“Hey, great presentation. Can you send me your deck?”

In the era of Wiki-World and open-source-THIS, its remarkable the resistance this question still inspires. As if all we are and know is contained in a few hundred slides.

As I unceasingly revise my quiver of Keynotes, I’ve adopted a few guidelines that help me maintain not only my confidence that I won’t be replaced by someone else presenting my material, but that the material itself is as effective as possible:

1) If I think someone could deploy my deck in my stead, then I’m probably saying what 1000 people already have. Back to my material I go.

2) If I’m worried about someone stealing my original idea, then first I need some therapy to remind me that they’ll be plenty of good ideas, and then I need some therapy to knock my ego back to Earth.

3) If I’m worried about someone using my deck instead of doing their own research, then I have way too much data in my presentation.

4) If my deck isn’t designed to be disseminated after each presentation anyway, then its not a good enough teaching tool as well as serving as a presentation outline, and so back to iWork I go.

5) Finally, if I think I need the SFX of .ppt or .key to engage my audience, then my presentation isn’t strong enough.

In the end, you are the attraction, not your deck. Help it help you help them.


wordwork: Curiosity

April 5, 2012

Exploring Peter Senge’s “learning organizations” concept recently, and researching the barriers that rise to resist, I dug into the etymology of curiosity, surely a necessary ingredient in any actualizing culture.

I imagined a child’s “why is the sky blue” question, and the infinite string of “why’s” that follow, ultimately inspiring an outburst of “Because!” by frustrated (or ignorant) Parent.

Curiosity has its early roots in the word cura, meaning “to care,” and its noteworthy plural form, cure. Root gave way to flower in 14th century Latin’s curiosus, meaning “eager to know,” though insinuating an excessive, even meddlesome quality. Still a thread of diligence and fastidious was in woven as well, a nod to recognizing that once awareness exists, it must be applied.

While most managers wouldn’t flinch at the idea of transforming their organizations into “learning” cultures, the responsibility carried by curious organizations seems heavier. To learn is to integrate presented information. To be curious is to seek out information for the sake of discovery, and to pursue the unattainable perfection that commitment to craft brings.

“Good enough” can be efficient and profitable. Unsustainable R&D budgets have been the downfall of many organizations. Choosing to incorporate Learning-Organization values, however, is to not be content with “good enough,” but to reward the “why.”

How “’why’ tolerant” is your organization, and how clearly is that point communicated throughout? Remember, ignorance can be resolved through education, but obtuseness will kill the cat, and your culture, every time.

Spin Doctors

April 3, 2012

If organizational culture is “the way we do things around here,” then organizational narrative is “how we explain the way we do things around here.”  Twenty years ago this happened at water-coolers and during happy hour. Today, we’ve added email, social media, and texting across the table during the meetings about the meetings we’re in, in effect writing the story from within it, like MMS’s sent from Tahrir Square.

You don’t have to be Peter Drucker to know that the Company Line we’re asked to tow isn’t the only tale in town. What other stories are “on the street” in your org’, and more importantly, are those stories sticky, and who’s applying the glue?

Do you have a “skunk” on board, continually adding an alternative, even dissident tone?  Mandating silence doesn’t work, nor does continually eradicating the smelly elements should there be more than one; this will only foster a deeper idea of imposed mono-culture and monologue. If you’ve got an infestation, chances are there’s something about your org’ that’s attracting and/or creating that toxicity.

Use the various perspectives as barometers of cohesion and culture. Know when to dial up company dogma, and when its getting recognized and discarded just as quickly. Learn to ask why and manage that. Don’t forget that the loudest protester has needs too; that’s why they are protesting. Identify and provide those needs, if aligned with organizational values, and all that energy spent in opposition will suddenly be spinning for you.

A common challenge of solo-startup-dom, of being a one-person shop is that you’re, well, a one-person shop. All departmental roles are yours. Certain hats fit easier than others.  Strategy is fun, because that’s where you get to think about how to do it. Marketing is an excuse to find the best ways to share your great ideas with others; a built in positive-feedback loop.

Other skills take a little more patience. If you lack the finance or accounting background, there’s a learning curve here, but nothing that the Turbotax and Quickbooks message boards (plus a good accountant) can’t walk you through.

The one “staffing” department that solo-businesses often neglect, however, is HR. Cultivate the habit of checking in regularly to see how you’re doing.

Are you being compensated fairly? Do you have a bonus program, even if it’s a good glass of wine after a 12 hour day? You don’t have to go all OSHA yet, but have you created a safe (physically and emotionally) working environment that includes some natural light and a non-repetitive-stress-inducing chair? Do you have access to community, usually supplied by an office environment and co-workers? Are you taking more than one day off every 3 months? The performance gain from a forced battery-recharge will more than compensate for a long weekend away from the desk.

Even as you’re building the company you imagine the world needs, ensure you’re building the company that you‘d want to work for as well.

Now back to work.

At a recent leadership workshop, I asked the following question:

You have an employee who isn’t effectively performing. Assume the problem is skill deficiency and not attitude. Effectively training this employee is $50,000. The transition cost of replacing them with someone already capable is projected at $50,000 as well. What’s your course of action?

Does your decision change when the costs aren’t equal? Imagine the employee retraining cost is $75k. How about $100k?

What about introducing potential failure rates of the training’s effectiveness, or of the replacement team member’s “fit?” Imagine there’s a 15% chance the current team member just won’t learn the skills necessary even if we run them through the program.

Even before being an OD/HRD question, this is a leadership question. How much do you believe that a team member can change, learn, and adapt, and more interestingly (because I think we all believe a person can learn), how much are you willing to invest in this process? What value do you place on the process of learning? How risk averse are you to learn that you may be wrong, on either side of the spread, and how much does your interest in not finding out effect your management decisions?

There is no correct answer, of course, but rather levels of alignment between the implications of your answer, and the organizational culture you’re seeking to maintain. Regardless of your decision, see it through, and remember that Hamlet’s lack of decision ended quite badly for the players involved.

On a cross-country drive long-long ago (disclaimed only to insinuate I’ve become wiser with age) I invoked the “one more town” mantra with 1/3 a tank of gas. The map I carried indicated a 70 mile traverse to the next Motel-6; well within my Toyota’s range. What the map failed to illustrate was the impending elevation change, and I soon found myself climbing into the Utah tail of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The problem soon unfurled, as I burned exceptionally more fuel with each mile of ascent. Even once aware of the conundrum, the lack of turnarounds left me no options or escape.

2500 years ago, a Chinese general (and the freshman business students who read him) warned against this. Sun Tzu, through his Art of War, waxed poetical about the importance of understanding “Terrain.”

How honed, managers, are your map reading skills? Does your data show you the information that could affect you, rather than just the information that does? Have you forgotten that a2+b2=c2, viewed from above, looks like a line? Do you maintain the bush pilot rule of having enough fuel to get back from your destination without resupply, or are your strategies Cortez-like one-way trips? Do you know where to turn off should you decide to change your path, or are you locked into to terminal strategies from which there’s no escape?

Plan well, conquistadors of commerce. All I’ll say is that there are places AAA cant get to. Plan well, & travel safe.

Back in the Box Thinking

March 23, 2012

Look to the right and you’ll find two new category headings that weren’t there yesterday. I’ll confess now: there’s no illuminated insights – or writing of any kind – in there. They are empty boxes.

One of the challenges of mass-coordination industry, of Gantt-driven workflows and come-in-at-or-under-budget objectives is that the project goal is to complete the project. It’s a finite game.

Once the train leaves the station, the good news is that the rails of benchmarking do a remarkable job of keeping the train on the tracks. The bad news is that the rails do a remarkable job of keeping the train on the tracks. The space for innovation evaporates unless a) you are between projects when new best-practices can be integrated or b) the project exists to innovate and create new best-practices. Otherwise, the name of the game is to end the game.

Once we leave the station success is judged by a project-complete percentage and a %-of-budget metrics. So what’s the antidote?

Ask unanswerable questions, and demand answers; any answers.The only way to do that in an Excel-driven work-flow is to create a cell that requires input, lest it respond with #DIV/?!

The questions we ask set the horizon for our imaginings. So ensure your pushing it far enough to allow exploration, and the revelations that can lead to paradigm shifts. Otherwise we risk inadvertently hitting our heads on a glass ceiling of expectations, when we could shatter it and reestablish what’s possible.