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Improve execution and accountability with a Daily Huddle

I’m in a terrific new program that networking guru Keith Ferrazzi (Never Eat Alone, Who’s Got Your Back) is running and a recent exercise asked participants to describe ways they’ve kept their teams (and themselves) accountable.  My submission got some positive feedback and it’s pretty simple, so I thought I’d share it.

I had a team of account executives in remote offices, each of whom managed a number of alumni-association partners. We weren’t always their highest priority so executing on a long list of initiatives wasn’t always easy. I started a 20-minute Daily Huddle (first thing in the AM-if you couldn’t make it, no problem) and gave each person two minutes to list their biggest accomplishment of the previous day, what they wanted to accomplish that day, and what they needed from me or someone else on the call.   I kept track of what each person wanted to accomplish and asked the next day (and for a number of days after, if need be) what was getting in the way of completing that task.  One benefit of the daily call was that other team members often  offered advice based on having dealt with a similar problem with another school and very often someone would volunteer to role-play or help in some way to get the goal accomplished.   In addition, having to outline your goals in front of others led to more tangible goals that would have a real impact on the team’s results.

As a result of this and some other execution-focused  initiatives, we renewed 100+ relationships (with no losses), protecting $250 million in revenues and significantly reducing the sponsorship fees we were paying, while increasing group-satisfaction scores by 20%.  We also surpassed our goals for launching our Affinity Checking product by 200% (endorsements and accounts).  All because we spent a little bit of time every day focusing on initiatives that would move the needle.

Interestingly, someone in the class responded to my submission with the observation that people probably worked that much harder to complete tasks and come up with good objectives for the day because they didn’t want theirs to pale by comparison to other team members.  I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s probably true

To be effective: Keep it short. Keep it focused. And try to have it at the same time every day — first thing in the AM.

How do you help your teams — or yourself — be more accountable and execute more effectively.  Please share!

By the way, we’re getting some great traffic to our new website, Consultant Launch Pad, which is helping people decide whether consulting is a viable new career path and then helping them be successful if it is…Consulting/Project work is also a great way to generate short-term income if you’re one of the long-term unemployed or Over 50s who are having challenges finding a new position.  Come check us out.

‘Creative confidence’ trumps historical indicators of future career success

Photo: Associated Press

As one group of students prepare to leave college and another batch of high-school seniors prepare to take their place, the importance of technical knowledge takes center stage.  Whether you’re talking about undergraduate or post-grad admission offices or potential employers, GPAs and test scores that demonstrate students’ abilities to get the one “right” answer are seen as the primary determinant of future potential.

David Kelley — the IDEO chairman, not the legendary creator of great TV dramas — recently energized the Stanford d.school during the opening of the design school’s new building by arguing that while technical knowledge has its place, it is far more important to teach our future leaders how to work on solving challenging problems where nobody knows the answer.  As Bob Sutton, a Stanford d.school professor who attended the speech explains it, the Stanford d.school teaches creative confidence — “the ability to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work and failing forward through the disconcerting process.”   He went on to say that the d.school process — which I discussed in a January post on its publication of the Bootcamp Bootleg — encourages people to “have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don’t work, to keep trying new ideas, and even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have  a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.”

Kelley has added a great personal-branding phrase to our lexicon.  Even without the benefit of a Stanford d.school education, I think there are a lot of people with have struggled to describe a similar skill set on a resume or interview without the benefit of the “creative confidence” phrase.   It’s a skill that many displaced corporate executives are using as they look at consulting or 1099 contract work, whether they use the phrase in the sales process or not.

But Kelley’s Not Alone In This

Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel imagined what he’d say if asked to speak to this year’s class of graduating seniors in a posting on the Huffington Post.  He also speaks of looking beyond the GPA and the job that awaits and judging oneself on a different set of criteria that mirrors this concept of creative confidence:

“What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.

I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.”

He goes on to list some questions that might help in that self-assessment; most focus on the intangible.  It’s a right-brain approach, which as Daniel Pink and others have argued in recent years is taking on increasing importance over the fact-based left-brain emphasis that has driven business for many decades.

All this resonated with me because I believe creative confidence is a more elegant way — with a bit more structure — of saying Bulldog Simplicity.  I believe schools and corporations both need to spend more time focusing on developing creative confidence.  And for those who have it, they need to spend more time documenting it as a skill and how it enables them to make a difference in their companies’ or clients’ success.

Don’t let perfect get in the way of better

I’m adding a new bullet to my What I Believe document up top, thanks to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Don’t let perfect get in the way of better,” Goodell says he told NFL owners and general managers debating changes to the league’s overtime system.

Goodell may have been right when he said there’s probably a perfect system out there.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But was the new way — giving the team that kicked off the ball if the receiving team scores a field goal to start overtime — that perfect system?  No.  But it is better than what they have.  And they’re going to continue to look for ways to make it better, including considering whether the new approach should extend to the regular season.

How many projects break down over the desire to get it absolutely perfect?  While I do believe that “good enough isn’t,” I also believe that there are many opportunities to find ways to just do things better.  Incremental change gets you closer to the promised land.  And that can mean eliminating a required signer in an approval process, getting rid of an unnecessary click-through on your website, or enabling someone to complete a form online without requiring him to print it out and fax or mail it.

A few years back, I managed a project to streamline our marketing-approval process.  For a variety of reasons, we decided to make all the changes before rolling out the new process, which included the creation of very specific job descriptions for each position in the workflow.  The goal was to not have to re-educate people more than once and we accomplished that.  But it came at the expense of an additional three or four months of working with the old process.

In retrospect, I’d have worried less about the re-education and focused more on letting people see that the changes we were making were making us more efficient and accurate.  That might have reduced the pushback and the unending debates over minute details.  And that might have both accelerated the overall process and gotten us to an even better place than where we ultimately ended up.

We just shouldn’t have let the desire for perfect get in the way of better.

This same philosophy applies to your resume, your LinkedIn profile, the cleanliness of your desk, the way you manage your teams, or any of a myriad of other day-to-day tasks.  This desire for perfection can lead to paralysis, particularly if you spend too much time knee-jerking every time anyone gives you feedback.

How about you?  How have you avoided the push for perfect and just gotten to better?

Must Read: Linchpin (the book)

Seth Godin straddled a tough line in his new book, Linchpin.

“Shut up, just shut up. You had me at hello.”

Seth Godin had me at “hello” in his new book, Linchpin.  And there’s so much to love in the book that I’ll start with that.

I’ve documented my struggles to establish a memorable brand for myself, even though my professional success has been based on creating clarity in the face of complexity.

Linchpin resolves that challenge.  It’s on the inside front cover flap:  Linchpins “invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order out of chaos.  They figure out what to do when there’s no rule book.”  OK, I now have the foundation for crystallizing my own linchpin brand.

Here are the seven traits of linchpins:

  1. Providing a unique interface between members of the organization.
  2. Delivering unique creativity
  3. Managing a situation or organization of great complexity
  4. Leading customers
  5. Inspiring staff
  6. Providing deep domain knowledge
  7. Possessing a unique talent

There’s an interesting dynamic at play.  Linchpins are people who, by definition, make themselves indispensable to an organization and therefore should be safe from layoff.  But I suspect many organizations don’t properly recognize their linchpins and might very well let them go in favor of keeping people who don’t rock the boat.  And the linchpins will, in the long run, be better off for it.

The challenge — if you’re a job-seeking linchpin — is figuring out how to highlight those traits in a way that gets you past the gatekeepers whose job it is to eliminate people who don’t perfectly fit the job description.  And linchpins rarely do, because the things they do well aren’t in the job description.

But this book is terrific for that group of people because, I suspect, they never defined themselves as linchpins; they just did the job.  It’s full of great tips on how to be better at it.  And Godin’s passion for the subject is burned into every page.

The problem — and this ties back to my use of the Jerry Maguire quote — is that Godin, who has rock-star status in many corners, is preaching to the choir.  He had me at hello, but it took 48 pages or so to get to the chapter on Becoming a Linchpin as he tried to convince me I needed to become one.  The reviews have been terrific; the adulation virtually unanimous.  But I wonder if the people who would buy this book wanted less convincing and more linchpin “tools.”

But that said, it was worth the wait.  This book is jammed with great stories — at times he could have edited more ruthlessly — and I feel I’m on a streak of three books that are changing the way I’m approaching the next chapter of my life (Switch, this one, and The Checklist Manifesto).

If you’ve read the book, how do you go about convincing a prospective employer that they should make room for a linchpin like you in their organization?

How shoveling in a blizzard can be used as a business metaphor

You may have heard that we’re getting a lot of snow here in the Northeast.

I don’t have a snow blower or a plow attached to my SUV, but I have a 17-year-old (although the concept of shoveling is more alien to teenagers today than it was when I was growing up in Buffalo).

Shoveling last week wasn’t much fun.  My neighbor offered me the use of his snow blower, but he got nervous about the sound of his motor in the face of so much heavy, wet snow that he asked if it was OK that I didn’t use it (metaphor for this post: dealing with a reduction in resources).  So I go inside and get the teenager (after the wife expresses reluctance to pay for a guy to plow).  The wife — for the purposes of this post — is the manager who has lost his or her mind, but that’s another story.

So this week, I decide to re-engineer the process. Recognizing that we’re looking at another 24 inches of snow — and the wife doesn’t seem to be budging on her “no paying for plowing” edict — I change my approach as the snowstorm kicked off Tuesday night around 6.

  • 9:45  p.m., Tuesday:  Went outside and got rid of the first 3-4 inches.  Went pretty quickly.  Used my Snowovel (a great invention combining wheels and a shovel) and the snow was light and fluffy.
  • 8:30 a.m., Wednesday:  Went outside with the 12-year-old to get the overnight snow (with the prospect of the big blizzard coming after 11 a.m.).  Nobody else outside, except one guy trying to move the wet snow with his undersized snow blower.  He gave up quickly.  Rest of neighborhood sleeps in.  Max needs lots of instruction (not a Buffalo native; he’s from this area where everyone is excited that we’re going to break the season record of 50-something inches, which is a light week of snow in Buffalo).  I just put on the iPod and get rid of another eight inches of wet, heavy snow.  Teenager comes out for last 30 minutes.  Wants to know why I let him sleep.  Told him I woke him up but he must have fallen back asleep.  He saves his life by apologizing in a believable manner.
  • 3 p.m., Wednesday.  Headed outdoors for the 12-14 inches we’ve gotten since 11 a.m.  Neighbors are working, looking irritated.  My task was easier than everyone else, but still pretty ugly.  My strategy appears to have saved me a heart issue and was a decent alternative to the EFX. 
  • 7 p.m., Wednesday.  Just looked outside.  Lots of blowing and drifting.  More snow.  Some people haven’t touched their driveways yet.  They’re pretty much screwed tomorrow.  Wife just told me she’s impressed with my effort and she’s OK with hiring a plow tomorrow.  Says I better use those negotiating skills I keep bragging about to keep the price down.  My wife doesn’t know it, but her 360-feedback just headed north.

Moral of the story.  When faced with a problem that involves a big hassle over time, Bulldog Simplicity says break it up into smaller pieces.  If the CEO sees that you’re working at it, good things might happen.  If he (or she) sees that you’re working at it and doesn’t much care, you’ve at least made your job easier over the longer term.  Leaving the problem until it’s really built up means you’re either looking at a really big problem or the need to throw a lot more money at the problem.

Must Read: Bootcamp for great ideas

 I see a lot of job postings where an MBA is required.  I don’t have an MBA so that’s a problem.

That’s why a recent NY Times article about reinventing the MBA curriculum got my attention.  As one person put it, “At business school, there was a lot of focus on ‘You’ve got a great idea; here’s how to build a business out of it.’  The d.school said, ‘Here’s how you get to that great idea.'”

The “d.school” is a reference to the growth in “design thinking,” which emphasizes a focus on human needs to decide what problems need to be addressed.  There’s an engineering focus to all this (the Stanford d.school is part of the Engineering School), but that’s missing the point of today’s posting.

So here’s the point of the blog.  The Stanford d.school has posted a terrific document on its site that is a fairly short primer on the various concepts that drive the development of great ideas.  The D.School Bootcamp Bootleg starts with seven mindsets — including “Bias Toward Action” and “Create Clarity From Complexity” (my favorite) and “Show, Don’t Tell.”  It goes on to introduce modes like “empathize,” “define,” and “test.”  And then it outlines a variety of strategies (or methods) that are integral to design thinking.

Lest this sound overly academic — and some of them will lead your eyes to glaze over a bit — there are some great ideas you can use to better understand your customers or come up with that “one big thing” before you go too far down the road. 

Business books seem to be getting shorter lately…and packed with more usable information.  This one is less than 40 pages and well worth your time.

Read through it.  Think about how you’ve used the concepts without actually knowing you were employing design thinking.  Pick some things to try.  Keep them if they work and try something else if they don’t. 

Use this document — but think of it as a toolkit — and when the time comes perhaps you can overcome the lack of an MBA with a skill set that enables you to develop great, marketable ideas.

How about you?  How have you used some of these methodologies — interviewing for empathy, powers of 10, and so on — to fine tune your ideas?  What worked and what didn’t?

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Sometimes the best deal is no deal.
In these difficult economic times, it would be easy to see an RFP as a great opportunity to add desperately needed revenues.  That’s not always true.  I advise clients to ask themselves a few key questions before they commit the resources (and the distraction) to respond to an RFP.  Among those questions:
  • Is this opportunity a good fit for us from a strategic point of view (e.g.., does it open new markets, keep a competitor out, better serve a key customer)?
  • Is the incumbent participating?  If not, why not?
  • What’s the client’s financial situation?  And the corollary to that one, is this a client we would be proud to be associated with?
  • Did we influence the RFP specifications?  If we didn’t, who did?  And did that person or organization insert specifications that make it a bad deal for us?
  • What is their budget?  Why are they issuing an RFP?
  • Do we understand the decision process? If so, are we in a good position?
  • Is the client really looking for a new partner or is this a way for them to get some free consulting/fresh ideas that they will turn over to the “winner?”
  • Is this a proposal that can be won with a strong value proposition or is the decision going to be made on the basis of money?  And do you care?

In many cases, the consultant driving the RFP or the company itself (if it is working without a consultant) may put something in the document that says you can’t ask questions or get additional information (or that you have to go through the consultant).  Your goal in those situations should be to change the ground rules and find out all you can about this opportunity.  In a future blog, I’ll talk about ways you can do that and still get the business.

If you want it.