Category Archives: Strategy

Teach me how to fail – we need the money!

We only learn by our failures. Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before. And your cheque is in the mail.

We all repeat this by rote like a demented parrot. How many actually believe it? And if we do, why don’t we act like it?

The cynic would say that the reason we don’t actually allow people to fail is that companies lie. They say they want to encourage taking chances but they really don’t. They simply do not want to pay the price. I suggest that it’s not hypocracy, that gets in the way. The problem is we don’t know HOW to fail. The good news is that you can learn to embrace failure – and reap the rewards. Continue reading

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Filed under Change, Marketing, Sales, Strategy, Technology

Strategy and Tragedy – Reflections on Through the Looking Glass

Someone used that phrase this week – Strategy and Tragedy. It was a chance meeting, an introduction — but the phrase made it memorable. Beyond the sound of it, which I loved, there was an idea that merited thought. I also liked that it was done in very good humour. As always, behind the humour, there’s something real and insightful. Humour is one of the ways we react — and cope with painful situations.

When a phrase sticks with me, I know there is a reason. Like many people, I pick up on comments that are part of my own personal zeitgeist. They are part of a question or issue that we have been working out in the back of our mind, something that’s troubling us — or to continue the pain motif — they touch a nerve somehow.

That can be painful. And for me, strategy is painful. Now that’s funny, considering that strategic consulting is the way I’ve chosen to make my living. Yet, when you understand how my mind works, it makes a lot of sense.

I got into strategy by the back door. While I love to think about and discuss issues, what really drives me is results. I like to see accomplishments, achievements. But in order to have accomplishments, you have to know what you want. As someone who is driven to results, I’ve always been able to see my goals very clearly. In my early career, I was often given troubled projects and I made a name for myself getting them back on track. IT? Business? It didn’t matter. I loved a problem. Interestingly enough, most of my successes came from establishing some goals and a sense of direction.

Without clear direction, there might be lots of action, lots of effort, but little of it was focused on the real problems. Even for those where the effort was great, the phrase “madly off in all directions” often came to mind. In reality, the world often seemed mad.

For someone like me, the challenge was simple. I needed to get people to see the true problem and once they got that, they’d see where they needed to go.

One way to make the point was humour. I’d show cartoon pictures like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland . I’m sure you’ve seen it. The famous picture of the cat grinning in the tree, and the equally famous conversation between Alice and the cat. Alice asks:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –‘ said Alice.

Then it doesn’t matter which way you go, ‘ said the Cat.

That’s how I got into strategy. This example showed precisely what I saw as the problem.

In fairness, that’s how strategy was taught at the time. It was, what I now refer to as gap consulting. I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere. Gap consulting shows a current state — where we are today. It has a future state which shows where we want to be. the middle has the options, actions, projects or whatever that take us from the current state to the future state.

A lot of consulting that is based on that model. I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. I was very proud of it — still am to some degree.

But I’ve also had my share of frustrations with it. Given my need for results, it didn’t always yield the results that I wanted. It got somewhere, but it wasn’t always the knock it out of the park that I’d hoped. Funny, as I re-read this famous quote to work on this article, I’d forgotten the rest of the dialogue:

“– so long as I get somewhere.” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.

I should have known better. My first degree was in English Literature. And Shakespeare was all over this problem – as always. Hamlet says the famous words, to be or not to be and states the problem as clearly as anyone every could. Then for the remaining four acts, he demonstrated how hard it is to take action.

Strategy and tragedy.

Therein lies one of the real problems of a lot of gap consulting. That middle part — the action — is harder than it seems. I remember a client listening patiently to our description of the strategic challenges he faced. Part way through he interrupted and with the words that I have tried to live by ever since. He said, stop admiring the problem</em? and tell me what I have to do — today!

As long as “to be or not to be” is a question, it was irrelevant to him. While existential angst makes good drama, it makes lousy strategy. If it leads to action it worth engaging with. Otherwise it’s just “admiring the problem“. I learned a real lesson from that.

I’ve discussed this situation a number of times — often with other strategy consultants. Some get it. Some sympathize with the client to some extent. Others go on to state that this type of thinking is short term or tactical. The real problem, they say, is that the client doesn’t understand the difference between strategic and tactical thinking.

I have a real problem with the phrase, “the client doesn’t understand”. To me, it’s a lot like a comedian claiming the audience doesn’t get the joke.

To me, the client was right. Understanding the real nature of the problem has no intrinsic value by itself. It’s only use is that knowing it has some meaning to guide our actions today. Action is what saves strategy from tragedy. Larry Bossidy in his great book on strategy, which is called, curiously enough Execution makes a virtue of the tactical. He says, sweat the small stuff.

For gap consulting to work a lot of things have to come together. On the surface, we could say that it takes areal leader, with a clear and correct view of the future. No small feat, given the uncertainty and speed of change. One of my friends overheard two executives at a conference saying, “On a clear day, you can see six weeks.”

There is a conundrum here. When the future is uncertain, but the leader is certain, someone is wrong. And if a leader can only be effective if they are always right, who exactly qualifies as a leader? How do you know?

It matters both in perception and in reality. As long as there is any uncertaintly, unless you also own the company and have limitless resources, the leader alone can’t be the only one with the long term view. It needs all stakeholders – investors, employees, suppliers and customers to buy in. Almost any one of these groups can derail a long term strategy — not because of any malicious intent, but even if they just see it as hitting them too hard in the short term. The long view, as many large companies are finding out in this recession, takes enormous resources and very deep pockets.

The real leadership decision of the moment is — even if you are right about the future, can you survive long enough to see it? And that’s only for those who are certain they are right.

Are you that certain of anything? Do you ever wonder if you are wrong? You might have good reason. Anyone who has seen energy prices rise and fall recently has to has to admit that any prediction has a degree of probability — rarely if ever is there a certainty. With uncertainty comes differing views of how to deal with uncertainty. Different capacity. Different risk tolerances. All of the range of human reactions, right up to denial — which, as my friend John Thorp frequently points out, is not a river in Egypt.

What turns strategy into tragedy? The same thing that that gets in the way. Life. That was my big insight.

Could if be that the real model for strategy is not some grand theory, but the same nuts and bolts that drives our everyday lives?

think about it. Most of us know that there is, or should be a direction we should be taking with our lives. We know by and large where we are. We know, or knew where we wanted to get to or at least where we should get to. We even have a reasonable idea of the steps that we need to take.

That alone is not enough. We know what’s good for us but we don’t always do it. Back to that river in Egypt.

In fairness, it’s not only denial that keeps us from doing the right thing. If we are really honest with ourselves — uncertainty plays a role. We’re not sure that even if we do all the right things, we’ll get to our goal. So many factors are out of our control. There are so many risks, so many potential pitfalls. Life isn’t always fair.

If we are really honest, many of us will confess that we are even that certain about the ultimate destination. It’s a matter of faith, not certainty.

So what are we certain about? For many of us — not much. For those bordering on the cynical, the Cheshire Cat gives an explanation to Alice if you read a little past the famous quote. Alice confesses that she doesn’t much care where she goes, as long as it’s somewhere. To this, the Cat answers:

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

That’s the reality we all come to. For some, it’s frightening. For others, it reflects a certain degree of maturity. Take your pick. Either is valid. It doesn’t change the answer. We will get somewhere. It might not get the goals and dreams we started out with.

If that wasn’t sobering enough, the Cat tells Alice some bad news. No matter which direction she goes in, she’s going to face challenges and uncertainty. She won’t be able to tell what path is the “right one”. He points in two directions, one leading to the Hatter and the other leading to the March Hare. His explanation:

“Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

Alice’s protest is an echo of our own.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked

The Cat adds a bit of wisdom for us all.

“Oh you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

That’s my reflection for the week, if you’ll forgive the metaphorical pun.

If Lewis Carroll is right, life is a lot like strategy. It’s a curious adventure in a mad, mad world. We are on an uncertain path to an equally uncertain future. No matter where we go, the signs will be confusing. We will find people who seem strange or different — even crazed in their actions. But in the end, whether we choose to realize it or not, we seem as different (or as mad) to them as they do to us. For those old enough to remember Pogo, the cartoon strip, “we have met the enemy, and it is us.

So much for the certainty of a current state and future state. More times that I care to admit, the assignments I walk into look a lot like this.

That might not always be the fault of the organization. The world is in upheaval. The path is not certain. People are, well — different. And the only certainty is that no matter what you do, you get somewhere.

Wait a minute. Am I talking about life or strategy? Even I’ve lost the distinction, and I’m the omniscient narrator.

I think the are the same in more ways that we care to admit. Classically, we haven’t wanted to see life and strategy the same way. That’s how we can divide between strategy and tactics — as if there is some magic divide between our day to day management and the strategy that guides it. In this concept, strategy is an event — it’s our moment where we corner the cat in a tree and elicit the answers. Life is more like the cryptic message that the Cat gives to Alice — it’s not an event, it’s a journey.

Hence our dissatisfaction with strategy. Often there is no right answer — or if there is one, it’s not forthcoming. This is actually a good thing, if the Cat is right. Because even if we have the answer, the directions take us through a choice of madness and madness. I don’t know about you, but for many owners I talk to, this is a pretty accurate description of the strategic horizons we are all looking at right now.

Are there lessons we can learn that can keep strategy from becoming tragedy?

For answers about life, you have to go back to people. With all of this uncertainty, with all of the disappointment, with all that life hands some of us — why are some people so successful at life? Note that I’m not just talking about people who’ve achieved what we think they should. I’m talking about people who regard their lives as fulfilled — on their terms.

Here’s what I see. Some people have a continuing confidence and belief in their goals. Yet they are flexible about how they will get there. The path is not always clear or linear, but they are always moving towards it. Success comes in steps. Some of these steps will be successful, some will be life lessons. I got this from a close friend who had lost his job this week. You have to know this guy well to know that this was not just hot air. He said, that he knew that the future was full of new possibilities. He sincerely saw this as doors being opened.

This is not being a Pollyanna. I know that this guy understands the issues that he’s facing. This is not denial. This is choosing to see a setback for what it was — one of many steps on the road.

Successful people enjoy success, for what they can do with it. They use that to lever themselves to another level. But when they are not successful, they’ll use that too. They have setbacks, they have learning — not failures.

For them, it’s not a choice between strategic and tactical thinking. It’s a blend. They have to keep an eye on the future for hope, but pay attention to the present.

Like so many things in life — when we ask ourselves to choose between one thing OR another, we’re cheating. Or is rarely the only choice. Often it could also be this AND this? That’s when you need to take the long view. You need to be careful about closing doors until they need to be closed. Decisiveness for its own sake is another way of admiring the problem.

The best analogy I can use is a chess game. In chess, you think of a number of possibilities and are constantly evaluating them. There’s no question what the end goal is, but there are many ways to get there. (Sound familiar?)

It matters in terms of results as well. If you think only of the end — of winning or losing — you’ll lose to a good player. If you think only of the next move — you’ll lose to a mediocre player. If you learn to think of many possibilities and pick the best choices — you’ll be a challenger to even a good or even a great player.

Notice I didn’t say you’ll always win. In chess, in strategy, in life — there is no certainty. But in chess, there’s always more than one game. And isn’t that the same for strategy — and for life?

That’s where I got to this week. The difference between Strategy and Tragedy is not how well we understand the destination. In many cases, the destination is obvious. It’s how well we understand the journey. There are no absolutes, just potential moves that take us closer to our goal. There will be setbacks, even losses. The real question is – how can you learn from those.

If you are as results focused as I am, this little epiphany is bigger than it seems. For those who need a clear path, this could be frightening.

One thing you can be certain of. The Cat was right. If you keep at it long enough, you eventually get somewhere. The real trick is in taking that wisdom and using it to guide the day to day. When I’m uncertain, the best thing for me to do is to really listen to your clients:-) “Stop admiring the problem and tell me what I need to do today.”

Today? You need to be less focused on the end game and more focused on the possibilities that can take you there. There isn’t a certain path, and the certainty of the direction is up to you. Believe in your direction but be flexible about what steps you might have to take to get there. Some will work out, some won’t. What do you need to do today? What are the possibilities? What’s the best action to leave you positioned for that?

And if you make the wrong move, or the wrong move happens to you — learn from it, but regard it was a step. Look at the possibilities.

Hmmm. This could work as a strategic method.

That’s an idea I’m going to play with for a little while. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

As always, I’d love your comments.

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If you want new clients, go where the clients are!

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? You might have had a different experience. But here’s something that I’ve observed. Einstein had it figured out when he said, “every solution should be as simple as possible – and no simpler.”

When I first read this quote it stuck with me instantly. I remembered it days later. I had this visual image of Einstein with the funny hair and a blackboard behind him with E=MC2 written on it in chalk. The visual image made the quote even more memorable.

Isn’t it funny how a simple message can have such an impact? What would you give to be able to be that memorable to potential customers?

Why is that important? Because in this environment, can you really afford to lose even one single deal that you could have or should have gotten? Are you struggling to find those new customers in these tough times?

I’d like to suggest something that I’ve found has really worked for me. It might work for you as well. Only you can find that out for yourself. Your experience could be different. But take a second and think about this.

Two nights ago I went to see Shelle Rose Charvet speak at a meeting of the our Strategy special interest group of the Toronto CMC Chapter. Shelle said a number of amazing things, but she left me with an image that I can’t get out of my head. Actually, it was two images — but if you want the second one, you have to hear her speak. She knows what it is. I think of her talk at least once a day. It turns out that’s healthy. But even if I tried to forget it, I couldn’t. And I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. So making me remember two things is quite an achievement!

Let’s return to that first image. Here’s what she said — I wrote it down so I’d get it exactly. It might not be perfect, I wrote it quickly, but I’m sure she will correct me if it’s not right.

Here’s what I heard.

“In order to get someone to go somewhere with you, you need to meet them where they are…”

Shelle went on to make another point. She feels that many times our real competition might not be competitors. The real thing that’s preventing us from winning the sale may be that the client has other alternatives. One of those alternatives is to do nothing. The other is to study the issue – put it off.

She suggested that we need is to find a way to convince our clients that they need us more than ever. Shelle also went on to explain why we can have the best product or service and still lose the deal. Or why sometimes our own honest enthusiasm might be working against our message! I appreciate that all of this might sound a little over the top so let me share something from my own experience.

I’ve been following Shelle’s work for a few years now. Recently I had a client who had a problem. They had a product which would legitimately save their customers money. It had added benefits as well. It offered them ways to access new services. Interestingly enough, this other product was not only good for my client’s customers, it was much more profitable for my client. So imagine how frustrating it must have been to find out that they could not convince customers to switch.

They told me that their customers preferred the first (less profitable) product. They could not be convinced to switch.

As someone who cannot resist a good problem, I wanted to see if I could help them (as Shelle would say) re-frame the issue. Or as I might call it — to change the game. I had some ideas I thought might work, and I asked them if we could do a pilot to test them out.

So here’s what we did. We stopped selling. We asked customers if we could help them. We created a script which asked customers what their needs were and we asked permission to explain the differences between the two options. We explained these options clearly and objectively (we’d prepared this well). What happened? In our tests, we converted 60 percent of the people to the cheaper, but more profitable option.

Remember that my client was convinced this wouldn’t work? the results immediately raised some skepticism. So they should. They have every right to be skeptical about results like these. It’s a good thing. And I wanted to be careful not to “oversell” this. I was clear that their results could be different in other stores, other circumstances. But I got the chance to ask a question. I got the chance to ask what benefit they would get if the results were 1/10th of what we got in the pilot?

When even the skeptics went to work on this, they had to admit to themselves that this was worth a try.

Why did this work? The underlying principles came from reading one of Shelle’s books “Words That Change Minds”. I tell people that the reason my consulting gets results is not that I have to be smarter than everyone else. I just have to be smart enough to recognize great ideas an adapt them to what I do. Shelle has given me a number of those ideas over the years in her book. So it was very rewarding for me after all these years to be able to sit in the audience and hear her talking about things that I had thought about over the years since I first discovered her book in our company library.

And as always, she was reframing the issue so I could see it in a new way. If you want to get someone to go somewhere with you, you have to meet them where they are. We did that. We got to them in the store as they were in the process of making their decision. But we knew from surveys that customers wanted to be helped, not sold. We devised this so that it was clear and helpful — no sales, we simply gave them the facts they needed to make an informed decision and invited them to make up their own minds.

If we’d started where we were, we would have been trying to convince them. Even if we were right, even if we were enthusiastic, we would have been making them even more skeptical and less likely to hear our message.

So I’ve been asking myself a question. How many times am I missing opportunities because I am not going to where my clients are? As a consultant, I fall into the trap myself. I might be good at spotting issues with clients, but missing them in my own work. My own filters might keep me from seeing myself clearly. Sometimes even the best of us need a good mirror. That’s what Shelle’s presentation was for me. And what her work has been for me over the years. It’s a chance to hold up a mirror and take a clear look at how my message is being (or not being) received. By seeing it clearly, I can remove the obstacles to my own success — in the same way that I remove them for others.

So to my friend Bob who started this out with his question this morning. If you are reading this, that’s the answer to the question you asked (half in jest) this morning. Your question was right on the money. I hope I got it right You asked, if I’d read Shelle’s book so many times, why didn’t I spot these issues earlier? Correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll fix it. (The wonderful thing about a blog!)

I might suggest suggest that I’ve done some very good work for my customers. Do you remember that famous quote from Archimedes? I think we all learned it in school. “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

I’d like my clients to think of my services in that way. I can help them leverage what they do now and transform their efforts so they can do things they never thought possible. I can help them solve tough problems. The solutions are what they need them to be. For some, its that extra customer, for others, it’s reducing costs, for others its getting their teams to work together effectively. Some just want to hold the customers they have by building loyalty. They believe that loyal customers stick with you in tough times.

Even my business has challenges. We are a growing business and need to find new customers. Or better still, we need to convince old customers that doing nothing is not an option. I have to help them see why they need my services more than ever. This recession (or whatever it is) is changing customer behaviour. To use Shelle’s visual metaphor, it’s like clients have moved off to a different bus stop. And I can only convince them to get on the bus with me if I go to the bus stop where they are. It’s a timely message that we might all consider.

Everyone — including good consultants — need a look in the mirror from time to time. Because the world changes and our filters — the very things that help us cope with all the information out there, the things that make us successful, can actually prevent us from seeing problems clearly. Even if you are great at seeing what others need, you can still miss it for yourself. Shelle helped me once again, to reframe and see a challenge that I have.

so I came out of Shelle’s workshop with a list of notes. I’ve learned that if I want to get a lot out of an event, I have to listen carefully. Some speakers make that hard. Some make it easy to listen.

Shelle not only makes it easy, she explains how you can do that as well.

I hope I will never stop improving. So I set some goals. I will try to meet my clients where they are. I will expect them to be skeptical if I talk about all the great results that they will get. I will ask even more about their problems. I’ll remember to ask them what matters to them and why. I’ll continue a habit that Shelle taught me long ago – I’ll capture the answer in their words and not mine. I want to meet them where they are and not where I think they should be. If I can do that, I can invite them on the bus with me and we can take a journey together. That’s the type of work I think I’m good at. It’s also the type of work I love.

Thanks, Bob for raising that question. Thanks to Shelle for helping me see an issue that I can share with my friends, colleagues and readers.

Note for anyone who missed this workshop. Shelle is having two more workshops which are sponsored by CMC Canada in Toronto. Contact CMC Canada if you want more information about these workshops. Check out Shelle’s web-site if you want to find out more about her. You have to make up your own mind. All I can tell you is that her advice has helped me a lot 😉

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Filed under Lean, People, Process, Social Media, Strategy

I wish I’d thought of that…

Today when I was asked a question about organizational change I found myself repeating a story from a few years ago. There’s a lesson in it for all of us who make our living with ideas. The lesson is this. As a change agent, you are constantly making a choice. Take credit. Or make a difference.

The trick is that many people don’t know that this is a choice they have to make. Witness the following real story:

A consultant in my practice was reporting back to me on a big meeting he’d had with senior execs. He was very proud to have the CEO there.

“They loved us. I can’t count how many times I heard the consultant’s plan is great. ”

My response. “We are dead. We are soooooo dead.”

The consultant was dismayed. There was always a little bit of tension between us. He’d wanted my job. I got it instead. That much is fact.

But personal relationships are not about facts. They are about perception. I know his perception was that I was more critical of his work than I should be. Like so many times when we attribute motives to people, he was simply wrong. I wasn’t trying to undermine his “victory”. We really were in trouble.

Sometimes a question is the best way to explain. “When they say the consultant’s plan who is accountable for delivering that plan?

His answer was quick, “Their team has to deliver. We’ve done our job.”

My reply was also quick. “So how can they be accountable if it’s our plan?”

Silence.

By the way. I took no joy in it, but I was right. Despite all the great words, that project did not move forward. Somewhere in a backroom, a casual conversation, or just in the general stuff that happens it got buried, lost, derailed or just forgotten. We lost a big potential sale and a lot of revenue.

It was our plan. It had no champion. No-one at that company would be willing to put it forward, to believe in it and to make sure it was not forgotten.

If only someone on the client’s team had taken ownership. But why should they? It already had an owner. It was the consultant’s idea. In fact, if they had tried to take ownership they would have looked like they were taking credit for someone else’s idea. Admittedly, for some — that’s not a problem. But there’s another corporate issue. Why take the risk? No new idea is without risk. So let the consultant float the trial balloon and see if it goes anywhere. If it does, there’s lots of time to get on board.

In fact, I have often proposed that this is a great use for consultants. We can raise subjects that nobody else will touch. We are — or should be — regarded as intelligent and objective. Some of these ideas are true game changers for the companies we serve. At those times we provide a very useful service. We help make lasting and measurable change.

As I pondered this consultant’s problem, wondering why he didn’t get it, a light went on for me. It was something I knew internally, but had never really articulated fully. In the art of being a consultant, you have to have wisdom to know when – and when not to take on initial ownership of an idea. That is, if your real goal is to make change.

That’s where I had to take my own medicine. Instead of worrying about this other consultant’s problem, what I should be asking myself is, what can I learn from this. You cannot change others if you can’t change yourself.

Here’s my reflection. I don’t know why everyone gets into consulting. I can only tell my story and see if it resonates. I like to help people, I like to solve problems and — but deep in my heart, I’m still a bit of an entertainer. My friend Ian Tamblyn (one of Canada’s great songwriters and a great entertainer) captures this so well in his song, Campfire Light. “I like to sing, I love to dance, I will play the fool if I have the chance…”

The danger for me is that I do like to the be the one who comes up with a great line, a joke — or an idea. I like to win debates. And I like recognition for my work. It’s a part of what drives me to be a consultant and facilitator. I have to say it is also a factor in any successes I’ve had. I’ve been able to get my ideas across because I present well and I can grab an audience.

But I’m also driven by the need to make real change. Life is precious. You spend a lot of that time working. I can’t simply sell that much of my life for money. What I do has to have purpose.

What I didn’t really realize is that sometimes I might have to choose between the two.

In these little moments when life sends you a message, you have to decide what you are going to do. I decided that it was time to wrestle with my ego. I wanted results more than I wanted the applause.

So I started to try to let others come up with the great ideas. They need to discover the answer for themselves. And like any major change of unconscious behaviour, I embarked on a long journey of becoming aware of a multitude of tiny things and changing them — one by one.

I’m still on the journey. But believe it or not, I’m a lot further than I was when I had this conversation with the other consultant. I’ve changed a lot about how I tackled problems. I worry less and less about presentation to the audience and more and more about engagement. I get groups on their feet. I get them doing things. I get them thinking. I listen more. I take more chances.

It’s not easy. Especially when I know the answer. And often I do — before the group does. Don’t get me wrong, this is not ego. As my partner Darrel Berry says, “we’re not smarter (than our clients) we just do this every day.” To quote another famous musician, Brownee McGee, “If you do something for 30 years and you don’t get good at it, shame on you!”

So I sit there, looking externally calm (I hope) while inside me, the “keener” kid from grade 6 shakes his arm frantically, trying to get the teacher to see him. Oh! Oh! I have the answer! When that seizes me, I try to take a deep breath and restore my patience. I wait for calm. I bite my tongue. I wait for someone else to discover the answer.

If they don’t, I realize its my challenge as a facilitator to try to create the conditions that will help them discover it. I do everything short of discovering it for them. They have to do that.

the bottom line is this. Aristotle said “the understanding changes nothing.” As someone who values logic, that phrase has troubled me for years. I think I finally understand. Even if you logically understand the issues, it does not give you the inspiration and the drive to make real change. Real change involves risk and sometimes sacrifice. And before people are going to go on that journey, they need to engage on a visceral level. They don’t need a fact handed to them, they need a realization from within them. They need to come to an insight – that flash, that aha! moment. And from that insight, they need another step. They need to take ownership of the problem.

If they discover the solution, they’ll own it. If they own it, they’ll be driven to solve it. If they solve it successfully, they’ll learn to be successful. It’s a virtuous circle.

If the consultant takes ownership, or solves it — it breaks the circle. They learn. But it’s a different lesson.

Not as easy as it sounds. But every time I start to doubt this, or if I get lazy, or if my ego gets in the way, I replay that story of me and the consultant. I think of how different it would have been if instead of it being the consultant’s plan or report, if we had one champion among the client’s own employees — coached by us — but having their own solution. If they had made the case. If they had offered to be accountable for the results — what would have been different at that meeting?

If.

I’ve tried to build this into everything I do. Everything is about the client and their team — learning, experiencing and engaging with that solution.

Was it Harry Truman who said that great things are possible if you don’t worry about who gets the credit? I wish I’d thought of that!

On second thought…

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Excuse my interuption? Actually – I’d rather not.

“The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.”

I wish I’d said that. I forget who did. But it knocked me for a loop. Because it is so true.

The speaker at the time was making a point about how we take one concept and use it as a metaphor to explore another new concept. We do this all the time. Because it works. Especially when we are talking about things that are unfamiliar to us. Or if we want to see something we already know in a new way.

We are working on new deal that merges several companies. We use the “marriage” metaphor a lot. It helps us a lot. Or you’ll hear the line “fences make good neighbours” — you get my drift. We’d be lost without metaphors.

Where metaphors become dangerous is where we start to think of them beyond their ability to illustrate. We confuse the two. A business partnership is LIKE a marriage in many ways. It is NOT a marriage. I have had many successful and long term business partnerships with people I didn’t even like. I can’t imagine I would have been married for 27 years in similar circumstances. It would have been laughable if our marriage prep would have talked about the rules under which we could invest in other companies. In the metaphor that is relationships, my wife didn’t want me buying shares in any other company — if you get my drift.

Sometime ago, everyone got on the genetics bandwagon. We talked about DNA of everything. We had “organizational DNA” as a metaphor for corporate culture. It works to illustrate, but it can easily lead you to some bad decisions.

Wisely used, metaphors are valuable to explain or illustrate. Badly used, they promote logical fallacies and lead to some very, very bad conclusions. This is so frequent that logicians even have a term for it. It’s called “faulty analogy.”

A case in point — multi-tasking.

Somebody the other day brought out that old chestnut — I’m more efficient when I’m multi-tasking. The truth is, no, you are not. Full stop.

The faulty analogy in this case? Everyone likes to think that multi-tasking is like parallel processing. We can somehow split our attention between many different things and do a number of things simultaneously, paying enough attention to each and thus getting many things done at the same time.

When this helps someone juggle several quick task like doing work while riding on the subway it’s useful. When you think that you can translate that into doing your email while “listening” at a meeting – no. The human brain can do several things at once, but only when operating on a subconscious level. You are enough like a computer that you can do batch and online at the same time. But two online processes — doesn’t really work well.

The fact that it feels good only reinforces the fallacy. I won’t debate the causes (others have done it) but I don’t think anyone has seriously argued that attention spans are getting longer. So staying on one thought or task from beginning to end is hard. It takes a lot of discipline for some people. In those cases, we have a perfect storm – faulty analogy meets the shortened attention span.

How do I know this? I’ve spent a lot of time adapting LEAN principles to white collar environments. For anyone who doesn’t know LEAN it’s the gold standard in process transformation. It’s the reason why Toyota overtook General Motors well before the auto meltdown.

LEAN has a concept of uninterrupted flow. A task that moves from beginning to end without interruption is more efficient. It uses less resources and time for the amount of end benefit it generates. Someone out there is madly saying — no, batch processing is faster, better, cheaper. Great. Only the true facts get in the way. Even in this down economy, who’s shares would you rather have bought 6 months ago – Toyota or GM?

If you are still resistant, don’t worry. It took me a long time to figure it out. I try to find exercises to illustrate what is a simple point:

Whenever you interupt a process you pay a penalty for setup. Setup means that
you have to stop what you are doing, put it away somewhere and then when you come back to it, you have to reorient yourself, get back up to speed and then — and only then — do you get back to performance.

How much setup time depends on the person, the task and a lot of factors. The reason why I write my blog at 3 in the morning? There are no interruptions. I can go from start to finish.

But we still claim that multi-tasking works. My son tells me he can watch TV and do homework and be on Facebook. So why did his grades improve so radically when he fell behind and we cut off his computer and TV privileges until he caught up? Coincidence?

I thought about this last night when we were in a meeting and I watched someone “listening” while they did their email. If I’d have called them on it, they would have said they were multi-tasking.

That’s the problem with the faulty analogy. You see, a computer can have several threaded processes running at once — though even on a computer there is a bottleneck where the tasks are sequentially organized in stops and starts. The big difference with a computer? The setup costs can be minimized because it can recreate the exact state that it was in before an interruption and get back up to speed in milliseconds. Even then, run enough of these interruptions and you will swamp even a big processor as we all have experienced from time to time. That “not enough system resources” message is the setup charge catching up with you.

When analogies become mythologized, they are even harder to deal with. We all think – Henry Ford, mass production, batch process … good. Even though it’s not true. So I look for examples like Toyota. I’ve found others and I keep searching for them. Why? Because most people don’t let the facts get in the way of a strongly held belief.

I find most of them by luck. For example I was trying to explain LEAN to the head of a refinery in Acton, near London U.K. I was worried because a lot of refining is batch by design. I explained the batch “myth” and waited for the usual counter argument. He didn’t make one. Instead, he took me to another area of the plant and showed me his pet project – a continuous flow refining process – one that that was many times more efficient than the old batch process. I thanked him profusely. I wanted to see a mechanical process prove that uninterrupted flow was superior — if only so I could use it to dispel the myths and faulty analogy.

But people are not machines or mechanical creations. Our setup costs are much larger. When interupted, we need time to be reoriented. The amount depends on the person and the complexity of the task. How many times have you been at a meeting and paid the “setup cost” for someone else whose attention was distracted? Or how many times have you come back to a task and had to get back “up to speed”?

We’ve cut days, literally days out of business processes by moving to an uninterrupted flow. Even IT has caught up. No one seriously does batch processes for systems anymore unless you have a legacy or you absolutely have to. And my son’s marks improved. How much more proof do you need?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to tell everyone what they have to do. I do resist when I or my team have to pay the setup cost for someone else.

It’s a modern world. The shortened attention span is real. The addiction to busy work versus thought and planning is real. Proof in point? I ask people this all the time. If you saw someone on the phone talking would you interrupt them? Hardly. But if you saw them sitting quietly at their desk, staring into space, would you interrupt them? For most people it’s a no-brainer. And yet, why would we assume that the phone was work and thinking wasn’t? It says something profound about our culture.

People will wax profoundly about how they are more effective when multi-tasking. So would you like it if the pilot of your plane was doing his taxes? Or if your surgeon was doing a crossword during the operation? I don’t even even like it when other people are talking on their cell phone while driving. It’s okay for me, however — I can multi-task.

Or can I? So why is that when I get to the end of a day and I felt like I hadn’t gotten anything done I would explain it as having fallen victim to the dreaded “got a minute?”

We aren’t going to stop the interrupt driven nature of our lives because I write a blog about it or even if I’ve held a workshop. But I can help reduce it, even a little, it’s worth it. if we could improve by 10 percent – what would that do? The results would be significant. LEAN thinking puts cycle efficiency (the amount of real value in a process) at between 5 and 25 percent. Increase it by a small factor and you get amazing results.

But the first step is admitting there is a problem. I have my own private 12 step program for low attention spans. Because I suffer from it too. That might be the REAL reason I write this at 3 in the morning. Maybe I paid so much setup cost this week that I have to work harder than I want to.

But if I can break this faulty analogy and make more of my tasks into uninterrupted flows, I could gain back some of that efficiency. If I did it enough times it might become a habit. Heck, it could even become part of our organizational DNA.

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A pen is just a pen…or is it?

A pen isn’t just a pen. Not when Mark Graham holds it up. He looks at, studies it and holds it up in the air for the audience to see.

“This is exciting!” he says. Tonight, everything Mark talks about is exciting. Pens are not just a product. They are his product. And a pen isn’t just a product — it’s a story — a story about what it takes to produce it and customize it for his customers. If he’s passionate about his products, he’s really excited when he talks about his customers.

At 34 years old Mark, the president of Rightsleeve.com, he has a wisdom beyond his years — and he’s discovered the the real secret to success. It’s this. “Love what you do.”

If you lived through the 90’s where greed was good, or the tech bubble when things were “built to flip” or if you’ve thought about those whose greed and stupidity dragged us into this recession, Mark is a breath of fresh air.

Like people who love what they do, he’s not just playing the game. He’s changing the game.

He’s doing it using technology to advance his strategy. So that’s why he was here tonight, speaking to a group of strategy consultants in CMC Canada’s Strategy special interest group. In addition to my duties as chair of the Toronto chapter, I also chair this group, which I helped found. I love it. It’s where you can meet people who are changing the game.

But back to Mark — and how he’s using technology so well. Because he is using it very well.

There’s a lot of hype about social networking, open source, web 2.0 — the technology industry has never met a buzzword it didn’t over-hype. What’s rare are good examples of how these buzzwords can be used practically to advance your business in new and exciting ways. That’s where Mark comes in.

I met him at a seminar weeks ago. He was there, on a panel with representatives of the big vendors who were spouting the usual blah, blah, blah — buy our products you’ll be the next internet sensation, we love small business, blah, blah, blah. Sorry guys, but my business isn’t going to be energized because I buy your server versus somebody else’s. And it was also a breath of fresh air to hear someone who could say open source without being condescending. It’s hard to take people seriously when everything is a sales pitch for their product.

Mark wasn’t selling us his solution. He simply explained what he’d done, the challenges he’d faced and the results that he’d achieved. No hype. Just a guy who loves what he does.

That sort of thing has real credibility. So when Mark talks, you have to listen. And I did. Along with the rest of the room tonight. In fact, I made notes. Here’s some of the tips that picked up from Mark:

Use technology to foster conversations about important things:

Mark’s open source systems allow him flexibility to dream and adapt — and he’s used that ability to facilitate conversations about things that are important. He has taken a page (literally) from social networking applications like facebook and twitter. He’s uses these to keep people in his company up to date on key activities.

The important words here are key activities. Mark was smart enough to take the essence of social networking, not just adding some features from another application. What makes it work is that they made a conscious choice of what things were most valuable and these are selected and displayed as part of their own in house news feed. By focusing on the information that has the most value — people in his company watch it. Contrast that with what appears on most social networking sites.

There is a law called Sturgeon’s Law and it says that 90% of everything is crap. So if you cut through that and go to what is really valuable, you provide a real service — especially in these days when everybody is overloaded.

Activities, events — new clients, orders and prospects — all of these conveniently packaged, shared and used to make sure everyone knows what is going on and can contribute. I immediately thought of virtual enterprises, like our own company. We have people all over the country, sometimes all over the world. We could use this to keep everyone up to date — even though they aren’t in the office.

Hmmm.

Here’s another great idea that Mark talked about which is close to my heart. Jim Collins, the renowned business writer says there are three things that go into a strategy. You need passion and you need to know what you can do better than anyone else in the world. Mark’s got those covered. But Collins says there’s a third thing — you need to really understand the metrics that drive your business. Sounds easy, but even if they get it (which I doubt) few companies understand it. They publish reams of data or none at all. They don’t give the vital few pieces of information that guide their employees to understand what they have to do on a day by day basis to help fulfill the company’s strategy.

Mark’s company has a great approach to this as well. For example, he has a great little application which shows a sales person what their commission is going to be on each and every sale. So they can see how they are doing constantly. Motivation 101. But Mark’s company goes a step further and guides them with costs so that they can see the profitability of the sale. Sales people know what they can and can’t do. And….there’s more. Operations people are also plugged in with data they need. They can see the orders that are coming in — again in real time. They can sort it by supplier to make sure they can cover multiple orders at one time. Everyone is up to date. The old “sales/operations” feuds are reduced, if not eliminated.

I do a lot of process transformation work using something called Lean. It’s a way to radically improve customer satisfaction, quality and efficiency (yes, you can have all three).

Lean is customer centric. It says that any process that doesn’t generate value to the customer is a waste. It also says that you find ways see all inefficiency and waste. One way to avoid waste is to eliminate mistakes before they happen instead of trying to catch them in the “quality control” steps.

So picture this. Some of Mark’s customers can have their own web-site to order goods. Their standards for orders are place on the each order page — right down to the exact description of the company colours in technical terms. This is important. Companies spend an enormous amount of money on their branding. They want consistency, quality and above all — accuracy. By making all of this visible and having a preset group of items for a company on their own web store, Mark’s company eliminates the potential for error AND increases the efficiency of the process. It’s not rocket science, it’s just damn good process design — enabled by a very friendly, customer focused technology.

But Mark’s approach, like Lean, is not just about efficiency. It’s about a relentless focus on what is of value to the customer. It’s a way to really engage your customer. Once again, Mark is using technology to help. He opens up his site to allow customers to participate. For instance, his customers can comment directly on products they have bought.

That’s where this is about more than technology. It’s about courage. If you only ask questions where you know that you’ll like the answer, you are not really listening. But if you take a chance and ask — people will tell you what they really think. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes its not.

Many companies shy away from real discussions with their customers because they don’t want to face the reality of dealing with issues. How many times have you heard those programmed words, “is there anything else I can do to help you?” when the “customer service” person you are talking to in some far distant land hasn’t helped you at all?

Mark’s people pounce on customer problems and address them. Why not? They are on the customer’s side. If the products tare substandard, they want them fixed or they want them off the list. When you really feel this way, you will have the courage to ask — in public — “what do you think?”

The added bonus is that your customers trust each other more than they will any sales person. Getting that real information adds value to the shopping experience.

This honest is the best way to engage your customers. My favourite saying about customers is from a book called “The Cluetrain Revolution” and it’s as fresh now as it was almost 10 years ago when I read it. It says that “Elvis was right. We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.” In so many companies today, Elvis has truly left the building.

As a strategic consultant, I think one of the best questions that I like to ask is “what do you want people to say about you when you leave the room?” Then I set out to help the client make that happen. Hey, did I say strategy was hard? It’s not — it’s doing it that’s hard.

Conversations in the age of social networking are no longer person to person. They are one to many, thanks to networks like twitter, facebook, Linked In and a host of others. If you can get people to say good things about the company you can get incredible coverage. How do you do that? Easy — well not exactly easy. If you want people to say great things about you or your company, you have to do things that they value. If you have an event, you have to make it a great one so that if someone is on twitter, and followed by thousands of people, their twitter message will say — having a great time @ Rightsleeve.com party. In fact, that has happened.

Doing the small things right. Relentlessly pursuing a dynamite customer experience. Having the creativity and flair to make your message distinct and worth telling. Those are the real tools of using social networks effectively — not just technology. And whether it’s giving out Rightsleeve.com underwear or his hysterical YouTube video with the tag line “friends don’t let friends buy bad promo” — everything is aimed at the customer experience.

To paraphrase my earlier question, the issue is to understand “what do you want people to say about you when they are engaging their social networks?” Then make it possible for them to say that in a way that’s fun and interesting.

Right down to his blog, Mark takes that approach. As a blogger myself, I wish his three rules which he shared were universal:

– write it yourself
– be authentic
– have fun

Notice that “mention your product” is not on the list. Be yourself. Be authentic. Have fun.

And when you do that, even a pen becomes exciting. And it’s rewarding for everyone. And I’ve always maintained that this is good for the bottom line. I won’t tell any tales out of school, but Mark’s company appears to be defying any of the trends that you are seeing in the papers. Sales are up and the company is growing profitably. And that, too, is exciting.

What can I say? Sometimes the good guys win.

I had a great time.

Thanks Mark.

Mark Graham’s company is called Rightsleeve.com and they go in to my “mission statement hall of fame” because you can actually tell what they do from what they say they do. RIGHTSLEEVE.COM uses design, promotional media and technology to deliver outstanding marketing results.

Check them out! I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Is this a relationship?

My sister Chris is on Facebook. No, it’s not the sign of the Apocalypse. It’s a sign that social media is moving to a new phase.

I’m sure Seinfeld had a show about this — how to tell when something was no longer cool. I’m sure Jerry and the gang had some secret sign that told them when something had left the edge and simply become mainstream.

I remember when I knew that email had reached that point. It was when my parents got an email address. That was it — it was over. The rollout was complete. Global domination was achieved. Sure there might be a few left over folks who wouldn’t get with the program. Heck I’m sure there’s somebody out there with a black and white tv. But outside of a few hold-outs, the job was done.

I wrote a column once called the “dot customer” that predicted when consumer oriented e-commerce would reach that bellwether of success. It was when my wife started shopping on-line.

What I was amazed at then was the acceleration. For those of us who used it in its early primitive form, primarily as a business communication tool and occasionally as a way of keeping in touch with folks around the world — the rise of email took a long time. Years.

The move to e-commerce took a noticeably shorter period of time.

But social networking — wow. It seems like months ago that Facebook hit the scene and now — everyone is on the bandwagon. Even my sister Chris. The last Luddite. She sent me a “friend request” the other day.

Somebody told me in conversation that the biggest growth in Facebook ranks was now, as he so delicately put it, “people in your age range.”

Now on one hand, this is the triumph of Metcalfe’s Law. For those of you who don’t know Metcalfe’s Law, it’s a way of calculating the value of a network. For those who think this way, a network’s value is the square of it’s nodes.

For those who can’t quite grasp that, let me explain it the way it was explained to me. What is the value of one fax machine? Nothing. There’s nobody to send a fax to. Add one more and what is the value? It just went up — because there is someone to send and receive your fax. And there might be mutual value for them. Start adding people and the value of the network grows by doubling and redoubling — until it starts to grow at exponential rates, gathering speed like a snowball rolling down hill.

A guy named Metcalfe predicted that. Smart guy.

What I don’t think he anticipated that was that this growth of network value would itself increase in speed each time. Hence the rapid rise of social networking from uber-cool to ubiquitous.

But here’s the point where I want to ask the question. Has the network really grown in value? This isn’t me being simply a contrarian. In fact, I don’t have an answer. I simply raise the question.

Not everything that gets mass acceptance increases in value. Fads burn out, trends die. And when they die — or crash, the seeds of that destruction are hidden by the initial success. Think back to our Seinfeld model and think of a restaurant that had amazing popularity, but was on it’s way downhill while still drawing record crowds. As Yogi Berra was reputed to say, “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.”

Or if you are astute, think of the dot-com crash. Or the recent financial meltdown. From “top of game” to “down in flames.”

Now this isn’t a big deal for my sister Chris. She might not even notice the bubble bursting — if it does. It might be a problem for a corporate sponsor who invested heavily in social networking only to see it go down in flames — if it does.

The good news is that rarely are these permanent crashes. Many times the sequence is that something hits a success track, gets over hyped, crashes and burns — and then resurfaces months or even years later under a different name. Yesterday’s Application Service Providers were replaced by today’s Software as a Service. I’m sure you can think of a few more.

But the life of some companies, people’s investments and a few careers can take some hard knocks — and they have.

So what are you to do? If you don’t get on board, then you miss the boat. If you jump in, you could go down in flames or waste your money and efforts on something that won’t pay off.

I don’t have all the answers on this one. I can offer a couple of observations. First, there are some worrying items in social networking as we see it. One thing that bothers me is that it appears to be built on a house of cards. Everyone is trying to be the new Facebook, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Facebook grew out of the student market and tapped into a phenomenon associated with a younger demographic. From the time when you saw how many kids you could put in a Volkswagen, to sit ins and marches — there has always been an attraction to trying to draw the largest crowd of friends together.

It’s not that this has no attraction to an older segment — but it has it’s roots and it’s big appeal to the younger demographic. Indeed, I would maintain that when this phenomenon hits an older demographic, there has to be more than simply the joy of attendance. Crowds require causes or some additional value.

I haven’t really seen that in the social networking arena yet. Not that I’ve given up. I’m a twitterer, I’m Linked-In, I “Plaxo” and — although I use it less and less, I’m on Facebook. I have contacts. I have seen some value in tracking people I haven’t seen for some time. But I work at it. I can’t afford to invest hours upon hours with no value coming from it.

Much of what happens isn’t relationships. Relationships are about mutual exchanges of value My friend Ray Mackenzie and his co-authors made that point in the book The Relationship Based Enterprise. It’s that word mutual that holds my attention. I’m struggling to see that in this new explosion of social networking.

I don’t poke very much. I tweet a little. I never throw a sheep. And if you find me on a friend finder, and I don’t know you, I probably won’t respond to your invite to become a friend. In fact, I joined Plaxo as an experiment because they seemed to be aiming at those who wanted more exclusive — and more valuable networks.

And if I said I wasn’t worried about the “Hotel California” syndrome I’d be lying. For those of you who don’t follow the reference, Hotel California was a song by the Eagles with the famous line, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” When I see Linked-In’s top end price of $499 per month (that’s right – per month) I wonder what the end of this game looks like.

But I don’t know where this is really going. I’m watching carefully. I’m building my network based on value and I’m finding ways to use these tools. But I’m not betting the store on them. Not without a clear indication of value. Because investing in value — whether it be stocks or technology — has a way of paying off in the long run. I’m looking for things that enhance that mutual exchange of value that defines a relationship.

How about you? I’m really interested in your comments.

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Filed under People, Social Networking, Strategy, Technology