continuous improvement

Continuous Improvement, Growth Mindset, and an “Attitude of Better”

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This was originally posted on LinkedIn.com/in/chipn

When I had my own company our focus was on providing the absolute best services in a few niche areas. Our goal was to succeed in the spaces that were important yet underserved. We identified those areas, validated the need, evaluated the competition and our competitive positioning, determined the market potential, and then made an informed decision based on that data.

Continuous Improvement. An image of stairs moving upwards with a man standing on a wall near the stairs and overlooking a city scene.

But, this was not a plan for winning. It was a roadmap to places that we could win, but nothing more.What would our strategy be? What specific problems would we solve? How would we create awareness around the potential impact of those problems? And, how would we position ourselves as being the best candidates to address those business needs? In short, what was our real purpose or raison d’etre?

Recognizing that void led to a couple of powerful revelations –

1.    It is great to have a goal of being the best at something, but don’t use that as an excuse to procrastinate. Learning and improving is an iterative process, so that goal by itself was not good enough.

2.    Adopting an “Attitude of Better” turned out to be a game-changer. We set our focus on continuous improvement and winning. We became customer-obsessed, driven to provide a better service and better results for each and every customer. We gauged our success by customer satisfaction, repeat engagements, and referrals.

3.    But, it wasn’t until we adopted an intentional Growth Mindset that our business really started to evolve and improve.

·      We leveraged each and every win to help us find and create the next win.

·      Our team was constantly pushing each other to raise the bar of knowledge, expertise, and performance.

·      Just as important was what occurred next. They became a safety net for each other. Failure for one meant failure for all and nobody wanted that. They became a high-performance team.

·      We created standard processes and procedures to ensure consistency and maintain the highest levels of quality. This applied to everything we did – from working on a task to writing trip reports, status reports, and proposals. It also reduced our risks when we chose an outsourcing partner to help us take on more concurrent projects.

·      Whenever possible we automated processes to maintain consistency while increasing efficiency, repeatability, scalability, and profitability.

·      We measured and tracked everything, analyzed that data, captured lessons learned, and continuously worked on improving (and documenting) every aspect of the business.

·      A byproduct of this approach was that we could offer leaner pricing based on accurate estimates having very small margins of error. Our pricing was competitive, we could fix price much of what we did, and our profit margins were very good. This allowed us to invest in further growth.

Our “attitude of better” also came across as confidence when selling to and working with new customers. Not only could we tell them stories of our success that included tangible metrics, most of our customers became references willing to talk about the value we added. Their stories included discussions about how much better things became as a result of our work.

Better became the foundation of what we did as well as the basis of those customer success stories.

Non-Linear Thought Process and a Message for my Children

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I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience) and then we spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training.

The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection which ultimately led to this post.

The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” faster and more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. For me personally, that has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.

Photo by Cu00e9sar Gaviria on Pexels.com

The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of your ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to communicate better and deal with the fact that ideas can be difficult to grasp. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they tend to think like you, so you become relatable and interesting to them. The world is a strange place.

It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things suddenly make complete sense. That causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure something out sooner. As a parent I am always trying to identify and create learning shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.

I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder and possibly help others. Instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms in life that could help foster that personal growth process. So, here goes…

  1. Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
  2. Learn from everything you do – good and bad. Continuous improvement is so important. By focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
  3. Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
  4. Incorporating new approaches or the best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
  5. Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
  6. Surround yourself with the best people that you can find. Look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
  7. Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
  8. Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
  9. Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
  10. Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
  11. Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled in environments where fear and blame rule.
  12. Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  13. And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.

Hopefully, this will help my children become the best people possible, and ideally early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until that point I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.

Why do you want to teach?

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In the past I wrote about about how I like to read, experiment, and learn as much as possible about as many thing as possible. My goal isn’t to be the Jack of all trades and Master of none. Rather, I view knowledge and experience as pieces that can be used to build a mosaic of something interesting and/or worthwhile.

Years ago when I first started programming my manager had me work with the top performers in the group. Being inquisitive and always wanting to improve led me to ask a lot of questions in order to understand why things were done the way they were. One Analyst I worked with was extremely sensitive, and after fielding a few questions he told me, “Programming is like art. Two people will interpret things in two different ways, but in the end you will have two pictures that are similar and both do the job. So, quit messing with my picture.”

At first I was somewhat offended, but then I realized that much of what he stated was true. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. From that perspective learning really is somewhat of an artform.

What makes teaching worthwhile to me is helping people improve in ways that are their own, rather than teaching them how to do things in one specific “right” way. One analogy is that you are teaching people to navigate, rather that providing them with the route. Also, in order to be a good teacher you need to have a solid grasp on the topic, be willing and able to relate to students, and want to help them learn. It’s rewarding on a couple of different levels.

Your ability to teach well starts with your understanding of the topic, but that is just the foundation. Being able to apply a seemingly abstract concept to a concrete problem is a very helpful skill. In medicine they have the concept of, “See one, Do one, Teach one.” It is a great way to codify the knowledge and start developing the desired skills.

Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful. Often a student would mention how they handled a problem and it sounded bizarre at first, but digging deeper into their approach resulted in understanding something that was actually pretty amazing.

Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met several of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and provide the confidence and desire to do more than they ever dreamed was possible.

Teaching is about helping others, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. And remember, not everyone wants to learn and/or improve so don’t take that personally. Just do your best to help the people who want to grow and improve. Mentoring is another good way to do this. You will be surprised at the positive impact one person can have by doing this.

Doing it like Mike

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My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.

"The Chart" - from Chris Lytle's MAX Sales Training program
“The Chart” – from Chris Lytle’s MAX Sales Training program

Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to achieve their full potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and a commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different. The potential reward outweighed the real risk.

Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then looked for examples of exceptional performance, and finally created a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement on an ongoing basis. From then on it was analyzing my results, thinking daily about even the smallest improvements, and then trying to do even better the next day.

Good enough was never good enough. Introspection can challenging so one thing that I have done is to take time to celebrate wins and intentionally focus on remembering how that feels. In times of stress or frustration those memories can be motivational and help you back on track quickly.

Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority.  I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle.  Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman.

What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And just like basketball, it takes practice to master. But, with mastery comes success and the illusion that something is easy (or that you happen to be very lucky). The Seneca quote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is so true.

Regardless of the system used, what is most important is that you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them.  There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of an ongoing process of improving.

Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work will help you improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.

For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an understanding about why what they are selling should matter to meand are able to articulate that quickly and confidently.  I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of both good and bad sales techniques.

So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!

Mind of a Champion – Michael Jordan training for success!