PLEASE MIND THE GAP

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If you’ve ever been to London and traveled on the tube (underground subway) you’ve heard the phrase “please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  It’s a reminder that there is either some separation or a step up or down that could trip you up and cause harm.

I chose this ubiquitous phrase as the theme for my blog on performance management (www.CreativeGapMinding.com) because it’s a fitting reminder that there is often a gap between what we are currently experiencing and what is possible, and that there are dangers to not minding these gaps.

KNOWING THE GAPS

Minding the gap means not just watching for the dangers, but preparing for them…minding them. Minding a gap means proactively keeping it before us and not haphazardly walking through the terrain of our workplaces.  Mindfulness is a choice to open our eyes to what’s happening around us – to take everything in consciously and with a determination to remove the blinders that so often keep us from the levels of success that are possible.

A gap is anything that could get in the way of achieving goals; missed opportunities, unrecognized threats, inefficiencies that create waste.

TOOLS FOR MINDING THE GAPS

There are countless tools that help identify gaps. Here’s a handful that I like to use…

1.   SWOT Analysis: The SWOT is a tried-and-true tool used around the globe. Even a cursory use of a SWOT can identify things that should be considered. The SWOT’s four quadrants: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, can lead to further exploration of gaps that exist, either in a positive sense (Strengths/Opportunities), or n a cautionary sense (Weaknesses/Threats).

2.   Five Why’s: Another simple tool is Five Why’s, which seeks to get to root causes of issues. Start with the surface symptom that reveals a missed opportunity or shortfall, then keep asking why that behavior or condition exists until you’ve discovered the source(s) of the gap.

3.   Root Cause of Success Analysis: We are used to looking for the root causes of problems, but rarely take time to consider the actions and decisions that lead to success. Take the fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram, and instead of starting with a problem statement, begin with an identified success. Identify all of the systemic factors (people, technology, policies, management, etc) that contributed to the success. You may identify gaps or opportunities that will take things to the next level.

4.   Appreciative Questioning/Future Search. Appreciative Inquiry and Future Search are similar tools that build on organizational strengths and successes and uses positive questions to imagine the desired future together. Getting representation from all stakeholder groups to contribute stories of when they have felt empowered and engaged in the organization unlocks a powerful dialogue that uncovers opportunities and addresses unseen gaps between stakeholder groups.

 

Become a gap-minder by focusing on the difference between today’s reality – those things that you know could be better – and what is possible. Many companies find themselves dinged up from their lack of minding the gaps, but paying attention to the risks and possibilities before you trip can mean higher levels of success and a more engaged and satisfied work culture.

   

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!

   

Why Would You Want to Be the Devil’s Advocate?

Imagine you’ve just pitched a great idea to your colleagues and boss. You’ve made great points, showed data to back up your recommendations, and are sure you’ve wowed the group with your amazing solution to the problem du jour. Then inevitably the colleague you knew would oppose whatever you present raises his hand and says, “I just want to be the devil’s advocate here. What about…?” You let out a controlled sigh and concentrate to hold your eyeballs in place so no one will see the eye roll you’re imagining in your mind.

So what’s the deal with this guy? Why always the devil’s advocate role for him? Does the devil really need an advocate? Maybe a more honest statement would be, “Now I’m going to criticize your idea because I don’t like it.” The devil’s advocate isn’t looking for ways to implement your idea; they’re looking for ways to prove why it doesn’t work.

When we take on this role, and we’ve all worn the badge in some meeting along the way, we shut down any meaningful dialogue and create sides. What motivates us to squash someone else’s idea? Fear of change? Envy and resentment because it wasn’t your idea?

Those who are naturally critical may think they’re doing the group a favor by challenging every suggestion, no matter how well thought out and viable. This cat-and-mouse game is seen as sport, but in reality more harm is done than good. The mouse rarely survives the claws of the cat.

What would happen if the devil’s advocate role was banned from our conference rooms? What if instead we started saying “yes, and…” when we hear a new idea.  With an attitude that says, “how can we make this work?” we can change the dialogue to something more productive and affirming. Instead of people being put on the defensive, fighting against the devil, we would encourage idea generation and look for ways to perfect the proposal or clarify points.

Does this sound too altruistic? Too soft? Are you wondering who is going to challenge all of the half-baked ideas pitched in meetings? Maybe your worry and need to challenge others’ ideas is an opportunity to evaluate your own motives.

Throwing away ideas too soon is like opening a package of flower seeds and then throwing them away because they’re not pretty.

Use the same energy you put into being the devil’s advocate into advocating the ideas of your colleagues. The positive transformation will empower you and others to make things possible, to uncover potential, and to co-create the future.

Not My Problem – Leading Teams to Self-Solving Dynamics

As leaders we often have team members come to us because of a relational or strategic logger jam that is impacting the workgroup. And more often than not they are looking to you, the leader, to fix it for them. So being the good leaders that we are we jump in and start problem-solving. After all, we have the insight, experience and position to push the team to resolution, right?

Not so fast! In our good-intentioned efforts to take the lead and generate solutions, we might be perpetuating the problem. The real issue is not so much the particular scenario they’ve asked your assistance with, but the underlying dynamics that, in the words of pop-psychology, create co-dependence. You come in as the hero, or the enforcer, and the team relinquishes responsibility for handling their own interpersonal and operational conundrums.

A healthy social dynamic instead places the burden of solving these roadblocks on the whole team, not just the leader. The best leaders resist the temptation to be a fixer, instead helping the team process the issue by getting to the real motivations of individuals. The team is strengthened as the leader acts as facilitator, using emotional and social intelligence to read and work through the emotional positions that are causing the conundrum.

Here are three steps leaders can take to put the burden on the group to solve its own problems:

  1. Stop. Stop talking! Resist the urge to provide solutions. Slow down and get perspective. Expediency does not typically lead to lasting solutions. If you struggle to do this, you may want to evaluate your own motives – why do you feel you need to fix things for the group?
  2. Ask. Your first task should be to get group members to open up. Ask probing questions to uncover the meaning behind the meaning of the roadblock. Go below the surface to understand assumptions, biases and motivations. Avoid blame, foster respect, and look for the positive. Help build appreciation.
  3. Relinquish. Let go of your own solutions and allow the group to find their own way out. Keep asking questions to clarify the direction, and facilitate to keep dialogue focused, but remain silent about the direction you recommend. Why? Because you will perpetuate co-dependency and the group will continue to look to you and not themselves, which is inefficient and non-empowering.

One last note on turning over the responsibility and accountability to the group: it may take time. With our culture’s obsession with sense of urgency and expediency, this process may seem time-consuming and inefficient. But as the adage goes, “if you don’t have the time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?” By creating a dependence on the leader, the group becomes a drain as it relies on the leader to step in any time a roadblock arises. But if the leader trains the group to process its own issues, it will eventually become independent and high-performing.

Big Problems, Small Solutions

Why do we always think a big problem requires big solutions? With this mindset we can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and miss the small solution that can make a big difference. Brothers Dan and Chip Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, talk about this phenomenon. Their observation is that, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over decades.” Most of our problems in organizations do not require decades to improve, but they do take a strategic approach. We have to resist the temptation to put band-aids on complex issues and take a systems view to explore the multiple sources contributing to the problem. In a recent job I was tasked with solving a performance problem with call center agents. Month after month a group of agents fell below quality expectations. I brought in the experts – Quality Analysts, Team Managers, and Trainers – and asked each of them what they thought the problem was and how to solve it. All of them had a diferent perspective and all of them was right. If I had only listened to one group and not the other, small solutions would have been missed. The solution was not a large-scale training program, but a multi-faceted one that included targeted coaching, group activities, and repositioning the agents nearer the help they needed to succeed. It was a big problem with a lot of attention from senior management, but the solutions were small and organic.