A Creative Method For Developing Innovative Solutions: Magic Tool Box

toolbox

It can be helpful to use analogies to inspire new ideas.  I have leveraged a brainstorming tool for years called the Magic Tool Box.  In this exercise one uses a box full of tools as a metaphor for solving the problem at hand.  The objective is to spur new thinking.

I leveraged this brainstorming exercise with a group of journalists who were stationed at locations around the world.  They explored using a Swiss Army knife that was magical and could capture interview content, as well as still images and video.  It spurred the journalists to come up with approaches whereby they would capture more than just print copy as a result of their interviews.  This was before the iPhone was used to capture photos and video.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not saying that I am Al Gore and claiming that I invented the Internet!  I am simply pointing out that this exercise allowed the journalists to imagine doing innovative work via tools that were not even invented at the time.  Generating this kind of out of the box thinking is the greatest value of this exercise.

Below are the steps to facilitate this exercise:

  • The facilitator provides a focus statement or problem related to the area being brainstormed.
    • The problem statement is related to the area being brainstormed. For example, our challenge may be that due to a new technology system our team members are drifting apart and not collaborating.
    • The magic tools in the tool box can be items such as: Magic drill, saw, hammer, duct tape, screw driver, tape measure, glue, etc.
  • Think of uses for a wide variety of “magic tools”
    • This is where you ask the group to use their imagination. For example, ask yourself: If we had a magic hammer, what would we use it to do?
    • Come up with ways we can use the magic tool to resolve the problem that has been articulated.
    • For example, one could leverage the magic tool box to address the problem of a team being stuck in silos and not working well together. One could use duct tape to wrap it around all the team members in order to bring everyone together again.
  • Explore the results for inspiration
    • We have fantasy solutions from step two that would not work in the real world. However, these make believe ideas may lead to insights that are practical.
    • Look at the responses and explore what kind of feelings and images are arising. Look for actions and goals that make sense and could be applied in the real world.
    • For example, while it is not practical to use duct tape to wrangle everyone into a more cohesive group, an initiative or event to bring people together may be a practical solution.

This exercise can clearly help our organizations think in new ways.  Spurring this kind of creative thinking is a true contribution that we can bring to the table.

Adapted from Alexander Hiam, Manager’s Pocket Guide to Creativity, 1998

light bulb

Advertisements

No more Drivel! Give us the Practical and Useful.

drivel

There is no substitute for business advice which is practical and useful. Yes, I am talking about suggestions which actually work. … As in make things better in the real world! Drivel, on the other hand, is defined as “silly nonsense”. Unfortunately there is a lot of these unhelpful opinions flying around our field of organizational development.

At its best, management tips and techniques have allowed me to face numerous organizational challenges and provided a clear, successful solution. When one is in the middle of a structure, process or people challenge it can be difficult get to above the chaos and envision a path forward. Yes, management thinkers really can be your best friends.

However, this is not always the case. I have observed that management thinking tends to fall into three buckets:

Bucket 1: Interesting, But Not Practical: Much of the academic work around management offers up clever concepts around leading others that have limited practical application. These are the types of management ideas that are fascinating to think about. However, you are left asking yourself “What would I do with this idea as I stand before my team Monday morning?”

From my experience, leadership styles provide an example of a theory without apparent application. Leadership styles essentially categorize types of leaders as being dictatorial, authoritarian, consultative or participative. Great! So let’s assume that you want your style of leadership to be more participative.   What actions do you take and what do you tell your team in order to create a participative environment?

These management theories often answer the “What” without ever addressing the “How”. In other words, this work often times offers conceptual statements about what is means to be a manager without providing advice on how to be a manager.   The theory is interesting, but, is not going to help you be a better manager.

Bucket 2: Practical, But Not Useful: The academic management thinking in this bucket offers you some practical ideas for how to manage your team. However, when you carry out these ideas in your organization you find that they are met with confusion and poor results. These are the types of ideas where you are left saying “Well, it looked good on paper!”

An example of practical but not useful management thinking is the business reengineering craze that many organizations adopted a decade ago. Reengineering called for reinventing the way work was done via the redesign of business processes and workflows. However, this practical approach resulted in negative consequences in the end.   Too often the effort resulted in corporate down sizing without better results. It did not take employees long to realize that it is was not in their best interest to volunteer for a reengineering effort! [Tony Carter, 1999, https://www.amazon.com/Aftermath-Reengineering-Downsizing-Corporate-Performance/dp/0789007207]

It is easy to identify the management theories in this bucket. This is because when you introduce these ideas they are oftentimes met with confusion and skepticism by your team. They clearly do not resonate with the employees who do the actual work. When you roll out these ideas many of your employees ignore your advice since they suspect it will fail. Those employees who do infuse this approach into their work get poor results. These ideas are quickly abandoned.

Bucket 3: Practical and Useful:   As is the case in so many areas of life, we have lots of opinions but very little wisdom.   Once we have shed the management ideas in buckets 1 and 2, we are left with a few practical and useful management ideas. The good news for you is that there is now less to learn since we are down to a handful of management approaches.

The practical approaches and tools in this bucket are made up of organizational interventions that can transform human behavior on a regular basis. They simply address complex aspects of work including structure, processes and people practices.

Below are some examples of practical and useful management thinking that I have benefitted from over the years:

  • Structure: Jay Galbraith’s emphasis on leveraging design principles in the creation of organizational structure helps ensure that the design accomplishes the desired outcomes. The principles are statements about what the design should provide.  These principles guide the design process, provide criteria for making trade off decisions and keep all parties focused on creating the same outcome.  This organizational design methodology has allowed me to take a dozen independent marketing groups within a Fortune 100 company and align them for quick response to customer demands and other unexpected challenges. [http://www.jaygalbraith.com]
  • Processes: Edward Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act [PCDA] continuous improvement circle has provided the framework for managing improvement projects.  The method helps employees stay focused on data collection and analysis driving them towards identifying and solving root cause.  Outcomes of leveraging this method include savings millions of dollars, along with better quality products and services.  [http://asq.org/learn-about-quality/project-planning-tools/overview/pdca-cycle.html]
  • People: ‘Start/Stop/Continue’ is a straight-forward group exercise that any manager can easily introduce. The approach can help groups move from strategy to execution and lead to increased effectiveness and efficiency. As the name suggests, the goal is to get employees to brainstorm programs, activities and processes that should be started, stopped and continued.  I have had employees report back that this simple exercise has been transformative in terms of helping them improve and align their work. [https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/SKS-process.htm]There is a huge volume of management thinking to wade through before finding advice which is practical and useful. Mission accomplished if this blog helps raise awareness on the importance of crafting management thought which helps practitioners in the real world.

This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

Am I On Track With My Professional Purpose? [“Start With Why”]

“The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”—-Mark Twain

Mark Twain offers up the profound idea that our primary mission in life is discovering why we are here. Once we have a driving reason for getting up each and every morning our life simply becomes wonderful! While we can all agree that finding our professional purpose in life is a good thing, the difficult part is figuring out how.

For example, unearthing why we lead, why we do organizational development or why we do any chosen profession is not as easy as opening up a fortune cookie. Rooting out our core professional purpose takes a great deal of lived experience and self-reflection.

In fact, #SimonSinek [www.StartWithWhy.com/WhyU] has created a cottage industry around the importance of finding what he calls your “Start With Why” statement in order to answer the question: Why you do what you do in your professional life?

Sinek and other have convinced us that is it valuable to know our why statement. However, how do we know if we are on the path to “why” enlightenment? Without cues to help guide us towards finding our professional purpose, the task can become daunting.

As a result, I offer up a few key signs that you are digging deep enough to figure out your professional purpose:

  • You are energized, excited by the statement

When I read my “why” statement I actually get emotional at times.   I cannot imagine doing any other type of work since helping others succeed via organizational development is just so darn rewarding.

“To provide employees with voice for more productivity and fulfillment. “

You believe that the world would be a significantly better place if your why statement became true. Your purpose is the reason you get out of bed in the morning. It excites you to know that you get to work on this amazing mission all day and positively impact those around you.

  • Your why statement will not change fundamentally

You cannot envision your why statement ever changing – you are that committed to it. Your ideal job would be spending all your time making your why statement come true.

For many of us doing mission driven work such as organization development is a calling. I find myself describing my work to improve organizations in a manner similar to how clergy describe being called to their religious positions. The work is such a perfect fit with my need to help others via organization that I forget that choice is even an option. This profession is a win-win so why not continue forever!

  • You can relate to the words in your “why” statement, they are real to you

You can cite examples where you have “lived” the statement. You have carried out your purpose in your personal and professional life. I have held many organization development positions, however, a common thread across these gigs is that I always help employees be more efficient and happier in their roles.

In addition, I have helped give “voice” to my son who initially had a medical issue which made speech a difficult task. The irony is that not only did he recover from this childhood challenge, he went on to excel in speech, winning the state speech tournament in high school. I have clearly literally lived this why statement!

If you answered no to the above cues, then you simply have more work in front of you. Dedicate time to reflect on your professional experiences in order to figure out what is gratifying and energizing about your work. Then, your path becomes one of amplifying this message to those you are partnering with.

The content reflected in this blog does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

 

The Most Effective Method For Engaging Employees? Simply Ask Questions

LEARN AdobeStock_44887247.jpeg

Brian Grazer (2015), the movie producer of such blockbusters as Apollo 13, Splash, 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind and Friday Night Lights, popularized the notion of being curious and asking questions in his best seller A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.  Grazer makes the case that asking questions allows us to understand and imagine the perspective of others.  This is obviously a useful skill when one is crafting a movie plot line that will grab the attention audience.

However, Grazer also contends that the ability to ask questions is a strategic tool for many professions.  Don’t we want police detectives who are able to predict criminals’ next move, military leaders’ ability to stay ahead of the opposing armies and coaches’ ability to grasp the game plans of the opposing team and put counter plans in place?

Similarly, it is useful for organizational leaders to understand the wants and needs of our workforce.  The best way to get into the minds of employees is to ask them targeted and insightful questions.  Rather than guessing your employees needs, the most credible original source is the employees themselves.

This method of asking questions may sound like a simple task.  In fact, it may not sound like a method at all!  Isn’t asking questions an intuitive human behavior? Research and practice would suggest not. There is more to asking the right question, at the right time, to the right group of employees than initially meets the eye.

However, asking powerful questions is learnable.  Skilled facilitators such as Dorothy Strachan (Questions That Work: A Resource for Facilitators, 2001) advises us to ask ourselves the following three fundamental questions in crafting questions for others:

  • What do I want to ask?
    • What information do we need to accomplish our work? For example, background information, data points, reflections, interpretations, etc.
  • Why do I want to ask this question?
    • How will the response to this question lead us to accomplishing our work? For example: Input of data, offers up a new approach, prioritization, clarification, etc.
  • What response might I get?
    • What is the possible range of answers I may get when I pose this question? For example: An initial response, confusion, curiosity, etc.

Your responses to these three questions will help you select a series of questions that will allow you to accomplish your purpose.  This exercise will also help you craft individual questions for getting the most useful data back.  Finally, the responses will help you figure out who else you need to ask these questions in order get accomplish the objective.

By asking myself these three questions, I developed a series of questions to ask during a change management initiatives that involved launching a new product.  The objective of asking these questions was to engage this operations group in the change.  I was attempting to build ownership in the employees for the change.  The questions I asked dozens of times over a period of months were:

  • What is it about this approach that most interests you?
  • How will you use this approach?
  • How should we evaluate the success of this approach?
  • What can we do to ensure that you are committed to this approach?
  • How can we transfer ownership of this approach to you?

The answers to the last two questions get directly at figuring out how we can ensure that employees are able to accomplish the work at hand and will continue to over time.  The employees I posed these questions indicated that in order to be committed to rolling out this new product over time they needed more information about how the product worked, they needed to talk to potential customers to learn more about their needs and they needed to craft a more defined implementation process.  Once I was aware of these needs, I was able to help facilitate them becoming a reality.

Our Hollywood producer, Grazer, provides us with what is perhaps the most convincing reason to start asking more questions: You can stop having to force, trick, cajole or even charm your workforce into being better.  Instead, your employees will have the internal drive and excitement to carry them through any challenging work.

How does this happen? Peppering your workforce with interesting questions will inevitably lead to dynamic two-way conversation.  Your employees will be actively engaged with you.  At this point, your team will have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment for the tasks at hand that you do.  By creating in your workforce a high level of interest and curiosity for the work at hand, you are essentially generating a self-sustaining culture of productivity.

Who would have predicted that asking key questions could result in such a powerful outcome!

Questions:

What are some key questions that you want to start asking your workforce?

What is your response to Grazer’s three fundamental questions?

What will asking these questions mean for you and your organization?

 

The Foundation of Organizational Design: A Strategic Approach for Success

Concept of building the brick wall

Good organizational design has the ability to transform an organization’s culture and accomplish business goals beyond anything imaginable.   As a result, many organizations allocate significant time and resources to this design process.  However, impactful organizational design can be done more efficiently and effectively if one goes about it in a strategic manner.

We will explore the overall definition and purpose of organizational design.  Understanding the scope of organizational design and knowing when and when not to tackle this endeavor are key prerequisites for success.

Definition and Scope of Organizational Design

Organizational design is:

The deliberate process of configuring:

  • Structures
  • Processes and policies
  • People practices
  • Culture

.       To create an effective organization capable of delivering on the Organization’s Vision/Strategy/Goals. [Adapted from jaygalbraith.com]

A key aspect of organizational design is determining where formal power and authority are located.  This is the traditional organizational chart with boxes representing grouping of work.  These structural components determine the hierarchy and resulting relationships within the organization. These formal components are important since they channel the energy of the organization and provide an identity for employees.

A key point of this definition is that in addition to the structure, one should also pay attention to processes and policies, people practices and culture.  Too often organizations craft the formal structure and never get around to the organizational mechanisms which are the underpinnings of the overall structure.  Only establishing boxes on an organization chart is akin building the foundation of a house without putting in electrical and plumbing.

The processes allow decision making and work to be carried out effectively and efficiently.  The policies help clarify how the organizational components are interrelated for an extra boost of productivity.  Finally, one cannot emphasize enough how people practices and culture impact the ability of the organization to accomplish valuable work in a manner which empowers employees.

When to Tackle Organizational Design

Another key aspect of organizational design is knowing when to dive into a redesign effort.  Many leaders believe that organizations need to be redesigned every few years regardless of what is happening in the organization and around it.  I have consulted for organizations which have successfully operated with the same organizational design for decades.  On the other hand, I have advised organizations to dive into redesign within a year of a previous design effort due to the below types of changes:

  • Growing/expanding/shrinking
  • Change in strategy
  • A crisis or significant events
  • Organization around you has changed
  • Change in external environment (such a regulation)
  • Lack of performance
  • New leadership

The following points emphasize how critical it is to be clear about why a redesign is being launched:

  • It is important for leadership to know the reasons why the redesign is needed. The rationale for the redesign helps define the outcome.
    • For example, I worked with a nonprofit organization which launched a redesign due to lack of delivery and a change in strategy. As a result, we measured the success of our effort via organizational performance moving forward.
  • The root cause of the redesign also helps shape the redesign strategy.
    • For example, a redesign in a government organization was launched due to changes in the external environment, including regulatory changes, which required an outward focus. We crafted a design process with mechanisms for measuring and monitoring the impact of external factors such as government policies and third party stakeholders.
  • Finally, articulating the rationale for the redesign will help employees embrace the effort and necessary changes.
    • For example, it was important for employees at a business to understand that a redesign effort was being launched due to a crisis.  These employees gave us the benefit of doubt knowing that the organization’s survival, and as a result their jobs, were predicated on the success of the redesign.

Next Steps

We have established the definition, scope and rationale of your redesign effort.  In future blogs we will explore how to carry out the actual redesign.

Key Questions:

  • Why is your organization tackling an organizational design? How will these reasons impact your design outcomes?  How will these reasons impact the design plan and processes?  How will these reasons impact how you will explain the rationale for the redesign to employees?
  • What is the scope of your organizational design? How will you ensure that you design not only the structure, but also processes and policies, people practices and culture?

Note: The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not reflect the views of my employer.

 

What True Employee Engagement Looks and Sounds Like

Mikado

As leaders we seek to create a calm work environment which is programmed.  All of our actions should be by design based on logic as opposed to spontaneous actions based on emotion.  We have been led to think that employees work together best in quiet, rationale and controlled spaces.

However, the reality we experience is vastly different.  Some of the most productive, innovative thinking I have experienced has resulted from dynamic work teams.  These have been conglomerations of employees coming together to solve difficult problems.  We sometimes operated on emotions which, at times, have verged on the edge of chaos.

For example, during a global roll out of SAP software team members participated in animated discussion, loudly challenged others thinking.  We even found ourselves at times shouting and at other times on the verge of crying.  Being on this roller coaster was one of the most challenging, productive, rewarding and downright fun work teams I have ever experienced.

This is where a great deal of robust, open dialogue to seek understanding takes place.  In these electric environments there is no need to survey employees regarding their level of engagement.  Rather, one can simply walk into the room and see and hear the engagement.  One can:

  • See employees who are actively collaborating with one another for understanding
  • Hear employees who are having lively conversations which at times can get loud
  • Experience conversations which take twists and turns no one could predict!

Employees who are truly engaged are ‘in the moment.’ They are internalizing the topic at hand in real-time through the most enjoyable and effective method of learning which is experiential.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this type of optimal experience ‘flow’ – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.  This researcher discovered that when people are in a state of ‘flow’ the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will seek to carry out these activities even at great cost, for the sheer sake of experiencing ‘flow’. http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Perennial-Classics/dp/0061339202

Csikszentmihalyi’s finding that people experience the best moments of their life when their body or mind in stretched to its limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile has significant implications for us as leaders.

This suggests that it is not always advisable to create manageable workloads for employees.  It also calls into question ‘dumbing down’ tasks so that they can be easily accomplished.  Rather, the research on ‘flow’ proposes engineering a much more dynamic, unpredictable work environment, where employees will inevitably be stretched and challenged in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Proactively creating this type of unruly work environment may go against much of what we have learned.  It may seem downright counter intuitive to good leadership practice.   Our paternal instincts to protect our workforce may kick in.

However, think back to your most rewarding and fun teaming experience.  Chances are that you were in a state of ‘flow’ which resulted from a work environment that was anything but calm!

Questions:

  • Why do you resist creating work environments which are dynamic with new priorities and directions emerging in real-time?
  • How can we create work environments where employees feel ‘flow’ on a regular basis via challenging work environments where they are stretched beyond their limits?

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

How To Obtain True Employee Engagement

Intelligent toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptop

Intelligent toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptop

We agree that engaging our employees is one of the keys to organizational success.  In fact, most organizational improvement, at some point, involves actively involving our teams of  employees.  We have been told countless times that this is the ‘secret sauce’ for improving our products, processes and culture.

The key question is: How do we truly engage our employees in their work?

Engaging our workforce in authentic conversation is not as easy as it sounds.  I have worked with peers who have claimed to be experts at drawing out our workers. I once tested this claim by tracking the amount of time my peer talked (95% of the time) versus team members talked (5% of the time) at a session with the specific outcome of ‘hearing’ from the employees!

How then do we ensure that our teams of employees are heard and fully engaged as they deliver on the important work of designing new products, creating better processes, reshaping our culture, etc.:

  • Cultivate Understanding of the Work and How It Will Impact Them
    • To achieve a high level of commitment and avoid resistance, involve those impacted in the development of the work itself.
    • Enable our teams to understand the dynamics of the work being carried out, new behaviors required of them and how their actions will contribute to success.

 

  • Assess the Level of Change Required By Our Teams & Make Adjustments
    • Continually assess change readiness levels over the course of the journey and adjust work and change management activities to address issues and gaps.
    • Our leaders should be accountable for making sure their teams are understanding and internalizing the work in their respective organizations.

 

  • Align the Organization to Enable and Sustain the Work
    • Explore the following elements of the organization: structure, culture, people, rewards, work processes and management processes.
    • Ask, ‘Do the above areas encourage or discourage employee engagement and the new/changed behaviors required to achieve the goals?’ Focus on areas that have the greatest influence on desired results.

The above advice involves grappling with complicated organizational dynamics.  However, the first easy thing leaders can do is simply to talk less and ask employees more questions.

Had my talkative peer I mentioned above reached even a 50 – 50 split between his air-time versus the amount of time employees shared their thoughts, we clearly would have gained more insight from our workforce.  Start by asking more questions.  It is that simple.

Questions to consider:

  • How should we evaluate the success of employee engagement?
  • How can we further transfer ownership of the work to employees?
  • What is standing in the way of you asking employees more questions?

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.