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Archive for the ‘change agent’ Category

You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


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Rock, by Olivier Blanchard

“Individuals behave in a difficult manner because they have learned that doing so keeps others off balance and incapable of effective action. Worst of all, they appear immune to all the usual methods of
communication and persuasion designed to convince or help them change their ways.”
– Robert Bramson, Ph.D.

I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why some people are so vehemently opposed to change, progress or new ideas that they will exert more energy fighting them than embracing them. I am sorry to hear that so many of you are dealing with this. I don’t have a lot of advice to give you there, except this:

Far be it from me to suggest that every new idea and every bit of change is positive. Success, after all, is more often than not the result of countless failures – some calculated, others not. I completely understand how and why intelligent professionals would (and should) be suspicious of new ideas. Due diligence does play a significant role in effectively adopting new ideas and making them work. No question.

But some people resist change no matter what. These are not people who take the time to analyze a new idea or concept, run scenarios, try to figure out contingencies, look for lateral opportunities, and get around potential pitfalls along the way. These are just difficult people who enjoy being roadblocks.

Perhaps it makes them feel important: If they can’t actually be agents of change, at least they can be agents of un-change.

Maybe it’s all one big ego trip. A passive-aggressive power play.

Maybe it’s just that making sure that things don’t change defaults to predictability in their professional ecosystem, and predictability equals security. The less you change, the less you rock the boat, the safer you are.

Which makes sense when you realize that people who tend to become human roadblocks have made a career out of doing essentially nothing. (Doing something is what their staff is for.) There can only be security in doing nothing when the alternative (doing something) can be sold to senior management as a high-risk, low reward proposition.

Maybe it’s a little bit of everything: Laziness, insecurity, ego. You name it.
One thing is certain: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Human roadblocks are wired to be the way they are. No amount of logic, enthusiasm or even authority will change them. Or move them, for that matter.
Just like speed bumps, they are there to stay. Just like speed bumps, you have to slow down when you get close to one of them. And just like speed bumps, they’re pretty easy to roll over or get around once you have a clear view of where you want to go.
The thing about human roadblocks is that they don’t go anywhere. Come back in ten years, they’ll still be exactly where they are, doing the same damn thing. Maybe some of you can take some solace in that.
So my advice to you today is this: Don’t go mistaking speed bumps for 500 foot cliffs. They’re just speed bumps. Just keep doing what you are doing, and don’t let anyone stop you from getting the job done.
If you are clearly outnumbered, however… run like hell. ;D

Regardless of whom at work is giving you a rough time, have a great Monday.

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Seattle, by Olivier Blanchard - 2008

Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

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tribes-cover

The value of communities to the well-being and growth of businesses and organizations which serve them became crystal clear to me again today. (Not that it wasn’t already clear, but it’s important to revisit this sort of thing with real life examples as often as possible.)

I was chatting with a group of very experienced entrepreneurs about business organizations and networks when it struck me: In the B2B world, doing your part to ensure that your business community is healthy, informed, well connected and engaged is probably the most important thing you can do to foster the type of environment most suitable to create net new clients.

This has traditionally been the role of Chambers of Commerce, but we are starting to see that Social Media are giving rise to new types of business communities (Or as Seth might call them, business tribes.) This isn’t to say that the Chamber of Commerce model is dead or dying – far from it – but it is important to note that the dynamics of how and why business communities come to be are changing.

Ten years ago, Chambers of Commerce, professional organizations and country clubs were pretty much the only real viable option for businesses when it came to joining and leveraging premier business networks. Today, through the advent of Social Media, individuals and businesses have the ability to a) create their own business networks and communities, b) do so on their own terms, and c) do it all for free.

How can Chambers of Commerce remain healthy and relevant in this new age? Simple: Reconnect with the communities they serve. Shed the “business club” image, let the networking become landscape rather than focus, and engage their communities in a way that will truly elevate them. This is clearly a ‘leadership through service’ type of mission as opposed to a “build it and they will come” vision. Some organizations are already there, but many still haven’t made that transition.

Remember that thing about leadership in action being an irresistible draw? This is what organizations need to tap into. Don’t worry so much about membership growth, “relevance” and networking. Just get out there and make something happen. Act as the catalyst and the connector. Leverage networks to recruit volunteers, not members, and help them connect through projects they can really sink their teeth into. The self-serving rewards will come, but only if you don’t make them your focus.

In order for a Chamber of Commerce membership to make sense, a member business should have to commit to actually paying something forward (and I don’t mean annual membership dues). Ask yourself this: As a business owner, what can you give back to the business community? How can you help? How can you establish yourself as a unique resource? Do you have a skill? A bucket of knowledge or insight? A gift for teaching or motivating? Then put it to good use: Start something. Get a few of your fellow business owners together and start a program to bring hope and ideas to troubled public schools (those with high dropout rates). Tell kids about your success story. Let them know that owning a business isn’t something that is limited to “rich people.” Inspire them. Plant seeds. Lift them up. Mentor them if they ask you to. As a business community organizer, ask yourself how you can create these types of opportunities and actually generate results you and your partners in crime can be proud of. There’s a start.

Community leadership begins with a) being a catalyst for growth opportunities and b) acting as a connector. Some business organizations do so better than others, but the mere fact that many Chambers of Commerce no longer play that role in their communities tells me that something is missing in their focus. Perhaps some Chambers are suffering from an identity crisis. Perhaps they have served larger businesses too long, or haven’t focused enough on involving younger entrepreneurs and business owners. Perhaps they have pigeon-holed themselves and don’t know how to return to their small business roots. Sometimes, when companies and organizations have been doing the same thing in the same way with the same people for a very long time, they can lose touch with the world outside their four walls. It might not seem that way from within, but when most of the community you serve can’t tell you with clarity or certainty what your company or organization does for them, trust me: You aren’t connecting.

And if you’re only touching 10% of the businesses or potential customers in your community, you aren’t connecting either. It’s time to make a change.

First: Tactics and tools:

Digital networking: Any organization that is in the community building business must know how to wield social media tools like a marketing ninja. Period. This isn’t up for debate. It isn’t enough to have a website and a newsletter. If you don’t have active FaceBook and Linked-In groups, you’re already falling behind. (Emphasis on “active.” Just having a group and doing nothing with it = zero impact.) If you don’t have a community space (check out Ning.com for a simple platform), you’re also missing the boat. If you also aren’t leveraging Twitter – or haven’t yet invited some of your leaders to contribute to a community/Chamber blog or online publication – I have to ask… how exactly are you engaging with your business community?

Physical networking (yeah, the old fashioned kind): Organize, sponsor, host and manage events, but gear them to benefit non-members as much as members. Radical idea? Not really: Connecting your members is a great idea, but sooner or later, your network becomes an echo chamber. What you need to do is reach out, not pull in. As with most organization with hefty membership fees, there seems to be a wall that goes up between members and non-members once money is exchanged. Whether real or perceived, that wall doesn’t do anyone any good. Tear it down. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t continue to offer members-only events and perks, but in order to grow, you also have to increase your focus on true community involvement. That’s where the magic is. That’s where leadership happens. That’s where relevance is built.

Offer mentor programs and pair members with non-members. Partner with the best of the best in particular fields – accounting, law, HR, advertising, IT, professional services – and create mini conferences to help members and non-members alike come together and learn things they otherwise might not. Create a small business assistance program through which distressed small business owners can receive emergency advice from a group of experienced business leaders. Create groups for specific verticals and industries – retail, foodservice, law firms, freelancers, manufacturers, etc. The possibilities are endless. (And if you are already doing all of these things, go back to the digital networking section of this post and ask yourself how you can leverage social media to promote your events and activities. You probably aren’t doing enough there.

If you aren’t doing these things yet, or aren’t doing them well, you are being outpaced by much smaller, younger, savvier organizations, and your brain trust is being recruited away. Once the brain trust starts to go, so do relevance, value, and of course, membership.

Second: Mindset.

These lessons are relevant to individual businesses as well: Stop thinking about your market as a giant phone book, and stop thinking of sales as “sales.” Become a connector. Become a facilitator. Reach out to people and companies in need, and offer to help. Make things happen. (You know… like bridge the gap between idea and execution?) Surround yourself with the best people and businesses and help them get even better at what they do. Use every means at your disposal to strengthen your neighborhood, your community, your industry, and help them all move forward. There’s your value.

It may seem silly to some, but the idea of “paying it forward” has its place in the business world, especially during tough economic times. Not just as an exercise on in good karma or for the sake of doing good deeds, but in strengthening the foundations of the community without whose support your business will fail. Just by connecting the right people, you can plant the seeds of a relationship that will keep one, two, perhaps three businesses afloat for another year – which may be all they need to get cooking again. Most of my clients come from referrals. Many of my friends’ clients are referrals as well. Without our network, without the constant drive to connect good people to other good people, without a taste for helping each other out, none of us would be as successful as we have been. Fact: Business is about relationships. Just like Social Media. Just like Word of Mouth marketing. Just like building strong brands. All of these things are interconnected.

Once you understand the vital connection that exists between you and your community, this kind of stuff becomes crystal clear.

If you haven’t done so already, click on Seth’s presentation (above) and take a few minutes to take it all in. Understanding Tribes, absorbing it, even, may be the most important thing you’ll do all year. It may even be the one thing that will save your business in this challenging economy.

If you haven’t joined your local Chamber of Commerce lately, perhaps you should. Only this time around, instead of asking what your Chamber can do for you, ask… well, you know. 😉

Leadership starts with you. Bouncing back from the troubled economy starts with you. (If we’ve learned anything these last few weeks, it’s that it sure as hell won’t start with either Wall Street, Detroit or Washington.) It’s all in your hands now. Our hands. And you know what? That’s the best economic news I’ve heard all year!

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 😉

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unlearn

Yesterday, we talked a little bit about the value of talent vs. the value of experience, and we established, thanks to Shunryu Suzuki, that “in the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind, there are few”. Today, let’s look at experience a little bit – particularly the concept of experts. Here’s a little something from David Armano:

If the “expert” label gets thrown my way, I don’t give it much thought. It’s just a label that helps people wrap their heads around something abstract to make it more concrete. Sometimes we need to categorize in order to make sense of things.

The thing is, I’ll never see myself as an expert.

You might think that’s humbling. I only wish I were that humble. I’ll never see myself as an expert, because once you’ve convinced yourself that you are one—that’s the moment your ability to see the world differently begins to decline. Expert eyes know what to look for. They can also be the eyes that miss the most obvious insights which lead to the most elegant of solutions.

Read Dave’s entire post here, and watch this killer presentation.

My kids aren’t experts at anything, yet the complete absence of bullshit inside their brains allows them to see things more clearly than industry execs with 30 years of experience, and spell out the obvious better than any contributing analyst on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News combined. Go figure. The wisdom of children, which we have a tendency to patronize a little too much these days, is often as surprisingly spot-on as their honesty is refreshing. This leads me to believe that perhaps the least valuable thing anyone can be is an expert. At anything.

Here’s more from David:

I believe that when you know too much—it takes away from your creativity and your ability to see things from different perspectives. I’ve been thinking about this quite it bit. I’ve been having mixed feelings regarding the specialized degrees that are being marketed to us, promising to turn us into design thinkers, creative strategists etc. Steve Jobs, the original design thinker was a college drop out. What does this tell us?

I’m happy to see the business world take creative problem solving seriously and I’m certainly not against higher education or any of the new programs. But I’m also wary of what happens when we perceive ourselves as experts who have been trained in the black art of [insert profession here].

The most brilliant ideas I’ve seen in the market, as well as some of the most inspired designs and solutions I have been fortunate to be a part of, didn’t come from a roundtable of experts with a century of combined specialized experience. They came from the most junior people on the team. They came from every day users. They came more from inspired play than nose-to-the-grindstone work. It’s almost a cliche these days, yet it is still the exception rather than the rule.

Don’t believe me? Okay, think about this: Ten years ago, the expert was Nescafe, not Starbucks. Look around. How valuable is expertise these days? The business world is changing so fast, anyone who takes the time to become an expert at anything is bound to be outpaced inside of 6 months. Unless you’re an expert in sub-Saharan survival or antique typewriter repair, you’re pretty much done for.

Ask me how many PR “experts” with decades of practical experience I know who have absolutely no clue how to use social media (or why this doesn’t bode well for their “expert” status).

How many very well paid “experts” thought they had it all figured out on Wall Street and Detroit just twelve short months ago?

Who are the experts now?

Why in the world would anyone want to be caught dead anywhere near that kind of label?

So… Again, the argument of experience vs. talent yesterday. Worth talking about with your friends and colleagues next time you’re out having drinks… or coffee… or croissants.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

– Steve Jobs

Next time an HR manager tells you that you didn’t get the job because you don’t have enough experience I guess they would have preferred more “expertise”), do me a favor: Try not to laugh.

Have a great Thursday, everyone. 🙂

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Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

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