!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: September 2006

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - King John

From King John, Act IV, Scene 2:

Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.



Friday, September 29, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - The Merchant of Venice

From The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 1:

Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more
than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two
grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you
shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you
have them, they are not worth the search.



Thursday, September 28, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - Sonnet 29

I had the chance to review several productions of Shakespeare this summer for our local paper. I experienced once again how readily Shakespeare speaks to contemporary audiences though he lived over 400 years ago.

For the coming week I will honor the man with some of my favorite passages from his work. This is sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,--and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings'.



Wednesday, September 27, 2006

21st-Century Journalism XV: Cornucopia

For the harvest season, these gleanings from the Freedom Forum's 2006 First Amendment Calendar:

"There are two forces that carry light to all corners of the globe — the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here." -- Mark Twain

"Writing is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." -- E. L. Doctorow (writer)

"We as journalists have to help set the agenda — not just pander to the lowest common denominator of reader or viewer interest." -- William F. Gentile (photojournalist, professor at American University)

"We explain the world to our readers, but we rarely explain ourselves to our readers." -- Jeannine A. Guttman (editor, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram)

"Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking." -- John Maynard Keynes (economist)

"The storyteller is a kind of accountant. Each provides an audit of events and their cost, and it's for the listener to decide — was it worth it?" -- Ann-Marie MacDonald (author)

"Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making." -- John Milton (poet, 1644)

"The most talented journalists I know are gifted thinkers, dogged reporters of fact and beautiful musicians of language." -- Bruce Sanford (First Amendment lawyer)

"News, like light, is in abundant supply, yet without the prism of journalism it cannot be seen by the world." -- Drew Sunderland (journalism student, American University)

"Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun it's so.' Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?" -- Virginia O'Hanlon (8-year-old letter writer, 1897) [The New York Sun's famous response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," is here.]



Tuesday, September 26, 2006

21st-Century Journalism XIV: Into the Fall

My favorite late Summer and early Fall observations from the Freedom Forum's 2006 First Amendment Calendar:

"The best journalists are the best lie detectors ... the reporters who instinctively are alert to the possibility that their sources don't know what they are talking about." -- Benjamin C. Bradlee (former executive editor, Washington Post)

"Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." -- Frank Zappa (musician)

"Assessing the quality of journalism is not always a matter of tallying voices on each side of an issue." -- John Rubin (documentary producer)

"I should confess that I always felt a little sorry for people who didn't work for newspapers." -- Mary McGrory (journalist)

"We now live in an on-demand world. People want the news they want, and they want it when they want it." -- Tom Rosenstiel (Project for Excellence in Journalism)

"No principle [in journalism] is more important than excellence. It is not a goal to be sought and one day acquired and then retired to the trophy case. It is instead an ambition which must be pursued anew each day." -- Lee Hills (newspaper editor, publishing executive)



Monday, September 25, 2006

21st-Century Journalism XIII: Summer Thoughts

Points to ponder from Summer in the Freedom Forum's 2006 First Amendment Calendar:

"Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form." -- Vladimir Nabokov (novelist)

"The blogosphere is half forensic lab and half tavern." -- Michael Cornfield (political management professor, George Washington University)

"Balance and objectivity, without a strong commitment to the truth, can turn journalism into farce." -- Chris Hedges (author, columnist)

"In order to be able to explore, you have to be free to say what you believe, but with that comes the responsibility to also sit quietly and listen to someone else. That's where the classroom gets interesting." -- Michael Rothmayer (theater professor, Drake University)

"Left unchallenged, even the wildest guesses take on the certitude of fact." -- Christopher Wren (journalist)

"Unlike any other business, newspapers deliberately make widgets they know will annoy or enrage someone." -- Keith Spore (publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)



Sunday, September 24, 2006

21st-Century Journalism XII: Additional Comments

An additional half dozen comments on journalism from Spring and Summer in the Freedom Forum's 2006 First Amendment Calendar:

"Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' on a ukulele. The instrument is too crude for the work, for the audience and for the performer." -- Ben Bagdikian (professor, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism)

"The doctors told me this morning my blood pressure is down so low that I can start reading the newspapers and watching the TV news." -- Ronald Reagan

"The journalist's job is to chronicle and comment on the day's intelligence. That means leaving out a lot of stuff that good judgment tells you is unworthy of being repeated. It also means including a lot of stuff some people would prefer not to know, but we should tell them anyway." -- Edward Mullins (professor of communications, University of Alabama)

"Everything has a story about it. You just have to be able to see it." -- Jerry Gay (photojournalist)

"The blogosphere is tough. But are personal attacks worth it if what we get in return is a whole new media form that can add to the true information flow while correcting the biases and lapses of the mainstream media? Yes. Of course." -- Peggy Noonan (in the Wall Street Journal)

"Bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Facts are your firewall against bias." -- Tom Brokaw



Saturday, September 23, 2006

21st-Century Journalism XI: Further Food for Thought

Some further ideas gleaned from the Freedom Forum's 2006 First Amendment Calendar:

"As newspapers ... scramble to attract young readers more comfortable with the speed, flash and attitude of MTV, videos and the blogosphere, more reporters may find the temptation to cut corners, fabricate and dazzle increasingly irresistible." -- David Shaw (LA Times)

"The story of media in our country today is very much like the story of the American diet — we are overfed, but we are undernourished." -- Geneva Overholser (journalist, educator)

"News providers should regard anonymous sources simply as tipsters. Unless hard digging provides real verified facts, the anonymous stuff should be flushed down the toilet." -- Allen H. Neuharth (Freedom Forum founder)

"Audacity is a necessary feature of every good editorial." -- from an editorial in the Missouri Editor, 1894

"The role of a free press is to be the people's eyes and ears, providing not just information, but access, insight and most importantly, context." -- Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)

"A man finds joy in giving an apt reply, and how good is a timely word!" -- Proverbs 15:23 (Bible, New International Version)



Friday, September 22, 2006

21st-Century Journalism X: Some Advice from Informed Observers

Thanks to the Freedom Forum's 2006 First Amendment Calendar, I have easy access to thoughts from all sorts of people who have commented on the mission and performance of the US press. Some that are especially relevant to maintaining quality journalism are offered below.

"Freedom to seek and speak what is true is essential to human communication." -- Pope John Paul II

"Put everything in the newspaper unvarnished. Just ask questions, write down the answers and put them in the newspaper. Pretty simple." -- Gene Miller (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist)

"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." -- Stephen King (with whom I completely agree on this point)

"One of the real tragedies of the newspaper business is we constantly underrate our readers' sense of humor." -- Dave Barry

"Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged, and testing your beliefs in debate and discussion is central to the process of education." -- Greg Lukianoff (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

"We talk a lot about the people's right to know, but the people's right to tell is just as important and depends just as much on a free press." David Tomlin (AP)



Thursday, September 21, 2006

Business Acumen VII: Planning via the Operating Budget

I remember how surprised I was some years ago to discover during a research visit to a cable TV operator in Alabama, that the department heads were in the dark about how to draw up a budget for their parts of the organization. The general manager had recently decided to get his direct reports involved in putting the annual budget together, but quickly learned that the process was a mystery to them.

Although I haven't been back to the Alabama cable operation, I suspect — based on what I've observed at other organizations — the situation has improved. Nowadays, most department heads are expected to contribute quite substantively to the annual budgeting process.

Contemporary problems with setting the operating budget tend to involve disconnects between the budget and the all-important task of planning effectively (and dynamically) to achieve the organization's goals for the coming year. When planning and budgeting are tightly linked, the budget allocates resources in the way management has determined is most likely to produce success in meeting the goals.

Key issues to focus on are:
  • opportunities for growth

  • taking steps to support your organization's differentiation in the market

  • controlling costs without violating the spend-money-to-make-money principle

  • increasing returns on the capital invested in the business
After the management team has completed a situation analysis, drawing up the budget involves answering three central questions:
  • What is a reasonable projection of revenue for the coming year?

  • What are the variable costs associated with generating these revenues?

  • What are the fixed (overhead) costs for the year?
Once the budget has been drawn up, it can be used to help track progress in meeting the year's goals. It is especially helpful to analyze the root causes of differences between what was budgeted and what actually happened. For instance, the market environment may have changed, a competitor may have made an unanticipated move, quality problems may have developed, a downturn in customers' businesses may have led them to pay your organization more slowly, etc.

Obviously, this post is not intended as a tutorial on budgeting. Its aim is to encourage using the budget process very consciously to design the resource allocation most likely to produce success in achieving the business goals for the year.

For some additional detail on the budgeting process and other aspects of running a business, you can visit this UK government site. The "Budgeting and business planning" page seems geared to small business, but the concepts apply to an organization of any size.



Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Negotiation in a Nutshell

A quick refresher on negotiating that I have found helpful is a one-page article by Bob Gibson called "Six Keys to Negotiating Success." Gibson, founder and president of Negotiation Resources, explains that, though the following tips are oriented to sales negotiations, they apply to any area in which you need negotiating skill.
  1. Negotiation is an ongoing process, not an event. That's why putting effort into building good relationships with those you will be negotiating with is so important.

  2. Avoid a subservient mentality. Make sure you are fully aware of the value you bring to the table, and project a sense of confidence.

  3. Prepare. Investigate the answers to such questions as: What are the personal hot buttons of the decision-maker and influencers? Have there been any previous problems with the account? How well is their business doing?

  4. Determine the best- and worst-case scenarios for you and the other party. This allows you to surmise in advance of the negotiation where you and the other person have overlapping interests.

  5. Build value to strengthen your negotiating position. "For example, change the way you package or deliver your products or services to make it more convenient or profitable for the prospect." Your aim is to be clearly perceived as having more value to offer than any of your competitors.

  6. Expect reciprocity. "If you don't, you are training the other party to continue to ask for more, and reducing the value of anything you do concede." You need to be perceived as an equal in the negotiation process.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Stupid Questions

Like most real-world rules, the adage that "there are no stupid questions" has important exceptions that should not be overlooked.

Certainly, when a sincere person asks a question that seems awfully basic or that seems to have an obvious answer, the best response is to take the question seriously and provide a clear answer. Or, if it fits the dynamic of a group situation (no oneupsmanship allowed), invite answers from the floor. Or, use an unintimidating version of the Socratic method to help the person work toward answering the question herself.

The exceptions to the rule involve insincere people and lazy people:
  • Sometimes a person poses a question in an effort to put a facilitor on the spot. For example, in a session on how to conduct one-on-one performace reviews, a manager might ask, "Why doesn't management just admit that the performance management system is never going to be fair?"

    Such a question is straying in the direction of being disruptive. The provocateur is not just indicating legitimate skepticism about the ability to do precise employee assessment, but suggesting that he is not willing to be part of the solution to the challenges of executing performance management tasks fairly.

    The question, of course, needs to be answered straightforwardly, perhaps with a preview of what the course will teach about how to be fair. Still, the question itself is not an innocent one, and it's OK for the facilitator to at least implicitly make that point.

  • Sometimes a person asks a question that he or she really can answer unaided with just a little thought and/or research in readily available materials (e.g., easily accessible FAQs). For example, an employee in a training session might ask, "Does our website list all our locations?"
  • Such a time-wasting question is an imposition on everyone else in the group.
Let me end by saying that the rule, "There are no stupid questions," is generally correct. No one should be made to feel they've brought up a stupid point unless it is very clear that some sort of hidden agenda or refusal to think for oneself is involved.


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Monday, September 18, 2006

More on Professionalism

As a follow-on to yesterday's post, let me add some of my own observations about how professionalism can be cultivated at all levels in an organization.

In my own experience, the ability to be "warm but cool" is the central attribute of a person with a professional approach to work. This is true from the top of an organization down to employees in the ranks.

The warm part comes in when doing your bit to keep morale up and encourage a Can Do attitude in anyone whose confidence is flagging. The cool part involves remaining calm and mission-focused, even as problems emerge and threaten to produce spinning wheels.

Being mission-focused means making the goal of whatever activity people are engaged in — completing a project, getting today's work out the door, etc. — the touchstone in deciding how to handle various situations.

In other words, when a problem, large or small, arises, reminding yourself of what the team is trying to accomplish, and then asking yourself what you can do to further the cause, is the best approach. Instead of getting hung up on ego issues, you can concentrate on how to mobilize cooperation in restoring forward movement.

If this sounds simple, that's because in an important sense it is simple. The hard part is developing enough control over one's emotions to stay focused in the midst of distracting emotionalism on the part of others and/or unexpected shifts in the environment in which a project or job is being carried out.

Cultivating professionalism involves helping younger employees, and employees who have developed unprofessional habits, internalize the attitudes and behaviors that disinguish accomplished professionals. A combination of classroom learning, guided on-the-job experience, and clear, patient coaching can bring strong improvement in individuals motivated to advance their general and job-specific professional skills.



Sunday, September 17, 2006

What Professionalism Looks Like

I am a big proponent of helping employees at all levels to internalize the concept of professionalism and to develop a personal version of professionalism that fits their particular job responsibilities. But "professionalism" is one of those words that is often used without definition, so people don't have a clear idea of what they need to do in order to be fully professional.

A while ago I came upon an article dealing with the nitty-gritty of professionalism that advances the cause. "The Seven Balancing Acts of Professional Behavior in the United States," by consulants Cornelius Grove (an interculturalist) and Willa Hallowell (an anthropologist) of Grovewell LLC, approaches the subject in a sophisticated way that is also practical.

Their main message is that an accomplished professional in the United States honors certain U.S. cultural values without taking anything to extremes. The seven pairs of contrasting values that Grove and Hallowell cite are summarized below.

In work-related situations in the United States, professional behavior is ...
  • Individualistic yet restrained — "One must demonstrate one's individualism and independence on the one hand; one must also observe prevailing social norms and the expectations of business associates on the other."

  • Egalitarian yet respectful — "Americans demonstrate their common humanity with others by being overtly friendly and informal with all others. At the same time, they are alert and ready to comply when someone with power acts 'in role.'"

  • Assertive yet sensitive — "Acting professionally in the U.S. means putting a boundary on one's assertiveness and self-assurance, a boundary that varies across times, situations, and people. This shifting boundary is governed by one's awareness of the likely effect on others of varying levels of assertiveness. The professional constantly endeavors to be sensitive to others, thereby learning how to temper and modulate his or her behavior."

  • Accurate yet tactful — "In the U.S., the high value on accuracy must always be tempered by tact, even to the point of occasionally stopping short of being 100% accurate. When shortcomings must be fully revealed, the bad news should be restricted to those who are directly involved."

  • Punctual yet patient — "Being punctual is about being sensitive to the needs of others, who are also following preplanned schedules. ... [But] people have many responsibilities and tasks to attend to daily. ... So along with punctuality, one needs patience. Being patient is about being sensitive to others' workloads and priorities."

  • Warm yet "cool" — "... U.S. businesspeople need to be both 'warm' in the sense of not being emotionally flat or uncaring towards others, yet 'cool' in the sense of reacting rationally and neutrally to unusual events and behavior, including emotionally upsetting situations and even well-intentioned criticism of oneself ..."

  • Optimal yet practical — "Acting professionally in the U.S. means valuing excellence, with the outcome that one attempts to improve knowledge, skills, speed, and quality of output in oneself and one's coworkers. But in most situations, this quest for optimal results needs to be balanced by practical considerations. Deadlines and budgets are important, too."
If you would like to read the full article, including the examples Grove and Hallowell offer, you can go here. Note that, at the end of the article, Grove and Hallowell supplement their "seven balancing acts" with four other important qualities of professionalism in the U.S.: presentable personal appearance, reliability in completing work and delivering results, conscientious execution that aims steadily at excellence, and being non-judgmental, as opposed to leaping to conclusions before the facts of a problem situation have been gathered.



Saturday, September 16, 2006

Corralling Useful Information

Sometime in the next couple of months, I will move to Google's upgraded Blogger software. The major attraction for me is the ability to tag my posts. I'll be able to attach one or more labels to each post, which will make it considerably easier for a visitor to find what I've had to say on specific topics, such as business acumen, since I started the Streamline Training & Documentation blog in April 2006. (In the meantime, a visitor can use the search function at the top of the screen to get a listing of posts touching on a particular topic.)

This coming feature — Blogger uses the term "labels" rather than "tags" — fits with a clear move, on the Internet and on organization intranets, toward making it easier for people to home in on relevant information when they're researching a topic.

For instance, earlier this month the Wall Street Journal published an article by Michael Totty detailing how social bookmarking (tagging that is shared amongst a group, large or small) improves the retrievability of information:
Social bookmarking is seen as a simple way to enhance search tools by letting users mark their saved files with their own keywords, called "tags," which then can be used to organize, recall or distribute the documents. "It's no complex technology at all," says Jeff Nolan, director of a srategy group at SAP AG in Palo Alto, Calif. ... "People end up using it and getting great value out of it."
With social bookmarking, it is no longer necessary to recall the title of a document you are trying to retrieve. If you know what it is about, and you know the keywords/tags that you, or a tagging friend or colleague, have associated with the type of information in the document, you can just search for one of those tags.

There's also an appealing browsing aspect to tagging. You can subscribe to particular tags of interest to you, and you can subscribe to particular users' lists of tags. When a new tag or item is added to one of your subscribed lists, you are automatically notified. For instance, a researcher at IBM "subscribes to the bookmarks of several 'thought leaders' from around IBM to see what kinds of topics they're following. 'There isn't a time that I see their bookmarks without seeing something I'm interested in,' he says."


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Friday, September 15, 2006

Respect Pays Off (and So Does Trimming Deadwood)

Even though, as explained in an earlier post, I'm quite confident that treating employees with respect is an essential part of managing well, I'm always on the lookout for fresh evidence of the accuracy of this view.

The September issue of Training magazine picks up a press release from Sirota Survey Intelligence reporting "two common-sense human resource polices" that can promote employee retention. One of the policies is treating all employees with respect, and the other is dealing effectively with poor performers.

The supporting data:
  • "Employees who do not feel treated with respect by their employers are more than three times more likely [63% vs. 19%] to intend to leave their jobs within two years than those who feel they are treated respectfully ..." (from a survey of over 370,000 employees)

    "37% of employees who feel very good about how they are respected are enthusiastic about their employers, compared with only 12% of employees who just feel good about how they are treated."

    "While almost half of senior-level managers feel they are shown a great deal of respect, just one-quarter of supervisors, and only one-fifth of non-management employees, feel the same way."

  • "Only 2 out of 5 employees who feel their companies are doing much too little to correct poor employee performance are favorably engaged at work ..." (from a survey of over 34,000 employees)

    Conversely, there is "a favorable engagement level of 73% among those who feel their companies are taking the necessary steps to correct poor employee performance."

    "... 33% of management and 43% of non-management employees think their companies are not doing enough to deal with poor performers ..."
David Sirota identifies indifference as the main failing of employers whose employees feel they are not respected. In other words, recognizing and rewarding good performance is a big part of what makes employees feel respected.

As for dealing with poor performers, the most common shortcoming is managers' reluctance to confront problem individuals. CIO Magazine offers a five-step process for dealing with poor performers here. Though the article is addressed to IT managers, the advice is suitable for any part of an organization.


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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reality Check for Branding

What a relief to open the current issue of Business Week (September 18) and find a report on a company that has gone back to basics with branding. In lieu of superficial gestures in the direction of establishing a personality for their brand, Safeway decided to be very serious about freshening their brand image in an authentic way.

Reporter Justin Hibbard extracts three best-practices from the Safeway case that are well worth sharing:
Tell a true story. Consumers don't just want to buy a widget or save a buck. They want products placed in a meangful context — a story. Marketers don't always have to focus on facts, but their stories must hold up when consumers get the goods.

Deliver, then promise. A brand is a promise. When you tell consumers your brand stands for something, you had better be ready to deliver that special something. Safeway spent three years improving food quality before it rebranded the company.

Don't oversell. It's fine to add new meaning to an existing brand if you can deliver. But throwing out the old meaning in a radical about-face can seem fake. When Safeway extended its brand, it was careful not to climb too far upscale.
Hibbard's story focuses on the changes Safeway made in the quality of its food and its stores' decor. I assume that orienting old and new employees to their role in delivering on Safeway's brand promise is also part of the rebranding program. If it isn't, it should be.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Your Training is Showing

I don't know about you, but I can't help myself when it comes to mentally assessing how well people I deal with as a customer have been trained. I'm happy to say that I frequently conclude that the training was excellent.

Since I am firmly convinced that effective and ongoing training — training that produces consistently good performance by employees — provides a sustainable competitive edge, my hat's off to the companies who put substantial effort into training and development.

A related observation is that I have noticed over the years a clear raising of the bar for what constitutes baseline competence for employees in a broad array of industries. As employer commitment to training has spread, more and more employees are well-versed in the basics of key skill areas, such as teamwork, negotiation, conflict resolution, and consultative selling.

The next frontier: expanding the scope of advanced training so that more and more employees are well above the baseline in the skills they have mastered.



Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Three Approaches to Decision Making

If you've ever thought that a purely analytical approach to reaching a decision — define the issue, diagnose its cause-and-effect dynamic, identify options for addressing it, choose the best option, and implement — doesn't seem optimal in some situations, Henry Mintzberg and Frances Westley are here to tell you you're right.

In a Spring 2001 article in the Sloan Management Review, they argue that the "thinking first" approach is only one of three possibilities. The other two are "seeing first" ("creating a picture with others in order to see everyone's concerns") and "doing first" ("going ahead with an action in order to learn"), each of which is your best bet in certain situations.

Mintzberg and Westley offer the following advice:
  • Think first "when the issue is clear, data [are] reliable, the context is structured, thoughts can be pinned down, and discipline can be applied — for example, in an established production process."

  • See first "when many elements must be combined into creative solutions, commitment to those solutions is key, and communication across boundaries is essential — for example, in new product development.

  • Do first "when the situation is novel and confusing, when complicated specifications might get in the way, and a few simple relationship rules could help people move forward — for example, when companies face a disruptive technology.
As in most areas of management, the key is developing good judgment, in this case developing the ability to recognize which type of situation you're facing and then working toward a decision using the best-suited approach, whether it's analyzing, or clarifying the overall picture, or experimenting and learning from the results.

And, as with most management skills, the skill of choosing the best decision making approach for the circumstances is something that can be learned and honed through well-planned developmental activities.


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Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: A Poem from Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality.

We slowly drove. He knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too
For his civility.

We passed the school where children strove
At recess in the ring.
We passed the fields of gazing grain;
We passed the setting sun –

Or rather, he passed us.
The dews drew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice in the ground.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.



Sunday, September 10, 2006

Learning from Role Plays

Practice, practice, pracice. That's the simple principle behind the use of role plays in training programs that aim to strengthen interpersonal skills (broadly defined to cover everything from sales calls, to having a "difficult conversation" with your spouse).

Since practicing a newly honed skill before using it in an actual situation is so important, it's unfortunate that there's often a bit (or a lot) of groaning when the trainer announces that the next item on the agenda is a role play. To help get people in the mood, make a point of highlighting the role play's value for developing facility in skills crucial for adept real-world performance.

Other pointers for getting as much as possible from role plays:
  • The set-up — The background for the role-play shouldn't be more than a page long (though additional details may be presented in preceding case study material). Avoid distracting or misleading departures from reality, such as caricatures of the characters in the role play. Encourage participants to make reasonable additions to the background details, as needed.

  • Observers — It's important for everyone to have a chance to practice the skills the role play is reinforcing. If time permits, arrange enough rounds of the role play to allow at least one observer for each round. This will invariably add detail to the debrief that will help extract the maximum possible learning from the experience. Provide the observer with a checklist and comment sheet to help keep the focus on the specific skills being addressed.

  • Timeouts — Try to have the time allotted to a role play flexible enough that, if necessary, participants can pause in the middle, come out of character, and discuss something that has them stuck. The participants can then resume (perhaps going back a bit from the point where they paused) and either continue on the previous track, or try some alternate approach that they came up with during the timeout.

  • The debrief — Start by getting comments describing what happened, including how participants were feeling at different points in the role play.

    Then analyze what went well and what not so well. Why did some things work, while others didn't? What variation was there in the experience of different participants? Why the variation, and what is its significance for how we use the skills we're practicing? For instance, do we need to vary our approach according to the behavioral style of the other parties in the interchange?

    Draw conclusions, both general conclusions, and conclusions relating to each participant's own situation and working style.

    Have each participant prepare a workable action plan for how to put the learning from the role play to use. What will the person do more of? do differently? do less of? stop doing entirely?


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Business Acumen VI: Corporate Performance Statement

Cash is king.

You've probably heard this expression. In the context of business performance, it means that a company's financial situation is most fundamentally tied to how well it is doing at bringing in more cash from its operations than it is sending out. The volatility of the cash flow is also important because it is a major factor in determining how risky the business is.

Alfred Rappaport, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, provides an eminently clear tool for assessing corporate performance in terms of generating cash in the September 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In an article titled "Ten Ways to Create Shareholder Value" (all of which is well worth reading), Rappaport touts Berkshire Hathaway as an exemplar of the shareholder value creed, and then offers "The Corporate Performance Statement" as a way of coherently assessing how well any company is living up to the creed.

I won't go into technicalities here. Rather, I'll describe what the statement records and how this information is used. The statement has three sections:
  • Operating Cash Flows — This section records actual net cash inflow from operations (hopefully, positive) and then deducts cash spent on investments (e.g., machinery and R&D). The bottom line is free cash flow — cash available for distribution to the company's debt holders and shareholders.

  • Revenue and Expense Accruals — These amounts are estimates of "future cash receipts and payments triggered by current sales and purchase transactions. Management estimates three scenarios – most likely, optimistic, and pessimistic ..."

  • Management Discussion and Analysis — "Management presents the company's business model, key performance indicators (both financial and nonfinancial), and the critical assumptions supporting each accrual estimate."
With this information laid out in a straightforward, concise fashion, people inside and outside the company can see the company's current financial situation, get a sense of the company's future financial prospects, and assess the soundness of the company's plans for operating successfully going forward.



Friday, September 08, 2006

A Caveat Concerning Prediction Markets

Prompted by a brief article by Cass Sunstein in the September 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review, I'm revisiting today the topic of prediction markets, discussed in two previous posts.

In his article, Sunstein, a professor of both law and political science at the University of Chicago, makes a point that should almost go without saying: A prediction market should be used only in situations in which the correct answer is the answer participants are most likely (but not guaranteed) to give to whatever question is being asked.

This circumstance will prevail only if participants have access to relevant information about the subject under consideration. Each individual participant may very well have only incomplete information. The beauty of the prediction market is that it enables consolidation of what everybody knows into an answer with a high probability of being accurate.

Sunstein offers this example:
A computer company executive could sensibly rely on an internal prediction market if she is asking about completion dates for the company's own products in development. But should the manager ask employees about completion dates for competitors' products? That wouldn't be a good bet. When most people are not likely to be right because the group has little relevant information, it's best to ignore their judgments — and to try to find an expert instead.
I hasten to add that Sunstein's basic position is to endorse the power of prediction markets. Last month he published Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, which deals with the great benefits we can realize through using information-pooling tools like prediction markets, wikis, and open-source software.



Thursday, September 07, 2006

More on Customer Satisfaction vs. Mission Accomplished

In an earlier post, I talked about the lack of correlation between how satisfied training participants are right after a training session, and how well they apply the skills taught once they are back on-the-job.

In the jargon of training evaluation, research is telling us that positive Level I evaluation (feedback on "smile sheets") by no means guarantees high Level III evaluation (actual application of skills). In fact, the correlation can be negative, i.e., it can turn out that high participant satisfaction is accompanied by lower success in on-the-job application.

Today's Wall Street Journal brings news of parallel research in the healthcare field. Researchers from the Rand Corporation, UCLA and the US Department of Veterans Affairs looked at patient satisfaction scores and patients' medical records to see how much of a correlation there is between patient satisfaction and health care quality. Their finding: no correlation.

The analogy between training and healthcare is that the "customers" — training participants right after they have completed training, and patients — are not in a good position to evaluate the effectiveness of the service they have received.

So, without denigrating the importance of using good interpersonal skills in working with trainees and patients, the bottom line is that accomplishing the mission is what ultimately counts. In the case of healthcare, that means improving patient health. In the case of training, it means improving job performance.



Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Teaching People When They Are Ready to Learn

One of the most insightful newspaper columns I've read recently is Robert J. Samuelson's offering in today's Washington Post.

Samuelson addresses the paradox of consistently low rankings for the US in international comparisons of student achievement, while, at the same time, the country manages to maintain an advanced and flexible economy.

Samuelson's resolution of the paradox is what he calls the US "learning system," which he describes as follows:
It's mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes the following: community colleges; for profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books.
One of Samuelson's key points is that some people just aren't ready to learn during their high school years. As they get older and more mature, their motivation rises to the point where they put in the necessary effort to acquire skills and knowledge that equip them to get decent jobs and to advance in careers.

Which brings us to the other key virtue that Samuelson points to, namely that the US learning system is job-oriented.

Samuelson's summary:
The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.1
Of course, Samuelson is not letting school authorities off the hook when it comes to improving under-performing schools. Rather, he is highlighting the way in which the availability of an array of learning resources contributes to developing motivated individuals' talents, maintaining flexibility in the economy, and keeping the US at a high level of economic performance relative to other countries.

1 I myself, representing my alma mater, have attended the inaugurations of new presidents at several local community colleges. I have invariably been impressed by these educators' sense of mission and their commitment to helping their students succeed.



Tuesday, September 05, 2006

New Leadership at Ford

Hard on the memo Bill Ford sent employees on three days ago, today he sent a new memo announcing that he is turning his role as CEO over to Alan Mulally, an engineer who has risen through a 37-year career at Boeing to serve most recently as executive vice president and chief executive of the company's commercial airline division. Bill Ford will continue as Chairman of the Board of Ford.

And so the unfolding story of leadership at Ford that was the subject of a previous post, begins a new episode.

Mulhally comes to Ford with a strong track record, including making Business Week's list of the best leaders of 2005. Business Week commended Mulally "not only for rescuing the fabled commercial airplane division during its darkest hours [the period of distress in the airline business following 9/11, combined with tough competition from Airbus] but for putting it back on the path to prosperity."

Mulcally's turnaround effort at Boeing, which involved streamlining production and introducing successful new products (the 777 and a new version of the 747), bears a strong resemblance to what Ford is now undertaking.1 That parallel leadership experience is the major reason Mulally was recruited. As Bill Ford explained in his memo:
"One of the three strategic priorities that I've focused on this year is company leadership. While I knew that we were fortunate to have outstanding leaders driving our operations around the world, I also determined that our turnaround effort required the additional skills of an executive who has led a major manufacturing enterprise through such challenges before.
In his memo, Bill Ford cites other strengths Mulally offers — "deep experience in customer satisfaction, manufacturing, supplier relations and labor relations, all of which have applications to the challenges of Ford."

I will continue to watch the unfolding Ford leadership story with real interest.

1 Interestingly, as described by James P. Lewis in Working Together: 12 Principles for Achieving Excellence in Managing Projects, Teams, and Organizations, Mulally, when leading development of the Boeing 777, drew on lessons he picked up from Ford's experience in developing the Taurus. If you'd like to read an excellent account of how the Taurus went from concept to production, have a look at Mary Walton's 1997 book, Car: A Drama of the American Workplace.



Monday, September 04, 2006

The First Labor Day

To mark today's Labor Day holiday, here's a nice vintage image of the first Labor Day parade in the US, which took place on September 5, 1892, in New York City's Union Square.

If you're interested in a quick review of the history of Labor Day, Joshua B. Freeman, Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, provides a summary in his History Now article, "Labor Day: From Protest to Picnics."



Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Framework for Innovation

A new book on innovation is reviewed in the September 4 issue of Business Week. Judging from BW writer Dean Foust's summary of the book's central points, it's worth spreading the word on.

The authors of Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want are Curtis R. Carlson, CEO of SRI International, and William W. Wilmot, director of the Collaboration Institute. Their goal is to demonstrate that, contrary to the view that breakthroughs arise from lucky "Aha" moments, innovation is actually best pursued as a disciplined process of identifying and developing promising ideas.

Steve Hamm of Business Week met with Carlson to discuss his views on managing the innovation process. Hamm explains:
Back in the 1990s, SRI's revenues had stagnated, and when Carlson came in as CEO, he deconstructed the place and decided that it needed a lot more discipline. Back then, innovation was ad hoc, there wasn't a lot of team work, and there wasn't a single process discipline spanning the entire organization. He remodeled SRI, creating common practices and processes for all of the business units, encouraging teaming, and making everything more quantifiable.
Ultimately, Carlson and colleagues determined that a robust innovation process requires practice of five disciplines:
  • identifying customer needs

  • spotting technologies and solutions that best meet them

  • empowering innovation champions

  • building teams

  • aligning the entire organization around value creation for customers
Some will say, "Sounds like good old-fashioned common sense," to which I would say, "common sense" covers a lot of territory. You need to know what principles are crucially relevant in a particular situation.

Carlson is a believer in The Toyota Way, especially the principle of continuous improvement. SRI's application of this principle in the company's innovation process centers on the "watering hole," a structured brainstorming session:
Carlson runs this forum every two to six weeks at SRI, with five to 20 participants from different departments, including the team pitching an idea, technical and legal staff, and a market expert, as well as current or potential business partners.
.The evaluation of the idea involves pinning down answers to four questions:
  • What is the market need?

  • What were the alternative approaches to meeting it?

  • What is the cost-benefit analysis?

  • How does the cost-benefit analysis compare to competitive offerings?
An idea that passes muster is revisited in subsequent sessions for fresh evaluation and refinement.

For those wondering if there is any evidence that this structured approach actually works, Carlson can point to the 10% annual growth in revenue that SRI is currently realizing.

A final note: Carlson is not talking about shortcuts to success. Perseverance in developing an idea to its full potential is essential for giving it competitive legs.



Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ford – A Developing Study in Leadership

After several posts looking at Toyota, how about shifting focus to Toyota's competition? Both GM and Ford, long-time leaders in world auto sales, have been in the news as they struggle with the challenge that Toyota and other non-US automakers present in today's market.

I'll say a bit about Ford today because the company's Chairman, Bill Ford Jr., has sent a direction-setting memo to company employees that fell into the hands of the Detroit News. In an article today, reporter Bryce G. Hoffman explains that the core of the memo is the three-point strategy for securing the company's future that Mr. Ford lays out:
  • restoring profitability in North America through a combination of new product introductions and substantial costs cuts

  • tighter integration of worldwide operations, especially in the area of product development

  • development of internal leaders and recruitment of leadership talent from outside the company
The bottom line for Bill Ford is just that — the bottom line. His new business model for the company focuses sharply on achieving sustainable profitability. All three elements of what he calls his new business model are essential to success.

I myself am particularly interested in watching Ford's effort to strengthen company leadership. As Hoffman explains,
Ford has been plagued by high turnover and instabiity in its executive ranks for much of the past decade. It has had four heads of its troubled North American operations in the past four years.

This has cost the company talent at a key juncture in its history.
I'm anticipating that the concerted effort to improve leadership, if executed effectively, will provide some useful lessons for other companies, whether or not they produce cars.



Friday, September 01, 2006

What Ails Toyota?

As my last post about Toyota noted, recent quality problems at the company have raised questions about whether The Toyota Way needs repair.

An August 25 Wall Street Journal report suggests that the spate of recalls is due to engineering issues, as opposed to production faults.

In order to develop and launch new models more rapidly, the company has been depending more than in the past on computer-aided design (CAD). Once aspect of this approach is cutting the number of physical prototypes used for testing from 60 to fewer than 20. This may have allowed relatively subtle problems to go undetected.

Toyota has now decreed a slowdown in the development timetable, which, among other things, will allow for additional physical prototypes and more thorough testing.

There is also some suggestion that using parts suppliers not part of the long-time circle of suppliers in Japan has introduced quality issues that need analysis and correction.

According to Business Week, Toyota asserts its continuous improvement (kaizen) processes have enabled it to promptly address the steering problem that has been the reason for the largest recalls (though, obviously, changes made in production only affect newly manufactured cars).

I will continue to watch for updates on Toyota's quality issues. So far, it appears that The Toyota Way is robust enough to manage both minor and not-so-minor engineering and parts acquisition problems.