Do you have a culture of perceptions or a culture of appreciation?

Photo by ozmafan

Thomas J. DeLong writes in on the Busyness Trap:

I frequently talk to MBA students about their careers and aspirations for life. Some of these students worked on Wall Street, and when we talk, a number of them admit that the key to their success was creating the illusion of hard work. One said that he and the other associates would leave their suit coats on their chairs at the end of the work day to make it seem that they hadn’t left for the night — that they were somewhere in the building doing work — when in fact they had gone home.

“We have these little tricks of the trade to create the impression that we are absolutely committed to the organization, even when we don’t have any work,” he told me. “It’s part of managing expectations and our images.”

The trap of busyness is so much a part of corporate culture that many times it clouds our vision of what’s really going on. We expect to be busy; we don’t know what to do when we’re not. The trap of busyness causes us to move with such mindless speed that we’re like the proverbial chicken running around with his head cut off. We plunge into our emails and meetings with a manic energy that forbids reflection, deeply honest conversations, and breaks from the routine.

When I read this part of the post it reminded me of a Seinfeld episode called “The Caddy” where George got his car keys locked in his car and ended up being promoted because of it:

George: Assistant to the General Manager!! You know what that means?!? He’d could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry, I’m a heartbeat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
George: And, it is all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He see my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of  them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.

The myths that more is better; that being active equals being effective; that productivity comes out of constant action; are all conventional wisdoms that should be rooted out of our lives. Increased attention, reflection time and actual conversations are much more effective than all this busy-work. As the comments to DeLong’s post point out, the issue is not only the busyness by itself. It is the culture that supports it. It comes from distorted incentives, hazy norms and unclear management focus.

When I read about the “coat trick” in the post I felt sorry for those people. Think about the kind of culture that creates this kind of behavior. The managers at that place created a culture where it was necessary to cheat in order to give an appearance that you are “working properly”. Sad indeed. While this is a great overstatement, I am not surprised that kind of culture brought on the indifference that led to parts of the financial crisis. When a major part of your culture is based on deceit, it shouldn’t surprise you if it migrates to all parts of your organization.

As some of the comments suggest, the culture described is due, in part, to a lack of focus on outcomes. One commenter, David Kaiser, wrote:

Ultimately, smart bosses, and smart clients don’t care about input (how hard you work and how much you sweat), they care about output (what got done, results), and if you can create a lot of value without a lot of effort, so much the better. Aren’t these the people you want to work with and work for anyway, as opposed to those who want you to prove something through “face time” and the appearance of “hard work?”

I write a lot in this blog about the balance between outcomes and process. I think this is a great example of how a focus on process can go wrong. Yes, hard work, perseverance and commitment are important. However, when you create a culture of perceptions instead of a culture of appreciation don’t be surprised if you end up with George Constanta, Lord of the Idiots, as the Assistant to the General Manager.

Does your organization have a culture of perceptions?


Isn’t it time your company got some haters?

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About a week ago, Matthew Rhoden wrote a post on called: “Create Brand Superfans”. The idea in a nutshell, if I understand correctly, is as follows: Customer satisfaction is a lagging indicator which you can’t based future strategy on. The next level of customer satisfaction is turning customers into advocates. A customer turned advocate supports the brand, actively promotes the brand and is emotionally attached to the brand.

All well and good. My problem started with the prescriptions for action which constricted of three things: 1. Silence detractors. 2. Build a solid and positive customer experience. 3. Offer extraordinary experience. Specifically, I had a problem with prescription number one which Rhoden describes this way:

Silence detractors. Develop an environment where customers will not want to talk badly about a brand. I once spoke with an executive who said his goal was to “not have customers hate us.” Identify and prioritize customer pockets with a high concentration of negativity, and allocate resources to fix the root issues. In other words, to get your customer-experience house in order you must honestly focus on your most common complaints [Emphasis added]

Really? Have customers not hate us? Is that your strategy in order to make zealous advocates of your brand? Can we really talk today about silencing anybody? Seriously?

If I was asked to suggest someone with a way to transform customers into advocates, I would suggest exactly the opposite. Find ways to make specific customers hate you. Don’t waste time on fighting them, just on making their hate greater. Because their hate probably means other customers love you. Having haters means you are making something unique or strange.

In a great post about how overcome the fear of being bold Olivia Mitchell quotes Oren Harri who says:

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity

Not having haters is a full proof strategy for mediocrity. And when you provide mediocrity, you can sure as hell give up on prescription number two and three: Positive customer experience and extraordinary experience – they are both the opposite of mediocrity. Bret L. Simmons writes in a blog post toady:

If you are going to have high expectations of yourself and others, there is no way you can make everyone happy. High expectations by definition means you have to take risks and try some things you’ve never done before, or make changes to established methods in search of continual improvement. When you take risks, some things are not going to work as well as you thought they might, and from time to time, they might even suck.

I hate to go to obvious example but look at Apple. Can you truly say everybody loves Apple? That nobody hates them? Of course not. Actually, some of their most salient value propositions are the ones that are most ridiculed. And if there was ever a company that had advocates in its consumers… I am not saying that companies should not listen to their customers or should not improve products and services. However, trying to make everybody happy (not to talk about silencing haters) is a sure proof way to not being remarkable. Seth Godin wrote a while back in post called The forces of mediocrity:

Maybe it should be, “the forces for mediocrity”…

There’s a myth that all you need to do is outline your vision and prove it’s right—then, quite suddenly, people will line up and support you.

In fact, the opposite is true. Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths… whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it’s over.

Such resistance should be relished and not fought against. It is a clear sign you are on the right way. You can’t make everybody happy. Ever!

Does your company or brand have haters? If not, why not? What should you do to make some?


The culture and processes of learning from failure

Photo by Luc Galoppin

Joshua Gans writes in

The idea is that one innovator’s failure yields important information as to where to experiment next. That is, failure brings with it learning. Specifically, without information on failure, it is easy to believe that continued success is based on skill rather than luck. As game theorists Drew Fudenberg and David Levine showed, your false beliefs, left unchallenged, can be self-confirming. Of course, having more experiments, and failed experiments at that, will provide a necessary ingredient for that task. But it isn’t sufficient. Someone needs to learn about the failure and then learn from it … When it is the same person who fails and tries again, that path is easy. But it’s really very hard to learn from someone else’s experience of failure. Indeed, for all we know, we already have plenty of failure. We just haven’t learned enough from it.

Learning from failure, like learning in general, and especially in organizational settings is dependent on two factors:

1. Processes and habits – as Gans points out – of people don’t know about it, they can’t learn from it. although it seems like a waste of time in the present moment, stopping everything else to make sure everybody knows about failure will allow a team to reap benefits in the long fun. And as long as the team is already learning about the failure, it should also take active steps to learn from the failure. Setting out reflection time is just as important as passing the information around. The task of the system (and its manager) is to transform data and information into knowledge and wisdom in a way that allows intuition and practical wisdom to play out.

2. Culture – it is in vague lately to say that we are negatively biased towards failure. HBR have been focusing on this issue in the last few weeks. I guess it is true. But awareness in not enough. In order to change the attitude and behaviors of people and gain from the benefits of failure, there is a need to create a culture that embraces positive failures and leads then through a process of learning. This means focusing on the right norms and more importantly, maintaining them.

Is the culture in your team supportive of failure? What are the active steps you are taking in order to make failures into learning opportunities?


Thoughts about the things we measure

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In the last few days almost all of my information and knowledge sources (books, podcasts, blogs and RSS feeds and newspapers) have touched to a degree the idea of measurement. More specifically, the question – whether we are measuring the right things? One area where this question is particularly strong these days is the measurement of GDP and how good of an indicator it is for the state and growth of country. Here is, for example, the description of a Freakonomics podcast dedicated to the subject:

For decades, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been a standard yardstick for measuring living standards around the world. (The U.S., at $14 trillion, remains far above any other single nation in GDP.) Martha Nussbaum would rather use something that actually works… she argues that we should listen less to economists who tout GDP as a valuable measure of human welfare and look at all the things that GDP fails to capture — like what sort of opportunities are available to people, or as she puts it, “What are people really able to do and to be?”

In many of these discussions, people point out to the famous quote by Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife. And the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

This line of thinking, however, doesn’t only apply to GDP. It is not only true on the national level but also on the business and personal level. The yardsticks we use should represent our values and the other way around. This is what I wrote on this issue a while back:

When you start treating management as a race for productivity you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you start using carrots and sticks like people are jackasses you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you rely only on measurement of the things you can measure to fuel management you get an unnatural phenomenon.

Here is what Nilofer Merchant wrote on the blog a few days ago:

Words like “productivity,” “efficiency,” and “innovation” are defined by goal posts of our own creation: number of units shipped, revenue and profit, EPS and shareholder return. But when you think of the world this way, you forget two things: first, people, and second, that the numbers themselves are not a product. Both are symptoms of a soulless approach to business: when who we are is dictated by strategy and metrics, what we make lacks humanity — in terms of both our products and services, and the cultures we cultivate.

Are we too focused on things we can measure and not on things we should measure? Are we letting the measurable dominate our actions and discussion? Are we working hard enough to find ways to measure things that we should measure but are difficult to measure?

What are you measuring? What is your team measuring? Why?


Restraint and focus

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On Paul Nunes and Tim Breene write about “going slow in order to win fast”:

In today’s hyper-kinetic business world, most advice seems to be focused on how companies can speed things up. Cut that process step! Shorten that product development cycle! There’s tremendous pressure to get products out fast, in start-ups and large corporations alike. But some business leaders appear to be going in the other direction. The Wall Street Journal recently posited that the secret to Apple’s success lies in its “foot-dragging” — its history of resisting introducing products like the iPod until they can expertly fulfill consumers’ desires. Indeed, Apple has consistently prioritized user experience over the latest in whiz-bang technology. Its products are rarely the newest, but they are always the best at giving consumers what they really want.  Apple grasps something that too few others do: Restraint is a key element of true business success.

Important point.  Restraint is a key element not only in strategy and marketing but also in self-management and in managing other people.

We often equate activity with effectiveness. If we keep moving, if we do many things, if we squeeze the most into one day it means that we are doing our job well. I guess sometimes this is true. However, there is also power to be found in stillness, focus and undivided attention.

Have you ever sat down with a manager or peer to talk and you had the feeling he is not really with you? Was he glancing at his computer screen (or phone), answering questions you did not really ask, and taking the conversation in directions that were not really relevant but just seemed to pop into his mind? In other words, did you feel he was just not with you?

Now, think about the last time you did this to somebody else.

Our thinking and language are so entwined with things like multitasking and span of control that we neglect to appreciate the power of full attention and tend to forget to put the quality over quantity of an activity.

So, how are you practicing restraint? How are you focusing you attention? Are you in a frenzy of activity or are you putting all you have into the things that matter?


Why do we need leaders?

Photo By dbking

About ten days ago editors of the blog made an interesting comment about the media coverage of what was happening in Egypt in a post called: “Do we need leaders”. The media was thoroughly discussing the fact that there seemed to be no leader to the movement attempting to overthrow the government in Egypt and the editors commented:

We’ve been fascinated by how assiduously various forces, for various reasons, have been trying to anoint a leader on a movement that has been aggressive about not having one. Whether it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, someone from the Muslim Brotherhood, Google’s Wael Ghonim, or someone else, it seems hard for many in the media to grasp the idea of a movement without a recognizable, charismatic figure … in front of it.

But it’s not just the media (and let’s not forget that “media” is a plural word) scouring Tahrir Square for someone to take charge. We want someone to be in charge. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that leaderless organizations can dissolve into chaos just as easily as those run by dictators…

Organizations as diverse as Ushahidi and file-sharing sites show how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure.

This comment made me think about a concept called “the myth of leadership”. This concept is described in an 2005 Organizational Dynamics Journal article by Craig Pearce and Charles Manz called: “The New Silver Bullets of Leadership: The Importance of Self- and Shared Leadership in Knowledge Work”.

The myth of heroic leadership – Pearce and Manz claim – is that the source of all wisdom is to be found in the designated leader. The obvious type of leader fitting this description is the ‘‘Strong Man’’ leader or the ‘‘Directive’’ leader. In this type of leadership direction, command and control are used to obtain compliance, often based on fear and intimidation from followers.

Pearce and Manz also claim that most other forms of leadership, such as transactional leadership – founded on the leader offering rewards and incentives in exchange for follower compliance – emphasize a one-way influence process of leaders over followers. The ideas of strong top-down control emanated according to Pearce and Manz from the industrial revolution, through the needs of railroads industry in the 19th century and continued with the rise of the “scientific management” in the beginning of the 20th century. They claim that these ideas continued throughout the 20th century and largely remain to this day.

As editors comment, even though many organizations to date have shown how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure, still “We want someone to be in charge”. Why is that? Why do we have this bias for leadership?

Think about how ingrained this myth is in our culture. If I take part of my culture, Judaism, the idea of some external force that will come and save us all is an important part of the faith. The twelfth principle in the 13 Principles of Faith formulated by Maimonides says: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day”. The Messiah, in Jewish eschatology, is a term that came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be “anointed” with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age – a future time of universal peace and brotherhood on the earth, without crime, war and poverty. We are waiting for him to come. To come and save us.

These kinds of ideas are ingrained in other faiths and cultures as well. And I think it is embedded in our own thinking – we have a bias towards the need of a forceful – somehow holy and external – leader who will show us what needs to be done and take us to a better place.

Pearce and Manz argue that these myths about the importance of the single leader stand in contrast to the needs of many modern organizations. In contemporary knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, both the cognitive and the behavioral capabilities of the wider workforce are needed to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness. While some may be drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life, charismatic, all-knowing leader who can inspire and single-handedly positively transform work systems and the employees who work in them, the realities and challenges of contemporary organizational life require an alternative view of leadership.

This myth is relevant to as both as leaders and as followers. Are we waiting to be led or do we stand out and take the initiative? More importantly, when we are put in the position of a leader – do we act like we are The Messiah holding all the answers and put here on earth to show to dumb followers how it should be done? Or do we treat the power given to us as an opportunity to connect, share, enable, amplify and collaborate with the people around us because the true power lies in diversity?

Are you biased towards leadership? What are you going to do about it?


The atmosphere of #feedback

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I got to teach a few classes about feedback and have always been fascinated with the subject and its personal as well as organizational consequences. I rarely encounter anything that truly makes me rethink my understanding of the concept. A few posts in the last few days have made do just that.

First, Bret L. Simmons, one of the best writers on organizational issues I have been following lately discussed the importance of trust in the feedback interchange because of the interpersonal risk involved:

I always seek feedback from the person that invited me to speak, but other than that, if Gary, Kathy, or another trusted friend did not attend my talk, I don’t ask anyone else what they thought about my presentation. It’s risky to tell people the truth about their performance; therefore, I won’t ask anyone that does not know me well enough to trust me to take that risk.

Next, Auren Hoffman from Summation blog wrote about how people are too afraid of rejection.

I would guess that people who take rejection well make much better employees.  They can take the appropriate level of risk and still feel good about themselves.  When interviewing, test this trait.

Finally, Peter Bregman writes about the pointlessness of arguing:

And that’s when it hit me: arguing was a waste of my time.

Not just in that situation with that police officer. I’m talking about arguing with anyone, anywhere, any time. It’s a guaranteed losing move.

Think about it. You and someone have an opposing view and you argue. You pretend to listen to what she’s saying but what you’re really doing is thinking about the weakness in her argument so you can disprove it. Or perhaps, if she’s debunked a previous point, you’re thinking of new counter-arguments. Or, maybe, you’ve made it personal: it’s not just her argument that’s the problem. It’s her. And everyone who agrees with her.

When I teach feedback workshops I always talk about the importance of creating a shared purpose and atmosphere of trust in the beginning of the interaction (and sometimes, when things go astray, in the middle). After I read these posts and thought about it I realized I was not sure I have ever really stressed the importance of this point enough. Because I am not sure I really understood it to this level.

All of these wonderful thinkers point out to this exact issue. How hard it is to actually be in a state of learning and acceptance to other people. How important it is to create an atmosphere of trust between two people before you actually try to engage in the shared learning that is feedback.

And I ask you this – how are you going to make sure next time you are giving feedback that the two of you are actually in a place that will enable you to productively engage in mutual understanding and growth?