Tag Archives: group dynamics

Regarding Your Company’s Value Proposition: Is Everyone on the Same Page?

By Laurie Breitner

Recently my colleague, Karen Utgoff, wrote a post to help business owners, entrepreneurs, executives, marketers, and product managers better understand the important role value propositions can play in ensuring business success. Whether your business has been around for a year or for decades, evaluating the relevance of and adherence to your value proposition is well worth the effort. What you learn can serve as the basis for unifying and aligning marketing and operational priorities to ensure you stay on track for long-term success even as you respond to immediate demands.

Silhouettes of Business People Meeting with Business SymbolsOnce businesses get off the ground, business plans often get set aside in favor of greasing whatever wheel is squeaking on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps past assumptions about who your customers are and what products/services they need were off or markets have changed, and you find yourselves busily serving other customers with different needs. Or, maybe your value proposition is crystal clear in your mind, but not carried out as you might hope by employees or well supported by your company’s capabilities. Especially when customers keep walking in the door, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Read on for some ideas about how to get started on your VP Assessment.

Get a team together. Involve everyone whom you rely upon to implement your value proposition. Don’t overlook your support areas like HR, customer service, and systems or key external professionals including your suppliers, creative agencies, channel partners, banker, or tax accountant. To keep costs down, you might have a small working group, but get input from all corners and run results by all key stakeholders.

Review your assumptions. Start with the basics; clearly define your customer. Consider demographics (age, gender, and economic status), psychographics (likes, dislikes and values), and geography. Start by listing as many attributes as possible and from that list pick the top few that most accurately describe your customer base. Your company may serve more than one market, but start with one and then repeat this process with others.

Make a list of customers’ needs that your company addresses. Note whether it is an operational, economic or emotional concern. Pay close attention to needs your business meets that the competition doesn’t. These important differentiators can inform your internal and external communication and help you maintain margins.

Here’s an example:

A worker-owned co-operative, Pioneer Valley PhotoVoltaics (PV Squared), sells and services reliable, custom-designed, renewable energy systems for homeowners, businesses and institutions located within about 100 miles of Greenfield, MA. Through experience, they have learned that their customers are seeking solutions for operational, economic and emotional needs. Customers’ economic needs include predictable energy costs, excellent return on investment, and support for the local community in terms of good jobs for local residents. Operational needs include long-term system reliability, efficient system operation, better public health (cleaner air and water), and stronger grid infrastructure. Emotional needs include helping to address serious social and economic problems — reducing atmospheric carbon, energy independence and conflict reduction. Many customers also appreciate that PV Squared is a locally based, worker-owned cooperative.

Because incentives such as tax credits and rebates differ from year to year, interest rates vary, and energy costs fluctuate, relying exclusively on an economic appeal could be risky. Similarly, expecting customers to make an investment solely to improve public health and community job growth is unrealistic. While many appreciate system reliability and promoting increased distributed power generation, most customers seek additional benefits before making a purchase. While there are competitors who meet some of the needs, few — if any — meet all as well as PV Squared does. With this three-pronged approach, PV Squared has the flexibility to respond to changing conditions while staying on their chosen path to sustained, long-term success.

Assess your ability to follow through. Don’t fall into the trap of promising more than you can deliver or assuming everyone in your organization knows your company’s priorities. Here are some questions for self-examination:

  • Can each of your employees articulate your value proposition? Are their actions consistent with it?
  • Would your customers, employees, vendors and suppliers agree?
  • Is fulfillment of the promise represented by your value proposition achievable? Providing the highest quality, most personalized service and lowest price while cultivating a profitable business is a practical impossibility.
  • Do you have the key resources, capabilities, and partnerships you need to fulfill the value proposition? If not, what would it take to build that capability and what evidence would demonstrate that you were successful?
  • How have you tested to ensure that you really are meeting customers’ key needs?
  • Do your customer have other needs that you are not solving?
  • How does your value proposition compare to that of your competitors?

Use the results of your VP Assessment to build a list of improvement opportunities. In a future post, I’ll discuss ways to evaluate the list of possible initiatives and select ones that have the most potential for your business so that you can develop both operational and marketing goals.

© Copyright 2015 Laurie Breitner. 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.

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.

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.

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.