Powerful and Positive Exit Interviews

picture1

When I left the company I had worked at since I was 16 years old I was asked to complete an exit interview. In talking with colleagues, I was advised to be careful in how I responded to the survey – I didn’t want to burn bridges in case I ever wanted to come back.

As I recall, the questions were pretty standard –

“Why are you leaving the company?

“What suggestions do you have to improve the company?

“Rate your supervisor on a scale of 1 to 10

In fact, most exit interviews follow a similar vein. The objective is to capture feedback from the exiting employee to potentially help the company make changes that will prevent others from leaving.

The fact that most organizations don’t really take exit interviews seriously, and don’t have a solid process to evaluate feedback and incorporate it into process improvement is concerning. In fact, a recent HBR article reports that “two-thirds of existing programs appear to be mostly talk with little productive follow-up.”

And part of problem is that we’re asking the wrong questions.

In the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) methodology, asking positive, powerful questions helps organizations discover strengths and uncover what the organization wants to see more of. The questions we ask move us in a certain direction. While it’s important to find out why someone has decided to leave and evaluate whether their feedback can help improve practices (like benefits, communication, career paths, etc.), I suggest that we start by considering more valuable questions.

The following questions are designed to lead us toward a more appreciative exit interview:

1.    Why did you start looking for a new job?

2.    What is a highlight of your experience with us?

3.    Thinking back to when you joined the company, what was it that got you to accept the offer?

4.    Have you accomplished what you had hoped to in your role?

5.    What opportunities do you see in the role you’re leaving?

6.    What skills and experience should we look for in your replacement?

7.    Tell me about the leadership and management experiences at this company. When did you feel you were being managed well? What experiences or interactions could have been improved?

8.    Describe the support you received here from your manager and others. Were you provided opportunities for learning and professional growth?

9.    Explain what it’s like to work at this company to someone considering a job offer here.

10. How do you compare our compensation and benefits package to the one you’ve accepted at your new company?

These questions will elicit more thoughtful and useful responses from exiting employees. The qualitative feedback may be harder to put into a pie chart, but provides valuable insights that can lead to positive change.

The HBR article mentioned earlier recommended moving execution of the exit interview process out of human resources into the front lines, which is more likely to lead to change. In addition, it’s recommended that a post-departure interview be conducted through a third-party (objective) consultant – which will lead to more honest answers.

Exit interviews should feel like a conversation, and the appreciative questions are intended to bring a sense of humanity to the process. Handing (or emailing) a 20-question survey to a departing employee, with static formality, is impersonal and disengaging. Face-to-face interviews with a direct manager (or one up), conducted in a conversational tone, expresses genuine interest in the exiting employee’s opinions and experiences.

To set the right tone, consider meeting away from the work area – such as in a cafeteria. A casual seating area is best, but definitely avoid sitting behind a desk. Know the questions well so you can easily navigate through them without it feeling like an interrogation.

As responses are collected, leaders need to process the feedback and seriously consider how to make positive change happen. While one exiting employee’s experiences may not be representative of the entire department or organization, they warrant some reflection and perhaps some specific observation, or additional feedback, of others in the organization.

Operational Excellence Reviews Pay for Themselves

OER logoIf you’ve found yourself asking, “why do we do that?” and no one seems to have an answer, your organization may benefit from an Operational Excellence Review.

An Operational Effectiveness Review (OER) is an intensive audit of processes, systems, and structures that aims to reduce waste, increase productivity, and positively impact the efficiency and effectiveness in an organization. OER’s can be done within a specific function, at the business unit level, or for the entire company.

Through a combination of job shadowing, data analysis, interviews, and focus groups, an OER uncovers roadblocks to performance and unleashes creativity and innovative solutions that don’t get attention during the routine of everyday work. Using lean six sigma methodologies, proven job design models, and systems thinking, an OER pays off big by freeing employees to do their jobs the best possible way.

An OER is an investment in your organization that has a high rate of return. Invariably, an operational audit leads to work simplification through elimination of non-value-adding tasks and activities. Additionally, an OER gives focus to process improvements by the people who perform the work, leading to sustained efficiencies over time.

OER’s done within human resource, training, and OD functions guarantee that business partners are getting what they need without a lot of fluff. The OER process forces functional areas to look in the mirror and ask, “are we doing our best?” Legacy programs, non-value add processes, and misaligned objectives are evaluated and replaced, tweaked, or enhanced through an OER, allowing for lean operation and better alignment with the organization’s strategy.

Because of the savings from streamlined processes, OERs pay for themselves and are a morale boost to your staff as they participate in making sense of the work they do.

Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions provides experience and expertise to conduct an OER at the department, division or enterprise level. Find out more by email us at info@cornerstoneglobaltps.com.

Self-Solving Dynamics: No More Superhero Managers

super-managerDependence-Based Management

My office in the lower level of the department store was the first one in the executive office suite and I kept my door open most of the time because I had no windows. And as the head of HR, I was the one everyone came to with all kinds of issues, from advice on how to deal with an underperforming employee, to where to access keys to the storeroom. At the time, I was one of the most proficient with the new computers that were slowly taking traction, so I was also the Help Desk and printer-unjammer. I admit, there was a part of me that enjoyed being so important! They say knowledge is power, and as the one who interacted with virtually everyone and every aspect of the store, I knew a lot!

But I was finding myself working long hours to get all of my work done due to the constant interruptions. I’d shut my door for a while to have a few minutes of focus, but it wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my door, or sometimes a full-fledged barge-in, and I’d find myself shifting gears to help the person in front of me.

Often I would try to schedule time with the interrupter so that I could finish the task at hand, but that wasn’t always an easy solution, especially in a multi-shift, 7-days-a week retail environment. Something had to be done or I was always going to find myself behind on my work and resentful for the interruptions.

I began to switch my approach from giving the answer immediately and spending time explaining the details to asking questions to make the other person think through the options and the best course of action, or to discover their own solution. When employees came to me to complain about each other, I pushed the resolution back on them rather than solving things for them. I had to let go of that feeling of being “in charge” and pack up my superman cape (or at least hide it under my suit jacket!) and allow folks to think things through on their own.

At first it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to be the hero with a fix, or at least a scapegoat for those who don’t want the accountability of making a decision. I had to get used to making it their problem, not mine. And they had to get used to coming up with their own solutions.

Empowerment & Accountability

There is a need for empowerment and accountability in the way we lead staff. These are not new concepts, yet are often weakly applied by well-meaning or, sometimes, controlling managers who step in to direct the behaviors of their employees. Empowerment – putting the power to handle situations on another – means I have to release that power so that the other person can pick it up.

Accountability shifts the responsibility for outcomes to the right person(s). If a manager holds themselves accountable for solving interpersonal issues on the team, or directing day-to-day activities (a la micromanaging), then employees will never hold themselves accountable. So it requires that I, as a manager, change my mindset to place accountability with the individuals involved, whether the issue is communication, task performance, or tactical decision-making.

We know, logically, that empowerment and accountability make sense, but between our need to control, a mistrust of our staff, and a mindset that says, “it’s easier to do it myself,” we build dependence that is both time-consuming and debilitating to our direct reports.

Self-Solving Dynamics

The idea behind self-solving dynamics is to shift responsibility to the people impacted by the outcomes. Instead of the boss fixing problems from operational setbacks to interpersonal challenges, self-solving dynamics places the burden of a solution on the shoulders of those who identified the problem (or opportunity) in the first place.

Self-solving dynamics takes a commitment by management to resist the temptation to be a fixer and instead be an enabler. I don’t mean enabling in the negative sense of allowing codependent behaviors, but in the opposite sense of allowing independent behaviors that lead to self-efficacy. If we want a workplace in which individuals at all levels are cognitively engaged, applying their whole being to not only attain organizational objectives, but achieve personal fulfillment as well, we have got to let go and trust that people will figure it out.

Students of leadership will remember the Theory X and Theory Y models presented by Douglas McGregor. Theory X managers see followers as disliking work, avoiding responsibility, and need constant supervision. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, view followers as individuals who seek and accept responsibility and want to solve work problems imaginatively.

It requires a Theory Y leadership mindset to allow self-solving dynamics to flourish. But with a workforce that has been victimized by poor leadership and mistrust, it takes intentional commitment to training, coach, and developing followers to gain confidence and skill. It also requires managers to reflect on their management style and asking for feedback from colleagues and direct reports.

 

Self-Solving Dynamics Defined

Self-Solving Dynamics is the practice of shifting responsibility for solving problems in from the manager to those impacted.

Moving Toward Self-Solving Dynamics

To make the shift to self-solving dynamics requires a realization that followers have been conditioned to ask the boss to solve problems, especially interpersonal or inter-team problems, and that bosses, for a variety of reasons, have obliged. To make the shift…

  • Be aware of your tendency to solve problems for others, and the motivations behind those tendencies (power, self-importance, expediency).
  • Practice asking questions when people come to you for solutions, rather than jumping in immediately.
  • Be comfortable with mistakes; allow followers to learn by doing (just like you probably did!).
  • Be available for consultation, but leave the burden with the one(s) with a problem. Allow them to own the solution. Coach, but don’t solve for them!
  • Ask them to prepare a “lessons learned” summary, which will help them hone their self-solving skills and allow you to celebrate and coach more specifically.

So the next time an employee knocks on your door and wants you to solve a problem for them, tuck your superhero cape back inside your shirt and use the principles of self-solving dynamics to make them a superhero that can soar on their own!

 

From the Research Desk

Cornerstone Global Research Desk

 

 

 

 

 

Leading Positively With PMI’s

According to Dr. Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations, there are four strategies of positive leadership:

  1. Enabling positive climate
  2. Relationships
  3. Communication
  4. Meaning

The best way to implement these strategies is through a Personal Management Interview (PMI) Program. A PMI has two components: a role negotiation session, where the manager and employee talk through expectations, responsibilities, accountability, and other rules of engagement. The second component is regular ongoing face-to-face meetings.

Read Dr. Cameron’s At-a-glance summary on Leading Positively with PMI’s.

Cornerstone Global can help you get started on your PMI program. Contacts us at info@cornerstoneglobaltps.com 

Recommended Reading…

 

Meetings Don’t Have to Suck!

The Joy of Appreciative Meetings

Remember when you weScreenshot 2015-06-05 07.24.05re a kid and your parents, after busting you for some bad behavior, said something along the lines of, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.” That’s kind of how I feel about meetings. I’m not mad that meetings are so mind-numbing and soul-sucking, but I am disappointed that we’ve all missed an opportunity to turn meetings into something life-giving and encouraging. I’m not so concerned about the number of meetings we have, but know we can do better at using meetings to focus on what is going well, celebrate successes, and build energy to pursue our goals.

In their book Appreciate Leadership, Diana Whitney, Kae Rader and Amanda Trosten-Bloom suggest

 “Get staff meetings off to a positive start by asking staff members to share stories of their best day at work in the past month.”

And

“Do a positive project debrief by asking about the ‘root causes of success.’ Ask to hear about everything that happened that make it a successful project.”

It’s all about the questions you ask. When you start a meeting asking questions that center on what went wrong and what problems need to be fixed, the tone of the meeting degenerates instantly to a focus on the negative. It’s depressing and zaps energy. The atmosphere is one of defensiveness, blame, and finding more nails to hammer in.

Appreciative meetings focus on what is going well, what went right, and what you want to see more of. This is not a head-in-the-sand, mamby-pamby approach to meeting management, but a determined effort to turn the tide of the conversation to the positive.

In Appreciative Leadership they call this the “flip” – the practice of turning a habitual problem, like employee turnover, inter-group communication, technology breakdowns, and slumping sales, into an affirmative topic to discuss:

  • Employee turnover >> employee retention
  • Inter-group communication problems >> productive collaboration
  • Technology breakdowns >> users as designers
  • Slumping sales >> new markets

Asking positive questions and flipping the conversation to what’s possible builds energy. Meetings actually become life-giving sessions where teamwork develops and solutions are nurtured together. We dread meetings because they drain us and take something away from us. Appreciative meetings address challenges and opportunities from the vantage point of what we hope for.

Try it! The next time you call a meeting, spend the first few minutes asking questions about what is going right. Allow people to share successes, whether personal or work-related, and revamp the agenda to flip the discussion to affirmative topics. I guarantee your meetings will begin to suck less and might actually be anticipated!

Explore more benefits of appreciative inquiry:

  

What To Do When Your Organization’s Culture Sucks

You may be compelled to stay with your company because the pay is good, the work itself is rewarding, or your peers are like family. But the organization culture is mediocre, at best. What do you do when the organization’s culture sucks, but the reasons to stay outweigh the motivation to move on?

I’ve been in this scenario many times: managers who fail to walk the talk, inane policies that defy logic, and practices that thwart progress at every turn. But along the way I’ve learned some lessons about what it takes to survive – even thrive – a company culture that seems to get more wrong than right when it comes to empowering people to contribute to the organization’s success.

10 Traits of Sucky Cultures (in no particular order)

  1. Lack of leadership accountability
  2. Emphasis on maintaining the status quo
  3. Undefined processes
  4. No opportunity to participate in decisions
  5. One size fits all solutions
  6. Command and control management
  7. No support for professional development
  8. Unclear expectations & mixed messages
  9. Undervaluing in-house expertise & insights
  10. Thinking only about the bottom line

Create an Island of Health in a Sea of Bad Culture

So many quips and quotes come to mind as I think about advice for carving out a little slice of heaven in the midst of organizational Hades:

“If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

I’m sure you can picture a hallway in your organization filled with motivational posters collecting dust. They are artwork, at some level, but certainly not beacons of inspiration that the purchasers envisioned. There used to be a Successories store in every major mall in America, but the platitudes and pictures of teams high-fiving and individuals scaling summits were so far from reality that they subconsciously demotivated us.

So what do I do if I’m committed to my job but am in an environment that brings me down? How do I keep going when the organization is doing so much to stop me from progress? Here are five recommendations for creating your island of health in a sea of bad culture:

  1. Know what you can do – and know your limits. Understanding your boundaries will help you adjust your mindset and not become overwhelmed by all that could and should be fixed. You may have no authority or power to fix policies, but you may be able to put some order to your world that makes things easier to manage. At the same time, be aware of signs that workplace stress is taking a toll on your health. No matter the benefits/reasons for staying with the company, when your health takes a hit, it’s time to walk.
  1. Become a stealth influencer. It’s amazing what you can do when you go undercover to influence up and down the org chart. Covert operations allow you to make recommendations and suggest improvements subtly, little-by-little. You may also benefit from piloting tweaks to processes and practices, sharing your positive outcomes after the fact. True, you probably won’t get recognition for your brilliant ideas, but your workplace will be better, which is more important.
  1. Bring others with you. You don’t have to be stranded alone on that desert island – bring someone with you! Band together with others who are committed to their jobs and want to see the organization culture improve. Partnership alone can do wonders for your job satisfaction! And even if you can’t make a cultural breakthrough, having a colleague to commiserate with will get you through hard days. Commit to being a mutual encouragement to one another.
  1. Be a burr with a sense of humor. Identify a few things that are worth fighting for and be the burr under the saddle of those who are in positions to do something about it. This is probably the most challenging of the five recommendations, since it takes an ability to pester without being labeled a pest. You don’t want to lose your influence, but you don’t want the door slammed in your face either. The key here is to have a sense of humor. If you present every opportunity as an urgent crisis you’ll not be heard (like the boy who cried “wolf!”.
  1. Celebrate successes, however small. Yes, it may be a “party of one,” but do take the time to recognize when your efforts have been successful. Whether it’s a grin as you leave your boss’s office with a new inch of ground, or a more tangible celebration (like cake!), it is important to your psychological well-being and continued motivation to reward yourself when progress is made.

There are plenty of articles and books, and consultants like myself who are available to assist leaders in creating positive workplace cultures, but if your executive team has yet to crack open any of Edgar Schein’s great works on designing culture perhaps the advice above will keep you engaged in the meantime. Or you might want to pick up a copy of one of these books and initiate a “lunch & learn” to talk about what might be done to create a great workplace culture!

By Edgar Schein:

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 2009

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2010 ed.

By Others:

Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (Cameron & Quinn), 2011

Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture & Organizational Design (Argyris), 2012

(Order below from the CreativeGapMinding Bookstore):

      

Lean Performance Management: Moving Toward Peak Performance

What is lean?

The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.  -Lean Enterprise Institute (lean.org)

 

Lean manufacturing is a process improvement methodology based upon the highly acclaimed Toyota Production System (TPS).  The main focus in lean manufacturing is the removal of waste from a value stream. leanprocess.net

So, “lean” has to do with trimming away things that get in the way of optimal performance. Processes and practices often take on a life of their own over time, and before you know it you have a monster on your hands. Normally lean consultants (six sigma/process improvement) are brought in when performance has devolved to a state of crisis, but smart organizations engage lean principles as part of their business-as-usual operating culture.

Lean manufacturing is underpinned by 5 principles:

  • Specify what creates value from the customer’s perspective
  • Identify all the steps along the process chain
  • Make those processes flow
  • Make/offer only what is pulled by the customer
  • Strive for perfection by continually removing wastes

(http://www.leaningforward.co.uk/principles.htm)

Applying these lean processes to human performance creates a focus on productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction. Practicing lean in performance management enables peak performance and allows employees to focus on value-adding tasks.

Performance management is a structured process for setting expectations, identifying key performance indicators (metrics), measuring outcomes, and improving performance through accountability and feedback. Performance management is both a science and an art. Performance technology provides the framework to structure and analyze human performance, while emotional intelligence and relational skills ensure a sensitivity and empathy. A solely scientific approach is dehumanizing and detrimental to lasting performance change.

Specify what creates value from the customer’s perspective.  Job descriptions and performance accountability should place a priority on customer- facing behaviors. Identify how the role supports customer satisfaction, identify how the customer is impacted when the job is (and isn’t) done well, and tie performance metrics and rewards to those behaviors.

Identify all the steps along the process chain. A job-specific SIPOC will do the trick here. A SIPOC is a picture of Suppliers – Inputs – Processes – Outputs – and Customers surrounding a specific role or task. Identify how performance is impacted along the way, from when work is handed off from one role to another, and the interdependencies that may create roadblocks and inefficiencies.

Make those processes flow. Remove barriers to performance and hold employees accountable for keeping things flowing smoothly. Reward process improvements and build expectations for internal customer service. Create a culture that challenges the status quo in pursuit of optimized performance.

Make/offer only what is pulled by the customer. This is somewhat of a repeat of the first principle, but an additional point when it comes to performance improvement is to be aware of processes, and even positions, that don’t add value. Just because a position has always existed, or a form is always used, or a handoff has always been a part of the process, doesn’t mean it adds value. Go back to the analysis of what supports customer experience, and eliminate everything that gets in the way. This streamlines performance management by simplifying the focus to one thing: the customer.

Strive for perfection and continually removing waste.Perfection is a lofty goal, and probably not realistic. But striving for perfection, as elusive as it may be, keeps us focused on continuous improvement. Waste is anything that hinders peak performance: tasks and deliverables that don’t add value to the customer; missed opportunities to leverage resources; and systems that create more work than they’re worth.

Using the principles of “lean” to manage human performance ensures an emphasis on quality work that ties to the customer experience. The benefit of applying lean to performance management is that “fluff” (waste) is removed on the front end, through better performance planning, and on the back end as performance is evaluated for efficiency and effectiveness.

In an age where “doing more with less” is standard, eliminating non-value-adding tasks, systems, and processes means you can still expect high quality work even if you’re running with a smaller staff. If the reports are correct that most of us work far below capacity (50-70% by some accounts), then applying lean will help us move toward better time management, stronger accountability for the things that matter, and continuous improvement across the organization.

   

Process Excellence Essential to Success

You can have great products and great people in your organization, but without great processes, you may be missing opportunities and squandering resources. Process excellence doesn’t just happen, though, it requires intentional focus on evaluating and building processes throughout the organization; across the supply chain.

How we get things done in our organizations warrants the same level of attention as developing and marketing products and services. We wish that developing methods and procedures was a “one and done” endeavor, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been working on an operational audit for a global financial services company that has been around for four decades. The pace is fast, change is constant, and competition is fierce.  In this environment, procedures and processes must be agile—there must be a constant review of how things are done, why they’re done, and who is doing them.

An Operational Effectiveness Review, whether conducted by internal or external resources, should be a regularly scheduled event in every organization. Trained experts in process improvement and organizational effectiveness can provide insight into the best way to perform a task, technology that can provide automation (and reduce human error), and organizational design that will ensure information and work flow smoothly up and down the supply chain.

The outcomes of an OER will vary depending on several factors, such as how well processes are currently documented; how many tasks are performed within each function, and what technologies are currently in use. There are, however, some outcomes that are common no matter the size or scope of the effort in your organization:

  1. A short list of process improvements that can be implemented quickly and easily (low hanging fruit).
  2. Significant cost-saving (or revenue-generating) improvements that may take longer to implement or require a budgetary commitment.
  3. Long-term solutions, such as implementing new technology to streamline a process, or adding a position to eliminate a bottle-neck to a process.

One of the greatest aspects of an Operational Effectiveness Review is that subject matter experts—those employees who do the job day-in and day-out—already have ideas for improvements. The OER resources help build on those ideas and provide the expertise to implement them well.

Process excellence leads to better efficiency and effectiveness, key ingredients to overall organizational success. And an OER ensures excellent processes and addresses the need to evolve the way things are done within your company as internal and external circumstances change and new technologies are made available.

   

 

The Investment-Based Leader’s Toolbox

Screenshot 2014-06-23 21.43.39Leaders in any organization give a vigorous “me too” when they hear the adage “our people are our greatest asset.” It’s the right answer! Yes, we value our employees, want to see them succeed, and hope that they’re happy in their jobs. But often the reality is not so positive. Several surveys have been done in the past couple of yeas measuring employee engagement. The sobering truth is that employees are disengaged because what leaders say and what they do is in disalignment.

The good news is that

When trust, values and a purpose-driven mission exist to a statistically significant degree and guide leadership, decision-making and behavior, these “enablers” give rise to a highly inspired group of super-engaged employees. (Forbes, September 2012)

The question, then, is how do we communicate and develop trust, values and purpose?

The answer is by investing in your greatest asset; the cornerstone of your organization. The toolbox for investment-based leadership will get you on the right track.

Trust starts with sincerity. Employees sense when a manager is just going through the motions. So before you pull any of the tools out of the toolbox, it’s important to consider you motives and attitude. Do you really want to invest in your employees not just because it may lead to higher productivity, greater sales, or other bottom-line reasons, but because it’s the right thing to do? Yes, you can invest because of what you’ll get out of it, but you’re putting a cap on potential.

A true investment in your employees means you have more altruistic motivations. You want to see them succeed because you care about them as individuals. You want them to grow, find meaning and purpose in their work, and set their own goals because that’s what every human being wants. We have to stop viewing employees as a means to an end and see them for the unique souls that they are.

Once you’ve committed to a true investment in your employees, the following tools will assist you in building a workforce that is engaged, committed, and eager to help you succeed.

Transformational Mindset:

According to an article in Psychology Today, transformational leadership

Originally focused on leaders who “transform” groups or organizations, transformational leaders focus on followers, motivating them to high levels of performance, and in the process, help followers develop their own leadership potential.

I believe this is where leaders need to start. Transformational leadership is a mindset and an attitude that puts leaders in the right frame of mind to motivate followers. In the words of Ronald E. Riggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College:

Transformational leaders hold positive expectations for followers, believing that they can do their best. As a result, they inspire, empower, and stimulate followers to exceed normal levels of performance. AND, transformational leaders focus on and care about followers and their personal needs and development.

Servant leadership takes transformational leadership to an even more altruistic level, emphasizing the leader’s obligation to serve followers simply because it’s the right thing to do, not for what outcomes can be generated by focusing on follower needs.

When a leader is able to focus on others and look for ways to develop and motivate them, engagement and productivity are sure to follow. It requires that a leader put their ego aside and not assume they have all the answers. Transformational leaders know that a better organization is built when individuals are empowered and have regular opportunities to engage their brains as well as their hearts.

Appreciative Inquiry:

It is said that words create worlds. The direction of our questions determines where our conversation goes, so what we ask questions about, how we phrase our questions, and what our purpose is in asking questions leads us in a certain direction.

For a leader, asking questions that lead toward positive outcomes and a thriving culture is a core responsibility. But because we are so habitually focused on problem solving and discovering what is broken, our organizational dialogue is mired in deficit-based language.

The Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle of Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny provides a framework for leaders and organizations to direct the conversation toward more positive ends while tapping into the knowledge, strengths, and passions of the whole.

Start by reading Appreciative Leadership by Whitney, Rader & Trosten-Bloom. This is a practice guide to infusing your leadership with appreciative tools that draw out the best in your employees and organization to move you toward your desired future through collaboration and leveraging strengths.

Positive Deviance:

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) grew out of the positive psychology movement started by Martin Seligman. The central idea behind POS is to identify those characteristics and behaviors that enable organizations to thrive and build cultures that reinforce these positive traits. The University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations is a great resource, providing white papers, research, and other tools.

Positive Deviance (PD) is a concept that fits into the POS frame, building on the idea that within any organization there are individuals and groups who, with essentially the same circumstances and resources, have found a way to succeed where others are stuck.

PD has been used for years in the nonprofit and healthcare sectors, but has been slow to catch on in the marketplace, where the need for control and predictability get in the way of allowing deviants – either positive or negative – to forge new paths to solve problems.

But a surge of entrepreneurship may make the marketplace more open to experimentation and renegade solutions. PD believes that the solutions are within the context of our organizations, it simply requires that we give people the freedom to pursue unproven or counter-culture methods to fix things that have so far proven unfixable.

Strengths Focus:

Finally, in my investment-based toolbox I want to focus on the strengths of each individual on my team. We have a tradition of looking for the weaknesses in ourselves and our direct reports so that we can improve those deficiencies. But research, primarily from Gallup and former Gallup researcher Marcus Buckingham, has shown that most of us will never be able to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Instead, we should focus on those things we do uncommonly well and make them even stronger.

Leaders need to help followers identify their strengths, either through one of the strengths assessments on the market, or through an organic process of observation and dialogue. Once you know the strengths of each team member you can look for ways to organize and structure your team and the work that they do.

To really get the most out of a strengths –based approach is to develop a more flexible approach to job descriptions and work assignments. According to Gallup, when employees have an opportunity to use their strengths every day they are more than six times more engaged in their work.

Making the Investment in People

There are certainly more tools that an investment-based leader should have in their toolbox, but the ones I’ve outlined above will get you started on the right path. One thing to remember when committing to an investment-based approach is that there is no formula; the key is in using the tools in the context of your organization and the makeup of your team.

It’s also important to understand that it takes time to allow your investment to grow. Your staff may be suspicious as you begin to incorporate new methods of leading, especially if you’re making drastic changes in your leadership style. It may require some trust-building and patience, including patience with yourself as you try out new approaches.

Read my previous post: Investment-Based Performance Improvement. It introduces the characteristics of an investment-based approach – humility, humor, harmony, and honor. Using these four characteristics with a transformational mindset, appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, and a strengths focus will demonstrate to your staff that you are committed to their success and value their collaboration.

      

 

The Superhighway System of Organizational Reality: A Metaphor for Systems Thinking in Organizations

highwayMerging on to the interstate, blinker flashing and speed accelerating, I glide into my lane, becoming one with my fellow travelers. Some of us are headed toward the same event and will exit in a line, one after the other. Some will keep going and still others will realize they’ve missed their exit and have to reroute. Thanks, President Eisenhower, for championing America’s interstate highway system!

I’ve traveled to cities that seem to consider traffic laws as optional, and lanes are mere suggestions as drivers blare their horns as they dodge through intersections. When we first arrived in Tehran when I was in high school, our taxi driver even took “shortcuts” through parking lots and down alleys. He felt a sense of urgency we hadn’t communicated, almost as if he couldn’t deposit us to our front door fast enough!

Interstate and road design is meant to get us from one place to another in a somewhat orderly and efficient fashion. On ramps and off ramps, connections to and from other arteries, construction zones and speed traps, and changing rates of speed describe the transportation system, and also serve as a fitting metaphor for our workplace systems.

A key principle in human performance technology is systems thinking – an acknowledgement of the multifaceted and simultaneous activities within an organization that turn inputs into outputs through processes and channels. When looking for ways to close performance gaps it’s essential to think about the whole system, expanding the focus to see what might be a symptom of a larger issue.

The London Underground (Tube) system was introduced in the 1860s as a solution to the city’s overly congested streets. Hailing the first underground railway system (1863), greater London now has 270 stations that move travelers to all parts of the city with relative ease. But it wasn’t always this way.

For decades, competing rail companies dug their lines underground, moving people on a fairly straight path from one end of the city to another. Commuters would often have to exit one station from Line A and walk to another line to continue their journey. This made the underground experience almost as inconvenient as the above-ground transport.

Then, in 1933, a new entity was created that merged all of the competitors into a single organization. With this coordinated effort, Tube travel became much more efficient and consistent. The subterranean, geographical map of the Tube system was very difficult to read, until Harry Beck created a simplified (although geographically interpretive) map that was easy to follow.

Having a roadmap to explain and simplify the system is essential. Following the system is also required – from everyone…until a better system is discovered and adopted!

When I visited Beijing in 2012, one of my contacts told me about a traffic jam that lasted for 10 days in August, 2010 (check out the story on Wikipedia). Because of the vast number of automobiles and trucks trying to get in and out of Beijing every day, a schedule is required to avoid snarls. Commuters are allowed to enter the city on specific days, and delivery vehicles cannot enter the city before certain times, usually during the night.

As the story goes, some delivery truck drivers grew impatient and decided to make their way toward the inner city through construction. This caused such a wide-spread pandemonium that some drivers were stuck for up to five days, only able to move .6 miles per day.

We experience similar snarls in our organizations when we don’t follow our own processes. Our systems are only as good as our willingness and ability to follow them, and when individuals or departments insist on forging ahead without consideration for the consequences, the system breaks down completely and we get stuck for long periods of time.

Peter Senge, a thought leader in organizational systems and learning says,

Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.

To avoid organizational traffic jams, leaders need to keep the whole system in mind and commit to designing and following processes that keep things running smoothly. One department, and one leader, can’t make a decision without considering the impact on up- and down-stream stakeholders. Retrofitting new processes into old systems also causes inefficiency and mayhem. There must be a collaborative effort to co-create and co-repair the system.

When performance falls short of expectations, at the individual, workgroup or organizational levels, there must be a systems approach for discovering the gaps and contributors to those gaps. I often use the example from a call center client, who was addressing a serious problem with average handle time (AHT) for one of its products. Why were employees from one site able to meet the AHT goal while another site chronically fell short?

The assumption was that it came down to employee training and behavior (attitude). A refresher class was needed to remind employees of the steps that would ensure AHT goals were achieved. As employees sat through the refresher, however, my trainer noticed something…the employees were following the steps, but the system had a critical lag that slowed them down.

We can train, coach, and discipline employees when they don’t perform as expected, but we are being unfair when we hold them to impossible performance goals. We have to get a wider frame of reference before we jump in with solutions and make sure we’ve considered all possible contributions to the issue. Yes, training may be needed, but why else is possible? A technology issue? A supervisory problem? A policy that doesn’t make sense?

To understand and benefit from organizational systems we must learn to see through lenses other than our own. As processes are created and revised, decisions are made, or technology implemented, a consideration for the whole system is crucial to success. What impact will a course of action have on…

  • Marketing?
  • Sales?
  • Human resources?
  • Customer service?
  • Information Technology?
  • The community?

Systems thinking doesn’t mean we have to become experts in every area or learn to think like every possible stakeholder, but it does require an awareness that these entities and individuals exist. And we must learn to build social networks outside of our own areas of expertise to leverage the insights and factors bearing on the organization.

Managers are the engineers of workplace systems, creating the traffic flow, the signage, and rest stops that keep organizational drivers safe, focused, and able to navigate to their destination. Peak performance happens in our organizations when we think about the best routes to get our enterprise from Point A to Point B, and consider the many possible scenarios that could interfere with the flow.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Peter Drucker said, Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes. The knowledge within any system is only as powerful as the attention it is given. Pay attention to your systems as you would a map on an unknown interstate before GPS!