Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for accountability

Not Fearless … “I Just Proceed Nonetheless”

One subject I’ve often discussed with friends and colleagues is about making difficult decisions, the reasoning behind those decisions, and the personal characteristics involved. What are the hallmarks of making good decisions in a challenging environment or situation?

There are many factors but for this post I want to refute – with the help of a wonderful example I found today – one factor that I think is either over emphasized or perhaps not really a factor at all. That factor is: fearlessness.

The definition is “to be free from fear”. If you are faced with a difficult decision whether in a personal sphere, in business, or other arena is a lack of fear a good thing? It certainly might help you get over the hump, so to speak, and to act upon a decision you might have based on your judgment, your morality or ethics, particularly if the consequences for failure are dire enough (e.g., failed business, failed relationship, even life-or-death).
This has always troubled me though. I just seems that as humans we all have fears and given they are seemingly universal then those fears are there for some useful purpose (and we should be paying attention to them!).

SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk sent the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station

Yet I like this interview of Elon Musk, founder of Paypal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors (and he’s only 41!). Especially the last line of this part of the interview:

“I wouldn’t say I have a lack of fear. In fact, I’d like my fear emotion to be less because it’s very distracting and fries my nervous system. I have this sort of feeling that something terrible could happen, like all of our flights could fail and Tesla could fail and SpaceX could fail, and that feeling of anxiety has not left me, even though this has been a great year. So I feel fear quite strongly; I just proceed nonetheless.

I would say that fear is part of what stokes Elon’s drive and his attention to what is important in his business decisions. Fear is a means but the end – the decision to and actually act – is all about bravery. To move ahead despite the risk, despite the fears is a concious act, not an unconcious act (as fearlessness seems to be, at least to me).

So, may you recognize your fears. Confront them and use them to inform your decisions. Then summon your bravery to act with confidence on the decisions you have made, or as Elon says “just proceed nonetheless“.

(P.S. read the rest of the interview with Elon Musk. It is quite interesting.)

Teamwork at work

Teamwork, and probably more importantly, how teams work is an enduring and important topic. Much of how things get done in business, families and other societal groups, and life in general is through teams. 

There is an interesting recent blog on Forbes, by Inder Sidhu who is a Senior VP of Planning and Strategy at Cisco, on the results of a study done on a charter school in Minnesota. The Avalon School has many characteristics that set it apart from other public schools: it has no principal, no full-time administrators and no director. They do not answer to a superintendant or district supervisors, rather the school’s educators make all decisions regarding budgeting, hiring, curricula and more.

In terms of individual team member satisfaction, evidence indicates working in this environment produces teachers that are more satisfied than peers at other schools. This is consistent with studies of other similarly run charter schools. This is a possibly important finding — the job satisfaction of teachers would logically have some impact on their performance in the classroom and possibly extend to the performance of students in their classrooms. This effect on students though had not been studied or shown until the Avalon School study.

The research was done by Claremont Graduate University professor Charles Taylor Kerchner. The study compared academic achievement of Avalon to other schools in its area. It found that Avalon was producing high performing students and also multidisciplined teachers. The evidence included outperforming other schools on federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements, in reading proficiency, and graduating a very high percentage of its students – 87% – with many going on to attend top tier universities such as Northwestern and the University of Michigan. There is much more but I’ll leave it to you to read the study (link above) if you wish.

There seems to be much that can be learned about the team working environment at Avalon. In a typical school a teacher’s job is clearly defined and their activities and routines are often overly prescribed. At Avalon, teachers are largely unrestricted and develop new skills in budgeting, hiring, marketing, recruiting, conflict resolution, and project management. Having to rely upon each other for goal setting, decision making and problem resolution rather than job and work rules and a central education authority and bureaucracy, the Avalon education team finds it easier to develop a common vision, set of objectives and hold themselves collectively accountable. In a charter school, lack of performance as a team can lead to the revocation of the charter and the school — and team — returning to the standard public school approach and work environment.

The teamwork atmosphere extends to the students. Seemingly taking the business management concept of “self managed teams” into a school setting, Avalon students discipline themselves. If an Avalon student gets into trouble, they are sent to a council of their peers — who have received training in peer mediation — for a hearing. Additionally, the students at Avalon determine most of the rules for the school. For self directed teams to work effectively, they must have this combination of lattitude in rule setting and governance, and accountability for group performance to the rules and standards.

It would be my belief that beyond the improved education the students at Avalon are getting, a powerful additional benefit is their learning about and experiencing a positive team working environment that will serve them well into their life and careers beyond Avalon.

Recently I had the privilege of teaching some classes at Emory University in the business school. I did a lot of preparation and reading about teaching in the university setting and particularly using the case method. One approach I read about and then adopted was to maximize the students’ participation by “orchestrating” the class, rather than lecturing or using a firm agenda and prepared questions (and prescribed answers).

We set some goals for what we wanted to get from the case, what we thought were key issues to be discussed and deliverables to be generated. Then I turned really into a conductor or director whose job was to facilitate, to keep us moving toward the goals, but not otherwise dictate. I found that like the Avalon experience, and experience where I’ve seen teams perform at their highest, the class thrived on the freedom and self-direction and had strong, innate drive to work together toward the goals.

What do you think? Do you have similar or varying experience with teams and teamwork?

Where do we want to go?

This is the third in a series on developing a “practical strategy”.  So far we’ve looked at two of the five basic questions that can be used as a framework for building and testing the strategy of an organization. The last three questions we’ll cover in this post.

The first two questions are “what business are we in?” and “where is the market going?” These questions serve to both build upon the vision which was developed (described in the first post ) and to test it in a practical way. The final three are “Where do we want to go?”, “How will we win?”, and “How will we get there?”. If the vision and the first two questions are for framing and testing then these last three are to useful for building out the details and getting ready to launch.

Picking up from the last post where the market landscape and strategic choices were developed the next step is to make those choices and identify the possible outcomes in order to be precise with the strategy. It is easy to be wishy-washy (sorry for use of such a jargon-laden term!) or settle for being too-high level. After all this is just the “strategy” and details can come later, right? Not right! Sure more details will come later in iterative execution phases and over time but forcing out specificity at this point is very valuable. Otherwise you can easily develop an elegant and logically sound strategy that still fails in the real world.

For example, while developing long term strategy at CheckFree, the leading provider of outsourced online banking and bill pay to U.S. financial institutions, the market — of both consumers who used it and the banks who provided it to them — was rapidly coming to accept such applications as mainstream (a classic sign of  market “maturity”). But there was clear difference in the states of the two key market segments that made up the value chain for CheckFree. One segment, the bank market, was more mature and the competition was likely to force price into being a key competitive issue. Consumers, the other key segment, were still in the early stages of mainstream adoption. Plus a key variable was not simply adoption (what % of households were paying bills online) but penetration (what % of all household bills were being paid online — a sort of share of “bill payment wallet”).

The adoption metric was headed to and beyond 15% (and was at 30% at the leading bank in the U.S.) but the share of wallet was less than 5%. A clear choice on “where do we want to go?” was made: focus on the consumer. Clearly it seemed that there was both a significant unanswered challenge – how to get adopting households to pay all of their bills online through their bank — plus significant upside (increasing penetration offered a rich pool of latent, recurring revenue).

Turning to “how will we win?”: as with all of these questions they are best used in companion and with one another in an iterative manner. For instance, if we had chosen, instead, to give primacy to the bank market’s needs and compete on dimensions of traditional IT outsourcing — such as low cost, scale and quality — we felt we could win yet these were more mature areas and risk of commoditization was high (and price being a likely, and recurring, battleground). When we thought through our choice to compete with a consumer-focused strategy we were betting on this “pulling” through the banks and positioning us as clearly differentiated and preferred option in any competitive situation. The thinking was: if we could be the world-class experts in consumer adoption we were purposely choosing a more difficult yet competitively defensible path. We believed this competitive stratgegy would further raise switching costs and lock in market share with banks who chose us — and serve to help us avoid competing on price.

The last question, “How will we get there?” seems a little anticlimatic. This is by design. As I’ve mentioned previously a risk in developing strategy (amongst many!) can be that it is not practical (e.g., too high level, non-specific, hedges or is wishy-washy). If we’ve been thorough in answering and iterating through the vision and the first four questions the we’ll combat the impractical through the explicit development of a plan to accomplish the chosen strategy. The plan must include a clear set of discrete steps, time-phased and integrated across necessary functional or other organizational boundaries, assign specific accountable owners, and designate expected outcomes which become goals and metrics upon which to review and judge progress of the strategy execution and success of its outcomes. Wrappered around this methodology for developing practical strategy should be some sort of on-going strategic review, discussion and revision process (which I might blog about some other day). I like developing a 2 to 3 year strategy and then reviewing it every quarter on a rolling basis.

That’s it. I would welcome Comments from friends of my blog and from those just passing by and here for the first time.    Randy

Data is not the plural of anecdote

Following the recent election season I heard a pundit comment that, as usual, winning candidates from both sides had mastered the art of successfully positioning themselves – and their opponents – through powerful use of anecdotes. They found anecdotes that resonated with the electorate and used them to either effectively portray themselves positively or their opponents negatively. The power came from repeating these anecdotes in speeches, campaign literature, political advertisements, and those much-hated automated campaign telephone calls such that people began to believe them simply because the repetition gave them an air of being factual.

Now, I looked up the definition of the word anecdote. An-ec-dote \ˈa-nik-ˌdōt\, noun, “short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical.”

I wasn’t sure how this could be so powerful – sounds sort of innocuous. Then I looked at synonyms of the word – I often find synonyms to be interesting perspective on word definitions. Here’s what I found:

Fish story
Fairy tale

Ah ha! Now I get it – tell a story that is rooted in some specific truth but with an edge of humor and human interest, repeat it often enough and it becomes accepted fact!

Now, I do NOT want to make my blog into a political one. I use the above to set up a simple point that I think is important in personal and business situations and has nothing necessarily to do with politics. Often in my business career and in my consulting work in the area of data-driven decision making (for strategic planning or in marketing), I have used interviews with an organization’s associates and executives to get a baseline on the current environment from various stakeholders. Without fail, a common thing I hear is “we have lots of data, we are drowning in data, but we make most decisions based on opinion or conventional wisdom”. Probing a little further I find that what happens is one or a small set of facts become favored (sometimes for pure but often for political reasons) and then repeated and re-used until it becomes the rationale for many decisions.

A great quote I just recently found is: ““data is not the plural of anecdote”. I think I’ll use it going forward to help me make the point about breaking away from opinion-based decision making and moving to data-driven decision making. As in politics, we often fall prey to simply repeating – and believing – what we’ve heard before rather than demanding data-supported facts, particularly fresh ones and from multiple sources that clearly support recommendations and decisions.

Trust, Integrity, Accountability

Recently I was working with a client on preparations for an important meeting. The exact details of the meeting and the content are unimportant. What my client sponsor was wrestling with was concern that his peers would not act on the recommendations we were making. As I asked him more probingly about the root of his concerns he blurted out something about “our leadership team often agrees in a meeting but follow through is poor.”

Through further discussions I came up with a framework for the meeting that he seemed to like and gave him confidence that his concern about follow through could be overcome. I described the framework like this:

– ultimately establishing clear Accountability for decisions and actions is required in order for follow-through to be ensured. I said we should start off with asserting this to the meeting attendees (all of them S and E level VPs, along with the GM of the overall business unit) and giving a definition of accountability that everyone could agree to: “a willingness to be held to account for one’s promises and actions“.

– next we would say that accountability requires two foundations, first is Trust. Trust can be simply defined as “a relationship of reliance“. The team of executives, we would say, would see in a few moments that our recommendations revealed the clear interdependencies between each of their respective areas of the business. They were reliant upon each other and their teams to achieve success. While this may go without saying, we would invite them to openly discuss any areas where they felt they could not indeed “rely” upon each other or where weaknesses existed between business area linkages. Those areas would be addressed in the meeting and cleared up or an action plan would be devised to address them as output from the meeting.

– the second foundation element for accountability was “Integrity. Integrity can be defined as an undivided or unbroken completeness or totality with nothing wanting“. We would say that often accountability is desired and trust exists yet ultimately accountability falters because what someone or some group is held accountable to lacks integrity. Sometimes this is personal integrity but more often it is the integrity of — or the lack of a factual, fact base for — what is recommended and decided to be implemented. So our final activity before dealing with the recommendations was to spend more-than-usual time on the facts behind the business problem and opportunity we were dealing with. We said grounding all the participants equally and giving all a chance to develop a solid “fact base” was critical for them to hold one another accountable for follow through. If during our discussion, we said, the facts did not hold up, additional facts were needed or more clarity was required, it was better that we postponed final decisions and reconvened with the missing data ready to present.

What was interesting was that A) everyone seemed to appreciate the open recognition of the accountability issue. It had clearly become a sort of “elephant in the room” problem, which led to B) a reasonably candid discussion of some real, but solvable trust and integrity questions and challenges, and resulted in C) a preliminary acceptance of the facts and recommendations but request for the postponment of final decisions until a few important additional facts and factors could be brought to the table for consideration at a subsequent meeting. That follow up meeting was, I’m told, one of the most productive they’d had in quite some time which they attributed to the framework my client presented and used faithfully throughout the discussions.

As most of us have learned, often it is not just what we say but how  we say it that can ultimately matter. Revealing and capturing the true potential of an idea or recommendation, in this case, depended upon it.