Category Archives: Leadership

Achieving Peak Performance

“No one appreciates the agonizing effort (Miyamoto) Musashi has made.  Now that his years of training have yielded spectacular results, everybody talks about his “God-given talent.”  That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.” – Yoshikawa Eiji

Struggling to reach your potential is hard work and in the words of Robert Browning, it is “a road less traveled.”  And while it is not clear why so few put in the time and dedication to discover just how good they can be, it is clear that what is often mistaken for God-given talent is just the byproduct of what Geoffrey Colvin calls “deliberate practice.”  In his book, Talent is Overrated, Colvin dispels the myth that peak performers are predestined for greatness.  Colvin found that not only was future greatness not determined by your genetics, it wasn’t solely a function of hard work either.  In study after study, Colvin found that “many people not only fail to become outstanding at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

In industry after industry, when it comes to mastering critical skills, people with lots of experience are often no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.  Even more scary, when it comes to leadership ability, a study from INSEAD business school found that managers with experience did not produce better quality outcomes (on average) than those without experience….and occasionally, actually got worse with experience.

So if peak performance is not based on talent or hard work alone…how can we escape the “experience trap” and reach our potential?  It turns out there are four keys to becoming a peak performer:

Know the right behaviors – while this may sound easy, discovering the right behaviors you need to master can be a challenge.  Even with keen observation and careful analysis, most peak performers struggle to identify and share the “secrets to their success.”  As I wrote in “Mastering New Skills,” while “there are always explicit aspects of what experts will share and tell you to practice…more often than not the more important points come from the implicit behaviors the experts do, but do not explicitly practice, teach or even notice.”  Begin by narrowing your focus to these behaviors.

Accurately and honestly assess where you are – after identifying the behaviors you want to master, the next step is to baseline your current performance.  The problem is, our brains are programed to tell us the story we want to hear about our level of expertise, rather than the one we need to hear.  That, combined with our fragile egos can spell trouble for seeing the gap between the behaviors we want and those we currently exhibit.

Put in the reps – Next, get your hands dirty and do the work.  I have heard it said that you need to repeat an action 10,000 times before you truly make it a reflexive movement.  Colvin says it takes peak performers 10 years of deliberate practice to make the skill appear God-given.  Either way you look at it, be prepared for work hard, sacrifice and struggle on your way to mastery.

Have faith in the process – finally, you have to believe that if you identify the right behaviors, embrace your gap and do the work, results will follow.  The results always lag the thousands of repetitions, so without an unwavering faith in the process, the odds are high you will quit long before you accomplish your goals.

The formula for achieving greatness is not difficult, but it is demanding.  The road is long and hard and requires both patience and persistence.  To be successful you need to know both the critical behaviors that lead to success and to be open and honest about your current skill level.  Armed with the knowledge of your gap and belief in the process, you can set your sights on internalizing the behaviors and mastering the new skills.

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Walking in a Straight Line

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” — Alvin Toffler

Robert Krulwich of NPR distilled decades of research in an attempt to answer the question, “why can’t humans walk in a straight line when blindfolded.”  For over 80 years, scientist have been baffled by the fact that we seem incapable to walk in a straight line if we don’t have sight of a visible guidepost like the sun, the moon or a mountaintop.

With the help of animator Benjamin Arthur, Krulwich used four experiments conducted in the 1920‘s to illustrate this phenomena:

1.  A scientist asks a friend to walk across a field in a straight line, blindfolded…

2.  Three men leave a barn on a very foggy day and set out to walk to a point a mile, straight ahead…

3.  A blindfolded man is asked to jump in to a lake and swim in a straight line to the other side…

4.  A man is asked to drive his car straight across an empty Kansas field…

The curious thing about Krulwich’s examples is that in each case, the subjects walk in a relatively straight line at first but then slowly start to drift.  As soon as they start to drift, the curve becomes more pronounced and they quickly begin to walk in circles until many of them end up where they began.  In each case, without the ability to see a fixed point in the horizon, people are unable to maintain their original trajectory.

Now I can’t remember the last time I blindfolded myself and tried to walk a straight line across a field, but I have witnessed a similar phenomena when organizations attempt to engage and align teams in continuous improvement.  While teams often start out moving in a common direction, without the ability to consistently see a focused and fixed vision of what they are expected to achieve, they quickly start to fall of the path.  Like the subjects in Krulwich’s examples, teams begin to go in circles at an increasing rate until many of them are back where they started.  What’s worse, is that teams are not just back where they started, they are also now frustrated with leadership because they worked hard to make a positive contribution only to end up confused and demoralized.

A leaders job is to define where the organization needs to go and then empower each team member to accomplish the goals through active problem solving and experimentation.  The problem is that merely defining the goal is not enough.  To keep the organization from walking in circles, the leader needs to ensure that each team member can consistently 1) see a focused and fixed vision of what they are trying to achieve and 2) design a system that allows everyone to immediately see when they start to deviate from the path.  Without clear and consistent goals and the ability to see when they start to drift, leaders, in effect, send their team members across the field blind folded.

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.

Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.

What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.

Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.

Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.

Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.

The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).

So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:

Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.

Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.

Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.

Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.

Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.

The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.

In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.

 

Learning Change from a LunaTik

Scott Wilson is the founder of MINIMAL (MNML), a hybrid design studio with a growing blue chip client roster, numerous self-manufactured products and joint ventures in development.  An accomplished designer and former Global Creative Director at Nike, his work has received wide recognition around the globe and collected over 40 international design awards in the past 7 years.

Scott and his team are on the cusp of launching TikTok and LunaTik, a new line of products which turn Apple’s iPod nano into a cool multi-touch watch.  While both products are cool in and of themselves, Scott’s unconventional approach to the design and launch of his products provide valuable lessons for anyone building a culture of continuous improvement.

Build on the ideas of others – Watch makers have been trying to figure out how to design a touch watch for years.  Instead of doing all the heavy lifting and trying to create their own watch, Scott spent his time designing products which leveraged the work already done at Apple.  The result is new beautifully engineered watch bands which integrate the existing technology of the Nano.

Details matter – To design a product worthy the Nano, Scott and his team considered every detail when it came to the look, feel and functionality.  Made from aerospace-grade aluminum and built to easily integrate headphones and plug-ins, the LunaTik is a great example of designing with the user experience in mind.

Selling your idea is critical – No matter how good your idea is, if you want it to be adopted and implemented, you need to sell it to others.  To sell their idea and connect potential consumers with their product and design process, Scott created a brilliant short video which became a virtual sensation, spreading his message like wildfire.

Follow your own path – rather than take a conventional route to funding, Scott used the Kickstarter network to introduce his products and take pre-orders to fund the development and launch.  Unlike other funding mechanisms, Kickstarter allows the creators to keep 100% ownership and control over the work and offers products for pledges in an all or nothing format.  If a project reaches its funding goal before time runs out, it proceeds…if not, no money changes hands.  Scott hoped to raise $15,000.  However, armed with a great idea, elegant designs and a video that went viral, MNML broke all previous Kickstarter launch records by raising $941,718 from 13,512 people in a matter of weeks.

So what can a LunaTik teach you about leading change?

First, you don’t always have to be the one with a revolutionary idea to develop great ideas.  It is often more productive to build on the ideas of others than reinvent the wheel in an attempt to be brilliant.  As improv actors will tell you, the secret to developing great scenes is to “accept all offers” and build on the brilliance of others.  Second, when designing a system of continuous improvement, details matter.  While experimentation is a must and mistakes are steps in the learning process, it is still important to consider how both the improvement process you create and the management system you install to support it will work together to drive team member engagement and aligned implementation.  Finally, in the words of Robert Frost “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  When it comes to change, don’t be afraid to reject convention and blaze your own path.  If you are connected to your customer and engage your people, there are many ways to get to a productive end.

Redesigning an Industry Icon

Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally was a runaway winner of the 2010 MarketWatch CEO of the year, easily beating out Steve Jobs, Vikram Pandit, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings.  Since the hiring of Mulally in 2006, Ford has been on a roll.  While Ford continued to post financial losses through 2008, the company turned the corner in 2009 and started to reap the benefits of Mulally’s turnaround strategy.  Sales and profits are up, the stock quadrupled in 2009 and doubled again in 2010 and the company has gained market share in back-to-back years for the first time since 1993.  The company even posted its best third quarter profit ($1.7 billion) in over 20 years.

So how did an old aerospace guy with no automotive experience turnaround a struggling industrial icon?  Let’s look at six elements of Mulally’s strategy that have enabled Ford to transform their financial and cultural picture in four short years:

Create a Simple and Compelling Message – By defining a simple, but powerful mission to build higher quality, more fuel efficient, safer cars, Mulally gave Ford’s employees something they craved: a message they could rally around and a vision of a company in which they could believe.  “The more each of us knows what we’re really contributing to, the more motivated and excited and inspired we are.”

Make it About the Long Term – Second, Mulally invested in a long-range plan to create a global design language he called “One Ford.”  The One Ford strategy meant selling off higher profile brands (Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Marton and Volvo), bringing back a completely redesigned Taurus, and designing cars on a global platform.

Exude Contagious Optimism – Mullally understands that his positive energy is contagious.  He exudes an optimism that is both inspiring and credible.  He has an unwavering belief in his team’s plan, balanced by relentless realism about current market conditions, and a willingness to make adjustments along the way.

Develop a Truth Telling Culture – Mulally has created a culture in which telling the truth is paramount and gets rewarded.  As an example, Mulally presides over a weekly “Business Plan Review” where the heads of Ford’s four profit centers and its 12 functional heads report on progress relative to their targets, share problems and collaborate on ideas for improvement.

Be Profitable on Lower Volumes – Under Mulally’s leadership Ford has reduced structural costs by more than $10 billion and will have reduced its production capacity by 40% by the end of next year.  In a drive to be right-sized, Ford now has fewer factories, each producing more vehicles, which has allowed the company to be profitable at near-record-low sales levels.

Create Intimate Customer Relationships – Led by Scott Monty and his talented social media team, Ford has created an extensive online presence committed to creating transparency during the turnaround.  In addition, Monty launched “The Ford Story,” a social media hub which builds intimate customer relationships through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other online communities.

Regardless of your size, industry or business goals, Mulally’s vision and values are equally relevant to every leader responsible for aligning people and driving change.  If you want to dramatically increase your effectiveness and post unprecedented results, “stand for something beyond profit…rally your employees around a shared mission…practice realistic optimism…and tell the truth without fear.”

Show Up and Start Anywhere

“If they had to wait for inspiration or a good idea, few scenes would ever begin.  Players step onto the stage because that is where things are happening.  They just show up.  Then the magic begins.” – Patricia Ryan Madson

We make change too complicated.  We seem to find endless reasons to talk more and do less; waiting for the perfect answer rather than experimenting to develop the right answer.  The secret to great results is focusing on a compelling vision, adapting to changing situations, and above all, taking action.  80% of the battle is just showing up and putting yourself in a position to succeed.

Improv actors understand this principle.  They live in a world of real time creation and creativity, where success depends on taking risk, being present and accepting all offers.  As opposed to most leaders, improv actors spend more time working on adapting to a fluid environment than trying to control their environment through better scripts.  They understand that in order to discover new lands you must be willing to loose site of the shore and embrace the unknown.  In the process however, improv actors also experience the joy of discovery and create unique works of art each time they step on stage.

So how can we apply the principles of improvisational theatre to our change process?

First, don’t wait for million dollar ideas.  There aren’t many million dollar ideas out there to be found and you will pass up millions of dollars in good ideas while you search in vain for the big one.  Second, don’t overanalyze the obvious.  Far too often we give ourselves analysis paralysis by making more out of the situation than is warranted.  Improving a process is not that complicated, so don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be.  “Sometimes a duck is just a duck.”  Finally, don’t worry too much about where to start .  When faced with the task of creating a culture of continuous improvement, trying to find the “right starting point” only wastes time.  Begin with the most obvious need and focus your energy on where you can take action now.  Once you take action and get your first improvements underway, you will have a more realistic perspective of both the problems and the possible solutions.

Above all, rather than worry about what might be, concentrate on what is and liberate yourself from the fear of the unknown.  Focus on developing your current ideas into great ideas through experimentation, rather than waiting to think of “great ideas.”  Once you take action and engage people through active participation, the path to creating the culture you want will begin to reveal itself.