Originally posted on LinkedIn.com/in/chipn
Recently I read that the U.S. is experiencing a significant jump in unemployment claims. Much of that is understandable given the recent decline in many businesses, concerns about how long this crisis may last, and the need to protect ongoing viability by business owners and executives. But, in the near future business activity will resume and it will very important that businesses have maintained a pipeline of business and retained the qualified staff to deliver its products and services.
Now could be the ideal time to challenge your team to focus on improving your business. Look at business processes and identify:
- What works well today? Are you able to identify what makes it work so well? Simplicity, automation, and lack of friction are typical attributes of effective and efficient systems and processes that have a positive impact on any business.
- What could be improved and why? Specific examples and real data will help quantify the impact and support the prioritization of follow-on activities.
- What is missing today?
- Good ideas have likely been raised in the past so why not revisit them?
- What are competitors or businesses in other segments doing that could be helpful?
- Brainstorm and consider something completely new that could help your business.
- Start a list, describe the need and benefits, provide specific examples, and then estimate the potential impact and time to value for each idea.
- Take the ideas having the greatest promise and estimate the cost, people/skills needed, other dependencies for each to see how they stack up.
Something else to consider is the creation or updating of Business Continuity Plans. Now is a perfect time – while everything is fresh in the minds of your team. Not only will this help for the future, but there could also be several useful ideas for the coming weeks.
For example, do you have documentation that is sufficient for someone who is not an expert in your business to be able to take over with a relatively small ramp-up time? How will you maintain quality and control of those processes? Are your plans stored in a repository that is accessible yet secure outside of your organization? Do you have the processes and tools in place to collect documentation and feedback on things that did not work as documented or could be improved? Are your Risk Management plans and mitigation procedures up-to-date and adequate?
Investing in your business during this time of slowdown could have many benefits, including maintaining good employee morale, enhancing employee and customer loyalty, retaining employees and the expertise and skills they have, and increasing sustainability and long-term growth potential.
One of the best team-building exercises that I have participated in was as a Board Member for the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Wisconsin. We were going down a path that led to a decision on whether or not to invest $150M in a new addition. The CEO at the time, Jon Vice, wisely determined that strong teams were needed for each committee in order to thoroughly vet the idea from every possible perspective.
The process started by being given a book to read (“Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.), and then completing the “Strengthsfinder” assessment using a code provided in the book. The goal was to understand gaps in perception (how you view yourself vs. how others view you) so that you could truly understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, teams were created with people having complementary skills to help eliminate weaknesses from the overall team perspective. The results were impressive.
Over my career, I have been involved in many team-building exercises and events – some of which provide useful insights, but most failed to pull the findings together in a way that was concrete, had context, and offered actionable recommendations. Key areas that consistently omitted were around Organizational Culture, Organizational Politics, and Leadership. Those three areas have a significant impact on value creation vis-à-vis team effectiveness and commitment.
When I had my consulting company we had a small core team of business and technology consultants and would leverage subcontractors and an outsourcing company to allow us to take on more concurrent projects as well as larger, more complex projects. This approach worked for three reasons:
- We had developed a High-Performance Culture that was based on:
- Purpose: A common vision of success, and understanding of why that mattered, and an understanding of specifically how that was defined and measured.
- Ownership: Taking responsibility for something and being accountable for the outcome. This included responsibility for the extended team of contractors. Standardized procedures helped ensure consistency and make it easier for each person to accept responsibility for “their team.”
- Trust: Everyone understood that they not only needed to trust and support each other but in order to be effective and responsive the others would need to trust their judgment. If there was a concern we would focus on the context and process improvements to understand what happened and implement changes based on lessons learned. Personal attacks were avoided for the good of the entire team.
- Empowerment: Everyone understood that there was risk associated with decision making, while at the same time realizing that delaying an important decision could be costly and create more risk. Therefore, it was incumbent upon each member to make good decisions as needed and then communicate changes to the rest of the team.
- Clear and Open Communication: People on the team were very transparent and honest. When there was an issue they would attempt to resolve it first with that person, and then escalating if the two people could not reach an agreement and decided to seek the consensus of the team. Everything was out in the open and done in the spirit of being constructive and collaborating. Divisiveness is the antithesis of this tenet.
People who were not a good fit would quickly wash out, so our core team consisted of trusted experts. There was a friendly competition that helped raise the bar for the entire team, but when needed the other team members became a safety net for each other.
We were all focused on the same goal, and everyone realized that the only way to be successful was to work together for the success of the team. Win or lose, we did it together. The strength of our team created tremendous value – internally and for our customers that we sustained for several years. That value included innovation, higher levels of productivity and profitability, and an extremely high success rate.
This approach can work at a Business Unit or Department level but is most effective when it starts at the top. When employees see the leaders of their company behaving in this manner it provides the model and sets expectations for everyone under them. If there is dysfunction within an organization it often starts at the top – by promoting or accepting behaviors that do not benefit the whole of the organization. But, with a strong and positive organizational culture, the value of strong teams is multiplied and becomes an incredible competitive advantage.
When I owned a consulting company we viewed innovation as an imperative. It was the main thing that created differentiation, credibility, and opportunity. We had an innovation budget, solicited ideas from the team, and evaluated those ideas quarterly.
Almost as important to me was that this was fun. It gave everyone on the team the chance to suggest ideas and participate in the process. That was meaningful and supported the collaborative, high-performance culture that had developed. The team was inspired and empowered to make a difference, and that led to an ever-increasing sense of ownership for each employee.
The team also had a vested interest in having the process work, as quarterly bonuses were paid based on their contributions to the company’s profitability. There was a direct cause and effect correlation with tangible benefits for every member of the team.
We developed the following 10 questions qualify & quantify the potential of new ideas:
- What will this new thing do?
- It is important to be very detailed as this was used to create a common vision of success based on the idea being presented.
- What problem(s) does this solve and how so?
- This seems obvious, but if you are not solving a problem (which could be something like “lack of organic expansion”) or addressing a pain point then selling this new product will be an uphill challenge.
- What type of organizations have those problems and why?
- This was fundamental to understanding if a fix was possible from a practical perspective, what the value of that fix might be for the target buyer, and how much market potential existed to scale this new offering.
- What other companies have created solutions or are working on solutions to this problem?
- The lack of competition today does not mean that you are the first one to attack this problem. Due diligence can help avoid repeating the failure of others, and potentially provide lessons learned by others and help you avoid similar pitfalls.
- Will this expand our existing business, or does it have the potential to open up a new market for us?
- There are upsides and downsides to each answer, but breaking into a new market can take more time and be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve.
- Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?
- An idea may fall into multiple categories. When Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act became law we viewed a new service offering as both a tactical means to protect our managed services business as well as an opportunistic means to acquire new customers and grow the business.
- What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
- What are the Financial Projections for the first year?
- Cost to develop and go-to-market.
- Target selling price, factoring-in early adopter discounts.
- Estimated Contribution Margin Ratio (for comparison with other ideas being considered).
- Break-even point.
- Would we be able to get an existing customer to pre-purchase this?
- A company that is willing to provide a PO that commits to making a purchase of that MVP within a specific timeframe increased our confidence in the viability of the idea.
- What are the specific Critical Success Factors to be used for evaluation purposes?
- This was an important lesson learned over time that helped minimize emotional attachment to the idea or project, as well as providing objective milestones for critical go / no-go decision making.
This process was purposeful, agile, lean, and somewhat aggressive. We believed it gave our company a competitive advantage over larger companies that tended to respond slower to new opportunities and smaller competitors that did not want to venture outside their wheelhouse.
With each project, we learned and became more efficient and effective, and made better investment decisions that positively impacted our success. We monitored progress on an ongoing basis relative to our defined success criteria, and adjusted or sunset an offering if it stopped providing the required value.
The process was not perfect…
For example, we passed on a couple of leading-edge ideas such as a “Support Robot” in 2003 that was essentially an interactive program that used a machine-learning algorithm. It was to be trained using historical log files, could quickly and safely be tested in a production environment, refined as needed and ultimately validated.
This automation could have been used with our existing managed services and Remote DBA customers to further mitigate the risk of unplanned outages. Most importantly, it would have provided leverage to take-on new business without jeopardizing quality or adding staff – thereby increasing revenue and profit margin.
At the time we believed this would be too difficult to sell to prospective customers (“pipe dream” and “snake oil” were some of the adjectives we envisioned), so it appeared to lack a few items required by the process. Live and learn.
In summary, having a defined approach for something as important as business needs innovation to grow and prosper, as best demonstrated by market leaders like Amazon and Google (read the 10-K Annual Reports to gain a better understanding of their competitive growth strategies that are largely based on innovation).
Implementing this type of approach within a larger organization requires additional steps, such as getting the buy-in from a variety of stakeholders and aligning with existing product roadmaps, but is still the key to scalable growth for most businesses.
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.
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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled in environments where fear and blame rule.
- Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- 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.
During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time (the CEO of the company) made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.
For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: 1) People who want to make things better; 2) People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; 3) People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and 4) People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything. This opinion is based on a working and consulting at many companies over a few decades.
A recent Gallup Poll stated Worldwide only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”). This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it may be highly skewed by region or industry, and therefore not indicative of what is typical across the board. Those results were not completely aligned with my thinking, but was interesting nonetheless.
So, back to the story…
Prior to working at this company I had run my own business for nearly a decade, and was a consultant for 15 years working at both large corporations and startups. I am used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and engagements, and then incorporating them into our own business practices to improve and foster growth.
I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” optimized and working in harmony. Improvements in one area ultimately have a positive impact in other areas of the business.
While I was trying to be helpful, I was being insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” stepped on other people’s toes, and that was creating frustration for the people that I was intending to help. By providing simple solutions to their problems it reflected poorly on my peers. In hindsight this should have led to increased collaboration among the executive team.
Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their aspect of the business. The resulting friction was very noticeable to my boss.
Had I been an external consultant, those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered. But as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over).
Perception is reality, and my attempts to help were hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback early in this position and was able to turn those perceptions around.
What are the morals of this story?
First, people who are engaged have the greatest potential to make a difference. Part of being a business leader is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges, motivates, and fosters growth and accountability.
Disengaged employees or people who are unwilling or unable to work with/collaborate with others may not be your best choices regardless of how talented they may be. They could actually be detrimental to the overall team dynamics.
Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way to approach something. Being sensitive of the big picture and testing whether or your input is being viewed as constructive was a big lesson learned for me. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.
And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand potential solutions to problems in a non-threatening way. Let them make the connection to their own problems, thereby helping them become more effective and allowing them to save face. It is not a competition. And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them through collaboration. In the end it should be more about effectiveness, growth, and achievement of business goals than who gets the most credit.
While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that perspective.
My biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Focus on understanding the situation and its dynamics in order to employ the best techniques, as that is ultimately critical to the success of the team or organization.