Chasing Your Tail

chasing your tailIt was a great plan. I had an hour of time blocked out for getting some marketing work done. But my new dog had other plans for me. Most of the time she is well behaved. Not today. Today, she decided to race through the place at full speed and shred her bed. Up and down I went trying to settle her down and divert her attention to something more productive. Each time I thought she was there, she started back up. My focus was in and out and I accomplished pretty much nothing in that hour. As the saying goes, I spent a lot of time doing a lot of things and accomplished nothing – chasing my tail.

It is a concept that has been the subject of many conversations lately. People talk about a lot of activity in their work, but can’t demonstrate results. Being clear and focused (and having an environment free of distractions) is crucial to achieving results. How are you creating an environment that keeps you and your people from chasing their tail?

The Rearview Mirror

the rearview mirrorOver the last few days, I’ve been on the road quite a bit. Looking at the path ahead and the rearview mirror to scan the environment to ensure a safe path. Some cars were weaving out of their lane, some were speeding ahead, others were moving slowly. By looking forward and behind me, I was able to adjust my course appropriately to make for a safe trip.

The trip got me thinking about a friend describing meetings he had recently attended. There were some new people in the organization. They were thinking about how to improve and innovate. Fantastic! What they didn’t realize was that road had already been traveled with considerable effort, ultimately discarded as not workable. Circumstances had not changed such that revisiting the effort would result in success. It was only in the meeting that the history surfaced and gave new light to the best road to travel.

It is true that you can’t be successful by looking strictly in the rearview mirror to manage a business. But understanding history is important too. How are you creating a learning environment that understands your history and the circumstances that supported it?

Are you diverting people without notice?

are you diverting peopleThe economy is coming back. You read about it in the papers, see it on the news. It really becomes apparent when you experience it in the form of increased traffic and construction. Driving to an appointment recently met me with two unexpected adventures in the form of road closures. While many times there are signs down the road indicating a closure is ahead, in both cases, there were no signs. In the first case, the closure was temporary as construction was being performed on the road and flaggers would periodically let people through. The second closure was for an extended period of time. Looking ahead two blocks, I was able to see the closure and make a turn down the appropriate one-way street. Had I not seen it, I would have been on an adventure going the opposite direction.

In the grand scheme of things, the adventure was not a big deal. It was 15 extra minutes. I plan for the unknowns – something will come up, I just don’t know what it will be. But many people do not. And in business, the diversions down different paths and adding difficulties into the lives of your people or your customers in an unexpected way can strain the relationships. If only once, it may not be a big deal. But if people are diverted from the objective regularly, you may lose them. How are you making sure you don’t divert people without notice?

A Key Perspective in Hiring

hiring the right peopleSome time back, I was speaking with a leader who was about to make a critical hire for their organization. We talked about the skills and capabilities necessary to be successful. Then he said something that surprised me. He wanted to make sure that the person had never had situations that had gone badly.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a significant period of time driving operational risk management. Part of that effort was understanding why projects go sideways. Not surprisingly, a critical success factor was matching the needs of the project to the skills and capabilities of the project lead. I’ll never forget a comment made by a colleague. He said that people make the same mistakes. The key is to make sure it happens when the stakes are low so the learning can take place.

Back to the hiring decision. We had a good conversation about the value of making mistakes and learning from them, and understanding the conditions that led to previous success. In other words, was the candidate good or lucky? The key is to find someone that has learned in their career from both successes and failures, and because of it, has a robust tool box that can be deployed when appropriate. How are you creating a culture that focuses on learning and bringing that perspective into hiring?

Why buy the Cadillac when the Chevy will do?

why buy the cadillac when the chevy will doTimes have changed since this saying came about, when the Cadillac was the gold standard. The point is still incredibly valid – why pay a lot of money when your needs are satisfied by less. I was reminded of this saying this weekend while looking for a barrier to keep my new dog from running up stairs. The pet stores had pet gates, and I was shocked by the sticker price. So, I looked at baby gates at Target. The price differential between a low end baby gate and a low end pet gate was 2-3 times, and nearly 15 times differential between a low end baby gate and a high end pet gate. I don’t need a bunch of bells and whistles, just a barrier to put on the stairs. So, the baby gate met my needs.

These types of situations arise all the time in business. Whether it is systems, equipment, design, space, or pick your project, too much money is spent regularly because the scope and outcomes are not clearly understood. Money is poured into bells and whistles that aren’t really needed. It is pretty amazing when you start focusing in on the actual scope – your time and money can be dramatically reduced. This is different from wanting a Cadillac, but only willing to pay for a Chevy. The difference is knowing your needs, the scope. How are you ensuring you are clear on your needs and not getting a bunch of bells and whistles that aren’t really needed?

What does it take to change behavior?

changeLast week, the temperatures in the Portland metro area were forecasted to exceed 100 degrees for three straight days. If you are in other parts of the country, this may seem mild and not a big deal. But in this area, many people do not have air conditioning and are not used to temperatures at that level. So, it was no surprise on the first day that the number of people out walking early in the day was significantly higher than it normally is at that time of day. But, by day two, the number of people out walking had dropped back to normal levels. The prompt for behavior change was a short-term event. Behavior changed for one day, then normal patterns returned as the weather normalized.

Have you ever attempted a change initiative in your organization? Many times they fail because people are used to the periodic change initiative, understanding that it will be an area of focus for a short period of time, then normal patterns will return. Sustained change requires a known benefit that is being targeted, and consistent focus on that change such that old behaviors will not return (or be accepted if they are attempted). How are you driving change in your organization?

How do you find your blind spots?

blind spotRecently, an out of town acquaintance was in Portland for the summer. Being from a major city, she never learned to drive. Not a big deal as she was staying close to downtown and could bike to work and around the area for fun. We were talking about how to get around and I suggested she be careful how she navigates the bike lanes. They are on the right hand side of the road and if a car needs to turn right, they would cross through the bike lane to turn, making it incredibly important to always watch for vehicle blind spots. Having never driven a car, she did not understand the concept of a blind spot, so I explained it to her.

Blind spots exist in business too. They are danger lurking in the wings that can’t be seen. And the only way to find those blind spots is through experience or, if it does not exist, help from someone who has the experience. Even if you think you have the experience, you may be too close to the situation to see the blind spots. How are you watching out for blind spots?

Assumptions and Biases – Are You Getting it Right?

assumptions and biasesA few weeks ago, I adopted a new dog from the Oregon Humane Society. As part of the adoption process, a collar and a few tags are provided. The collar happened to by pink. Off we went to the pet store to get a few more things including a harness and leash. There were no pink harnesses in her size. So, we purchased a lovely turquoise set. It works with the pink and I like the color. Then a funny thing started to happen. During our daily walks, almost everyone thinks she is a male, likely because she is wearing a blue harness and leash. Blue = male. A few get up closer and notice she is actually a female and correct themselves. It has been surprising to see the number of people making the incorrect assumption about her sex.

Whether you call it an assumption or a bias, people make a judgment based on experience or predisposition every day. In business, the ability to get it right has a significant impact on the culture and the success of the company. Checking the basis for the assumptions and making unconscious biases conscious can lead to better decision making. How are you checking assumptions and bias in your organization?


Circling the Drain

circling the drainHave you ever seen this? The economy, lack of desire for a product/service line or some other event causes a dramatic drop in revenue. As a result, staffing is cut. A few of the most talented people depart, leaving a weak team. A theoretical new revenue stream is discussed, but the specifics around how to make that happen never quite get there, making it difficult to attract the people that buy the goods or services. The ostrich approach moves into full gear as people discuss the plan (but don’t execute it), thinking the business has turned the corner, but miss the warning signs that things are not actually getting better. Lots of meetings happen, and people are focused on the activity rather than the results. Emails fly with large numbers of people being copied for no apparent reason and people feel better because there is activity. In the meantime, the business is circling the drain. The only question is, can someone put the plug in before all the water drains?

While it is difficult to turn a business around when it has gone too far down a path, the key is to have a flexible approach and ability to refocus as the markets change. Things to watch for include: dramatic changes in revenue, dramatic changes in the goods purchased or services provided, strength of the team in place, and a trajectory that is different than competitors or the market in general. To have forward momentum in a business, it is critical to have the right people in the right place focused on the right things. How are you having honest dialogue in your business to make sure that changes creeping in the business don’t cause you to circle the drain?

Do you have the right people in the right place?

right people in right placeFlashpoint is a Canadian TV drama series that ran years ago, focusing on a specialized police team that handles hostage situations. While each team member has common skills, they each have specialized skills and typically handle a specific role that is matched to their skills. In an episode that recently aired as a rerun, the negotiator and the tactical operations lead switched places. They were working through a hostage situation, and a third person had a clear view of the situation. No-one else could see what was going on. Her request to resolve the situation was denied by the negotiator who was handling the tactical role in favor of talking more. Things went sideways and resulted in some injuries. During the debrief after the incident, there was a significant debate on whether the call was appropriate. The perspective was that the skills were mismatched for the swapped roles, leading to an undesirable outcome.

While most business situations are not life or death, getting the right people in the right place can have a tremendous impact on the outcomes of business. When people are not in the right role, decisions and actions can be delayed, leading to suboptimal results. And it isn’t fun for anyone. Typically when people are in the wrong role, they do not enjoy it. When the right people are in the right place, they enjoy what they do and the right things happen more quickly. Do you have the right people in the right place? How can you get there if you aren’t right now?