Category Archives: New Ideas

The Sound of Silence

I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.

I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.

In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.

Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.

Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.

A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.

The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?

Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.

If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.

A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.

Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.

But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?

The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.

As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.

They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.

I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.

As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.

When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.

Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.

Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.

It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.

As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.

I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.

Finding Inspiration

I need to send out thanks to my friend Ulrich for the inspiration for this post. Uli is a friend that I met in Brazil on a trip sometime back. He had some really amazing electronic gizmos and gadgets that made me quite jealous. While we were talking about his electronics preferences the conversation shifted, as it often does to other topics. One of the topics we touched on was our reading preferences, and the types of books that we both drew inspiration from. I mentioned that I like to read, and prefer to read a broad range of literary genres and topics. Uli too likes to read but said he usually keeps his reading centered on business and management oriented books and materials. Those happen to be one of the specific genres that I for the most part avoid. It was interesting that we had such divergent approaches to the items that we read, and the information we applied to our business responsibilities.

As I have noted in the past, many of the items I have read seemed initially to be outside of a direct association with business and management. This isn’t by chance. I have read many management articles and books. However in doing so, from my own point of view, I started to notice many similarities to the tenets covered, and only slight variations in the applications of them. There were only so many ways to dress up the ideas of the need to be flexible, that things are going to change and how to deal with these inevitabilities.

That type of management book similarity has sent me off in a couple of different directions when it came to reading and applying what I read to business. One direction I went was into the past to see where many of these “new and improved – yet strangely similar” business strategies came from. I have covered this topic several times in the past. Remember, business, commerce, and strategy has been around almost as long as humans have been around. I have found that sometimes the best books about business are not actually about business. If I need true specific business management input or strategy I go to the four texts that I see as the basis for just about everything in business management and leadership that has been written since. They are:

The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is a twenty five hundred year old text written by a pre-china general that never lost an engagement that is still used in military academies around the world, and in many business schools.
The Prince by Machiavelli. A sixteenth century political and strategic treatise by an Italian diplomat and political theorist.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. A text on focus, adaptation and martial arts by a seventeenth century Japanese swordsman.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian. A book of maxims for dealing with the real world written by a seventeenth century Spanish monk.

These are not the books for everyone. These are just the primary books that I turn to when I need a jumping off point for inspiration on a specific business or related issue. I continue to reread them and usually pick up something new every time I do.

I recommended them to Uli. We will see if he reads them and agrees with my assessment of them, or if he continues to buy and read the latest derivative management strategy books that are on the market. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as he is enjoying and finding value in what he is reading.

The other direction that I go is to read just about anything but management books. This covers the literary spectrum from magazine articles to Blogs to Science Fiction novels to Classic Literature. Much of it is not directly applicable to anything associated with business and leadership, but occasionally there are some interesting aspects that present themselves. Whenever I per chance happen to make one of these unexpected business leadership synaptic connections with something that I have read I try to capture it specifically and share it here. Hence the idea of inspiration as the topic for this piece.

Uli on the other hand noted that the source of business inspiration for him came from business oriented literature, be it articles or books. If this works for him, then great. There seems to be a never ending supply of new management and business oriented articles and books every day for him to read. If they provide inspiration to some of their readers then there must be some value in them.

Inspiration for me is a strange element. I have very seldom had it strike me metaphorically from the blue. I normally get it by recognizing analogies, connections and parallels to seemingly unrelated events and topics. I look for stories of success or leadership in seemingly unrelated fields and then wonder how it might be applicable to business. This approach has led me to better understand the leadership secrets of Captain Kirk from the Star Trek shows and movies, as well as how Jerry Seinfeld applied himself to his craft as a writer to such a successful extent. Along a non-literary line, it has also taught me how to deal with and negotiate with my soon to be fifteen year old son when it is time for him to mow the yard. Success can be achieved from many different directions.

The point here is to start recognizing what keys your specific moments of inspiration. What are you doing, what are you reading, who are you talking to when you have your best ideas? More importantly how do you recognize them when they occur and how do you capture them? There is something about those environments that triggered the creative process. A little self analysis and cognitive association will go a long way here.

I have never been able to innovate because I have read a book on how to innovate. I have read many other books on many other topics that I cannot do, even though I have read about them. I have read about time and space travel and even though I might like to try it I don’t think I can do it just because I have read a book about it. On the other hand, I did learn about physics and differential calculus from books, but I also had a reasonably highly skilled mentor / professor to help me there. Almost all the innovations that I have been involved in have come from trying to apply something new from outside the accepted business norm, to the business norm. That and a significant amount of stubbornness in refusing to listen while everyone else patiently explained to me why my new idea would never work.

It is a significant step going from knowing where you can hope to find inspiration to actually doing something with the inspiration you found.

I also think that part of the reason that I have been able to draw business inspiration from such a diverse literary catalog stems from the fact that I genuinely like to read. I enjoy books. That may be the key to finding inspiration, at least for me, and probably others. I seem to draw my inspiration from relating the things I like to do, like reading to the other things I enjoy in business. I would think that this might be the case for others as well. Conversely, I would guess if you dislike something enough it may be a source of inspiration in how to avoid or improve it. I’ll have to think about that one a little more.

Inspiration doesn’t seem to be a well that I can just wonder over to and dip a bucket in and come out with a new idea. It is more of an understanding of how things work and how I relate to them, and putting myself in the positions where there has been a proven tendency to find inspiration, and then being aware enough to recognize it when it hits. It seems to be the doing of something, possible fully unrelated to the topic that allows you to form the new associations to the old issues.

For me anyway, that does not usually involve the reading of the latest management self help, or how to innovate book. In this case it came from talking to a friend out those books.

Thinking It Through

Every now and then I have a good idea. Depending on whom you ask you can get the entire gamut of responses as to how often this type of event actually occurs. My mother seems to think just about every one of my ideas is a good one and that they are the result of the fifty percent of my DNA that came from her. It seems to me that she didn’t always think that. I think it started when I got the idea of graduating college and moving out. My wife on the other hand seems to think that I might have a significantly lower hit rate for good ideas as opposed to the total number of ideas that I have. A much, much, significantly lower hit rate. I think the number of good ideas that I have probably lies somewhere between these two boundaries, but it is hard to tell which is which until I spend some time thinking them through.

A good example of this process can be seen in how I write these articles. I keep a pad and pen around where I capture all the ideas that I have for topics for future articles. When I have an idea, I write it down on the list. The list grows and the articles get written. Seeing the list helps me visualize and formulate what ideas I want to convey and what I want to say. When I don’t capture my idea on the list I have a tendency to forget what my idea was and then I go through the day kicking myself because I have forgotten what was obviously going to be a great topic.

I didn’t get this process from school or writing class or anything like that. I got it from work. I always keep both a notebook and a whiteboard (both topics of previous articles) in my office where I would (and still do) capture the things that I felt needed to be done. I know that writing something down instead of typing it in is old school, but so what.

As of that point in time that the topics got written down on the article list or objectives were written on the white board, all of them were good ideas. Ideas such as “insult the boss” or “complain of wife’s attire” are not good ideas and didn’t make the list. I was obviously proud of this fact.

I then started working through the ideas selecting the topics to write about or prioritizing the various things I felt needed to be done in the business. I would start writing articles or further outlining activities on the white board or charts. I would very rapidly start to see which of my topics and activities would be fruitful and relatively easy to generate positive results. I would also see that some other ideas and activities would also be good, but would require deeper thought and more effort to bring to closure. It was some of these activities and articles that I have been the most proud of.

I would also begin to see that in some of those topics and ideas, regardless of how hard I worked them at this point in time were not going to yield something that would work out well enough that I would want to sign my name to. These items and objectives were not then discarded. They were put back into the holding file for further consideration and thought. Some have stayed there a very long time and probably will never see the light of day. Some have stayed there a relatively short period of time before the translation occurred between what I had and what I wanted. Some were left on the white board to remind me what I needed to think about and what I felt needed to get done.

What brought this mental process to mind was my last article, the one that I didn’t write and didn’t post. I had a great topic. I thought it would be one of those easy to write and be oh so proud of it ones. I got started. I soon realized the path that I was on for that topic was taking me down the wrong road. Try as I might I couldn’t see a way to get onto the right path and convey the wisdom that I was absolutely sure that I had inside of me. I had to put it back in the holding file. It wasn’t ready.

I suspect that if my wife ever reads any of my articles that she is smiling right now and commenting to herself that I should probably do that with far more of my ideas.

The point I am making here is that at the start all ideas start out as good ideas. It is not until after we work on them and work through them that we can ascertain the feasibility and applicability to the goals that we have. Some make the grade. Some do not. I have actually found that the majority of both my article topics and identified business activities end up at least in part resulting in a product that gets put forth into the world in one form or another.

There will always be those that will want to poke holes in your ideas, or articles for that matter. I have gotten some interesting comments regarding some of the topics and articles I have written. I am pretty sure that some of their suggestions and conditions that they have ascribed to me regard capabilities that are probably either genetically or biologically impossible.

But it doesn’t stop me. It really doesn’t even slow me down.

There will always be those in business that will at first adhere to the “Not Invented Here” school of ideas (commonly called NIH Syndrome). It is at this point in time that your metal will be tested. How feasible is your idea or proposal? Have you thought it through?

Many of us have a tendency to propose an incomplete or not fully thought through and formed idea. It might be a good idea that is worthy of going on the list for development. However proposing it prior to thinking it through would be like publishing an article before it is fully written.

What is the first thing most people do when they hear a new idea?

They try to shoot holes in it. They look for the weaknesses and the reasons that it will not work.

It is the common perception that if one chink in the armor can be found, if one flawed aspect of an otherwise glorious and eminently functional idea can be identified, then by association the entire idea can be dismissed as unworkable.

It may be human nature where the inherent resistance to change may be built into our collective DNA. I don’t know. Sometimes it seems that we would rather continue down the known road, which we know will not get us to where we need to be, instead of changing direction and setting out on a road whose final destination is not fully known but at least is going in the direction we want. When I catch myself resisting someone else’s new ideas I consciously try to take a step back and try to be more receptive. Even so, it takes an effort.

Thinking through the new idea will help you uncover any potential issues and weaknesses. It will help you prepare for the NIH syndrome that you will inevitably encounter. It will prepare you with responses to potential objections. It will also save you some embarrassment if your idea turns out to be one of those that actually should have stayed on your list or white board for a little while longer.

Most everybody at one time or another has good ideas. Some get captured and some get forgotten. It is the interval and the effort that goes into the idea after it gets captured and before it gets proposed that is the key. It can be the difference between being just another “off the cuff” suggestion and a studied and considered proposal for improvement. A good idea matters. Thinking it through matters even more.

Automatic Default Setting


I have a friend Leif, who lives up in Wisconsin. He used to live in Texas and moved BACK to Wisconsin of his own volition. This fact in itself should provide some insight into the type of individual that Leif is. Be that as it may, I still consider him a friend. We stay in touch via electronic means. I keep track of him in some small way because Leif loves to post on Facebook. He posts a lot more than I do. Sometimes he posts things that I wish I had posted. I don’t post much on Facebook. Many times he posts things that I am proud to say that I had no input into, no contact with and would not have posted even if I did. It could be said that Leif swings at just about every electronic pitch. When you do that there are going to be a lot of whiffs and foul balls, but on occasion you will make good contact and knock one a long ways. Leif recently posted a Facebook link to a Youtube video about a speech given by David Foster Wallace at the 2005 commencement at Kenyon College called “This is Water”.



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmpYnxlEh0c&feature=player_embedded.




This was one of Leif’s home run posts.




I have a tendency to look at the interconnected nature of things and how information that may be applicable in one realm is actually also applicable in another. This may provide some insight into what type of an individual I am. The realm that I usually end up trying to apply this interconnected information to is the business environment. Sometimes I see the hyperbole and Monty Python-esque absurdity of what is going on. I know I am dating myself here, but sometimes there just is no other theater of the absurd that can fit the reality of business like the Pythons with their “Minister of Funny Walks” and “Lumberjack Song”. Sometimes I get what I hope is a real flash of insight into something that may be useful in actually continuing to navigate the difficult business waters. I am hoping that David Foster Wallace, via Leif might have provided me a flash, along with a little absurdity, that I will try to apply to our business world and pass along here.



Mr. Waters in his speech discussed the fact many times in life we will find ourselves on what he called our Automatic Default Setting. He described the automatic default setting as the way we deal with things when we are not consciously thinking. This idea struck a chord with me. The idea that we have an automatic setting in how we deal with the world around us seemed to me to be pretty applicable to how we deal with the business environment as well.




The idea of automatic default setting was used primarily in addressing the mundane such as driving in traffic or standing in line. The net of this approach was that it leads to viewing people in these instances as obstacles slowing you down and being in the way. Is this beginning to sound familiar to anyone’s work environment?




I am going to pause here a moment and note that in business I have found that occasionally…okay, more than occasionally, in fact pretty often this automatic default setting is so accurate that it is painful. What I found particularly interesting and applicable is that Mr. Wallace did not dispute this in life either. What he looked at and brought forward was that people have the ability to be aware of their default settings and instead of perceiving the world through them; they can choose to instead to be aware of them. This will affect how you think. This is always a good thing.



Now this sort of discussion of self awareness is usually reserved for some sort of existential high-brow literary artifice. That is not going to happen here, mainly because I don’t think I know how to act high-brow. People who know me can probably corroborate this statement. One of the points that Mr. Wallace did make was that being aware of your automatic default setting and choosing not to operate at that setting takes effort. It takes a will and a willingness to not to just go along without thinking. You have to be able to consider possibilities that are outside the standard way that you think. However, if someone asks or tells you to think outside the box, you can probably be reasonably assured that they are operating on their standard default setting.




It is my experience that there may be some people who may not be able to operate on any setting other than automatic default even if they wanted to. I am not trying to invalidate Mr. Wallace’s supposition here. I’m just saying.




With this rejection of the automatic default setting, we may need to revisit our beliefs that the Sales teams are a bunch of over promising, money driven, lying swine. We need to realize that they may not in fact be lying all the time but probably only when they are talking. We need to reject the setting that all finance and accounting team members are slow moving, detail oriented, conservative, money driven sloths. We need to understand that we only see them in the business environment and that at outside of the office they may not be entirely conservative, particularly when it comes to decisions regarding their footwear and whether or not they get the oil in their cars changed before, after or exactly on the recommended mileage.




All joking aside, I found David Foster Wallace’s approach to being more aware of the everyday items and thoughts that we take for granted, that we utilize our automatic default settings on, to be scarily accurate. It takes effort and will to think of each event, person and process as a potentially new experience that should not be treated to the same default setting response. If we ever wonder why we, our business or our company seem to continually be asked to solve the same problem multiple times, it could be because everyone has their default settings on and we provide the same responses to what we perceive as the same stimuli.




Changing gears just a little here, we come to Albert Einstein who said something along these same lines. Einstein said:




Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.



Is it possible that we seem to do the same things over and over again because we have our default settings on and don’t bother to take the effort to consider the possibilities associated with something new? We have already seen it, or something like it and it is just easier to revert to our default setting, respond and move on. I don’t know if Mr. Einstein and Mr. Wallace would appreciate me correlating their works, but like I said, I do have a tendency to look at things inter-connectedly.




I have already taken the opportunity to put Mr. Wallace’s ideas into practice. We have all had business issues that seemed to have a circular nature to them. Group A was dependent on Group B for an answer. Group B was waiting on Group C for input. Group C could not get the information it needed from Group A. I am sure we have all been in more than our share of these types of solution merry-go-rounds. They seem to becoming more the norm than the exception. They can go on for weeks. By taking the step back and not accepting that these issues were the norm and by relooking at the “standard responses” we were able to break the cycle and start making progress toward a solution. We took the process off of autopilot, required something other than the default setting response, and started to make progress.




I don’t know if Leif will ever be able to provide another post that will resonate with me the way “This is Water” did. After all, the previous several hundred did not. Just since I started work on this topic he has already posted two more items regarding opportunities and drinking. It is interesting in that both of these later posts seem to have several “Likes” whereas “This is Water” did not get that sort of appreciation. Maybe some of these people need to change their automatic default settings too.

Thanks Leif. I thought “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace was excellent.

What are You Paid For?

I am a big believer in the alignment of objectives, goals and incentives for a business to achieve its maximum potential. If everyone is working toward the same goals and is compensated on those items that bring the most value to the business then you should have a structure that is both efficient and focused. Is that enough?

 

I was on an organizational wide call where there was a general discussion regarding the business structure and potential new opportunities in the market, and how to most effectively and efficiently pursue them. The group conducting the call was asking for input and ideas from the team based on the fact that the team members were the ones closest to the markets and issues and should therefore have some of the best ideas how to deal with them. This made sense to me.

 

It then took a strange turn. Members of the team then asked “would there be any incentives put in place based on their generation of ideas?”

 

Now I understand that incentives are designed to try and generate desired behavior, but where do we cross the line and start asking for incentives for people to “think”?

 

My logic here is that if you can come up with a better or more efficient way to do your job, you should implement it. If it truly is better, you should be able to exceed your existing objectives and then be compensated better based on the current incentives associated with your role. This is what you are paid for.

 

We are all essentially knowledge workers. We should try to generate the maximum value for our businesses possible. We do this by applying our knowledge to the best of our abilities. Incentives should be based on the output generated from the application of knowledge and ability, not the application of knowledge and ability itself.