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Category: Communicating effectively

Forget solutions, let’s first get the problem right

Forget solutions, let’s first get the problem right

Strategic misalignment often results from leaders disagreeing on what to do: Which solutions to adopt, and which ones to forego.

Instead of focusing on solutions, our research indicates that strategically aligned executives first agree on what problems represent priorities. Only when problems have been well defined and priorities established do they start a conversation on what to do.

In this blog post, we explore expert advice on reaching strategic consensus.

What’s your problem?

Strategy meetings often start with someone asking “what should we do?” As if everyone at the table is already on the same page as to the problems facing the organization. That’s rarely the case.

After all, we have little visibility into other teams’ difficulties. So leaders tend to pitch solutions addressing their individual team’s problems with little knowledge on how it will affect others.

Under a lenient CEO, this translates into each team setting its own priorities, regardless of whether they are conflicting to the organizational strategy.

Examples of misaligned organizations abound. We usually hear about them when a company announces it is “going back to its roots” and divests dozens of unprofitable business units.

Why are we so quick to jump to solutions? For one, our business culture doesn’t reward people for taking the time to properly defining and agreeing on problems. We are rewarded for solving them. Fast.

We thus focus much more energy on solving problems than defining them. A professor from the University of Washington in St.Louis shares in an interview that:

“Our business philosophy is to get to the answer quickly. To formulate a strategy quickly. Yet the result is an implementation that takes forever and rarely succeeds.

If we engage in conversation and reach unity, implementation could be achieved much faster. So the need to get to a solution quickly is an impediment. Jumping to solutions only works when the problem is simple. With regard to complex problems, jumping to solutions quickly is the wrong thing to do.”

To better achieve strategic alignment, he advocates for a process where stakeholders first agree on the problems facing the organization:

“The key is to first have unanimity on problem definition. Not talk about any solution. Reason why people have arguments is because each jumps to solutions on what to do, which tend to be different, and fight over them because they have different views.”

In support of that argument, Russell Eisenstat, strategy consultant and former faculty at Harvard Business School, notes in a HBR article how we can:

“Mobilize commitment to change through joint diagnosis of business problems. As the term task alignment suggests, the starting point of any effective change effort is a clearly defined business problem. By helping people develop a shared diagnosis of what is wrong in an organization and what can and must be improved, a general manager mobilizes the initial commitment that is necessary to begin the change process.”

Aside from successfully reaching alignment, discussing problems without mentioning solutions also decreases the chances of conflict during the strategy process. Jackson Nickerson, a strategy researcher, shares in Microfoundations of Strategic Problem Formulation that:

“By first focusing on identifying relevant symptoms and prohibiting solutions prior to formulating the problem, …it is unlikely that discussions of symptoms will trigger political reactions the way that deriving solutions can (discussing symptoms has fewer direct implications for which actions need to be taken and whom such actions may benefit)…”

Can we agree on the important problems?

Now let’s assume the strategy team has successfully identified the problems facing the organization, how do we decide on which ones to focus on?

Russel L. Ackoff, former Management Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, proposes in Idealized Design to start:

“…with an illustration of all problems facing the company today and foreseeing what would kill the company if we did nothing. What problems would you want to focus on if the survival of the company was at risk?”

Looking at this from a different angle, Prof. Nickerson suggests in The “Problem” of Creating and Capturing Value:

“In selecting problems managers must decide not only which questions represent design challenges to create value but also which problems their organizations have a reasonable likelihood of solving at a low enough cost to create and capture value.”

Prioritizing initiatives that keep a company alive, competitive and profitable sounds elementary. Yet how many activities at our organizations fail this test? Too many in my opinion. For example, why did Instagram change logos?

Stronger together

In the end, the main goal of agreeing on problems is to work together as one unit. As one company. One community. Never letting differences of opinion divide the team.

That’s why the best leaders work to strengthen the organizational bond. Quoting Arie De Geus, former strategist at Shell, in The Living Company:

“A manager of a living company… must let people grow within a community that is held together by clearly stated values. The manager, therefore, must place commitment to people before assets, respect for innovation before devotion to policy, the messiness of learning before orderly procedures, and the perpetuation of community before all other concerns…

The feeling of belonging to an organization and identifying with its achievements is often dismissed as soft. But case histories repeatedly show that a sense of community is essential for long-term survival.”

Because “Working together always works.” – Alan Mulally, former CEO @Ford


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3 practical tips on maintaining team trust

3 practical tips on maintaining team trust

Maintaining trust with the team is in my opinion the foundation of leadership. So today, I’m going to share three tips on how to maintain trust day-to-day.

1. Don’t rush meetings

I get it. Everyone’s busy and there are fires to fight.

Most of us wished the meeting ended 5 minutes ago, so we can all get back to work.

However, rushing conversations creates a culture where nothing but the most urgent matters are discussed. Team members will avoid raising up concerns that are just starting to cause harm. Personal issues and frustrations are also skipped, since most wouldn’t want to bother their busy manager with it (until they’re ready to quit).

In other words, rushing conversations fails to allow people to raise emerging thoughts and problems. There is thus no opportunity to catch and resolve issues before they become big fires.

So next time there’s a meeting or a 1-on-1 chat, let’s not rush it. Let’s instead allocate a generous time slot for questions and concerns.

2. Listen

Managers much more famous and capable than I have said this before, so I’ll save my words on this point: Avoid speaking over people, interrupting them, or talking without listening.

In my experience, actively listening is much more powerful at effecting change than speaking at team members. If I wish to make a point, I ask questions to help the other party think through an issue together, and keep my mouth shut.

It still surprises me how powerful listening is.

3. Make time to observe

On countless occasions, I’ve heard team members complain about how leaders don’t understand their problems (I work hard to be a venting channel for people). That leaders seem clueless to their daily challenges.

In those situations, I empathize with both team members and managers. Fact is, managers are a level removed from daily challenges of their subordinates, so have a hard time understanding their problems. They lack context.

Yet it’s the manager’s job to understand their team’s problems. To represent and advocate for their needs.

In my opinion, the best way to keep tap on the team’s daily challenges without throwing ourselves back onto the front line (although that can’t hurt either, if one can afford it), is to make time everyday to observe the team’s work. Observe interactions between team members, with other teams, with customers, and ask about their challenges over lunch.

The danger in not observing the team is not becoming ignorant. It’s that our perception of the team’s challenges will bias toward the most vocal (or whiny) team members. A tiny snapshot of the team’s actual situation.

So to avoid sounding out of touch, let’s make the time to observe the team regularly.

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Don’t let instincts get in the way of doing the right thing

Don’t let instincts get in the way of doing the right thing

I like to believe that I am an objective being, actively in control of my decisions and actions, especially at work.

Yet time and again, I find myself less than proud of some of my past behaviors. I’ve had demographic biases toward people; I’ve opposed arguments without assessing their basis; and I’ve agreed to ideas that are against my personal values.

Fact is, I am often a slave of my subconscious, of my brain running on cruise control. And I’m starting to recognize that like animals, I have instincts that are challenging to overpower.

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem if our actions differ from our desired actions. If our brain on autopilot takes decisions that go against those we’d take consciously. It’s especially a problem if our instincts get in the way of creating a fair, transparent, and innovative workplace. The type that startup companies in this globalized world need.

So let’s take a moment to recognize our instincts. Allow me to share three instinctual behaviors that get in the way of…

… debating with the boss

I can recall numerous occasions where I’ve disagreed with my boss and yet didn’t try to voice or argue the matter. I’ve disagreed over the team’s compensation plan, our holiday policy, and even our company strategy. Yet on many of these issues, I’ve kept my thoughts to myself.

Why?

Well, to survive of course. Self-preservation is the need to keep myself alive and economically healthy. It is also the reason I will avoid arguing with my boss. Fact is, I see my boss as the hand that feeds me, so the last thing I want to do is to create conflict and paint myself as an enemy. I simply don’t want to get fired.

How can I become more vocal with my thoughts?

Everytime that I disagree with my boss nowadays, I first note it down in my journal to first avoid losing that thought. I then let it sit for 24 hours to ensure that my reactionary emotions are gone. If I still disagree after that, I will start to work on a way to introduce my disagreement, gathering evidence to support my thoughts, and planning for the right time to speak up. I also find it helpful to state my goals (why I’m of this different opinion), because they are often the same as my boss’s goals, so it helps us start the conversation from the same footing.

… being excited about changes

Most people I know react to a new proposed change with skepticism. Not many individuals react to a surprise change with a “Hooray!” Ok, maybe extreme sport athletes do. But for most of us commoners, we love a good old routine.

Why?

For the simple reason that we are creatures of habit and routine. As explored by NPR and Psychology Today, our habits and routines help us navigate our days with greater ease, greater comfort. As I’m typing this blog post, I am not actively thinking about which letter to press on my keyboard, my brain has made typing a habit, and I only have to think about what I want to say. There are dozens and dozens of tools that each of us depend on to do our work. To become more productive, we make a habit of using all these tools.

Yet when things change, our habits and routines have to be reset. We thus are naturally upset by change. If someone was to change the letter placement of my laptop keyboard, I’d be frustrated regardless of whether it’s better for my health or not. It simply takes me outside my comfort zone and I have to re-learn basics of typing again. We thus dislike it when people change the tools or processes we’ve grown accustomed to.

Being skeptical of change is in my opinion a good thing – it ensures that we take the time to properly review any proposed change’s potential impact, and take the necessary precautions. Yet this instinct can also backfire when people are stubbornly opposed to change without reason. According to some studies, 70% of change management initiatives fail. I’m willing to bet that people’s instinctive opposition to change has something to do with that.

How can a workplace assess changes objectively?

On our team, we first make sure that there are no surprises. No changes are made or even proposed before we first accurately pinpoint the problem at hand. We then work to ensure that all stakeholders agree on the problem. Only then do we start working to find a solution to the problem. Since all impacted parties are already involved and have agreed to participate in solving the problem, there is usually little to no opposition to any proposed changes. They architected it together.

… objectively judging people, especially individuals that are different

When I interview candidates, I often find myself asking more questions to people that did not come from a background (education, experience) similar to those of existing team members. In a way, we could call it playing it safe, but on another level, I’m simply judging people differently because they come from different walks of life.

As I consulted colleagues from other companies and startups on how they handled these situations, it became clear that this problem exists across industries, and in companies large and small. Age, gender, education, ethnicity, and even fashion discriminations were rampant. My colleagues and I both suffered such discriminations as well as contributed to them. We realized that most of the time, people were not even aware that they were discriminating. We’re talking about really smart, often Ivy league educated managers that would fight for feminist causes or march with Martin Luther King should he still be with us.

Why?

In my opinion, it comes down to the fact that we fear the unknown. We are afraid of things we are not familiar with: Foreign cultures, people, ideas. Here, foreign can take the form of a different neighborhood in the same city, not just another country. In its worst form, our fear morphs into Xenophobia, as witnessed in the recent Brexit. Day-to-day, we avoid certain parts of the city, sit with colleagues that are similar to us at the cafeteria, or ask some people more questions than others at interviews.

Again, why?

The question then begs… Why in our multicultural society (at least in much of the western world), are we still so afraid? Haven’t we been exposed to enough different people, cultures, and ideas that we can comfortably shed away our biases?

Well, fact is that even though there are multiple cultures found near each other geographically, there are limited interactions between them. Cultures are not mixing.

Simply glossing over a demographic map of the USA will expose the fact that most neighborhoods in cities are segmented demographically. African Americans, White Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans can all be found living apart from each other, in different neighborhoods. How do we expect to really understand other cultures if we are never exposed to them? Do we really understand their differing values and cultures? The situation is even worse in rural areas and smaller cities.

So this leaves us popular culture to educate us on the values and lives of foreign cultures. Yet no luck there either. According to research from USC, 73% of actors in Hollywood are white, 13% black, 5% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. That means that we are all overwhelmingly educated on white American culture, but little else.

All these stats are further augmented by the fact that 75% of white Americans do not have non-white friends. White Americans thus have no clue about the values, culture, and ideologies of the ~70 million non-white neighbors they share their land with.

This problem persists in the startup ecosystem and Silicon Valley, where most people are White or Asian. It reflects the demographic of university populations.

So how can I avoid being biased toward foreign people / cultures?

Simply being aware that we feel safer around people like us, and less so around those that look and think differently is a good start. Acknowledging we need people who think differently for innovation may be the next step. Let’s not fear our differences, but embrace them. We are all different, not better or worse.

The next time that candidates are being interviewed, perhaps we should take cues from musical orchestras and do it behind a curtain with voices masked. I’m kidding. Let’s all start with being more aware of how our brain operates on cruise control.


Recommended exercise

The next time that someone proposes a change, at work or at home, on how we do things, take note of our initial reaction. Did we oppose it instinctively, or did we keep our mind open and curious?


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!

Checking our blind spot when making a decision

Checking our blind spot when making a decision

In a previous post, I discussed a tendency for startup teams to be blindly optimistic.

So today I’m going to share a simple exercise to help check our blind spots when taking decisions.

We start by asking ourselves…

… how do we tend to react by default?

Understanding our default behavior provides critical details on who we are, what we stand for, and how we behave in our job.

It helps us acknowledge where we stand, and whether we’re going in the desired direction. By reflecting upon our natural tendencies, we shine a light onto behaviors that we don’t usually notice. It allows us to make corrections to subconscious actions.

For example, I once asked my team: “what is the first thing that you do when you get to work and why?” 

To which a team member responded: “I check my emails to check for any fires to fight, but I really should review and adjust my to-do list before reacting to anything…” Simply thinking about something that is more or less a habit can trigger a correction.

To paraphrase famed author David Foster Wallace, a fish may not even know what water is, being surrounded by it since birth. Similarly, there are so many elements in our day-to-day that require our active focus that we may not know how our subconscious is behaving. Personally, I had a tendency to hyper-focus on my work and neglect chats I receive throughout the day, leading some people to think that I don’t care about them. I only realized it after a team member joked about the situation over lunch, after which I became more aware of my chats throughout the day.

In the context of an organization (or a team), default tendencies act as a reflection of its culture. A proactive diagnosis thus helps to ensure that the team’s culture is aligned with its desired culture.

To diagnose my team’s tendencies, I like to first recognize three entities including:

  1. The team;
  2. The team leadership; and
  3. The team’s relation with other teams.

Next, I ask each team member to reflect on the tendencies and behaviors from these three perspectives. Specifically, I ask: “In your perception, what does the team or the team leadership…” OR “In your perception, when collaborating and working with other teams, what do we…”

  • “…enjoy spending their time on?”
  • “…don’t enjoy spending time on?”
  • “…excel in?”
  • “…repeatedly fails to achieve?”
  • “…never get the time to do?”
  • “…usually ask about?”
  • “…not ask about?”
  • “…forget about?”
  • “…get confused by?”

Compiling results from all team members provides us with a comprehensive picture of our tendencies, our blind spots, and our culture in general. Our goal is not to judge, but to effectively observe differences.

Next, we need to ensure that our culture is moving in the right direction. I thus pull all team members together and review whether each trait is desirable or not. In the case that it is not, we try and identify ways to actively remind ourselves of our bias and compensate for it. For example, if we have a tendency to avoid working with other teams, we could compensate by first asking “Does any other team need to be involved?” before kicking off any new projects.

How often should we assess our tendencies? I recommend performing this exercise every quarter or two. Culture is slow to change.

I do advocate for someone to act as a culture champion to hold people accountable to any tweaks and changes we decide to pursue. In the example above, a champion would praise people when they remember to consider whether other teams need to be involved in a project, and reprimand when we fail to do so.

In my opinion, success does not translate into achieving our dream culture, but very much being conscious of our existing culture. Simply being aware our biases, weaknesses, and tendencies helps to avoid taking decisions blindly.


Recommended exercise

The next time that we’re faced with a decision, let’s analyze our immediate response (default tendency) and then take a day to think and see if we change our opinion. Is our default state of mind limiting our abilities?


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!

How to not let failure hurt morale and diminish ambition

How to not let failure hurt morale and diminish ambition

We had missed our quarterly sales target. Again.

The news was given during a company all-hands. All over the room, I saw people staring at our CEO, not sure how to react. Frustrated, confused, and scared.

We had extremely ambitious targets to begin with, as is the case with most VC backed companies. Most individuals knew we’d be lucky to meet them. Yet as results were announced, we all felt like failures.

In the following weeks, the mood in the house was grimmer than usual. People were doubting the company’s ability to succeed, ever. Many feared losing their job as this downtrend continued.

Personally, the bad news didn’t surprise me, nor did it hurt my optimism. I never expected to hit those numbers, knowing full well they were best-case scenarios. They were not set based on what we could realistically achieve, but rather on numbers investors wanted to see (~somewhat imaginary). So it didn’t affect my outlook of the future. I knew we had a strong team and we did the best we could.

To help my team get back on track, I set up a meeting and said something along the lines of:

“Team, I know that some of you are feeling grim about the fact that we missed our sales targets again. I’m not going tell you that things will be better in the future or that the sales team will do better next quarter. I can’t predict the future.

However, I will remind you of the reason all of us are here for. Every single one of you told me that you wanted to join a startup to make an impact and to learn by doing. And the only promise that I ever made to you is that you’ll be able to do both. Does anyone in this room feel cheated by my promise?

Nobody ever promised you that it’d be an easy ride. In fact, you knew from the beginning that it was going to be a challenging and chaotic ride. Yet you still joined.

Many of us are doing things for the first time. It’s my first time leading a team. It’s our founders’ first company. For many of you, it’s your first job. So I don’t expect us to always get things right.

What I do expect of all of us is to work hard and work smart. To never let bad news and missed results beat us down. To always get back up and continue our journey.

We’re all here to do one thing and one thing only: Give out best shot. So I don’t care if we missed our targets. Let’s focus on the day-to-day and do our best.”

My point isn’t that a pep talk will fix things. Rather, it’s that people are too emotionally and mentally attached to results. So much so that when they fail to achieve their goals, regardless of how realistic it was, they lose confidence. I needed to remind my team that hitting targets, winning deals, and achieving milestones only play a small part in our overall success. It’s our day-to-day work, the time that we spend grinding and planning, that matters.

We missed our targets. So what?

I attribute our team’s grim reaction to prevalence of a fixed mindset in our culture.

[To quickly remind readers of the meaning of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset, allow me to quote Carol Dweck (top researcher on the subject): “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).” I find it fascinating how these two mindsets affect how we approach life. To learn more, I highly recommend readers to checkout Mrs. Dweck’s book: Mindset.]

In my opinion, people with a growth mindset would look at the missed targets and say to themselves: “Well, looks like there’s more work to do and things to learn. Let’s try harder.” On the other hand, a person with a fixed mindset would say: “Shit. Maybe we’re just not cut for this.”

I like to think I have a growth mindset, and that my team does as well. Yet fact is many of my colleagues have quite fixed mindsets. I don’t blame them for it. It’s my opinion they’ve received too many praises supporting a fixed mindset.

Allow me to elaborate… Every time that we compliment someone with “Wow, you’re so good at…” or “You were really born to do…,” it gives the impression that success is tied to who that individual is. Their genetics. How they’re wired. It couldn’t be more wrong. Ask anyone successful and they’ll tell you that success comes from thousands of hours of practice, bouncing back from failure, and many iterations. To quote Thomas Edison: “Success is 99% perspiration.” If that’s not enough evidence, I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. I believe that. I also acknowledge that some people are better positioned to achieve those 10,000 hours faster than others, but nobody said that life was fair. The point being that success is correlated to work and effort, not simply our genes.

Are targets detrimental to the team’s motivation?

No. Targets are absolutely necessary.

Targets and goals provide direction to our teams and help gauge our progress. Without them, we’d be all running in different directions and without a clue about whether or not we’re successful.

But hitting our targets is not the only thing form of success out there. People need to feel good for having tried really hard and giving their best.

How do we prevent missed expectations from de-motivating our team?

In my opinion, it comes down to setting realistic goals, having an underdog mindset, and rewarding a growth mindset. Let’s explore each in detail:

Set realistic targets

Set targets too high and we’re bound to miss them. Team members will feel like we’re asking the impossible. Set targets too low and the team loses the ambition to achieve more (they’re already there, why try harder?). I thus recommend to set targets slightly higher than what we can achieve today.

For example, if we forecast $100 in revenue based on historical performance, and $150 in revenue under a best-case scenario, I’d set our target as a range between $120 and $150. I’d proportionally increase the reward should we hit higher than $120. This challenges the team to do more than they have done historically, while incentivising even better results should they actually hit the lower goal.

If the team fails to meet the target in their first try, I’d keep the target unchanged until we achieve it. The goal is to keep learning and iterating until we succeed. The critical part of this approach is learning how to leverage scenario planning to set targets, instead of forecasting based on the best possible outcome. I thus recommend checking out author and VC Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start, which has a great section on how to set realistic goals from the bottom up.

Maintain an underdog culture

The moment that we think we’re successful is the moment that we stop trying.

I therefore believe we need to support an underdog mindset. We need to feel like we’re always chasing a bigger fish with limited resources. We cannot be too positive in our assessment of the company – the best underdogs feel that they’re behind and need to work harder.

For example, we need to avoid saying things like: “We have a ton of money in the bank from our investors;” or “We’re growing faster than any competitor in the field, ahead of the game by a good margin.” Even if these statements were true, it creates the perception that we’re successful and can relax a bit.

In addition to saying the right things, we also have to act like underdogs. Buying $2,500 Macbooks for everyone, giving free lunches and craft beers, and stocking the office with $1,000 chairs and standing desks does not paint the picture of an underdog company. These “perks” create a culture of entitlement, where people fail to value what they have, and perceive that they are in a pretty comfortable spot.

We don’t want our people to feel comfortable. We want our teams to feel like their survival is at risk. We need people to work hard to win. If we’re going to give perks, people need to earn it: e.g. Food should only be offered when there’s progress to celebrate, like when the team pulled an all nighter, or made an awesome attempt at hitting their goals.

We can’t give anything for free.

Praise effort and progress

Creating a growth mindset culture starts by praising team members’ daily effort. As leaders, we need to make the time to observe team members regularly.

A couple years ago, I’d only high five people when they hit their targets (which meant rarely), and had 0 hours dedicated to observe and praise people. Little did I know that I was actually supporting a fixed mindset.

Nowadays, I spend at least 30min to an hour every day to see if team members are trying harder than usual, and praise people’s efforts. For example, if I see someone is practicing ahead of a presentation, I’d stop by and say “Hey, I see that you’re working hard on the presentation. Feel confident yet?” Or if I see team members brainstorming solutions to a problem, I’d approach them before the end of day and say “I saw you spending a good amount of time brainstorming in that room with so and so. Looked like there were some good ideas on the whiteboard. How are you feeling?”


Recommended exercise

Let’s observe team members when they fail to achieve a goal. Are they optimistic and already thinking about how to improve, or are they simply feeling down?


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!