Category Archives: Teams

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)

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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.

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.

Learning Systems Design from Dead Poets

“Why do I stand up here?  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see the world looks very different up here … Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.  Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Getting teams to look at processes in a different way can be both one of the biggest challenges and fruitful exercises a leader can undertake.  Merely enabling people to see their job from a fresh perspective can lead to new insights and generate a rush of improvement ideas.  Taichii Ohno (founder of the Toyota Production System) was famous for requiring leaders to spend hours standing in a circle on the shop floor and observing a process until the waste “revealed itself.”  The problem with getting people to look at their process and see the opportunities for improvement is that our brains are hardwired to see the world the way we want to see it rather than the way it is.  So in order to get teams to see their process differently, you often need to force a change in scenery.

That being said, the following are two simple techniques we use when redesigning systems that challenge teams to look at their process from a new perspective and expose problems in real time:

Break the work – “artificially” breaking up the work can be very effective way to increase collaboration by adding immediate feedback loops.  As teams redistribute work and struggle to meet their goals, the increased interactions generate insightful questions regarding individual behaviors, standard work requirements, and single points of failure in the system.

Rotate the work – frequently rotating the work can be helpful in two ways.  First, changing roles in a process allows the team to systematically and frequently “bring in a fresh set of eyes.”  Second, forcing the team to break down the job into its simplest elements and cross train helps drive innovation as they must question every detail and look for ways to translate and train the work more effectively.

Finally, in addition to designing systems which expose new opportunities, remember the power of setting a goal for ideas.  Paul Cook once noted that “To be an innovative organization, you have to ask for innovation.  You assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected.  It’s that simple…”  When Robin Williams challenges his students to think differently, he does not merely suggest everyone stand on the desk and look at the world from a different perspective…he makes everyone get out of their seat and physically stand on his desk.  The same is true for innovation.  Don’t beat around the bush with your goal for getting new ideas.  Contrary to what some leaders believe, setting challenging expectations for the number of new ideas generated and implemented can lead to increased motivation, fresh insights and improved business results.

 

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.

Teams Dig Scars

“Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory…lasts forever. “ – Shane Falco (The Replacements, 2000)

For those of you who have never seen The Replacements, Shane Falco (played by Keanu Reeves) is a former college quarterback whose last time on the football field resulted in a blown championship game.  Falco is given a second chance when a NFL strike forces owners to bring in replacement players to finish the season.  While the movie is forgettable, a speech delivered in the huddle speaks to both Falco’s ability to connect with his team as well as gives us a great maxim for leaders to live by: “pain heals, teams dig scars and accomplishment lasts forever.”

One of the principles we teach leaders in our Coaching CampTM is to “walk the talk.”  How each leader lives this principle may be different, but at it its core, walking the talk is about getting your hands dirty, taking risks, and demonstrating respect for your team through your actions rather than your words. Teams respect leaders who have spent time in the trenches and earned their stripes through hard work, determination and internal fortitude.  Contrary to what most “career leaders” believe, teams can tell in the first 15 minutes if you have “street cred.”  And while every team I have met longs to be led by someone they can trust, a team will only give you their trust if you demonstrate you are worthy of it through your actions.

Remember, “being a great leader is more about who you are than what you do, but teams look at what you do to determine who you are.”  To engage your team and connect them to your vision of the future, spend less time talking about improving processes and more time improving processes.  Work shoulder to shoulder with your team, making mistakes and getting scars of your own and resist the urge to make continuous improvement an intellectual exercise.  Not only will you develop a great base of experiences from which to pull, but your team will become a tighter, more cohesive unit that looks to your actions as a barometer of success.