leadership dot #3388: looking back

When you’re involved in any type of change effort it’s natural to focus on the future. But we often get so caught up in what we want to have happen or what we’re trying to make happen that we forget to take that moment and reflect on the change process itself. More specifically, we fail to look back and capture the decisions that we wrestled with, the inflection points that shaped what came after them, the struggles and steps just to get started, or the first glimmers of success.

By the time a project is over, all those memories are overshadowed by the present and we lose the opportunity to learn from them. In contrast, if we document some of the earliest stages of a change effort we can use the learning as a reminder the next time we’re fresh out of the gate and feel like we’re not making any progress at all. We can see that it took us a few months to align our human infrastructure and figure out a game plan. We can be reminded that some of those earliest choices are the most important ones as they shape everything else. We can reflect on where we need to move more quickly and where going slower is ultimately more prudent.

The next time you embark on a new initiative, set some reminders to pause and take stock of what you’ve been up to. Looking back at the early, small steps can be invaluable knowledge in the future.

leadership dot #3377: hammer

Hammers have been around in essentially the same format for an estimated 3 million years. If they’ve made it this long, why tinker with them?

But hammers are another example of a product evolving to meet the needs of its users. To the uninitiated (me), all hammers are pretty much alike. But to professionals, weight is an essential element that drives the functionality of the tool.

As contractors age, they still require the power of a heavier hammer but have a harder time yielding one on a repetitive basis. Manufacturers have noticed the change in demographics and demand and are now utilizing different materials to create lighter hammers with the strike of a heavier tool.

Even products with centuries of longevity need to change to stay relevant. Don’t assume your “hammer” will always be able to hit the nail on the head if you don’t retool and adapt to contemporary needs.

Thanks Curt!

leadership dot #3374: flatten

The only time I purchase marshmallows is to make S’mores and apparently, I am not alone in this. I recently saw flattened rectangle-shaped marshmallows designed specifically for that use. Brilliant!

It is a good example of paying attention to the customer and observing how a product is actually being used. For years, manufacturers only made rounded marshmallows. The company produced what it thought the customer wanted. But the customer had other ideas and continually modified its usage until someone realized they could grab part of the market by acknowledging that change.

How are your customers actually using what you produce? Do you know? Observing or conducting listening sessions to hear real-life stories may clue you into new opportunities. You think people come to your conference for the educational sessions but they really care about the vendors — could you create a virtual vendor fair instead? You require people to open a checking account to bank with you but they really use Venmo — could you have your base product become electronic transfers through you in place of checking? You suspect people read your newsletter for the information but the cartoons are the real draw — could you create infographics and sketched videos to convey your important announcements?

Let the end-user drive the evolution of what you offer. If you flatten the gap between intended use and reality you may find a sweet spot to leverage.

leadership dot #3373: old house

You hear a lot about a cultural revolution or an organizational transformation, but Kevin Oakes has a different take on how to frame your efforts. The author of The Culture Renovation suggests that you will lessen the resistance to the change if you speak about it in terms of a renovation instead, likening it to bringing a historic house up to code with technology, electrical power, etc. You still keep what gives the house its character, but you make it better.

In a podcast with Brené Brown, Oakes talks about the essential strategy of figuring out what to keep. It can be a tough call to know what to let go of and what to carry forward, but ascertaining the good and reminding people of what you are preserving helps the organization make progress. As in a renovation, we typically focus on what is new, but for a change effort to be successful you need to explicitly point out what will remain the same.

Oakes outlines 18 researched strategies that can serve as a handbook for those involved in a change effort (and who isn’t these days?). They follow a structure of Plan, Build, and Maintain — and whether you read the book or not, the renovation analogy can be a useful framework for any innovation. Too often, the Maintain element is forgotten, and “this old house” falls into disrepair again.

The next time you want to make changes, set out to implement a renovation. More people can agree that updating is a good thing — whether it be a new coat of paint, faster wifi, or a whole new kitchen — and you’re apt to get more buy-in than if you trigger their fears of losing everything they know.

The Culture Renovation by Kevin Oakes, 2020
Dare to Lead podcast — BrenĂ© Brown with Kevin Oakes, January 11, 2021

leadership dot #3369: towels

When you think of partnerships, oftentimes elaborate collaborations come to mind involving sponsorships, letters of agreement, and many meetings. But it doesn’t always have to be that way.

An example of a low-key partnership involves our city pools and the local aquarium. The city donates all of the unclaimed beach towels that accumulate over the summer. The aquarium then uses them to transport ducks and turtles and they provide bedding for the popular otters. It’s great for the budget and the environment and both entities benefit from the arrangement.

Think about the small ways you can work with other organizations to benefit both parties. Collaborations don’t have to be lofty to be effective.

leadership dot #3366: bathtub

The book Systems Thinking for Social Change reminded me of a common-sense principle that is often overlooked — the Bathtub Analogy. The concept is simple: the level of water in the tub is determined by the rate at which the water flows in and the rate at which it drains out. Too often, we only focus on the faucet.

The analogy is applied in many settings such as John Sterman’s Carbon Bathtub (describing the level of CO2 put into the atmosphere vs what nature can disburse) and the analogy framing homelessness (decrease the number becoming homeless/increase those moving to permanent housing). However, it can apply to many constructs in our organizational or personal life:

  • We can reduce the calories we eat to lose weight — or increase the number that we burn
  • We can increase hiring to expand staff — or reduce the attrition of current employees
  • We can reduce spending to meet our budget — or increase income
  • We can purge possessions to have more room — or increase storage space
  • We can increase new membership — or increase retention of those we serve

The Bathtub Analogy reminds us to pay attention to the flow rather than focusing only on the level. When we consider both inputs and outputs — and the relative rates at which they are occurring — often new solutions come to mind as well as a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the whole.

The next time you are trying to shift behavior, draw the system through the lens of a bathtub. The analogy might help you find solutions that otherwise would have gone down the drain.

Source: Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh, 2015

leadership dot #3359: idle

If you have in-person clients, it’s important to pay attention to their whole interaction with you, including the waiting period. For example, if you own a restaurant, especially if you are short-staffed or require a particularly long time to custom-prepare meals, it would be in your best interest to proactively address what happens before the food arrives.

As I sat bored in my last pre-dining experience, I pondered what this restaurant could have done during my wait. I realized that other establishments already incorporate elements to mollify customers with such techniques as televisions, hot bread, chips & salsa, butcher paper tablecloths and crayons, music, placements with games or educational factoids, tiny board games, electronic games as part of the payment system, or bowls of Legos. Even offering a wi-fi connection would go a long way in allowing customers to entertain themselves.

If you offer nothing, people have little to do but watch the clock and grumble about how long they are waiting. It sours their overall attitude and impacts their impression when the food (or service) finally does arrive.

Whether you add music before a webinar begins, reading materials in your reception area, interactive artwork in your lobby, or free coffee to guests, do something to engage your customers so they don’t spend their idle moments pondering all the ways you are wasting their time while waiting.

leadership dot #3357: model

While I was waiting for my car to be serviced, I wandered into the new car showroom (just as they wanted me to do!). I was the only customer there so the three salesmen and I had a nice chat as I heard about the features of the latest model.

It struck me that this was a tremendous waste of manpower. Do people just show up at the dealership in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and decide to buy a car? Three at a time?

The staffing levels sound like a vestige of a previous era when people had not done their pre-shopping online and more people came in to explore options. Today, many could come to the dealer by appointment already knowing which car they wish to test drive or buy. It seems that the showroom doesn’t need to be so heavily staffed or those there could be focused on online responses instead of standing around as they appeared to be doing.

Take a look at how you allocate your human resources and consider whether it matches the way your customers interact with you in post-pandemic 2021. It might be time for a new model.

leadership dot #3356: overkill

A church rummage sale treated their jewelry section like they were Tiffany’s, even though you could have purchased the entire inventory for a couple of bucks. I bought a 25 cent pair of earrings but had to pay for them right at the jewelry table where they put them in a bag, double stapled it, then wrote “Paid” on the bag. Talk about overkill.

Organizations are guilty of the equivalent when they create detailed policies to monitor minor infractions or insist on treating their employees as if they were prone to theft. We would all be better off if regulations only existed for serious matters and in cases where judgment is likely to create an undesirable outcome. Otherwise, assume the risk. The trust you buy by doing so always has greater value than the losses your overkill aims to prevent.

leadership dot #3355: craft fair

Those who worry about the future of brick and mortar stores need only to go to a craft fair to have their fears somewhat allayed. While certainly everything available at a fair is also available online, fairs continue to draw crowds. More importantly, fairs continue to produce sales as people buy things that they did not know existed until they saw them in a booth.

Shopping in person helps people narrow down the vast choices available online and makes it possible to see and inspect things before they buy. I know I am skeptical about internet purchases from unknown vendors and am far more comfortable buying something unique if I can it touch beforehand. Craft fairs also have the added advantage of being face-to-face with the seller (who is often the creator) where you can ask questions or learn the backstory about the items.

While $10 billion of goods were sold through Etsy, don’t discount the value of low-tech delivery methods that may be appropriate for your organization. Sometimes the personal touch — and literal touch — are the best ways to interface with your clientele.