Letting Go

When was the last time you tried something new? How did it make you feel? If you’re adventurous, you probably felt thrilled. If you’re fearful, you are probably still wondering if the experience was worth the risk. So it is with organizations. Adventurous (or proactive) organizations thrive; the fearful (or reactive) survive—just barely.

Organizations (and individuals) that cannot let go of “dead ideas” are doomed to failure. Think about how many processes your organization manages every day. How many of these processes are preventing you and your staff from being maximally productive? Why aren’t the processes updated? Is it because everyone is so overworked that there is no time to address the issue?

If there is no time now to address the issue, then when? Constantly relegating issues to the backburner is like clinging to the old ways in the hope that the old ways will somehow magically reinvent themselves. These old ways are nothing more than dead ideas. And there is no place for dead ideas in productive organizations.

The sad news is that this way of thinking is not confined to individuals or the executive boardroom. Governments also think this way. This inability to let go of tired thinking is decaying everyone and everything.

Much has been written about change management because change is difficult to accomplish (think about changing just one of your habits—it takes at least three months of solid effort to build a new habit). But what seems to be coming through in organizations is that for change to occur, all employees need to be onboard. This requires changing old ways of thinking.

So how do we let go of old ways of thinking, of dead ideas? According to Matt Miller, there are three steps.

  1. Identify the ideas that matter. Since we can’t boil the ocean, pick the projects or ideas that will really make a profoundly positive impact on your organization or your life. These ideas will typically be strategic—those “sacred cow” ideas that no one has dared question until now.
  2. Understand each dead idea’s “story.” This comes down to identifying the root cause. How did this process become so entrenched with sub-processes? Why did this process seem to make sense in the first place? By understanding the root of the idea, it’s much easier to discern an action for change.
  3. Reach for new ways of thinking. Don’t dismiss ideas because they seem counterintuitive. If they seem counterintuitive, this may be a sign of how skewed our thinking has become; entrenched with only one way of doing things. Brainstorm. Look at possibilities. By reaching for new ways of thinking, we expand our minds.

In the end, we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to continuously improve and grow. By shedding old ways of doing things and inventing and implementing new concepts, we all thrive. Don’t get stuck in an outdated paradigm just because it’s been there all along.

What Keeps Leaders Awake?

In a recent risk management survey by Aon Global Risk Consulting, organizations cited 50 concerns that are “keeping them awake at night.” The top three are: the economy, regulations, and competition.

While risk is something for which many organizations prepare; in today’s interconnected world, it is hard to only focus on individual organizational risk. This is because risks affecting one organization are not always isolated to that organization. Corporations (and countries) can no longer function as islands or enjoy immunity from risks affecting others. Look at the economy, for instance.

In 2009, the problems in the small country of Greece were not confined to its borders. It disrupted markets worldwide; its problems spilling to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, and others.

And even before the Greece crisis, the United States was dealing with its own economic woes in 2008—its mortgage issues were felt by many organizations around the country and around the globe.

On top of economic struggles and perhaps because of them, governments have taken on more power in terms of regulating both government and business. This includes not only the financial sector, but all industries. New and changing regulations are a risk for corporations—the need is to adapt processes quickly to ensure regulators are happy.

The third risk, competition, is forcing big players to innovate and differentiate to survive the competitive onslaught. While survival is the stopgap; thriving is the goal.

Do you remember the “Super Size Me” documentaries? They forced McDonald’s to offer healthier meal choices on its menu. It was a matter of brand reputation (which ranks number 4 on the list of 50 risks). As McDonald’s was dragged through the documentaries, other fast food chains took note and followed quickly to update their menus. None of them wanted to be linked with obesity and poor health.

While most risks can be managed efficiently by organizations that proactively practice continuous improvement, those that scramble to react to crises are doomed to fall further behind. Think about business interruption, for example.

Major and natural disasters may impact whole communities, but smaller disasters can also wreak havoc. And we rarely hear about the smaller disasters. What happens if your library’s basement gets flooded? Do you have a contingency plan to salvage your information? Have you practiced the plan? What about if your computer system crashes? How will this impact your business?

Business interruption, if it occurs, does not need to occur for prolonged periods of time if the organization is ready to deal with anything. Lean organizations that practice efficiency in all processes are more agile to address small or large disasters. Bloated organizations can never be as ready to handle the problems nor are they able to quickly recover from disasters.

To be highly efficient and effective, here are four considerations:

  1. Implement and maintain a continuous improvement strategy so that your organization is ready to handle any risk at any time.
  2. Ensure that organizational policies and procedures are current. Test them to make sure they make sense and that they will enable productivity, especially in the face of risk.
  3. Train and re-train all staff, so that they understand policies, procedures, and their individual roles and responsibilities in the organization.
  4. Develop an organization-wide culture that includes efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. This starts with leaders championing the culture shift and then practicing the change. Lead by example.

Organizations that plan for the future by incorporating a continuous cycle of efficient and effective practices will thrive even when faced with adversity. Those that do not have a healthy risk management strategy may not survive.

Time and Money—An Organizational Focus

Poorly run organizations waste time (and time is money). This inhibits the company’s ability to hit markets at optimum times. Allow me to give you an example

Several years ago, I worked with a company in the wastewater treatment industry that consistently put in long hours to meet deadlines. Why all the long hours? The owners relied on one individual to make all of the decisions. This was far from a wise use of corporate time and resources. The result was burn-out, missed deadlines, and in the end, the company went out of business.

An inaccurate assessment of the time needed to conduct a project, write a report, develop a product, etc. is critical to organizational success. If the estimate of time is over or under, money is wasted. And if your company is in the business of bringing products to market, the window of opportunity is open only for so long.

Another huge time and money guzzler that takes away from strategic organizational focus is technology. If an organization is “wedded” to its technology and refuses to alter its approach, it often consumes more cash before realizing too late that it must change direction. Don’t keep throwing good money into bad software under the assumption that it costs less to “update” what you already have. It usually doesn’t.

A recent client was sometimes spending upwards of seven or more hours trying to print a 15-page report. If software is causing so wasted time, why spend time and money trying to fix a problem that in all likelihood cannot be fixed? Stop, scrap, and start over to save money. Knowing when to let go of technology is a management skill that cannot be underestimated.

Mismanaged organizations consume budgets without ever hitting milestones necessary to achieve success. In the process, they produce frustrated and burned-out staff along with the possibility of business shut-down.

Don’t be afraid to let go of products and processes that no longer work effectively or efficiently, regardless of the cost to replace them. In the long-term, replacement will yield far greater productivity results.

Benchmark studies over the past 15 years have shown that organizations can reap tremendous rewards with modest or no capital investments. Some of these gains have resulted in, for example:

  • Doubled outputs and profits with the same staff allocation
  • Doubled productivity across all levels of the organization
  • Reduced throughput time and defects by 90%
  • Reduced supply chain inventory by 75%
  • Reduced space and unit costs by 50%

What’s your organization doing? Is it surviving or thriving? If it’s not thriving, take a look at how your staff’s time is being used. You may be surprised at the potential savings that can be had through simple changes.

Fueling Productivity through Employee Engagement

Sarah Van Allen of Gallup, Inc. says, “To win customers—and a bigger share of the marketplace—companies must first win the hearts and minds of their employees.” Sarah is correct.

Long gone (or should be) the days when employees were treated as “things”—useful only for specific tasks and considered to be easily replaced. This “assembly line” mentality is no longer the norm. Employees demand more from their employers and must get more to stay engaged.

A 2012 Gallup survey of over 49,000 business or work units including 1.4 million employees in 192 organizations, across 49 industries, and in 34 countries—makes it clear that employee engagement is an important competitive differentiator for organizations. If you don’t like your employees or they don’t like you, you’ve got a serious problem that will impact your bottom line.

And if employers think their internal issues are kept inside the company, think again. Today, social media quickly exposes both good and bad employers. With a tweet, blog, Facebook or LinkedIn update, YouTube, and you name it—bad employers can “burn” more quickly than an ignited match.

According to Gallup research, employee engagement affects nine performance outcomes. They found that the top performing 25 percent of organizations share these qualities:

  • 37% lower absenteeism
  • 25% lower turnover (in high-turnover organizations)
  • 65% lower turnover (in low-turnover organizations)
  • 28% less shrinkage
  • 498% fewer safety incidents
  • 41% fewer patient safety incidents
  • 41% fewer quality incidents (defects)
  • 10% higher customer metrics
  • 21% higher productivity
  • 22% higher profitability

If your organization is not a top performer, here are some suggestions on how to engage your employees for maximum performance and productivity:

  • Managers must develop a strong relationship with their employees.
  • Managers must communicate clearly with their staff.
  • Managers must provide employees with work that matches their skill set.
  • Employees that have strong co-worker relationships are more engaged.
  • Employees that collaborate with their co-workers to take risks and achieve stretch goals are more engaged.
  • Managers must provide their staff with opportunities to learn and grow.

In other words, managers are the key to whether employees are engaged or disengaged. Great managers engage their employees’ by encouraging them to use their talents instead of trying to change them. If an employee is not a good fit in one area, great managers don’t automatically dismiss them; they find them work that is a good fit.

Great managers need to ask their employees what they want and what they need to be effective in their roles. Great managers develop their employees around their strengths.

Whether a company thrives, survives, or suffers is directly affected by how it engages its employees. Surveys have consistently shown that employee engagement affects key performance outcomes, regardless of the organization, industry, or country.

What will you do today to engage your employees for maximum performance?

Brainstorming—Not for Everyone

Many of us have participated in a brainstorming exercise at some point in our business careers. In fact, brainstorming seems to be the preferred technique by which organizations generate creative ideas and solutions for problems. However, it may surprise you to learn that brainstorming is no more effective for developing creative ideas than having individuals work on their own.

Alex Osborn, author of the 1948 book, “Your Creative Power,” popularized brainstorming. But a study in 1958 at Yale University refuted Osborn’s claim the many of us work more creatively when we are teamed up. The study found that those who worked on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups and their solutions were more “effective.”

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis states that “decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In other words, brainstorming does not unleash the potential of the group, but, rather, makes each individual less creative.

While rules are important when working with groups, perhaps the most inhibiting rule to creativity is to not criticize other’s ideas. The rules for brainstorming (as originated by Osborn) are:

  1. Come up with as many ideas as you can.
  2. Do not criticize one another’s ideas.
  3. Free-wheel and share wild ideas.
  4. Expand and elaborate on existing ideas.

If group members are not allowed to provide criticism to ideas, how is creativity expected to flourish? Certainly reviewing ideas later is an option (and this is what typically happens after a brainstorming session), but it is far more creative to dispel bad ideas from the onset.

Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley has repeatedly shown that groups engaging in “debate and dissent” come up with approximately 25 percent more ideas than those engaging in brainstorming. In addition, these ideas are typically rated as more original and useful.

However, using criticism depends on the make-up of the brainstorming group. Members that are comfortable and well-known to each other may benefit from a bout of criticism to ideas, while engaging in lively idea generation. But allowing criticism when there are new members or where members are highly introverted may do more harm than good.

From my perspective, there are only two ways in which brainstorming can be effective:

  1. Creative brainstorming can only occur with members that are comfortable with accepting and giving criticism.
  2. An effective facilitator must guide the group to allow an invigorating debate of ideas and allow participants to be honest about what ideas are good and what ideas do not merit further consideration.

There is no need to suffer through rubbish ideas during brainstorming. And if you happen to be on the receiving end of the “thumbs down” for your idea, do not become offended. Remember that the “thumbs down” is not for you, but for your idea. And we all occasionally have both good and bad ideas.

The Little Things ARE Important

When we focus on getting things done, we typically focus on allotting time for the important and time-consuming tasks. If it’s very important and it’s going to take a long time, we must get it done first, right? Yes and no.

In prioritizing, it is easy to forget to take care of work that can be done in a minute or two; regardless of its importance. When we consistently defer doing the little things, they can become big things. And big things can be a lot harder to manage.

When we end up facing a mountain of big things, we can become overwhelmed. Overwhelm may lead to procrastination which may lead to more little things piling up and becoming big things. It becomes a vicious cycle—little work becomes big work that leads to overwhelm that leads to procrastination. This can lead to stress that eventually leads to poor health and in extreme cases, death.

Take e-mail as an example. How many opened e-mails do you have right now in your e-mail inbox? Any number above zero is too many. Why? Because as soon as you open an e-mail, an action is required that will allow you to remove it from you inbox.

If you open an e-mail and leave it in your inbox (whether or not you acted on it), the accumulating open e-mails in your inbox become electronic clutter that contribute to mental clutter. And mental clutter contributes to overwhelm. For e-mail management, follow the B-F-A-T rule.

For any task that can be done within a couple of minutes, do it immediately. If you do, you will decrease your workload almost instantaneously. You will also decrease your mental clutter. The goal is to start working on tasks that can get done quickly and then follow through to completion.

In other words—if you start, don’t stop until it’s done.

Any tasks that keep nagging at you such as the bill that needs to be paid, the appointment that needs to be made, the paper on your desk that needs to be filed—all of these things can take less than a few minutes, but as soon as you get them done, you are saving yourself from carrying them in your head as a “need to do.”

If you have thought about something more than once, but have not taken action to complete it, this is an item that must be taken care of right away; especially if you can get it done in a few minutes.

In addition to taking care of the little things immediately, do not write the little things on your “to do” list. If it takes you longer to write down what you need to do than it does to actually do it, then start doing it and don’t stop until you’re done.

A little known side-effect of doing quick tasks right away is that the action of not stopping something that you start can translate to developing good habits. For instance, if you know you need to go for a workout (the thought keeps nagging you), putting on your runners (starting) will take less than a minute. Once you’ve got them on, follow through on the task (don’t stop).

Whether at work or at home, turn nagging thoughts into actions and start working on all the little things to completion. When you do, the inertia of your actions will result in good habits that can last a lifetime.

All you need is to get started.

Lessons in Management

A friend of mine, Thomi Glover, sent me lessons in management that I am sharing here with you (thank you, Thomi!). The effectiveness of these lessons is in their simplicity—simplicity that is nothing short of common sense.

If you’re in management or aspiring to be, you will find these lessons to be great reminders of how behaviour impacts outcomes and results. You will also recognize that these lessons are not taught this way in business schools.

Disclaimer: Sensitive readers are warned that the lessons are framed as jokes and not all language in the lesson is “business-like.” Each joke is meant to illustrate a lesson and is not intended to offend anyone.

Lesson 1

A man is getting into the shower just as his wife is finishing up her shower, when the doorbell rings. The wife quickly wraps herself in a towel and runs downstairs. When she opens the door, there stands Bob, the next-door neighbor.

Before she says a word, Bob says, “I’ll give you $800 to drop that towel.”

After thinking for a moment, the woman drops her towel and stands naked in front of Bob.

After a few seconds, Bob hands her $800 and leaves.

The woman re-wraps her towel and goes back upstairs. When she gets to the bathroom, her husband asks, “Who was that?”

“It was Bob the next door neighbor,” she replies.

“Great!” the husband says. “Did he say anything about the $800 he owes me?”

Moral of the story:

  • If you share critical information pertaining to credit and risk with your shareholders in time, you may be in a position to prevent avoidable exposure.

Lesson 2

A priest offered a nun a lift. She got in and crossed her legs, forcing her gown to reveal a leg. The priest nearly had an accident. After controlling the car, he stealthily slid his hand up her leg. The nun said, “Father, remember Psalm 129?”

The priest removed his hand. But changing gears, he let his hand slide up her leg again. The nun once again said, “Father, remember Psalm 129?” The priest apologized “Sorry sister but the flesh is weak.”

Arriving at the convent, the nun sighed heavily and went on her way.

On his arrival at the church, the priest rushed to look up Psalm 129. It said, “Go forth and seek, further up, you will find glory.”

Moral of the story:

  • If you are not well informed in your job, opportunities for advancement will pass right by you.

Lesson 3

A sales rep, an administration clerk, and their manager are walking to lunch when they find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a Genie comes out. The Genie says, “I’ll give each of you just one wish.”

“Me first! Me first!” says the admin clerk. “I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat, without a care in the world.” Puff! She’s gone.

“Me next! Me next!” says the sales rep. “I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with my personal masseuse, an endless supply of pina coladas and the love of my life.” Puff! He’s gone.

“OK, you’re up,” the Genie says to the manager. The manager says, “I want those two back in the office after lunch.”

Moral of the story:

  • Always let your boss have the first say.

Lesson 4

An eagle was sitting on a tree resting, doing nothing. A small rabbit saw the eagle and asked him, “Can I also sit like you and do nothing?”

The eagle answered: “Sure, why not?”

So the rabbit sat on the ground below the eagle and rested. All of a sudden, a fox appeared, jumped on the rabbit and ate it.

Moral of the story:

  • To be sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very, very high up.

Lesson 5

A turkey was chatting with a bull. “I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree,” the turkey sighed. “But I haven’t got the energy.”

“Well, why don’t you nibble on some of my droppings?” replied the bull. “They’re packed with nutrients.”

The turkey pecked at a lump of dung and found it actually gave him enough strength to reach the lowest branch of the tree. The next day, after eating some more dung, he reached the second branch.

Finally after a fourth night, the turkey was proudly perched at the top of the tree. He was promptly spotted by a farmer, who shot him out of the tree.

Moral of the story:

  • Bull shit might get you to the top, but it won’t keep you there.

Lesson 6

A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold the bird froze and fell to the ground into a large field. While he was lying there, a cow came by and excreted its dung on him.

As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, he began to realize how warm he was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy.

A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him.

Morals of the story:

  • Not everyone who craps on you is your enemy.
  • Not everyone who gets you out of crap is your friend.
  • And when you’re in deep crap, it’s best to keep your mouth shut!

This concludes the six-lesson management course. Any questions?