When you don’t know, ASK . . .

question mark

I’ve been in so many situations I know nothing about. Working in several different industries I’ve had to ‘get smart, fast.’ How do I do it? By asking questions . . . and more importantly listening to the answers. Since I wasn’t really sure what would be valued at the Chick Tech Conference, I put together a control group of 10 women and I asked them what they would like to hear at a conference like this.

Then I listened.

Listening is something that you can never do deeply enough. Words are only a small portion of communication. So many factors go into the message. When I listen to a client, I start with secondary research. I read everything I can, starting with the website.

When I have a face to face meeting, I don’t report what I learned, I listen more. I ask open-ended questions (who, what when, where, why, tell me more . . . ) If I find a discrepancy between the secondary data and the conversation I’m having, I’ll listen more.

Several things might be going on . . . they might be creating something new and it hasn’t yet been documented. Or the person I’m speaking with has a more narrow view. I may have a broader vision of the topic based on my research. The person I’m speaking to may have a specialized view if they are a technician working in a specific role. I listen to them and I learn more.

 

prism

When I’m listening I often think of it as holding a prism up to the light. Each time I turn the prism a new brilliant color or luminous image will be revealed. Listen deeply to your audience as you gather requirements, create new technology, discover scientific solutions, build a new business or bring a product to market. Listen . . .

The Power of Mutual Respect

Unlock the Power of Potential with Mutual Respect

Click to Listen if you’d prefer not to read

I had a client meeting this week. The President of a middle market software firm called me to explore some possibilities of how we might look for a technological solution to solve a current challenge in the business.

Although we exchanged four phone calls, one email and had one live conversation, when I arrived for the meeting he was not in the building. He was called away to a client site.

The intention of the meeting was that he would invite several members of his team to have an exploratory dialogue about what the perceived challenges are and what the potential solutions might be. Unfortunately this was all in his head and had not been communicated to anyone else directly.

When I arrived, the Marketing Manager, who knew me from previous work was surprised to see me. I explained the situation and she said, “The President has talked about this for a while on different occasions. I know he has a vision around it.” We both agreed we didn’t know exactly what he was thinking but this was now becoming a priority. There’s tremendous power in this kind of mutual respect. We were able to advance with no clear direction. There was no anger about not knowing of the initiative. There was no disappointment of not being included in a potential meeting. There was no griping about the President following through on something before all agreed it was the right time. This mutual trust and respect was mobilizing.

Because I know the President pretty well, I knew he’d be very remorseful he forgot to reschedule our meeting in his haste to service a client. I trusted that he would be ok with me sharing our phone conversations with his Marketing Manager. She had a little time so  I shared what I thought the intention was and she shared what her previous experiences were of this potential opportunity. We agreed that we would explore ideas and just talk with no agenda of where the conversation might lead. We knew that there would be a follow up meeting after the President had time to inform the team that he was taking a first step in exploring some possibilities. We agreed, that our dialogue would further that mission.

Later that afternoon I received a sheepish, apologetic call from the President. We talked about how many demands we all face today and how we’re inundated with so much information it’s hard to keep up. He was thrilled we made good use of the time by have an initial dialogue. He and his Marketing Manager teased each other about their complimentary strengths and weaknesses.

I’ll be out next week to meet and explore possible solutions with a greater team to have a richer dialogue.

I can’t wait to work this company again. There’s nothing we can’t create together.

 

 

 

 

How Being a Strong Team Member Builds Leadership Skills

In 2003, I volunteered to work in a Catholic orphanage in Peru. Our team of motivated volunteers were eager to help. We were the second group of organized volunteers from the USA to go to the mission. The organization of the grass roots effort was somewhat messy but extremely enthusiastic and well-intended. The Priest there asked for donations to plant a tree. The volunteer group was appalled, we knew best, people needed medicine and clothes. We wanted our money to make a difference. We’d flown over here to help. We didn’t always have access to Padre Miguel. He was busy overseeing medical facilities, orphanages, job training efforts and putting out fires. People in poverty have issues with drugs, sickness, broken families and crime.

When I finally got a few minutes with him, I asked, “Padre Miguel, why do you want us to plant a tree when there’s so much need here?” He replied, “the children here in Pachacutec have never seen a tree. There’s no nature here. I want them to have the experience of seeing something green.pachacutec

I realized from this experience that by embracing your role and executing in the best way you know how you are serving the vision and the mission. I realized that leaders don’t always have the luxury to explain to every person why each request is made. When I am in a support role today, I do the best I can with what I am asked to do realizing that the solid execution of my work is an integral part of the whole.

If, over time, that trust is broken, we each have the capacity to decide whether or not we want to continue. If you decide that your work is meaningless, please make the decision to find an organization that will value your contribution where you are aligned with the vision and the mission.13 years later after my trip, I can see that Coprodeli is flourishing and growing. The organization has evolved greatly from where it was when I was there

  • Perhaps the money we provided to plant a tree provided hope and inspiration to carry on?tree-oak
  • Perhaps the feedback we provided as the second group of volunteers in a grass-roots effort helped to create more structure?
  • Perhaps the optimism and dedication of volunteers gave the families hope?
  • Perhaps by contributing where we didn’t understand how we were helping, we somehow helped move the organization forward?

I believe the work we performed did help.  It’s evidenced in the growth, the expansion and the enhanced infrastructure of the organization we visited so long ago.

 

What do you think about Millennials?

 

This sometimes leading question can create a heated debate and lots of negative observations about this generation. Some of the things I’ve heard is “they’re spoiled, they are entitled, they have no work ethic, they need constant positive acknowledgement.” Those comments make me smile. Close your eyes and think about it. What generation couldn’t say that about the one that succeeds them? I guess these complaints mean that those that fall into Generation X and Baby Boomers are now officially old. BIG SMILE. The question is also U.S. Centric. Young people that fall into this age group are very different globally and, of course, stereotypes are never all-encompassing and are almost never fact-based.

When putting a team together especially in a situation where timeframes are tight, demands are high and failure is not an option, assembling the right team is a critical success factor. Some of the team members are at the company we’re working with already, some might be on our staff, some might be offshore and some may need to be recruited for a specific assignment. There will likely be several vendors. This complex, matrixed team will no doubt be very diverse consisting of several cultures, personal expectations, age groups and physical abilities. How do you align them to draw the best performance from each one individually, convince them to work as a team, while they are all so inherently different?

Communication is a high impact, low effort, low cost way to align the team. Unfortunately many of us are guilty of assuming that communication has taken place. We all speak, we all write, we understand what we mean. What’s wrong with everyone else? Why can’t they understand? Could it be because they’re young, they’re old, they’re not from here, or we don’t understand their education?team puzzle

When building a diverse team we’ll ask:

  • What can we count on you for?
  • Will you always be on time and prepared? Will you ask questions? Will you challenge in a way that doesn’t sabotage progress but thoughtfully facilitates progress? Are you respectful to those around you?
  • What will you contribute?
  • How do you handle conflict? What will you do when your opinion is not adhered to?
  • How do you handle ambiguity?
  • What do you do when you don’t know something?
  • How do you handle failure?

The answers to those questions are more important than the demographics people fall into.

“There is nothing either good or bad,

but thinking makes it so”, William Shakespeare

There are a lot of qualities about Millenials in the United States that I really appreciate. I like how they are living in really great neighborhoods with a lot of amenities vs. saddling themselves with mortgages they’ll likely never pay off. I like how young parents are willing to leave their children with family or trusted friends so they can continue to travel and learn and explore. They know what it’s like to be raised by a village. I’m inspired by the way they navigate complex relationships. They’ve either been raised in families of divorce and remarriage or are close to people who have. I am intrigued by the way they manage love relationships. A young couple I met was asked if they were serious, they’re reply was “we haven’t put a label on it”. Wow, this stretches my thinking! I admire the way they communicate openly. I am delighted with the creation of the new Holiday “Friendsgiving”

I must admit, I like the way Millenials are forging change. Don’t we all want flexibility? When was the last time someone appreciated you? When was the last time you heard ‘good job’? Do you think you can squeeze in a bike ride today or lunch at a really cool restaurant? If you can, do it.

And if no one has told you today . . . “Good job. I’m glad you’re here.”

How do you identify the Root Cause? Part 2

 

Start by Asking Questions . . . and then listen deeply to the answers.

 

“The greatest challenge with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”   — George Bernard Shaw, Playwright

 

To begin to assess whether or not the movie Concussion did not receive an Oscar nomination due to racism I would ask the following questions to attempt to identify the root cause:

  • Does the Academy see all the films they will vote on? If not, why not?
  • Is the Academy qualified to vote on the films they watch from a technical aspect?
  • Was the topic of exposing some ugly history in football too painful? Many people are passionate about football. They may have played the game themselves or have children that played. They may have children or family members playing football right now. Would seeing this film require people to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths? What are the Academy’s ties to the NFL?
  • Concussion was filmed while those involved are still living. Do members of the Academy have relationships with professionals that were involved?
  • I learned Mike Webster was Philadelphia’s favorite son. Do those that knew Mike Webster and his family during this painful time now feel remorse? Would it be easier to bury this topic and move on?
  • The movie was rated PG-13. Do ratings matter? Would the movie have been more attended with a rating of R? Would more sex or violence attract a broader audience?
  • PG 13 allows children over 13. Are children asking to see this type of movie? Does the commercial success of a movie affect Academy votes?
  • The movie was released in November. Does the timing of the release of a movie affect the Academy’s vote? Will the Academy remember movies they saw in the early part of the year? Will they be required to watch them again to have a fresh or new memory? Does anyone monitor how many times the Academy watches a film? Are their ratings and votes evaluated? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Are Americans uncomfortable with a foreigner challenging something as sacred as the sanctity of American football? Do the immigration issues we face today play a part in the way Americans view Dr. Omalu?
  • Will changing the racial and gender diversity of the Academy solve for the problem? What criteria will be used to evaluate movies and performances with a new more diverse Academy? Will the new Academy be required to see the films? How will they evaluate films where they no little about the topic or they are uncomfortable with the subject matter?

 

These questions would lead to more questions, ultimately creating a new foundation based on all the voices involved For those of a technical bent, an Ishikawa chart can help:

 

 

root cause

 

Right now, the pain of the conversations is influencing the Academy to solve for symptoms to quiet the angry voices and to put some quick band aids on uncomfortable truths.

Will the new, more diverse make up of the Academy solve for the problem or will it put a new face on deeply rooted issues?

 

 

 

Have you identified the Root Cause of the problem? Part 1

Where there’s a challenge, especially a heated challenge, fraught with emotion and maybe even outrage, we can be quick question markto solve the problem by solving to a symptom of the problem — not the root cause. When we solve for symptoms the challenge is temporarily relieved however the imbedded challenges will likely grow and fester over time.

The most recent example I’m seeing of the situation being referred to as the “White Out” of the Academy Award nominations. The outstanding movie Concussion (excellent movie go – go see it) somehow incredibly did not receive one nomination.

How could this happen? The lead character was played flawlessly by Will Smith, Mr. Smith mastered a Nigerian accent and captured the essence of Dr. Omalu while not mimicking him. Alec Baldwin follows with a compelling supporting performance making you believe he’s Dr. Julian Bailes, Louisiana native struggling with the ethics of his past behavior and the challenges he’s facing today. I’m sure every man in the theater was watching and aching for the beautiful GuGu Mbatha-Raw envying her love and support – isn’t this every man who wants to marry’s dream? To find a woman like this? Who doesn’t want to work for a man with the integrity Albert Brooks displays as Dr. Cyril Wecht? I was immersed in this film – end to end. I was transformed. I forgot they were actors. I learned and grew, I don’t know much about football so I was broadened by learning about the ugly underbelly of this revered sport.

I went to see this movie Christmas Week. I walked into a local downtown Chicago theater with the intention of seeing this movie. The topic appealed to me and I admire Will Smith. The young man that sold me a ticket said “I hear this movie is really good, we have lots of seats left. It’s the only movie that has seats available (unusual at Christmas time) Star Wars is sold out for 3 weeks.”

We’re living in painful time in America with difficult conversations occurring around race relations. I especially feel it and am aware of it in Chicago. Tensions are high.

The solution to the White Out has been to change the face of the academy to better reflect the diversity of actors and the United States. Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith will boycott the Academy Awards. Others will boycott in support. The Academy, motivated by fear of confrontation and likely remorse, is making some quick and sweeping changes to the structure of the Academy.

If the Academy were to hire me to analyze this problem – I’d start by asking questions. I’d want to look at this challenge from top, the bottom and the middle. I’d want to talk to people who were passionate about the problem. I’d want to hear their views. I’d want to hear from those who were apathetic. I’d want to learn. After I assessed the challenge (not sure at this point if the solution is to change the racial and gender dynamic of the Academy), I’d make a recommendation. Check tomorrow’s post to find out what questions I’d ask . . .

How Do Sound Processes Save Money?

Over the weekend I bought a Hampton Bay Ceiling Fan Light Kit from Home Depot. The colors of the finishes in the bedroom where the ceiling fan is located are all some sort of antique brass. The metal finish colors intentionally don’t match in the room. I didn’t want to spend life hours searching for the exact shade of antique brass so I decided to go with an eclectic look that would hopefully, thoughtfully coordinate.Hampton Bay 2-Light Ceiling Fan Light Kit

My previous experience when buying products with finishes is there will be a hand-drawn check mark in black marker, checking off the box that indicated whether the finish color was () white () antique brass () polished brass () black or () satin nickel.

I saw the colors listed on the box but no black check mark. “Uh oh”, I thought, “which color will it be?” I opened the box. From past experience purchasing products with the hand drawn check black marker checkmark, the color marked on the box and the color inside did not match requiring a drive back to Home Depot.

I found that all the finishes were included. This took a few seconds to comprehend, it was so odd and different from my previous experiences. Not quite believing it I looked back at the box to see which finish was indicated to be in the box. I confirmed they all were included. Wow, this solution gives me lots of options. I can change the color if and when I choose to. If the antique brass color is not quite right, I can make an in-the-moment decision to choose another finish. There’s minimal risk my finish will not be included in the box, saving me time and minimizing frustration.

Here’s my guess on how this process improvement occurred:

  • someone listened to the customers who complained they didn’t like the finishes, or they were wasting time exchanging mismatched boxes, or the finish they wanted wasn’t available. Someone listened.
  • Someone listened to Home Depot, the distribution channel, that was receiving complaints and other feedback. Someone listened.
  • Someone measured:
    • the time and cost it took to physically mark the box with a black marker
    • the savings of minimizing the labor to mark the box and the expense of procuring the markers
    • the cost of having product taking up shelf space because the finish color was not the desired color
    • the cost of re-stocking when the finish color was not right
    • the cost of dissatisfied customers
    • the cost of monitoring which trends in light kit finishes would sell
    • the cost of damaging relationships with distributors

Someone calculated the cost of:

  • including four finishes in each box

Someone asked if the cost if the increased cost of including four finishes was justified in hard dollar cost savings, minimized consumer complaints, maximized consumer satisfaction, strengthened the relationship with the distribution channels and would be the manifestation of the brand they want to be known for.

My guess is that including all four finishes does accomplish all those things. However, Hampton Bay can’t stop now, they need to keep asking . . . and listening.

The Art and Science of Communication

Raj Ramesh does a great job of explaining how capabilities work in business architecture. One capability where organizations and individuals sometimes inaccurately assume competence is Communication.

“The single greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

 

Effective communication is a high impact, low cost capability that can be an incredible competitive advantage creating efficient, agile execution and high trust environments aligned with strategic objectives.

We all think we are good communicators because we know what we mean as we attempt to convey our message. However, it is not the job of our audience to listen, it is our job to make them hear. Assuring our teams and affected audiences understand what we intend is the tough part. Inspiring them to take action can even be more difficult.

When I work on project teams I’ll ask participants if everyone is clear on objectives and responsibilities. I’ll hear “yes, we had a meeting.” ONE meeting? Expecting that one meeting will be enough when trying to influence a complex transformation is highly unlikely. Expecting that one meeting reached your audience in a way that will influence their comprehension and change behaviors is improbable.

In today’s environment we are inundated with communication impacting our ability to remember and retain detail.

In the Mad Men days of advertising a common statistic was, ‘you had to hear a message 7 times to understand it.’ Today, as we have so many causes requiring our attention, demanding action from us, messages need much more repetition.

We need to communicate in such a way that people will understand. We all have audio, visual and kinesthetic learning abilities. It’s important to reach audiences in all ways to ensure our message is understood.

A great course that helps individuals enhance their writing skills is given by PowerSuasion. PowerSuasion will evaluate five writing samples and creating a Writing Profile and a Writing Editing Guide. These tools will help writers understand where they are falling short in writing and give them a tool that will guide them in improving. When I took the assessment I submitted an article, a proposal, a presentation, an email and a letter for professional review. The consistent mistakes I made through the different channels were eye-opening. I also learned about my strengths in writing and became a more courageous writer. In addition I learned how to use each medium its fullest advantage.

If you’d like to increase the capability of Communication in your teams and your organization ensure the continuous learning about the discipline of Communication is an individual priority and an organizational priority.

 

What does the term “architecture” mean in business?

The term architecture means looking at a business problem or an opportunity from the greatest context possible considering factors that may or may not seem to impact the result to define the most thoughtful approach to implementing a solution.

My friend and colleague Raj Ramesh explains the concept more clearly in this three minute video:

 

 

 

 

Why is Fast better than Slow?

When an outsider evaluates the progress of a project a question that often comes up is . . . “how long did that take you?” There might be a touch of cynicism in the tone, a little judgment. The assumption is progress is taking too long. Team members also may value fast progress over slower progress.

Illustration of an old alarm clock with a globe behind

The time it takes to achieve a task is only one measurement. When gauging progress consider the following categories.To remain agile — assign a status of High, Medium, Low to this assessment. In your project are you:

  • Building a strong business foundation?
  • Taking thoughtful risk and assessing consequences carefully?
  • Are you anticipating risk and planning for possible outcomes?
  • Have you employed thoughtful recovery from failure?
  • Are you using resources wisely?
  • Are you employing a sage use of time?
  • Is your work aligned with the organization’s vision? strategy?
  • Is every action true to the organization’s values?
  • What is the best possible solution considering your current capabilities?
  • Are you establishing realistic goals? adjusting when necessary? Are your processes as efficient as they can be?
  • Is there effective Leadership on all levels?

Once you apply a high, medium or low status to the above then determine if you are moving too fast or too slow.

Be careful of letting a stopwatch alone dictate your results.

 

 

 

 

 

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