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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Simple rules of good feedback

Signal to others you are open to feedback by asking for it.

Based on 3 years of close observation at IDEO and Hulu; and with perspective from my friends at other companies like Rypple, Facebook, Pixar, Mozilla, and Lucas Film; I have distilled these simple rules of good feedback.

1. Ask, don’t tell. Feedback works best when it is delivered to someone who asks for it.  Being invited reduces the social risk of the giver being viewed as too critical or harsh.  And reduces the challenge of finding the right time to deliver it.  Asking for feedback is like putting out a welcome mat that signals you are open to input from others.

2. Focus on the work not the person. People are complex and very difficult (and resistant!) to label with statements like “high performer” or “lags peers.” Add in specifics about a work product/outcome and the context surrounding it, and it’s much more valuable.

3. Cast a wide net. Successful people manage a broad and diverse set of perspectives to discover patterns and develop insights about their own behavior.  If you ask a small set of people who know you well, you will probably get a biased and less trustworthy answer.

4. Don’t believe the first answer. Even with an invitation, remember that good feedback requires the giver to think deeply, and work a bit to provide something useful.  Press the first response, with further invitations like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or similar open ended probes.  If you receive generic responses like, “fine” or “I love working with you” don’t be satisfied.

5. Synthesize and iterate. Once you gather broad and diverse perspective, look at the set of opinions and find patterns across the set.  Then share the whole set with a close advisor and discuss it together.  It may prompt you to ask a more targeted question to get more actionable or focused feedback.

6. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This works both ways for the giver and the receiver.  You are simply wasting time if you don’t share your whole perspective as a giver or disclose that you know there are areas to explore as a receiver.  Being open and honest is what divides successful players from posers and wannabes.

Remember the whole point of feedback is personal growth, higher performance, and living a more fulfilling life!  Have fun with it.

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Make better decisions

There are some people who are naturally gifted at understanding a group vibe. These folks always seem to know the “right thing to do” and are often rewarded well for their savvy. And, kind of like the old LIFE cereal commercial, other people begin to depend on the few that have a sense of right and wrong for decisions.  When pondering a difficult decision they say, “Let’s get Mikey!” and run off to seek direction as if that one person really knows the answer by some divine right.

In this manner, many people rely on their boss for direction.  “We’d better get Jim’s input on this before we proceed!”  While Supervisor Jim may have a good sense of what won’t work, it’s doubtful that he will be able to provide much insight on some new idea or direction.  Of course his opinion matters and his experience helps, but he probably has no more perspective on a new situation than you (sometimes less).   This is a huge threat to innovation, because most controversial decisions are “kicked upstairs” and new ideas are almost always killed.

In reality, great decisions come from being connected to an appropriate set of stakeholders who provide diverse and independent input on a situation.

The magic 8-ball says…

A great boss should say, “Well, I’m not sure about this… who else have you asked?”  This attitude leads people to check things out more broadly before coming to a conclusion.  You’re probably thinking, sure I can ask a lot of people and get 20 different opinions, but I’ll still have 20 opinions… there’s no way to please everyone.  That might be true, but it’s no reason not to proceed.  Since we already know that deciding in a vacuum leads to bad decisions, how might we overcome the problem of having too many opinions?

Ask the Magic 8-ball! (this is a very retro post)  Not that Magic 8-Ball… create a new kind of organization chart that helps you magically determine who to ask and what to ask in order to get better decisions.  It works like this:

1. Clarify your question  (anything can be decided this way, from small to large issues).

2. Determine who cares about this issue (think broadly) or will be impacted by your decision (commonly known as stakeholders).

3. Gather their thoughts on the issue via a series of short 1-1 discussions (build an evolving, proposed solution as you move from person to person, and share it as you go).  This approach is better than a group meeting because it avoids group think or an information cascade that bias the outcome.

4. Test your proposal as you gather input (i.e. ask what they like/don’t like, how they would change it and assure them that you’ll share the “final” proposal before you move forward).

There are two valuable benefits of this approach:

1. You get better insight based on the various perspectives and independent reactions.

2. You build support for your issue as the stakeholders get better context and understand your constraints more deeply by participating in the process.

Here’s one way to chart your stakeholders.  Each “orbit” around you is an existing group (e.g. “sales team” or “senior leaders” or “women in our company”).  Use the orbit to help you identify specific individuals in each stakeholder group and test your breadth and diversity of input.  Tap the wisdom of this crowd by sampling a small set (2-3) of people from each orbit, for a total stakeholder group of  12-20 people.

An atomic organization chart

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Hello Hulu!

I’m getting my feet on the ground in my new role at Hulu, and after meeting dozens of people in my “getting started” process, I’m noticing some interesting things about the place.  Watch this space over time… I’ll take stock along the way and see if these patterns bear out and I still see them as important.

Here’s what I’m noticing so far:

1. Focused, like a laser. Maybe this is obvious in any start-up environment, but it’s very clear that people know why they are here and what they are supposed to be doing.  With this focus comes clarity of purpose and unity of efforts.  This is not heads-down, buried in my work kind of focus… rather, it’s a collaborative, prioritized list of action items getting checked off without distraction.

2. Urgent, like I’m late. This is fast motion, high energy urgency like you see in professional sports.   If you like my “Hockey is Life” series, my experience so far reminds me of the lesson about winning the short races.  And, this is not a panicky running around like chickens, this is a confident and relentless pressure to move forward quickly.  There’s no time like the present to get stuff done… now (is that redundant? Doesn’t matter, get it done)

3. Eyes on the horizon.  It seems everyone is scanning the world at all times.  There is a continuous thread about user needs, client needs, technology trends, and industry subtleties woven into everyone’s work dialogue.  This external orientation keeps things simple, and allows for a cultural value called “frugality” to thrive.  This means invest in the things that matter the most and avoid those that build comfort or create distractions.

4. Dig in with both hands. There is an action orientation that people at Hulu call “building”.  This is a place where builders build.  That means everyone gets their hands on something and makes it come alive or makes it better… and this is professional building, not “let’s see if we can make this work” experimentation.  There’s an “over the moon” quality standard that starts with a desire for a “pixel perfect” viewing experience for Hulu users, and translates into a “bring your A-game” expectation for every encounter.  Building can happen in any function on any task.  There’s no supervising or managing, it’s all building.  I saw a post earlier this week from Ben Horowitz that underscores this point.  Leaders here are pulling the rope with everyone else… they’re not coaching from the sidelines.  Their skill, content, and experience are applied directly to the tasks at hand.

It’s really fun to be part of the crackling energy and rocking vibe of Hulu.  I’ll keep you posted as things unfold.

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Thanks IDEO!!!!

The time has come for me to leave the amazing atmosphere of IDEO and jump into the bold, new world of start-ups.  Next week I will head south to Los Angeles and begin work at hulu, leaving behind the coolest place I’ve ever worked, a ton of fond memories, a pack of great friends, and a transformational experience in my professional development.  To all of the great people of IDEO who have helped me push the envelope of organization design, think crazy thoughts, and test the limits of prototyping on real people in real time:  THANK YOU.

I am forever a changed person and will always count my IDEO experience in the “best of times” category of my life.  I hope to do you proud and take design thinking to even further heights at hulu.

As you might imagine, the place where I’m heading must be pretty amazing for me to consider moving on, and well, it is pretty compelling!  There’s a lot of buzz in the world of technology and media as the new era of video distribution comes of age, and hulu is right in the middle of it.  This will be a whole new education for me as I join Jason Kilar and company in the building of a great new organization.

I’ll keep you posted on things at hulu as I get my feet wet.

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The (new) wisdom of teams

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith is one of the most useful books I have ever read.  It provides a clear framework for team success based on sound research. That plus the memorable: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform stages of team development by Bruce Tuckman helped me diagnose and facilitate teams for over 20 years.

Key to these models is the distinction between a “real team” and other small working groups that don’t exhibit complementary skills, commitment to a common purpose, shared performance goals, and mutual accountability for their approach to the work at hand.

Over the years, I’ve come to find that team development as Katzenbach, Smith, and Tuckman observed it depends on a stable surrounding environment, which is becoming less and less common.  Today’s work place is fraught with complexity, ambiguity, and overlapping priorities.  Speed and confusion are facts of life, not the result of a poorly run organization.

photo from blog.jaciclark.com

Often teams have a hard time functioning as suggested in The Original Wisdom (choirs sing here) because the demands to perform start immediately, and there’s no time to go through the team development stages.  And I have to admit that many business leaders in my career have argued that the time it takes for team building is unnecessary.

Today’s successful teams seem to skip some of the stages and get right to work, much as people can jump up and start dancing together at a wedding with little planning or communication.  They just know what to do when the music starts. I’ve shared some of the insights about this “new” kind of team in an earlier post on teams, and it was so popular I thought I’d add some more on the topic.

Here’s some of the new wisdom emerging from my observations conducted at IDEO with my research partner Daniel Wilson:

3 Degrees of Team: we’ve noticed performance differences in teams can be correlated to various “degrees” of team complexity.  A “client-embedded, extended team” seems to out perform the other types.

1. A “core team” has 3-5 people with different skills working closely on a project.

2. An “extended team” can have 20 or 30 people who identify themselves as members of the team, but do not participate fully in all team activities.  Sometimes they offer a quick assessment of the work, while other times they make a specialized contribution to the overall work product.

2. A “client embedded” team has representatives of the sponsoring agency actually on the team versus reviewing or supporting the work from afar.

Team fluidity: one commonly held belief of a team is that it forms with an original set of members (like a rock band) and keeps those same members for the life of its work.  We’ve seen that successful teams are more fluid and can easily accommodate the arrival and departure of members over the life of their work.  This is managed with the use of project artifacts, boundary objects, and a continuing project narrative that keeps everyone up-to-date and connected to the current state of the team and work.

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Stories create impact

Storytelling is a powerful mode of human interaction.  Consider what a storyteller looks like when presenting versus how someone looks when reporting the news or reading a report.  There’s emotion, action, passion.  Reports are dry and neutral.  Stories are alive and engaging. Steve Jobs is a master storyteller, and the photos of him presenting the new Apple iPad today demonstrate this well.

Kimberly White / Reuters

I’ve heard very few facts about the iPad.  Instead, I’ve heard this “magical device is a more intimate personal media experience.” Not a computer without a keyboard or an over-sized mobile phone.  These phrases might sound like “spin” if we didn’t believe the story teller to be authentic.  Perhaps many people are skeptical of Steve Jobs, and for them his story will not be compelling.  This is the challenge of incorporating stories into your everyday life.

How do you become more engaging and compelling without overdoing it and winding up as a spin-doctor?

Know your audience: Adjust what you emphasize depending on the needs of the people around you.  Consider the story of the Three Pigs.  When talking to a five year-old, you might point out the concrete details of how each house is constructed and inject humor into the interactions with the wolf.  But for a 10 year-old, you might focus on the symbolism of the big bad wolf and play up how big problems arise from misplaced priorities.  The characters, facts and sequence are the same, but the tone, tenor, and supporting elements are very different.  In either case, a neutral outline of the facts or PowerPoint bullets about what happened will leave an audience underwhelmed.

Understand your venue: Is it live? Email?  A blog?  Are you in a business or family setting?  Friends or colleagues?  Short or long-term relationships?  All of these factors should affect how you tell your story and what you say.  Do you have one chance to make an impression or will there be many days/weeks/months for someone to learn it?  I did not find a press release or message of any sort about the iPad on the Apple website today.  I learned about it weeks ago in a “leak” about what might come (foreshadowing) which created some buzz and speculation.  Then I saw the building on the news this morning and an interview from a national news show where it was mentioned.  Finally, it appeared on the Yahoo! home page as reported by someone who was there to hear the announcement.  This is great storytelling, it gets you curious and pulls you along, and leaves you wanting more.

Get to the point: All of the drama and craft in the world will be for nothing if there’s not a relevant “point” to your story.  In sales it’s called the “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) statement you provide to answer your listener’s question.  Do you have a question to ask, something to teach, a request?  Your story should engage and inspire someone to act, so you need to be clear about how/what/when you want the action to occur.  Even stories used for entertainment (think movies, books, and songs) have a point.

Unless the point is to not have one, but that’s another story.

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Open source cars

wilder-young-frankensteinIn the immortal words of Dr. Frankenstein, played by Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, “It… could… work!!!!”

In my Free Advice for GM series, I suggested an “open source” model of organization as a radical way to remake SATURN into a viable brand.  Well, last week I was at a conference where Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future presented their Ten Year Forecast.  One of his examples of the future (in action today) is a company called Local Motors. Check it out, they are already running a car company along the lines I suggested for SATURN.

It’s a small scale, regionally focused car company that uses a growing base of active participants to design, build, and sell cars.  Their first model, called the Rally Fighter, was designed by a student! The Rally Fighter

Does anyone know a SATURN dealer?  Send them my way so we can create another example of building cars in a more sustainable, interesting, and profitable way.

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Feedback starts with you

For the past several months I’ve been closely observing situations where people give and receive feedback, and I’m starting to get some good insights.  It’s still a puzzle to me why feedback feels like a punch in the gut to so many people, when it is an essential component of learning and growth.  So we’re still keeping an eye on that.  In the mean time, here’s some of the latest musings and suggestions:

1. ) You First! People who ask for feedback by disclosing a concern get better results.  Let your providers know that you know you are not perfect and give them an opening like, “I think I talked way too much in the meeting today, do you think I was effective?”  Disclosure reduces the social risk that others feel when asked to tell you something could be better about your performance.  Without disclosure people will take the safe route and give you very little useful advice.

flickr image by redcrashpad

flickr image by redcrashpad

2.) Ask for Help. It is human nature to help each other, and this natural desire seems present at a very early age.  Framing your request for feedback as a need for assistance makes it easier for others to jump in.  It also signals that you are on an authentic mission of growth, which inspires others to act on your behalf.

3.) Be Persistent. Most opening requests for feedback go unanswered or get a generic response like, “Oh, you were fine.” This could be because the person has not formed a useful opinion, or because they aren’t sure you really want to know what they think (the real truth).  So you have to ask again (and again) and help your providers develop their advice for you in the process.

4.) Be Ready! You know feedback is good for you, but so far as I can tell, nobody really likes hearing the specifics of how they could do better.  So you have to be ready when someone uncovers a blind spot or gives you a critical opinion.  Take deep breaths, respect their perspective, and include it in a larger pattern of input you are receiving from several other people, over time.  It’s just their opinion, don’t over react.

Growth is a process, it takes time, and learning how you could be better at anything isn’t usually the easy way out.  Take a cue from elite athletes who have direct, specific, and repetitive feedback on every move they make.  After awhile, it’s just part of your routine and you realize you’re not going to lose your job, friends, and family just because you got some room to grow.

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