Real Improvement: It’s Just a Game!
Everyone wants to improve. However, most people tend to think of improvement in terms that are “too local” and “too transactional”. By “too local”, most people narrow the problems they face down to what they can control and tend to shrug off anything outside their control as someone else’s problem. By “too transactional”, most people think in terms of applying the fix to the problem and arriving at success. In order to survive, leaders have to take the broadest possible view of business, customers, and competition and apply a multi-level, multi-player game strategy approach to driving improvement.
A multi-level, multi-player game is typically too big and too complex for those playing the game to totally comprehend and control. With ever-faster technology change, increasingly innovative competition, and customers who always want more for less, charting a strategy that is guaranteed to win is difficult – particularly if one is looking for a “one step fix”. The best strategy to win the prize in a multi-level, multi-player game is to learn as much as you can, get started with the best approach you know, measure how you are doing, and be willing to evolve your strategy and tactics as you learn more.
In order to be guaranteed to succeed at business, one would have to have perfect knowledge of their evolving business (e.g.customers, stakeholders, employees, competitors, technology, global economy) and be able to react instantly to any changes. Rather than feeling like they have such “perfect knowledge”, most leaders I know are so busy dealing with what is on their plate right now that they have no time to learn about what might be happening “out there” that might impact. No one person can possibly know enough to succeed today – one has to develop a “fast learning, fast acting” culture.
A “fast learning, fast acting” culture is most analogous to a “team on combat patrol”. Someone has to take point and lead the way. Someone must scout the area the team will cross for danger. Everyone on the team has to know their role and be both willing and able to do it well. Everyone has to know the plan and be able to adapt in real time when the plan has to change. Most importantly, everyone has to be willing to put team success ahead of personal success. A team without these factors is much less likely to safely achieve their objectives.
In a multi-level, multi-player game, it’s not possible to know all the (seemingly random) factors that will impact your fate. The best one can do is to know your starting point, know your desired goal, know your team, and start off in the right direction. The key to the desired “fast learning, fast acting” culture key to success is frequent performance measurements relative to the goal, fast diagnosis of reasons for any widening gaps, and immediate corrective action to close those gaps and move closer to the goal. This rapid, iterative learning process can’t just take place in the CEO’s office or even just in HQ – it has to be an integral part of the culture of the whole company – everyone has to learn and fix as fast as possible.
The only way to lead a team into a “fast learning, fast acting” culture that can navigate its way through the maze of today’s multi-level, multi-player business game is to listen, learn, and listen some more. As the leader, one must put the “act, measure, diagnose, correct” iterative learning process into practice and show the team how it’s done. As others “get it”, task them with “spreading the gospel” by asking them to make improvement projects happen. This kind of change has to start at the top, find its way to the front lines, and then permeate the company from the ground up (which will only happen if leaders model and expect this behaviour relentlessly until it is second nature to everyone in the company).
Ryder Cup and Post-Modern Leadership
In the aftermath of the recent European Ryder Cup demolishing of the USA, many have said that the USA team was simply outplayed during the matches. I disagree. There were no significant differences in the 2 teams in talent, desire to win, or pressure they experienced. However, when it came down to crunch time, the European players made the key putts and erased the early deficits and won going away. The question is, with so many similarities between the two teams, what made the difference? I believe that the short answer is “leadership style”. The recent Ryder Cup can teach us a lot about the type of leadership required for businesses to survive and thrive in today’s tough environment.
Businesses need a different type of leadership in order to both survive and thrive in today’s tough business climate. Both captains wanted their 2014 Ryder Cup teams to win, but the European was a better "servant leader" who engaged in a "caring, constructive dialogue" with his team (i.e. listening to their ideas, being willing to take their input, and showing them he cared about them as people even when he didn't agree with them) and who fostered the "supportive, celebrative community" spirit that made the difference in the European team when times were tough. The triumph of the European team in the recent Ryder Cup matches is a striking illustration of how crucial this new style of leadership is to running a successful business (both now and in the future).
The recent European Ryder Cup team all commented extensively on how much time their captain invested in them in the two years leading up to the latest competition and how much discussion they had with him regarding the approach to the matches. Most team members today demand dialogue with their leaders. If they believe that their leaders care about them and have truly taken their input into account, they will remain engaged and do their best even when the decision is not in line with their input. The recent European Ryder Cup team’s success shows that “caring, constructive dialog with a leader they trust” is a key factor in a team’s engagement.
The leadership style of their captain made the European team willing to forego the normal, selfish attitude for which golfers are famous. However they played, the European team knew deep in their bones that their captain would "have their backs". The captain’s attitude was infectious and the entire team became a “supportive, celebrative community” that freed the European to perform their best under pressure and to prevail in the crucial Sunday singles matches. High performance in the face of adversity is much more likely if the person feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves who truly cares for them (i.e. a "supportive, celebrative community").
The European captain spent time over two years (often at the expense of his own personal success) frequently having dinner with his team, talking to them on the phone regularly, and spending 3 nights at the home of the most introverted, private person on the team to understand him better. He even talked to the players' caddies to learn more about what made the players tick. As a leader, he was truly serving in the team's best interest and the team knew it and responded wholeheartedly to him.
The European captain in the recent Ryder Cup matches demonstrates the leadership style that businesses need to emulate to be successful. In order to motivate our team to deal with tough global competition and with shifting technology trends in a manner that wins more than it loses, we must be "servant leaders" who engage in "caring, constructive dialogue" with our team and who lead them into a "supportive, celebrative community" that enables them to handle adversity and still triumph. Today’s employees don't follow someone because they are smart - they follow people they trust who care about them and who listen to them. As one of my friends says, "They don't care what you know until they know that you care."
May 1, 2011
What Should You Do If Someone "Screws Up"?
Whether you are an executive, a manager, or a member of a team, everyone has experience with someone they are counting on "screwing up". Sometimes errors are easily fixable and sometimes it takes a lot of time and money to repair the damage resulting from the mistake. I believe that the response to mistakes (especially big ones) are big indicators of a company's culture, a leader's effectiveness, and a person's ability to be successful
I believe that everyone has heard the phrase "everyone makes mistakes" but I recently heard someone say that not everyone really believes it. In fact, the comment was made that creative people shy away from math and sciences because they didn't like the rigid "right and wrong" mentality fundamental to math and science. In our post-modern world, many people may not really believe that there are right and wrong ways to deal with situations. While I actually do believe in "right and wrong", I can certainly attest to the fact that, in my 30+ years in business, I have never encountered anyone who has not made mistakes. Those errors may have been "wrong facts", "wrong conclusions", or "wrong decisions" but I think everyone in business is familiar with the "oh, no - what did I just do?" feeling that follows a mistake.
Assuming that mistakes happen, the next question is how those mistakes are dealt with by the company. I've seen many company responses to errors ("witch hunts", "somebody has to pay", "how do we avoid it happening again?", "what can we learn from it?", etc.) and I believe that how a company responds to "screw ups" is one of the most fundamental indicators of that company's culture and its potential for success. If the company culture is perceived to "punish the guilty person", the employees will either tend to hide what is really going on (hoping that no one notices their mistakes) or be so careful to avoid mistakes that everything takes longer and costs more to get done. A fearful environment does not encourage people to admit and learn from their mistakes so it takes a company with that kind of culture longer to realize ways that they are inefficient or ineffective. In today's rigorous environment, every company needs to find the fastest path to efficiency and effectiveness so anything that slows that learning process down will also slow down the company's path to success.
The next question is how a leader responds to "screw ups". I believe that leaders impact the culture of their team by how they deal with mistakes. If the leader pretends that they have never made a mistake and they seek to punish the person who made the mistake, that leader will create the culture of fear that was mentioned above to the detriment of the team's performance. I suspect that most leader's reading this would say at this point "I would never do that." However, it is very easy as a leader to "absorb praise and pass on blame". This is a subtle way to let everyone in the company know that the mistake wasn't the leader's fault. I believe that the opposite approach is actually the most productive for a leader (i.e. "absorb blame and pass on praise"). If the leader takes responsibility for whatever mistakes that their team might make and praises the good things that the team does, it frees the team to act freely for the good of the company and, I believe, for the good of the team and the leader. Many people have told me that, if I don't punish those who make mistakes, they will never learn. I believe that, if I do punish them, they will be so scared that they may never do anything again.
Finally, how should one respond if you are the one who made the mistake? I believe that making mistakes is the best way to learn and develop into the most effective individual you can be. So, when (not if) you do make a mistake, make sure that you know what happened and how not to make that mistake again. Be willing to own up to your mistake and help others learn from it and use that opportunity to help the whole team think about ways to do their work more efficiently and effectively. This doesn't mean that you should be happy that you "screwed up" but, if you can learn from that mistake and be sure not to let it happen again, you can be happy that you have made progress toward becoming a more efficient and effective contributor.
In fact, I believe that the key to my success over the years has been my willingness to take risks, make mistakes, and to learn from them. If you would like to learn more about that, check out my book Travels in Telecom: Don't Be Afraid To Screw Up ... and Prosper on the Catalog page of this website.