Friday, October 28, 2011

The Challenges of Growth…


I’ve just past the first year anniversary of writing this blog (truth be told, when I started this entry, I was just coming up on the date, which leads me to this topic). It started with an invitation to some trusted friends and colleagues to tell me if I was crazy for wanting to write some of these ideas down. With some encouragement, it continued. While I have realized that having a day job seems to get in the way of writing and marketing these thoughts (see early point), I have come to find it a respite from some of the other challenges of professional life.

Which brings me to the point for today – as I think about the idea of Plan B Philosophy that I have been writing about, sometimes it seems that things are just that easy. Adapt, change, make due and move on. Plan B. Slam dunk.

Of course life is not that easy. Even in times when things are going well we have challenges. In fact, many times there are real and significant challenges when we are growing the fastest. Volume outstrips infrastructure and processes. We need to find people to help when we are the busiest. We are just operating in a “read and react” mode – like a quarterback with a rushing defensive line, we are looking at what is coming at us and trying to make the right decision in the moment. It is hard to keep your eyes down field when there are people right in your face.

It is exactly at this time that I remind myself of this axiom that I have said many times: The challenges of growth are better than the challenges of not growing, but they are still challenges.

I have had times in my professional career where my companies have been challenged to achieve growth or financial performance. People get grumpy and start pointing fingers. “If only we had listened to my ideas…” or “why can’t sales deliver…” or “if operations would just get things right…” The focus turns inward, the second guessing and proverbial Monday morning quarterbacking begins. Those times are not fun. I have had one experience in my professional life where we had to lay off a few people because our spending got ahead of where we projected our growth to be. It was unpleasant and I really don’t want to go there again. Just in the Des Moines Register, the founder of Pinterest (an Iowan by the way) talked about his displeasure of silence when their app went down (http://blogs.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/index.php/2011/10/26/reprint-how-an-iowan-founded-one-of-the-webs-hottest-sites/).

But the challenges of growth can be just as big of a challenge. In our companies, we are experiencing an abundance of growth opportunities. The opportunities are great. They are awesome. And they create challenges. The laws of physics sometimes apply and there are only so many hours in the day. I find myself saying, “Sorry I am late on this response” a bit too often. I am disappointed in myself for not being able to respond in what I believe is a reasonable timeframe. And yet the opportunities are happening for all the right reasons.

When you have a product or service or approach that resonates in the market and hits the right environment, that’s when growth explodes. Your phone starts ringing rather than always having to make cold calls. Customers are seeking you out. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but the biorhythm cycle seems to be just right. You look around like Robert Redford at the end of the movie The Candidate and say, “Now what?"

And it is just as challenging as when nothing was going right.

Which growth opportunities are the best? If we are going to entertain partnerships, which will best serve our long-term business? Everyone is going a hundred miles per hour and the communication we want between our teams isn’t as smooth as it could be. People feel stressed, excited, left out, fearful and exhilarated all at the same time.

So what to do?

I should likely ask you. One of my key learnings in the year of writing this blog is that great ideas and dialogues come back from you. But here are a few things that I have focused on:

1. Make sure you keep one eye on the future, even as you have to keep one eye on the present.

This is hard. There are deadlines and contracts and approvals and meetings and presentations to finish. Work hours start to expand into places where you don’t want them – infringing on family time, personal time even beyond where you are normally comfortable (because work-life balance is rarely 50-50, huh?). But at the same time you feel in a groove. This is the place when I try to look to my blind side. What am I missing? Is there anything that I am missing that could kill us? Am I taking my focus off our long term vision for a short term fix? I find doing this outside the office is the most useful. A couple hours at the coffee shop getting things in perspective is useful. And I do this is an old school way – me and my legal pad, sketching out the opportunities and risks. The important thing is to do it. Invest the time to step back and see the proverbial forest for the trees.

2. Don’t forget to make sure the team is with you and find someone who will tell you the truth.

In all fairness, this is one of my weaknesses. There is a joke about a leader blazing a trail and at some point he turns around and finds that no one is following him. Those that work with me would likely suggest that sometime I can outkick my coverage (hat trick - three football analogies in one blog entry!). I have great teammates who will suggest that I need to come back to reality and focus on what we can accomplish and by when. Rarely is this in a “we can’t do it” but rather “we want to do it right for our customer/partner/cardmember, so let’s make sure we can get it done.” That’s a valuable skill to have on your team. In fact, in my study of the great founders and entrepreneurs, they always had a partner who would balance their focus on growth in a way that moved the business forward (see Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft).

3. Know when too much is really too much.

This is even harder for an entrepreneur or a person who loves to drive growth. I always say that I am a bad one to judge opportunities, because life looks like a big buffet of great food and my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. But there is a time where we need to actually say “no” (or for me, “not now”). That is almost as hard as juggling the opportunities.

4. Realize that true success is more than one week/month/quarter/year away

This too is hard (hey if it was easy, why write about it?). When you are battling monthly financials, that problem or a compressed project timeline, realize that while it is hard, the true measurement of success is rarely defined in a short period of time. While there are some exceptions, most often in emergencies (see FEMA’s lack of performance post-Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis of 2008 and maybe Europe today), most of us judge true success over a longer period. It is hard to think even in the medium term when there are so many things that are urgent today. But we need to make sure that the short-term aligns with the long-term.

In the end, I’m not sure if my strategies are optimized to manage hyper-growth, but they are what I think about (of course, maybe you should ask my teammates if they actually work). I would love feedback on what has worked for you (yeah you – the one out there who tells me that I meant to post in the comments but didn’t or was going to wait to later).

In the end, I think this is one of the fundamental truths: The challenges of growth are certainly better than the challenges of not growing, but they are still challenges.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It is what it is. Is it?

It is what it is.

How many times have we each heard that said with the intent of convincing us to just accept the facts, reality or status quo of a situation?

However, I love an addition to this line made by Pat Summitt, the legendary coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program. She recently announced that she had been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s but that she would continue coaching, with help from her assistant coaches. While people were wondering how she and her team would react, I listened to an interview with one of her friends. She asserted that the team would use the circumstance as a way to come together because of what Coach Summitt often said:

It is what it is, but it becomes what you make of it.

Isn’t that a great phrase? I have been struck by this phrase during the past few weeks – I can’t get it out of my mind. It takes a passive, almost helpless state – there is nothing I can do, because it is what it is – and turns it in to a choice. It becomes what you make of it.

The main reason I continue to advocate for what I call a Plan B Philosophy is to remind us all that adaptability is key to success in most situations. It doesn’t mean to hide from the brutal reality or the facts of the situation. They are, in fact, what they are. As I say, sometimes the laws of physics apply. We can wish gravity wasn’t there, but that won’t make it go away. However at the point we understand the facts, we have choice: How do we react to the facts of the situation? What action do we take?

Do I, as an individual, accept a less than satisfactory outcome because I really don’t have control over the situation? After all, it is what it is. Many times we take a look at a difficult situation and are overcome by the circumstances. We can’t possibly change things. We get scared. We retreat. We give in. We procrastinate. We quit.

But what if we each took an outlook that focused on the second half of the statement? What if each of us focused on the reality that we can change the outcome by our actions, influence and attitude? That we are not passive observers to our own future. That we can define our future and can realize that future despite the circumstances.

Sure it’s not easy. I know this first-hand and have been living it for about three months not related to a business or professional situation. Lisa and I decided to do a large remodeling project and addition to our house. It is the definition of “big bang” – remodeled bedroom, kitchen, plus an addition of a garage, family room, new bedroom and bathroom. We have touched almost every part of our house in some way. We live in a house built in 1919, so there are always surprises along the way. One of the biggest was our roof.

We knew there problems with the roof as the overhangs were sagging significantly. That has been the case since we bought the house 12 years ago. What we didn’t know is that the overhangs weren’t really attached to the roof in a structurally sound way. As the framer was working on the first one, it took much longer and was way more difficult than anticipated. After that, there was concern among all of our construction folks about attacking the rest of the overhangs because the existing bracing might break loose if they touched it. There was also a concern that they could even make it better. It is what it is.

I was discouraged. And in the end, I was not willing to accept that as the future for our house. In retrospect, I was maybe even a bit belligerent. After all, it was my house. If the roof wasn’t fixed at the point it was all torn up and it fell down two weeks, two months or two years later, I would still have to deal with it. I pushed for different solutions and a better outcome. We talked and debated. Each of us consulted with others. We brainstormed solutions that we all knew we couldn’t be sure of until we actually started. It could have ended badly – that was a possible outcome. As it turns out, our framer came up with a solution that provided the structural integrity for our future. To the layperson, he performed his own version of magic on our roof. The roofers added to his work and finished the roof. Is it perfect – no. Is it the outcome we needed for our house – yes.

It is uncomfortable to push for something beyond average. Very few people really like conflict. Those around me at work and home know that this has been a difficult project in many ways. There have been lots of times I wanted to just give up or give in to what I saw as something less than the best result, in the name of “just getting it done.” On the times that I have given in, I have been unhappy with the result, because I know what it could have been if I had been resolute to the vision of what it could have been. When I have been insistent, I believe we have gotten the result that we wanted when we embarked on this project.

In many ways a remodeling project is the perfect embodiment of the Plan B Philosophy. (In fact, my very first blog post was about my first remodeling project in this house). There aren’t square corners, level floors or perfect circumstances and you have a vision of what you want but not the exact road map to get where you want. There are surprises that no one expected. There are decisions that have to be made on the spot.

A project, a customer, a business, an old house: each one “is what it is.” But it does become what you make of it. And sometimes that means being a bit stubborn – standing up for the vision of what it could be become.

The next time someone says, “It is what is” with the intent of shutting down the conversation, remember Coach Summitt’s second half, that it “becomes what you make of it.” It is in your control. Facts are facts. Reality is often reality. But what you choose to do about it is under your control. Make of it the future that you want.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Are You Really Different? Really?

Today’s marketplace is more competitive than ever. Increasingly the time for your competition to adapt to your new innovations is growing shorter and shorter. Yet some companies are finding ways to continue to stand out and draw in consumers. It is worth asking why?

I believe the companies that have a truly defendable competitive advantage are those that understand where they create value. One of the key principles of Plan B Philosophy is to understand where you create value for your customer and be relentless in pursuing that proposition, even as tactics in delivering that value must continually change in the market.

Yet there are key features and functionality that our competitors are offering every day. They, too, adapt to changing information and find new ways to create value. Let’s be honest, the guys on the other side are usually pretty smart as well. To stay ahead, we must continually adapt in providing more value to our customers.

As we all face new features, new competitors and a changing marketplace, we must really ask ourselves, “where do we need to emulate our competition and where do we need to differentiate?” To say it another way, sometimes we need to offer a product feature to remain competitive – it becomes table stakes. Yet, matching point for point each of your competitors is a recipe to be out of business. It’s clearly not sustainable, and as Herbert Stein once said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

So as we think about how we compete, it is important to think about where we can differentiate.

Think about customer service. In the world of financial services, many people talk about having “great service.” But what does that mean? First, you have to define what, in fact, is “great service?” Is it always giving me the answer I want? Is it answering my call on the first ring? Is it talking in the same accent that I have? There are many definitions of great service.

But think about the math. Let’s divide service into average, good and great (we’ll ignore fair and poor for now). If most people are average, some are good and just a few are great, it is impossible for everyone to have great service. It’s like the old joke about Lake Woebegone, where all the kids are above average. Furthermore, “great” is a difficult place to sustain. If everyone raises their level of service, and you stay the same, you are no longer “great,” you are now just “good” or “average.” And do you have clear measurements of what “great service” is to you?

In the end, a strategy of differentiation is hard. Mostly because it forces you to say that you are going to be mediocre at some things to be great at others.

At TMG Financial Services, we have spent the better part of this year defining what we want our cardmember experience to be. We know that we have to be competitive with our core credit card product offering. When a consumer lays out all of their credit card options on the dining room table, we can’t be deficient in any of the key areas – rates, fees, rewards or technology. It’s not like someone gets a credit card offer and says, “WOW, a credit card. I hadn’t thought about getting one of those. I might just try that.” That being said, it is impossible to be the absolute best in every single category.

We need to be top tier in all of those things, but you could find cards with better interest rates (albeit, maybe not with rewards) and a more robust rewards program (if you qualify for an AmEx Black Card – OK, so I’m biased). I love technology, but based on our cardmembers today and into the future, we are probably not going to be at the bleeding edge in technology (as much as it sometimes pains me). What we have defined is our service promise of being authentic, providing a personalized experience and having the best interest of our cardmember at heart.

It’s not an easy differentiation point, and one that we’ll have to work hard to deliver upon. However, if we can continue to deliver that experience, it is a clear differentiation in the marketplace – a credit card issuer you can trust and has your best interests at heart. Usually an oxymoron.

Anyone can argue whether our points of differentiation will work. That’s the hard part. What we believe are points of differentiation may not be perceived that way by the marketplace. If it’s not, then we’ll have to adapt. People continue to use our card for a reason – we need to better articulate that and build our entire operation around that value. It’s our point of differentiation. You have yours. But if you really look at it, are you trying to be super-competitive at everything? If you are, you may be making the point of Mr. Incredible, “When everyone is special, no one is special.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Postcards from Wine Country

Like many pursuits in life, when I get into something, I like to really understand it. For awhile now (more than 15 years), I have been “into” wine. Lisa and I had a chance to spend some time together in Sonoma this past week, I had a chance to reflect on customer service, particularly through the eyes of a wine taster.

For those of you who have not had a chance to visit the wine country, we are fans of the Sonoma side. A bit more laid back, a bit less like Disneyland (Napa). While Napa has some great wines, it’s just not our speed. The Sonoma side still has some agriculture feel left to it and particularly when you find a smaller winery where the family is involved. While we were there, I experienced some things that are transferrable to any business – whether you’re in the paint business or financial services.

A personal touch matters. We visited about 15 wineries this past week. Some are the sort that you walk in the door and they ask, “So are you here for tasting today?” (No, actually I was just driving by and thought maybe there’d be a good taco here… yeah, I ‘m here for tasting!) The ones that were memorable were those where people were interested in helping each and every person discover the wines that were from their winery.

Mike Talty, the owner and winemaker from Talty Vineyards (a small producer in Dry Creek Valley) showed us personally his three different Zinfandel styles (the red ones, for the record – the pink ones are not our style, although it’s OK if that’s who you are). Lisa asked which one he liked best personally – he struggled with the question, and I suggested that it was like choosing which of his children he liked more. He agreed – but you could tell that he loved his wine and loved sharing it with his guests. Certainly he had a business to run, but it was more about creating that experience for each guest that mattered. His 1/2 hour with us created a great experience. But it didn’t have to be the winemaker (although that was better). It was his passion with his job (and maybe the fact Dire Straits was playing in the background!).

I can tell when you are being fake nice (and you can’t fake whether you like your job). This is Corollary 1a from the first. If you don’t like your job, it’s pretty apparent – even after a full day of tasting wine. And when you are from a script, even more so.  Hello, welcome to ___ Winery. (pause) Where are you from? (pause with the enthusiasm of a wet noodle) What would you like to try first? (really long pause). Or the attitude that, “You are just one of 500 people who will come in here today and I could really care less about you unless you order a bunch of wine and join our wine club.” Then there was the winery that stopped us in the parking lot and asked us what brought us to the parking lot. (Hint: “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning …”) Welcome to Disneyland … bye-bye.

It actually matters that you care. Sorry, it does. Why is wine better on a sunny day in California in the vineyard than in January in Iowa ? It’s the experience. You are part of the experience whether you sell shoes, credit cards or wine. People can figure out if you don’t like your job PDQ.

The product isn’t enough – it’s the experience that counts. I like free stuff, so the special wine pour matters to me. But more than that it was that you listened to what I like and didn’t just read off the script.  Our friend Linda at Geyser Peak not only bent over backwards to make sure our experience at their winery was great (we enjoyed the great tour and barrel tasting), but she called her friend at another winery to make sure we were treated well there, too. Do we love Geyser Peak wines – yes. Will I always remember how Linda went above and beyond – yes. There’s another note here – we’ve known Linda for more than a decade (see below). Yet, every time we are in California she and her co-worker, Lisa, go out of their way to make “the couple from Iowa” feel like we got a local experience – exactly what we are looking for. They make our experience. In fact, the wines are good, but not that much better than others around them, but our connection with the people matters.

Every once and awhile, you can make a connection that lasts a lifetime. This is a longer story than I have room for, but one worth noting. We were long-time members of the Canyon Road Wine Club (they called it the Roadie Club – maybe the laid back nature and bocce ball in the back attracted us). The people in the tasting room became our friends – not “call every week” friends, but “make sure to stop when you were in the neighborhood” friends. It probably helps that we are from Iowa and are different compared with the horde of folks that come up from the Bay Area (not that there’s anything wrong with that ;). Canyon Road closed a few years ago (sad) and we transferred our club membership to their sister winery, Geyser Peak. We have kept a part of this club and connected to them because of our relationship with Lisa (the tasting room manager) and Linda (a long-time employee). Every time we come out they make our experience special, because they know us, what kind of wine we drink and what we like to do. Remarkably, I don’t think this is because they have a great CRM system, but because they are one. I’m sure there are many more people that buy lots more wine than we do, but we appreciate them every single time.

But this time we found a new winery to love (as well – we’re not leaving Geyser Peak). Paradise Ridge is a little winery in Russian River that opened a new tasting room on Highway 12 (a main road in Sonoma). It was the end of the day when we stopped by, but Annette greeted us with, “Welcome to Paradise” and had glasses out before we could sit at the bar (notice difference to point #1). She clearly loves her job. I don’t think you can fake that kind of enthusiasm. Especially when you make your son work there (and her husband the next day). We spent about two hours talking about their wine, where is was grown, drinking different things and enjoying the business. We bought quite a bit. When we got back to the hotel I texted an old friend and said we found the “new Canyon Road” because they were so much fun. And that’s what wine is for Lisa and I – fun. They have good wines, to be sure, but wine is about friends and fun, and that’s what we found at Paradise Ridge. Annette was infectious in her fun – you knew that it was a job, but it was also “her” winery, even though I don’t know if she owns any of it (or that it would matter if she does).

Annette took care of us as we were shipping some wine back to Iowa – but in the end it felt more like we gained a new member of our extended family. As we were getting ready to ship, we came back to the tasting room and she had a big group come in. It was just she and her husband working. Lisa and I felt compelled to (and did) grab some glasses and tried to help out. It’s a bit out of character for me (although probably not for Lisa) but it seemed like a friend needed help. As I reflect, it was a part of the connection she made with Lisa and me. I’ll probably only see her 5-10 more times in my life – we don’t get out here that much – but it made a lifetime connection.

My last observation was coming home on the plane. The man across from me on the plane was talking loudly at his credit card company (which will remain nameless but rhymes with Emerican Axpress) before we took off. Being in the credit card business, I eavesdropped (sorry). He wanted to buy some wine but they declined his transaction. In all fairness, that happens. Lots of reasons, but it happens. The customer service person on the phone kept asking for the Merchant ID. He said, “I don’t have a clue, I’m just trying to buy some wine.” They asked him to have the merchant re-run the card, to which he repeatedly said, “I’m on a plane, I’m not there.” This went on for many minutes, until he had to hang up because we were leaving. The juxtaposition between my experience at Paradise Ridge and this was shocking.

So my question is: How much harder is it to be genuine and engaging than fake and scripted? Certainly we need scripts. Certainly we need process and real answers to support our service promise. But in the end, customer service is about heart. Do you really care about the person across the counter or on the phone? Do you really want to serve the customer or are you trying to manage to an average call time or just bide your time until 5 o’clock? Do you have the empowerment to solve problems and create experiences, or just to check boxes and follow scripts? My company is not perfect at this by any means, but it reminded me that we need to keep working.

This idea I call “Plan B Philosophy” is largely about adapting to the changing market and business environment. But regardless of your business model, the core has to be serving the customer. My experience in Northern California gave me a revised lesson in what service can look like. What is service to you? Post your experiences below – I know you might just have 2 minutes to write about them, but please do share. Your experience might just raise the “average” experience a bit and we’ll all be better off for that.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Things I Learned on the Little League Diamond

For those of you that know me personally, you know that a significant portion of my spring and summer are spent on the baseball diamond coaching youth baseball for my sons, Ben (10) and Alex (8).

I believe that sports moments are often great analogies for business. There is a true scoreboard in sports, which we don’t often have in business. Leadership, performance, teamwork and inspiration are all a part of winning the game. But during the past two weeks I was given the gift of two great lessons coaching baseball that I thought I would share.

I have a philosophy on youth sports that sometimes does not make Type A parents of my players happy. When I start a season, I try to remind the parents that of all of the kids in Little League, at all ages and levels, it is likely only one or two will play college baseball and, statistically, none will make it to the major leagues. I would love to be wrong and would happily eat that crow, but the numbers are what they are. Therefore, we need to focus on why kids play ball. What is important to me about youth sports is that my players learn how to be a part of a team, challenge themselves to improve, put forth their maximum effort and have fun. All of these are good life lessons.

What I have hated about youth sports is ESPN.

Don’t get me wrong, I love ESPN personally. But kids, mine included, have become so enamored with the glory of professional sports and the Play of the Day on SportsCenter, that they sometimes forget that they have to master the fundamentals before they can execute a diving catch or a 360 degree dunk. In the past I have often said that, “the SportsCenter cameras are not here” when a player tries to turn a routine play into a spectacular one.

And I was wrong, at least in one aspect.

My son Ben plays on a USSSA 10U team called the Riders (the high school is the Roosevelt RoughRiders). As they have played in tournaments, the outfielders, including Ben, were not being aggressive. They seemed to not want to make a mistake and let the ball go by them, so they would hold up and take many fly balls on the one-hop, letting the hitter on base safely. Furthermore they didn’t have confidence that if they went to make an aggressive play, that their teammates would back them up.

In our last tournament, I was working with the outfielders in warmups. I wondered why they weren’t going for balls and making plays. Just for kicks, I told them that the SportsCenter cameras WERE at the game today and they should go make plays. Their teammates needed to back them up because we were going after the ball, even if we dived and missed it. Their eyes lit up. “The cameras are really here?” they asked. “Sure,” I said. “Can’t you see them?” (That’s motivation, not lying, right?)

Their demeanor immediately changed. They were aggressive going after fly balls. Their teammates were hustling into the other fields to back them up. They played as a unit of three, rather than three individuals. They knew that each player was going to be aggressive and they had a role to play – either to make the play or back it up.

It was amazing the change in their attitude. Now there were no plays that probably qualified for SportsCenter that day, but we did play much better baseball in my opinion. I think there’s a lesson in this story for us in business.

Are you playing to win or not to lose?

The outfielders were basically playing not to lose. We can do that as adults as well. If I “lay out” for a “ball” in my job and miss, my reputation and my pride could be hurt. Sometimes I’m not sure if a teammate will be there backing me up. But what if everyone played all out every day? What if we played as if the business equivalent of SportsCenter was watching every meeting, proposal and sales call? (Maybe CNBC would build a show based on that!) I think we would be better off because the hesitation and tentativeness that can creep in would be gone. We’d just go play, and our customers, teammates and our companies would be better for it. If the fear of losing was diminished, we’d focus on being the best we could be every day, rather than on making sure we looked good, even if the proverbial ball dropped in front of us for a base hit.

The second lesson I learned was on incentives, or maybe even bribery.

My son Alex is eight-years old. His Little League allows the kid-players to pitch, but if they throw four balls, the coach from the hitter’s team comes into pitch. This rule is to encourage players to hit the ball, rather than wait for a walk. Our team was doing well early in the year, really hitting the ball well. But our coaches had noticed a disturbing trend – instead of players trying to hit off of the pitcher, they would wait for four balls (or sometimes watch three strikes) with the hope the coach would come in to pitch. We tried intervention – we told them the coach was going pitch faster, hoping that it would encourage our players to try and hit the pitcher, because the coach was hard to hit. That really didn’t work.

You also need to know that generally I hope players are intrinstically motivated. That they want to do well for internal reasons, not for external rewards. But it was in the 90s on Saturday in Des Moines and so I told my players that I would bring a Gatorade to the Sunday game to each player who hit the ball solidly off of the kid pitcher. Hits off of the coach did not count. I had my list as the third base coach and was marking off each time a player hit the ball well – out or not.

Amazingly, nearly every player hit the ball.

Maybe I should not be surprised, but I was. Out of 10 players, we had eight hit the ball solidly, including two that went three-for-three and two others that were two-for-two. Two players didn’t hit it, but they took good, hard swings at pitches. In the end, the players who got multiple Gatorades gave them to their other teammates (which was a good display of teamwork) so everyone got a Gatorade on Sunday. We have not hit the ball as well as we did on Saturday all year. And while it didn’t exactly translate the same way into our next game, but we were remarkably better than before Saturday.

So what’s to be learned? That we can all be bought? Not exactly. I have always believed incentives are as much about focus as they are about pay. They are certainly about pay, but there is a significant component that is about what is important. If you, as my boss or board, incent me to do something, it must be important to you or our company. Sure I want to get the payout, but many times that is just about keeping score. The piece that it critical is that I clearly understand that some action is important to our shared success – just like hitting the ball in baseball. The Gatorades I paid out were really not of monetary value – each player probably had plenty of Gatorade at home. What was important to the players was that a coach said he would incent them if they did something. It was a game within the game. And when they succeeded they heard me say, “There’s a Gatorade!” and make a checkmark on my roster. To start the game, they wanted to know the rules (what happened if they hit the ball but got out, what if they didn’t get a good pitch to hit, etc.). I said that I wanted them to focus on hitting pitches from the player pitcher, not the coach, and that is what would count. Period. And that’s the result I got.

There are probably two lessons from my coaching experience that are pretty obvious:
  1. When we play to win, we often do win.
  2. We get the behavior we incent, not always because of the monetary value of the incentive, but because of the focus we put on the behavior.
That being said, sometimes we need to look at our children to see ourselves. I find many things that apply to coaching my kids apply to our companies, but I would certainly love to hear your thoughts. Comments are open and feel free to post. Maybe I’ll buy Gatorades for those who post a comment!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eat More Chikin... Lessons from the Folks at Chick-Fil-A

As a part of the strategic focus of our companies, we are continuing to evolve from an organization that has traditionally focused exclusively on business-to-business marketing to becoming more of a consumer marketing company. That is, while we serve consumers through our business clients (mostly financial institutions), we need to design our products, services and customer experience around the end consumer need. In the competitive financial services marketplace, there is no other choice – if you are not meeting the current and future needs of consumers, you are toast in the long-term.

 
Through a connection of the marketing director at TMG, we were able to have Tina Murray, a regional marketing director from Chick-Fil-A, spend the majority of the day with us this past Wednesday. Chick-Fil-A is a unique company, in that they have created a brand that has true raving fans, as well as their focus on an internal corporate culture of quality food and outstanding service.

 
While you will not benefit from all of Tina’s presentation, these were a few of my takeways from her presentations.
  • There is value in history and stories in corporate culture. Many of the values that remain important to Chick-Fil-A are because of the history and background, particularly that of their founder, Truett Cathy. There is recognition of those that came before and a willingness to celebrate their accomplishments during more than four decades. The accomplishments are celebrated and remembered for future generations.
  • While Chick-Fil-A sells food, they deliver service. Food is only the platform to deliver service.
  • Many companies often talk about being in a commodity business where quality is not appreciated and price is the most important thing. There isn’t much more of a commodity business than quick service restaurants and yet Chick-Fil-A has distinguished themselves on quality (food) and service with a price point that is still competitive with other choices. How can every company do this?
  • Second mile service. This is one of the keys to the Chick-Fil-A experience. The first mile is the transaction (you pay me, I give you quality food). The second mile is what makes the difference – it is the 3-foot pepper mill for salads that you would only expect in a fine-dining experience; the team member refreshing a drink for a customer in the dining room; carrying the things to the table for a Mom with three kids; shuttling customers to and from their cars with umbrellas when it is raining. Every individual has the power (maybe even the responsibility) to make someone’s day.
  • Work on the little things and share them across the organization. The idea of having umbrellas and helping customers stay out of the rain spread across their company because an owner/operator (who works usually just in one store) was focused on the little things of service and then the word spread through formal and informal means.
  • Chick-Fil-A is nearly a completely aligned culture. While their values are not the values of every company, top to bottom they seem to understand what it means to be a Chick-Fil-A employee and what Chick-Fil-A stands for as an organization. It starts with the top and you can see it in 16-year old team members in the restaurants.
  • Focus on hiring great people with their 3 “Cs” – competency, character and chemistry.
  • They are about creating Raving Fans who come more often, pay full price and tell others.
  • Who is your competitor? Chick-Fil-A thinks about their competitors as Panera Bread and Jason’s Deli, not just McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s. While their customers might not always put them in that category, what does that mindset do for their expectations of the food and service?
  • Their training is focused on empowering their employees, but within a framework of what service means to Chick-Fil-A (Saying “my pleasure” when a customer thanks you or delivering Second Mile Service).
  • Give it away. They focus on having customers and prospective customers experience their food and service by “Be Our Guest” cards. These cards are good for free sandwiches and are given away by operators and other team members to potential customers. Their marketing focus is in a 3-5 mile radius around the restaurant and integrating into the community. How could you give something away to demonstrate your value?
  • Communication to the frontline is critical. You can’t spend a ton of marketing dollars for a promotion like “Free Breakfast Thursday” and not have your front line people know what you are doing. Have a platform for over-communicating to front-line team members.
  • Leadership happens by example. Tina told a story of the CEO picking up trash in parking lot during a store visit. This creates a culture where no one is “too good” to do any task and people feel like they should follow the example of leadership, which makes the business better.
  • Leadership is more than going it alone. If you finish your leadership journey and there is no one with you, you just took a long walk alone. When you have a new opportunity, take someone with you to help them grow. Make it a conscious part of your professional life.
  • Operators are often “dream makers.” By working in one store, they often know the goals of their employees and help make them a reality, even if that’s not within Chick-Fil-A.
  • By allowing customers “backstage” you not only provide transparency to customers but employees are “on” everyday, even in the back of the house. Chick-Fil-A allows their customers to touch and feel the aspects of the business by taking a tour of the kitchen, which is likely to engender more loyalty. How could you do this in your organization?
  • Take a couple of 30 minute time slots for “white space,” where you think, read, refocus.
  • When does someone need encouragement? When they're breathing.
  • Their company gave the opportunity for each owner/operator to spend $100 fine dining and asked them to take one thing back into their store. If you do the math: 1500 restaurants x $100 = $1.5 million. That’s a lot of money and would have been easy to be on the cutting block during budget time (well we could make our numbers if we just cut that $1.5 million expense on sending our operators out to eat…) Yet they didn’t. What was so important about that experience that it was worth the money?
  • Truett Cathy’s saying: Be your best (Jeff) today. Why not give your best?
 
I thought these were worth sharing. I’m sure that Chick-Fil-A has its struggles, just like each one of us do everyday. Yet they have built a company and culture around quality food (and an unwillingness to take shortcuts even when it costs them real money), as well as around outstanding service. I was inspired by their attention to detail from top to bottom. Just a few nuggets (pun intended) for your thought.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Be the Devil’s Advocate?

There has been quite a bit of buzz in the media and social networking sites about the potential for the world ending this coming Saturday. I am curious what time, because I have a really busy day! If it going to end at breakfast, there are a whole lot of things I won’t do on Friday.

That being said, the world ending brings up connotations of the afterlife – heaven and hell. This reminded me of one of my least favorite sayings, “The Devil’s Advocate.” Usually this advocate is brought out in the middle of a conversation regarding a new initiative or a product/service that someone wants to launch. A person will say authoritatively, “Well, let me be the devil’s advocate here.” What they really mean to say is, “If you don’t mind, I am going to take the license to totally trash everything you just said and let you know how stupid you really are.” Of course we are all too polite to actually say that, so we wrap ourselves in this role of being an objective questioner and looking at the downside of the proposal or situation.

No one wants to be Polyanna and just see the bright and shiny side of the world. But too often we let ourselves drift into the possibilities of the dark side. When someone becomes the devil’s advocate, they have a license to question every piece of logic and assumption proposed, without any responsibility to find a better solution. It’s like sitting on the side of the road throwing rocks at the passing cars from a hidden spot.

In the Plan B Philosophy, the focus is on adapting to the changing environment, while remaining true to the original vision of the product, service or business. This does not mean to ignore the situation or to not face the brutal reality, as Jim Collins would call it. Adaptability is about looking for possible ways that an idea could work, not in ripping down the ways that they currently work or might work in the future.

In all fairness, I have played the role of the devil’s advocate in my professional life. I called it skepticism and wore it like a badge of honor. “I am a realist,” I would say. Or “I am a pessimist – either I’m right or pleasantly surprised.” What I realized is that these comments were not helpful in moving things forward. Most often I blew up the conversation before it got going. It took an active and conscious thought process to begin to see the world differently and look for possibilities where others only saw obstacles and hurdles.

So, here’s my personal formula for helping an idea along:
  1. Listen carefully and with curiosity. Why would someone think this was a good idea? What is the core of the idea that could meet a customer need? Quiet your thoughts of “this can’t work” and start to think about “how could it work – what are the things that would be needed to make this wildly successful?”
  2. Ask good questions. Don’t assume you understand the other person’s perspective on the idea. Make sure you understand the core idea they are proposing. Many times we tear down an idea before we really understand it. I can’t even imagine how many great businesses were destroyed before they ever started by someone dismissing an idea before they even understood it fully.
  3. Look to build on the idea, rather than tear it down. Use phrases like “what if we did x” or “how could we make it do y” rather than “I don’t think it will work” and “haven’t you thought about…” Anyone can take an idea and tell you why it can’t work. It takes a special person and thought process to take the core of an idea and propose new components that make it better and more sustainable for the future.

In the end, my perspective is that the devil doesn’t need any advocates. What we need in our business and personal lives are people who build on ideas rather than tear them down.

One of my favorite quotes is from Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Rather than playing the role of the devil's advocate, make it a point to ask “why not?” 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Enlightened Trial and Error Succeeds Over the Planning of the Lone Genius

“Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”

This quote comes from a Nightline broadcast more than 10 years ago on the design firm IDEO (Link to Video). I have seen the video many times which documents their process of designing something truly different and unique. But when I saw the video again a few weeks ago, this quote struck me more significantly than it has in the past.

Many times we spend countless hours crafting our message, building our plans and designing our strategies. Much like an annual report, which is said to be a document that is read more before it is published than after, our business plans and strategy documents are revised and refined to “perfection.” Yet when we go to the market, our tactics are often worthless. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

Our competitors, the market, our customers and even the government are all changing the playing field. The idea of adaptability is what Plan B Philosophy is all about. But yet, what is “enlightened trial and error” and how can we leverage it to create success faster?

There are businesses that are driven on experimentation and data – tech firms are the best example. Companies can measure clicks and usage and transactions to determine whether the new feature was adopted. Google revolutionized this approach in the Web world. But in most businesses it is difficult to sort out the noise from the true insights as a new product or strategy is introduced. Prospective customers provide feedback and we are left to determine which demands are most valid for the market and which are merely a one-off for a particular situation. I know my company struggles with these choices everyday – there are features that can be added or modified that will meet the needs of individual customers, but it is often unclear which features will meet the need of the entire market or market segment.

So how do we effectively have enlightened trial and error?

I am reminded about the approach that Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers (and my favorite NFL team), brought to a game's first plays on offense. After breaking down the defensive tendencies of the opponent during the week, he and his offensive coaches would script the first 15 to 25 plays they would run to begin a game. They would only deviate from the script if the situation was dramatically different than the play call (3rd and 1 to go and the script called for a deep pass). Certainly their goal was to score, but they were working to see the reaction of the defensive to the plays and understand which of their offensive strategies were to be most effective. Once they understood, they could apply their judgment to the remainder of the game and the offensive plan.

Contrast that to the lone genius offensive coordinator (in my mind I visualize Mike Martz) who singularly analyzes the defense and attempts to call the exact right play at the right time based on his experience, intuition and analysis. It can work – Martz won a Super Bowl in St. Louis – but it takes the right person with the right players, experience, intuition and analysis. Clearly the structured approach creates more opportunity to learn the market, the competition and a winning approach.

In football or any sport, it’s pretty clear whether the tactic was successful or unsuccessful. The scoreboard is available for all to see and you know whether you are ahead or behind. The business world isn’t that clear. But we need to continue to work to develop a methodology for analyzing the results of our experiments. How did that sales strategy work with that market segment? Why was it successful? Was it a one-time success or repeatable?

Admittedly, I am not the best at creating process around these trial and error tests. I tend towards the improvisation approach, more like a jazz or jam band than an orchestra. In my football analogy, I personally prefer the Indianpolis Colts’ approach of letting Payton Manning make the call at the line based on what he sees in the defense. But in the midst of growing businesses, I have realized that to create scale and move beyond a single individual operating like the conductor, you need to have a feedback loop for how your adaptations are impacting the business at large.

Our businesses are certainly not perfect at this, nor do we have a magic answer, but we do talk about it frequently. We try to talk out loud about how this feature, product or solution enhances our competitive advantage and value proposition to our customers? The dialogue I think can aid in the discovery of what truly creates value and what is noise. My opinion has not always been spot on – my co-workers can cite many times when my grand vision has fallen on deaf ears in the market. But our approach of listening and adapting has usually been successful.

It’s tempting to want the answer to come from a lone genius in a locked room with a crystal ball peering into the future. However, in the end it comes back to having a compelling vision with the will to adapt your tactics to meet the needs of your customers. In the IDEO video, there is a moment when the self-appointed “adults” decide which customer needs to optimize and then send their teams off to determine the best way to design their features to meet these needs. Similarly our teams need to continue to look for which needs to focus on and then make sure they are meeting those needs. Enlightened trial and error vs. lone genius. I would put my money on an innovation process than timing the innovation market.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Opportunities or Problems: Where are you Devoting your “Thought Resources?”

For many years I participated in the Jensen Consulting Executive Roundtables. The Roundtables are a peer group of senior executives who worked in a confidential environment discussing issues in their business and offering outside input to other members.

One of our Roundtable participants owned a manufacturing facility. He had a great perspective on many things but the one that sticks with me is a comment he made as we were discussing an issue regarding one individual's company. He said, “When you are standing in the shower in the morning, are you thinking about problems or opportunities? If you are thinking about problems, take care of them and then start thinking about the opportunities.”

There are two lessons I took from this notion:
  1. You have make time and space to find those creative thoughts. If you don’t, mostly you’ll be focused on the problems in your world and can easily fall into “playing work” (see previous blog).
  2. You will never know the true costs of the opportunities that you miss when you are focused on the problems.

A number of people I know say some of their best ideas come while taking a shower (mine actually come when I am running or even mowing the lawn, but you get the point). Why is that? It is where our minds wander and we can let the creative juices flow in an environment where we aren’t interrupted. That time and our “thought bandwidth” is precious. Many times I end the day looking around and thinking that if I just could have gotten 15 or 30 minutes to slow down and think through something, I would have been much more effective. But we’re all so busy. It’s why I don’t believe that the comment “I don’t have (or can’t find the) time to do …” is misplaced. We all have to make time to do what is important.

If you are spending your time beating up a problem – why it happened, who was to blame, what could have been done differently, etc. – you are wasting your precious thought resources on something that won’t move you forward. I don’t mean to say ignore the causes of problems; certainly you want to make sure you don’t end up down this road again. But if there are problems in your world (business, personal, family), meet them head on, solve the problem and keep moving.

The opportunities you miss when focusing on the problems are unlikely to return. Are you using your precious thought-cycles to evaluate how to maximize an opportunity like entering a new or emerging market, building the product enhancement that will launch you into the future, getting in front of your next big customer with the right solution for their future? Or are you stuck in why so-and-so did such-and-such or how am I going to get Joe over there to back off so I can just do my job?

One other thing I notice about opportunities and problems: It seems that problems are often internally-focused or related to things that are difficult to control (for instance, the economy). Opportunities seem to be largely externally-focused or customer-focused. This is not universally true, but when I find myself thinking about problems, they are often about people and personalities, or about macro-issues that are well beyond my control. It goes back to the root of the Plan B Philosophy idea – there are some things about our world that aren’t changeable (or as I say, “sometimes the laws of physics still apply”) but you have to adapt to world as it is while keeping your focus on your vision. We can all adapt to a changing environment – by minimizing whatever problems are out there and then going back to work on the opportunity that had us in the business to begin with.

To be clear, getting control of your thought time, calendar, schedule and to-do list is not easy (you can ask my wife about my level of balance, which is often a bit out of control). It is even harder to focus on the important, not just the urgent – especially when there are many things that seem both important and urgent! I have a few rituals to try and do this that I thought I would share.

One thing I do is to occasionally take a mental “agenda” with me when I run. There are certainly those times when I want my mind just to drift or take in a beautiful day, but I will often take an idea or opportunity that I haven’t had a chance to digest with me on my run. My mind wanders in and out of the opportunity thinking about possible strategies and tactics. I don’t always find the solution, but usually I have a better idea of the issues and where I need to focus my thoughts. (Sometimes I come up with an amazing brilliant idea only to forget it by the end of the run!)

Another tactic is spending time at what I used to call my “west office.” The coffee shop down the street from our old building is a place that I can put my headphones and spend a few hours in the morning focusing on the couple things on my to-do list that take uninterrupted time (like writing a blog post). It is segregated from my house, my work and most of the world. Airplanes are another place I often find this time. Wi-Fi Internet access on airplanes is a mixed bag for me – while it can help with productivity, it also has provided a mechanism to lose one of the only places in the world that was truly unreachable and allowed me to work on those “big rock” projects.

My tactics work for me … they might not work for you. The important thing is to find the time and place to spend time working on the opportunities in your life. The problems are always there. Like my Roundtable colleague, deal with them as soon as you can and then move on to the opportunities.

And a request: share your ideas in the comments section on how you make the time to work on the opportunities and big projects in your world. Your input may not work for everyone, but one idea could change someone’s life. Make a few moments right now to share your ideas. By doing it, you will also remind yourself on how you break away and focus on the opportunities in your life.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Happy Sidd Finch Day

While I usually do not participate in April Fools' Day capers, I always remember the Sports Illustrated article about Sidd Finch, the Mets phenom pitcher who was deciding between a life as a pitcher or as a French horn player. If you read the story - check out the first letter of the opening and what it spells ("He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga - and his future in baseball."). Likely one of the best April Fools' pranks of all time (the SI issue was published on 4/1). All the better because it lasted through the April 15 edition when they finally announced it was a hoax - after announcing on 4/8 that Finch was retiring. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1119283/index.htm

I laugh about the story as I think back to me as a young boy reading this and wondering what a buddlist pitcher who learned throwing in the Himalayas was really like. But then I think about what it means to create something that really endures - even if it is a bit silly like this story and an April Fools' joke. George Plimpton, the author, had a few of these and enough daring to create more than a piece of literature - more like a part of our history, something that endures.

There is no question in my perspective that this was a stroke of creative genius (you can have your own view, but the reactions of readers in a pre-Internet world when they realized it was a hoax are classic). On today, April 1, will you create genius or mediocrity? Not a joke, just a thought.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Getting Fired Was Probably One of the Best Things Ever to Happen to Me

No one likes losing their job, even less getting fired. But I have to say getting fired was probably the best thing ever to happen to me.

Thankfully, this happened nearly 30 years ago, not today! I think the story is worth telling to think about how we work in our business and with our customers in the “real world.”

When I was in 5th grade I really wanted a new red 10-speed Schwinn bicycle. For a variety of reasons, most of them economic, some of them to motivate me, my parents said that the only way I was going to get the bike was if I earned the money to buy it. So I went off around the neighborhood selling my lawn-mowing services, with an average price of $5 per lawn. The venture was successful, and soon I had 5-10 lawns that I mowed on a weekly basis. At the end of the first summer, I was able to buy the bicycle.

And I continued on mowing lawns. One of my most profitable customers was Mr. Pancake, who lived on the street behind us. He was older and was connected to an oxygen tank most of the time, but he was very fastidious on the appearance of his house and lawn. He paid me $10 per week, but I had to bag the grass and trim the edges EVERY WEEK.

It was a great gig for a kid my age – he was my best paying customer, his lawn wasn’t that big and unlike some people, he wanted the lawn mowed every week, not just when the grass got to a certain length. And then I got lazy and took my good fortune for granted. I cut corners. Sometimes, I didn’t trim all the edges. My bagging skills weren’t always up to the best standard and the trash bag would fall over, spilling grass on the driveway, which he would have to pick up.

After one such relatively poor performance, Mr. Pancake called our house. This was unusual and he asked me to come over. He then proceeded to show me where I hadn’t met his standards. The fence line wasn’t trimmed. The bag had fallen over and spilled. And he would no longer be needing my services. I was panicked. I had never been fired. I tried to pick up the grass in the driveway and put it back in the bag the right way. I said I would go get my trimmer now and finish it up correctly. He said that I had my chances and had I CHOSEN not to do the job, even though he thought he had been fair in reminding me a number of times.

I was devastated. But in retrospect, that lesson has stuck with me for three decades, when many conversations have come and gone. It is a part of who I am and why I insist on attention to details.

So do I suggest that you fire your team members to teach them a lesson? No… well not always.

The important lesson is that I took my best customer for granted. He seemed loyal and I was in a hurry to get to the next job. I missed the little signs that he had given me (likely a few big signs that went right over my head). I rationalized that I would spend a little extra time next week.

In building and growing a business, we can sometimes take for granted our most loyal customers to go after the next piece of new business or try and satisfy the hard-to-please customer. When we do this, we often forget about the customer that helped us launch the business or has stayed with us through thick and thin. Maybe we cut the corner on them, because “they’ll understand.” Mr. Pancake taught me a lesson that each time we have a chance to serve someone, that is a gift we should not take for granted.

Now in time, I kept calling Mr. Pancake to see how he was and occasionally stopping by. By the end of the summer he gave me a second chance. I never took his business for granted again and worked even harder to earn back his trust. It took me twice as long to win his business and trust back as it had to win it in the first place. But in this case, getting fired was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Again, Now is the Time to Do Something!

Sorry for my absence during the past couple of weeks (have you missed me?) It's amazing what happens when our professional lives get busy and then you look up and realize you've missed your last two scheduled posts!

Thought I would share my blog post for the Credit Union Times after the big credit union Governmental Affairs Conference that happened in late February / early March. Embedded in this blog are my thoughts on how the credit union industry needs to keep moving forward and do something today. There's a message even for those not in the credit union or financial services industry. Like many businesses, it's easy for us to hope things get back to normal in financial services. The reality from my perspective is that we are in the new normal and our ability to succeed is dependent on our ability to navigate the waters of change while keeping our focus on the vision.

http://www.cutimes.com/2011/03/15/again-now-is-the-time-to-re-evaluate-product-poten

Happy reading and stay focused on the future, even as the forces of change can continue to push us all off of the vision.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are you Playing Work?

You get up in the morning and put on the suit and tie. Grab a cup of coffee on the way to the office. Settle into your desk chair, fire up your computer, check your regular websites and answer email. The 9 am status meeting comes next, followed by back-to-back project meetings. Answer a bit more email and then it’s time for lunch. After a bite to eat, it's back to the desk to answer some emails, review a proposal for the new project, update the business case spreadsheet, hit the 3 pm staff meeting and then wind down the day. When you get home, you loosen the tie and say, “Wow, what a busy day!”

We’ve all had days like this. When meetings string into other meetings and your email inbox looks like the backup of planes at O’Hare Airport. At the end of the day, you’re not really sure what you accomplished, but it sure was busy. I call this phenomenon Playing Work. Just like my 4 year-old daughter Meredith likes to dress up and play house or have a tea party, we can all fall into the trap of playing work – going through the motions, but not focusing on what really needs to be done for our future. We get dressed up in our business clothes and our briefcase. We drive to the office and find our desk with a well equipped computer and phone. Everything is as it should be, and yet it’s easy to miss the fundamental of what we do – serve customers, create value, solve problems and take advantages of opportunities.

The point of it all is not what I did today, but what did I accomplish for our long-term future? It’s not how busy I am, but where did I make a positive impact today? Were my actions today focused on the vision and what’s important, or was I distracted by all of the urgent tasks around me?

For most knowledge-based workers, our projects, meetings and email can distract us from the real work of serving customers and building value. It’s easy to have an internal focus that moves from meeting to meeting, email messages to business cases to reports. And at the end of the day, we can forget who really signs our paychecks – our customers.

I knew an entrepreneur who spent three days per week working “in” his business – doing the things that needed to be done to keep the lights on and the income flowing. The other two days each week he worked “on” the business – doing the things that were vitally important for the future but were easy to miss in the urgency of everyday life. I liked the focus.

Not everyone can take 40 percent of their week and work on the big picture things that will drive the ultimate success of the business. But everyone can refocus their efforts from “what I did” to “what was accomplished?” In your project meeting, change the focus from an internal perspective to an external, customer-focused one. Which emails are best not to waste brain space dealing with? Which reports could you stop asking for because they really don’t create any real value for you or your customers?

In the end, my opinion is that we need to stop Playing Work. We need to stop letting our efforts be dictated by the Tyranny of Outlook – if it is on my calendar or in my email box, I have to deal with it. Take an hour or two this next week and work on the one or two things that, if successful, would dramatically improve the customer experience or move your business/project/department forward. My experience is when you proactively refocus your efforts, you won’t say, “It was a busy day,” but instead, “I had a great day.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Repost: Introduction to Plan B Philosophy

I received a number of comments of new readers that hadn't seen the first post from October 2010. I thought I would put it back out there to provide a framework for how Plan B Philosophy came to be. This is the original post. - Jeff


I live in a Craftsman bungalow built in 1919. The family we bought the house from about 10 years ago had lived there since the early 1940s. Needless to say it needed a bit of work. It turns out that I enjoy doing this type of remodeling, although I had never tackled a challenge like this.

My first project was the bathroom – I had remodeled a bathroom before, so I felt confident that it was within my skill set. Lisa and I picked out the tile, the fixtures and determined the floor plan. Then I tore into the walls. That was surprise number one – in addition to the plaster that I expected, the exterior wall was pure brick, the ceiling was layers of particle board and after my demolition I had a huge pile of rubble on the ground. And I was distraught. This was not what I bargained for. We had a vision of a beautiful bathroom that would begin our restoration of this great house. What I now had was a pile in the middle of the room.

What happened next is illustrative of many activities in our lives – even though most of them do not involve crow bars, hammers and power tools. I called my wife and said, “What do I do now? I don’t think I can put this back together.” Her answer was simple – “What’s the next thing you need to do to put it back together?” In business speak, how can we take the next step forward towards our vision – a beautiful bathroom – even though we encountered circumstances that we had not anticipated originally?

To a large extent, managing and growing a business in today’s world is a lot like my bathroom project. I had the personal skills and competencies to tackle this project. I had demonstrated success in a similar project – a previous bathroom remodel project. Yet that wasn’t enough – I found myself in a place that I hadn’t encountered before and couldn’t figure out the next step. There are surprises around every corner. Some of them are hidden beneath other surprises. Sometimes it feels like you have ripped down the walls and are now sitting with a pile of rubble in the middle of the room. What you do next as a leader is the most important thing. Some people call it adaptability or flexibility. Although these are components of success in today’s world, I think there are more than just those traits. I think it takes an entire way of thinking – something I have started to call the Plan B Philosophy.

The level of uncertainty today is greater today than in any other time during most of our lives. Change continues to move at a breakneck pace. In my business, financial services, we continue to get battered by the economy, regulation, new and revitalized competitors, in addition to the normal factors such as leadership, strategy and operational execution. The world is the same for all of our competitors as well – they face the same set of challenges, many of them that are a complete surprise. The question then becomes how do you react to this?

The Plan B Philosophy Blog will begin to propose a set of principles that leaders can use to adapt to changing circumstances. Some of these principles are ones that I have learned through more than a few scars. Some are ideas that my colleagues, associates and friends have demonstrated through their actions – both in the personal and professional world. My hope is that this way of thinking is infectious. There is an old saying that the Chinese character for crisis is made up of the characters for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.” We are clear about the danger in today’s economic environment. My hope for all of us is that we can stay true to our vision and focus on the opportunity.

I intend to post a couple of times per month with my thoughts on the changing business landscape. I welcome your questions, comments and even expressions of hostility. Feel free to pass this on to a colleague if you feel the urge - we could all use more adaptability, regardless of our role, industry or business.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Try the Bad Version of an Idea

In reading a WSJ article a week ago from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, I was struck by his concept of the “Bad Version.” This is a technique used in screenwriting to help come up with new concepts. His essay was on ways to tax the rich and make them feel good about it. (It is pretty funny, but don’t click over until you finish this post!)

Adams’ words on the Bad Version: “I spent some time working in the television industry, and I learned a technique that writers use. It's called ‘the bad version.’ When you feel that a plot solution exists, but you can't yet imagine it, you describe instead a bad version that has no purpose other than stimulating the other writers to imagine a better version.

For example, if your character is stuck on an island, the bad version of his escape might involve monkeys crafting a helicopter out of palm fronds and coconuts. That story idea is obviously bad, but it might stimulate you to think in terms of other engineering solutions, or other monkey-related solutions. The first step in thinking of an idea that will work is to stop fixating on ideas that won't. The bad version of an idea moves your mind to a new vantage point.”

What a great concept. As I think about adaptability and a Plan B mindset, one of the best ways to work through an idea is to brainstorm lots of different ways that it can work from a curious point of view. In an earlier post I talked about replacing “why it can’t” with “how might it work?” This is another great idea.

In Adams essay he suggested bad version ideas such trading time for money. For instance, should the government allow anyone above a certain tax rate to use the car pool lane without a passenger or park in a handicap spot or get to the front of the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles? He also suggested a bad version of gratitude by arranging for people who use government health care services to write a thank you note to someone in the top two percent of taxpayers, explaining that when the dollars are personalized, they are harder to gripe about. He discussed ways of raising revenue through shared pain, incentives and additional power. Some interesting thoughts, but the important point was the process.

How could you use the "bad version" process to improve your product or business? I suspect many of these ideas might actually have turned out not to be just a bad version and have been implemented in real life. For instance, as I went through security on my most recent flight, I was able to use the Sky Priority lane because I fly quite a bit with Delta. Could you change the way you charge your customers – what if you charged a surcharge for our pain in the rear customers or gave a discount to our nice ones? Could you change how you deliver your product – what if you had monkeys answer the phones? Oh wait, a couple of companies I know have already implemented that one! The solution isn’t important; it’s the dialogue that begins to change the mindset.

The point of the bad version is to look from an entirely different vantage point to the problem you have and think of all of the possible ideas. Fixating on the problem and ideas that work will never move you forward. Only by changing your perspective can you begin to see solutions.