If every employee hits their goals, will your organization execute its strategy?

“If every employee hits their goals, will your organization execute its strategy?”

That was the key question in today’s webinar by Donald Sull from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It’s an incredible insight, as collectively we’ve all embraced goal-setting in the 100 years or so since General Motors popularized the idea.

But does it work? Is there enough transparency corporately to ensure that each contributors goals are in line with the overall strategy, and that if all the individual goals are met that the executive strategy would actually be executed?

Goals have been SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). Dr Sull et. al. present FAST (Frequently Discussed, Ambitious, Specific, Transparent). FAST goals seem more suited to today’s fast-paced high-tech world. They provide the agility needed for organizations to thrive.

Specific and Measurable are redundant, and together lead to Specific.

Attainable and Realistic are redundant, and perhaps wrong, and are replaced with Ambitious.

Timely is modified slightly to become Frequently Discussed, allowing the freedom for the goals to evolve as the needs evolve.

Transparent is missing from SMART, and helps to ensure individual alignment with the big picture.

FAST (Frequently discussed, Ambitious, Specific, Transparent) deserves more attention as businesses struggle to keep pace with innovation.

Check out more at https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/with-goals-fast-beats-smart/ and http://www.donsull.com/

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Exchange Networks, Not Markets

Why is the real world made up of exchange networks rather than markets? In a word: trust.

Relationships in an exchange network quickly become stable (we go back again and again to the person who gives us the best deal), and with stability comes trust, i.e., the expectation of a continued valuable relationship. This is different than in a typical market, where a buyer may deal with a different seller every day as prices fluctuate. In exchange networks, buyers and sellers can more easily build up the trust that makes society resilient in times of great stress. In markets, one must usually rely on having access to an accurate reputation mechanism that rates all the participants, or to an outside referee to enforce the rules.

Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread, by Alex Penland

Changing Your Mindset May Be the Key to Success

Do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?

The question didn’t even make sense until I read Mindset: the new psychology of success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. Dweck’s thesis is that internal beliefs about one’s and other’s ability to learn is the key to lifelong success. Do you believe that people are born smart or that high achieving people worked hard to attain their position? Do you believe that with time and effort any person can improve themselves? Do you believe that athletic talent is something you are born with? These types of questions reveal your mindset.

In parenting, praising the outcome instead of praising the effort seems like the natural thing to do. Who wouldn’t be proud of Johnny for his straight A’s, and who wouldn’t call him smart? Who wouldn’t want to brag about Jane’s incredible and natural appetite to devour books well beyond her grade level? However, these things can indirectly convince our children that their success is based on how they were born instead of how they worked. This can inadvertently lead to a “fixed mindset” and a fear to take on new challenges because the limits of their natural abilities may be discovered if they fail. The book offers incredible insights about underachievers and some significant insights into bullying and our nation’s epidemic of school shootings.

The most insightful chapter to me was about leadership in business. Several well-known CEOs were studied to see if they have the growth mindset or the fixed mindset. Fixed mindset CEOs tend to think they are smarter and better than their employees. Growth mindset CEOs recognize that people can grow and learn throughout their careers and that tapping into that potential helps their organization shine. In both cases, the CEOs did quite well for themselves. However, the difference in the organizations is stunning.

America has a wide-spread performance culture. Accomplishments certainly matter but we all need to be careful in how we honor them. True greatness rarely comes from either effort or talent alone, but on a person’s ability to honestly understand their strengths and weaknesses and their willingness to take the effort needed to rise above them, with the belief that they can rise above them. Much of what we celebrate reinforces the idea that people will only be as good as their natural-born abilities allow them to be. This thinking is detrimental to our children, our businesses, our competitors, and our relationships. Changing how we view ourselves and others is paramount to achieving our true potential.

I highly recommend Mindset. This has been the most influential book I’ve read in a decade.

p.s. A parenting guide by another author is available. For parenting help only, check out Mindsets For Parents: Strategies to Encourage Growth Mindsets in Kids.

Day Two of Essential Practice Skills for High-Impact Analytics Projects

The seminar was an intensive on Structured Problem Solving, which I think is a term created by professor Patrick Noonan. A book may be in the works. I certainly hope so as there was tremendous wisdom and experience packed into these two days. Referring to the slide deck will help, but not the same way a comprehensive book would.

So what is Structured Problem Solving? It is a way to identify the real issue and then methodically move through various steps including research, task identification and communication, ultimately resulting in action. Be sure to keep the end goal in mind. Anyone who loves data understands that looking for other insights “just because” can waste a tremendous amount of time. That extra effort may be interesting but may not be aligned with the immediate needs of the company or customer. We had a great conversation about scope creep—and how that can come from both the requestor and from the team doing the work.

The high-level steps of Structured Problem Solving are:

  • Define the Problem
  • Break Down the Problem
  • Plan the Work
  • Work the Plan
  • Build the Case
  • Tell the Story
  • Start the Change

I have been in charge of software development teams of various size for over 20 years, including internal developers and outsourced teams. During that time, I’ve seen requirements and management styles shift from Waterfall to Agile. SPS is especially enticing to me as the advantages of Agile and iterative methodologies have become so apparent on so many projects. Each one of the steps above is tackled by a team in an iterative process and then refined or worked individually. Every team member understands the big picture, and every team member understands how their part fits into the whole. The final product truly is a gestalt.

Structure Problem Solving is a technique I intend to use both personally and professionally to bring clarity of thought and process to non-trivial tasks.

There were two other major highlights of the day. The first was on data visualization. As the actions should be based on logic and facts, they should be natural conclusions of the research. The question always is how can the data be presented with both the least cognitive load and the most clarity—especially when the results are being presented to non-technical people. Several examples of poorly chosen graphics were studied and better options discussed. Of course, the works of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Stephen Kosslyn’s Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations were referenced and highlighted in many ways.

The second major highlight was the time we spent discussing creativity. Some people in the room had practice with structured creativity while the concept was new to others. I have used Brainstorming and Devil’s Advocate approaches effectively for years. The concepts of Brainsteering and Six Thinking Hats were both new to me. The bottom line: creative insight doesn’t happen accidentally. Creative insight happens within the context of intentionally focused thinking.

This course will definitely change my management style for years to come.

Day One of Essential Practice Skills for High-Impact Analytics Projects

Today I met Emory University professor Patrick Noonan  at the INFORMS seminar on Essential Practice Skills for High-Impact Analytics Projects. The day included many great gems that will guide some thought processes for years to come, but an early idea was about the new nature of work and that businesses need to “figure it out as we go.” The underlying assumption is that business practices and advancements in data collection and analytics are changing at such a rapid pace that there is really no opportunity to rely on prior techniques. Of course, that’s not universally true—there are many situations where our skills and experiences are directly applicable so that some problems can be solved quickly. However, there are many complex business questions that have never before been answerable as the data and tools required to answer them did not exist. This is new territory.

The bulk of today’s discussion was about decision making processes and how to formulate a plan to answer key questions based on analytics. The advantages and limitations of existing frameworks such as SWOT and SMART were discussed, and how their inherent limitations naturally lead to the use of Issue Trees. What is the Key Question to be asked? Because the first step in the process is always situation specific, this becomes a highly customized process instead of a generic framework. Once the Key Question is agreed upon by key stakeholders, a plan of attack can be developed.

The most interesting exercise today was generating a task list from terminal questions based on the Issue Tree. After formulating the questions, we collectively created Proto-Graphs. I don’t know if Proto-Graphs is a Noonan invented term or borrowed from someplace else. Proto-Graphs are sample layouts of graphs that should be created by the data team to help answer the Key Question. The creation of these Proto-Graphs led to a significant amount of disambiguation. e.g., would a scatter plot or a histogram best represent the data? What time frame should be analyzed? What units are expected? It was surprising to me how many of the “obvious” assumptions were made differently by different team members. The process clarified the result before the expense of creating the graphic with real data was incurred. Another advantage was that our paper sketches were not dependent on the capabilities of any specific tool—our sample visualizations were not guided by what can be done. All of my new data visualization projects will use this technique.

We also discussed how to clarify the Key Question. A highlight of my day was when Professor Noonan asked to use one of my quotes. We were defining ideas to clarify the Key Question and I said that it was essential to ensure that everyone understood the true goal. When asked about this, I replied that “our biggest failures at Blue Ridge Solutions were when we delivered what the client asked for.” What’s that mean? Often in the rush to get something done, business requests are made from a starting assumption of let’s move quickly. Failure to investigate the true goal often leads to the wrong deliverable.