Category Archives: Cultural Enablers

Inspiring People to Achieve Epic Wins

“An Epic Win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. it was almost beyond the threshold of imagination and when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of.” – Jane McGonigal

The problem with many teams I meet is that they have been conditioned to accept their processes and work environment as fixed.  Time after time I hear them say, “we can’t change that…that will never be allowed…we tried to do that, but they said no…that isn’t possible,” etc.  They embrace failure before they start.  What’s worse, underlying these and similar sentiments is the heartbreaking fact that they lack confidence in themselves and their ability to positively affect change.

The online gaming industry has exploded in recent years, and according to Jane McGonigal, one of the reasons for the meteoric rise is the connection online games make with people on a deeply emotional level.  Well designed games allow people to experience challenge, achievement, and feedback in ways reality does not.  Through a series of progressively harder challenges and real time feedback, online games create an environment where participants are intrinsically motivated to push themselves past the threshold of their own imagination and achieve epic wins.

So how do online games motivate players to spend countless hours making mistakes and building skills…and more importantly, is it possible to create a similar environment with our continuous improvement processes?  Here are a few of the keys to developing world-class online games that I believe are most relevant to leaders.

Provide an epic purpose – give them something worth believing in.  If they don’t see the end goal as worthy of the struggle and pain of the journey, they will abandon the efforts at the first sign of failure.

Start small – to create the momentum of accomplishment, select ideas and improvements that take no more than 1 hour to complete and are completely in their control.  The longer it takes to complete the first actions, the harder it is to create and keep momentum.

Build difficulty over time – like a good game, think about the difficulty of your improvements like levels in a game.  Everyone starts at level one, and as they move up the levels through action and accomplishment, the difficulty and complexity of both the problems and the improvements increase.  In each level, the goal is to have the difficulty be within reach of the player, but hard enough to cause them to struggle and grow as a change agent.

Give consistent real, time feedback – at each stage of the game, feedback is a critical and should be an immediate part of the experience.  Through visuals controls, peer to peer recognition and management follow up, seek to provides ways for team members to know their progress at all times.

Make it social – create a collaborative support structure where both team members and team leaders are supported on their journey.  Have team members work together on both suggesting and implementing ideas.  Finally, manage the improvement process visually, so everyone can see, feel and experience the struggles and victories together.

If we are serious about effecting change, we must acknowledge that without the belief that we can create positive outcomes, it is impossible to create a culture where individuals and teams strive each and everyday to achieve epic wins.  As Bill Strickland said, “we have to change the way we see ourselves before we can change our behavior,” and to change how we see ourselves we have to create an environment where teams create their own “winning streaks.”  Online games do this by allowing teams to start small, level up, get real time feedback and create urgent optimism to inspire your people to go after their own epic wins.  Only after we realize that good continuous improvement systems need to embed the elements of a good game will we consistently move teams from “praying to win, to hoping to win, to knowing they could win, to expecting to win.” (Gail Goestenkors)

Be Present and Listen Deeply

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Leaders who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Anonymous

Listening is a skill…and for most of us, it is underdeveloped.  When done well, listening is an active event, which leads to a greater understanding of your people, your process and your potential.  When done poorly, listening is a reductive exercise where information and data is cherry picked based on our previous experience, beliefs and biases.  In our Coaching Camp, we teach leaders the importance of listening deeply as a critical step in making an emotional connection with team members.  When a leader develops his / her ability to stay in the moment, they set the stage for a productive partnership where they can inspire team members to engage in continuous improvement and challenge them to grow.

The Japanese have an expression, “ichi go, ichi ei.”  Loosely translated, it means “one time, one meeting” and beautifully demonstrates the concept of listening deeply.  When two people meet in a traditional tea house, they are not allowed to discuss any topic other than their immediate surroundings and the elements of the tea ceremony (the tea, the house, the atmosphere, etc.)  The intent is to develop one’s ability to focus fully on the moment and not be distracted by anything else.  It is a discipline in “being present,” and allows the participants to learn to not only listen to what is being said, but more importantly, what is being communicated.

What effect can listening deeply and being present have on your results?

Risk van Baaren and his colleagues at the University of Nijmegen designed a simple experiment that demonstrated the power of listening deeply and connecting.  The team set up an experiment in a restaurant and asked a waitress to help them.  After seating the customers, she was instructed to take their order in one of two ways.  50% of the time she was to listen politely and then use positive phrases such as “okay” and “coming right up.”  The other 50% of the time, she was asked to repeat the order back to the customers.  The effect of demonstrating she had listened and understood their desires by repeating the customers words back to them was significant.  The customers who had heard their own words repeated left tips that were 70 % larger than those left by the other group.

As team members we all long to feel as if we add value to our organization and that our contribution is recognized by those who lead us.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to make each person feel valuable by removing roadblocks, making the best use of their abilities and listening deeply.  When people feel valuable they create a connection with the organization, each other and those who lead them.  Only when an emotional connection has been made, can you engage your team fully in the process of change and challenge them to reach their potential.

Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

Managing Rapid Change on a Large Scale

For Starbucks, the world’s leading retailer, roaster, and brand of speciality coffee, 2008 was a tough year.  Amid a struggling economy and increased competition from cheaper rivals, the company’s net income during the first three months of the year fell 28 percent compared to the same period in 2007. Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz announced that the company had “lost its way,” becoming too standard and corporate, and less entrepreneurial—less like a local coffee shop.  Shultz resumed the role of CEO and president, and for the first time the company closed stores on a broad scale.

Fast forward a year.  Starbucks posts a 4-percent growth in total sales, comparable store sales are up 4 percent (driven by increases in store traffic and average ticket price), and the company’s margins are up 8.5 percent.  As a result, the company’s earnings jump to $241.5 million in the final quarter of 2009, more than three times the $64.3 million seen a year earlier.  Even more impressive is that Starbucks’ consumer research shows higher satisfaction in every major indicator, such as value perception and experience, compared with 2008.

So why should you care about Starbucks’ turnaround?

Aside from the obvious financial success, the methodology behind the transformation reveals important lessons about driving rapid change on a large-scale.  Although many analysts would argue that the turnaround was due to store closures, aggressive cost cutting, and price increases, Shultz would take offense at this “financially focused” view of the transformation.  Starbucks did shore up key financial metrics, but Shultz’s vision for the company’s turnaround was to reconnect with its past: build upon the legacy of innovation and provide customers with a distinctive “Starbucks experience.”

In the July/August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, Shultz discussed his views of the four key elements to the dramatic turnaround at Starbucks:

Own the issues.  The first step of the turnaround was to challenge the leadership team to accept responsibility for the self-induced mistakes.  This started with Shultz.  As chairman of the board, Shultz acknowledged to the entire company that he was just as much to blame for the current situation as operational leaders.  An often overlooked step in the process, leaders “owning reality” is critical to expediting change.  Without the willingness to take responsibility, leaders spend their time justifying past decisions and protecting sacred cows, rather than learning from mistakes and making immediate course corrections.

Engage leadership in the process.  It was critical to Shultz that all managers and leaders own the relationship between each barista and customer.  “One cup of coffee, one customer, one barista at a time.”  To help ensure this, Shultz created a very public expression of this commitment to be accountable and responsible for each and every customer experience.  In the midst of financial woes, the company spent $30 million and took all 10,000 store managers to New Orleans for a company conference.  Prior to the start of the conference, every manager participated in five hours of community service (50,000 hours in total).  Using their hands, heads, legs, and backs, the team kicked off their renewed commitment to customer service by doing service.

Raise revenue and cut cost. After getting buy-in from company leaders, the team initiated a number of improvements aimed at quickly changing the financial condition of the company.  During the course of the first year, the company cut $581 million in costs, of which 99 percent were permanent and not customer-facing.  The company also made a number of changes in the stores to better align product and service offerings, including reintroducing Pike’s Place blend, selling healthier snacks, and launching a new loyalty card.  Finally, Starbucks ignored conventional advice and launched its highly popular VIA instant coffee.  With $100 million in annual sales during its first year, VIA provided a much needed shot in the arm as well as opened more than 30,000 new points of distribution for the company.

Focus on the customer experience.  As Shultz stated, Starbucks brand is based on quality coffee, but more important, on the relationship each customer has with a barista.  In a society where good service is rare and basic decency is often absent, Shultz decided the company would take a stand and demonstrate civility, respect, and trust in each customer interaction.  In addition, much to the dismay of Wall Street, Shultz got rid of reporting monthly metrics at the store level to move the pressure from producing good numbers to producing a good experience.  Finally, Starbucks launched www.mystarbucksidea.com as part of a new social networking strategy to connect the company with its customers in real time.  My Starbucks Idea is a portal that allows customers to suggest improvements to the store, products, and pricing, and for other customers to vote and identify the most popular ideas.  Actual Starbucks employees engage with the customers each week, respond to the ideas, and when an idea is selected, provide timetables and commentary on the implementation.  The portal generated more than 75,000 ideas in its first year alone.

At its core, “Starbucks represents something beyond a cup of coffee,” says Shultz.  While targeted revenue and cost improvements are one of the four primary elements of Starbucks’ transformation, Shultz emphatically states that it was the focus on the leadership engagement and creating a unique customer experience that were the secret to the success.

Like Starbucks, if we want to create an environment where passion drives our people and people drive our profits, we need to view change as something beyond the tools and techniques of continuous improvement.  Developing a lean culture is not the byproduct of achieving financial results through targeted kaizen events and Six Sigma projects.  In our desire to drive business results, we often let data, metrics, and financial impacts take precedence over crafting an inspiring vision and creating an emotional connection between our people and a larger purpose.

To accelerate your results, spend less time defining the what and how of continuous improvement, and more time defining who and why.  Engage people with an inspiring vision and connect their activities through aligned management systems.  By pointing the organization toward a customer-centric future state and giving people the autonomy to change products, services, and processes to achieve their goals, the organization can exponentially increase its success.

Creating Space for Change

Welcome to the Grand Cafe in Oxford, England.  The Grand Cafe was one of the first coffee houses to open in England in 1650.  With the replacement of alcohol as the daytime drink of choice, the English coffee house blossomed into a locus of learning and was crucial to the development and the spread of “The Enlightenment.”  The open layout and informal atmosphere of the 17th century coffee house gave rise to “penny universities” where virtuosi from different backgrounds and specialities came together and “conducted research” without the formality of the university setting.  “The coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate to read, as well as learn from and to debate with each other…” (Bryan Cowan).  Many of the innovations that developed during this period in world history have a coffee house somewhere in their story.

Like the english coffee house, the use of space in organizations can play a critical role in creating a environment which facilitates daily process innovation.  From the layout of the physical work area to the design of systems which expose problems in real time, leaders would be wise to pay attention to the flow of work, people and information when establishing expectations for rapid change.

When designing your space, let the flow of work drive the location of people and materials.  Seek to open up the space and make it easier for everyone to see the entire process at a glance as well as communicate in real time without physical barriers.  Create opportunities for people to “bump” into each other throughout the day and have spontaneous interactions.  Design collaboration zones in close proximity to the work where teams have the room and the raw materials to experiment with new solutions to daily process problems.

Above all, demand more from your work area than just a place to house computers and cubicles.  There is a magic dynamic which occurs when people are able to connect with their process and engage with other in collaborative activities.  The more successful you are at using space to help drive these behaviors, the more surprised you will be at the rate and impact of the changes that will result.

Leadership and the War of Art

Recently, an executive asked me to help develop a profile for recruiting new sales managers.  The company currently uses a highly refined and successful selection process which hires results-oriented sales managers who aren’t afraid to give pointed feedback and hold people accountable.  This approach has catapulted the company to great success and led to numerous industry leading benchmarks.  Over the past few years however, results have plateaued and traditional methods of leading a salesforce have reached a point of diminishing returns.

To solve the problem, the company wants to move from a traditional top-down “carrot and stick” culture to one that is driven by high levels of employee engagement and intrinsic motivation.  This requires a different type of leader who can connect with people, inspire them to embrace the challenge to grow, and engage them in the process of making daily improvements.  It requires a leader who understands that true accountability is less about waving a big stick and more about creating an environment where people own their results and find joy in continuously pushing themselves to get better.

So how do you find a leader like this?  In my experience, you can’t find them around every corner and they don’t all share similar backgrounds, education and experience.  They do however, possess similar characteristics that enable them to connect with others and create high performance teams.  Novelist Steven Pressfield outlined some key characteristics of successful creative professionals in his book, The War of Art: Breakthrough the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles that I believe are consistent with some of the characteristics we should be looking for in a leader.

First, the type of leader we are looking for is not afraid to act in the face of fear and endure adversity.  Second, he or she accepts no excuses and “plays it as it lays.”  Next, he or she is dedicated to mastering technique but does not show off as their skills improve.  Fourth, we need a leader who recognizes his or her own limitations and does not hesitate to ask for help.  Finally, regardless of the outcome of any singular event, he or she does not take failure (or success) personally.  They understand that “everything can look like a success or a failure in the middle” (Rosabeth Moss Kanter) and thus is never afraid to take on new challenges and risk being wrong in the pursuit of discovering what is right.