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My article on instigating change has been turned into a video by CBS Techrepublic’s Editor-in-Chief, remarkable Jason Hiner.

Click to watch the video

This is a repost from my monthly newsletter, sent out early this week.

I may have shared with you in the past that I believe in stretch goals, objectives that challenge you, your team or your organization to venture to the brink of what’s perceived to be doable. This concept appeals to great many people but the key question that I am asked again and again is this: “It’s fine to think big and set challenging goals, but how do you make sure you reach them?”

Whether you are setting your organization’s strategy or seeking breakthrough in a tactical matter or looking for a leap in self-development, there is one particular skill that you need to master. I call it the art of walking backwards. Here is what it’s all about.

We all make plans in work and personal life. Traditional planning works reasonably well for objectives that we are reasonably familiar and comfortable with. Take, for example, new product launch, which your organization may do all the time. A product manager knows what it takes and how long the lead time is, which enables her to put together a roadmap, a project plan. Prior experience comes in very handy in this case.

Try to do the same kind of planning for stretch goals and you will find that experience becomes baggage, too heavy to allow any progress and too precious to relinquish. A consultant I know was once facilitating an executive retreat for a large residential builder. Profitability was the hot topic on the agenda and as it was discussed, it transpired that it would typically take all of 120 days to build a house. The company’s management couldn’t shrink the construction time any further and was looking for a miracle.

“What would it take to build the house in just 10 days?” asked the consultant, which prompted the audience to question his lucidity. He continued: “Well, we already know that it is impossible, so don’t say it again. If it were possible, what would have to happen to enable that?”

What happened then is this. The company did not hit the 10 day goal, but they managed 20 days, which they hadn’t seen in their wildest dreams.

And so is the key: you have to learn to walk backwards:

  1. Set the goal (e.g. own 1/3 of the East Coast market, acquire 100 new customers by 2010, reduce product development cycles by 40% and so on)
  2. Walk backwards from the desired future state and determine what needs to be in place to enable your goal.
  3. Capture all critical issues that need to be addressed: facilities created, people hired, R&D, systems deployed, etc.
  4. When you reach the present state, you should have in front of you a list of future projects. Prioritize them and run as a program.
  5. Maintain the momentum.

 This is a very powerful technique that not only helps to get over that “Impossible!” or “It will never happen!” reaction but also challenges your people to find solutions to difficult problems. If, as many other executives, you are looking to spark the spirit of innovation within your organization, this is a great way to do that.

 Sometimes, walking backwards is a sure way to get ahead.

My fellow consultants will confirm that very often, organizational problems are clear and apparent from the day one of an engagement with a client. On such occasions, rapid diagnosis and resolution stuns the client and the typical comment is “Wow, thank you, I cannot believe we couldn’t see this ourselves.”

Actually, it is not surprising at all. Self-diagnosis is exceedingly difficult for a variety of reasons, such as the emotional attachment, the too-close-to-the-grinding-wheel myopia and the lack of perspective (“We’ve never thought of it this way”). 

At the same time, we live in the times when the do-it-yourself approach to anything is more popular than ever. There are television programs and literature available on pretty much any avocation or endeavour. This is often taken into such areas as mental health, wellness and marital counselling and there are lots of books on these subjects in your nearest bookstore. Be it do-it-yourself renovation, gourmet cooking or gestalt therapy, there is a sense of empowerment and fascination that comes with seeing and feeling the results.

Unfortunately, the DIY approach that works (cooking, pottery, etc) or sometimes works (nutrition, sports, renovations, personal finance, etc) for an individual, does not work well for organizations. The problem is with identifying the issue that needs to be addressed and, as I have mentioned in the beginning, it can be exceedingly difficult.

And so we have it – a great danger that the key problem is misdiagnosed and the overwhelming propensity to go DIY route. Result: misguided projects, changes that produce little value, lost business opportunities, millions down the drain.

I like DIY (my home-grown tomatoes are probably $50/lb) but I know when to call in a professional. Do you?

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Last week, life offered me a wonderful lesson in organizational design, which I am going to share.

I saw how a notary in a small Russian town organizes her work. In Russia, notaries do not merely administer oaths and notarize documents. They are trained legal professionals who often get involved in real estate and property matters, services that, while being routine and mostly straight-forward, make the notary’s work very valuable indeed.

Let me describe how this particular notary runs her business.

The reception is teeming with people. There is a queue, but unless you poke your head into the office where the notary’s three helpers reside, you probably won’t get served. The helpers concern themselves with typing, copying, fetching stuff and other like light duties. They don’t do any other work and aren’t allowed to say much.

The notary, a rotund woman in her 60’s with a lot of presence, does almost all the work. She tells the helpers what to type and what to copy, evaluates documents, proofreads, takes payments, writes receipts and so on. While serving several customers at once, she also takes and makes phone calls on matters not necessarily related to the immediate work. There is a lot of face time with the customer but this is clearly where the bottleneck is.

It takes forever (3 hours, in my estimation) to get the first client served. The process is inefficient, confusing and taxing on everyone involved.

Now imagine that you are charged with transforming this small business. What would you do?

If your mind works along the process lines, you will probably think about better queue management, prescreening of applications by a member of staff (a law student would do fine job), extensive templating, delegation of all admin duties, and other measures positioned to alleviate the existing bottleneck.

I am certain that these and other like steps will improve the throughput, but is this what the notary will want? Is this in her best interest?

You see, there are other factors involved here besides the operational efficiency:

  •  The onerous process makes the clients believe that the work is more complex and therefor more valuable than it realy is. A client develops a sense of gratitude and indebtedness.
  • To empower someone to make decisions on her behalf (prescreening), the notary will lose a significant portion of her expert power.
  • The extensive face time with the client allows the notary to evaluate the usefulness of the client, which is so much more valuable than the fee received for her services. What connections does this person have? What services can be obtained from him or her? In the society where one’s success is contingent on who you know and given that she operates in a small town, this is worth a lot to her.
  • Paperwork and receivables are not always transparent, which means that it would be highly undesirable to delegate the seemingly menial cash and receipts duties.

Do you see what is going on here? Too often, organizational transformation is initiated with a one-sided view of the issue. It is tempting to take an engineering approach and build a beautiful process, but it just won’t work at all here. Having the broader take on the issue, understanding the culture and the environment leads to better recommendations, better decisions and better outcomes.

I don’t approve the Russian notary’s way of doing business, but I certainly thank her for the wonderful example.

My latest article, the first in a new series on leadership, has  been published by CBS Techrepublic.

Read about the five key factors in a successful change management process:

Really, not a fresh  subject.  Why on earth would anyone want to tell the world how important it is to communicate, yet another time?

Actually, after the recent plane flyover accident that cost the White House Military Director Louis Caldera his job, it is quite appropriate to write a few lines about the effective communication.

If you are initiating a change or a project of any scale, remember:

– to identify all stakeholders (those who will be affected by it )

– to plan communication: determine how you will communicate with them (time, frequency, means)

– to communicate as per the plan without fail.

Watch the video below to see how White House staff would benefit from memorizing the three lines above.

In 2008, McKinsey surveyed some 3,200 executives around the globe and found that only about one third of all change initiatives succeed.

In fact, it can be argued that this number is probably even lower, since “success” means different things to different people and humans are not terribly forthcoming with acknowledging failures.

I believe that most fiascos are attributable to the lack of accountability, a key ingredient of leadership. Being an instigator of change is not a comfortable position, as change itself is uncomfortable and, often, disruptive. To instigate change means abandoning the safety of the status quo, something that only strong leaders who feel responsible for the end result can be motivated to do on their own. Accountability can also be imposed externally (e.g. by the owner making the CEO responsible for the end result).

Strong leadership is always in short supply. The ownership of large corporations is dispersed among many shareholders who cannot demand accountability on their own, while corporate boards have proven to be ineffective. In public sector, taxpayers, likewise,  have few means of instilling the sense of accountability.

And since the perfectly effective governance is probably an utopian notian at this point, yet again it all seems to boil down to the question of strong leadership.

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