Monday, November 26, 2012

Leaders are expert kissers!

KISS for leaders: Keep, Increase, Start and Stop.  ~Nick Obolensky

I don't know about anyone else, but for me, it always feels like the weekend after Thanksgiving life turns into a sprint to Christmas.  Even though I no longer buy gifts, there are still cards to send, events to attend and projects I desperately want to complete before the end of the year.  Given that backdrop, it was a great reminder this week to read the words of UK-based leadership development consultant, Nick Obolensky

Most of us have heard the acronym for KISS as either "keep it simple stupid," or "keep it short and simple."  Nick's version was created specifically for leaders – Keep, Increase, Start, and Stop.  He says that the "Stops" are hardest for leaders to identify because we all like to think that everything we do is important.  Nick has found that it's actually the "Stops" that end up achieving the most significant positive results for the executives he counsels.

Nick shares a wonderful example.  A marketing executive was instructed by his CEO to join a team that would be meeting one day per week and that demand made him angry.  The executive worked with his assistant to eliminate some of the work he did and meetings that he typically attended in order to free up one day each week.  Some time later, Nick saw this executive and asked him why this had made him so angry.  His reply:  "Nobody noticed."

We all like to think that everything we do makes a difference, but the reality is everything doesn't.  So how do we find those tasks, meetings, projects, etc. that really matter?  I think we experiment and hold ourselves accountable to what we observe.  "Time" fascinates me.  It's something that we all have the exact same amount of.  It doesn't matter if you’re male/female, black/white, rich/poor, we all have 24 hours each day – no more, no less.  That means the only way to increase time or start something new is to stop doing something else.  We can't run to Target and buy more time.  We can only get more time by stopping something. So we have to stop some things and then see what happens.  Did anybody notice?

This week I had an interesting conversation with my financial advisor.  He manages many millions of dollars of assets for hundreds of clients.  He's always been very successful and is one of the hardest working people I know.  He told me that several years ago he released over $23 million in assets he managed to another financial advisor and he's preparing to nearly double that number and release another $40+ million.  He's going to "stop" trying to serve clients who aren't a good fit for him (many times that "fit" is more about personality than it is dollars).  He'll then be able to devote more time to serving the clients he enjoys by giving them better service.  He said that last time he did this he expected his income to decrease.  But the opposite happened, his income actually increased.

I'll be the first to admit that this sounds counterintuitive.  If I "stop" doing some things I’ll actually become more productive.  I'll become more productive because I will have made room for new things and more important things that really do matter. 

The mad rush of the holidays is a great reminder for leaders to work on their KISSing skills.  What should you Keep, Increase, Start, and Stop?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who's got the hot potato?

Ownership is a personal commitment beyond dedication and completing a task with excellence.  Ownership means avoiding excuses, accepting absolute responsibility, and owning the results.  It is not for personal gain.  When a person owns the outcome, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause.  It is the relentless pursuit of success. ~Donald Todrin

The hot potato is that "thing" in your organization that no one seems to "own."  Sure, it's included in someone's job description, maybe even several job descriptions.  You might even be able to say that they are completing the task with excellence.  But, at the end of the day, they aren't accepting absolute responsibility and owning the results.  It's a hot potato that is tossed to someone else to "own."

I've come across this challenge of ownership in a number of organizations and I've been asking myself, "why"?  Is it that sometimes we just don't see that we need to be owners, or is there something else that's keeping us from going full-throttle into ownership? 

I stumbled upon a theory in an HBR blog comment.  This blogger said that the Prospect Theory suggests that our willingness to take action depends upon the reference point -- whether or not the person "owns" the decision.  So I searched for several definitions of the Prospect Theory.  Here's what I learned. 

It's a behavioral economic theory.  Prospect Theory says that people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome.  We base decisions on perceived gains rather than perceived losses.  Thus, if a person were given two equal choices, one expressed in terms of possible gains and the other in possible losses, people would choose the former.  This is also known as the "loss-aversion theory."  The HBR blogger says that if someone "owns" a decision they would consider the pain of giving up.  If someone doesn't "own" it, he considers the pleasure of getting it.

This makes sense to me. You can include any task in someone's job description, but whether or not they "own" it is a decision they have to make themselves.  This is a behavioral theory; we’re really asking someone to behave as an owner.

Todrin also says:
Creativity, decisiveness, leadership, and sensitivity (if required) are all factors that are involved in this ownership quality. Not only this, but the person must also be able to accept responsibility without question and make decisions in the face of changing circumstances. A person who takes ownership will do whatever it takes, and will be whatever is needed to succeed.
Although it is true that many individuals do their jobs, the downfall is that they still wait to be told what to do.  These workers wait to be reviewed and assessed and take few chances.  However, this is not the definition of ownership.  Perhaps these people can make great employees.  But, they are not the employees who will find great resolutions and forge ahead despite the barriers.
Conclusion: Leaders are owners and owners are leaders.  Anything less isn't leadership.    

Monday, November 12, 2012

Restrictions will set you free!

We're paralyzed by infinite possibilities.  Give yourself some intentional restrictions in life and you’ll finally get inspired to act.  Restrictions will set you free.  ~Derek Sivers

We tend to think that a blank canvass will spark creativity.  That if we remove enough barriers employees will suddenly become inspired and innovation will flourish in every corner of our organizations.  Could it be that the exact opposite might be true?

Derek Sivers is a musician and the creator of, which became the largest online seller of independent music.  Derek provides this example:

I say to you "Write me a piece of music.  Anything at all.  Go."  "Umm…anything?” you say.  "What kind of mood are you looking for?  What genre?"
There are too many possibilities.  The blank page problem.  How do you begin with infinity?
Now imagine I say, "Write me a piece of music, using only a xylophone, a flute, and a shoe box.  You can only use four notes: B, C, E, F, and only two notes at a time.  It has to be in ¾ time, start quiet, get loud, then get quiet by the end.  Make it sound like a ladybug dancing with an acorn.  Go."
Ah…your imagination has already begun writing the music as soon as it hears the limitations.  This is easy!
Those of us in developed countries have a blank page.  We can do anything.  Anything we want.   And that's the problem.  We're paralyzed by the infinite possibilities.
I've seen this thinking within organizations frequently and I've done it myself.  Give people lots of freedom and they'll be creative.  Instead, they become paralyzed.  They return to their offices and keep doing what they've been doing; nothing innovative or even new or different materializes.      

Testing has shown that restrictions actually aid creative thought.  An art guild in Colorado took that finding literally and created an entire show based on restrictions.  Each artist was limited to a 1' x 1' canvass.  They believed that if they put certain limits on things, it would force artists to see things in different ways and stretch their abilities.

Disney believes that when you have unlimited resources, you can afford to be sloppy with your designs. Restrictions introduce a set of rules that you cannot change so you are forced to be creative in order to come up with a solution.

Think about something you have wanted to accomplish but it's stalled; it's not moving forward.  Identify specific restrictions, work within those restrictions, and then watch your creativity and innovation soar.  Your restrictions will set you free!

Monday, November 5, 2012

The subhuman morass of non-engagement...

We need to learn how to reason with one another.  When you don’t have reason, you just collapse into a subhuman morass of non-engagement.  ~N.T. Wright

Here we are, Election Day 2012.  I heard a lecture recently by theologian N.T. Wright, and I couldn't help but think of many applications for the concept he presented—differentiated unity—including the politically polarized nation we have become.

Over the past several months, whenever I've logged onto Facebook I've been taken aback by the certainty in which many of my Facebook friends have expressed their political views.  The word "certainty" can be defined as either perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.  Either way, we're stating our views in a way that indicates there is no room for reason because we are "certain."

N.T. Wright would say that we've allowed our diversity to become destructive because of the collapse of discourse.  In discourse, "you use reason to argue from premises [or assumptions] to conclusions so you can see why you disagree with people" says Wright.  The last phrase of that sentence is worth repeating…so you can see why you disagree with people.  He didn't say, so that you can prove why you are right and others are wrong.  Dr. Wright would say that we are not engaged in discourse but in bits and pieces of a shouting match.

Wright also suggests that the 21st century is not a story of progress but a story of grace.  It's a story of grace because of our rich diversity.  That diversity extends well beyond our political views.  Even as I write this, I can think of several of my social media contacts who are in India and Africa.  These contacts aren't U.S. citizens who've moved to these countries.  These are people I've come in contact with because we really do live in a global society.  That means we can't escape diversity.  We can't go back.  It's here to stay. 

The alternative to these shouting matches is differentiated unity.  This is not a new term, but the concept is probably new to many of us.  The simplest definition is "a community of people who are united in their diversity."  It means we will maintain unity even when faced with cultural differences.  We will still have boundaries, but we will identify the differences that do make a difference and the differences that don't make a difference.

This doesn't stop with our political views, by a long shot.  Destructive diversity has worked its way into our organizations.  Destructive diversity manifests itself in conflict and many times we prefer to avoid conflict and instead we allow destructiveness to fester.  We don't want to "see why we disagree with people."  We want to argue our position and show everyone else why we are right.  Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, said "You can either practice being right or practice being kind."

Wright's vivid image of the subhuman morass of non-engagement is one I'd prefer not to emulate.  As leaders, we are challenged to model differentiated unity.  Imagine for a moment what it would look like if within your organization you were able to make the simple (yet difficult) shift from debating to prove who's right, to engaging in reason to see why you disagree with people