How Can We?

A few years ago, a friend of ours was given the task of diagnosing and fixing defects in the first version of a huge-brand consumer electronics product.  The product’s initial launch had been an embarrassment.  Worse, since it was first sold at Christmas and the defects didn’t become apparent for several months, there was very little time to get things fixed for the next holiday selling season. 

Our friend asked the team that developed the product how much time and money they needed to find and fix the problems.  They said it would take seven months and $1 million.  That clearly wasn’t going to work – after finding and solving the problems, the company would still have to redesign the product, get parts, build and ship it.  So he told them that they had one month and $100,000, and that if they didn’t figure it out, all of them, our friend included, would lose their jobs.

Not surprisingly, the team figured it out.  They found and fixed the problems, and the product has gone on to be an enormous success.

When faced with a big challenge, most of us automatically respond with a long list of reasons “Why We Can’t.”  That defines the challenge as impossible, which lets us off the hook. 

The next time this happens to you, here’s what we encourage you to do.  Listen politely to all the reasons “Why We Can’t,” and acknowledge that those reasons are real.  Then remind your team of the consequences of failure and ask a simple question:  “So, How Can We?” 

That’s what our friend did.  Reframing the challenge in terms of “How Can We” helps people understand that despite all the obstacles, the job still has to get done.  It lets them move from a mindset of the impossible to one of the possible, which engages them as problem solvers.

If that sounds simplistic, think of the scene in Apollo 13 where the CO2 filters failed and the team had two hours to figure out how to use whatever was onboard to create new ones.  The team immediately started listing all the reasons why it couldn’t be done.  The flight director cut that short by reminding them that failure would mean the loss of three astronauts, and that all that mattered was figuring out how to solve the problem.   The team immediately reoriented and got it done.  Indeed, the entire Apollo 13 rescue was a giant triumph of “How Can We?”

The consequences of “Why We Can’t” may not be as grave in your business as they were for Apollo 13, but they are real nonetheless.  Unsolved issues get in your way.  They slow you down and keep you from getting where you want to go.  So try challenging your people with “How can we.” You’ll be amazed at how much they – and you – can accomplish.

Uncommon Courage

A couple of months ago, one of our client teams found themselves facing a difficult decision.  They realized that two functions they’d always kept separate really belonged under one leader.  Keeping them separate created unnecessary complexity, causing extensive debates about overlapping resources, workflow and priorities.  Combining them would eliminate confusion, increase speed and quality, and make the company more responsive to its customers.

That part was easy.  The hard part?  The people who ran the separate functions were both terrific.  They were both long-time team members, great fits with the culture (absolutely “right person” for the organization), and fully capable of running the combined function really well (absolutely right for the seat).  And they both wanted the job. A classic "how do you split the baby" moment.

If you were in this team’s shoes, what would you do?

What they did was to demonstrate uncommon courage.  Instead of dodging the issue, deferring it, or trying to split the baby, they made a decision.  None of them wanted to make it, but they all realized it was in the company’s best interest. 

They combined the two seats into one and put one of the candidates in it.  With genuine love and respect, they told the other candidate that he was very important to the company and that they would find a great seat for him, but it wouldn’t be a seat on the leadership team.  They acknowledged unanimously that it was a very close call – one that easily could have gone the other way.  And they did all of this openly as a team, with everyone – including both candidates for the combined seat – in the room.

As a result, their leadership team is leaner, more nimble and more effective.  Decisions get made faster and better.  The entire leadership team agrees that it was the right thing to do.

They also agree that it actually wasn’t as hard as they thought it would be, which has made them even more courageous. 

A month or so later, it became clear that another member of the leadership team – who also is a part owner of the business – was struggling to do his job.  The rest of the team told him that what he offered as explanations they saw as defensiveness.  They made it clear that they like and care about him personally, but that their first obligation is to the company.  They promised to support him in every way they could, but made it clear that if he didn’t turn things around in 90 days, they would remove him from the leadership team and put someone else in the seat.  Again, they did this as a team, combining love and respect with absolute openness and honesty, and with the best interest of the company at heart. 

These are bold examples from a team that is strong and getting stronger.  But we all find ourselves in this situation all the time – facing issues we'd much rather avoid.

Are you and your team facing – or avoiding – one of those issues today?  If you are, don't worry.  It just makes you normal.  What will make you uncommon is finding the extra bit of courage that let's you deal with it.  You'll be glad you did!

Six Key Drivers of Success

The article summarizes extensive interviews Bryant conducted with leaders of successful companies whose names you would recognize.  He was looking, he says, for “the things that, if done well, have an outsize positive impact, and if done poorly or not at all, have an outsize negative impact.” 

If you’d like to read the entire article, you can see it here:  Management Be Nimble.  

Or we can save you a little time.  Bryant’s six success drivers are:

1. Have a extremely simple plan (narrow, with an exceptionally clear focus on where you’re going, supported by a small number of key goals)
2. Be clear about the ‘rules of the road’ (a small set of core values that are authentic, which means they truly define and differentiate your culture, and that you really live by them)
3. Treat people with respect (so that they feel free to challenge each other and pursue the greater good of the business)
4. Build a strong team (roles are crystal clear, right people are in right seats, and the team embraces a culture of trust and accountability)
5. Have adult conversations (an outcome of the two previous points – the ability for people to speak openly and honestly, without fear of repercussions)
6. Deal with difficult issues face-to-face, not via email (or other technology that makes misinterpretation and distrust more likely)

Those principles are timeless.  They're described in dozens of business books from authors like Bryant, Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni and many others. 

And of course they make sense.  If your company has a simple, clear plan that everyone understands, a strong culture based on a few key principles that everyone embraces, a rock-solid team, and an environment in which you’ve replaced politics with open, honest conversations focused on the greater good of the business, how will you not do better?

The question is whether you know how to make it happen – to do these things really well, so that you enjoy the ‘outsize positive impact’ Bryant describes. 

For better or worse, the aforementioned authors are not much help here.  They do a great job of telling you what you should make happen in your business.  But when it comes to figuring out how to actually make it happen, they leave you pretty much on your own. 

The good news is that you don’t have to figure it out by yourself.  What Bryant, Collins, Lencioni, etc., describe is exactly, point by point, what we help companies achieve by implementing EOS®, the Entrepreneurial Operating System®.   

750 companies have gone down this path and are enjoying those ‘outsize positive’ results.

Is 2014 the year you want to join them?


Do You Believe?

I hadn’t planned to post today.  After all, it’s Christmas.  But it’s also a day on which the word “believe” means more to most of us than it does on any other day of the year.  And since I've traveled west for the holiday, I'm up before the crowd.

Yesterday, I read a post on LinkedIn from Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler, a behavioral economist (essentially a psychologist who tries to understand why we consistently do the seemingly irrational things we all do).  You can see his post here. It describes an appalling situation – a British Marine was recently convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing a wounded and helpless enemy fighter in Afghanistan.  Wheeler postulated that only a clear statement of a core belief, “Marines Don’t Do That,” might have been enough to stop the soldier from committing what most view as a crime.

Whether he’s right or wrong about that particular incident, there’s an underlying message of great value.  Being exceptionally clear about what you believe at your core – the small handful of behavior-guiding beliefs and values that are most important to you – can be exceptionally helpful when you least expect it.

Here are three quick examples – two of which involve human lives at risk:

  • Sully Sullenberger used to train other pilots on emergency procedures, as a result of which he played out many crisis scenarios in his head.  Years before his double bird strike, he decided that if he ever found himself flying a stricken plane, he would consider the plane lost and would concentrate only on saving the people on board.  In describing his cockpit crisis over New York, he said that he spent zero time considering whether he should attempt to get the plane to Teeterboro, which might have saved it for US Airways, but would have put the passengers at much greater risk. He credited this decision, which seemed automatic to him, with eliminating a major distraction and saving him precious seconds, which he used to make the miracle water landing (an oxymoron if ever there was one) that saved the lives of his passenger and crew.
  • A decade or so ago, an applicant figured out how to hack the website that many business schools use to manage admissions, then posted hacking instructions online. Many applicants then hacked the site to check their admission status. Alone among the heads of major business schools (the rest of whom dithered and then did nothing), then-HBS Dean Kim Clark announced immediately that no applicant who hacked the site would be admitted that year, and that while they were welcome to reapply, the school would take a close look to see what they’d learned from the experience. Perhaps as a result of his strong religious affiliation (he’s a devout Mormon), Clark has a strict moral code and places an exceptionally high value on integrity, respect and accountability.  He saw all three as having been violated by the hackers.  In describing this incident, he said that the correct course of action was so obvious to him (although clearly not to his peers) that he did not have to give it conscious thought.  He was, oddly, vilified in the press for his action but never second-guessed himself.
  • 3) Another HBS Professor, Richard Tedlow, once told me about interviews he conducted with James Burke, who was CEO of Johnson & Johnson during the 1982 Tylenol poisoning incident.  He said that the most remarkable thing about Burke was not that he ‘made the right decision’ in choosing to pull Tylenol from store shelves at a cost of millions of dollars.  It was that upon becoming CEO (six years before the incident), he challenged the company to either recommit to or discard its core value of putting the well-being of its customers first, regardless of the cost, and that he had so deeply ingrained that value in himself that when the crisis occurred, the decision to pull the product from the shelves was one that he considered to have been made for him, not one that he had to make at the time.

What these stories have in common is the link between values and identity.   These leaders were so completely clear about what they held most dear, about who they would want to be in a moment of crisis, that when that moment occurred, each took the action he’d have wanted to take had there been time for deliberation.  That’s what clarity about your core beliefs and values can do for you – guide you to the right action when you least expect to need the help, yet need it the most.

So take a clarity break and figure out what your handful of core beliefs or values are.  It will help you.  Do it soon.  But don’t do it today.  Today, believe in Santa.

Healthy vs. Smart - Six Key Questions

Are you getting 100% of what you want from your business?  The key to that – for any owner, any team, any company – is your ability to confront and make the difficult decisions we all face. 

Some of those decisions involve the “smart” part of running a business – strategy, business plans, budgets, investment choices, and so on.  We tend to be pretty good at these because they’re objective – often quantifiable.  They’re also what we’re taught to be good at when we learn how to run businesses. 

The much tougher decisions, and the ones that really determine whether you get what you want, involve the “healthy” part of running a business – culture, alignment, accountability and, most difficult of all, people.  If you sometimes struggle with those issues, it just makes you normal. 

Most of us struggle with them because they can’t be quantified and often involve letting go of something – or someone – familiar, safe and comfortable.  These decisions require us to do things that we’ve been socialized NOT to do, especially telling people things we think they don’t want to hear.  To make this even harder, few of us are ever taught how to be good at the “healthy” part of running a business.  

"Healthy" means having a strong culture and vision that get people engaged and aligned.  It means being great at accountability, so you can count on work getting done without having to micromanage it.  It means being truly open and honest with one another, holding nothing back, so that difficult issues are addressed, not avoided, and so that difficult decisions are made, allowing the company to move forward.In his most recent book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni says that if you had to choose one or the other, healthy or smart, you should choose healthy for one simple reason.  Healthy will help you become smart, but smart won’t make you healthy.

So the next time you take a clarity break – a chance to get your head outside the business so that you can think about it objectively – try asking yourself these questions:

  • How strong are our culture and vision?
  • Do they attract and engage the kinds of people we want?
  • If I asked my people – all of them – to describe our culture and vision, how many different answers would I get?
  • Are our lines of accountability crystal clear?  When an issue arises, do we all know immediately who owns it?
  • Are my people willing to come into a meeting having NOT done the things they told their teammates they would do by that date, or is that simply unthinkable to them?
  • How open and honest are our conversations?  What do we hold back?

In the answers to these questions, you will find the places where your team, and therefore your business, is less healthy than it could be.  These are the most important issues you face, the ones that are keeping you from getting what you want.  The good news is that they can be solved (yes, we can help with that - it's a process, not a mystery).  Solving them will set you on your way.  You'll be amazed at how quickly you can accelerate into the future you dream of.

Trust and Intent

A friend of ours has backed himself into a bit of a corner.  On the promise of extraordinary returns, he made an unconventional investment.  The people he invested with have assured him that the investment turned out great, but more than a month later, he still hasn’t gotten a check.

This reminds us of a lesson another friend shared, one that he learned at his grandfather’s knee.  “In business,” he said, “there are three kinds of people.  Those you know you can trust, with whom you do business on a handshake.  Those you don’t know if you can trust, with whom you do business through a detailed contract.  And those you know you can’t trust, with whom you don’t do business.”

We spend a lot of time with our clients working on trust.  When we ask them what it means to them, the answers we usually get are “honesty” and “integrity.”  Occasionally, the answer is “trustworthiness,” which isn’t especially helpful.

In our experience, trust actually comes from three things.

  •        Capability
  •        Reliability
  •        Intent

The first two are pretty easy.  For you to trust someone, you have to believe that they CAN do what they say are going to do, and that they WILL do what they say are going to do.  And that when they fail, as we all do, they’ll own up to their failures rather than hiding them.

Intent is trickier.  You have to believe that when the chips are down, in those rare situations where interests collide, the other person will put someone else’s interests ahead of their own.

In sales situations, this means believing that the other person has your best interests at heart.  Whom would you be more likely to trust, a salesperson who will sell you what he has even if it’s not right for you, or one who will send you down the street if someone else can genuinely meet your needs better than he can?

In company situations, it means believing that the other person genuinely has the best interests of the company or team at heart.  This is the colleague who will sacrifice her own budget if that’s the best way to free up money for someone else’s critical project.  It’s the team member who has the courage to put on the table a really difficult issue that everyone wishes they could avoid.

What makes intent tricky is that we can’t see into peoples’ hearts.  They have to be willing to be transparent – to demonstrate consistently with words and actions what their intent really is.  Transparency is risky.  Most people will be completely transparent with you only if they’re convinced that you’re being completely transparent with them.

Almost every team struggles with trust.  If yours is, that just makes you normal.  Take a moment to ask yourself if you're confident that every member of your team is capable, is reliable, and genuinely has the best interests of the company at heart.  But first, ask, “Am I consistently demonstrating those qualities to them?  Most importantly, am I transparent?  Do I give them every reason to be confident that this is only about the company, not about me?”

Try it.  Trust will grow.  Traction will increase.  Results will follow.

What Makes You Glow?

We had a great moment in a recent client session.  The team was working to define their Purpose, Cause or Passion.  When you get that right, it gives everyone in the company a clear statement of “why we exist."  At its best, this becomes the emotional heart of the business.  It’s not something most of us are trained to think about, let alone put into words, so leadership teams often struggle to get it right.

This team started out with very typical stuff, describing their collective passion with words like:

  •         Helping our clients solve [the particular problem we address]
  •         Helping our clients make better decisions
  •         Providing a long-term view that keeps our clients from making decisions they’ll regret

It wasn’t bad stuff, but there was no passion in it.  The mood in the room was very flat until the company's founder and visionary, who so far had been quiet, spoke up.

Here's what he said:

“You know, that’s all great, but what really makes me happy is when a client invites me to one of their kids’ graduation, or to a wedding, or an anniversary party, or something like that.”

When he made that simple statement, the mood in the room changed instantly.  The other members of the team sat up a little straighter in their chairs and started leaning forward.  Their eyes widened.   They smiled.  They had stories to tell.  They became engaged. It was as if someone turned up a dimmer switch that was attached to every member of the team.  The best way we can describe it is that they all just started to glow. 

The conventional wisdom is that businesses exist to solve a customer’s problem, to make money, to generate returns for investors, and so on.  But businesses that are great, not merely good, revolve around a purpose or passion that’s larger than money, and that’s engaging and motivating to the people in the business.  It gives identity to the people and meaning to the work.  The visible reaction of the team we just described demonstrates just how powerful this is.

As important as it is for the leadership team, however, it’s even more important for the rest of the company.  Another one of our clients describes its passion in four simple words:  “Doing the Job Right.”  The message to everyone in the business is clear – “We deliver industry-best, top-quality work to our customers, and we can only do that if we get absolutely top-quality work from everyone here.”   This is a building trades company whose actual work is done by its lowest-paid employees.  The ones for whom the company’s passion resonates need little managing and find the company a very rewarding place to work. The ones for whom it doesn’t find themselves acutely out of place and wind up working elsewhere.

Like both of these companies, whatever it is that makes you glow already exists.  It's in there, waiting to be discovered and named.  Figure it out.  Boil it down to a few simple words.  Communicate it like crazy.  Then watch your people engage and make your company more successful.

I'm Confused

In an EOS® Annual Planning session last week, one of our clients put “Fear of Conflict” and “Failure to Hold Each Other Accountable” on their Issues List.  Those issues are obviously connected.  Yet when it came time to solve issues, the team chose to work on just about anything but those two.  They were, it turned out, afraid of the conflict they might experience if they tried to figure out why they were afraid of conflict.

This was clearly the elephant in the room, so we finally called it out and asked them to deal with it. 

When we asked the members of the team to state clearly what they were afraid of, a consistent answer emerged.  It turned out that they were afraid to confront one another without having enough information to be sure that the other person was wrong.  Doing that might provoke unnecessary conflict.  Worse, if you turn out to be the person who’s wrong, it might make you look a little foolish.  So they’ve been holding back, which has been slowing them down.

This is incredibly common because as leaders, we’re taught to be confident in our facts, ideas and decisions.  So we tend to approach disagreements with the assumption that we’re right, which means the other person must be wrong.  Disagreements instantly turn into arguments in which the goal is to “win.”  Or else, like our client team, we hold back because we decide that the gain isn’t worth the pain.

Either way, it’s enormously unproductive.  It’s also remarkably easy to fix.    

Instead of assuming the other person is wrong, try assuming that they’re probably right and that if you only knew what they were really thinking, you might agree with them.  Your job is not to “win” the argument, but to get help make the best decision for the company, which you’re more likely to do if you eliminate your own assumptions, and instead find out what’s really going on in the other person’s head.

The best way we know of to do this is simply to ask questions.  Our friend Dan Kreutzer of Samurai Business Group says that the two most powerful words in the English language are “I’m confused.”  So try this:  “Harry, I’m confused.  I know you’ve really thought this through, but I’m just not seeing it.  Can you help me understand?” 

Feel free to remain confused and to keep asking questions until you’re sure you’ve heard what’s really on the other person’s mind.  In the end, you may or may not be persuaded.  But the other person will have been heard.  You’ll get down to real issues and root causes.  You’ll make better decisions, you’ll make them faster, and you’ll get a lot more done. 

All you have to do is ask.

Speeding Up By Slowing Down

We just met a Leadership Team that works hard to move their business forward as fast as possible.  So when a new issue emerges, one of them takes the lead to tackle it right away, even though the issue may need input from other members of the team.  The first thing the lead person does is try to get the right people in the room to discuss and solve it. 
The members of this team are very busy, so every issue is an interruption. And like all of us, they have lots of interruptions.   The trouble is that each issue is usually a higher priority for the person leading the effort than it is for the rest of the team.   So issues compete for attention, which lets politics take hold.  They spend lots of time chasing each other to set up meetings to solve each individual issue.  And in the absence of a specific issue-solving process, when those meetings finally occur, they usually aren’t very productive. 
The result is that it often takes this team weeks or months to solve issues which seem like they should be solved in minutes or days.
If this sounds even a little familiar, don’t worry.  Few companies have a specific process for handling issues.  Most teams and most people instinctively address them roughly the way this company does.   But research shows that letting these kinds of issues interrupt other work reduces productivity by as much as 40%.
To get that productivity back, try this instead:

When issues arise, DO NOT discuss them or try to solve them right away.  Simply put them on a list of issues to be solved at your next weekly meeting.  That weekly meeting should be on the same day, at the same time, with the same attendance and structure every week.  Attendance, whether in person or by phone, must be mandatory.  That way, you’ll be guaranteed one time every week when everyone you need in order to solve team issues will be together. 
Give yourselves an hour of pure issue-solving time, and don’t run over.  Always start by prioritizing your top three issues.  Work issue #1 first, then #2 and #3.  When you solve those three, prioritize and work the next three.  Solve as many issues as you can in an hour.  This works particularly well if you use a fast, tried and true issue resolution methodology like the one we teach as part of the Entrepreneurial Operating System® (EOS®).  When the hour is up, get back to work.  Some weeks, you won’t solve every issue.  Don’t worry.  The ones you didn’t get to weren’t your highest priorities. Trust that they will keep for another week.   
Give this a try.  It may feel strange at first, but you’ll quickly find that you and your team are spending much less time in meetings and much less time chasing each other to set those meetings up.  Your environment will be less political.  And seeing all of your issues in one place will help you both to prioritize them and to solve them much faster.
Slow down. We promise you’ll go faster.


One Bad Apple

A few years ago, I took on an assignment to turn around a family-owned lending company and prepare it for sale.  One of the biggest issues was a truly toxic culture in the Operations group.  Fully half the company’s employees worked there, and they consistently treated our customers as if the customers were lying and cheating.  A steady flow of customer complaints reached my desk.  Yet my efforts to coax, and even demand, a change in the Operations group’s behavior made no discernible impact.

One day, the woman who ran Operations came into my office to announce that she would be going on maternity leave.  Two weeks later, she left the company for six months, and an amazing thing happened.

The culture of the operations group literally turned around overnight.  People started treating customers, even those who were behind on their payments, with courtesy and respect.  They also started treating each other better.  The place calmed down, productivity improved dramatically, and the number of customer complaints that reached my desk dropped to a trickle.

There are two important lessons in this:

The first is that where your company’s culture is concerned, one bad apple – especially one in a management role – really can spoil the whole bunch. The second is that dealing directly with bad employee behavior, as difficult as it may be, is essential if you want your company to truly live the culture you’re trying to create.

Many business owners tell us that they consider their longtime employees to be family (and sometimes they are family). These owners usually say that it’s important to be tolerant, just as you would be with family members.  In reality, this is an excuse to avoid difficult conversations.  As we said in our last post, the culture of your company is defined not by the values you espouse but by the behavior you tolerate.

EOS®, which we help companies implement, is a great way to ensure that these difficult conversations happen.  It creates an environment of complete transparency in which issues simply can’t hide.  It drives you to build a leadership team that’s committed – as a cohesive group – to the company’s success.  Issues like the one this company faced are team issues and thus, come to the surface.  EOS causes those issues get addressed and solved quickly and effectively because the healthy functioning of the team simply demands it.

What do you get when you become one of the more than 600 successful EOS companies?  More clarity.  A stronger team.  Better, faster decisions.  Reliable follow-through.  Better results.  Do you want it?