Sunday, August 20, 2017

How Good Are You At Problem Solving?

Problems, problems, problems – life can be full of them, and how we approach them can make a huge difference to our productivity, both at work and in our personal lives. Get caught up with a problem for too long and it can have dramatic effects on the business environment as well as negatively impacting the relationships of those involved in the problem (both directly and indirectly).
In the Jan-Feb 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg highlighted how a survey of 106 C-suite executives, representing 91 private and public sector companies in 17 countries showed that 85% of them agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations were bad a problem diagnosis, and 87% agreed or strongly agreed that this flaw carried significant costs.
It’s good to see that these organizations aren’t afraid to be transparent about their weaknesses and the impact this has on their organization, albeit that the question seems very generic. I imagine their response doesn’t correspond to every problem they encounter and further detail would be very illuminating, as to what kind of problems organizations struggle with the most and at what levels these problems occur. Although I can think of 10 times that amount of companies that would never even admit a weakness such as this.
Wedell-Wedellsborg highlights how “it has been 40 years since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jacob Getzels empirically demonstrated the central role of problem framing in creativity. Thinkers from Albert Einstein to Peter Drucker have emphasized the importance of properly diagnosing your problems. So why do organizations still struggle to get it right?”
One answer will be that many organizations do not create or encourage ‘creativity’ across the organizational spectrum, to the extent that in too many organizations creativity is smothered as soon as it raises its head, forming a restrictive top-down driven culture.
And then another “part of the reason” as Wedell-Wedellsborg sights “is that we tend to over-engineer the diagnostic process. Many existing frameworks - TRIZ, Six Sigma, Scrum, and others – are quite comprehensive. When properly applied, they can be tremendously powerful. But their very thoroughness also makes them too complex and time-consuming to fit into a regular workday. The setting in which people need to be better at problem diagnosis is not the annual strategy seminar but the daily meeting – so we need tools that don’t require the entire organization to undergo weeks-long training programs” (p.78).
Which is so true, as many industry sectors don’t have the luxury of being able to allow for lengthy problem solving approaches and need fast track solutions or else they can start to lose market share virtually immediately. Where it’s not just the process but those involved in following it that impact the attention to detail and the time wasted on non-productive factors.
As Wedell-Wedellsborg mentions ‘even when people apply simpler problem-diagnosis frameworks, such as root cause analysis and the related 5 Whys questioning technique, they often find themselves digging deeper into the problem they’ve already defined rather than arriving at another diagnosis. That can be helpful, certainly. But creative solutions nearly always come from an alternative definition of your problem” (p.78-79).
This is when leadership skills succeed or fail – a great leader will always be able to solve problems in the optimum time, gaining consensus on the way, and hence ensuring successful resolution once the implementation takes place. Rush the diagnostics part to much and the ‘celebrations’ for solving the problem quickly will be short lived as the implementation phase starts to stall and falter.
Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests seven practices for effective reframing of a problem, which are quite effective in practice;
1. Establish legitimacy. It’s difficult to integrate a method if you are the only person in the room who understands it;
2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. People who will ‘think outside the box’ and speak freely;
3. Get people’s problem definitions in writing. It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they have different views on the issue;
4. Ask what’s missing. When faced with the description of a problem, people tend to delve into details of what has been stated, paying less attention to what the description might be leaving out. To rectify this, remember to make sure to ask explicitly what has not been captured or mentioned;
5. Consider multiple categories. Powerful change comes from transforming people’s perception of a problem. One way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite people to identify specifically what category of problem they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive problem? An expectations problem? An attitude problem? Then try to suggest other categories;
6. Analyze positive expectations. Look for instances when the problem did not occur, asking ‘what was different about that situation?’ Exploring such positive exceptions, sometimes called bright spots, can often uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may not have considered;
7. Question the objective. Are their different personal drivers involved? For example, imagine two people fighting over whether to keep a window open or closed. The underlying goals of the two turn out to differ: One person wants fresh air, while the other wants to avoid a draft. Only when these two hidden objectives are brought to light through the questions of a third person is the problem (potentially) resolved – by opening a window in the next room, for example.
However I suggest the final important ‘practice’ to effective problem solving is to always to debrief afterwards;
What went well?
What didn’t? and
What can we do differently next time?
Organizations have to learn from each problem solving situation; as well as each and every step of the way – helping them become better pro-active problem solvers – which should be the ultimate goal.
Wedell-Wedellsborg, T. (2017) How good is your company at problem solving? Harvard Business review, Jan-Feb, p.76-83.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Is Transparency the Missing Link?

I started my career nearly 40 years ago now and remember my first job as if it was yesterday. What I distinctly remember from that time is the transparent cultures that I worked in. I remember feeling part of the organisation even as a young inexperienced graduate as the organisations leadership made me feel a valued part of the organisation, where my thoughts and inputs were actively sort by my manager on a reasonably regular basis.
Obviously there was confidential, high level information that wasn’t so transparent, often until after the fact, but that didn’t bother me, as I genuinely felt that I was a ‘cog in the organisational wheel’ albeit a very small cog and part of both a small departmental team and a much larger organisational team. 
When I talk to employees today, however, they often tell me that they feel that they are seen simply as a ‘warm body’ filling a position, to do as they are told and do not feel that they are employed for their thoughts and ideas. It seems, sadly, that transparency is not a business principal that is embraced by many 21st century leaders. I wonder why?
There definitely seems to be a negative trend, back towards command and control leadership which is really sad, as this leadership approach does not build strong organisational cultures. Organisations that encourage or turn a blind eye to this negative style of leadership may feel that their choice is validated because they get the results they want – but they naively don’t appreciate the cost in terms of ‘lost’ employer loyalty, innovation, and performance. Because the allure of the power that comes with the command and control style – these leaders blindly continue on their path, believing that they are solely the ones who have any brains in the organisation – and that employees are there to do as they are told; and not to think or question ideas.
These command and control leaders fear transparency as they believe it will show their weaknesses and shortcomings; and as individuals who can’t stand solely on their ‘work record and skills’ need ‘power’ to keep them in their leadership role – and the ‘perceived feelings’ that this brings. Hence they avoid transparency and create a ‘brick wall’ between themselves and the employees they ‘lead’ – allowing them to operate with perceived impunity. In the end command and control might get results but it doesn’t get optimum performance, sustained growth and innovation – business principles that are vital in today’s cut throat world of business.
Because command and control leaders are rarely transparent, this just fuels the distrusting culture even more, creating a very negative environment for their employees who simply adopt a ‘survival’ culture until they either find an alternative job or until they retire. Creating, in the end, a lose-lose situation for everyone – if only these modern day leaders had the courage to open their eyes and see it.
Transparency is the ‘competitive advantage’ between organisations and leaders you want to work for and those you strive to avoid or escape from. Transparency is one of the key elements of what organisational cultures should be all about. For example some of the benefits of transparency include;
It opens up a trusting relationship between leaders and employees;
It allows employees to contribute and innovate towards clear goals and objectives – a win-win for everyone;
Employees feel part of ‘something’ and feel valued – hence this helps with talent retention;
Day-to-day business discussions focus on genuine ‘pro-active’ honesty in all aspects of the work cycle – where, for example, mistakes aren’t hidden but transparently embraced and actively learnt from; and
Transparency makes an organisation a ‘rich’ place to work in, learn and develop your career.
It seems in today’s hectic global business environment that too many organisations have let poor leadership become the acceptable norm – often because once in place these leaders surround themselves with incompetent people who will follow them and be the ultimate ‘yes’ men – pushing out the best talent – but sadly still getting good enough results to remain in post.
It needs a strong CEO, with a strong board, to constantly challenge and investigate their ‘real’ company culture rather than the one that is portrayed by those in positions of power – as there may be a real difference between perception and reality, which can have a huge impact on an organisations future. A lack of transparency is like a cancer slowly eating away and ‘killing’ the good parts of an organisation.
Often by the time organisations find out that their middle management is not that good, it’s way too late to do anything about it – as by now all the really good talent has already left.
Leadership comes from the top and hence so does transparency. As a leader you need to ‘get out’ and meet you employees – have genuine and transparent one-on-one chats with them to find out what the real culture is like – and then you can more easily adapt and respond.
Just by getting out and having genuine, meaningful, transparent conversations with your employees will go a long way to developing a transparent culture; from there you can build a very special organisation. Why not give it a go today, you won’t regret it…..

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Remeber that Your Career is a Journey.

Like many journey’s we undertake in our lifetime, your career is one where you need to accept that you’ll encounter delays, diversions, pot holes, the occasional ‘road rage’ and all kinds of travellers along the road you will travel.
In today’s hectic, fast paced business environment many youngsters start their journey totally unprepared for the journey ahead and hence when they encounter their first obstacle they falter as they simply hadn’t thought or prepared for any ‘problems’ on their route. Though in fairness it’s not just those that are starting their careers, as there are many out there, of all ages, who are still faltering, as they haven’t embraced that their career is a journey that will inevitably encounter problems along the way.
The first step is to simply accept that your career path will never be smooth sailing, yet at the same time it should not be full of negative surprises and you need to view all barriers as challenging obstacles to overcome – trying to see positive opportunities rather than just the negative obstacles.  
Planning a career is similar to planning any journey you may take - you ask yourself ‘where do I want to end up?’ A simple question, yet very few ever ask or answer it. Yet without having an idea what your final destination is or what it looks like – it’s hard to evaluate how your journey is actually progressing at any given point in time.
In today’s volatile and uncertain world one ‘destination’ goal should be financial independence. Where financial independence should be a realistic future state – a destination where you can live a comfortable life and enjoy your retirement. Some may achieve the status of the superrich, but for most it should be a state of simple independence – where you work in your retirement because you want to, not because you have to. 
Another key career ‘tip’ for the journey should be always having a ‘plan b’. This is a great resource to take with you on your journey, so that when you meet that diversion or blocked road (obstacles that you’re certain to meet more than once on your career journey), you don’t just get stuck in limbo waiting for some unknown hand to clear the obstruction for you – you take control and simply change direction. Not losing sight of your final destination, but taking your own detour, under your own terms. Sure it might be a ‘longer way’ round and/or a bit bumpy, but you’re still moving forward and making progress towards that final destination.
Another tip is to embrace that the path will be problematic and see the ‘blocks and problems’ as challenges and face them with a grin and a smile. See them as adventures and don’t let the problems drag you down, so that you become negative and despondent, as if you do, the only person that is hurting and losing is you – never let your career have a negative influence on your life, as you have the power to turn it around.
For most of us we will work for the best and worst leaders during our career. When you work with the worst don’t be bitter, but learn from them – learn how not to lead, so that when your time comes you can be the best leader you can be. Poor leaders are just people who have been promoted too soon and simply don’t have the skills or knowledge to be great leaders; and who don’t have the courage to look themselves in the mirror and realise their faults, so they rely on power to keep them going. Just keep your head down while you look for something better.
Always keep your short term goals in balance with your long term goal. Retirement will come soon enough and when it does you should have no regrets. Your life should have been a fulfilling journey – where you’ve experienced life’s ups and downs; overcome adversary; met the best and worst of people, and forged long term relationships with the best of them; where you’ve innovated something; really helped someone; and feel your life has made a difference.
Plan your career like you would any other journey, but never forget the importance of this one. Choose your destination carefully and wisely – make it something you can visualise and be excited about. Then plan the steps to get there; and then plan for the diversions, road blocks, and slow moving traffic etc and have alternatives planned for if and when they occur.
None of us are entitled to a successful career, we have to work for it. It won’t necessarily be easy, but if you always see the cup half full then ever obstacles will be viewed as an adventure and a challenge, which will help you deal with the difficult times.
My best friend sent me a set of eight quotes the other day and I want to share five of them with you – as they are tips you can take on your career journey and read them when things aren’t quite going to plan and you’re feeling down;
Never let the things you want make you forget the things you have;
The real beauty of life is in each precious moment – so stop and smell the roses;
Most people who fail at reaching their dream, fail not from lack of ability but from lack of commitment;
Stay positive – when it rains look for rainbows and when it’s dark look for stars;
Thinking too much only complicates your life and creates a problem that wasn’t there in the first place.
It’s never too late to plan or re-plan your career journey – so if you haven’t got a clear destination in mind, maybe now’s a good time to think about it and plan your career accordingly – and then really enjoy the ride.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Has Mediocrity Become the New Business Standard?

What’s happening to organizational standards? It’s hard to pick an exact date, but I’d suggest that prior to the financial crisis many organizations, of all shapes and sizes, were striving to evolve and improve on a year by year basis. There were certain areas of the business that organizations were trying to constantly evolve and it wasn’t just around the product or service offering, but around areas like customer service, quality and the brand or external image. Organizations were striving to develop or enhance their reputation and performance; and were focused on sustainable growth.
Yet since the financial crisis and the continual growth of social media – the drive to enhance customer service seems, for example, to have come to a sudden halt. Even high end ‘luxury’ brands aren’t looking long term any more, but just focusing on the moment and the desire to maximise short-term income, even at the expense of the potential for long term customer loyalty.
For some reason organizations and business schools are promoting the idea that customer loyalty doesn’t really exist and hence now ‘preach’ that trying to ‘create’ loyalty is a waste of time, money and effort. And this is the biggest mistake organizations are making – the selfish focus on short term profitability, is leading to a decline in the focus on sustainable growth and the business environment is becoming more of a constant short-term ‘hustle’ to entice customers to buy their products and services.
A short-term focus is a very mercenary approach to business, but this seems to be becoming the rule rather than the exception. The impact this has on the organizational set-up and organizational culture is astronomical – yet when you analyse the set-up and culture you need for a short-term only focus you can sadly see the attraction.
A short-term focus doesn’t only imply a scant regard for customer loyalty, but also implies a scant regard for employee loyalty too. With a short-term focus organizations just see their employee base as a resource to maximize short-term profitability and nothing else – the advantage of this short-terminism, is that you don’t have to worry about investing time and effort into talent pipelines and succession planning, as you don’t see your workforce as a long term investment. If and when people leave you either replace them internally or recruit from outside, but it’s done on a case-by-case basis and not some fancy business methodology.
The other advantage of this short-term outlook is that you don’t need to recruit the ‘best’ anymore just basically a ‘warm body’ that can ruthlessly pursue short-term goals, with the added advantage that you don’t need – in fact don’t want – great leaders, you want leaders who can implement command-and-control behaviours with their employees just to get the job done.
Organizations accept that some customers may be upset – in fact if there isn’t a reasonably high percentage of unhappy customers, then they actually know they are doing something wrong; as in ‘their world’ there are plenty of ‘new’ customers in the sea and they perceive customers as not being that bright in the first place; and even if the service or quality isn’t as good as ‘advertised’ they know a proportion of the ‘upset’ customers will still be dumb enough to come back and buy again, as it’s ‘easy’ for them.
Business has become so easy for short-term focused leaders, as customers have become less caring and believe it or not, actually expect poor service these days. In fact if the customer doesn’t ‘see’ mediocrity they might even think something seems too good to be true. Hence there’s no doubt that it’s today’s customer base that is encouraging this acceptability of mediocrity in the workplace.
Same goes for culture – short-term focused organizations simply don’t care about building a positive organizational culture, it’s just not important to them. The culture they want is one where employees focus on short term profit maximization at all costs and nothing more.
This makes business life so much easier as building or transforming a culture takes real time and effort; as well as a unique skill set. So not having to worry about a strong, positive culture that allows for sustainable growth is manna from heaven for today’s short term focused, weakly led, organizations.
What’s worse and is the cherry on the cake, is that the younger generations actually see these new mediocre business practices as the new definition of ‘business excellence’ and are redefining the norms and expectations of business. Leaders who wouldn’t have stood a chance in a ‘sustainable’ long-term view organization are now seen as today’s strong leaders as they drive their employees to meet ruthless short-term targets.
Of course, if you don’t understand the concept of sustainable growth, customer loyalty, etc. what chance do you have of developing a future focused organization – it would just be a foreign concept to you and without the skills you wouldn’t even know where to start.
History has shown us that industries and organizations evolve over time – but we all need to take a long hard look at the current direction being taken by too many organizations of all shapes and sizes.
A short-term focus creates an organization that operates at a level of mediocrity, it fails to develop true leaders and in the process creates a talent pool of weak, mediocre leaders that simply know no better.
This has all been allowed to happen over the last few decades as customers have demanded less, complained less and accepted a lot less. The future of business is in our hands – we can demand excellence to force organizations to strive for it – or we can accept mediocrity and that’s exactly what we’ll get.