Category Archives: Clarifying the Story

The good news is: I understand your thinking…

Yesterday, I caught a very brief segment on talk radio where a well-intentioned gentleman was explaining a solution that reduced energy consumption by turning off more lights at night. As a good interviewer does, Jerry Agar asked questions about the rationale for this endeavour. I was impressed at how quickly the guest (who I could not find on the site!) explained the connections that he was making, The train of thought is this:

  • If people trust each other, they are more comfortable in the dark.
  • One way to know that it is dark is that you can see stars (He actually said “the milky way.”)
  • So, the ability to see the milky way is a great indicator of how much people trust each other.
  • Let’s turn off the lights and start trusting!

Making connections between indicators and such fuzzy concepts as “degree of trust,” is a worthwhile, yet very difficult task. The impressive part of his explanation was not the logical connections, but the comfort that he had in telling another person how he had put it together.

My professional network contains some experts in philosophy who I will consult for a more technical critique of this reasoning than “Huh?!” In my humble opinion, this gentleman made a horrible argument, but I can’t stress enough the effectiveness of his clarity and willingness to reveal his thinking. A clearly explained whacky argument is easier for everyone to address than an obfuscated description that you have to untangle. The former, we know to ignore or, if we like the guy, give some very blunt critique. The latter takes much more time and energy before we get anywhere.

So, full marks for clarity. Let’s work on the logic,

Collaborating for Automobile Safety

It has been almost 3 years since Toyota embarked on a collaborative partnership to address automobile safety. The Collaborative Safety Research Center in Ann Arbour Michigan has grown to include dozens of academic and social sector organizations united to improve the world of automobile safety. In the rearview mirror this is a rich collaborative exercise pursuing a noble cause. A web search for “Toyota” and “safety” in March 2014 will provide very important context to the venture as you sift through accounts of the $1.2B admission of wrongdoing that resulted in human deaths and in harsh criticism of the automakers modus operandi.

Often revered for its dogged focus on quality, the culture at Toyota contributed greatly to the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement and to many quality principles used pervasively today, not just in manufacturing, but in a variety of disciplines. It appears that “safety” somehow got uncoupled from “quality” with devastating results. When external perceptions don’t match the internal realities, the company has a PR problem. When an internal flaw has been exposed because of dire consequences to customers, the problem is different and much deeper.

Steven Berlin Johnson starts off his book Future Perfect discussing how progress in airplane safety has far outstripped progress in any other aspect of air travel. Statistics routinely tout air travel as safer than driving, and this is no mean achievement. (Note: Presumably science and tech innovation could not have prevented the yet unclear result of Malaysia Air’s recent tragedy.) Similarly, the Engineering and Technical institutions involved in the work with Toyota will no doubt achieve great results in moving the needle on automobile safety. Even with this progress, at some level, all drivers appreciate the myriad of risks involved in heading out on any road in any vehicle.

For Toyota’s part in this, the bigger question is: “how was driver safely allowed to slip on the priority scale in so many aspects of the business?” The CSRC will no doubt get more attention in the aftermath of the recent US legal decision. Potentially these events will result in the world being a safer and better place with increased attention on vehicle safety. This will be consolation only to the most philosophical of those directly affected by the shortcomings. Practices at Toyota may indeed change so that “safety” plays a clearer role. If so, the claims in its vision statement won’t ring as hollow as they do today.


What to do when enough is clearly enough

When I have taught MBAs Negotiations, some of the richest conversations about “how it really works” vs. how it is supposed to work. There are always references to specific individuals in the organization who seem to inhabit different worlds. Part of the education is to build skills in understanding and empathizing with other world views with the mantra that “reasonable people can reasonably disagree” about just about anything. The opportunity is to find an intersecting interest, which can be fulfilled despite differing underlying biased perceptions. This can be quite a psychological dance, and takes skill, perseverance, humility and patience in the real world.

I found myself recently looking up an article that had shown up in a previous course reading list: “Negotiating with Disordered People” by Elizabeth Jeglic and Alexander Jeglic. The article describes, from a clinical perspective, some of the common mental health issues in society. Such conditions may not only go untreated, but may even enable people’s corporate upward mobility. The Jeglics stop short of prescribing actions and strategies suggesting that is beyond the scope of the reading.

The net-net of the reading, from my perspective, is that when encountering a difference of opinion, there is some room between “Let me try to understand your perspective on this,” and “Wow! Are you serious?” I experience the latter when listening to Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford, and his city councillor brother Doug this week. What do you do when you are dealing with someone whose world is such that because something happened in the past, it is no longer relevant. (What doesn’t happen in the past?)

I really liked Chris Selley’s advice from the National Post earlier this week. (Note: this was before the infamous “Crack Tuesday”) Selley says to ignore them and withdraw the attention that appears to be the pair’s lifeblood. That is difficult to do, but it is a reasoned strategy called “avoid.” Cornered people can be dangerous; the response from a marginalized person tends to be much less dramatic simply because the audience is thinner. (As a distinct action in that direction, I just un-followed Rob Ford on Twitter.)

Business Ethics Professor, Chris MacDonald discusses the ethical implications of working for such an individual. This is a worthwhile discussion because as information seeps out, those closer to the situation always get an early look as the worm turns on such scandals.

For more junior employees, he says that “keeping your job” is one of the relevant considerations in determining how to address such a boss. In the spirit of freedom of choice, one would expect anyone working under such a leader to start looking for an exit strategy. Selfishly, given the “small world” nature of many industries, there is a downside to being seen as an enabler: beware of being tainted by an association that went on too long.

He goes on to say that for those further up the authority ladder, the loyalty should lie with the company’s mission, not with the leader. The more clarity the organizations have regarding the good they are trying to accomplish (including for whom), the easier it will be to make a reasoned appeal to others to move away from an unhinged leader and toward a greater good. As a preventative measure, clarity on the specific nature of value makes it easier to see when slight or sudden veers off track. This clarity allows a reasonable person to say “It is not that I am ganging up on you; it’s just that what you are doing is limiting our ability to (insert clear mission).”

In short, do what you can, which may include leaving, developing political workarounds, colluding, confronting or any number of other actions. Once enough is clearly enough, there is a shared responsibility to act.

Do the right thing vs. Don’t do anything wrong

There is a fantastic “smartest-guy-in-the-room” scene from the movie Apollo 13. U.S. astronauts are stranded in space aboard a damaged spacecraft; chaotic discussion ensues until “John” emerges, confident and clean-cut, to point the way: It’s about power. Without power nothing else works. Conserve power and they have a chance.

Fast forward through the great scene where they construct an air filter using only on-board materials (Relax, they had duct tape). Failure was not an option and the mission succeeds. The astronauts return to Earth.

Such scenes can be heartwarming in that the person who knew what they were talking about (the expert) was able to convince important people (boss and group) to do right thing, and the result was success. In the context of an obvious crisis, the “right thing” becomes clear. In many instances, such disagreements as whether or not we even have a crisis (e.g. climate change) make it very difficult to have the “right-thing” discussion, let alone how we will judge success.

This week at Ryerson University, I attended an event that explored this idea of “doing right thing,” and also waded into who are the “right people” to be doing it, namely leaders in government and in corporations. The entire talk is here.

Here are some of my high points:

Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page described his role, which struck me as similar to “John” in the Apollo 13 clip. It was his job to generate good information for decision makers. He did not have the luxury of operating in an obvious crisis, which is the lot of anyone doing 75-year financial projections. His overriding mission (e.g. success) was: “we want to have a prosperous country.”

Note: In his commentary, Sheldon Levy aptly names such a clear focus a personal “North Star.”

Kevin spoke of standing on principle, and I got the sense that he would have been able to defend every single action that he took as contributing to “a prosperous country” or identifying the risk of actions that threatened that pursuit. For him, this was the divide between right and wrong, which appeared to give focus to his role and purpose. This was not about securing his personal career, so there would be no pandering to partisan influences. His calling was higher. He and his team sought out experts to get accurate costing on plans that would cost a lot of money. Things that cost a lot of money have a greater chance of impacting long-term prosperity. The logic is unflappable.

He seemed genuinely surprised at the propensity of elected officials to make decisions without understanding the impact. If a reasonable person faced a policy decision that brought long-term implications (e.g. changes in court sentencing that would see more people serve time in penitentiaries), this reasonable person would want to know how much it cost, wouldn’t they?

It turns out the answer was sometimes, “No,” which is a natural human response.

  • When you take the student loans for education, do you really want to know how long you will be debt-laden?
  • When you buy the membership to the gym, do you really want to know who little you will use it?
  • When you celebrate with a steak dinner, red wine and cheesecake, do you really want to know how long you will have jog to burn it all off?

He also described an environment of fear, which was echoed in Maryantonett Flumian’s comments. She seemed to be asking: “When did ‘do the right thing’ give way to ‘don’t do anything wrong’?” She lamented a shift from internally driven principles and ethics to externally imposed rules and regulations. Will we return to these good old days?

Chris MacDonald at Ryerson curated an exceptional event. These conversations will continue and have as much implication for individuals as they do for the governments, corporations and other organizations that employ people. We look forward to the continued dialogue.


Purpose revisited: looking at the “why? (Survey Insights Part 5)

Our Summer Survey revealed a potential problem that employees have in finding a sense of purpose in their work. This was spurred by the finding that while leadership feels the work provides opportunities to matter, employees don’t seem to find it.

Our previous post suggested that organizations could take some responsibility to be clearer about how they pursue economic success, including the forgoing of maximized returns in order to pursue something non-economic that matters. As an example of this latter point, consider Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s decision to forgo quarterly reporting claiming it distracted from long-term sustainable business activities. He explains his rationale here.

From an investor perspective, this money-where-your-mouth-is approach appears to be working: after a sudden dip 4 years ago right after the change, the stock price is back to pre-crash levels. So would an organization like this, with this kind of CEO, continue to thrive by attracting and retaining the right employees? The right customers? Time always tells, but right now, no one knows for sure. Perhaps, this consistency and clarity makes it easier for both employees and customers to know what to expect. The onus will be on all other actions and policies to align as much as possible with this obvious focus on sustainability. Maybe compensation incentives will tie to long-term results. In Seymour Schulich’s book Get Smarter, he counsels any organization to pay out bonuses 12 months hence. The message is we want you to stick around.

Simply because we see an organization as a collection of human beings, we will suggest that a good chunk of the “purpose” equation sits with the individual employee. What do you want out of this job? Your life? These are big questions and answers may take a lifetime of thought and reflection. When Simon Sinek roles out the golden circle and says, “Why are you doing what you are doing?” a reasonable response could be, “I am still figuring that out, but in the mean time, my situation is working just fine.”

We invite you to a dialogue on this journey of “figuring it out.”

Here is a recent anecdote to share:

“Since our last conversation, I had been thinking about where things fit in. As I was mulling it over, I had the opportunity to shadow one of the front-line workers in my organization. The organization is government funded and coordinates in-home health care services. The interaction that my colleague led was a wonderfully compassionate negotiation. A health-care professional guided a convalescing woman to determine the care that she needed, while being conscious that too much care was detrimental to recovery and any waste would impact resources available to another client/patient in this or a different community. All of a sudden, it lined up. It made me look and my job and ask, ‘How am I helping this to happen?’ I think that would be a good point of view for everyone in our organization to take.”

Please get in touch through e-mail or through our website with anecdotes that you can share.

Minds and Hearts: A Schulich Connection

This week, we were lucky enough to spend a morning interacting with others in the Schulich community. As alumni and faculty of the Schulich School of Business, it was novel to find ourselves at Sunnybrook Hospital, home of the Schulich Heart Centre.

The discussion that we lead was under the admittedly wide banner of commercializing medical technology. The impetus for these monthly forums is to connect the business school and medical practitioners to enable good ideas to become feasible in a commercial forum. Apparently, Seymour himself had a hand in this collaboration!

Consistent with our survey results from this past summer, we spent some time discussing the importance of “what’s in it for you” (WIIFY is the less celebrated cousin of persuasive communication’s “What is in it for me?/WIIFM”). Our premise for the self-centred look is reasoned: if you are going to put the work into, for example, developing a new medical device, the late night workbench tinkering is only part of the effort. You will need to figure out a model, look at numerous regulations, find funding, protect IP, explore international markets, network, pitch, present, draw up business plans… lather, rinse and repeat.

A little fire in the belly will be required to follow through. Such questions as, “What part of the status quo is intolerable to you?” and “What difference will you make and how will you make it?” can help to stoke those flames.

The other more practical questions we covered were: (1) are you solving a problem that others actually have? and (2) how will you get funding for your business?

Our friends at Maple Leaf Angels will provide clear insights on the latter in an event next month.

All of these questions are worth some thought, which is a good thing because one can only tinker for so long…

Profits and purpose: what really matters? (Survey Insights part 4)

The BBC published an article on Abraham Maslow this week describing the impact of the hierarchy of needs that bears his name. Any social psychology or organizational behaviour course will touch on this in trying to explain the motivators and needs that have people do what they do.

Like many such frameworks, their utility in explaining/predicting the actions of others tends to fall short. It becomes an endless guessing game of rationalizing conscious decisions and analyzing subconscious yearnings. We are going to move the focus to: “me, and what I want” not “them, and what they want.”

In our Summer Survey, we asked:

“If individuals were looking for a sense of purpose from their professional life, to what degree does your organization provide that?”

NOTE: If you don’t subscribe to the “purpose need” theory, you debunk this whole line of thought. People want money; pay them and they work. Pay them more and they work harder. We will address this later.

The results were not unexpected. At the leadership level of the organization, the “purpose need” appears to be fulfilled: one third report that the purpose is “obvious” and more than half say people could find it in different ways.

Further down the organization, the results are opposite. The number of people who report being “here to work” (e.g. absence of purpose beyond Maslovian survival) grows to one-third at the middle-tier level, and to more than half at the lowest levels of the organization.

One explanation for employees not taking the opportunity to be more invested, involved, and engaged with their work is that the organization is not being clear or consistent enough about how their work matters.

For a moment, let’s put the onus on leadership to declare a preference for the kind of success they will pursue. Yes, we want to be profitable, but our self-imposed constraints (e.g. constraints we select not restrictions/rules to which we comply) reveal what matters most and may embody one’s sense of purpose.

So this could give you:

  • a bank that is committed to keeping jobs in the local economy
  • an oil-and-gas company committed to reducing the effects of carbon emissions
  • a fast-food company committed to educating consumers on nutrition

Do any of these “commitments” sound familiar?

The internal audiences will be most attuned to inconsistency because they will see (or suspect) what really drives decisions and what lines a being stretched or crossed. Inconsistency is a breeding ground for cynicism and could be a reason for disengagement such that you report being “here to work.” The rubber hits the road when an organization takes a decision consistent with a “commitment” and appears to forego profit maximization in the short-term.

  • If your organization is poised-to grow, would investors or shareholders support such a commitment?
  • If you are competing for talent, would good employees reward you with loyalty?
  • If you are competing for funding dollars, could this build your credibility with foundations and with public sector funders?

In all cases, there will be some important parties who don’t agree or don’t care.  The better question is “Would you get enough support for you to succeed?” and “What could you do to gain the support of those who need to see results?” Selecting the right measures and delivering results will be fundamental to your success.

Stay tuned for the next post where we shift the focus to the rank-and-file responsibilities.

The Leadership Blackbox (Survey Insights Part 2)

There is an understanding that with authority comes the responsibility to make decisions. Personal style, organizational structure and corporate culture can encourage varying degrees of consensus building and collaboration, but the buck always stops somewhere. In our earlier survey we explored the extent to which such collaboration factored into decision making.

Note: For the moment, we will ignore the very real issue of authority figures who simply refuse to make the tough decisions!

A number of respondents felt that, in their organization, those in authority tend to make the decisions where important issues are concerned. This could mean adherence to a traditional top-down structure, but there are different ways to convey a decision from above. A savvy leader can walk into a meeting with their decision already made but create the feeling among others that the experience was very collaborative. A more straightforward leader (or leadership team) may adopt the tell-and-sell approach whereby they demonstrate the rationale that went into picking one side of a trade-off situation.

From our survey results, a “blackbox” may be a more fitting metaphor for some such top-down organizations because priorities tend to conflict and information tends to be closely guarded. Based on our survey, of those who perceived a top-down decision structure, 2 out of 3 believed there were “conflicting priorities” and more than half also indicated that “information protection” was the communication norm.

Insight #2 Chart 2bInsight #2 Chart 1You can see how these connections can emerge: Department A operates under the marching orders that anything goes as long as we achieve Priority A. Department B feels the same way about Priority B. There is no clear guidance for either group (from leadership) about the impact on the overall desired performance. When a stalemate occurs, the boardroom fills up, the doors close and after some time a verdict appears.

From outside the boardroom, this would resemble waiting for an instant replay decision to come down from the booth. That people communicate on a “need to know” basis is understood; it is akin to court proceeding where anything you say could be used against you. This is how the walls of the metaphoric silos emerge and thicken.

As with our earlier piece, we isolated some implications from such a “black box” leadership environment:

For Collaboration with External Stakeholders:

External parties can get roped in to the drama resulting from internal efforts to curry favour with upper management. Suppliers, customers and partners may be sympathetic to the plights of their contact having to work in such a political environment, but revealing this level of in-fighting to an external party rarely paints the organization in a favourable light.

For Internal Collaboration:

Often times the task at hand is difficult enough to begin with, so why burden yourself with the additional strife from the internal squabbling or playing to the judges? “Pitch the idea to authority to gain compliance from others” is not a workable definition of collaboration in environments that need to take performance seriously. Training can make it worse (see below).

For Poised-for-Growth Organizations:

The approach for newer organizations with respect to this particular problem may well be preventative. One of the characteristics of growth is the creation of different “departments” that must operate with a degree of autonomy. There is an opportunity early on to paint the connections within the wider organization so all departments are focussed on the same priorities and silos don’t develop as rigidly.

We have found that requests for training in such areas as “making business cases” and “influencing” stem from an environment where a common understanding has not been allowed to take hold. Building communication skills in warring factions can deteriorate into a cold war of building persuasiveness. There may be an opportunity to build a common understanding by fleshing out the potential links between actions and desired results.

(Note: The semantics of the words “influence” and “persuasion” where explained to me very well by my friend Mark Bowden. Using influence means understanding the logic of the other party and weaving your wants and desires into that logic. Persuasion, on the other hand, is getting a person to trust you to the extent that they are happy to abandon their own logic if you say, “Trust me. It’ll be OK.” We would prefer a focus on the former.)

It’s clearer at the top (Survey Insights Part 1)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of insight pieces drawn from the Measure of Success Alignment Survey (Summer 2013). We will be sharing others over the coming weeks and months. 

You can envision the metaphor: a mountaintop whose snowy peak juts above the cloud line. From base camp, the summit is shrouded, but we all know it is up there somewhere. The journey to the top will take some skillful navigation through cloud and fog. As you burst through the other side of the clouds en route to the summit, it all becomes crystal clear.

Not surprisingly, our survey revealed that those in executive positions report the highest instance of clarity with respect to the organization’s ultimate direction. Fully 60% selected “it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids” to the question “how easily can you relay the spirit of the organization’s stated mission?”

Senior management’s eyelids are unblemished by tattoos, and this group reported lower levels of clarity than middle managers. Two in three of this latter group said they would be “pretty close.”

At the lower levels of the organization, almost 40% of those “well down the org chart” confessed that the overall direction was not at all clear. Across all levels of the organization, comparatively fewer people said they would “have to check,” which could suggest that the spirit of the orientation is seen as more important than the actual wording of the formal policy statements (or tattoos).

Insight #1 Chart 1

A few things jumped out at us after looking at these results:

1 – Why is it clearer at the top?

Picture your boss (or even better, your boss’ boss) coming by and asking if you needed any clarification on organizational direction. The path of least resistance and minimal downside is to answer: “No worries here, Boss. I get it.” The dynamic is often such that suggesting that you are not clear poses risks in two areas: (1) you are seen as simply not “getting it,” and (2) you are forced to overtly challenge longstanding assumptions. For those with even a modicum of political savvy, neither is a smart move.

2 – For overall direction, is “pretty close” close enough?

The overall direction of the organization comes from a collection of efforts rather than from a pithy bumper sticker statement or rigourous “how-to” protocol. Since so few people needed “to check,” the uncertainty for overall priorities appear to stem from conflicting agendas rather than from not being able to recall. The group that we surveyed contained capable and employable people who can fully contribute to an organization’s success. This was not a group of people screaming: “Just tell me what to do!”

3 – Are the trade-offs apparent outside the trenches?

One of the classic trade-offs in servicing clients is: do we give people what they want or what they need? Obviously the salesperson’s role is to bridge those worlds, but what if we can’t do both? If we are in the business of exceeding customers expectations and our customers have unreasonable expectations (or are not willing to pay to have their expectations exceeded) the objective becomes untenable. One may not see this disconnect from the heights of the executive suites.

We isolated some implications from these areas of misalignment (This is the “so what?” part.)

For Collaboration with External Stakeholders:

If the overall aims of the organization are overly fuzzy, so will the means to achieve them. Establishing the connections that drive performance is vital, otherwise in the spirit of reaching a workable solution with an external partner, we risk unknowingly compromising on something that is fundamentally important. Often in such collaborations, something has to give. Let’s make sure it’s not a fundamental attribute of performance.

For Internal Collaboration:

In working across divisions, the nuances of what takes priority can get lost when  “everything is mission critical” and there is no time to think. Subtle differences in focus on what it takes to be successful can cause drag on performance. To a large extent, this drag is avoidable if we can get clear on what really drives the organization’s success.

For Poised-for-Growth Organizations:

New organizations work extremely hard to build the foundation for their success. This is largely through securing investors. Just like a strong foundation helps to support a structure, it is easier to adjust the structure before the building gets to high. Before an organization has a chance to necessarily split the ranks too much (Executive Leadership, Senior Managers, Middle Managers, etc.) there is a unique opportunity to clarify the direction and the spirit of performance. This can be framed as follows: “We all want fantastic business/financial success. What do we think we have to do to achieve that?”

Rather than an eyelid tattoo, we can create a shared focus for the talents and energies of those driving your success.

Click here for more information on this survey and the services we provide.

Thoughts on Jeffrey Simpson’s Chronic Condition

REVIEW and thoughts on:  Chronic Condition, Jeffrey Simpson

Working from the hypothesis that “to appreciate where we are, it is worth revisiting how we got here,” this book includes a thorough review of the history of the Canadian Medicare system. This was very instructive to me, although some will be more familiar with these developments. Some of the important elements that stood out for me were:
1 – “Fee-for-service”  for providers (specifically doctors) is well baked into the system
2 – Hospitals are a distinct and well-developed part of both the infrastructure and of the system
3 – Even though the Canada Health Act allows non-government service providers, the word “private” complicates any discussion because it conjures up “US-style,” “two tier,” and other terms that garner very emotional responses.

Simpson provides a thoughtful comparison of our system with those of England, Sweden and Australia. This illustrates how no one has a perfect system, but there are systems that perform much better than ours does. He suggests that low public awareness as to the mediocrity of results from the Canadian system (by OECD standards) is a big part of the problem. Maybe people are fine as long as we are not as bad as the US. Politicians certainly benefit from the misperception both in reducing panic of a looming crisis and in hiding any province-to-province comparison that could identify comparative laggards.

According to Simpson, continuing to throw money at the current system is a complete waste of resources and is an admission that funders do not understand the dire situation that we have created. The big thing at stake is what he calls “vertical equity” meaning that the status quo puts an unfair burden on future generations. (He uses “horizontal equity” to describe how the system treats people in terms of access and care at any given time.)

The big recommendations are threefold:

(1) Doctor and nurse unions have to stop being rigid in protecting compensation. Fee-for-service usually means that “how much” you get paid is a function of “how much” you work. Again, there is no clear answer but Simpson relays the challenge of how, for example, reducing wait times leads to rising costs because more patients are being served.

(2) Hospitals need to be allowed to do what they do well, and cease to provide ALC-type services that are both of insufficient quality and of exorbitant cost.

(3) Drug expenses have to come down. He suggests a national drug plan based on CPP.

Each of these avenues takes on a very specific and very powerful interest group: unions, hospital administration and pharmaceutical companies. All tough rows that need to be hoed.

I enjoyed the read, and it got me thinking about how much of the eventual solution will come from strong leadership in small areas that can start some momentum. Actions and results at lower levels can help to build the various beachheads that need to be established for more comprehensive systematic changes to bring sustainability and “vertical” equity.