Archive for September, 2012

Collaboration, Performance and Agility

September 22nd

Strategy is frequently divided into a discussion of strategy formulation and strategy implementation. The same issues that make the formulation of strategy complex in settings where transformation is necessary also confound effective implementation but not necessarily in ways that are immediately obvious.

In discussions of implementation, one of the most common themes in the networked age is the recognition of the growing need for collaboration and the importance of building skills and capabilities to support it. In part this stems from the recognition that initiatives and change programs cross boundaries far more easily in an Internet age than might ever have been the case before. What’s more, providing service to customers and addressing today’s customer needs are functions more likely to demand access to data that is housed in what might have traditionally been completely different silos (e.g. Finance and Customer Service). The need for collaborative methods to address and improve customer experience is also a common conversation and the need to become more skillful in building  effective teams is a phrase that is often repeated.

A second theme that is equally common in discussions with leading edge management thinkers is the quest for ever higher performance one of the most popular business books of the past decade has focused on execution and on the techniques that famous leaders of high-performing companies and agencies have evolved in order to manage performance effectively.

Finally, the third theme that is also common is the discussion of the need for agility in implementing strategy.  The Monitor group talks about the need for dynamic implementation of strategies in changing markets. Here where the focus is on transformation and where changing markets and conditions are a gift, this concept of dynamic implementation is likely to be particularly important.

These three concepts of collaboration, performance improvement and agility are all important to effective implementation and they are also so common that they can be a cliché.  So what is important about noting often discussed best practices like these?

What’s interesting is that the virtues of those who are best at collaboration and performance improvement are often not the same as the virtues that interfuse an agile organization.

In a recent white paper  the Monitor group discussed his views for tactical solutions that address the issues that organizations encounter when they need to sustain their effectiveness in implementing strategy even as conditions change.

Collaboration, effective team building and performance improvement each require consistency. Establishing a framework and sustaining it overtime is a critical aspect of aligning the organization’s focus on clear goals and measuring progress toward achieving them.  Building trust that goals will be established fairly and that performance will be assessed in a consistent manner and measured consistently and results will be used in a responsible manner all take time and trust building.

But in a time of changing conditions, where adaptation needs to take place to allow for the formulation of new strategies and where new measures may need to be used, consistency is often the first thing that is sacrificed. Dynamic implementation is, by its nature, a process of change. Skilled practitioners are likely to emphasize the importance of effective communications because they have experience with the problems of coordination and apparent inconsistencies that arise in trying to adapt to changing circumstances in a pressured high-performance environment.

What’s important to recognize is that collaboration, performance management, and agility are often working against one another. To be able to adapt to changing market conditions and modified plans will require a vigorous program of updating the expectations and the accounting for performance. To modify the tools without disrupting their effectiveness is likely to be deceptively challenging. Often the statistics that are used to measure performance depend upon longitudinal analysis of historical trends. Or, to take a different example, the ability to conduct effective analysis depends upon the capacity of the organization to select measures that can be cascaded into the organization. But today performance is going to be measured across organizational boundaries and sometimes across national boundaries.   When the numbers are changed, they must be adjusted at each level. The risk is that this process of updating the accounting and modifying the statistics in a responsible manner is one that is easily subject to misunderstanding.  What its likely to mean in the end is that there will be a need for a new concept in strategy for high performing organizations – agile data integrity.  In a very practical sense there will be a need for data infrastructures that can balance many things that often create tensions –  security, consistency, integrity and market agility.

The tension that underlies this observation – that the collaborative, high performing enterprise and the agile enterprise may be pulling in different directions – becomes highly meaningful in the presence of increasing stakeholder activism.  Ultimately its a process that will force attention to be given to the issues of the rights of constituencies to define the future.




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Authentic Leadership

September 21st

In the new age of interactive communications one of the most significant implications that will be seen in coming years will be growing pressure on the leaders of organizations to present their authentic selves to the organizations that they lead.  Whether this will mean the CEO, the President of the United States or a division manager, the executive self will be on display in a fishbowl.  Just as HR recruiters will be checking Google on their applicants to compare statements that they are making on their applications with their Facebook pages, so too will employees be checking their leaders.

One of the sins of the modern 24/7 news culture is hypocracy.  These Google checks are going to be important because they will impact the effectiveness of the leader.  In an age in which everyone can have a blog, every employee is Woodward or Bernstein.  For the CEO to present a false or at least hypocritical statement  is likely to ignite the appetite of the blogosphere and lead to more trouble down the road.

The implication of this modern phenomenon is unlikely to be comfortable for leaders.  But there is tangible value in candor.

One of the most famous examples of leaders who demonstrated his candor and his authenticity was seen in the well known Commencement Speech that Steve Jobs delivered at Stamford University in 2005.  He started by explaining that he was going to tell 3 stories and keep it simple.

His first story would have been embarrassing in any celebration of graduation.  He started by explaining how he came to be a college drop out.  For an extended period after he dropped out of Reed College, he floated, staying there at Reed and auditing courses.  “And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on”

His advice was to follow your gut, to do what you love and have faith that this process will bring you to something valuable. You may not know at first why something is valuable to you .

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Having begun by explaining that he had been an orphan and a college drop out, he went on to describe how he created Apple and then was fired.  Having to leave Apple, he said, was like love lost.

“I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

His third story about himself had to do with hearing that he had been diagnosed with cancer.  Recognizing that we are all on a path to the end of our lives, he said, offers the blessing of confirming how little time we have.  “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Indeed, for Steve Jobs, recognizing his mortality confirmed his intense personal focus.

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

What worked for Steve may not work for everyone.  But there is no question that his case is notable for its candor.

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

September 15th

Professor Clayton Christiansen of Harvard Business School virtually created a mini industry with his books and articles and media following the success of his book, The Innovators Dilemma. He may not have anticipated that he would have another powerful impact nearly a decade later when he wrote blog posts, an article and then a book entitled how will you measure your life? In both cases is timing was extraordinary.

As a professor at Harvard Business School, Christiansen was interested in the question why do successful managers, those who do all the right things and listen to their customers, run into trouble and often move from success to failure in changing markets?

What his research showed was that listening to your customers may be a virtue in normal times but in competitive technology driven industries it often leads to the fallacy of continuing to improve a traditional product by investing in sustaining technologies while competitors may be investing in nurturing disruptive alternatives. His insights lead the iconic technology pioneer and head of Intel, Andrew Grove to radically alter his direction. The head of GE wrote about disrupting himself.

Christiansen had a message for the leaders of big, complex organizations like Intel and GE at a time when technology was forcing them to rethink their fundamental directions. His strategies offered a pathway to those who saw the need for innovation and investing in disruptive futures but who faced all of the normal resistance from traditionalists.

But interestingly, his second message a decade later that everyone needed to think about how they were going to measure their lives came at an equally powerful time. Just as technology revolution stress tested the best management teams in the late 90s, a decade later, the world had begun to recognize that organizations had ceased to maintain their patterns of lifetime employment and individuals were far less loyal to careers in one enterprise – even the seeming lifetime employment of places like the Postal Service began to seem far less secure.

If success would not be defined by ascending the corporate, or law firm ladder, Individuals needed to revisit the traditional ways in which success would be measured. Christensen was speaking to many who were beginning to explore the existential uncertainties of such a marketplace.

Christianson teaches a course on innovation at the Harvard business school. In his last class, after studying models of successful entrepreneurs, he turns the focus around and asks the class to consider how they will measure themselves. In his articles, he tells several poignant personal stories about how his values and his professional and personal life have interacted at key points in his life.

He tells the story of having to miss the last basketball game of the tournament well he was a Rhodes Scholar and playing basketball at Oxford. He had made a personal commitment to his faith and the game had been scheduled for a Sunday. By refusing to play on Sunday he was clearly letting his team down and yet to this day he believes that his decision not to play (his conscience was eased when the team won without him) was one of the most important of his life. He had committed to the importance of standing by principle.

Later, as a Professor and increasingly famous business writer, he was invited by Andrew Grove to come and present his thinking at Intel. Grove said:

Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”

Christiansen writes

I’ve thought about that a million times since. If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.

This experience that grew from standing by his principles was a defining moment for him in which he came to recognize that his personal capacity to have an impact in the world would be through teaching and influencing others to through his insights bringing them to act on their own.

What has become interesting to me in studying change settings has been the importance of clarity in the leadership message. The new media has created a 360 degree perspective on leaders. Apart from the way that Christensen’s question touches on the core insecurities of changing times, it also serves as a challenge to future leaders to define their personal leadership statement and to sustain it in the face of challenge.

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The 911 Surfer

September 11th

As I waited on hold for a conference call with two clients to begin at 9 a.m. I listened to the mindless recorded music of the conference line and I had Morning Joe playing in the background.  Much was predictable political chatter.  Should Governor Romney be running a campaign that more sharply defines conservative differences?  Should he be specific?  Is the President’s post-Convention bounce going to endure?

And then Willie Geist interviewed the “911 Surfer” and his wife.  This man has such an incredible story to tell but his survivor’s guilt has apparently kept him from telling it for 11 years.  He was in the second building to fall, going down the stairs as fast as he could and he had reached the 22nd floor when the building fell.  Somehow, miraculously, his slab of concrete was supported as the building collapsed around him and while he may have fallen 14 stories or more he opened his eyes and had survived.

I was back in 2001.  That day, like 2012, was beautiful and clear.  I was watching the Pentagon from across the river when it exploded in a fireball.  I remember my knees went weak and adrenaline shot through me.  The federal government was shut down and mid morning, while driving home I was caught in traffic.  On an incongruously beautiful Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th street I was stopped dead with my roof open listening to NPR.  A traffic cop and I struck up a conversation as I sat there next to him.  “You could try going up there to the White House or maybe down there to the FBI”, he said.  There were rumors on the radio of car bombs and speculation about whether there was a fourth plane.  Neither path seemed to be particularly appealing.

The 2012 conference call ended and MSNBC was running NBC’s coverage from the morning of 911.  Listening to Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw and Matt Lauer try and figure out what was going on was remarkable.  First, they learned the story one piece at a time while they were live on the air.  But they made remarkably few comments that they should regret today.

Even more dramatic was the way in which their conversation reflected the innocence of an isolated America.  “This is the first time since the war of 1812 or what we did to ourselves in the Civil War, that Americans have ever seen any damage from an attack like this on our soil”, Tom Brokaw said as the television showed the smoke from the collapsing tower literally white out all of lower Manhattan.  “This is so unreal that it’s like scenes from a movie” Katie Couric said.

What struck me in watching it play out again was how much time there was if you had known what was going to happen.  The 911 surfer had stayed in the building for 80 minutes after the first attack.  There was no reason to think that the building would not be safe, he said, and he and a few colleagues were told to stay.

Reading the 911 Report several years later I was struck in particular with how many clues there had been to the planning and the practice runs of the terrorists and how many Americans had to believe that we were safe from the clearly articulated threats.  There were dozens of people who could have stopped the events that played out that morning of 911.  But there was no concern with what everyone would have agreed was possible, but unthinkable.

There are these moments when it becomes clear that after this, everything changes.  In the US we have been so fortunate since 2001 that the plots have been foiled and there have been no new everts.  Human nature will push these matters to the back.  But there is no question that 9/11 was a strategic inflection point on many dimensions.


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Leadership Override

September 1st

As the election inevitably encourages all of us to think about our democracy, at the same time, organizations throughout the economy are becoming more democratic.  Technology has made it possible for unprecedented participation in even the most sensitive decisions.  But what this is going to do is to open a new set of questions about the times when leaders must override democratic process and how far they should go.

The problem is not that democracy has flaws and is limited in it’s ability to curb factional excess.  This has been well known and debated since the Federalist Papers.  My concern has not been with the limitations of democracy as much as with the things that executives do to correct for them.  Our democracy has been built on the notion that leadership in time of crisis can make up for democracy’s inefficiencies.  There are many examples of great men and women who have stepped forward to lead in spite of the challenges that were put in their way by democratic process and even the Constitution.  Few would debate that Lincoln and FDR should be ranked in among our greatest leaders.  Yet in each case there have been major questions about whether they had violated Constitutional principle.

In our time, the energy crises of the seventies offered examples of massive economic disruptions that had to be answered.  In the energy crisis I saw both the best and the worst sides of executive action.   I had seen Frank Zarb and Bill Simon and the White Houses of Nixon, Ford and Carter acting to save important economic interests by moving far outside of the box.

Before I ever reached the challenges of the energy crisis, I had seen the difficulties that democratic process, our administrative laws and our modern political culture impose on leaders as they try to step up to address national priorities.  I also had been able to take some measure of individuals who I thought were great leaders and therefore I had a sense for the ability of individuals to prevail in spite of the constraints.  I had seen the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and I knew that the capacity of leaders was severely limited by our customary political process. I believed in Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus and in the integrity of their personal leadership. I had seen Watergate.  But it was in the energy crisis that I began to appreciate leadership and its limitations.

In 1973 I had been working at the Office of Management and Budget on energy and environmental policy when the price of oil jumped overnight from $4.75 ($22.89 inflation adjusted) a barrel to $9.35 a barrel ($40.84 today).  Even more shocking to Americans was the way that the energy crisis began.  When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, the oil producing nations who had formed OPEC only a few years earlier acted to use an oil embargo to seek to influence the outcome of the war.  The fact that a cartel of oil producing nations could successfully withhold supplies and virtually cripple parts of the U.S., Japanese and European economies, was a surprise of epic proportions.

The ferocity of the impact of the first oil embargo is still surprising years later.  The government was thrown into wild activity trying to respond to its many effects.  I was there when it happened.  In January of 1994, on a few hours warning, I flew to New York City with my boss, Frank Zarb, to go to yet another crisis meeting.  In the car I asked where we were going and I learned that we were headed for City Hall to meet the new Mayor, Abraham Beam.  The diminutive Mayor had been in office for 11 days when Frank and I reached New York to find a City Hall in transition. The drapes on the high windows in the Mayor’s office had left with the previous Administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay.

We were puzzled at first by the Mayor’s urgent request for a meeting.  The conversation took a rambling course through the landscape of energy policy – converting power plants to coal, changing daylight savings to make it permanent.  And then, the Mayor blurted out that he had no gasoline and did we think we could help?

My clearest memory of that moment is of looking up at the high bare windows of the Mayor’s office. To my horror, I saw the first flakes of snow beginning to fall.  I understood why we had been asked to come to New York.

Frank Zarb jumped up and went to a phone on the side of the Mayor’s office and set about making calls, redirecting supplies on their way to New York Harbor.  Our intervention no doubt caused disruptive ripples in the oil supply chain that were litigated for years.  But New York got the gasoline to plow their streets.  I had stood there in the Mayor’s office and watched a classic case of executive leadership in crisis.  I’m not sure it could be done today.

Today, more than 3 decades later, there are again signs of a major energy storm.  The U.S. continues to depend on oil supplies that come from Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria and many other places where our relationships are troubled.   But today there is vastly more demand for supplies as China and other developing economies enter world energy markets.  And there may be less supply.  Indeed, there are many respected analysts of energy policy who argue today that we have reached the point of peak oil supply.

Frank Zarb’s decisive action remains imprinted on my mind as the image of executive action of the old school.  Today the image of the decisive CEO pulling levers is a rare exception to a more common pattern of activist constituencies and negotiated compromises.  Political partisanship and division are far more typical than leaders who believe in the principle of the common – in self interest rightly understood – are rare.

The central problem for me, is not only to be able to create a democratic process that can resolve the tensions between the proclivities of the marketplace with a concern for equity but also to create mechanisms that will guide leaders even when they feel they must lead rather than react.


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