leadership dot #3135: clues

I recently watched My Octopus Teacher, a fascinating documentary about a photographer who dives into the same spot each day for over a year to observe the actions of an octopus. People asked Craig Foster why he went back to that location rather than exploring elsewhere, and he replied that it gave him the opportunity to notice subtle differences that he would otherwise miss.

“Subtle” was also a theme of how he got interested in this quest. Foster had been a photographer in the Serengeti, aided by native animal trackers who followed minute differences as clues to lead them to the big game. He applied the same principle in his work underwater to discover where the octopus was living and where it had recently been.

Too often we gloss over small differences and render them insignificant when, over time, these subtle variations can reveal great value. You likely are not searching for an octopus or lion, but you can adopt the method of consistent observation to track trends, see initial signs of changed behavior, monitor shifts in response, or be the first to spot a divergence that could indicate the start of something significant. Pay attention to the small stuff long enough to ascertain the clues it can provide you.

leadership dot #3134: returns

During the holiday season, many people took advantage of the ease of online shopping but now they are discovering the downside: trying to do returns. The process is complicated by the lack of paperwork, packaging, or receipts which leave in-store clerks helpless to return products they do not physically stock.

Walmart has ventured into third-party selling (as Amazon has long done) which is great for them on the revenue side but has caused untold delays in their stores. I had the misfortune of waiting behind several people trying to return an online order from a third-party and they were told they needed to have it boxed and ready to ship before the clerk could process it. There were miscommunications. Clerks didn’t know how to print shipping labels. For everyone involved, it was a nightmare.

The crux of the issue is that great ideas at the corporate level never got translated into effective training and implementation at the front-line level. The clerks at customer service were not equipped to effectively handle all the minute logistical details of what is essentially an entirely new business and everyone in-store has to pay the price.

If you create a process or system change in your organization, follow the path of implementation all the way through to the end. It’s not just getting the order there that matters, but how you handle getting it back.

leadership dot #3133: distinct

For those of you non-Midwesterners unfamiliar with the Fannie Mae Meltaways, the candies are tiny cubes of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate mint deliciousness that come in two colors: brown and green. For reasons unknown to me, I have always only eaten the brown ones. I asked my sister if they tasted the same as the green and her answer was that she has only ever had the green ones. This called for an experiment!

In case you are curious, both brown and green Meltaways taste exactly the same. Why they make two colors is a mystery to me, most likely it is simply for merchandising and visual appeal. But the experiment served as another reminder that we all carry unconscious biases around. We make contrasts and value one over another when there is no rational reason to do so and no differences actually exist.

Be cautious in applying the label of “better” to anything before you understand whether it actually merits a distinction.

leadership dot #3132: glasses

I recently bought new eyeglasses – one of my least favorite things to do. This is a purchase that I will use daily for the next several years and that costs a significant amount of money and yet I can’t see without mine on in order to select a new pair. Thus, I need to rely on the opinion of a stranger to determine how they look on me – all while wearing a mask. It’s hard to imagine it turning out well.

So, what happens is that I end up with a pair that is eerily similar to the ones I already had. I have worn the new specs for a week without comment from anyone.

I think they are a metaphor for change. As the risk goes up (cost, longevity) our propensity for taking a risk goes down. Firms like Warby Parker have tried to minimize that risk by allowing you to try on things at home where you can get the opinion of people who know you without the time pressure of being in a store (and by reducing the cost). Or if they were cheap “cheaters” it would be easy to go out on a limb and try a new color or shape, but for 700 bucks I want to be pretty sure it’s something I like.

The next time you are initiating a change effort at work, remember the experience of buying glasses. How can you mitigate some of the risk if you want people to make big leaps in innovation? Without some adjustment of risk/reward, you’re likely to get an incremental change that others may not even notice.

leadership dot #3131: crumbs

In a savvy merchandising move, Dot’s Pretzels has now converted the crumbs of its signature product into a new item instead of disposing of it as waste. The company sells “Crumble” as an accent that you can use to enhance pork, fish, chicken, or to create pie crusts. How have we lived so long without it?!

There is likely some “crumble” in your organization – content that can be repurposed for additional uses, resources that can be packaged into something new, or even people who can function in different roles to create new value. Others have already seen the obvious innovations. Look around for the crumbs to leverage what has not yet been discovered.

leadership dot #3130: school

It has been fascinating to me to see how the market has adjusted to changing demand due to COVID. I’ve written before about the plethora of masks, sanitizers, and new tools that are now everywhere but a new crop of products is catching my attention: that of homeschooling aids.

I have seen store displays of curriculum guides and workbooks to help the parent thrust into the new role of teacher. I received a sign-of-the-times mailing with the headline: “Do you feel your child is falling behind? We offer free developmental screenings…” Tutoring services seem to be popping up everywhere.

Think about whether your organization can help fulfill some of this new demand. Can you offer learning guides about your group that could serve as a case study or exercise for a piece of the curriculum? Is there a way you can share existing resources for parents to use to teach one of the standard subjects? Or could you offer a video chat to serve as a resource and engage the students in a visual experience instead of a field trip?

You may find yourself gaining new insights as well as delivering them for it is through teaching that we learn.

leadership dot #3129: appeal

Another lesson from The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the danger of concentrating too much power in one person’s hands. The judge in the original trial – Julius Hoffman – was obviously agitated with the defendants and showed “significant prejudice” against them and their attorney. Overall, he issued 175 contempt charges during the trial, all of which were reversed upon appeal.

The concept of checks and balances is a valuable one – not just for the government but for all organizations. It may occur formally as with the appeal option in the courts, or it may be more informal through trusted and truthful advisors who are in a position to speak truth to power. Regardless of the format, creating a system to allow other perspectives to be heard (and often, more rational thoughts to prevail) is a good practice to institutionalize. Don’t let your emotions have undue weight in your decision-making.

leadership dot #3128: approaches

Part of my holiday viewing was The Trial of the Chicago 7 – a documentary about protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The fact that Aaron Sorkin wrote it was enough to entice me but it proved to be an illuminating view on a piece of history that I really knew little about.

All seven on trial were arrested for their role in protesting the Vietnam War but that’s where the similarities ended. Two were Yippies – radically left members of the anti-war protests. Two were members of the Students for a Democratic Society who approached their advocacy with more intellect than charisma. One was an older father who was literally a Boy Scout leader, engaged in the protests through total non-violence, and two were doctoral students and individual protesters who were later acquitted on all charges.

It was striking to me to see the differences in how these seven approached the same cause. I was reminded that leadership can come in many forms and there is no one “type” of personality that is more successful than others in motivating people to act. The best way to inspire others is to be authentic.

leadership dot #3127: batch

In anticipation of the holidays, I spent an entire day writing an advance posting of dots for the week. It felt like a massive expenditure of time to invest in the project and I wondered whether it was worth the effort.

However, when I think about it, I’m sure I actually dedicated less time per dot by writing them in a batch. The efficiencies of having all my materials out, getting in that “writing groove”, and having a list of ideas rather than spending time thinking of them individually made the overall process more productive.

It’s often easier to do things bit by bit but sometimes you’re better off devoting a big chunk of time to really get something done. You could clean the garage one shelf at a time but be more efficient hauling everything out onto the driveway and doing it all at once. You might write one paragraph of a report but save time by closing your office door and crafting the whole thing. An afternoon of concentrating on filing your taxes may actually take less time than doing it in stages.

The hardest part of a big task is getting started on it. Once you do, try mightily to keep going until it’s done.

leadership dot #3126: control

The run-off elections for two Georgia Senate seats are today and most people are saying that the outcome “will determine control of the Senate.” Let us not forget that there are 98 other Senators already elected, and, although Georgia is the last to decide, they are not the only ones who determined control. All the voters in the other 49 states determined who controls the Senate; had there been a big majority of either party the Georgia election would barely have made the news.

We give disproportionate emphasis on what happens last. The batter who hits the final home run; the hero who comes in and saves the day in the movies; a good score on the final exam even though the student struggled all term, or the donor who gives last and puts the fund drive over the top – all are important but because they are last doesn’t make them more significant than that which came before them.

Resolve to pay more attention to what comes first. The actions that occur early are the ones that truly set the tone. Having a strong start may not be as glamorous as a heroic action in the end, but it makes such drama unnecessary.