Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

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Innovation is a competitive capability

Companies are forever talking about how they need a culture of innovation, or that innovation is a global initiative for the next important phase of the business, or that innovation will be the engine to drive the company to new levels, etc. I’m sure you’ve seen the word innovation thousands of times in business media in only the past month.

Innovation is nurturing growth

But, really, what is innovation? It seems to be an exciting concept with a lot of fuzzy edges and an elusive magical aura. Few companies could say they have a handle on innovation as a capability they manage like other aspects of their business.  Those that do are amazing and powerful (check out this growth chart for Apple). Innovation makes an organization competitive because it is measured by growth in new products and services or growth in new users (or both).

More often than not, the World’s Most Innovative Companies are a flash in the pan (Groupon?), or have a short tenure at the top of the list and then gradually fade into normalcy. This makes innovation seem even more mysterious and slippery… something to admire, but too vague to manage.  Something based on size or timing, not a sustained advantage directed at a market.

So how can organizations get this capability and why is it so elusive? Let’s start with the elusiveness first. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, explains that many businesses have a hard time with innovation because it requires a different mindset than the way most business people approach problems. In his book, The Design of Business, he identifies three types of logic necessary for effective problem solving: deductive, inductive, and abductive. 

The problem is, most of our schools and businesses teach and practice only inductive and deductive reasoning (abductive isn’t even in my spell checker). Frankly, most of us don’t chat about formal logic over coffee and donuts, so you can see why this makes innovation slippery. The less formal version of this logic is often called design thinking and was pioneered by IDEO. But that term is awkward because design is associated with fashion, graphics and art, while innovation is more about doing than thinking. So, I just call it the capability of innovation.  I don’t disagree with Bruce Nussbaum’s focus on creativity, but that still feels incomplete to me.

The capability of innovation is a compound set of three skills that enable you to solve problems for your customers: rigorous observation, creative wonderment, and risk management. Whoa. Did you say wonderment? Yes, yes I did. (see Phineus and Ferb) Innovation is about coping with ambiguity and uncertainty while constantly moving forward to discover new opportunities. Since most business people haven’t developed these skills in their formal training, not knowing the best path forward makes them uncomfortable. So they stick with what they know, which keeps them locked in the present.

Three core skills of innovation

1. Rigorous observation. This is about being obsessed with your customers in action. This obsession involves asking questions, taking photos, and simply watching what they do (and don’t do) when interacting with a product or service. Ironically, many product managers defend their product deficiencies by saying customers didn’t behave as they should (at least they notice the gap!).

2. Imaginative wonderment. Instead of defending them with deductive reasoning, an innovative product manager would ask, “I wonder why that happened?” This is a moment of truth where innovation will live or die. If the leader shifts reasoning modes and becomes curious, the next step is to explore what could be happening instead of defending what is happening. This is not magical or fluffy, it’s a rational leap based on an observed pattern.

The exploration process that underpins imaginative wonderment is essentially the scientific method. It is the rapid iteration of possibilities that are tested against audacious goals (Like Thomas Edison and the light bulb). An emerging solution to a customer problem is driven by simple questions like, “Why not?” but is also constrained by feasibility (can it be built?) and viability (does it make business sense?). This exploration is both serious and fun. Systematic testing and elimination of ideas and options requires discipline, tenacity, and rigor. Generating an endless array of possibilities to test is playful, energizing, and empowering.

3. Risk Management. Overcoming the challenge of risk in innovation starts with a better understanding of the difference between innovation and invention. The dominant (but false) understanding that innovation comes from a blinding flash of insight, or from a lone genius that sees the world from a different angle, makes innovation seem untenable. How is a company supposed to plan for genius to occur? What’s the timeline? No wonder it’s not supported.

Innovation is not driven by breakthroughs in technology… it’s the opposite. Innovation is driven by commitment to satisfying customer’s needs and keen observations about what is and what is not working. These observations push the limits of technology and force the breakthroughs. Innovation in practice couldn’t be farther from being a lone inventor in a lab. Innovation is a collaborative, hands-on experience, taking place on the front lines with customers.

So the way to manage risk in innovation is first to stay very close to your customers, second to create a portfolio of innovation projects designed to solve their problems, and third to move very quickly to determine what doesn’t work so you don’t waste time and resources on unacceptable solutions.

Not every idea will evolve into an innovative solution (either attracts new customers or more engagement from current customers). An effective innovation portfolio should work much like an effective stock portfolio. There should be a mixture of incremental improvement ideas, evolutionary ideas, and revolutionary ideas. Investing in a balanced portfolio of several ideas mitigates the risk across all of them instead of placing “all of your eggs in one basket.”

Innovation is not whimsical, magical, or fluffy. It’s not accidental or even unpredictable. The problem with innovation for some companies could be that it’s more about nurturing than managing, a human-centered style not often associated with the titans of business.

 

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Be well. Work better.

When I think of wellness, I get images of Richard Simmons and Japanese workers in matching sweats during corporate exercise programs. Too bad. Unfortunately, wellness wound up marginalized as a silly fad in its first big corporate movement during the 70’s and hasn’t really recovered.

Not an inspiring image of wellness for most people!

Sure, there are lots of companies touting the value of perks in today’s world (my favorite is BetterWorks). But most people still shy away from the term wellness.   Well I think it’s the best word to define this successful human condition, so as Bono says, “I’m stealing it back.”

Physical health is only part of the equation

One of the big problems with wellness is that it’s so closely associated with physical health. But true wellness is a multidimensional issue involving your whole self, not just your body.  This is of course, not MY idea, but I’m focusing on it here because it’s such a misapplied aspect of being human by so many of us, and it’s so critical to sustainable high performance.

Abraham Maslow was on the right track with his Hierarchy of Needs, showing us that some needs are more fundamental than others, and that humans are motivated to get beyond the basics and become creators of good things in the world.  And it’s likely that people have explored the holy trinity of mind, body, and spirit from the beginning of time, but even that extension beyond “body” is incomplete.

Somehow in modern America we commonly reduce wellness to physical health, and make that a personal responsibility to take care of in isolation of work and family.  You go to a doctor when you are “sick” and he/she tells you what you should do to fix your body to regain health.  I don’t think many doctors prescribe social remedies, but the now famous Framingham Heart Study, effectively shows that health is highly dependent on social interactions.

A complete model of wellness

Based on discussions with thousands of people via research at IDEO and the YMCA, I’ve developed a simple way to evaluate wellness in a holistic way.  The model was developed from patterns that emerged when people were asked, “What makes you feel well?” Their responses were captured, and then categorized into these dimensions of wellness.  For another complete view of well being check out the Gallup model.

User defined dimensions of wellness

  • Wellness is individually defined (there is no prescribed “best state” for everyone).
  • Wellness has rhythm (sometimes you feel more well than others).
  • Wellness is about balancing choices (not applying a routine or formula).
  • Wellness is about control (for some it’s “in” and others it’s “out”).

A first principle of human centered organizations

From a business standpoint, employees with low levels of well being are far more expensive than those with high levels of well being.  But this “loss of work” cost based approach doesn’t even consider the “opportunity costs” of not being on top of your game on a regular basis.

Gary Hamel is leading the world to reconsider their fundamental models for organizing and leading people with his Business 2.0 Challenge.  He suggests that this process starts with rethinking principles, and I fully agree.  Furthermore, I’m suggesting that a fundamental principle of business success is individual well being, and it is a primary element of successful leadership to be well and to lead others to wellness.

So my call to action here is that businesses need to rethink their fundamental relationships with the people who work there.  If a holistic model of wellness is critical to high performance, then issues that are often considered “private” or “personal” in our traditional models of management become essential in employment relationships.  Much of this will be discounted as “coddling” employees with yet more benefits and perks, but in today’s world of business where creative thinking and critical problem solving are often the source of competitive advantage, I’ll bet on wellness as a strategy.

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Focus your feedback

There’s one thing I’ve found that separates good feedback from bad.  Really!  Just one: more focused questions generate higher quality responses. Usually you get dead air and blank stares when you ask a generic question like, “Does anyone have any feedback for me?” The typical response, “Uh, fine… uh, really great… yeah, good job!”

Typical response to a generic request for feedback. From: photo.net/photos/zbbrox

It’s a lot of work to give someone good feedback, and most people simply aren’t prepared when you spring it on them like that. Remember, the burden of gathering feedback falls on you, not the provider. So make it easier for others to help you out by asking more focused questions. After you ask a focused question, behave like a curious four-year-old and ask, “Why, why, why, why?” to get underneath surface level generalities to real opinions that help you grow.

Of course if you really don’t want to know how you can grow, and are just asking so you can say you did, you need to return to GO (do not collect your $200) and start over with why it’s important to get feedback in the first place.  See more on that in my post Get Some Grit. Don’t waste your time (or other people’s energy) by asking generic, open ended questions. They don’t work.  For more on why, see my post Ambiguity kills feedback.

Here are some tips for getting focused feedback:

Focused questions generate more complex (valuable) answers

1. Use good manners:
Be curious, persistent, patient, and grateful.  Feedback is a gift, but you have to wrap it yourself.  When you ask one question, follow it up with a deeper, probing question to help the person in his/her thinking.  Something like: “Thanks for that. Do you think if I try that next time I’ll get better results?”  Followed by, “Okay, sounds good.  Has that worked for you?”

2. Focus on priority and purpose:
Ask high level questions that help you determine if you are working on the right things.  For example: “If I do these three things well, do you think I’ll be successful?  Or: “Which of these five things would you do first?”

3. Seek advice before you act:
Sometimes it’s easier to give an opinion before an action has occurred because there’s no implication of judgment. Use questions like, “How would you approach this project?” After you gather advice from several perspectives, review for patterns of agreement and disagreement. Follow up with another round of questions to get advice on the patterns you’ve found.  “I have two opposing ideas on how to approach this.  Which one do you like better?”

4. Invite critique on approach and impact:
Cue feedback by asking for direct opinions that leave no room for one word replies. Bad: Do you like this? Better: How could this presentation be more clear? Best: On slide three, how could I present this concept better?  For critique on the value of your efforts, ask about your impact on the person, team, or organization.  Questions like: “Was my contribution what you expected?”  “How could I have helped our team accomplish more?”  Or, “What could I have done to increase our results by 10%”

5. Cross-pollinate good ideas: Share what someone else has told you to jump-start their thinking and generate discussion.  “I was talking with Dave about this and he said…”  This helps the person you ask learn something about another colleague too.

Final thought: even when you ask a very precise opening question, you are still likely to get a simple answer.  Successful learners ask several polite follow up questions to help those around them warm up to their situation and be more helpful.  Don’t be satisfied with someone’s first answer.

 

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Familiarity breeds innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but familiarity breeds innovation (See my recent post for the difference).  I was fortunate to have that thought quoted in a recent Fast Company interview about inspiring innovation with radical trust, but I think it deserves even more detailed attention.

I’m not sure why this concept is so hard to grasp for business people. So I looked it up and found that the Latin root of familiarity is intimacy.  Ah ha!  After a quick search on that term, it’s clear that most people associate intimacy with sex.  Which made me think of the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She’s a living legend for pushing our comfort zones with her art.

John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover by Annie Leibovitz

So I think we should get back to the real definition of intimacy and get more comfortable with how it is so essential to innovation.  For the record:

Familiarity: close acquaintance or knowledge (Latin: familiāritās  intimacy.)

Here’s what I mean by familiarity:

1. Love your customer. Think about when you have a crush on someone. You can’t stop thinking about her and you want to know EVERYTHING about her. To innovate in business, you must obsess over your customer’s behavior and pay close attention to what they do (and don’t do) in their lives surrounding your product or service. If you don’t create intimacy with them, you end up playing “whack a mole” with your new ideas, missing most of the time because you are just guessing.

2. Engage in healthy debate: I like the word debate because it implies that you know both (all) sides of an issue and are fluent with them. Fluent enough to play with them versus trying to win over or kill the other ideas. This level of familiarity is critical to “higher order” breakthroughs because playful interaction with multiple perspectives leads to unexpected connections and the blending of ideas into new concepts.

3. Work with you best friends. Years ago the Gallup Organization found significance in the statement, “I have a best friend at work” in their research on employee engagement. Innovation powerhouse David Kelley is famous for starting IDEO as a place where he could work with his friends.  In the Fast Company article, Greg Ferenstein underscores this point by saying, “You don’t BS friends. And they don’t blow smoke and rainbows when you share with them your crazy ideas.”  Friendship is the embodiment of trust, and trust is foundational for innovation (which is loaded with risk).

For many people in the working world, the ideas of intimacy, playfulness and friendship are against their very conception of work.  But there is more than sufficient evidence linking these types of familiarity with high performance and creative production so things are starting to shift.

The potential for creative greatness in any person is there… but us humans are social beings and fulfilling our potential requires healthy, holistic, intimate relationships.

 

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Is that innovation or invention?

While closely related, invention and innovation are distinct concepts. Invention is a technology driven breakthrough, bringing something new to the world, that acts like a doorway for innovation to occur. Innovation is an iterative process of improvement that either sustains or disrupts a consumer market.

Wright brothers first flight at Kittyhawk

A great example of this distinction is the invention of flight allowing for the innovation of air transport into a major industry.  The Wright brothers are largely credited with inventing the airplane, but what they really invented was a steering device, which allowed them to make the first “controlled, powered and sustained, heavier-than-air human flight.”

Among the early innovators of air transport were Donald Douglas, who created the DC-3, a robust aircraft capable of carrying things and people, and Henry Ford who was instrumental in the development of paved runways, passenger terminals, hangars, and radio navigation.  Without these innovations, airplanes were an interesting novelty, but they didn’t fulfill a real customer need (like traveling or shipping packages over long distances).

The Ford Trimotor is an example of innovation

Simply put: Invention is driven by technology and innovation is driven by consumer need.

Another example:

At Hulu we are focused on the consumer experience of video entertainment, and innovation is one of our primary goals as a business.  What drives our forward progress is an obsession over our customer’s needs, and a commitment to delivering better and better services to meet their demands.

Innovation in digital media requires deep expertise in software and communications technologies, and along the way Hulu has been awarded many patents for inventions that push the consumer experience to even higher levels.  But we didn’t invent most of the technology we use, or create most of the content viewed on the service; rather we are assembling existing components in new ways that are transforming the media business for users, advertisers, and  content owners.

Is that innovation or invention?

Many popular web-based services are breaking ground in the way people communicate, connect, and work with each other.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if these things are novel inventions or early stages of innovation that will shift markets or generate new ones.

I wonder if Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are inventions or innovations.  They are all valued with great potential to disrupt and transform, but to me they appear more like inventions in their current forms.  They are very cool, novel ways to interact, but that is by definition, invention.  What consumer markets have they created or disrupted?

I think it’s going to be very exciting to walk through the doorways they have created and see what innovation on the other side will produce!

 

 

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Goals are a natural part of work

You can’t score without a goal.  But, compared to other high performance environments (like sports), typical work environments don’t provide enough clarity or focus.  This ambiguity causes people to conserve effort and/or waste energy on the wrong things, leading to lower engagement and lower performance.

 

GOAL! (from wikimedia commons)

Psychologists have discovered much about how our brain handles goals.  One of the defining traits of the human species is our ability to choose what we will do and how we will do it… that is, to create goals.  Goals are central to grit, which leads to greater happiness, which in turn is a source of high performance.

Goals are simply a way to clarify expectations and keep track of agreements about your work, and can help answer these critical performance questions:

  • Am I doing the right work?
  • Is the work I’m doing good enough?

You should use goals to discuss the potential of your work and the progress you are making (or not) towards them.  In their best form, goals are not administrative or bureaucratic processes.  Rather, they are vehicles that help you carry work forward.  An individual or a leader may initiate a goal, but in either case, both people should be invited into the discussion.  In fact, goals can serve as a “boundary object” to engage several people with different perspectives as your advisors, creating the basis for a continual 360 degree dialog.

You can increase transparency and efficiency in your organization by sharing goals, and you might gather them together for a “roll-up” to create a big picture of how everyone is working together.  But keep them lightweight and flexible, as they are most useful in the form of a natural conversation about what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Don’t let goal processes and templates (like SMART goals) overcome the natural simplicity of goals.  They can be written on post-its, scribbled on a napkin, or entered into a web service like Rypple.  The key is that you think about and discuss what’s important in your work and capture it in a very simple statement that has meaning to you.

Key questions for generating goals:

  • What is needed by the business/client?
  • What am I prepared (ready and able) to do?
  • What will I need to accomplish this work properly?
  • Who is impacted by this work and what are their needs?
  • How will I know it is complete?

Goals make it easier to gather feedback:

Think of goals as a “prototype” of the future you can use to gather feedback.  You can ask three kinds of questions about a goal to help you deliver high quality work that others value:

1. Focus- use one or more goals to ask your boss, client, and colleagues if they think you are working on the right things.  Compare them to expectations set out for you by company level mission/vision statements and job level requirements like a job description.

2. Advice- use a goal to ask others for input on how they would approach the task.  When you do this before you act, you make it easier for others to give their full opinion about the “right way” to do something.

2. Critique- use a goal to ask others their opinion on your results.  It’s easier to get feedback if you show what you were hoping to accomplish (with a goal), as it allows people to focus their opinions on the gaps between your intent and the actual results.

For more on this topic see my post Set homerun goals.

 

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Set homerun goals

This is not about setting big hairy audacious goals, which are great for inspiring groups over the long haul. This is about working with a natural efficiency in your brain when it comes to having too much to do and not knowing which things to get done.  In every day life, smaller goals are more useful as a way to keep you motivated and on track with the most important things.  A BHAG in this post would be to win the World Series, while an effective short-term goal would be to hit a lot of homeruns along the way.

Most of us have too many demands on our energy, time, and commitment.  This is great because when you are well networked you are more likely to accomplish more things.  But setting goals against every demand can be overwhelming.  You have important things to do at work, and more to do on the home front, and aspirations for your career and health, and of course you’d like to contribute to society, and well, you get the picture.

By the time you list a separate goal in each area, there’s no time to get everything done, and you end up doing nothing but react to things as they come your way.  There is a way out of this mess: Psychologists believe that we are more likely to accomplish a goal that satisfies several (if not all) key demands at one time.

For pure efficiency and survival, we are naturally attracted to activities that satisfy multiple goals.  That is, we’d rather do things that “kill two birds with one stone.”  So the best goals are ones that satisfy many needs.

Homerun king Babe Ruth

Now, let’s get back to the baseball analogy as a reminder to set better goals.  There’s nothing wrong with a base hit… it puts a runner on base and if you get additional hits, that runner could advance to score.  But it’s much more efficient to hit a long ball and get several bases in one hit, and best to knock it out of the park.  In one swing, you clear the bases and get multiple points.

Four types of goals:

  1. Do what needs to be done for the business/customer.
  2. Do something that helps me learn and grow.
  3. Do something that improves our way of doing work.
  4. Do something that’s good for your family, society or the planet.

Take the time to consciously build connections across the many demands you are trying to satisfy in your life.  When you do something at work (a single), look for ways to tie that work to your professional development (a double). Better yet, look for ways to improve the way you do that work while you’re doing it (a triple).

And best of all, be clear about how that work will be good for your family or make a positive difference in the world (a home run!).  When you explicitly attach all of those outcomes to your actions, your brain is more likely to keep it at the top of your consciousness and in the busy part of your thinking.

Which means you’re more likely to get it done.

For more on setting effective goals see my post Goals are a natural part of work.

 

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It’s a thin line

It’s a thin line between love and hate. This is a great quote to underscore the inherent challenge of delivering excellence or managing to very high quality standards. Recall this great song by Annie Lennox in case you need a soundtrack in your head while reading this.  It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but a much bigger challenge to make it better.

Walking the Tightrope, source: unknown

It’s like walking a tight rope… if you believe high quality is essential to achieving your goal.  On the one hand, you can take the demanding boss or snooty patron approach and simply demand better/more.  This might get you an immediate response, but often elicits such a negative reaction from the people around you that you lose their authentic trust, loyalty, and commitment.

One the other hand, if you tip towards forgiveness and understanding, you actually get less in the moment and hope that next time things will be better.  This might engender fonder feelings from those around you, but fails to set a higher bar, push the envelope, surprise and delight.  It is simply fine (given the circumstances).  Unfortunately, over time, “simply fine” leads to mediocrity.  Eeew.

It’s a difficult competing commitment: be a kind generous human being (like Jesus Christ) or be an innovative bearer of high standards (like Steve Jobs).  Can’t you be both? Sure, and to do so, vision, vigilance, and veracity come to mind.  Introducing the V-3 method of leading for quality!  It helps you walk the line of pushing for mo’ betta, while accepting the inevitable influence of variables, unexpected interruptions, and, well reality taking things back to the lowest common denominator.

  1. Vision: paint a compelling picture of what could be, so others are inspired to act.  In fact, paint is insufficient, you must craft it in Technicolor, no THX.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Powerful imagery has proven impact on individual motivation by “priming” people with impressions about what is possible and how it will make a difference.  More importantly, a great vision helps clarify a choice and “allows” others to achieve versus forcing them to respond to a command.  A clear and compelling vision attracts people who desire the same things as you, making achievement at very high levels of quality more sustainable.
  2. Vigilance: don’t let there be exceptions and don’t let there be distractions from the highest priority aspects of your quality mission.  Allowing exceptions and distractions lets people off the hook before they achieve mastery, and may negatively effect their desire to try next time. See more on this concept in Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua.
  3. Veracity: use facts and present them in ways that inspire continued efforts to try harder.  Providing feedback on progress is essential in support of persistance and high achievement.  But the facts must be relevant and presented in appropriate scales.  One study on goal achievement compared weight loss on a wide scale of 25 pounds versus a narrow scale of 5 pounds and found that participants needing to lose 4 pounds were more likely to slack off in the wide scale (because 4 is small compared to 25 while it’s huge compared to 5).

It’s a thin line between engagement and overwhelm.  One last tip:  if you tell someone something is “not good enough” the next action on your part is to pitch in and help make the situation better.  This is a doubly-good thing because mimicry is a powerful social motivator and it’s energizing to have fresh legs in the face of a difficult challenge!

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Bring game day to your work

Pre-game focus and energy. Image from LA Times

There’s nothing like getting up for a big game. This is true as a fan, but even better as a player or coach.  Game Day is a source of inspirational and motivational energy you can tap into for super powers and unbridled passion.  Things happen on Game Day that you never thought were possible in practice. Players who prepare carefully and focus their energy on an upcoming game tend to have a sharper physical, mental and emotional state than they do on a practice or rest day.

This is all true for regular working folks too.  People who put a red circle on the calendar around events like a proposal meeting, or a sales call, or a product launch, and prepare for those events as a Big Game, show up far more ready to do their best than those who see every day as the same old grind.

The key here is to make sure everyone around you knows about your upcoming Big Game and are involved in getting you prepared, building enthusiasm, and holding you accountable for your results. Wouldn’t it be great if people working around you cheered and gave you high fives when you walked into the office on Game Day?  And what if people stuck microphones in your face afterwards for a quick download on how the game went?  Now that’s effective performance management!

There is more risk involved in this transparency (that’s the whole point). If nobody else knows about your Big Game, how will they cheer you on?  More importantly, if nobody else knows about your game, you can simply write it off as “no big deal” if you don’t win. If there’s no risk, you won’t have the same intensity and focus.

Winning: Very few teams win every game.  Even Michael Phelps doesn’t win every race.  But every team or individual athlete competing in an elite category is expecting to win every time. The desire to win and keeping track of your record are essential elements of high performance. If you don’t keep score and you don’t know your W-L record, you won’t achieve the intensity and focus of Game Day.

Losing: I saw a great interview with USC Quarterback Matt Barkley after they lost their second game in a row in the last second of the game. This kind of loss can devastate a team and ruin their season. Or, it can be seen as a step in the process of getting better. His response was to compare the losses to a dropped pass or getting tackled. It’s part of the game, and you have to overcome adversity and use each experience to grow stronger and get better.

Pacing: I had a game day experience putting on a big event at Hulu this week, and it was emotionally and physically draining for our team. I remember driving to work that day with U2, Led Zeppelin, and The Who blasting the whole way in. You can’t get pumped like this every day, it’s got to come in cycles and leave room for recovery.  The Olympics come every four years… the NBA and NHL play over 80 games in their seasons. You have to design a game strategy that fits your business and keeps you at your best. But beware, there is no off-season!

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