Category Archives: Leadership and Management

Tell Me a Story

By Laurie Breitner

As the mother of three and grandmother of four, I have told a lot of stories. The ones the little ones like best incorporate something from their lives in the narrative. Of course, this isn’t surprising. The role of storytelling — in oral history, moral teaching, and religion to name a few — has been critical over time and across cultures; it’s a time-tested way to bring people together, acknowledge challenges, and celebrate significant milestones. Through stories families and communities teach cultural values and other important lessons. So it should come as no surprise when a company eager to shape a strong, positive culture turns to storytelling as an important part of that effort.

By Ethel Franklin Betts (1877–1959) - The Orphant Annie Book, by James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Co., 1908. Downloaded from the Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org/stream/orphananniebook00rile#page/n7/mode/2up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46668567

By Ethel Franklin Betts (1877–1959) – The Orphant Annie Book, by James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Co., 1908. Downloaded from the Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org/stream/orphananniebook00rile#page/n7/mode/2up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46668567

If you are interested in re-shaping your company culture, learn more from this interview with Carmine Gallo, author of the new book, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t.

For more on how to use your company’s stories in the context of assessing your organization’s culture, read Karen’s earlier post “Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach.”

© Copyright Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Keep Your Business on Track and Growing: Measure What Matters

By Laurie Breitner and Karen Utgoff

There is more to keeping your business going in the right direction than looking at standard reports from QuickBooks or other accounting tools on a regular basis. While these reports can give you numbers, determining and appropriately tracking what matters — which numbers are important, how they are derived and what else you need to watch — is an essential responsibility of the owner(s) and management team.

In assessing current operations, it’s often useful to compare today’s results with past performance — prior period (year, quarter, month, or week) or effort (job run, project, or program) depending on your industry and particulars of your business. While this isn’t always possible for newer ventures, be assured that if you are diligent, ultimately these measurements will help reveal your company’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, as well as performance.

For example, after one year in business you can only guess how seasonal factors will affect your cash flow. However, if you keep track, with five years experience you will be confident in anticipating how seasonal ups and downs might impact your business. When you hire a second employee in a particular role, you have some idea of how long it will take them to come up to speed; by the time you make your fifth such hire, you have a much better idea of how long it should take, as well as what it takes, to be productive.

For new initiatives, measuring is tied closely to looking forward (planning) for likely and intended outcomes. What will initial success look like? What events (milestones) are critical to track progress? How much will it likely cost? Are there gaps in your capabilities or resources that need to be filled before you can realize the potential of the new initiative? How much revenue and/or profit is the project expected to add and when?

What initial operational measures should be monitored? Here’s where it’s helpful to look at assumptions you made in making predictions. Did you assume that if you opened a second location in a nearby town that your strong positive reputation would automatically give a boost to the new site? Did your plan hinge on getting speedy municipal approval for a larger parking lot at the next planning board meeting? What key assumptions do you need to track?

Add to the standard routine of just reviewing (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual) results with the following specific approaches that are critically important to measuring what matters:

Assess profitability and the fully allocated cost of goods sold from an operational perspective: For background review pages 8 and 9 of Laurie’s Thriving: Get and keep your business on track. Also, check out Karen’s Succeeding in Small Business post on Four tips for putting your business plan to work for your small business.

Project results for new initiatives with limited or no experience: For background, read Four steps to help small business owners evaluate the financial wisdom of new business-building initiatives and Small business management and entrepreneurship: Two key ingredients for sustaining success.

For additional information read Josh Patrick’s article on Every Business Has a Special Number, or Metric. Do You Know Yours? in the NY Times’ “You’re the Boss” blog and A Winning Culture Keeps Score by John Case and Bill Fotsch in the HBR Blog Network.

Here’s how to get started: On a single page, document the (up to) five most important measures, metrics, milestones, and/or numbers that you follow (or plan to track) to gauge whether you are on the right road, moving into the fast lane, or facing an unwanted detour. Review these metrics with your management team, board of advisers, mentors, and/or appropriate professional services providers. Evaluate them regularly to make sure they remain relevant guides for growing your business. Plan to fine tune them over time as your needs and business landscape change and you learn more.

© 2015 Laurie Breitner and Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Six Misunderstandings about the Lean Startup

By Karen Utgoff

Use of Lean Startup techniques is becoming ubiquitous in entrepreneurship circles these days and rightly so. Along with the closely related Lean Launchpad methodology, this highly effective approach puts one essential success factor — fit between customers, markets, products and company — front and center for founders who might previously have defaulted to “If we build it they will come.”

In late 2012 I was privileged to serve as a mentor for a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps team and to be immersed in the Lean Launchpad method first-hand as part of that program. For more information on the team experience and methodology, visit Steve Blank’s blog; the link is in the list of resources at the bottom of this post. Recently, in preparation for a workshop I’m giving, I reread Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and noted his observation that:

“Throughout our celebration of the success of the Lean Startup movement, a note of caution is essential. We cannot afford to have our success breed a new pseudoscience around pivots, MVPs, and the like.” (Eric Ries. The Lean Startup, p. 279)

This rang true to me and prompted me to write here about several significant misunderstandings that I’ve observed.

Misunderstanding One: Lean Launchpad methodology avoids failure. Actually the Lean Launchpad method and the Lean Startup movement focus on failing faster, at lower cost, and under controlled conditions that enable the team to learn rapidly and pivot effectively.

Misunderstanding Two: The tools and techniques are only for brand new startup ventures. Confusion on this point seems to be around the definition of a startup. I’ve written before about the need for entrepreneurial activity in established businesses and I was glad to rediscover Ries addressing the issue:

“Entrepreneurs who operate inside an established organization sometimes are called “intrapreneurs” because of the special circumstances that attend building a startup within a larger company. As I have applied Lean Startup ideas in an ever-widening variety of companies and industries, I have come to believe that intrapreneurs have much more in common with the rest of the community of entrepreneurs than most people believe.” (Eric Ries. The Lean Startup, pp. 26-27)

That said it’s important to recognize that a new external venture is different from an internal venture within a successfully operating business. Here is an interesting post by Henry Chesborough and my take on the subject as well.

Misunderstanding Three: We’re already customer focused and therefore in sync with the philosophy even if we don’t talk about minimal viable products (MVPs) and pivots. Perhaps, but it isn’t necessarily so; the key is the organization’s capacity to systematically learn. Are activities designed so that customer and market response will lead to insights? Is the team aware of leap-of-faith assumptions? Are your entrepreneurial teams truly cross-functional? Is your culture tolerant of setbacks and supportive of learning?

Misunderstanding Four: It’s about product development. This sells the methodology short. Sure, product development is one aspect but equally important is identifying receptive customer segments (customer discovery/development) and business model development. All three may be subject to change as the team learns.

Misunderstanding Five: It’s about iteration. Iteration is necessary but not sufficient. If you don’t organize and measure in a way that allows you to learn, iteration is just spinning your wheels.

Misunderstanding Six: The Lean Startup approach frees us from needing to worry about mission, vision, competition, intellectual property and so forth. Not so! Your initial hypothesis and pivots will be informed by and inform the evolution of each of these.

I hope this blog serves to clarify the Lean Startup and that it encourages you to try, and then embrace, it. It has a lot to offer ambitious entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

Books

  • Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, The Startup Owner’s Manual
  • Alexander Osterwalder et al, Business Model Generation (72 page preview available)
  • Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

Web Resources

© Copyright Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

What Do G.M. and the V.A. Have to Do with Your Organization?

By Karen Utgoff

Public domain

Public domain

I have been keeping my eye on the disturbing news about General Motors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Recent reports describe deep dysfunction that appears to have resulted from failing to both acknowledge and then address systemic problems — some of life-and-death significance. While both organizations are huge and complex with many layers of bureaucracy, leaders of smaller, simpler businesses or nonprofits should not assume such problems are entirely a result of size and scope. Here are some thoughts on spotting and preventing such situations in your own business:

Recognize that no one is immune. Individual weaknesses differ but we all have them. Understanding your individual (and team) susceptibilities can help you to nip a potentially alarming systemic problem in the bud rather than assuming it away as an aberration.

Watch for symptoms of trouble brewing. Most business problems are made worse by ignoring them. Be alert to early warning signs of problems in general. This will help you prevent difficulties of titanic proportions as well as smaller ones that can interfere with routine operations and performance.

Create a quality-focused, high integrity-based culture. A culture that values honesty and questioning assures employees that they will be listened to — and not punished — for calling management’s attention to potentially significant problems. A culture of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is dangerously disrespectful of your employees and their moral compasses. If you are not sure how to characterize your culture, here is one approach you can use to get a fresh perspective on it.

Manage by walking around. The leader who regularly walks among, talks with, and listens to employees throughout the organization is more likely to learn about problems individuals on the frontlines are seeing. Don’t stop there. Follow up on the information, demonstrate that you want to know about and will act to solve problems. Then, communicate with employees about what you’re doing and why; consider publicly thanking the individual(s) who brought the issue to your attention.

Encourage individuals to do the right thing. Do job descriptions, financial incentives, and other recognition motivate employees to bring such issues into the light of day or to sweep them under the rug?

Lead by example. None of the above will make a difference if your actions don’t match your words. This is as true day-to-day as it is when a crisis hits. If your employees see you cutting corners with products or product safety, they will get the message that they can — and perhaps should — do the same.

Start now. If you are concerned that significant problems are being overlooked, start to address them now. Ask questions and show that you would rather have accurate but unsettling answers than false comfort. It will take time and effort to overcome the status quo but keep at it.

Learn from the mistakes of others. To start, check out “Top Investigator Has Blistering Criticism for V.A. Response to Whistle-Blowers” (NYTimes, June 23, 2104) and “GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower” (BusinessWeek, June 18, 2014). Two key takeaways:

  • Problems take time to develop. In both cases, there were multiple warning signs over many years with many missed opportunities along the way.
  • People were trying to do the right thing but couldn’t.

 

If you do all of the above will you be immune from the sorts of crises that G.M. and the V.A. are now experiencing? No (remember item one), but you will be more likely to catch and fix significant problems with a minimum of injury and expense.

 

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Five Steps to Inspire Business Change and Growth

By Laurie Breitner

Perhaps you’ve had this thought: If only we could work more effectively as a team, respond well to last minute orders or implement a new computer system. Most employers know what they’d like to change about their businesses, but many aren’t sure what steps to take to make it happen. Whether you want to shape a more effective organization or significantly expand your business, here are tips on what you can do to refocus your organization and change its cultural habits.

Establish a climate for change. People often resist change; change is facilitated when the status quo becomes uncomfortable. What can you do to encourage transformation? This may seem odd, but you need to let your organization — including yourself — feel pain. Openly discuss dissatisfaction with those things you’d like to be different.

Inspire your organization to take action. Create a compelling vision of how things could be better. Meet with everyone whose help you’ll need to be successful — your employees, suppliers, vendors, advisers and even selected customers — to talk about your plans. Encourage frank discussion of their perception of your organization’s relative strengths and weaknesses. You may learn about hidden problems and avoid potential pitfalls that could derail your plans. Don’t overlook your banker, business and legal advisers and accountant; getting them onboard early may smooth the way when inevitable stumbling blocks arise and you need their help.

Build a strong alliance of people committed to your goals.The role of this alliance of internal and external resources is to help reinforce your vision of the future, eliminate obstacles, generate short-term successes and change habits in your company culture. Find individuals whose opinions are respected, who agree on your vision and are committed to the process for “the duration.” With their assistance, develop realistic, measurable plans. Encourage quick successes; early achievements help to get doubters behind your program. After all, everyone likes to play on a winning team. Identify important milestones and the dates by which you expect to achieve them. Evaluate progress at regular intervals and make mid-course corrections.

Align your organization for success. Ironically, complex changes can be easier to accomplish than small, incremental shifts. In making systemic change, organizations are forced to confront the larger issues of culture and management style that exist in every organization — systems that make incremental change difficult to accomplish. Here are examples of things to consider:

  • Compensation policies
  • Leadership styles
  • Job descriptions
  • Technology and infrastructure
  • Policies and procedures

Look at all the different ways that current cultural habits are reinforced and revamp those systems that encourage people to resist change.

People don’t oppose their own ideas. People who are involved in deciding what and how things will change are more likely to support the effort; in fact, they themselves can be won over simply through their participation! People who don’t get a voice in what happens tend to resist change. To avoid this problem, involve as many people as possible in building consensus about the need for change and in deciding how to make it. This is an important step in building employee engagement.

Communicate. You cannot do too much to get your message across. Here are hints for successful communication:

  • Keep it simple; make sure that messages are clear and easy to understand.
  • Use metaphors, analogies and stories.
  • Send your message in different ways, e.g., e-mail, newsletters, memo, paycheck stuffers, etc.

Be sincere in your commitment. Walk your talk. Lead by example. Act as you want others to act. Make sure that everyone in your organization is “in the loop.” People who aren’t included may actively resist. Laying out your vision for how the business could improve gives everyone a framework to make good long-term decisions and set priorities…and maximizes your chance for success.

© Copyright 2014 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

What’s So Special about You?

I could not have anticipated that a taunt I first heard in grammar school would be a question I’d later ask business owners in all seriousness. Businesses are most successful when they build upon their unique strengths and take appropriate steps to mitigate critical weaknesses.  But recognizing your strengths and weaknesses is easier said than done. Here is an overview.

While it would be impossible to enumerate all attributes an organization might have, the following list will get you started.  As you consider your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, please be absolutely honest.  It’s easy to think only in positive terms, to see only potential or to obsess over weaknesses. However, giving in to one-sided thinking will not result in actionable information. Better to recognize any areas that need attention as soon as possible so that you can address them before they negatively impact your bottom line. On the flip side, don’t fail to recognize where your organization shines. This may lead to discovery of competitive advantages that will help your business to leap ahead.

Expertise/industry savvy and contacts

  • Unique capabilities – what can your organization can do/supply that is not available from competitors?
  • Experience/knowledge of principals and staff – do you offer customers an extraordinary level of expertise or experience?
  • Industry ties – do you belong to and actively participate in industry associations?
  • Influencers – do you regularly engage in two-way communication with industry influencers?
  • Media – would it be likely for the media to contact you were there to be a breaking story in your industry?

Customer base

  • Customer satisfaction/fans – do your customers refer or recommend you to potential new customers?
  • Loyalty – do you receive repeat orders from customers?
  • Diversification – do you have multiple customers in a variety of industries?
  • Are your customers financially stable?
  • Do your customers expect you to compete on price alone?

People

  • Leadership and top managers – is your leadership team complete, respected, knowledgeable and well connected?
  • Overall, do employees have all the skills and qualifications they need?
    • Skill level – does your organization ensure that staff is well trained, up-to-date and knowledgeable?
    • Dedication to quality and customer service – is your organization’s definition of quality and customer service measurable, clear to all members of your staff and considered in every customer interaction?
    • Licenses, insurance and certifications – do you/your staff have all relevant licenses, insurance and certifications?
  • Succession plan/pipeline – do you have a clear succession plan and the means to find and attract sufficient new employees?

Suppliers/raw materials

  • Stable – are your suppliers financially stable?
  • Raw materials – is it likely there will be an adequate supply of raw materials available at a reasonable price?
  • Bench strength – do you have multiple suppliers of key goods or raw materials?

Products/services

  • Are your products and services distinct from those of your competitors?
  • Do you have exclusive agreements to sell products and services in your market?
  • Do you offer a complementary mix of products and services not found at the competition?
  • Is demand for your products and services seasonal and/or tied to events beyond your control? (Weather, subsidies, tax incentives, etc.)

Intellectual property

  • Patents/trademarks – do you own and protect patents and trademarks?
  • Marketing collateral – does your marketing collateral engage and inform your customers base?

Infrastructure

  • Convenience to customers/suppliers – are your organization’s locations accessible to both customers and suppliers?
  • Traffic – if it’s relevant, are you located in a space (either physical or virtual) where your customers are likely to congregate?
  • Visibility – is your organization easy and convenient to find both physically and virtually?
  • Processes and procedures – do you have efficient, documented processes and procedures?
  • Systems – do your systems (computer, telephone, forms, inventory management, etc.) effectively support customers and staff?
  • Technology – do you have all of the industry-specific tools and technology you need to compete for business?
  • Overhead – is your operation efficient?

Financial

  • Financial strength – is your organization on sound financial footing?
  • Banking relationships/access to credit – do you have on-going positive relationships with one or more banks that would be willing to extend credit?
  • Positive cash flow – overall, is your cash flow positive?
  • Terms – are you offered and do you take advantage of suppliers’ best possible terms?

Culture

Culture significantly influences an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees, respond to problems, and to provide a great customer experience. For more on this, read Karen Utgoff’s recent post on looking at your organization’s culture with fresh eyes.

It is often illuminating to involve customers, suppliers and staff in exploring many of the questions above. You can learn a lot by understanding their views. Also, what might have been accurate in the past may not always be true. Support your assessment with facts whenever you can. Refresh this information periodically, more often if your circumstances (market, customers, etc.) are in flux.

Understanding your organization’s strengths and weaknesses will give you a better understanding of internal capabilities. To formulate a strategy, these need to be considered in the context of the external environment. For more on doing so, see this post by Karen Utgoff on sorting out opportunities and threats.

© Copyright 2014 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

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.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Are You Missing Warning Signs of Rough Water Ahead?

By Laurie Breitner

Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rowing Home, Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you know what your employees are doing? While you may think you do — perhaps not. Whether yours is a relatively new entity, or one that’s been cruising smoothly for some time, it’s easy for issues to develop and go unexamined in the daily crush of getting the job done. This slow drift off course can interrupt the smooth flow that results when all your employees pull together.

These real world stories illustrate what can happen.

  • The owner of company that sells through external, commission-based sales staff was very surprised to learn that the 3:00 PM cutoff for same-day orders was being routinely ignored. Fulfillment staff — operating on the assumption that the owner knew and approved — struggled to satisfy orders that arrived later and later. Sales staff had quickly learned that fulfillment workers were staying late to process orders and took full advantage of an ever broadening window to call in their sales. Employee morale had begun to plummet and “sick” days to increase.
  • A tech company owner could see his staff was buried but didn’t have time to examine why. Overtime hours (and resultant costs) grew and employees seemed frazzled. The owner was wearing so many different hats  — executive, senior technician, salesman, and accountant — he didn’t have time to look into what was happening. Profits margins were eroding and he worried that his skilled workers could burn out or leave.

Many business owners recognize when things aren’t right. But because root causes can be hard to find and talking to employees without a solution can be uncomfortable, some find it tempting to simply hope the situation will improve without taking action. Left unattended what starts as a small problem can rapidly become a crisis; in my experience, it’s best to act swiftly. The longer a problem persists, the harder it is to fix.

The first step is to identify issues as early as possible. What might alert you to potential problems?

  • Declining morale is often the earliest and most obvious sign that everyone is not in sync. Symptoms include increased squabbling, turnover, absenteeism and tardiness, complaints about co-workers, cynicism and/or employees acting as if they are “checked out.” One business owner asked me, why couldn’t it be the way it used to be, everyone pulling together? Do you ever wonder that?
  • An unexpected increase in cost of goods sold (CoGS) and/or decrease in overall profitability are signs that inefficiencies may be creeping in. As a business grows and becomes more complex, spending time to design new workflows or clarify roles and responsibilities often takes a back seat to just getting through each day’s work. Whether your organization has grown, taken on new customers, changed computer systems or begun offering new services, involve affected employees in determining necessary adjustments. Otherwise, you may find gaps and/or overlaps, that is, more than one person feels responsible for a new task or no one does it; either can lead to trouble.
  • Unanticipated defections (or reductions in volume of purchases) of existing customers or an overall drop off in sales may result from dissatisfaction with your company. Front line employees are your organization’s ambassadors. If they are discontent, your customers will sense it and may shy away. Similarly, if a new computer system or vendor causes disruptions in the smooth flow of work, the quality of your products or services may suffer sending customers to the competition And, sadly, long-time customers may be uncomfortable raising their concerns with you, the owner, and just disappear.

While these are common signs, each organization is unique; no list of triggers can be exhaustive.

Here’s where your business plan comes in handy. If you have projected what will occur in terms of sales, staffing, and profitability — and documented your assumptions, of course — you can look periodically (at least monthly) for any deviations from what you thought would happen. Work with employees to get to the bottom of unexpected results — whether they are better or worse. Most employees sincerely want to do a good job and will appreciate being involved.

Are you looking for other ideas to help create and maintain a harmonious and efficient organization?

In my next few posts I’ll explore how to get and keep your organization on track, including ways to address inefficiencies and issues related to employee discontent.

© Copyright 2013 Laurie Breitner. 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.

From New Employee to Productive Colleague

By Laurie Breitner

09-01-13 image for LCB postAs I write this I’m watching a parade of  students being introduced to their new environment. Colleges and universities have a lot of practice doing this; each fall they handle an influx of new students, make them welcome and integrate them into an existing culture — that is, they lay the foundation for students’ success in college and beyond. Few businesses do that so routinely. Should your business take a page from their playbook and put in place practices to orient and engage new employees? This HBR post by John Baldoni speaks to the many possible payoffs for companies with more engaged employees.

While each workplace is unique, here are a few essentials to consider when putting together your employee orientation program.

1) Overview – Incoming employees who understand your organization and how their new role fits in it will be better able to contribute. In addition to one-on-ones with supervisors and human resource staff, provide information about your company’s “big picture” — ideally in an online repository that can be kept current. Include your mission, vision, and annual company-wide and department goals and, of course, how they are measured. Each employee should be given an up-to-date job description for their role (and, ideally, everyone else’s), an employee handbook, and be informed about your performance evaluation process including any probationary period. Other helpful information is your company organization chart, and background material that describe your company’s products and services, target market(s) and, if appropriate, major customers and influencers.

2) The basics – At minimum everyone should have access to your company directory with telephone numbers, email addresses and office locations. Is there a calendar of planned meetings, social events and holidays? Do most departments have set periodic meetings, and if so, who leads them, creates agendas and where are they held? Include information about how people typically dress and details of what you mean by, for example, “business casual.” Consider using candid photos of current employees (with names beneath) so people can start putting names with faces and see examples of how people dress. Long before Facebook (the company), schools routinely created a school face book of all students including names, what they like to be called (e.g., he prefers James, never Jim or Jimmy), their dorm and interests. Could something like that work at your business?

And, there are practical matters. Who buys/makes the coffee? Do employees take turns on KP (kitchen patrol) or is that duty assigned to a particular employee or cleaning service? Is the refrigerator emptied every Friday of all but marked items? What do new employees need to feel a valued part of your organization?

3) Resources – There’s a lot to find out. Do you have a company intranet or other data repositories? New employees will feel more welcomed and become productive more quickly if you save them the trouble of having to hunt for routine information such as reserving conference rooms, the location of the supply closet, and office kitchen. Outside-the-office information such as area restaurants (menus and how to get there) or places to exercise and shop are helpful.

4) Mentor – Even with all this, newbies may have questions or concerns they feel uncomfortable raising with a superior or co-worker. Or, they might need guidance on company culture. If you have more than a handful of employees, consider pairing each new employee with a seasoned worker, ideally not a boss. Clearly the mentor must have the right interpersonal skills, volunteer, and enjoy the responsibility. Surveys consistently report that a top reason people give for being happy at work is whether they have a friend, e.g., feel personally connected. I am amazed at how long some of these relationships persist. In the late nineties I paired a new employee (from India, as it happened) with a willing mentor. They are still friends almost 20 years later.

What specific challenges will employees face in your organization? To get in touch with what new employees need, think back to jobs you have had and your first day or first week; involve current employees in putting information together. Given the expense of recruiting and hiring, it makes sense to invest a little more to give your new hires a good foundation for their — and by extension, your company’s  — success.

© Copyright 2013 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.