Organizational Health Key to Innovation

Is risk encouraged or discouraged in your organization? What happens when someone makes a mistake?

When I talk with a potential client with regard to his or her organization, these are questions I like to ask because they provide me with an indication of just how much of a learning organization it may or may not be. Peter M. Senge describes this concept in great detail in his book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization.”

So much of organizational health is determined by how these two questions are answered because a healthy organization is one that knows calculated risks and mistakes are necessary in order to grow and prosper.

Risk is inherent in business and most businesses would never have started if their founders were risk averse. As companies get larger, control often increases to help maintain structure and order. It can also stifle risk and the resulting innovation.

Organizations that try to minimize mistakes are also likely to minimize innovation. Those that accept mistakes as part of growth, however, are likely to reap more innovation.

Innovation doesn’t have to be about creating the next iPhone: it can also be about finding new materials to minimize production costs, restructuring the workforce to be more efficient, or expanding into new and unproven markets.

Innovation requires being open to risk and allowing for mistakes.

So much of risk taking is the ability to make oneself vulnerable. Being vulnerable can often lead to criticism, ridicule and embarrassment. It can also lead to creativity and spur new ideas.

Vulnerability is all too rarely seen in our leaders. However, I believe it actually demonstrates great strength of character and brings about loyalty.

In Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” she discusses the importance of our ability to be vulnerable. She argues that this vulnerability is not a weakness, but instead a path to courage, engagement and meaningful connection. And vulnerability can spark a spirit of truth—and trust—in organizations as well as our families, schools and communities.

Vulnerability is what unites us as humans and, contrary to popular belief, when demonstrated by leaders, actually inspires us to follow them.

In her book, Dr. Brown has 10 questions that help uncover the health of an organization:

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values to they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

These questions can be difficult because they will cause those answering them to be vulnerable. However, the process can lead to great insight and perhaps fundamental shifts inside the organization. Ultimately, discussing them with a large group could reap huge benefits and begin to help heal the organization.

One of my favorite quotes is by the wrier Anais Nin who said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” What if rather than holding back and keeping yourself from showing your vulnerability, you brought it forward? This would take great courage, but it would also free you from what holds you back and expand your life.

Is it risky? You bet. But there may be no better way to transform yourself and your organization to become healthy.  And a healthy you in a healthy organization will bring about needed innovation.

Intention: Vital to Effective Action

“He who has a why can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We all know intention without action leads to nothing, but what about action without intention? When we focus on accomplishing something before fully considering the purpose behind it, the action can be a wasted effort.

Your intention is important because you gain clarity of purpose prior to the action you take. The extra time taken to clarify why you are doing something can be the difference between acting for the sake of being busy versus actually accomplishing something important.

Intentions are important for any size decision and in any part of our lives.

At work this can be as big as restructuring a large company’s workforce, which requires a great deal of forethought and communication on the intention behind the change. Providing a clear and compelling message on the intention behind the restructure can greatly help facilitate this change effort.

A middle manager looking to complete a project that requires active support of others across the organization may struggle without stating her intention. Clearly identifying and communicating the intention behind the action you want enables you to get assistance from others regardless of their own priorities. And if you can tie the intent of your project to the organization’s overall goals, you are much more likely to gain others’ support.

Getting people to follow and help you in your efforts to accomplish something are greatly increased when you begin with the intention for why you are taking action.

In his book “Start with Why,” author Simon Sinek says that those who start with a clear and compelling why never manipulate others, but instead inspire them. People then follow not because they have to, but because they want to.

This notion of a compelling why is very much grounded in intention. Your why to inspire yourself and others needs to be grounded in how well you have thought out and articulated your intention.

So how can you learn to be more intentional prior to your actions?

Here’s a few ways (big and small) each of us can more likely accomplish whatever it is we want to achieve. It doesn’t take a huge investment in time or money.

It does, however, involve consciously being intentional. It involves actively putting forth what it is you want so others know about it. Whether at work or anywhere in our lives, being intentional will lead to getting more of what you want.

Here’s a few ways to encourage more intentionality into your life:

  • Use your turn signal. I don’t mean after reaching the intersection when the driver of the car behind you no longer has an opportunity to get into another lane. I mean giving the other driver a full half-block warning (which is the law, by the way) to make a fully informed decision with regard to your intention. Hopefully, this will catch on with others.
  • Speak to others directly. This means making it crystal clear what you want from the other person when speaking to him or her. Don’t talk around what’s on your mind, but instead speak from your heart, be honest and be direct. If you often hear people say “what are you trying to say,” then this is for you.
  • Begin with the end in mind. As Stephen R. Covey says in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” all things are created twice. And the mental or first creation needs to precede the physical or second creation. Know where you’re going before you start your engine.
  • Be true to your word. Say what you do and do what you say. Your intentions will only be effective if you regularly act on what you say you will do. By stating your intention, you are proclaiming to yourself and others what you will act upon. Hold yourself accountable for this.

This begs the question: Why do we so often hold others accountable for their lack of acting on intentions, but we rationalize away our own failure to act? This seems in line with John Wallen, who said we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others on their impact on us.

Surely discipline plays a role. Consistent behavior requires that we hold ourselves accountable for following through on our intentions. If this is a problem, begin by simply noticing when you are not following through with your intentions and the rationale you provide for this. Is there a theme? What does this reveal about you?

Executing effective action requires the intention behind it is clear to everyone involved or impacted by it. Whether you are trying to carry out a huge project in your organization or simply making a left hand turn, signal your intention to enhance your effectiveness at taking action.



7 Tips for Effective Conference Calls

Today’s workplace means people are more geographically dispersed and this greatly compromises our ability to communicate well. There’s also an increased need to collaborate and this can be especially challenging when working in different locations.

The ubiquitous conference call has quickly become the norm when it comes to meetings and makes for unique challenges in for them to be effective. So much of our communication is non-verbal (eye contact, body language, etc.), and we need to take this into account when speaking and listening in conference calls.

In the same ways that emails can be easily misinterpreted, so too can the things that are said and unsaid in conference calls. You can’t simply speak and listen the way you would in face-to-face meetings.

Even with the popularity of videoconferencing tools such as NetMeeting, GoToMeeting, Google+ hangouts and others, the voice-only conference call is still used in most cases.

Determining first whether or not to hold a conference call should take a few things into consideration: 1) What is the purpose of the call? 2) Who needs to be on the call? 3) Will a voice-only call be effective and appropriate given the purpose or should a face-to-face meeting or videoconferencing be employed instead?

Like any meeting, certain ground rules should be considered: 1) start on time (don’t wait for stragglers as it only encourages them), 2) have an agenda and stick to it, 3) keep minutes of the meeting and follow up with action items, 4) end on time or earlier if you’re finished.

Conference calls require additional rules to make them most effective. These include:

  1. Lead the call effectively. Take charge by explaining who you are and the purpose for the meeting within the first two minutes. Establishing leadership with your voice only means you often need to over communicate and be more careful with your word choice.
  2. Get everyone involved. Engage everyone from the start by giving them a chance to speak up by introducing themselves. Call on those who are not speaking up during the call to keep everyone engaged.
  3. Share the floor. Unless you are presenting something, as the leader you should ensure you don’t hog the floor. Give everyone an equal opportunity to share their perspective. If there are many people on the call or new people, have everyone identify themselves when they begin to speak.
  4. Avoid distractions. Ensure that everyone finds a quiet space for the call and uses a landline if at all possible. Use the mute button strategically. Be careful not to shuffle papers, tap pens, and turn off other electronic devices. Anything that could be considered rude in face-to-face meetings should be avoided during a conference call.
  5. Don’t multitask. Close email so you’re not tempted to play catch up on other things. If you find yourself doing something other than focusing on who is speaking and the meeting at hand, perhaps you should not be on the call. As a leader, ensure that the meeting remains focused so no one’s time is wasted.
  6. Provide time for questions. Give a five-minute warning before the end of the call so everyone has an opportunity to question or ask for clarification on anything.
  7. End the call effectively. Thank them for their participation. Indicate when minutes will be coming as well as any follow up that needs to happen. Provide the time and date for the next meeting as necessary.

Another thing you might consider: some people can be perceived as negative or disagreeable and may want or need to improve this perception among coworkers. To do this during a conference call, consider the use of a mirror during the call. This can greatly help regulate your tone of voice as you will be influenced by how you look when you’re speaking. Most of us will not deliberately look negative or disagreeable when looking into a mirror and this will be reflected in our tone.

Like any meeting, conference calls need to be run well so people stay engaged and the meeting remains an effective use of everyone’s time. Leading a conference call means you need to be hypersensitive because you have so few ways to monitor meeting attendees beyond what you hear them say.

Keep in mind these seven tips for conference calls and you’ll find them to be more effective and a useful method for meeting with others.

Microsoft’s New CEO Signals Radical Shift

Though Wall Street may not thoroughly rally around Satya Nadella to succeed Steve Ballmer as CEO at Microsoft, I believe this so-called “safe choice” is a compelling one because it signals a radical shift in management style at the company.

Nadella is described as smart, persuasive and likeable. He’s also known as a great communicator and collaborator. These are not attributes used very often to describe Ballmer or Bill Gates.

But that doesn’t mean Nadella is a slacker when it comes to technological expertise and business acumen.

He comes to the job with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree in computer science and a master’s in business administration. He cut his teeth as an engineer at Sun Microsystems. And in his 22 years at Microsoft, Nadella led Microsoft Office, the research and development of online services including Bing, and finally servers and tools, which was renamed the cloud and enterprise group.

It appears that he also has the soft skills to be especially successful in this leadership position, and those who worked with Nadella confirm that he is the right choice.

“The reason why I have mountains of respect for Satya is that he’s first and foremost a great and sincere and honest human being,” said Bill Hilf, who worked under Nadella at Microsoft. “It’s a weird thing to say, but that’s a rare thing at Microsoft, because you have so many hardcore technologists who have risen up through the ranks,” explained Hilf in a recent Wired magazine article.

I suspect that Nadella, 46, will not only bring back technical expertise to the CEO role, but also a calm, considerate and collaborative perspective in dealing with the board, executive staff and all 130,000 employees.

“He is very inclusive,” continued Hilf. “He brings people in and gets them excited to work on stuff, and that’s what I think his magic is — his authenticity and the way he is able to inspire people and not just push them. He can inspire them to do great work and get them motivated and excited.”

When I hear leaders described as authentic, inspiring, motivational, and collaborative, I see the potential for greatness.

With this move, Microsoft has signaled radical changes that I believe will enable the company to move forward. Among these radical changes:

  • New CEO Nadella is a native Indian who reads poetry for relaxation and is known for his collaborative rather than combative management style.
  • New chairman of the board John Thompson, the former CEO of Symantec was the first black man to head a technology company and, in 2009, was considered Obama’s choice to fill the commerce secretary post.
  • New role for Gates as technology advisor, who says he will be spending as much as a third of his time meeting with product and technology groups.
  • Newly appointed CFO Amy Hood, formerly of Goldman Sachs and at Microsoft since 2002, is the company’s first woman in this position.

Microsoft is at a pivotal spot in this post-PC era where they need to capitalize on the need to focus more on mobile computing and the cloud. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are seen as the leaders in many of these areas so Nadella has his work cut out for him.

It will be especially interesting to see how well he is able to implement change with both Ballmer and Gates still serving as directors on the board.

“He has proven not only that he understands the Microsoft culture, but that he can change it in very big ways,” says James Staten, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research.

Nadella has stated that he finds relaxation in reading poetry by both Indian and American poets. “It’s like code,” he says. “You’re trying to take something that can be described in many, many sentences and pages of prose, but you can convert it into a couple lines of poetry and you still get the essence, so it’s that compression.”

The best code, Nadella says, is poetry.

Moving forward, we’ll see how well this fondness for poetry and more collaborative management style translates into further innovation and greater shareholder value.

Three Ways to Increase Employee Engagement

Raising employee engagement should be the goal of every organization because engaged employees are more productive than those who are not.

Despite the fact that many companies are lavishing their workers with extravagant perks, overall employee engagement is still very low. Seventy percent of the country’s 100 million full-time workers are either not engaged or are actively disengaged.

Three ways to increase employee engagement include the freedom on how to do the work, the option to work on things that interest the individual employee, and the flexibility to work remotely at least part of the time.

A few years ago Netflix created their employee slide deck in which one of the seven aspects of their culture is freedom and responsibility. This includes self-motivation, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-improving, acts like a leader and others.

They found that as companies grow they are typically forced to add more processes and procedures in order to manage the increasing complexity that comes with more employees. These processes and procedures, however, lead only to short-term benefits and often drive the highest performing employees out of the company.

Netflix instead attracted high value people with the freedom to have a big impact, demanded a high performance culture, and provided top of market compensation. So instead of a “culture of process adherence” they have a “culture of creativity and self-discipline, freedom and responsibility.”

As I wrote in a previous post, this freedom takes great courage and faith that your employees will be responsible and accountable for getting things done.  So far, this seems to have paid off for Netflix.

The second area that can help boost employee engagement is enabling workers to follow their interests and passions. This could be similar to what Google provides in “20% Time,” where employees can choose to work on a project or concept that intrigues them to stir innovation. Though not official, there are reports that Google has done away with 20% Time, even though it produced such profitable ventures as Gmail, Google News and Adsense.

The idea of giving employees this freedom is not new as 3M was exploring the use of 15% time for this purpose as far back as the conservative 1950s. Well-known and profitable products like Post-its and masking tape were invented out of this.

There is even a 20-Time in Education that allows students 20% of class time (one day each week) to work on and explore a topic of their choice. Since the world is becoming more interconnected and collaborative, it seems natural to enable learners to begin working in this way before they need to earn a paycheck for it. This means teaching students to be autonomous learners who can guide their own career and discover how to most effectively contribute to a team.

Finally, there is the notion of creating a culture of openness that enables employees to choose not only how they do the work, but also from where.

Nearly 30% of employers now offer telecommuting as a way to improve staff retention rates, and nearly three-quarter of employees say flexible work hours would cause them to choose one job over another.

But is the ability to work remotely really the complete answer?

Gallup recently found that employees who worked remotely ended up working longer hours and were slightly more engaged employees. They found that 32% of employees who worked remotely engaged, while only 28% of those employees working on-site were engaged.

However, it turns out that there was a point of diminishing returns for remote workers. Those spending 20% or less of their time working remotely were found to be the most engaged (35%) and had the lowest level of active disengagement (12%). Working remotely began to decrease engagement levels, however, with more time spent away from the workplace.

There should be a balance between face-time with other workers and flexibility for how the work gets accomplished.

Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft, in an entertaining look in this RSA animated video, discusses how technology can be part of the problem as well as a potential solution.

Among other things, Coplin says that social networking has changed how we work in that we are now sharing just about everything versus previously when we were sharing only what we chose to share. This sharing inevitably requires a great deal more trust not only in our selves but in each other as well.

The idea of providing employee perks to encourage workers to stay at the office longer can initially attract employees, but giving benefits that stir innovation and lasting employee engagement needs to appeal more to people’s intrinsic motivation.

This means providing people with the freedom on what the work is, how it gets done and where to do it. Accompanying this freedom also requires a degree of trust, responsibility and accountability.  And that’s a formula for increasing employee engagement.

Prepare to Demonstrate Expertise in Job Interviews

Securing a job in today’s economy requires more than a solid resume and stellar references. You also need the ability to show your expertise during job interviews.

As reported in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Amazon is especially picky about the employees they choose to hire. And yet they hired some 80,000 since 2010! Most of those, however, are working in lower paying warehouse jobs where starting wages are around $11 per hour.

Those candidates seeking higher paying technical and management positions at Amazon must first pass many intense interviews where they are asked to demonstrate their skills and aptitude in real time. This may include writing code on a white board or solving complex business problems in the moment.

I interviewed with Amazon back in their book selling days of the late 1990s and remember being asked whether I thought they should expand into selling music and movies or go international. While I stated I thought it made most sense to choose the former at least initially, they took the path of expanding in both directions at the same time. Obviously, that turned out to be a pretty good plan.

According to Amazon spokespeople, challenging interview questions are not necessarily meant to arrive at the correct answer, but rather to demonstrate the path a person uses to solve a problem. Showing how one thinks helps Amazon discover whether the candidate has the potential to succeed at their company.

And this tactic isn’t new as high tech companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google have been testing the prowess of their job applicants for a long time.

Applications, resumes, college transcripts and other data can all serve to help identify a good candidate, but it is the phone or in-person interview where a person can be screened most effectively as to be really viable or not.

This is where potential employees can demonstrate their ability to think on their feet, reveal technical knowledge and problem solving abilities, and show off their personality and soft skills. All of these can continue or halt the interviewing process.

Amazon goes so far as to include what they call “bar raisers” during the interviewing process. These individuals, who come from throughout the company, can veto a candidate even though they may possess no specific technical expertise or business acumen to properly evaluate the person being considered.

Bar raisers may simply provide a gut-check on whether a candidate is a good cultural fit or perhaps offer an out-of-the-box perspective. I have no idea how many candidates have been dropped from consideration due to vetoes by bar raisers, but I’m certain Amazon keeps track of this and perhaps even follows the careers of these individuals to see how they’ve faired after being dropped from consideration.

I can see how a potential candidate might feel this is an unfair way to gauge a person’s suitability for a position. However, I also recognize the importance of Amazon and every employer in obtaining the right person for the right job.

The more a company understands the traits necessary to succeed in a position as well as the organization itself, the more they should invest in thoroughly evaluating their applicants to ensure they hold those traits.

More and more companies are likely to adopt this strategy of scrutinizing their applicants more thoroughly because it is so expensive to hire the wrong person.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average cost of a bad hiring decision can equal 30% of the individual’s first-year potential earnings. This means a single bad hire with an annual income of $80,000 can equal a $24,000 loss for the employer.

If you’re looking to get hired you need to be prepared to think on your feet and demonstrate your expertise during the interview. This means selling yourself successfully not based on what your resume says about you, but on what you can convincingly show in the moment.

You can prepare yourself for general interview questions, but it’s really not possible to anticipate these other questions. Instead, you need to rely on your instincts and innate critical thinking abilities. You need to remain calm even though this will likely be a stressful environment to do your best.

Keep in mind that it is in the best interest for you and the hiring company’s to find the right fit. As scarce as good paying jobs may be, securing one that fits both you and the company you’re seeking to work for is the best solution. Be prepared to be authentic and to show all that you have to offer. Anything less and you’ll sell yourself short. And that’s a bad idea for everyone.

Happiness Through Work

Social scientists have boiled down Americans’ level of happiness to three major sources: genetics, events and values. The first two are largely out of our control, but the last one is where we have a great deal of control with which can ultimately determine our happiness.

According to a University of Chicago’s General Social Survey of Americans conducted since 1972, it found that about a third of Americans reported they are “very happy,” about half say they are “pretty happy,” and 10% to 15% report being “not too happy.” And these ratios have stayed about the same over 40 years.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “A Formula for Happiness” and in similar content on a YouTube video, Arthur C. Brooks explains how research has determined that 48% of our happiness is inherited and another 40% is based on events that have occurred in the recent past. Much of that may be beyond our control. This leaves just 12% that can help us alter our happiness quotient.

Many people may think there is direct relationship between money and happiness. And this is generally true for the poor.

But Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman found that once people reach a little beyond an average middle-class income level (about $75,000), even big financial gains don’t bring about much more, if any, happiness.

So that brings us to the 12% of which all of us have some control over our happiness. And this is in our values.

According to Brooks, these values come down to four things upon which we have a great deal of control. These are: faith, family, community and work.

Faith does not necessarily mean being religious, but is more about the interior or spiritual life. Family is obvious, but may require a new perspective with regard to how integral these people are to our overall happiness. Community means cultivating important people into our lives and being charitable. This includes the friends we choose to associate with and how generous we are to those outside of our immediate family.

And then there is work.

“Work can bring happiness by marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others,” says Brooks. This secret to happiness through work is what Brooks calls earned success.

“This is not conjecture; it is driven by the data,” says Brooks. “Americans who feel they are successful at work are twice as likely to say they are very happy overall as people who don’t feel that way. And these differences persist after controlling for income and other demographics.”

I should point out that Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. public policy think tank with an obvious free market perspective. Its mission is “to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism.“

His perspective is that free enterprise is the right approach to reaching happiness through work. He says that if you want happiness not only for you but for others around the world, then you should work for free enterprise everywhere.

I won’t debate the potential political and economic argument here, but instead stay focused on the element of pursuing work that matters to you which can help determine your happiness.

What about you? Are you happy? Are you very happy? Is there something you can do to alter the values upon which determine your level of happiness?

Here at the end of another year, perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we are. Since our faith, family and community is ultimately under our control, it comes down to whether or not we choose to take responsibility for them or not. The same is true for work.

Do you believe you are creating value with your contribution at work? If so, the research says that you are more likely to be happy with your life.

As I’ve written about on a number of occasions, the work we do is a lot more than simply a paycheck and a way to provide for us monetarily. In our work, we have the opportunity to find fulfillment, a sense of purpose, and a reason for being that can ultimately help determine our overall happiness.

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to find and make ourselves happy by pursuing work that joins our passion and skills to provide value to us, and to the world?


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