3 Essential Elements of Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking

 

After years of talking strategy with business partners I have come to the conclusion that most of us don’t know what strategic thinking really is. Most of what we call strategic thinking is really not that strategic.

 

 

Thinking comes in many forms:

  • Howard Gardner talks about five in his book Five Minds for the Future, and describes at least six kinds of intelligence in his other writings
  • Edward de Bono describes Six Thinking Hats, written specifically for thinking in a business context
  • I have compiled a list of about a dozen or so approaches to thinking.

The Clifton (Gallup) StrengthsFinder identifies strategy as a distinct strength that some of us have, and I know many executives who proudly declare themselves to be strategic thinkers.

STRATEGIC THINKING DEFINED

So how is strategic thinking defined? Maybe if we start there we can better identify whether we are doing it, and how we might do it better. Someone contributed the following definition to Wikipedia:

Strategic thinking is about finding and developing a strategic foresight capacity for an organisation, by exploring all possible organisational futures, and challenging conventional thinking to foster decision making today.

From this definition we can glean the three keys to real strategic thinking, although I want to switch the order around…

CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO

Strategic thinking requires that we recognize and shelve our entrenched mindsets.  The current state of things is what we have determined needs to change, so we must move away from our regular routines when it comes to solving problems. It’s important to look at things from a new angle, to as ourselves why today’s performance, sales, market share, operational processes, and financial results is unacceptable.

Our minds are amazing in that they create efficiencies that allow us to operate with the least amount of effort. We go through much of our days on auto-pilot and do pretty well by this method. But this acting without thinking can also dig grooves in our minds that are hard to get out of. That’s why habits are so hard to break.

We don’t realize that the habits in our thinking prevent us from innovative solutions to persistent problems. Our normal problem-solving techniques, including brainstorming, are barely scratching the surface of what is possible as far as solutions are concerned. We tend to settle for an incremental shift rather than a break-through, and hope for the best outcome with the least amount of effort.

We say we want change, we believe we are entrepreneurial, but in reality we are tethered to self-limiting patterns of thought. So we must challenge the status quo, meaning that we have to face our limited thinking head-on and push ourselves to see more.

FORESIGHT CAPACITY

I like how thefreedictionary.com defines it – “Perception of the significance and nature of events before they have occurred.”

When we begin to challenge the status quo by becoming more aware of our limited and limiting assumptions, we gain insights into where our thoughts are leading us. We may discover that our current patterns are a vicious circle. When we take our beliefs and actions to the end of their logical progression, they may just lead us back to where we started from rather than to the new horizon we were hoping for.

The capacity to see into the future is not the purview of fortune tellers, but the domain of those committed to actively seeking to give the time and attention necessary to realistically see where a decision is headed.

Because of our brain’s capacity for efficiency, we often give up the benefits of strenuous thought. The rigor required for foresight prevents our well-organized minds from resting and reflecting. The best strategic thinkers are those who can train themselves to really consider the probable results of a number of options with realistic insight.

EXPLORING ALTERNATIVES

Expediency is an enemy of strategic thinking. We want to make quick decisions and move on to the next challenge. We go with our first instinct and dismiss all kinds of alternatives because they do not fit our parameters of possibility.

Saying things like, “that won’t work here”, “it’s too expensive, we’ll never get the budget for it”,“so-and-so will never go along with it,” and many similar statements slam the door on what might just be the breakthrough that turns the organization around. And to be honest, our organizations have created this mindset by reinforcing narrow-mindedness.

Exploring alternatives means not shutting down an idea out-right. The best brain-storming sessions allow ideas to be considered for a longer time. No alternatives are shut out of discussion, but are weighed for the unique merit they bring to the discussion.

The energy and high-level thought that comes from considering multiple options not only increases morale by encouraging people to contribute their wackiest ideas, but actually bring innovative solutions to the surface.

STRATEGIC THINKING UNLEASHED

There is no doubt that our world is getting more complex and that technology has accelerated the pace of organizational life, almost to an unbearable speed. To answer these challenges of more information and the need for better and quicker decisions, we must learn to be better strategic thinkers.

Innovation in-and-of-itself is not sufficient. Entrepreneurship is important, but the quality of our thinking cannot just produce more ideas, or they will quickly fizzle out and die, or get eaten up by the competition. We must go beyond the creative to the wise, which can only be accomplished by challenging the status quo, increasing our capacity for foresight, and improving our ability to explore alternatives.

Todd Conkright is a performance technologist, human capital strategist, and organizational development professional. He helps organizations and individuals mind the gap between what is and what ought to be through analysis of current state and strategic design of processes and practices to achieve what is possible. Todd is owner and chief consultant of Cornerstone Global Training and Performance Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. Follow Todd on Twitter @GapMinding.

 

Positively Deviant Leadership

I have studied leadership for many years, and can’t count how many books I have collected on the topic. I keep learning new things about how to be an effective, impactful, and influential leader.

You may be familiar with some of the models: transformational leadership, situational leadership, behavioral leadership, servant leadership, and so on.

The term “leadership” is becoming a lot like the word love! You know, we love chocolate and we love our mothers. But one we have affection for, and the other we crave. Big difference, right!?

Similarly, Leadership has lost its meaning because everyone can be a leader, either by having the title or by assuming the role. Studies show that 8 out of 10 Americans consider themselves leaders, or at least aspire to be. It makes me wonder who is following all of those leaders!

We all know from personal experience that some leaders are better than others. We also know that Leadership is something that can fall to neglect. Without a commitment to continue to improve and grow, leadership can lose its impact and influence.

While we may retain the title of leader, we may lose relevance and the power to change things if we put our leadership into autopilot. When we aren’t intentional about our leadership, we can actually cause a lot of damage.

It’s important to focus on who you are as a leader.

Leadership is a stewardship, a responsibility bestowed on us by followers, and we’d better take it seriously.

A challenge that we have in our organizations and our communities is that we tend to focus on problems. We look for where things are broken and we work to fix things. We also tend to be reactive, putting out fires and placing band aids on the symptoms. Oftentimes we have a deficit mindset, which leads to pessimistic and negative thinking.

The word proactive is well-used in our workplaces. It’s a good word, meaning that we act before things go awry, before its too late. The opposite, of course, is reactive, which means that we have already experienced a downturn, an opportunity has been missed, or we are off target. So we try to become proactive, hopefully avoiding the need to react to a crisis.

But there is something even more powerful than being proactive – it’s called positive deviance.

The word deviance comes from two Latin words: de, meaning out of; and via, meaning the way. So you have this idea that the deviant has ventured away from the normal path, most likely to pursue something sinister. But the positive deviant has gone off the beaten path to create a new way, a positive path.

The positive deviant is unorthodox, driven by a passion to make a difference, a compulsion to improve things, to grow and develop. What I want to leave you with tonight is three principles of positively deviant leadership.

The first principle is this: positively deviant leaders imagine better.

They see where things are and they envision something better. They look around them and they aren’t satisfied with what they see. They know it doesn’t have to stay like this, and they believe they have the ability to venture in a new direction.

Do you remember Popeye the Sailor Man? I know he’s in the wrong branch of the armed forces for some of you!

Do you remember when Olive Oyl was being bullied by Brutus and Popeye came along? He got steaming mad, and said “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands it no more!” He gobbled down his spinach and kicked Brutus’s butt!

Positive deviants are the same way! It may be an injustice, it may be a missed opportunity, it may be a better, more life-giving, more enriching way to do something. But they can no longer follow the status quo. They have to do something. And they are willing to step off the path to make it happen. This first principle has to do with attitude and seeing what could be if they stepped up and did something about it.

Positive deviants are all around us. They are the ones who choose to make a way where there seems to be no way. They take the same resources as everyone else has and they use them differently, and they find a way to thrive right next to the fire-fighters, right beside the maintainers of the status quo.

The second principle of positive deviance is this: positive deviants enlist co-conspirators. They Inspire through partnership.

Positive Deviants may initially venture out alone- they may start out as the rock in the middle of the stream around which the current is swirling. They do the research or covertly initiate their plan, but they know that change happens in community, in the social context. Positive leaders begin building a coalition.

They begin looking for others who are looking for a new path, those who see the need to change but may need a little prompting-they need to see some proof that change is possible. That’s where the positive deviants’ pre-work comes in handy. They have something to show that persuades others to come along.

Jerry and Monique Sternin worked for Save the Children. After the war in Vietnam, they were deployed to address the issue of malnutrition that was pervasive throughout Vietnam. It was great while the NGOs were there to distribute rice and nutrition packets, but when a particular program ended, meaning that there was no more food to distribute, malnutrition returned as before. The challenge before the Sternin’s was whether a sustainable nutrition program could be put into place.

It’s a fascinating story, which you can read for yourself in their book, but I want to focus on how they built a coalition to eradicate malnutrition in post-war Vietnam. With a mandate to fix a huge problem in a very short amount of time, the Sternin’s went on a hunt for positive deviants and discovered that among the poorest of the poor families, some children were nourished even though they had the same resource as their neighbors.

Once the Sternin’s and the local leaders that they had partnered with discovered what the positively deviant families were doing differently, which turned out to be adding a few bits of shrimp & crab, and a handful of greens to the regular serving of broth, they had to take what these few were doing to transform the community through collaboration. The point is this: the Sternin’s could not do it alone.

Consider how your network can move your community or your organization toward something that no single person is capable of. What path is awaiting you as a group of positively deviant leaders?

So the second characteristic has to do with relationships and building critical mass that leads to positive change.

The third and final characteristic I want to leave with you is this: positively deviant leaders are forward thinking.

The reality is that what is emerging for the next 20 years doesn’t look like the last 20 years. It’s already become a cliche that the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself! We know that the pace of society, the pace of business, is getting Faster and faster.

But our communitIes are becoming more global. Our competition is not just the business down the street, but the business in Bangalore, the organization in Bogota. So as positive deviants we must anticipate and be able to maneuver at a fast pace.

I heard recently that at least 20 percent of the jobs that will be needed in the next fifteen years don’t even exist today. Between a flattening world and rapid advances in technology, we’re in for an upheaval in how work gets done and who does it, and also the types of products and services that are required. This reality requires a different way of thinking if our communities are going to thrive into the future.

Positive deviants are watchers of the horizon. And they become prophets of future trends and seers of what is to be. Positive deviants energize innovative thinking. They build a strategy to forge a new path…a positive path for the future.

There is so much more to positive deviance. The interesting thing is that it has worked as a mindset and approach at the community development level and healthcare, but the marketplace has been slow to embrace it because we are committed to problem solving and a deficit mindset.

It’s not a panacea – you still have to address problems and evaluate gaps.

To me, the important thing about positively deviant leadership is that it can help us think about our communities and workplaces differently. Positively deviant leadership shifts the frame through which we view challenges and opportunities.

The questions we ask about what is happening around us shapes the kinds of answers we will hear. Positively deviant leaders look for signs of life and hope and fan the flames of possibility instead of looking for systems and programs on life support in an effort to keep them artificially alive.

Consider a positive deviance approach. Think about how you can imagine better and challenge the status quo, build a coalition that moves the group toward life-giving initiatives, and see into the future to create a community, an organization, and a life that builds on strengths and assets.

    

Right Management: Only Half of Firms Regard Talent Management as Top Priority



Right Management Survey Reveals Only Half of Major Firms Regard Talent Management as a Top Priority (via PR Newswire)

PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 4, 2012 /PRNewswire/ — Only half of major organizations regard talent management as a top priority, according to a survey of 537 U.S. companies by Right Management, the talent and career management expert within ManpowerGroup. For 13% of organizations talent management is a secondary…

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An Endless Supply of Blessings

The cornucopia is a symbol we break out at Thanksgiving to remind us of the overflowing abudnance we enjoy. It’s often a centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table filled with plastic fruit and vegetables that spill out of the wicker, horn-shaped basket across the tablecloth.

In classical mythology the horn of plenty is said to have come from the goat Amalthaea and provided an endless supply of food or drink. If you think about it, a horn-shaped basket isn’t the most practical device for carrying things, but as you try to fill it with the fruits of your labor, you are quickly reminded that you have much to be thankful for.

Thankfulness is a virtue that I am still trying to master. It’s not that I am ungrateful for the blessings in my life, but I have struggled to be satisfied with what I have before me. A quick list of things that I am grateful for include:

  • my wife, who is best friend, advisor, cheerleader, and spiritual mentor
  • my daughter, in whom I delight for her wit, determination, and overall sweetness
  • a multitude of other relatives and friends who inspire, entertain, and bless me
  • colleagues, business partners and students who keep me on my toes and propel me to continuous improvement
  • meaningful work that allows me to use my knowledge, skills, and abilities in new and innovative ways
  • education and the ability to learn new things – shelter and transportation that makes my life comfortable and mobile
  • health, sight, hearing, and the rest of the senses we take for granted

My struggle has been with staying mindful of these blessings and opportunities while also keeping an eye toward the horizon. I have missed the contentment and peace that comes with simmering in the stew of today because I wanted to jump into tomorrow’s pot. (Weird metaphor, I know!)

The gospel of Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to his disciples about worry. He said,

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

The opposite of worry is contentment; the idea that our desires are bound by what we already have. At the same time we have an innate desire to improve, advance, and acquire more.

Ambition is seen as a high virtue in our culture. But to what end? Greed, stress, an unending race toward bigger, better, faster?

I have written before on this dichotomy of ambition and contentment. And my solution now as it was before is a change in attitude and motivation from ambition to investment.

Investing in ideas, in relationships, in causes allows us an eye to the future without the negative consequences of blind ambition. Our mindset allows us to bless others and invest in their dreams and needs without the selfishness that often accompanies ambition.

When we rest in the satisfaction of what we have, using our gifts and resources to advance others either as individuals or communities, we can experience a new kind of thankfulness. It’s a deeper level of gratefulness that inspires us to give abundantly of our time, talents, and money.

So this Thanksgiving I am choosing to consider myself blessed. I will not compare my blessings to others, I will not worry about areas of lack, I will not be ambitious for my own gain. I will count my blessings one by one. I will give thanks for the people, provisions, and opportunities in my life.

Powers of Observation, Maybe Not So Elementary…But Essential!

‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.’ Sherlock Holmes -A Scandal in Bohemia

I was in line at Starbucks one morning and witnessed a team of Starbucks execs talking about the store. My guess is that it was a regional manager working with a couple of new store managers. The leader asked his colleagues “what do you see?” Over the next several minutes his colleagues identified several things that stood out as either positive or negative. One saw display racks that were in need of attention, another noticed the rapport of the drive-thru attendant. Over the course of about 5 minutes a whole list was generated.

I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, and especially enjoy the BBC’s modern-day adaptations of familiar Holmes & Watson cases and the new CBS series Elementary. Although fictional, Sherlock Holmes makes me think. I wonder what clues are right in front of me that I miss for lack of keen observation. Short of carrying around a magnifying glass and a handy side-kick, what can I do to hone my powers of observation to solve perplexing riddles in my workplace?

Our powers of observation seem a bit rusty these days. With smartphones stuck in our palms we barely look up to see where we are going, much less what is really happening around us. We enter the workplace and often go straight to another screen. In meetings we multitask and doodle, missing the world of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that could unleash piles of possibility.

We need to learn to look beyond the headline, below the surface, behind the curtain. We need to develop our powers of observation and become active participants in the world around us. We need to become performance sleuths, investigators of management mysteries, and hounds on the trail of opportunity.

Here are a few ideas to prime the pump of observation:

  1. Stop. When you enter a room or start on a task, pause for a minute and look around. What do you see? Who is there and what mood do you sense? What are the artifacts that define the space and set the tone? What clues, warnings, or heralds of hope are present in the room?
  2. Use your five senses. We initially take in information using the senses of taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch. Go through the senses and take note of things that come to mind. Maybe you can’t identify something for all five senses, but try. The process may unlock new ways of seeing things.
  3. Tap into intuition. Beyond our senses lies intuition, that internal feeling that is wrapped in emotion and potential. While our senses tell us what is, our intuition tells us what might be, what could be. As you observe your surroundings, relationships, and patterns of behavior, listen to your “sixth sense” that wants you to consider something more abstract.
  4. Look for patterns. As you go about your day, write down your routine. What habits are present? What do you do without thinking? What patterns exist in your interactions with others?
  5. Shift. Try doing something different and notice how you and those around you react. Is the shift embraced or resisted? Does it lead to further observations about how engrained behaviors and mindsets have led to particular outcomes?
  6. Ask Questions. Dig beneath the surface. Ask new questions – ones that haven’t been asked before. Think like a detective, but with a positive spin. Look for areas where things are better than expected and ask, “how did we get here? How did this great thing happen?”
  7. Lead others. As you gain experience in picking up clues, identifying limiting behaviors, and seeing new possibilities, teach others to do the same. See what happens when you start a meeting by asking everyone to identify what they see.

I secretly long to be like Sherlock Holmes, without the peculiarly irritating personality quirks. I want to solve cases that have perplexed and debilitated organizations. Professor Moriarty is Holmes’ nemesis – the equally smart mastermind who keeps the sleuth on his toes. Moriarty is the deviant to Holmes’ positive deviance. While not always personified, and typically not intentional, our workplaces are staffed with Moriarty’s and we must develop our powers of observation to expose and eradicate them.

Sherlock Holmes

The Joy of Positive Deviance

I first heard the term positive deviance when I read Kim Cameron’s thin volume, Positive Leadership. I immediately loved the term for its irony, its spin on what we normally think of as deviant behavior. The idea that we can become positively deviant by breaking the norm and surpassing expectations appeals to the dreamer in me.

Deviant comes from the Latin “de” – from, and “via” – road. So deviance refers to being off the beaten path. It is out of the norm, forging a new path where none exists. While some who live off the main road are robbers and malcontents, others are trail-blazers, dreamers…positive deviants.

Gretchen Spreitzer of the University of Michigan and Scott Sonenshein from Rice University clarify what is meant by positive: “By positive we mean honorable behaviors that improve the human condition.” Honorable is a carefully chosen term that reflects the above-and-beyond nature of the deviant behavior that others would label honorable.

Shawn Achor, a trail-blazer in the emerging study of positive psychology, is intrigued by the positive outliers- those who are out of the norm because they chose to push through when the odds were against them, went a little further than what was considered safe, and changed the lens through which they viewed the world.

Achor says to focus “on your own lens and how you can ripple that positivity out through your work, your personality and your habits to create a more positive work environment.” we can cultivate our positive deviance by becoming more aware of possibilities and opening our eyes to limiting mindsets.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship is the hub for research in how to apply positive psychology in our organizations. Researchers like Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn, and Jane Dutton are involved in the application of POS in the real world.

In the organizational context the positive deviant challenges the status quo. Fired by a vision of what could be…what ought to be…the positive deviant swims upstream. What I learned (the hard way) is that the successful positive deviant builds coalitions whenever possible. We swim alone if we have to, compelled by a vision of what could be. But creating ripples of influence within our informal and formal networks creates energy and critical mass.

As I considered how positive deviance applied to my own field of performance Improvment, I discovered that much performance intervention is based on ambition and individual power. To introduce positive deviance requires a shift in the philosophical starting point to performance analysis from ambition to investment.

As a performance investor I become a steward of a higher purpose within the organization. I see the positive core that each individual brings to the team as well as the collective positive core. My focus shifts from problems to possibilities and I invest my time and talent to raise the success quotient so that everyone wins.

I know positivity can come across as a “peace, love and harmony” approach that has no place in the rough and tumble world of organizational politics and a driving sense of urgency. It does require a shift in ones mindset to replace the ambition-based push with an investment-based influencing conviction.

Becoming a positive deviant in any organization requires a commitment to long-term influence as it takes time to build coalitions and work the social networks. It requires determination to continue making the investment of time, energy, and personal gain for the future success of individuals and the organization.

Cultural Savvy in the Training Room

Unconsciously baked into every training program are a group of biases, preferences, and approaches that overlook the cultural and sub-cultural realities that training participants bring with them to the classroom. With increasing regularity the training room is filled with a diverse mix of individuals that, without attention to this reality, could be hampered in their learning if trainers and instructional designers don’t develop some cultural savvy.

A good diversity program encourages awareness of and appreciation for a laundry list of differences from ways of thinking (cognitive diversity) to education, socio-economic background, race, gender and age. We learn not to judge others for those differences, but to find common ground. We look for ways to learn from one another and draw on each person’s strengths as we work in teams and strive to reach the organization’s goals.

Diversity training is seen as a program – something that good companies do to help employees get along and create goodwill in the community. Yet as our organizations become more global and cross-cultural, little has been done to ensure training is conducted in a way that makes sense to the globally diverse workforce.

With western dominance in the area of training development, most training programs are designed within a very narrow framework by instructional designers with little, if any, training in cultural dimensions.

Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede is well-known for his longitudinal study that led to the identification of six cultural dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism: loose-knit social framework where individuals take care of themselves vs. a tightly-knit social framework where relatives and in-groups take care of one another.
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity: Traits that are considered masculine are achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Feminine traits are cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
  5. Long-term vs. short-term orientation: Societies with a short-term orientation generally have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth. In societies with a long-term orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time.
  6. Indulgence vs. restraint: Indulging societies allow for free gratification of human drives for life and fun. Restraining cultures suppress gratification using strict social norms.

Watch Geert Hofstede talk about the Seven Deadly Sins in a Multicultural World

  1. Trainers and instructional designers should learn about the cultural dimensions. In addition to Hofstede’s view, Robert House led a study of 62 societies in the GLOBE study. Both Hofsted and House are good starting points for understanding cultures.
  2. Find a middle-ground that avoids extremes that can cause a learner to shut down. The best approach is variety. Use difference teaching methods to ensure all cultures are engaged at some point during the training. Go from lecture, to small group discussion, to role-playing/experiential exercises.
  3. Know your audience. To the degree possible, consider the cultural diversity within the classroom and adjust your approach accordingly.
  4. Adjust as you go. Watch for reactions of participants and try different teaching methods if it seems learners are indifferent, disengaged, or even hostile. This is a good practice no matter what the makeup of the class, since there is some level of diversity in every training session.

American’s tend to like trainers who are high-energy, humorous, and get the audience actively involved. I’ve witnessed this approach in global contexts as a U.S.-based trainer is sent to England, Bangalore, or Manila to conduct product training. This over-the-top, highly individualistic and indulgent style often did not resonate with the audience, who was used to lecture-style training within a strict hierarchy.

The opposite can happen, too, as a lecture-based training can be viewed as boring and un-engaging by American’s who want to be actively involved through exercises and dialogue.

Conducting effective training in a global context is becoming increasingly difficult. Cultural savvy is a critical element that will greatly benefit trainers who want to ensure learning is taking place.

Every culture has its biases, preferences and values. Developing an understanding of cultural differences and proactively building training programs to incorporate the dimensions of culture will lead to more effective training. An additional benefit of building cultural savvy into the training room is that walls of miscommunication are broken down and relationships are forged.

Purchase these books from the Minding the Gap Bookstore:

Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across NationsCulture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 SocietiesCultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition

Investment-Based Performance Improvement

I am a certified performance technologist (CPT). What in the world does that mean? According to the International Society for Performance Improvement, a CPT has proven the ability to apply the ten competencies of human performance improvement in a way that makes a positive performance difference to an organization. Don’t worry, this post is not going to be a shameless self-promotion. I want to focus on my approach to performance improvement and how I’ve shifted my focus from ambition to investment.

First, an overview of the competencies of human performance improvement (HPI):

The 10 Standards of Performance Technology, which are based on four principles and following a systematic process to improve performance, ensure that the Certified Performance Technologist has conducted his or her work in a manner that includes the following:

  • Focus on results and help clients focus on results.
  • Look at situations systemically taking into consideration the larger context including competing pressures, resource constraints, and anticipated change.
  • Add value in how you do the work and through the work itself.
  • Utilize partnerships or collaborate with clients and other experts as required.
  • Systematic assessment of the need or opportunity.
  • Systematic analysis of the work and workplace to identify the cause or factors that      limit performance.
  • Systematic design of the solution or specification of the requirements of the      solution.
  • Systematic development of all or some of the solution and its elements.
  • Systematic implementation of the solution.
  • Systematic evaluation of the process and the results.

Performance improvement, when done with these standards in mind, can be a powerful tool in any organization.  Any time an individual or work group applies a systematic, intentional process to making things better, the results can be like compounding interest in a savings account, leading to great gains over time. The practice of performance technology is a focused effort to innovate solutions to systemic challenges.

Why Your Approach to Performance Improvement Matters

I want to contrast ambition-based performance improvement and investment-based performance improvement.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives three definitions for Ambition:

  1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power b: desire to achieve a particular end
  2. the object of ambition <her ambition is to start her own business>
  3. a desire for activity or exertion <felt sick and had no ambition>

All of these uses of the word ambition center around an individual trying to get his or her way. Ambition is self-promoting. The original usage applied to those going around town to solicit votes for election. So if I initiate a performance improvement effort from an ambitious mindset, I am first looking at my own rank, power, and ability to influence others to my way of thinking.

Investing, on the other hand, focuses on what I can give to another, making them the center of attention rather than myself. Here’s what Merriam-Webster provides as definitions for Invest:

  1. [Medieval Latin investire, from Latin, to clothe] a: to array in the symbols of office or honor b: to furnish with power or authority c: to grant someone control or authority over : vest
  2. to cover completely : envelop
  3. clothe, adorn
  4. [Middle French investir, from Old Italian investire, from Latin, to surround]: to surround with troops or ships so as to prevent escape or entry
  5. to endow with a quality : infuse

I like the picture that we get from the first usage above: to array in the symbols of office or honor. It ties to the idea of empowerment and equipping people with the tools and structures to succeed in their work. I am a strong believer in servant leadership, which fits perfectly with an investment-based performance improvement methodology.

Investment-based performance improvement has four distinct characteristics:

  1. Humility
  2. Humor
  3. Harmony
  4. Honor

These 4 H’s, when used in conjunction with the competencies of performance technology, create an environment where individuals work collectively for the good of the organization while building one another up.

Let’s take a look at each of the characteristics.

Humility.

We don’t talk much about humility in the workplace. Our western culture views humility as a weakness, something that gets in the way of ambition. Many view humility as unrealistic in the cut-throat world of the marketplace where it’s “eat or be eaten.” But humility is making a resurgence in the marketplace. Good guys (and gals) really can finish first.

Humility breaks down barriers of communication, disarms individuals from protecting their territory, and allows us to listen. When we are driven by ambition, we cannot hear what is being said because we are always looking to promote ourselves and our solutions. But with humility I can truly listen, truly desire to hear, and see where the insight emerges, even if it doesn’t originate with me.

Humor.

It may seem odd to make humor a characteristic of investing, but it makes such a big difference that it warrants an honored place as an essential element in working with others toward common goals. When I say humor, I am not talking about sarcasm, jokes, or laughing at the mistakes or shortcomings of others. Instead, humor as an investment gives us perspective. It is the ability to look at a ridiculous situation and see it as it is – a case of human reality at its finest and most sublime.

Many of us have lost our sense of humor in the workplace. We have become cynics or comics, but have no good humor that allows things to slide. We are quickly offended, proud of our fast retorts, and use humor to tear others down to make ourselves look better. But humor as an investment intentionally laughs at challenges, sees the irony and chooses to smile instead of lash out, and promotes light-heartedness over criticism or caustic remarks.

Harmony.

Harmony embraces diversity, especially cognitive diversity where we bring together different perspectives, unique insights, and approaches to situations that may be foreign to our own experience or preference. Harmony as a performance investment looks to blend ideas from multiple sources into one beautiful arrangement that is infinitely more than anyone single individual could accomplish.

To create a harmonious workplace requires that we look at each individual and learn to appreciate what they bring to the party. We have a tendency within our human nature to look for homogeneity – we immediately seek out those who are like us. It makes us feel comfortable, part of the group. But diversity is all around us, and we must promote harmony through building rapport with those who see things differently, looking for areas of agreement, but mostly striving to appreciate their point of view and working to integrate the best from all sources.

Honor.

The final characteristic of investment-based performance improvement is honor. Honor and harmony are kindred spirits, since honoring someone can lead to harmony. But I keep honor as a distinct characteristic because of its importance as a mindset toward other people. Honor has to do with “a showing of usually merited respect.” When we honor someone, we hold them in high regard. We see them as a person of value, worthy of investment.

In another sense of the word, we consider it an honor to work with certain people, or to be recognized by them. When it comes to investing in someone else, to make their ability to perform at their peak level, we should consider it an honor. That person may be on a different level in a corporate hierarchy, but if we choose to see it as a privilege to assist them in their success, our ambition takes a back seat.

Investment-based performance improvement, using the 4 H’s as the philosophical starting point, sparks a positive change in the workplace. Whether a certified performance technologist, a supervisor working with a team of customer service reps, or vice president of national sales, you are making an investment in the lives of others. Ambition has its place, but when our ambition centers on our own power, glory, and advancement we quickly become blind to how investing in the performance of others raises all of us to a higher level. When you raise others up, you go a little higher yourself, but then you realize that isn’t really what it’s all about after all.

For more about Human Performance Technology and the Certified Performance Technologist designation, visit the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). If you decide to join, make sure you list me as the one who referred you!

Project Management Skills Should be Required for Everyone!

Project Management Lifecycle

An organization I work with recently switched to a new email server. The plan was that at the flick of a switch everything would migrate to the new server and in less than five minutes everyone would be up and running. A week later the mess is still being cleaned up.

Very few IT projects that I’ve participated in have been implemented without some unexpected glitch. In fact, I think the mantra of many in IT is “expect the unexpected.” The point being, as optimistic as one might be, it’s a good idea to think about what could go wrong and plan accordingly. And just as importantly, communicate accordingly.

In the scenario I described above, even if the switch would have worked and the system was up within minutes, there was additional set-up that every user needed to complete to activate the system. No one anticipated this. No email message with self-service instructions was provided, so the IT staff has had to work individually with everyone in the organization to get them set up.

Unfortunately, situations like this happen all the time.  We get focused on the core task and forget what is happening up and down stream. As a college professor I believe a critical skill that every college graduate must learn is basic project management. The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) focuses on five key processes:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

There are also nine areas of knowledge that are central to managing any type of project:

PMBOK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone who leads a project will need to be concerned with every aspect of these nine areas of knowledge. However, a basic education in project management will promote the acquisition of a project management mindset that identifies areas of risk, possible derailments, and contingency plans. When employees are taught to anticipate what might happen, whether in customer interactions or technology implementations, communication can help control the process and curtail the need for inefficient crisis management if things go wrong.

The key to managing any project is asking the right questions before the project moves an inch. Here are a few that apply to almost all projects, and should be asked by everyone whether they are managing the project or not.

  1. What, exactly, is changing? What will be different when we’re done?
  2. What might go wrong? What will happen if things go awry? What makes for a good project implementation?
  3. What is my role? Do I need to communicate information down the line?
  4. Do I have critical information or concerns that I need to share with someone in charge?
  5. What assumptions am I making about the project?
  6. Are there others who may be affected by the project who don’t know as much as I do? What might I need to share with them?
  7. What could be done to make the project as smooth as possible?
  8. Would it help to create a FAQ document? A job aid or quick reference guide? What would help me do my job easier – that’s usually important to everyone.
  9. What has been communicated about the project? Is it sufficient? If someone walked in off the street could they make sense of what was happening?
  10. What are my co-workers most likely to ask questions (or grumble) about?

Failure to effectively manage projects results in inefficiency, including re-work or additional work, and causes hours of grumbling among staff. A little pre-planning and an extra communication effort can make a huge difference in the execution of a project. Going back to my original example, if the questions above were given any consideration, a whole week of stress, confusion, and reduced productivity could have been avoided.

The One-Page Project Manager: Communicate and Manage Any Project With a Single Sheet of Paper

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Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management (2nd Edition)
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Making the Pieces Fit: Right Person-Right Job-Right Organization

A couple of years ago, when I was managing a group of trainers for a large financial services firm, I needed to backfill a position when a trainer was promoted within the company. We lacked internal bench strength, so following the culture of promotion from within wasn’t a viable option. I would have to hire externally. Personally, I welcomed this opportunity because I felt we needed some “new blood” in our organization.

As I sorted through dozens of resumes and began narrowing down the candidates, there was one individual who stood out to me as unique. What he lacked in industry experience I was confident he could overcome with his ambitious, unconventional perspective. I wanted to shake up the rest of the trainers, and I was committed to hiring a diverse team to broaden the perspectives of the group and encourage them to learn from one another.

So I ignored the concerns of a couple of people I had invited to participate in the interview process and went with my gut. What I learned is that sometimes your gut needs to listen to the guts of others!

Jerry was probably the worst hire I have ever made! Almost from the beginning, when he was a participant in the training class, he began stirring things up, but not in the exciting, positive way I had envisioned. Over the next two years I coached and disciplined him until it was obvious we needed to sever the relationship altogether.

What I now know is that company fit is a two-way street. An article published in 2005 by researchers at the University of Iowa (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman & Johnson, Personnel Psychology, 2005) addresses Person-Environment fit. Fit can be considered from various angles, such as person-supervisor fit, person-organization fit, person-workgroup fit, and so on.

Recruiters and hiring managers may have some instinctive knowledge, and maybe even some formal training, in screening individuals for organizational fit. There is a desire to find out if someone will be a good fit for the culture as well as provide the necessary skills and experience to do the job. Often, though, organizations do what I did with Jerry – they fail to look at things from multiple perspectives, so they miss things that could become a problem down the road.

The most useful person-environment factors to consider are vocation fit, job fit, organization fit, and workgroup fit.

Vocation Fit

Remember the career interest inventory you took your senior year in high school? Your results showed a laundry list of possibly occupations based on what you selected as most and least desirable in the assessment. I think some of mine included funeral director, teacher, librarian and zookeeper. Often there is little personal counseling that goes along with these assessments so you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you might want to be when you grow up!

We assume that individuals have figured this out before they start applying for jobs, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked why someone wants a particular job and they respond with “I really like to help people.” That’s great! But why help people through this job? Why does it satisfy you? Why is this career of choice? I ask my college students what they plan to do after graduation and most of them say “get a job.” Minimal effort seems to be put into discovering strengths, passions, interests, and vocational fit.

Job Fit

Assuming the individual has made a thoughtful vocational choice, the next step is to consider job fit. My wife used to laugh at me early in our marriage when I would look through the want ads and circle jobs (yeah – remember the days when you had to get the Sunday paper to find out who was hiring?!) that I didn’t have the credentials for but was convinced I would be a perfect choice for! Or I would apply for jobs at companies that I would not enjoy working in.

As job seekers we get into the desperation trap of “I just need a job – any job – and I’ll keep looking if its not the best one.” With bills piling up we quickly jettison the idea that we need a job where we can thrive – we’re just trying to survive. We become overly optimistic and let the dollars guide us.

The opposite happens with organizations and hiring managers. I’ve made desperate hiring decisions just to fill a position quickly, then regretted it later. In the call center world we called it “butts in seats.” In retail we had a similar approach – the “fog a mirror” test. The assumption is that its better to have someone…anyone…than no-one. Some industries just come to expect a certain amount of turnover.

But have you noticed the difference between the fast-food associate that is a good fit and the one who isn’t? They are in the right vocation – customer service – and in the right job. They smile, interact, and do their work with pride. In some ways its harder to measure this as people climb the ladder. They have the experience, skills, and credentials. But do they fit with your job?

Organization Fit

There are a few ways to look at organization fit. First, is there values alignment? Job seekers have to find out if what they believe about life and work meshes with what the company believes about life and work. Do they produce products and services that we think are harmful in some way? I once worked for a company that provided customer service for companies that sold adult videos, psychic readings, and online gambling sites. I didn’t know that until after I started working for the company, and it gave me some heartburn to be associated with such a company.

My first human resources job was for a century-old food manufacturing company that was hiring their first HR Manager in the company’s history. It took them at least two years to pull the trigger on posting the job. The average tenure of the executive team was about 20 years, so most of them started with the company right out of college and never left. As a young, ambitious, and out-of-the-box HR Manager, I was in for an awakening! I had a blast going in and setting up a new department, having the autonomy to create priorities and projects. But after about three years I had done all I could do because my desire for progressive programs did not fit the culture. They needed someone who would maintain what I had set in place.

As organizations become more active supporters of a variety of causes, from gay rights to immigration reform to global warming, job seekers have to do their homework to decide whether they fit with such an organization. It requires asking specific questions about values, priorities, and practices. Read articles about the company to see what may be below the surface of the company web site.

Workgroup Fit

At the workgroup level both the job seeker and the employer need to evaluate whether there is a good fit with a particular team. I’ve worked in large organizations that are a conglomeration of multiple sub-cultures. If the workgroup is in a location apart from corporate headquarters, how is the culture different? Is there dysfunction, infighting, or an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to working with other departments?

When I worked for a regional department store chain I was in one of the premier stores in a large mall in a large city. I would visit our stores in smaller cities and the culture within the store was completely different. There is a different talent pool, with smaller towns typically having less turnover. I’ve often found that the less turnover there is, the more likely the workgroup is receptive to change and new ideas. This isn’t always the case, but it’s important to check out.

Over a ten-year career in retail I worked in or managed virtually every department. As a 20-something male, I was assigned to manage a cosmetics department of 30 women for a couple of years. What an experience that was. Talk about a challenging workgroup fit!  Why my boss thought this was a good position for me, I don’t know. And why I accepted it shows that I didn’t give much thought to workgroup fit!

Evaluating Fit is Everyone’s Job

Job seekers and employers both have a responsibility to evaluate fit. At the highest organizational levels processes need to be in place to ensure values and priorities are clearly communicated at every level and location of the organization. Human resource policies and practices need to promote evaluation of fit, with hiring managers receiving training on how to screen at the four levels of fitness.

With high unemployment and fierce competition for jobs it will be difficult for job seekers to honestly evaluate fit, especially at the organization and workgroup levels. Individuals will accept positions out of desperation, blindly hoping that they can push through the discomfort they may have with the workplace. It won’t take long for things to surface and productivity will likely suffer. Co-workers will be affected and HR will be called in to help fix the situation.

We will continue to see tension within our workplaces from a failure to consider fit from employer and employee angles. Misalignment of skills, values, personalities and priorities cause friction and misunderstanding. As an HR Manager I frequently had discussions with hiring managers over whether it was better to keep a position open longer, taking a risk with productivity, or to keep searching for the right person. It’s difficult in the moment, because there are lines of customers waiting to be helped, or projects put on hold, or machines running at less-than-capacity. But in the end, the productivity and positive ripple effects for the workgroup and organization when the right person is in the job typically outweigh the less-than-stellar outcomes of a poor fit.

Suggested Resources

Who: The A Method for Hiring

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Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time

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What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

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Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type

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