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."  
August 27, 2011

Multi-Dimensional Thinking: Dead End or Solution?

 Most businesses end up focusing on one of the main business drivers that everyone is familiar with:

- reducing costs
- improving quality
- increasing innovation

Sometimes ambitious companies will tackle a couple of these at once (improving quality while cutting costs or increasing innovation and improving quality) but the conventional wisdom is that any company trying to be the best at all three (i.e. lowest cost, highest quality, and most innovative) is doomed to failure.  The problem with trying to be the best at all three is that you end up "stuck in the middle" and don't accomplish any of your goals.

I won't argue with the conventional wisdom that you can't be the best at all three but I do contend that few companies actually reach the position of best in any of the three (cost, quality and innovation).  In fact, I believe that most companies not only live in a dynamic balance of cost, quality, and innovation but that they actually end up juggling cost, quality, innovation, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, stakeholder satisfaction, competitive response, and being too slow to address market shifts (among likely many other items).

In other words, I believe that a company could be the lowest cost provider (or the highest quality provider or the most innovative company) and still end up losing out in today's dynamic business environment.  I believe that few companies operate in a world that is simple enough for them to win by being the best at one thing.  Instead, I believe that the companies that win are the ones that find a "sweet spot" that balances all the above factors and then adjust dynamically as conditions change.  Such companies aren't "the best" at any one thing but they are "good enough" in all the key factors to be able to stay ahead of their competition over the long haul.

Most people reading this far are probably shaking their heads and saying that there is no way to manage that many variables and that any attempt to do so would end up too complex to be understandable.  As usual, I find myself disagreeing with "most people".

I believe that such multi-dimensional thinking is difficult for those who see the world "vertically" (which is most of the world's population) but that such multi-dimensional thinking is actually the way that the minority that think "horizontally" approach their roles.  The difficulty that the "horizontal" minority have is that it is difficult to distill their multi-dimensional assessment into terms that the "vertical" majority can understand.

Much has been made lately of Steve Jobs capabilities (and rightly so) and how much they have meant to Apple.  I believe that Steve Jobs is a good example of a "horizontal" thinker who, due to his position as founder, was able to influence the overall Apple culture and to reap the benefit of his "broader than most" insights.  Further, I believe that other companies who desire to prosper in today's increasingly dynamic business environment must consciously foster "horizontal" thinking in order to find ways to learn and react dynamically to the changing environment in ways that are more effective than their competition.


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