Sunday, November 21, 2010

Trust and Impact are Critical to Sustained Success

I had the opportunity this week to work with an amazing client group. This is a group of dedicated folks who take tremendous pride in the work they do, and want to make continual improvements to the products they make. They work hard and they pull together.

There is a deep level of expertise in the group, which each individual calls upon. For the most part, they trust the expertise that lives with key individuals. Leadership also trusts that expertise.

The question being answered was quite simple: Is this the right model to make this organization as efficient and effective as possible? Is there a better way and how do we make that happen? The question should be asked by every organization with long tenured employees.

What might change if the expertise is more broadly shared and all of the individuals knew how they impacted the entire system? What shift would occur if they knew their value to the broader process-- if they understood how what they did would impact the down stream process. How might shared knowledge about their own areas and those around them help them to more quickly recognize and solve problems, knowing that they would be helping those in the downstream processes by addressing issues now? In my opinion, people with great pride in their work and teams would embrace such ability to better understand how they work together. They were ready and we made great strides.

Often, when I approach clients with the idea of sharing the evolution of how their processes or systems came to be and the broader view of the process or system, Leadership believes there is not time to 'dwell' on the past or share stories that are not relevant. I take that as a sign that I have not yet explained the value of knowing why things are as they are, so changes made can be both powerful and mindful. We must be mindful of what went before so we do not simply make a matter worse, or remake a mistake of the past. That mindfulness provides the powerful ability to make very good decisions when systems or process changes are made, when issues are addressed, when innovative ideas are called for.

Having a shared understanding of how things evolved and where you fit in the large scheme of the process or system allows you to be more innovative in problem solving, more engaged in outcomes and have a well placed and increased sense of pride in what you do-- because you understand that you play a critical role in creating the end product and you understand how your decisions will or will not impact the entire system. You can make better, more well informed choices.

We should trust our experts when that trust is well founded. In this organization, the trust is very well founded. And, we should also share that expertise to help others increase their capabilities and competencies, their sense of value and their ability to make a positive impact in continual improvement and problem solving. We need to trust that spending time making people competent, building capabilities, pays off in the end big time. We may great strides to share knowledge in this amazing organization next week. I felt proud working with such a group of people and believe their pride will only increase as they see how they impact their processes and product.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Does Knowledge Transfer Enhance Process?

Many of the clients I work with think of themselves as 'process driven'. Of course that term has as many definitions as there are organizations. The concept of 'having a process' can go from thinking that maybe there is an ordered, step wise approach to doing something and perhaps we should think about that to having processes so rigid that improvement and innovation are squeezed out of it like juice from an orange.

Most companies live somewhere in between.

Processes are derived for a purpose, they are created to answer a need. Whether they answer that need well is another story. My questions come from asking: "for the sake of what?" What is the need the processes seek to address? I want to know that before I want to know the process, and that is the knowledge I want to discover, explore and transfer.

It is when we are at the core of the issue that we make the difference. And, it is when people understand why they are doing what they do, what the impact of their actions are, that they feel both bought in and informed enough to do true process improvement. Humans are not meant to do tasks just because they are written down and signed off by the management. They are meant to be 'sensemaking' creatures who use their experience, their understanding, their intellect to make sense of the world. If you want the best from them, show them how they can contribute, help them understand where they fit in the big scheme of the system they are working on, give them context and a sense of impact and the permission to think. Not to change the system randomly, but to make good suggestions based on full knowledge.

All of those things are knowledge transfer opportunities which enhance the process, the people, the technology and the culture. Continuous improvement lies in that fertile ground.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Yes but can you make it real

I am both enamored and impressed by the number of people interested in Systems Thinking. Using LinkedIn, you can join the various Systems Thinking groups that have become popular lately. Systems Thinking World, a LinkedIn group started by Gene Bellinger of Norfolk, Virginia, USA is one such interesting group. The introductions as people join are in themselves fascinating and the discussions can be engaging. However, I agree with those who post about the need to make it real, to make the work applicable for our clients. Theory is critically important and we must continue to push the envelope, to research, to develop new thought. However my client groups need to learn quickly, to increase both competencies and capabilities and to move forward now. Like it or not, that is the reality they face.

It is true, I believe, for all business disciplines-- we must help our clients grow, help them both survive and thrive in this uncertain time, help them understand how to be agile, to attract and retain the best talent, to work across boundaries in ways they have not had to before. They must bridge generations, genders, cultures, geographic barriers, various ways of doing business and they must do it fast and effectively.

My team has been working hard to create tools and processes that can be taught to the organizations with whom we work, tools and processes they can apply tomorrow-- or today. Yes, I introduce new components like Organizational Trust, Learning Organization ideas and Systems Thinking. The difference with the theoretical folks is that I do that real time so the tools can become usable immediately and adults can learn in the way they do best-- by applying them when needed. I do not say this from ego, I say this from a practical position. We need to pull together to help our clients and ourselves be the best we can be. Let's do it by applying what we know strategically and creating the practical tools, processes and change vehicles to help them step into what they need to do to create a brighter future.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

What it takes to do the right thing

There are moments I understand why organizations do not always work to build trust, to develop effective communications, to create transparency, honesty, and ethics as cultural standards. Doing business right is not for the faint of heart.
It takes time to talk about values and ethics and tell the stories necessary to translate those belief systems to others. There is nothing quick about building a culture of trust and of holding each other accountable. Some of the conversations you need to have to clarify expectations, set appropriate boundaries and ensure all parties are heard are frankly not a lot of fun.

It is a lot of work, mindful, hard work, to do business right.

But along the way the richness of the learning and the dialogues, the depth of understanding and the quality of work produced are nothing short of amazing. The outcome of putting your heart, your intelligence, your experience, your values and beliefs into the work is that you can trust that what you do for your clients and customers is solid, your decisions are based on the right influences and that at the end of the day you can review all that has happened with pride and satisfaction. 

If you want a quick fix, a fast solution, a band aid approach to business, doing the right thing is not for you. If you are willing to consider the alternatives, think through the motivations, have the conversations, keep open communication flowing-- not only will profit follow but you will have earned every penny of it in all of the right ways. Your employees will be proud to work with you. Your customers will want to keep you coming back. And you will enjoy the time spent with a spirit of fulfillment and pride. It's hard work and worth every bit of effort spent.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Power Of Expectations

I am constantly reminded about the power of setting expectations. As we work together inside and outside of organizations, and as we get to know each other, we think we understand what is expected of us, and that we are clear with others what we expect of them.

I believe that is actually rarely true. Clarity around expectations is critical but not frequent.

For example, recently I was observing a conversation with a small group of clients who were meeting together to kick off a new project. One of the most talented leaders (let's call her Helen) talked about her expectations of others. She said there were 3 levels of expectations in her mind.

Immediately, her colleague, (let's call him Bob), another well respected leader, agreed. They both smiled and nodded as they acknowledge what they believed were their common thoughts about the 3 levels of expectations they held. Ahhh, alignment.

Or at least the assumption of alignment, which held until Bob began to discuss what he obviously thought they both agreed to: "Yes, three levels: a) not meeting needs b) satisfactorily meeting needs c) super pleasing-- above and beyond meeting needs."

The attitude in the room began to shift.

Helen's relaxed body language changed as she realized that somehow she had not been heard or understood. She became uncomfortable. That led to the group feeling uncomfortable without yet understanding why. Helen stopped the conversation, tipped her head and said "No, I'm not sure you heard me. As we both agreed to, there are three levels of expectations: a) satisfactorily meeting the needs b) above and beyond c) way above and beyond--integrating new pieces even the client would not have thought of. There is no expectations of not meeting needs. And there is an expectation of going above and beyond what people think is above and beyond."

A third colleague, Greg, was standing near by listening in, joined the conversation with, "No really, I think both of your expectations are a bit high." As Greg listed his expectations, the other two began to look aghast. And the sudden realization hit them that they did not share common expectations but held each other to standards no one agreed to. There was no alignment. They had worked together for a long time, and assumed they understood and agreed to expectations held.

This could have been a recipe for disaster. Instead it was an opportunity for honest dialogue and communication. As we all began to talk about the assumptions we make that we are not aware of, the colleagues realized there may be many places they assume alignment but only because they do not check their assumptions. When experiences and values differ, even by a few degrees, that creates a set of beliefs and expectations in each of us that we need to illuminate as we deal with others.

Aligning expectations can seem like it takes time, like it is yet one more way of holding hands and singing folks songs. In truth, aligned expectations can save vast amounts of time and money as resources can be quickly targeted toward agreed to goals, employees are working toward the same objectives with clarity and confidence. Trust is built. People understand clearly what is expected of them and are able to work towards those expectations without mayhem.

What a powerful tool, expectations. What we expect of ourselves, what we expect of others, and what we believe they can expect from us. There are few tools more useful or more impactful in business and yet completely overlooked. Targeted, focused effort toward communication and collaboration around expectations pays back over and over again.