The Art Of Unlearning What Works

typewriter

As an organizational psychologist and a firm believer in continuous development, I have often found myself in the position of advising people on creative ways to keep learning throughout their careers. I have worked with clients seeking to become “learning organizations” – where individuals and teams are continuing to figure out what works through learning in order to outperform their competitors. Research, experiment, succeed, fail, learn, improve, repeat.

As someone who has dedicated his professional life to the topic of organizational culture, I realize that groups of people, over time and through collective experience, figure out what works and what doesn’t. Doing so allows them to begin to bake into their organization’s systems and processes methods for repeating successes and minimizing failures (or they cease to exist). Doing so allows members of these organizations to routinize processes and behaviors that lead to success so they can utilize their mental capacity on other things. Easy enough in theory. 

The real challenge presents itself when the old ways of doing things that once yielded success stop working (or stop working as well as they once did). It is during these times that I often get people reaching out to me to help them figure out what to do in order to right the ship before things go too far afoul. In all of these situations, some common realities have bubbled up that are important to acknowledge.

Reality #1: You don’t operate in a vacuum. 

If we all operated our businesses in an alternate reality where outside influences didn’t affect us we would simply need to figure out the most effective way of delivering our products or services, optimize those processes, and watch the billions roll in. Unfortunately, the world has a funny way of “rewarding” companies that operate without adapting to external changes in the market. Just ask those typewriter manufacturers. Or Kodak. Or any of the countless other companies that were leaders in their fields until the world evolved around them and they had their lunch eaten (technical term) by a competitor who evolved faster than they did.

Reality #2: Technology will force you to evolve faster than you may want to. 

No other external evolution has rocked the worlds of so many businesses as the advances in technology that we have seen in the last decades. To make matters worse (if you’re on the lagging side of things technologically speaking) is that the pace that technology continues to innovate and evolve is getting exponentially faster over time. 

This reality means that organizations that may have been comfortable having mastered life in a more static environment can now be quickly stymied or disrupted by competitors who are able to adapt more quickly or by a pesky startup that can nimbly adapt to changes to better meet customer needs and expectations. 

Reality #3: The networked nature of our economy means that incremental change is increasingly being replaced by exponential change. 

While this is largely due to the advances in technology discussed above, it warrants its own call-out here. Mark Bonchek suggests in his article in Harvard Business Review that, “Companies like Google, Uber, Airbnb, and Facebook focus on how to remove limits rather than set them. They look beyond controlling the pipe that delivers a product and instead builds platforms that enable others to create value.” It is precisely this approach that unleashes the possibility of massive change. 

Reality #4: Ignoring realities #1, #2, and #3 won’t make them go away. 

You can certainly take the “head in the sand” approach and argue that Realities #1 and #2 don’t apply to you or your industry for one reason or another. Your market share is significant or your balance sheet has never looked better. Famous last words.

Ignoring reality doesn’t inoculate you. You have spent years learning what works and your customers have rewarded you by doing business with you. Yeah, things are changing around you but your performance is still strong (for now). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sound familiar? 

Reality #5: There is a way out for you and your teams. 

The good news is that there are ways to position yourself for future, long-term success in this fast-paced operating environment but it involves doing something that comes very unnaturally to us from an organizational culture perspective. We must learn to “unlearn”. 

Those organizations that are able to outperform their competitors will be those that are able to see an impending change in the environment and unlearn what works today in order to adapt quickly to what requirements the new operating environment will hold. 

And therein lies the real problem. We have forever focused on the importance of learning. What we’ve failed to master is the power to unlearn – our ability to take an honest look at our mental model and make the conscious decision to work outside of it. Destin Sanlin does a great job of demonstrating how difficult it can be in this TEDEd video. But how, exactly, do we master the art of unlearning in ways that drive long-term performance? Here are a few things to think about.

  1. Continually prove that what you believe to be true actually is. 
  2. Force yourself to ask, “Is there another way?” 
  3. Acknowledge that you may, in fact, not actually know what’s best.
  4. Challenge the beliefs and assumptions within your organization and be open to letting people challenge the beliefs and assumptions you, personally, hold to be true about what ‘right’ looks like.
  5. Give yourself time and space to master new ways of thinking and behaving.
  6. Ask a trusted third party to give you feedback on their observations of your mental model and how it shows up in your interactions with others. 

Those individuals and organizations that will excel in the dynamic markets of tomorrow will be those who are able to knock themselves out of the “rut” of success and challenge themselves to unlearn what has always worked for them in order to test their assumptions and beliefs. Only in doing this will they be able to identify areas where their “usual way of doing things” may threaten their future success.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

Occam’s Razor or Beware of the System Complicators

Clarity

I bought a disassembled propane grill one time.  There were at least a thousand parts (well, maybe not that many) and the directions were about 20 pages long.  I began a long, tedious process of following each step and carefully assembling every subcomponent.

About an hour into the assembly, the idea slowly dawned on me that something was missing: simplicity and common sense.

The factory technical writers might have thought they were helping the consumer build the grill, but they had focused so much on the minutiae of the assembly process that no one told me that there were only perhaps five or six basic steps.  What I call a “Systems Complicator” had somehow infiltrated the factory and had written the instructions. They had focused on so many details and the “micro,” of the assembly that they never told me the “macro,” or what we all call the big picture.

They forgot good old Occam.

Occam was a 14th-century Franciscan friar who posited that “More things should not be used than are necessary.” The corollaries for this abound, including the idea that the simplest explanation is the most likely one when encountering a problem or dilemma.

I’ve often expressed this philosophy in business and in life.  Occam is too often overlooked (as are Ptolemy and other philosophers who first presented the idea).  While some people’s brains seem to key on details, it invariably helps any project or challenge to first define the goal or objective and some of the key steps that need to be taken to get there.  Without that framework, we all can get so focused on the minutiae that we forget the goal. 

By complicating things with detail, we lose clarity, focus, and simplicity.  We can needlessly overload ourselves and in the process even forget why we all got together. 

Each of us takes turns being systems complicators.  It can often stem from our particular focus that day or even our basic approach to life.  Sometimes it can emerge from resistances that we feel about moving into the unknown area we call change.  By spending time with endless details in the meeting, we can effectively buy time for ourselves by continually presenting enough small challenges that we stop the idea dead in its tracks.  We can complicate the simplicity and clarity of the idea to such an extent that we lose the momentum and the big-picture view of the challenge. We system complicate it.

A key step in identifying ourselves as system complicators is to work on our own awareness of how we are really feeling about the idea.  Ask some basic questions about change next time you hear an idea:

  1. Do I understand the concept?
  2. Do I like it?
  3. Do I want to do it?
  4. Am I able to do it?

If we can honestly answer these threshold questions about our own possible resistances, we can then focus on the merits of the idea and to allow ourselves to see the overall concept rather than the details.

A fellow senior vice president at a former company once listened to an endless conversation in a senior meeting one day.  A major initiative had been proposed, with initial thoughts about goals, objectives, and frameworks. The conversation abounded about “what ifs” and “what about this?” and “we can do it this way,” for hours.  By the end of the meeting, we were all exhausted and barely remembered why we had come to the meeting.

My friend looked around the room, surveying the wreckage of an idea that had been killed by System Complicators, ruefully smiled and said, “Well I guess that’s enough reminiscing about the future.”  

Occam would have understood.

 

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches is a former senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry.  Dave is also a Senior Associate with Gotham Culture.

Focusing On Customer Experience Is No Longer Optional

Customer Experience

Ready or not, the customer experience (CX) game is on. No matter what size or industry you may play in, you are now competing based on the experience you provide to your customers. Government agencies, this applies to you as well. So, if you’re not thinking that customer experience is something that you need to be concerning yourself with, you may be digging your organization into a hole that you may not be able to climb out of.

Why has CX become such a fundamental component of brand success?

While certain brands that have understood the power of the customer experience for many years and have continued to refine their CX delivery in new and profitable ways, the notion that all organizations need to consider the experience that they provide to their customers as a competitive driver has really only become something of note over the last decade. One primary reason for this is due to the great leaps and continuous improvements that these CX leaders make to their customer experiences which continue to raise customer expectations.

Brands like Amazon, Apple, and even Uber Eats have provided customers with the ability to engage in experiences that are designed around their specific needs and wants- and they like it. As expectations around experiences evolve those brands that are unable to deliver will undoubtedly lose the affection of their customers. This reality creates the need for organizations in all sectors and industries and of all sizes to ask themselves what they are doing to both understand what their customers want and need and what steps are they taking to be able to evolve their experiences to deliver on those expectations.

The experience that a customer has with your brand, positive or negative, can have a significant impact on your organization. Several years ago, I wrote a column about my experience at Walt Disney World- a trip that I was not looking forward to. To my great surprise, the experience that Disney created at every touchpoint that I had with their brand completely won me over. Since this experience and my reflection on it, I find myself continuously taking mental notes of the way in which my experiences with other brands live up to my expectations (or fail to do so).

A study published in 2018 by Forrester Research compared the stock prices of a sample of CX leaders and laggards to the S&P 500 and found that leaders significantly outperformed both laggards as well as the S&P. The message is clear, those organizations that are better positioned to meet and exceed the experience expectations of their customers in a consistent and repeatable way and those that are best able to adapt to the changing needs of their customers are those who will continue to outperform the competition.

The performance benefits of improving CX make it hard to ignore. From increasing customer engagement, trust, and likeliness to forgive a brand for making a mistake, to improving voluntary compliance to requests, CX has been shown to make the delivery of services more cost-effective. Oftentimes, in fact, the savings gained by improving CX delivery can make the financial arguments against the investment moot. Many organizations that embark on improving their CX delivery find that the effort becomes, in effect, a “self-funding” activity where the savings they see from improving CX delivery outweigh the investments to improve.

Who is your customer?

For many, day-to-day contact with end-user customers is rare. If this is the case for you, it doesn’t mean that CX is not important. Support, or back office, personnel may find themselves serving multiple customers though they may be internal customers. The same principles that serve organizations well when enhancing the end-user customer experience can be applied internally to your internal customers to help facilitate your interactions.

I asked David Hicks, CEO of CX advisory firm TribeCX to weigh in on what differences may exist between improving CX delivery for end-user customer versus internal customers. “There really aren’t significant differences, CX is a way of thinking. Seeking out, what is it that I do in my job that really makes a difference for colleagues/customers and then being fanatical about persistently and consistently improving on it and delivering it can benefit customers regardless of who they may be,” Hicks suggests.

CX in government agencies.

Recent research by McKinsey & Company shows clearly that government agencies, particularly those in the federal government, are lagging behind when it comes to the level of customer experience that they provide. Government organizations have their own, sometimes unique, challenges that make delivering high levels of consistent CX a challenge without a doubt. Many subject matter experts are retiring, draining critical institutional knowledge. Legislative and regulatory rules can make collecting data from customer difficult. Agencies may collect a great deal of data but a lack of integration of legacy systems can make drawing insight from this data a real nightmare. In addition, the role of CXO seems to still be something akin to seeing a unicorn in the public sector indicating that CX has not been at the forefront of managers.

What the most successful organizations do.

McKinsey’s (2018) research on the topic found that the most successful organizations do three things exceptionally well and consistently:

  1. They put themselves in the shoes of their customers. Really, truly taking a hard look at the brand experience through the lens of the customer can be tough but opening the curtain to understand the realities that exist is critical to understanding the opportunities that exist.
  2. They understand their end-to-end customer journeys.
  3. Isolate the moments that disproportionately shape the experience.

Where do you start?

Understanding that you have an opportunity to take a long, hard look at your current customer experience and committing to improve that experience over time is a good first step. David Hicks suggests that leaders begin by, “… buddying up with a front-of-house colleague for an entire day and to listen carefully to them and to the customers with whom they interact. Ask them what the single most important thing is to focus on first. This sends a powerful explicit and implicit message to your staff.”

Regardless of your sector or industry, customer experience is a factor of organizational life that is here to stay. Those that are best able to adapt to meet the changing needs of their customers and that are able to continuously increase the ease of interacting with their brand at key touchpoints are those who will enjoy a substantial and sustained differentiator over their competitors. As customer continue to get comfortable with their newfound new-found power to choose when and how they interact with brands, those that are unable or unwilling to make the effort to truly understand what their customers want and need run the very real risk of becoming irrelevant.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

7 Best Practices for Delivering on Business Transformation

story and business transformation

What does it take to deliver on the promise of transformation? In the face of high-velocity change, communication is everything. Things are moving so quickly, people don’t know what story they’re in anymore. It’s why they need a compelling narrative that answers who we are, what we do, who we serve, and why it matters. This narrative needs to be embedded across the entire organization. Clear messaging produces org-wide alignment: shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, metric to metric. The best practices below have been mined from over 15 years of experience in helping leaders successfully create sustained transformation.

1.) CONVEY AN INSPIRED FUTURE

Why It Matters: OKRs are powerful, yet they rarely convey the vision. A vision needs to be aspirational, emotional and functional—beyond just financial growth and moving the metrics. Why should we be excited about what we can create together? Your vision needs to demonstrate faith in the future.

Where & When? 

  • CEO messaging
  • Annual summit
  • Quarterly all-hands
  • Keystone videos & collateral

2.) STAY DISCIPLINED

Why It Matters: Transformation doesn’t happen by just “winging it”. You need catchy, repeatable keywords and slogans. Develop memorable frameworks, mental models, and taglines that can be repeated on a frequent basis. That message has to be personalized by every leader for believability.

Where & When?

  • Cascade down the line
  • Internal comms channels
  • Marketing touchpoints
  • Coaching execs for consistency

Read More…

Navigating Change In Deeply Rooted Organizations

Deeply rooted organization

Anyone who has ever attempted to lead change in an organization, regardless of its size and complexity, will attest that it’s not for the faint of heart. One simple attestation to this is the countless number of books and articles written on the topic.

While organizational change can be difficult, regardless of the circumstances, it can be particularly challenging to create change in organizations that have long-standing histories and deeply embedded cultural norms, beliefs, and assumptions. Organizations that are solidly grounded in legacy and that place significant value on an enviable history oftentimes have the most difficulty creating change. This is especially true when these organizations are attempting to create transformative change (completely disruptive) as opposed to evolutionary change (small slices of change over time).

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Organizational Artifacts And The Reshaping Of History

organizational artifacts

As Winston Churchill once proclaimed, “History is written by the victors.” While this sentiment may hold a bit less weight in today’s society where even the “losers” can shape the collective narrative with the help of things like the internet, the “winners” do tend to hold quite a bit of power over shaping how future generations interpret the events of the past.

One way to shape peoples’ interpretation of the past is to remove and replace the physical artifacts of a people. The statues, monuments, images, the schoolbooks and stories that do not align with the version of history that you wish to promote. Read More…

Weathering An Organizational Storm

storm

$16-billion dollar weather disasters have affected the US this year, from January – October. And the year isn’t over. We all knew someone, or personally experienced these events – from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria to the more recent wildfires in California. These traumatic events have taken a physical and emotional toll on many.

Living in Florida, hurricane season is one we plan for and anticipate every year. But always with a wait and see mentality. This year may be quiet, with little impact to our homes, or it may be the year where we experience the storm of the century. Having just watched the unexpected impact of hurricane Harvey to our neighbors across the Gulf, here in Florida, we watched the path of hurricane Irma with great anxiety. In the days before hurricane Irma was scheduled to make landfall, Governor Scott called for a State of Emergency. The skies were blue, social and professional events went on as scheduled, but the environment was charged. Water became scarce in the stores. Group chats permeated social media. We all accessed the local news channels and apps with more frequency as we sought the most up-to-date information on the direction of the storm, and the potential impact to different regions of the state of Florida. Who would be impacted, how badly, and when? Read More…

3 Ways To Help Fix A Broken Company Culture

broken company culture

I once worked with a CEO of a successful startup. His company had been experiencing growing pains and customer-service mishaps that led to a decline in performance. During a leadership meeting designed to review recent irregular operations, he raised his hand and took ownership of the problem with a blunt assessment.

“The fish stinks at the head,” he said.

In other words, the organizational issues stemmed from leadership errors. These mistakes at the top of an organization can easily trickle down to create cultural issues throughout the team.

Companies undergo cultural assessments for a variety of reasons—and they’re not always because things have gone awry. A company might have a great culture that it wants to preserve during a growth phase. Or it might want to evolve the company’s culture to keep pace with a leadership change, market shift or relocation.

Other times, companies need to know why something unexpected has happened. Leaders might be trying to address increased turnover, decreased market share, a drop in productivity or something as major as ethical violations. Unfortunately, leaders don’t always understand what the aforementioned CEO identified: Organizational issues often go much deeper than culture. Read More…

What To Do When Your Help Isn’t Helping

community culture

“Hello! I’m here to help!”

So many of us (consultants, leaders, individual contributors) are trying to “help” in our organizations. Helping may take on many forms. It may look like a new initiative, advice for a colleague, a technology update, or an entirely new strategic direction – all done in the name of making things better. I’m here to tell you that your approach is (probably) missing something.

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How to Overcome the Anxiety of Change with Organizational Empathy

overcome anxiety of change with organizational empathy

We often talk about organizational change like inertia. We assume that the plans we put into motion will continue in motion unless they’re otherwise affected by some outside force.

But the truth is, organizational change is more akin to entropy. Even without the influence of outside forces, our processes tend to move toward disorder unless they’re continually and actively managed.

Change is a constant, unrelenting force that we as leaders must navigate every day. So how do we make sure we’re positioning ourselves and our teams to operate in such conditions?

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