Monday, October 25, 2010

Keeping it Simple---Simplicity is a Competitive Weapon

Business leaders often talk about the need to simplify.  Complexity can be like a mutant cell reproducing rapidly and absorbing everything in its path.   Things get so complicated that dense power point slide presentations, exceedingly long meetings, and complex vocabulary proliferate.

Of course, at the deepest level, complexity exists in everything around us.  Even single celled amoebas, some of the most basic life forms, are rather complex critters.   However, when most of us learned about them in elementary school, we didn’t need to comprehend their every physical process to explain what made them so unique.  While sitting in biology class and bored out of my mind, I even took notice of the teacher’s simple message:  “amoebas are single cell animals that reproduce without sex.  Now that’s memorable!

In today’s business environment, it’s become more difficult to “get to the point” amid the onslaught of complex ideas and concepts. 

What to do?  

Business leaders must impress upon their people that simplification is a way of life; it is an expectation.  This requires instilling core beliefs like, ‘simple isn’t dumber, it’s smarter.”  Most importantly, senior leaders must “walk the talk” by demonstrating this skill themselves. 

Simplicity creates velocity.  

Simple ideas can be communicated and acted on more quickly.  They are less prone to misinterpretation and encourage inclusion by ensuring more people comprehend the idea.  Simplicity creates more passion, commitment, and achievement. 

Executives that value simplicity can be heard saying things like:

“What is your key point in one or two sentences?

“No more PowerPoint, tell me in one or two typed pages!”

“How would you describe this concept to a child?"

Simplicity is a competitive weapon.  

Companies that value simplicity move faster than those that don’t.  

Embrace simplicity and great business results will follow.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bracketing: A critical executive leadership skill

On June 6, 1944 General Eisenhower had spent the last two days agonizing over the inclement weather that was putting the largest invasion in history in peril.  By waiting for optimal weather conditions, he would lose the advantage of surprise.  The Germans would be able to develop a line of defense and build up their forces. Worst of all allied troops, who had been anxiously awaiting the call to attack, would be forced to linger; morale would certainly suffer.

However, by attacking now the storm and fog could significantly disrupt all air and sea operations.  Eisenhower could end up failing on a monumental scale.  We all know what happened, Ike gave the go-ahead and the rest is history.  He addressed his officers calmly and confidently saying, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is….”

Imagine the stress and the real fear that Eisenhower was managing. How could anyone facing these potential consequences maintain composure and appear confident when so much was on the line? 

The answer is found in a key leadership skill called “Bracketing.” Bracketing is the ability to put tough feelings and emotions aside, knowing that you will return to them at the appropriate time.  It allows you to focus on the moment and maintain your composure even when your “insides” are troubled.  It doesn’t deny feelings; rather, it allows you to manage them appropriately.

As a business leader, you must be able to bracket your emotions.  If not, your emotions will get the better of you; your critical thinking abilities will be negatively impacted.  More importantly, those around you will become confused as they witness that your facial expressions, body language, and demeanor seemingly are disconnected from your words.  They will be distracted wondering what is wrong with you and your message will be lost.

Bracketing takes practice. Prior to addressing an individual or group, spend a moment to consider your emotional state.  What is really going on?  If you are feeling angry, stressed, tired, or distracted, accept it.  Then, imagine putting these emotions on a shelf you will return to later.  Ask someone you know and trust to observe you and provide feedback on your performance.  

Eisenhower believed that great leaders aren’t born, they are made.   One of the leadership skills he employed was bracketing.  Eisenhower was able to hone this skill so effectively that, even under the most trying of circumstances, he was able to instill faith and confidence in those under his command; and, in so doing, changed the course of history. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Past the "But We Already Tried That" Response - my comment to a post by John Kotter on his Blog on (Harvard Business Review)

Getting Past the "But We Already Tried That" response is fantastic piece by John Kotter on the Harvard Business Review HR Blog this month and (this is how I commented directly to him on the blog on10.14.10) this is a great example of how execution can get bogged down.  

Another variation of this "block" is to say, "great idea lets study this issue in more depth and get Joe, Bill, and Mary's opinion. Then you can bring it back to us and we can discuss it again."  This delay strategy often has the same effect as an outright block and can be harder to counter because it is disguised as prudent and thoughtful.  

In either case, it can be effective to  immediately establish what YOU AND THIS GENTLEMAN BOTH AGREE ON.  Then, invest some time offline to resolve the issue. This reduces defensiveness, establishes common values, and protects what might be fragile egos.  

It might go something like this:  "Joe, thanks for your thoughts.  They are really helpful.  Do you agree that it made sense to at least explore this idea because of its potential to drive productivity?  Okay, so I would really appreciate the opportunity to meet with you after this meeting to discuss the issue further.  Are you open to investing some time?  Great, I know we both want to improve this business."  

Now if Joe doesn't agree with the basic need to vet this idea, try another more general outcome, like, " I know we both want to see this business improve."  There are times when a little diplomacy can go a long way.

You and your team have been wrestling with the problem of increasing efficiencies without a big budget to make it happen. You've been authorized to look at every aspect of the process. One particularly enterprising young woman on your team has found that a complicated safety inspection procedure that was put in place fifteen years ago is no longer necessary because the parts that required inspection no longer exist in the product now being produced. And yet workers are holding up the production for the required amount of time in order to get sign-offs anyway.  Great! Simple! We get rid of this inspection process for parts that don't exist and increase productivity by 15%!

Not so fast.
When you bring this insight to the management committee, one grizzled fellow says, "That won't work. We tried that five years ago and the lawyers wouldn't let us take it out of the subcontract." Now, this particular grizzled fellow is used to having his words taken as law. Everyone defers to him because he has been around a long time, is in a position of power, and knows a lot about the ins and outs of the critical and complicated production paths.

What do you do?

Certainly you could try to argue your point, but you don't have all the facts of what actually happened five years ago and past experience has shown that arguing with this fellow can be a dangerous activity.

The basic comeback for "We tried that already and it didn't work" is to say something like: "That's a good point, but that was then and this is today. You know, things change. They always do, for all companies everywhere. We don't make the exact same products. Our customers are changing" [or other basic, clear, facts that illustrate how things have changed]. "I'll make a call to the lawyers today, just to be safe" [if you haven't already done so, which you may have] "and if there's a problem with doing this now, we'll try to solve it and get right back to you. But we need the 15%, right? So unless the lawyers scream, why don't we agree now to go forward with the plan. I mean, it really is a terrific idea."

You must
never get sucked into the black hole of "what happened 5 years ago." He may have more facts than you do, and make you look as if you didn't do your homework. (Of course it's always a good idea, as part of your preparation, to learn about earlier similar efforts and why they didn't work out.) The real danger, though, is getting drawn into a distracting conversation that goes on to the point where the idea is put aside because you've run out of time on the agenda. Or that the ensuing discussion either bores or confuses people so that they give up and lose interest.

"We already tried that" is one of the familiar attacks I've seen many times over the years. Be prepared for it, and mold your response to your own particular situation. What are some of the variations on this attack that you have seen?

John Kotter

From a leadership perspective, Exxon can't hang with Apple...

It is noteworthy that Apple's success has been propelled--even during a deep economic downturn-- by a relentless focus on providing highly distinctive products that consumers don't yet know they need. Once they have them, they can't live without them.This speaks to marketing and innovation savvy that is rivaled by few if an other companies, US or foreign. On the other hand, Exxon's market cap has benefited largely due to the surge in oil prices. No doubt, Exxon is capitalizing on the smart bets it made a decade ago. However, from a leadership perspective, Exxon can't hang with Apple. In Exxon's case you have an undifferentiated product that is driven by supply and demand. In Apple's case value is created by truly "changing the game" in its market space. If Exxon were like Apple, it would be innovating aggressively on (and away) from its core product which is under siege on all fronts.
In response to Patricia Sellers' "Postcards" Blog post on 10.13.10 (on Fortune/
by Patricia Sellers
This morning, as Apple (AAPL) shares neared $300, a Postcards reader, gslusher, weighed in on a post that Jessica Shambora, my Fortune colleague, wrote in October 2009 about the world's largest stock-market capitalizations. Amazing to see how Apple, in less than a year, has vaulted just behind Exxon Mobil (XOM)...on its way to be THE most valuable company?
1. Exxon Mobil $329.44 billion
2. Apple $272.73 billion
3. Microsoft (MSFT) $214.87 billion
4. Wal-Mart (WMT) $196.08 billion

If one wants to be "global," put PetroChina above Microsoft at $232.42 billion.

To think this all started with two guys building computers in a garage...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Remember the power of your silence

I was at the NSC conference in San Diego last week and someone approached me with a question regarding the critically important skill of listening. It seems this executive has been struggling with this skill herself and has noticed that her team has the same challenge.  In her case, she was courageous enough to describe a costly mistake that she personally attributed to poor listening. 

“It is hard to listen when your lips are moving.”  Many of us were lucky enough to hear these words of wisdom (or something close to them) early in our careers.  They speak directly to the all important issue of listening. Listening is without question the most important leadership skill and it should represent +80% of your communication.

When some senior executives think about communication, they have visions of standing at the podium for the big meeting or presenting to the board, financial analysts, or any number of other important groups.  In these forums, the executive’s speaking abilities are showcased. “Wow she can really captivate the crowd” or “He can really think on his feet”.  These are great compliments; but there are better ones like: “she asks great questions” or “he listens to my every word and makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the world”.

Great leaders recognize the power of their silence.  They live to ask good questions and listen intently.  They also understand the deep impact listening has on every individual they encounter.  They know that great listening defines great leadership.

Listening skills can be learned.  They relate closely to understanding and honoring your role as a leader.  Great leaders are great coaches.  A leader’s role is to help the team get to the best answer…not come up with the answer.  When the leader forgets this, you can be assured that lips are moving more than they should.  Unintentionally, the leader has abandoned being a coach and in the process, confused his/her people.

You can read books, look at videos, go to seminars and use other learning aids to improve your listening skills.  Here is another simple tactic.  When your lips are moving, ask yourself if you are being a player or a coach and remember the power of your silence.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Approval vs. Respect

In the The Tao Te Ching, roughly translatable as The Book of the Way and its Virtue (written around 600 BC),  Taoist sage Laozi dispenses a simple bit of wisdom: “Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner.”  These are strong words about a human tendency we all need to guard against.

In business, we sometimes forget that respect is much more important than approval. There is a kid inside all of us and when someone in authority or influence approves of us, we feel good.  Perhaps we made a good decision or hit an important goal.  That is human, positive, and understandable.

Unfortunately approval can also be addictive.  In an attempt to get that “approval rush,” some executives find themselves looking for ways to “score points” with those around them.  It becomes their singular purpose.

While this approval seeking may reduce insecurity, it actually results in a loss of power.  External approval becomes the only way to feel good; plans, actions, and decisions become consciously or unconsciously biased towards securing that approval.  High stress situations usually make this tendency worse.

Respect is different.  Respect is about having the internal fortitude to feel good about your leadership, even when others in power positions disagree with you.  It is about being held in high regard because of your innate abilities, overall track record, and courage.  It is paradoxical that when you stop caring about approval, respect often increases.

Approval seeking is normal.  It has been with all of us since we were children. Don’t underestimate its allure; it can creep in unnoticed and brutal honesty is the only antidote. 

By questioning your motivations regarding a given course of action, and testing your true objectives against real business priorities, you can avoid the “approval trap.”   By doing so you'll be able to stand behind all of your decisions--regardless of what others may think-- because that is what true leadership is all about!

To your success, 

Highlight photos from the CSCMP Annual Global Conference in San Diego - September 26 and 27 2010

Highlight photos from my appearance at the the
CSCMP Annual Globla Conference in San Diego

September 26 and 27, 2010