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 8, 2011
How Should We Plan For The Future?
With today's focus primarily on quarterly performance, long term planning often involves looking beyond the current year to decide what investments to make. Thinking about this tendency, it seems to me that today's executives need to know both what direction they are heading and what choices they may have to make along the way to change direction.
If this is true, then the next question is whether this is any different from the past. As I think back to how strategic planning has been done in my past experience, I think back to post-divestiture AT&T and how I was asked to lead a team in 1985 to define the Year 2000 architecture for the AT&T network. I pulled together a cross-functional team with experts from various telecom disciplines and we decided the major components of the network and determined the major trends in each of those areas. As we hit 2000, I took a look back to see how well we did in our predictions. It turned out that we successfully predicted the major trends in switching, transmission, data storage, signaling, processors, and computing. Back in 1995, we only missed 2 small items: cell phones and the internet!
In 1985, cellular technology had been invented but the powers that be in AT&T didn't think that cell phones would take off (given how big and clunky they were and how they tended to be tethered to one's vehicle). My team and I weren't able to predict how the combination of the trends in smaller and smaller processors and the advances in battery and antenna size would lead to a seismic shift in how we all conduct our lives.
In 1985, the ARPANET existed for defense research but they hadn't made it very far down the IP protocol path. Email existed but it was tethered to the corporate computer networks and my team and I didn't foresee how the World Wide Web would explode. Of course, the link between mobile devices and internet access has furthered the web explosion.
So, if AT&T with all its resources, missed fundamental game changers like cell phones and the internet in their long-term planning, you might ask what hope smaller companies have in doing any sort of long-term planning. However, you also have to realize that the development cycle (i.e. the time from solid business concept to implementation in the network) was 3- 4 years back in 1985. So, AT&T was really planning out ~4 development cycles. Given that today's development cycles are closer to 6-9 months (and shorter in some cases), 4 development cycles would work out to a 2-3 year plan (which seems more feasible somehow).
However, even if the planning cycle seems workable, we still need to be ready to evaluate and respond to new business and technology opportunities that can pop up at any time. The leaders of a company need to be constantly scanning the environment and sifting all the information that floods in on a regular basis to determine whether something new has popped up that requires a fundamental re-think of the company's strategy. So it's not really a question of strategic or tactical planning - it's more both strategic and tactical planning need to be occurring at all times.