Category Archives: Karen Utgoff

Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach

By Karen Utgoff

When was the last time you took a systematic look at your organization’s culture? Many owners and leaders of small-to-medium sized businesses could answer this question with one word: “Never.” Unfortunately, culture is often neglected when leaders size up their organizations even when its importance is recognized because it is difficult to measure:

  • Unlike cash flow, leads generated, cost of goods sold, defect rates, absenteeism, or other company/industry empirical measures, culture cannot be assessed strictly in terms of numbers.
  • Culture — good or bad — is so much a part of an organization’s day-to-day “normal” it can be difficult just to recognize its influences, much as individuals may be blind to their own good or bad behavior patterns.
  • Culture is very much in the eyes of its many beholders — employees, customers, suppliers, as well as the management team. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is important to consider each for their perspectives and bring the necessary objectivity to the process.
  • Convincing yourself (and staff) of its importance to find the time to do this type of assessment can be very difficult in the midst of day-to-day demands.

Nevertheless taking a fresh look at your organization’s culture is critical; while the work is difficult, the payoff could be substantial. In many ways, an organization’s culture is at the core of its ability to respond effectively to immediate difficulties as well as meet long-term challenges and seize opportunities. Culture significantly influences an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees and, of course, its customer experience.

Don’t let the desire for perfection derail getting started. Taking initial steps will allow you to build a foundation for future improvements. Here is an approach that might help you begin.

Use a general framework as a starting point. While it is tempting to start by framing your assessment around the particulars of your organization, this could introduce assumptions about your culture that skew results or interfere with insights. Instead, start with a one-size-fits-all structure to assure a fresh perspective that will help you develop an objective, inclusive view of your culture.

While there are many frameworks out there, I like the one provided in John Coleman’s “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture” from the HBR Blog Network. This article breaks culture into more manageable pieces:

  • Vision (and/or mission)
  • Values
  • Practices
  • People
  • Narrative*
  • Place*

It’s worth noting that these are components of both great and problematic cultures; the difference being that in great cultures the elements work together to create a highly productive, effective organization.

Go beyond your talk to get at your walk. Because culture depends much more upon what an organization does than what it says, look for evidence of culture in action. Use facts to support your observations or help you to see more clearly.

Use the framework to describe your organization’s culture from your (the CEO/owner’s) perspective. Record your view of each aspect of your organization’s culture. Limit yourself to a single page that succinctly covers the six components rather than a detailed description. Once this summary is complete, if you feel the need for more information add backup pages to support the summary page. For example in the section on Narrative you may want to mention the story about when you and everyone else worked late into the night to help a customer in a crisis. This could be listed as “How we went above and beyond for XYZ Co. when they needed our help,” while backup information could include highlights of your team’s efforts and XYZ’s thank you letter.

Use the framework to see your organization’s culture from many perspectives. Eventually you may want use the template to gather the perspectives of employees, customers and others who have experience with your organization. To get started, focus on employees from the front lines to the management team. Provide a copy of the template and Coleman’s blog.  Ask each one to describe your organization’s culture as he or she sees it. Encourage backup notes to support observations on the main sheet. Anonymous returns encourage frankness, but you will not be able to follow up for more detail. Often a third party is engaged to gather and consolidate returns to help overcome this barrier.

Compare and consolidate perspectives to see with fresh eyes. As you accumulate perspectives from various individuals throughout your organization and beyond, look for points of agreement and divergence. Be mentally prepared for both delightful and disappointing discoveries. For example, you may find that employees are quietly taking the initiative to realize the mission through their day-to-day actions, or that employees are only partially aware of the organization’s values. You may also find that there are some positive aspects of your culture that you, as the leader, rarely or never see but want to encourage. In any case, your mandate is to see your culture through fresh eyes rather than to act immediately on the details.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your culture, it will become easier to find ways to strengthen and nurture its positive aspects. For example, if employees are unaware of the organization’s values, you may realize that a values statement needs to be distributed to everyone, that values need to be integrated into performance evaluations, or that you will seek opportunities to create new narratives by recognizing employees whose actions exemplify organizational values.

Improve your ability to analyze and assess organizational culture by observing others. The steps above are just a starting point. One of the joys of my work is that I am regularly exposed to a wide range of organizations. In some it’s clear that talk and walk have diverged, while in others employees are remarkably in sync. There is a lot to learn from both. To strengthen your ability to nurture the culture in your organization, try applying the framework to others. Does your supplier tell you that its people are innovative problem solvers but your experiences say otherwise?

Include organizational culture as a regular part of management review. Remember that the steps above are a beginning not the end. Along with your margins, customer-base and employees’ technical capabilities, a healthy organizational culture is an important part of your business’ strength. In addition to its internal value, it plays directly into your reputation, brand, and competitiveness. To create, nurture and sustain culture effectively, make time to assess it systematically as part of routine, ongoing management and leadership efforts.

* For more on Narrative and Place, see my post on “Using narrative and place to nurture small business culture” in Succeeding in Small Business.

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Want to Be a More Effective Decision Maker? Beware of Blind Spots and Biases that Can Interfere

By Karen Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can't see. Photo: K. Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can’t see. Photo: K. Utgoff

Business decisions are made every day and mistakes are inevitable — none of us can read minds, know the future, or wait for perfect information. However, it’s sad and unnecessarily costly when a mistake is preventable.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could reduce avoidable errors at little or no cost? My experience tells me that many business owners, executives and managers could do just that if only they were more aware of personal tendencies that influence their decisions as well as vulnerabilities we all have that stem from the way we (that is, our brains) perceive and analyze situations and information. Cultivating this self-awareness is one of the lowest cost — but most challenging — ways I know to become a more effective decision-maker.

Perception and perspective are tricky things. Optical illusions exploit the way our brains work, causing us to misperceive objects and images. We often consider these to be tricks that aren’t very important to daily life, yet there is at least one major exception: the passenger side mirrors on our automobiles, which come with an engraved warning reminding us that “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” In addition, to use this mirror effectively a driver must be aware of the blind spot. Both the blind spot and misperceiving distance are problems because (when we are in the driver’s seat) our brains are quick to misinterpret the image in the mirror as physical reality.

In similar ways, business decisions are vulnerable to misperceptions or skewed perspectives. Vulnerabilities generally fall into two categories: those everyone shares as part of the human condition and those that are particular to an individual. As with the side mirror, being aware is a critical first step to minimizing their impact.

No one is perfect; individual inclinations and gaps sway all of us. The ability to be self-critical is key. Here are some questions intended to provoke useful self-examination:

  • Do you tend to be overly optimistic or pessimistic based on recent experience?
  • Do you defer to experts or discount their opinions completely?
  • Do you balance intuition and evidence or automatically favor one over the other?
  • Do you probe for information and knowledge or make do with whatever is available?
  • Do you actively seek alternative views or protect yourself from being challenged?
  • Do you tend to make decisions too early or delay until the situation is critical?
  • Do you fear scrutiny or embrace it?
  • Do you change your mind too easily in the face of new information or resist too much?

Individual inclinations and tendencies can and do negatively impact decision-making.  None of us can escape entirely but self-awareness can help balance and counterbalance our weaknesses while making the most of our strengths.

It is also important to factor in biases and blind spots that researchers have identified as hardwired into each of us. Though hard to counteract, there are steps that can help to manage these human factors. Robert Wolf provides an excellent starting point in his post on “How to Minimize Your Biases When Making Decisions” for the HBR Blog Network. In my consulting practice I have seen these biases reinforced or mitigated by an individual’s personality and decision-making patterns; so be mindful of their interplay.

Another human factor to consider is willful blindness. This phenomenon is not confined to business decisions but can have a devastating effect on an organization in which it occurs. Especially insidious is that blind spots render issues that require attention or decisions invisible until they become crises, sometimes presenting an existential threat to the organization or inflicting terrible harm on others. To learn more, listen to Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk on the topic or read her article on “Willful blindness: When a leader turns a blind eye” in the Ivey Business Journal online.

While the focus of this post is on individual decision makers, it applies to teams as well. Startup ventures, intrapreneurial teams, and top management at organizations (large and small) are all susceptible. As with individuals, teams have their own vulnerabilities. Teams that are comfortable with internal conflict and seek information from divergent sources may be less susceptible to willful blindness but may have difficulty absorbing the final decision when it’s time to do so. Alternatively, the danger of willful blindness or confirmation bias may increase when team members are discouraged or punished for raising important concerns or contributing information.

SWOT spotHas this post convinced you that you can become a more effective decision maker? If so, use the information here to assess your own decision-making habit and patterns. Ask people you trust to level with you about your strengths and weaknesses. When you spot an opportunity to improve yourself or your team(s), remember that change is difficult and requires persistence. Progress takes time and set backs will occur. Keep at it; there is a lot to gain.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Team Performance: Lessons from String Quartets

By Karen Utgoff

As the only non-musician in my nuclear family, I have attended many concerts and recitals offered by students and pros. These range from big orchestra and choral performances to small solo events. Over the years, I have found watching string quartets especially fascinating. In addition to the music, each performance is a study in teamwork that offers a model — whether in the context of an established business, a non-profit organization, or a startup — that many business teams would do well to emulate.

The Chiara Quartet. Photo by Christian Steiner

The Chiara Quartet. Photo by Christian Steiner

A string quartet has a lot in common with teams as defined by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in their classic Harvard Business Review article “The Discipline of Teams” ( July-August 2005):

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

“The essence of a team is common commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.”

These characteristics are certainly true of successful string quartets at all levels.  Here are some other observations about these musical teams that inform business teams by shedding a different light on some common issues:

Challenging, shared, clearly defined, performance-related goals provide focus for team efforts. Working toward a particular performance seems obvious for a quartet — the team naturally and continuously aims for a result that goes beyond what its members can achieve individually. And, their goal is clear, be ready to perform on the scheduled day. Project-oriented business teams often find defining goals and timelines less straightforward; but it is no less essential. Defined goals and clear timetables create valuable motivators as well as a shared focus, sense of urgency and standard for measuring success.

The Chiara Quartet is one that I particularly enjoy watching, so I was interested to read about their new performance goal:

“For almost all of the Quartet’s upcoming concerts, they’ll be performing by heart.  After spending countless hours working towards playing their repertoire from memory, they now feel that the sheet music is a distraction to the performance, instead of an aid.”

For those who would like to learn more, here are some examples of the Quartet in performance and practicing together.

Team members’ specific, complementary skills enable team performance. Every string quartet needs two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. If one is missing, you don’t have a string quartet. In much the same way, business teams need members who bring specific skills to the group. Unlike a quartet, the basic mix of skills needed on a project-focused business team is not always obvious. For example, a new venture team may start out with science and engineering expertise and only later realize the need for expertise in venture finance and entrepreneurial marketing.

Well-defined roles and responsibilities help eliminate gaps and overlaps. In a quartet, essential roles and responsibilities are obvious; each member has his/her own instrument and sheet music, which defines the part to be played. It’s ridiculous to think of a musician arbitrarily playing another performer’s part or that a part would be overlooked. Unfortunately both happen on business teams if they don’t take the time to clarify who is doing what. High-performing teams work together to define individual responsibilities. This clarity is the foundation for mutual respect for individual roles and accountability but shouldn’t be inflexible, as all team members share the responsibility for achieving the team’s goals and improvising solutions to unanticipated challenges.

Good communication and situational awareness are essential if the whole is to become more than the sum of its parts. As a parent of a violinist, violist and cellist, it was fascinating to see novice quartet members learning how to be good team members. The hard part began at the first team meeting. Although each member had learned his/her part in advance, they needed to learn how to share ideas and be aware of each other before they could put the parts together and perform as a group. When something unexpected happened — a missed cue — it was the ability of the individual performers to notice and support one another that allowed them to get back together and demonstrated their strength as a team.

Many professional quartets exhibit these qualities throughout their performances with eye contact, nods, and watching each other as they each play their individual parts. Leadership shifts seamlessly from one performer to another as the piece progresses.  When a quartet seems to be four individuals playing without regard for one another the performance suffers. I don’t know if this is the music itself or the overall impression it makes on the audience. Is there something here that might help your team make a more compelling presentation to management or an investor?

For more on elements that support team performance, I urge you to check out the Katzenbach and Smith article mentioned earlier and to take the opportunity to watch and be inspired by high-performing teams from other fields.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Navigating the Innovation Trail: Canyons, Chasms and Sinkholes! Oh My!

By Karen Utgoff

Death Valley (© Dan VanHassel. All rights reserved)

Death Valley (© Dan VanHassel. All rights reserved)

For both innovation-driven new ventures and intrapreneurs in well-established businesses, the road to new business success is frequently rocky and interrupted by gaps large and small. Often the team needs to build the road as it creates the product.  In addition to the significant canyons and chasms along the way, there are many smaller sinkholes that can swallow you and deceptively promising blind alleys that can take you off course. If you decide to blaze an innovation trail, here are some of the challenges you can expect to encounter.

Death Valley (© Dan VanHassel. All rights reserved)

Death Valley (© Dan VanHassel. All rights reserved)

The long, dry valley of death (pdf) between idea and fundable business is treacherous. Your team (and your idea) can die of thirst! Can you convince an angel, venture capitalist, funding agency, your company, or bank to invest, allocate, grant or lend your team what it needs? Can you make your current cash last long enough to see you through or are you counting on “rain” before your checking account runs dry? Be sure to consider carefully what you will need to make it across.

The labyrinth to the first customer is filled with blind alleys that can easily disorient even savvy navigators. Some will never find their way back to the main road. The biggest danger is potential customers who never say “no” but never decide to buy. The sale feels so close. You keep thinking one more meeting will do the trick, making all the time and effort you have invested suddenly worthwhile. It’s so hard to tell the difference between sincere interest from a future customer and someone who simply doesn’t want to offend by saying “no.”

The chasm between first customers and the main market was made famous by Geoffrey Moore in his landmark book Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, which analyzed the challenges of growing beyond the first few, true-believing customers to achieve mass market adoption. It can be uncomfortable to move beyond your base of support but to achieve significant growth it must be done.

Cash flow sinkholes often develop on short notice. Even well-funded companies fall into them. There are many causes — for example, a new employee who isn’t productive or an unexpectedly problematic feature of the product — that can undermine your cash flow. It’s easy to spin your wheels in a futile effort to move forward but that only digs a deeper hole. The sooner you realize the underlying problem and fix it, the better.

The high growth grand prix comes just as you think you are home free. Suddenly your Gap Files 2business is growing faster than you thought possible and continuing to accelerate. You can’t take your eyes off the road for a second. Threats and opportunities are coming from all directions and with greater speed. You need to develop habits, processes, systems, and instincts to keep you alive and growing. The good news is that, for those who are brave and persistent enough to navigate through, success can be very sweet.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Nature and Nurture Make Innovators and Entrepreneurs

By Karen Utgoff

I am always perplexed by discussions of whether innovators and entrepreneurs are born to the roles (nature) or can be taught (nurture). Most complex capabilities are a mix of talent and learning the tools of the trade, and there is no particular reason to think innovation and entrepreneurship are exceptions. Some individuals with enormous potential never progress and others — seemingly less talented — get ahead by relentlessly pursuing goals and learning from experience. It’s a bit like learning a musical instrument; it’s great to have a good ear and nimble fingers but dedication and practice are essential.

The assumption that one either is or isn’t an innovator or entrepreneur from birth — you’ve either got it or you don’t — is dangerous in two ways. Those with an abundance of confidence in their innate abilities may believe that little or nothing need be done to improve, which can result in unnecessary risk and wasted effort. Those with great ideas, but little confidence, may forgo important opportunities.

This is especially unfortunate at a time when there is a refreshing expansion of programs and resources that support innovators and entrepreneurs in building upon their natural talents, often while developing a new venture.  Some of these are aimed at individuals who are considering starting an innovation-driven venture while others help teams already in the process of starting up or accelerating a new business.

It is easier than ever before for individuals with a great idea, substantial subject matter expertise and minimal business experience to learn the basics. In addition to local resources, intensive introductory courses are available through the Stanford Venture Lab or MIT Open Courseware for free. If you prefer a completely self-guided approach, here is a wonderful list of books (the Startup Nuts & Bolts section is a good starting point), many of which are also useful references for individuals and teams already in the trenches.

For hands-on programs, consider local and national accelerators and incubators that work with pre-venture and new venture teams. The iterative learning and doing that takes place in some of these is remarkable.  Here are three programs with which I have firsthand experience:

  • The National Science Foundation I-Corps program provides an intensive experience through which university-based teams learn new skills while exploring commercialization opportunities for a promising technology. As a mentor on one such team it was inspiring to share the experience with similar groups, all committed to improving their abilities as innovators and entrepreneurs.
  • The MassChallenge is an industry-agnostic accelerator program that draws new ventures to Boston (MA) for four intense months. The program includes exceptional office space, a wide array of seminars, ongoing mentoring, access to experts, and facilitated exposure to the Boston/Route 128 innovation ecosystem. I help out as a volunteer mentor.
  • The CleanTech Open is a sector-focused accelerator with regional programs together scale to a national program. I mentor for the Northeast CTO. Its decentralized structure allows it to serve the needs of innovators and entrepreneurs regardless of location while giving them access to specialized information and resources.

Of course, there are many other programs throughout the US and globally. Look for one that fits well with your situation and needs. Beyond such programs, seek out informal opportunities to learn as you make progress and build your network.

Innovation-driven entrepreneurs who are able to be constructively self-critical about their progress and skill sets relative to an objective framework are at a big advantage over the long-term. Having such a perspective allows for continuous improvement of themselves, their team, and their businesses. I will write more about this in a future post.

Minding the Gaps

By Karen Utgoff

There are many definitions of entrepreneurship. This one is my favorite because it is confirmed completely by my experience:

“Entrepreneurship is the process by which individuals — either on their own or inside organizations — pursue opportunities without regard to resources they currently control” (Stevenson, Roberts, and Grousbeck, 1989)

When a business is in a stable phase of its life cycle, management seeks to optimize expected results within the resources available. In contrast, entrepreneurs, as well as company-based intrapreneurs, seek to overcome or work around gaps in resources, customers, and knowledge to get something new off the ground.

As an operations person, Laurie is especially aware of gaps that could interfere with making the important transition from the entrepreneurial (startup or significant growth mode) to a more stable phase. Putting systems in place to attract, retain and manage employees that consistently and efficiently produce quality goods and services is key.

From a market-oriented business strategy perspective, I’m concerned with gaps in the business model, resources, and reputation that interfere with the ability to start up and grow (new or existing opportunities). A sound approach to developing well-aligned value propositions, competitive differentiators, product/market fit, and marketing/sales tools is key.Gap Files 2

So, expect to read more in The Gap Files about how entrepreneurs leading startup companies or innovation-driven growth initiatives within existing organizations can overcome obstacles, find help, and make do in the face of scarce or nonexistent resources.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.