nobody was fired – this was a learning experience for all of us. Even though our terms and conditions state that we do not need to fulfill orders that are placed due to pricing mistakes, and even though this mistake cost us over $1.6 million, we felt that the right thing to do for our customers was to eat the loss and fulfill all the orders that had been placed before we discovered the problem.

I see two amazing things here. First, a company that understands that values and a belief in something means difficult tradeoffs. Zappos is built around customer service and customer satisfaction. It is not always about going with the letter of the law or the contract. It is about acting right according to the principles that the company is built upon. They decided to fulfill the orders basically saying to the customers – “good for you!”

Second, they decided not to play the blaming game. Yes, there was a mistake. Somebody made it. Maybe even a number of people were responsible. But, that is in the past. The question is what do we do in the future. Susan Scott writes in Fierce Leadership that people should Model accountability and hold people able:

… Accountability begins (and in this case, ends) with you. You being accountable in front of everybody else. Not talking about it, not bragging about it, just modeling it. Doing what you said you’d do. Taking responsibility for disappointing results. Focusing on taking action. Asking, given this result what will I do about it? And if things go wrong with others, asking the same question. Given this result what are you going to do? And you must give up blaming.

Zappos decided to look at this as a learning opportunity. I am sure this kind of mistake will never happen again. Will we never see other mistakes? Not likely. And I ask you, what does that do to the confidence of employees? To their willingness and ability to take risks? And their willingness to make sure nothing like this ever happens. To go the extra mile to make share it will never happened. I think it will be a lot bigger than if heads would have rolled. Not only because it is the right and human thing to do. But also because it fits so well with the entire culture of Zappos.

Employee engagement does not start over night. It is about being consistent with every action and decision. Especially the hard ones. I agree with every word Paul Hebert writes about this:

The company decided that the process was the problem – not the people. From what I can read into this they started by deciding the people were competent, the people didn’t do this because they were stupid, lazy, disengaged, or malicious. They started with a positive view of the people.

I’ll ask you this… in your organization would this happen?  Would a $1.6 million error be handled the same way? That my dear readers is a quality organization.  If you want to know what a role model looks like – this is a role model.


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Are you as blind to your relationships as companies are blind to their levels of customer service?

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Bruce Temkin from Customer Experience Matters writes about the disparity between workers beliefs that their companies delight customers and the costumers’ real perceptions. Here is a short excerpt:

Interestingly, respondents gave their companies the highest marks in customer service. In research that I completed earlier this year at Forrester, I found that consumers rated customer service the least satisfying interaction. So, there’s clearly a mismatch between companies and their customers in that area.

I find this amazing. People who deal with these issues every day, who work with customers every day, are so blind to what these same costumers really think about them.

And the question is – are you blind to what other people think of you? If I ask you to predict what you employees/teammates/peers will say about you and then go out and ask them how similar will the results be? Can you be confident about the results?

Maybe it’s time you stop assuming and guessing and start asking.


Shorts: Bill Taylor on Office Hours

In the Harvard Business Review Blog Bill Taylor writes:

Lately, my rule of three convinced me to check out the rise of “office hours” in business and finance. And it looks like a pretty sound idea. If you, as a busy and stressed-out leader, want to stay in touch with your colleagues and stay connected to the market, then clear your calendar for an hour or two each week, invite colleagues and customers to stop by your office, and answer their questions. What could be simpler — or, in this era of information anxiety, more effective?

Three comments:

  1. Is this really a new trend/Idea? As Taylor mentions himself, the idea has been around in universities (and other organizations) for a long time. To me, it just seems like common sense. Not having open office hours is a trend we should report and be worried about.
  2. Is it enough. Office hours are a passive activity. We stay in our office, waiting for our employees or customers to come or call. Shouldn’t we be proactive? Make sure that we spend time with our employees even if they don’t come on knocking?
  3. While being available in your office is important there are great opportunities in doing the “open office” in your employees’ or customers’ natural habitat. There are some things that you can understand only if you see it from the other side.


Understanding the other side

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Seth Godin writes today about watching the money:

Money is more than a transfer of value. It’s a statement of belief. An ad agency that won’t buy ads, a consultant who won’t buy consulting, and a waiter who doesn’t tip big—it’s a sign, and not a good one.

The idea – in order to really sell something, you have to understand it completely, to live it form the other side. And I completely agree. There is something about putting your own money, from your own pocket, that transmits a signal about your beliefs (and in an unrelated note it might be better than executive bonuses).

The same logic could be used to everyday people management. If you want your employees to do something, you have to do it yourself. Not only because, as Godin says, it sends a signal to your employees, but also, and this is the important part of Godin’s post, it leads to better understanding of the feelings and experiences of the employees. Simple MBWA.

It is quite clear (or is it?) that if we want to understand our customers, we need to act like customers – try to acquire a service or a product from our own company. However, the same could be said about you as a manager. Can you put yourself in your employees’ shoes and try to “acquire” feedback, recognition or just time with you.

Yes, I know, the comparison is not complete and you cannot disguise yourself as a mystery shopper in order to obtain feedback from… well, you. This line of thinking might only manifest itself as a mental exercise. But, if you think about it carefully, I am sure that you can come up with ways to actually try to acquire management services from yourself (start by examining you schedule and how much of it is dedicated to being with your employees, and which ones).

However, what is more important is the frame of mind. The understanding that as managers, we are there for our people and to help them excel, we need to try and see things from their perspective.

So, when is the last time you saw yourself from your employees’ eyes? And how? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.


How to use what is not there to improve what is there

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Yesterday I was reading an intriguing Chnagethis manifesto by Matthew E. May called: Creative Elegance – The Power of Incomplete Ideas. May argues the there is a great power in leaving things out. A concept he calls “the missing piece”:

What isn’t there can often trump what is.

May gives examples from art, TV, film and business to demonstrate that sometimes, creativity can be achieved not by creating something new, but by deliberately taking something out or leaving missing pieces. And these inspiring examples got me thinking of other examples where this idea could be used.

Example one – the missing piece in the feedback process

When I teach and evaluate feedback skills I always emphasize to people the importance of asking and listening first and only then deciding on a course of action. I am constantly surprised to see smart people go into a conversation without first understanding the other side’s problem – is it lack of knowledge? is it misunderstanding ?or is a shortage of ability? Until you understand what the problem is you cannot really contribute anything to the other person. I just realized that what I am talking about is how the missing piece changes the conversation. How without this information, the conversation is a totally different one.

Next time I am going to give this class I am planning to use the example from the manifesto (which I am not going to ruin for you) to show how powerful the missing piece is and what happens the minute we discover it.

Example two – the unnoticed employees

Similarly, I remember when I was a course commander in the Israeli Air force I was leading a course which was comprised of participants who lacked motivation and had a lot of discipline problems. Usually, we spent a lot of time dealing with and giving attention to the people who were undisciplined.

Until one day we noticed something. When we do that, the phenomenon spreads across the course participants. By ignoring the “regular” soldiers, those who did not give us any problems and focusing on the trouble makers, we were not only unable to take care of troublemakers, we created more troublemakers. We were pushing those who did not act up to act up, as they, like any normal human being, wanted the attention and recognition for a job well done.

I think this relates easily to the workplace. How is your time divided? How much time you spend with you under-performing employees compared to others? How many times to you recognize, award or give feedback to the employees that are not overachievers or underachievers, but are simply doing their job. If, as Woody Allen says: “80 percent of success is just showing up“, don’t we need to make sure we do not ignore those people who are doing everything that is expected of them?

Example three – lack of friction

Lastly, it made me think of a post by Bob Sutton that I read a while back and left a lasting impression on me. The post was called on noticing what you don’t notice, and this is what he wrote:

It is one of those phrases that applies to all sorts of things, great customer experiences where good things happen and your feel no friction, organizational practices that are seamless and painless, and even government services that seem designed to reduce the burden on you.

Sometimes, Sutton claims, the really great services, are the ones that are transparent, that we don’t notice they are there. Or in other words: the missing pieces.

So, how can you use the idea of the missing piece to improve your business, teamwork or personal life?


Lessons learned through a discussion of the Amazon-Zappos deal

Last week as we heard the news of the Amazon-Zappos deal an on-line discussion started between a few of my fellow students at the AGSM MBA. We discussed whether it was a good idea, what will the effect of it on the culture of the two companies, etc.

Amazon has always been a company I admired (and had some very good customer service experience with), so I was glad that as part of the discussion and even more glad to come by this movie clip of Amazon CEO and founder (Thanks Amit). You never know how much of what the CEO is actually saying is happening in real life. But, there is no doubt that Amazon is a success story. And I think that the principals they stand for and Jeff Bezos is presenting in the video are very similar to things I write about a lot in this blog.

Obsess over customers (not over competitors) – I love this approach. First, because it takes the company out of the regular We (or I) culture. As humans we attribute to much importance to ourselves in the mind of others. And this translates to companies’ strategies and tactics that focus on the company and not on the customer. Nobody really cares about company X. People care about themselves. But the second part of this concept is even more important. We spend so much of our lives comparing ourselves to others, using benchmarks, thinking – I want to be like him/her. We forget to be ourselves. We forget to excel at what we do. We forget to exploit our comparative advantage. Instead of focusing on them, we should focus on us. And I know what you are thinking. Isn’t that a contradiction? You just said that we should stop with the culture of we. Well it isn’t. They can co-exist. And anyway, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time”.

Invent – There is no doubt in my mind that the need (and ability) to invent is and will be the hallmark of successful people and companies in our changing world. Not only invention of new products but also of process, of business models, of ideas and of sharing mechanisms. A company that puts invention as its core belief represent, in my mind, a great manifestation of everything that is good in the capitalistic system.

Think long term for customers not according to customers – Again, two very strong ideas. Long term. The financial crisis has proved, if any more proof was needed, how important the idea of long term thinking is. Again, it is a manifestation of a very basic human trait that is discussed a lot these days. The need for immediate gratification. I hear about the Gen Y phenomena and the fact that people today are looking for immediate gratification and I involuntary cringe. This is not something we should celebrate. This something we should avoid. I think mentioning the famous marshmallow experiment is enough to make my point. Patience and perseverance, in the business world are essential. The second part of this concept is about customers and that they don’t always know what they want. Listen to your customers, but don’t be entrapped by them.

And not less important: “it’s always day one”. There is always more to learn, discuss, improve and question.