267 “We’re Not Smart Enough About That Yet”

Knowledge makes everything simpler. That doesn’t mean it makes things easy.

Some years ago I’m visiting with a business owner. The topic? Finding other streams of revenue. It’s more than a brainstorming session. It’s strategic based on the current revenue sources.

A few ideas leap to my mind and I toss them out for consideration. The beauty of these sessions is they’re unfiltered. This is no time for bashful behavior. These are the times where uncorking can pay off.

One particular idea sparks a response from the owner. His answer formed the title for today’s podcast.

“We’re not smart enough about that yet.”

I was instantly impressed. Not at his company’s ignorance, but at his admission. True confessions are difficult for lots of entrepreneurs. Anybody who can be that candid during a session like this is probably my kind of people.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We just don’t know enough about that technology right now to do it properly,” he said. “But we’re working on it.”

He proceeded to tell me the investments he was making in trying to get up to speed – and get his people up to speed. It was high-technology and the target learning was moving fast. He talked of “catching up.” And I could tell he was pretty committed to the effort.

“But the operative word seems to be YET,” I said.

“Yes, we’re going to get there. We’re just not ready to tackle it right now,” he responded.

“But you’ve got some target in mind or you wouldn’t be making the investment to catch up,” I replied.

Sure enough. He knew some opportunities were tied to making sure his team got up to speed on some technology that was currently outside the scope of their base knowledge. We talked about the capital and time investment they were making. We ironed out a timeline, with some mile markers of things they could do to traverse this unchartered water they were entering. They were going to be poised to launch a test within less than 90 days. A prototype product could be in beta testing within 6 months. And the opportunity could be game changing providing more revenue than all other products combined. It was an exciting adventure and I could tell most of the team was thrilled with the prospect.

If we conclude that we’re not smart enough about something (anything) yet, then it’s time to get smart!

How smart do you have to be to get started? Well, I suppose that depends on the endeavor.

The challenge is two-fold:

     a. Knowing what you don’t know
     b. Knowing what you know

That second one is much easier to quantify. But with it can come an arrogance that can hamper progress and innovation.

The other day I was talking with somebody about the differences in small business people 30 years ago versus the ones today. It was a conversation about the difference in the generations. I’m old enough to have a perspective. My observations might not be empirically correct, but anecdotally they are.

Thirty years or more ago, many small business owners I knew had a confidence most saw as necessary. “You’ve got to believe in your idea,” was the battle cry of the 1970’s when I began my career. The problem I quickly observed were business owners who would fall in love with an idea – usually their own – and they wouldn’t move off of it, or away from it. Stubbornness can be a good thing. Or a bad thing.

Resilience, determination and tenacity are great traits. But put them in a different context where a business or organizational leader refuses to budge off something that isn’t working — and they’ve got deadly potential. More than I can count I’ve seen leaders refuse to lose, in spite of the fact that their organization is getting their brains beat out. “Nope, we’re going to keep pushing forward,” says the ignorant leader who refuses to acknowledge what he or she doesn’t know. Namely, they don’t know that their idea ain’t working!

Knowing what you know can sometimes deceive us into thinking we know enough, or that we know it all. That’s why you see new comers enter spaces  and disrupt it with new, bold ideas. They’re not encumbered with past industry knowledge.

New comers have an ability – and a thirst – to figure things out. Part of that comes in asking the biggest question any of us can ask.

Why?

They also tend to be speed freaks, which I find very appealing. Today’s entrepreneurs find out fast, and they find out if they’re failing even faster. They morph, adapt and change. The favorite word is, PIVOT. They abandon what isn’t working in favor of something that will work better. My generation didn’t tend to do that so much, but it was a different time with a different time element. No Internet. No cell phones. No computers. It was much harder back in “the old days” to figure out if you’d given something a strong enough effort to know if it would make it or not. So adapting, changing and morphing took a lot longer back in the 70’s than it does today.

My experience is one reason why I am so fond of the premise of the book, The Knowing-Doing Gap. It’s about knowing what you know and doing what you know!

If you’re not going to move forward, then any excuse will do, but don’t let a lack of know-how spoil your hope of success. There are way too many resources readily available to help us prepare to take action – just taking that first step might be all we need to make success a reality. Refusing to take the first step is a surefire way to fail. Don’t get hung up thinking you’ve got to have complete knowledge.

I love today’s pace and the resources we have. Beats the snot out of by gone years! Today, you just need to know enough to take the next step. The very next step. Figure that out, then do it. And do it fast! Then figure out the next step. And the next. Keep moving as fast as you can, making adjustments along the way.

Today, you don’t need to know all the steps before taking your first one. So many people fail to start because they can’t see all the details of the finish. Forget that. Head in that direction and start.

The technology company didn’t know where this new found knowledge would take them. They had an idea of what they wanted to build based on this new knowledge, but they knew they needed to get going. They needed to start learning. Fast. So they dove in.

When boots hit the ground, the battle plan changes. We don’t want to put boots on the ground foolishly, but we don’t want to assume we know exactly what the boots are going to experience either. There’s no way we can know until we’re there.

Enter something leaders may not always consider, CONFIDENCE. Organizations and people need confidence in order to win. Weekly I encounter people who are depressed, losing morale and lamenting the future because they’ve no confidence in leadership’s ability to change. In the face of challenges, people want to see a response. They want to see the game plan adjusted.

I’m a hockey guy and we’re right now in the latter part of the conference finals to see which two teams will play for the Stanley Cup. Some of these games are close, but some are blowouts. The other night I’m watching Chicago give up 3 goals in the first period to the Anaheim Ducks. I wasn’t in that locker room between the first and second period, but I guarantee the coaching staff was giving the team some hard instructions. They were correcting things. And every player in that room was expecting that. Chicago ended up driving the game to overtime after 3 periods, so the adjustments worked. The players had to execute those adjustments.

The point is – if those coaches hadn’t made any changes the players would have lost confidence in the coaches and in themselves. They knew they weren’t playing well. What they needed from the coaches were answers to the question, WHY?

We’ve all heard a coach after a loss tell the press that there’s nothing to be learned from a loss, but that’s a lie! Every good coach knows a loss teaches far more than a win. It teaches us what DOESN’T WORK. That helps us figure out what does work. In professional hockey, it’s very common for a team to make it deep into the playoffs one year or two, before finally figuring out how to make it further. Teams will bring in veteran players who have been there before. They’ll work on team chemistry. They’ll put together pieces that may have been missing in prior years. Teams have to learn how to win! That takes some losing, but it takes the proper response to losing.

Confidence comes from learning. Speed matters. The faster you get going, the faster you get smart.

Some time ago I’m talking with a young man about an endeavor. He’s wrestling with what to do. I tell him to build it in his head first. Embrace this trait we have as humans. To project into the future. To see things as they might become. To create the future mentally.

I wanted him to do that so he could see the end before he began. But I urged him to realize that he was going to have to change once he got going. “Just figure out your next step,” I told him. “Don’t delay.”

Do what you know to do while you’re learning what you don’t know. Don’t let the “resistance” get in the way. Fend off the challenges. Learn fast. Start faster. And if there aren’t any signs of success, then stop and rethink what you’re doing.

Some resources mentioned in today’s show:

The Knowing-Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
City Government Leadership – a new endeavor I never planned, but one I’m pursuing enthusiastically
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
BulaNetwork Facebook page (please visit me there and click that like button)
Leaning Toward Wisdom – my other podcast; it’s a modern tale of an ancient pursuit

Don’t stall. If you realize that you’re not smart enough to get started, then get smart enough to just start. The faster you get started the faster you’ll get up that learning curve. You’ll also speed up your wisdom, not to mention the cumulative effect of getting in the habit of taking action.

Thanks for listening.

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266 Time To Amputate: Your Organization Won’t Win With A Loser Attached

Time To Amputate: Your Organization Won't Win With A Loser Attached - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 266

A surgical kit from the Civil War

Pictured is a Civil War era surgical kit. It includes the implements used for amputation. Soldiers with horrible wounds often lost limbs in order to save their life. Sometimes we have to cut off things that would otherwise kill us.

My consulting and coaching has always involved helping organizations (mostly businesses) morph and adapt. I started seeing a trend about 8 years ago. An increasing need. I also saw increased resistance to solutions.

• Amputation of a poor performing segment of our business is difficult.

• Eliminating poor performing people from our organization is hard.

• Identifying and eliminating what isn’t working isn’t nearly as easy as you might think.

It’s the necessary elimination of products and services, people and processes. You can’t neglect the art of cutting.

I regularly encounter resistance when I talk with a business about the prospect of jettisoning a portion of their revenue stream in order to save and grow other areas of the business. We fall in love with our business. We become attached to our business model. Sometimes we even have pet products or services.

Business people can be notoriously loyal to what launched their career. The CEO who came up from the sales ranks will most certainly have a hard time giving any serious consideration to out sourcing sales. Even if it’s more cost effective and efficient, he’ll likely be too attached to having it in house to consider any other option. He’s got a viewpoint that may be impossible to alter.

How we generate income often matters more than we care to admit. It may not seem rational, but to us – it’s our business and it’s perfectly sensible. It made us wealthy. It made our enterprise successful. Our victories in the market were created because what we did and how we did it WORKED.

With empirical evidence staring us in the face, business owners can still refuse to see a category or process as a major source of sickness for our business. It’s our leg. It’s our arm. You try cutting off your own arm or leg and see how attached you are to your body parts.

Apply the same idea to people and their performance. Organizations of all kinds can get mired down, unable to accurately see what (and who) is working and what (or who) isn’t.

On Trial For Its Life

Back in the fall of 1999, while running an organization, I crafted what I called, A Quantum Leap. We were about to embark on a new decade, a new millennia. Lots of people were expecting a technology crash prompted by a year that began with 20 instead of 19. Debit cards would stop working. Credit cards, too. Bank accounts would freeze. The world would stop turning because all the computers on the planet had been programmed for a year beginning with 19. I wasn’t terribly concerned. And it wasn’t because I was smart in the ways of computer programming. It was because I was occupied with other ideas. Taking business to a completely new level by using a pivotal moment in history to rally the troops to achieve things never before thought possible.

It was during those fall planning sessions I found myself repeating the phrase, “on trial for its life.” I had risen in the ranks of leadership early in my career by doing just that. One over arching ambition trumped all others — How can we do better? That’s at the heart of putting things, and people, on trial for their life. No, I’ve never put people on trial for their literal life, but I have put their performance on trial for their occupational life in the organization.

Initially some people think it’s harsh. Mostly, they’re the poor performers. Or the people who don’t want the pressure of high performance. I never much cared what those people thought. Pandering to poor or average performance is not a good business model for high achievement.

These decisions shouldn’t be handled flippantly or casually. If a surgeon wanted to remove an arm or leg, I’d most certainly give him a vigorous emotional argument. I’d balk. I’d fight him to exhaustion until he fully convinced me I had no other choice.

I’ve spent dozens of hours examining critical data on a single product or service before concluding it needs to be considered for amputation. Then, dozens hours more making the final call, and figuring out the best course of action. It requires more than a casual glance. You need to take a deep, hard look at anything – or anybody – who is on trial.

And I suggest you put EVERYTHING on trial on for its life!

I don’t blame any leader for their reaction to the necessary amputation of the things that are killing their organization. I simply want to help you through the decision with the best possible solution so you can put yourself in the best position for success. I want to contribute to help more leaders succeed. Too many organizations are suffering. America doesn’t need to lose more small businesses. We don’t need to foster any more inefficient, poorly run organizations.

We need growth. Engagement. Health. Prosperity. Tenacity. Remedies. Solutions. Profits.

Additionally, I’ll end today’s show with a brief discussion about the benefits of a lower noise floor. Remember, focus is more about elimination of unimportant things than merely trying to concentrate more on what is important.

Randy.Black

 

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265 Nothing Changes Until You’re Fed Up

Nothing Changes Until You're Fed Up - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 265

There’s a benefit of being sick and tired.

Gentry (not his real name) was complaining to me how he hated his business life. It was ruining his personal life. He hadn’t considered how we really just have one life, intertwined into a variety of roles. Marci Alboher calls them “slashes” – as in those slashes behind our name.

He started his business about 30 years ago. Those initial years were hard, but he put in the necessary work to build a business that put over eight figures on his net worth. Now he’s lamenting about all the people who have let him down through the years. The conversation drones on and on. I remain silent, knowing that it’s part of the process to let him fully express every frustration he’s got. Besides, what he says will be used against him later. For his own good.

Gentry has hired one manager after another. None have survived much longer than a couple of years. He’s never terminated any of them. They’ve simply taken advantage of his good graces, then moved on. Thankless scoundrels! Well, that’s how Gentry sees it. The reality is he’s impossible to work for – or with.

Through the years he’s been quick to hire people based on the stuff he’d rather not be stuck doing. He’s neglected to properly vet candidates to hire the one most capable of helping him build his business. Like a guy looking for a specific kind of girl, Gentry has always gone searching for the most compliant person. The person he could manipulate the easiest. They didn’t at first see it for what it was, but in time – they figured it out. That’s when they’d quit. Sometimes without notice. Just walk away…so they could escape Gentry. Every time he saw it as the absolute lowest form of loyalty and a gross betrayal.

Rinse and repeat. It’s how Gentry’s entire career went, as a manager or leader of people.

The tenacity and pigheadedness necessary to build a successful business had more often than not bit him in the butt when it came to creating a thriving organization. He often complained that people were his biggest headache.

I did my homework. I knew the history of Gentry’s business. I dug into the details. It was not easy. People were quite reluctant to talk or discuss Gentry’s leadership. Fear ran rampant throughout the company. Stories began to unfold of a man who would quickly and openly “dress people down.” But it wasn’t too hard to piece together what was happening.

People were intimidated and manipulated. All who were willing to talk expressed it in one way or another. Some were more vocal about it than others, but you could sense the despair in each of them.

Two different groups. Both miserable. For their own reasons. And I was left to wonder why people behave as they do, and why they tolerate the behavior they do.

Conclusion? Until people get fed up, nothing changes. For Gentry, or his employees. Both groups were miserable. Both were miserable because of the conduct of one man. Gentry’s misery was the result of his own poor management skills. His people were miserable because he was a terrible leader.

Day after day they all remained exactly where they were because they were not yet fed up with their situation. When employees got fed up, they simply walked away without notice. It was the safest course of action to avoid confrontation with Gentry. When Gentry got fed up he blew up, cussed a blue streak and humiliated somebody – or made the entire staff pay with extra work, added hours to a schedule or some other exercise of control over their lives.

Everybody resented how things were. It was quite clear to me that this was not a situation I could change. Only one man had that ability. Gentry. And I was not convinced he would. I certainly wasn’t confident that anything I’d say would overcome years of autocratic behavior.

I had nothing to lose by shelling it down. I just had to be careful so there’d be no dead bodies when I left. I had to protect the employees from Gentry’s wrath.

The message was simple, but complex. “Until you’re fed up with how things are, things will continue as they always have,” I told Gentry. “You’ve created the business you want. I have to conclude that it works for you – at some level.”

Yes, there was lots of prior conversation. Consulting is like being a bad reporter. You have to sometimes bury the lead. Otherwise you risk failure. Possibly a bloody nose.

Gentry bristled. “I’m here to help,” I told him. “The world is full of people who will tell you what you want to hear. You’ve managed to surround yourself with those people. If that worked, you wouldn’t need somebody like me. But unlike all these other people who have to consider their own welfare – and how things will go with you, their boss – I don’t have that burden. I’m here to help you get better results. That’s all I care about.”

I took out my white towel and began to wave it after a few sessions of straight-talk and a few glimmers of hope that Gentry would “see the light.” It’s a white hand towel I use to wipe clean whiteboards. At last, I’d had enough.

I surrender to your determination that you’ve created exactly the life you want – which is why you’re never going to experience anything other than what you’ve got.”

“So, you’re gonna quit, too?” asked Gentry.

No, I’m not quitting, you are. There’s simply nothing left here for me to do. You’re determined to have things your way. Nobody can help you. Until you’re fed up with how things are, things will continue as they have. You’ll keep feeling like you invest in people. People will continue to disappoint you. You’ll never build an organization that can work effectively because you micro-manage everything. And I rather suspect that’s exactly how you want it. You love being the dictator of your business. But it comes with a high price tag. So you moan and groan about how the minions are letting you down, but you’re all powerful around here. Only you have the power to change things.

“I don’t agree with that at all. I’ve done everything I can to help these people. I’m into everything because these idiots can’t seem to do it right unless I’m involved. That’s exactly what I want to get away from. I just want competent people who will do the job right.”

You can’t fight delusion. You simply hope to help people see things clearly so they can find their way out of the maze. Sadly, the fact was, this business owner was not yet fed up with how things were – and didn’t seem likely to get fed up any time soon. I firmly, but respectfully worked hard to teach him that the things most needed in his company would likely only happen when he reached a point where he simply couldn’t stand it anymore. A point where he was fed up with how things were. A point where he would finally assume some responsibility that HE was the problem.

He wasn’t there yet. His current employees weren’t there yet. They would likely get their before he would. And they’d walk. Leaving him behind to feel reinforced in his sad belief that “these people” were ungrateful and full of betrayal. Everybody would eventually let him down. Nobody could be trusted to do good work unless he was breathing down their neck, threatening them openly in front of their co-workers and reminding them of his supreme authority.

Graham (not his real name) is a mid-level manager in a production outfit that produces and warehouses paper products. It’s a high volume enterprise with lots of blue collar workers, including some shift supervisors. Graham has been in the company for a long time, far longer than any of the shift supervisors who report to him. That seems important because Graham wears that fact proudly. His longevity is an indicator of his superiority over his direct reports. They’re reminded of it constantly.

Like Gentry, he’s an obsessed micro manager who can’t or won’t delegate without lots of interference. But his most endearing quality is a trigger temper. He’ll rail on people with very little provocation. Mostly, anybody who challenges him, no matter how respectful they are. He demands complete and utter subordination. When he doesn’t get it, he views it as a personal affront. Direct reports will endure a public brow beating if they so much as ask a question he feels should not be asked.

At first blush, Graham is super sensitive about his position and authority. But after some visits with his staff – and with him – it’s clear he’s a man living under the cloud of daily threats. Everything seems to threaten him. If it weren’t for my experience, I’d think he might have a drug problem because he has a Jekyll and Hyde personality that can turn on a dime…and he’s very paranoid. His direct reports are out to get him. He’s fairly convinced they intentionally do their best to make him look bad.

The supervisors seems quite dedicated. They keep their head down and go about their business with little or no fanfare. It’s rather obvious they’re constantly aware of Graham’s prying eyes and listening ears. They do their best to not catch his wrath. Like the student in class fearful of being called on, they prefer to not make eye contact – or any other kind – if they can help it. But it doesn’t work. Graham is always prowling for people to blame, problems to be pointed out and people who need to ripped. I can’t help but think, “At least he’s soaring with his strengths.” It’s just sad that his strengths are those of a world-class jerk.

My first sign of trouble is Graham’s lack of introspection. I ask for an overview of the challenges in his daily work. “I know every job here better than anybody else. If these people would just do what I say, then things would be so much nicer.”

Graham, like many autocratic managers, has multiple leadership challenges. I don’t go in guns ablaze trying to “fix” people. You can’t fix people, but you can help people. That’s my intention with Graham, just like any client. But Graham’s situation is different because he didn’t hire me. In the coaching world, it’s often called a “sponsor.” That’s just a polite way of saying, a boss or superior. Sometimes a boss will see such value in a person they want to do something to help that person elevate their performance, or find solutions to poor behaviors. Graham’s boss wants to see if Graham can be saved.

Graham is in trouble, but he has no clue. He’s a kick-butt-take-names kind of manager. That’s worked for him for over 15 years. It’s all he knows. But the boss isn’t happy because he’s grown tired of hearing Graham blame his supervisors and others for every single problem. Some months ago the boss had an epiphany. Maybe Graham has outlived his usefulness. It’s time to do things differently. My task is to help Graham figure it out.

The elephant in the room is that Graham isn’t self-reflective. He doesn’t see himself as he truly is. When I ask him what he thinks on the way home from a day’s work, he nonchalantly says in our first meeting, “I don’t think anything. I just go home.” I probe a bit asking him if he ever replays how he handled things, or does he ever wonder if he might have been able to handle something better. “No, not really,” he says. Graham is doomed.

As badly as I’d like to be hero and save Graham, I’m not that good. Nobody is. Graham just does what he does because it’s worked for him for 15 years. When the ax falls – and it will – he’s going to be blindsided. He’ll never understand what happened. The behavior that got him there isn’t going to take him any further. Like a bus ride that only goes to Phoenix when you want to get to L.A. — Graham is at the end of the line. It’s time to board another bus that can take him further, but he’ll end up sitting alone on a bus parked in Phoenix bewildered why it’s no longer moving.

I won’t tell you how Graham’s story ends, but I’ll tell you that with his boss’ permission I was candid with Graham. I uttered a phrase I’ve said far too often in my career when trying to help a manager who is at risk.

“You’re in trouble.”

By this point I had realized without such candor Graham was never going to comprehend the urgency of his situation. The boss was happy to let me do the dirty work. I was happy to do it because I felt it gave Graham the best chance to see his circumstance more clearly.

I’d love to tell you that Graham responded positively. That he opened up and displayed a high level of willingness to do the work necessary to become a spectacular leader. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, he was puzzled. Bewildered. And he lacked the ability to examine himself accurately. Or to listen to staff who were capable and willing to help him better understand what he was doing wrong. Supervisors reported how often they had tried to express how he made them feel, but it always ended poorly. Each time they regretted saying anything. Overtime, each was conditioned to shut up, endure it as long as you can, and work feverishly to find a better job where leadership wasn’t abusive.

Graham never saw it as abusive. He saw it as “hard charging.” He used words and phrases like “demanding” and “high expectation.” It’s common for me to ask staff about their leader, “Is he a hindrance or a catalyst for high performance?” I don’t care how low level the employee may be, they will always quickly respond with one or the other (of course, only after I’ve earned their trust). Without hesitation we all know if our leaders are serving us well, or not. Graham’s direct reports were no different. Graham was THE problem. Graham was stifling higher human performance. To a man, they were convinced, that if Graham were gone, they’d all be able to do more, do better and have more fun in the process.

I had a few more sessions with Graham after the “you’re in trouble” conversation. My goal was to rattle him enough to cause some self-reflection. I had hoped to help him tire of his miserable existence where his staff were constantly creating issues for him. I told him, “Your success is my success. Don’t you understand that if I can help you, then it makes me look good. I’m completely invested in YOU. In helping you.”

I thought he believed me. And I think he did. Sorta. As much as he could. His boss has concluded – before ever engaging me – that Graham had likely just gone as far as he could go. He hoped he was wrong, but I could see in his eyes when we first met to discuss this “intervention” that I was going to be Graham’s last hope.

I shook his hand after our final session – some months after it all began – and wished him well. All along he had been a very reluctant “client.” He never called. He never texted me. He never emailed me. He only responded when I reached out first. Those are barometers for me of how interested clients are in my help. The good ones – most of them are good – are so interested in elevating their performance they can’t wait to get on with the next step in the process. Ideas are flooding their minds. That never happened with Graham because he never got fed up with himself or with what he might do better. Instead, he devoted himself to being fed up with all the people surrounding him. Never considering that they all had one thing in common – he was their boss.

Question: Are you fed up enough to make the changes necessary so your success can reach the next level?

When are you going to get so sick and tired of it that you actually do something about it?

Randy.Black

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264 Unforgettable: The Value Of Sequential Marketing

Unforgettable: The Value Of Sequential Marketing - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 264

Nat King Cole sang about it, but you have to practice every day in your organization.

People stop buying from you for the following reasons:

a) They had a poor experience the last time they bought from you, so they don’t come back.

b) They don’t need your products or services any more.

c) They moved.

d) They shop price and have gone to a new lower priced provider.

e) They died.

f) They forgot about you.

It’s that last one that I want to talk about. “How can they forget about us? We’ve been in business since 1938,” said the business owner. The store was located in a market of about 200,000 people. The owner assumed everybody knew all about his business. Because his store had been a fixture in the market for over 70 years he wrongfully concluded that nobody could forget about him. He was wrong.

A casual meeting with the staff revealed that frequent comments were made by shoppers, “You guys are still here? My parents used to shop here. We didn’t know you guys were still around.” In these cases, another generation of shoppers had emerged who simply didn’t think of this store.

Markets, like businesses, are alive. Organic. They’re fluid and always moving.

We can’t assume our business will thrive today just because it’s been around for 70 years. Like people, businesses can grow old and die. Some die of natural causes. Some die due to neglect and abuse. Others are murdered by competition. The job of the business owner is to protect the business – maintain the heath of the company. Part of that job is making sure the market doesn’t forget about the business.

One way to do that is by using sequential communication. Sequential simply means regular, consistent and one after another consistently. Communication can take on many different forms. It could be in traditional advertising such as newspaper advertising, radio or TV spots – or maybe direct mail. It could be in other communications that you don’t think of very often. For instance, it could be the way your phones are answered, the way your employees greet shoppers and all the various scripts that might exist to convey information to your prospects, shoppers and customers. Communication includes how your business cards look, and the message they convey. It includes the message or music used when you put callers on hold. It includes the messages that appear on your sales invoices. The cleanliness and order in your business also conveys important messages to the people who visit your business. Frankly, every interaction with prospects, shoppers and customers screams a message about your business.

Some businesses make the mistake of failing to have congruent messages. That is, they say one thing, but do something else. They may say they’re the lowest price, but shoppers may find it’s just a slogan. They may say they’re fast, but buyers may find their execution is slow. Make sure your business is making good on whatever promises are made by your marketing efforts. Talk is cheap. Your actions must be in step with your marketing promises.

Consistency is a key component in the battle against being forgotten. Part of the challenge of consistency is finding something that works. Businesses tend to chase the quick fix. An owner tries a marketing strategy – let’s say, a direct mail campaign – and it fails. Immediately, he’s looking for a different strategy. However, it could be that the offer wasn’t compelling. It’s the classic case of blaming the messenger for the message. Direct mail is still an effective marketing tool, but the very best list in the world can’t convert if the offer is poor.

Sequential communication, as I’m using it here, is an old concept. It simply means that we don’t just communicate with our prospects once, then hope for the best. It means we plan a series (a sequence) of communications all designed to generate business. The objective is to generate buying customers!

As old as this idea is I’m finding more and more business owners who have never heard it. Trust me. This is not an original idea. My career only goes back to the early 70’s, but it seems I’ve known of this strategy forever. We’ve got some advanced tools today to help us execute it better, but the idea is relatively unchanged.

Here’s the recipe:

1. Contact your list with an offer. This offer can be made via direct mail or via email. It should be made directly to the prospect though. Make the offer as compelling as possible. Spend some time on the offer so it’s unique and not some “me-too” campaign. Build in a way to track the response. You want to know who responds and who does not.

2. Plan a second communication only to the people who failed to respond to the first offer. This is where some business owners fail to see the logic of sequential communication. Many of them see it as a wasted effort. No, it really makes sense if you’ll stop to think about how people behave.

Have you ever asked somebody for something, or invited somebody to something – and they were non-responsive? Sure, it’s happened to all of us. Sometimes they just don’t want to do whatever we’re asking. But other times, they’re doing what we all do. They’re neglectful, forgetful and they procrastinate. Why do you suppose your dentist sends you a postcard reminding you of an appointment you made months ago to have your teeth cleaned? Why do you suppose that same dentist will have somebody call you the day before? Man, they already sent me the postcard. That phone call following the postcard is sequential communication. It’s what brings you back to the same dentist time and again. They’re continuing to make contact and keeping you in the fold of their business. You are their customer and the sequential communication is a crucial part of their strategy to protect their most prized asset – their customer base.

That’s exactly what you want to do for your business. Some people will neglect your first offer. Regardless of the offer, they’ll just fail to act. Maybe they’ll think of accepting your offer when they first see it, but life will take over and they’ll forget. Timing is everything. Sometimes our offer just arrives at the wrong time. You can’t catch everybody at the right time.

When you send your follow-up communication you’re reminding them that you’re still standing ready to serve them. You’re refusing to let them forget about you.

I’m not talking about two different offers. This is the same offer. In fact, it’s important that your second communication remind the prospect that you’ve offered them this before. I suggest that you keep the second communication within 2 weeks of the first one. I have heard of a few businesses that have successfully followed up with a reminder communication beyond 2 weeks, but I think it’s dangerous. Why? Because when 2 weeks have passed the prospect will see it as a brand new offer instead of a reminder of the offer you made earlier. You lose the value of sequential communication when you wait too long. The objective is to make the communication a reminder, not a completely new offer.

Give prospects a reason for the reminder. You have to answer the “why?” question for the prospect. When we get the phone call from our dentist, after we’ve already been sent the postcard – we know exactly why they’re calling us. Apply that same logic in your sequential communication. Help prospects see the clear logic of the second communication.

Let me interject here that I know businesses who have successfully used a series of communications – either direct mail or email – to increase their conversions. Instead of sending one follow-up message, they send more. In some cases, quite a few more.

One of the most discussed topics in marketing is how much communication is too much. You’ll have to judge that for yourself. My thought is, if your offer is compelling enough then it’s hard to over do it. If your best friend was neglecting to take advantage of some offer that you thought was really valuable – would you bug them until they finally told you, “I’m not interested” or would you just let them neglect to take advantage of the deal? Most of us would bug them by telling them how crazy they are if they don’t jump on it. Make sure your offer is compelling, then give prospects every possible consideration to accept it.

Think about how often you reach out and touch prospects. Pay attention. Remember, your first offer will likely hit some people at the wrong time. It may not mean they’re uninterested. It may mean they’re just distracted. Give yourself the best chance to be memorable. Refuse to let people forget about you.

By the way, if you’re operating an organization in a space that doesn’t involve selling something for money, sequential marketing is still highly valuable. Establishing ongoing, profitable communication with the people you serve is crucial in order to be top-of-mind with them.

When I was still a teenager I learned a valuable lesson about selling hi-fi gear. It was quite by accident, but it proved invaluable to me through the years.

At the time mail order houses were the bane of the local retail hi-fi store. People would shop at a local store, listen to the gear they were thinking of buying, then call an 800 number in New York City to get a deep discount on the exact same item. We were used to these things, but knew if we did our job well then we’d likely be able to influence shoppers to buy from us based on a variety of things we could do that the New York mail order houses wouldn’t. For starters, if there was a problem, the shopper knew they could return the item. But that wasn’t the lesson I learned. I learned something far simpler and more powerful.

If I educated the shopper about a feature that meant quite a lot to them I got the credit for that feature. Let’s suppose you cared nothing about the tuner section of a receiver – that is, the radio part of it. I could drone on and on about that and it wouldn’t resonate with you. But if I found out you were really into the preamp section of the unit because records were your thing, then I might mention how a particular unit was known for having a superior preamp section. You’d perk up and pay closer attention. I had already learned the power of asking questions and listening in order to find out what mattered most to shoppers. But now I was learning that if I told you about a feature or benefit that was critical to you, then you’d give me credit for that. It was as though I had personally engineered that feature or benefit into the gear just for you.

Here was the magical thing about it. You could go find that unit cheaper in the back of a stereo magazine and buy it from somebody you’d never met in New York City. Or you could come see me, a guy who had sat with you in a sound room listening with you to your favorite records, and buy from a person who had told you about a specific thing that really mattered to you. By getting credit for the most valuable feature or benefit, you remembered me. And hopefully, it resulted in you becoming my customer.

So it’s not always about being a purple cow. And it’s not about doing something insanely out of the ordinary. Putting the people you serve at the forefront of your efforts is the key. Making it about them, not you. You’ll be remarkable and unforgettable by focusing on helping others in the most selfless way possible. Why? Because it’s rare. It’s unique. And it always will be.

Reach out to serve. Yes, it’s marketing, but it’s because you’ve got something others need and want. Don’t deny them the opportunity to experience what you can do for them. Get in touch. Stay in touch. And don’t stop until they opt out or tell you to quit. Those who opt out or tell you to quit weren’t going to let you serve them anyway so don’t fret about what you fear you may have lost. You’ve lost nothing. You’ve gained tighter focus on those who are most interested in what you have to offer.

Randy.Black

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263 Who Do You Listen To? (And Who Listens To You?)

 

Who Do You Listen To? (And Who Listens To You?) - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 263

Max, the 1st grandson listening to an iPod

How do you determine who gets your time and attention? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who listens to you?

There are three distinct groups who occupy your life – in terms of people who you’re willing to pay attention to – with one major caveat, these are people who know who you are. Of course, we all tend to listen to far more people who have no clue who we are. We read books, listen to speakers, watch videos, read blogs and listen to podcasts by people who don’t us. Sometimes we even put more weight on what they tell us than on what those who love us most may tell us. It’s the maze we all have to travel as we figure out who deserves our attention based on who can really help us.

1. The core group – the people you know and who know you. These are people who have a personal connection with you. They understand your life, and they care about it. They have a more vested interest in your life. Hopefully, you also care about them.

2. The special interest group – the people you know and who know you, but they leap to your mind because of some present need or interest. For example, you may have some specialized skill. Let’s say you’re a WordPress website designer. People know that about you. When somebody has a question or need about a WordPress website, your phone rings – or you email inbox gets a new message. You occupy a “top-of-mind” presence for the people who know you. You have people like that in your life, too.

Then, there are all those people we know of, but who don’t know us. Connections are made that have value, but aren’t very intimate. We really don’t know them, but based on their public persona we think we do. Again, some of these people may be core people we listen to. We may listen to them all the time. We may hang on their every word because we’ve decided they’ll be in our inner circle of influence even though they don’t know us.

Another group may be more specialized. I’m a member of Don McAllister’s Screen Casts Online. Don teaches about all things Apple Mac. He produces killer video tutorials at his membership site. I learn from Don’s work. He doesn’t have a clue who I am, but based on my special interest in what he teaches, I listen to Don. We’ve all got people like that in our life. They provide value for us. Sometimes we pay for the value. Sometimes it’s completely free.

With Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Pinterest, Google + and the host of other places where we interact with people – it’s entirely probable that most of the people you interact with each day are people who haven’t a real clue who you are. Why do you listen to them? Is it popularity? What is it that draws you to them? What value do they provide in your life?

Quite often I find myself not asking these important questions – and every time I drift away from asking these great questions I find my life grows noisier. That’s not good for me. It’s distracting.

Some years ago I devised a plan to further restrict the voices in my head – and my life. It’s hard. I’d love to tell you how I don’t plan to allow the cool kids to dictate the voices I value most, but sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s like reading a book only because it’s popular and top-of-the-chart only to find that I’ve wasted hours reading a book that was an utter waste of time! The herd isn’t always right. Popular people aren’t always the most reliable people to listen to.

Besides, I find the most value in listening to people who care about my life – and those willing to let me care about theirs.

3. The special confidant – the person, or maybe persons, who you completely trust. This group is really a subset of the first group, the core group. And it can consist of at least 2 sub-groups:

a) people who have skills/experience to help or
b) people who are special friends willing to help (but may not know how)

Maybe your mom loves you and is willing to listen to all your problems, but that doesn’t make her qualified to offer you sound advice. A husband or wife may have little insight about a professional challenge. Or you may just want or need a person with some distance to provide you with a fresh perspective.

This last group can be the most challenging group. For good reason.

The first group naturally happens. Our family, church friends, friends who share our hobbies and people who share other social interactions with us — they know us. We know them. Each group has some context. That is, church friends see us in one context. Friends we tailgate with at the weekend football game know us in a different context. Parents of our kids’ friends know us in that context.

Additionally, these groups happen around some central focus. Family happens because we’re born into or adopted into a specific group. We didn’t choose it. It just happened. Funny how our closest core group is so random, huh? But other groups – like our tailgate buddies – happens because we share our love for a team. Or because we have season seats near each other. Or because we’re next door neighbors who happen to love the same team. There are some shared reasons that bring us together. Some of these relationships may be shallow while others run deep. Our core group of people tend to run the range between very casual to very trusted. Still, these people are in our lives because of a common, shared interest. Or because we’re family.

The second group – the special interest group – can overlap with the core group. Those tailgate buddies might be close friends, but the foundation of the friendship was forged because we both loved a specific team. It may have transcended the weekend fall game, but we still view these friends as people we can talk with about next season’s chances to go to a major bowl game.

I’m mostly using this second group for the purposes of helping us though. These are people who have a specialized skill, talent or experience. It’s less important that they know us because the relationship – our willingness to listen to them – is based mostly on how much trust we have in their ability to help us. Can they help us solve this problem?

As summer is approaching my son and I were talking last month about having our AC units checked out. He knows a guy. Well, I know a guy, too. But he knows his guy better than I know my guy. And his interaction with his guy was just last year. I haven’t interacted with my guy in a few years. Based on his past experience, his trust and confidence in his AC guy — we both lined him up to do a seasonal tune-up on our units. My son knows him. He knows my son. I had never met him, but because of my son we had a connection.

He came over, spent a few hours doing what he does, charged us a reasonable amount and I even posted on Facebook telling anybody who might need AC work to call him. I strongly recommended him based on how he served me. He was in my second group, but now he’s in my third group. And there’s a point to that migration from group 2 to group 3.

That third group is even more special, or narrow. The AC man was in group 2 for me because I was going on a recommendation of my son. The guy didn’t know me. We had never met. He had never done any work for me. But once he had done work for me – and once we met – I was fully prepared to move him to the 3rd group based on his work and my experience with him. He could have come to my house, done crappy work and fallen off of any list…except the one where I keep people who I never want to call again. But he did a good job so I elevated him among the people I’m willing to listen to.

I’m not going to call him when I have a business problem. He’s not going to be somebody I call if I want to talk Bible. I won’t be calling him up for relationship advice. But if I need heating and air conditioning advice, he’s my guy.

That’s how it is with specialized interest. But it can also be how it is with a special confidant. Sounds odd to have a special HVAC confidant, but we all have people like that. Maybe you have a yard guy or a tree guy. Any time you have a problem in those areas, you call a special somebody who knows how to solve those problems. You trust that person completely when it comes to yard or tree issues. They’re a confidant, even if the subject isn’t terribly sensitive. Like my HVAC units.

We don’t think twice about having such people in our lives. But we either fail to think – or we avoid thinking – about some other people who may serve us in very important matters (not that our yard, trees and HVAC aren’t important). Married couples can struggle and one or both can avoid seeking help because of pride, embarrassment or a host of other moronic reasons. A marriage isn’t more valuable than air conditioning? Sadly for some, maybe not. But it should be.

I think there may be an even bigger reason why people don’t find or include a special confidant in some areas of their life. They don’t know anybody. And they don’t know who to ask, or they’re too afraid to ask.

The bravest ask, or quietly cold call somebody seeking out Google and other search devices to find somebody. But many don’t. They just quietly go about their business struggling alone, or leaning on people unequipped to help them. They hope to find some solace in a listening ear, but often find themselves more frustrated by a caring friend or family member who doesn’t know what to say or how to react.

And there’s the whole stigma of seeking out a professional. “We don’t need to see a marriage counselor,” says the husband to his wife of 10 years. Communication between he and his wife are non-existent. They both know they’re in trouble. They love each other, but the last few years have wrecked what they once had. Pride. Shame. Embarrassment. Coupled with not knowing a good marriage counselor…are creating the perfect storm for their marriage to fatally hit the rocks. “Besides, how much does something like that cost?” asks the wife. Again, it’s so far outside the realm of what most of us know about…our cluelessness hinders our ability to craft an ideal circle of trusted confidants to who can serve us.

Executive coaching suffers the same problems. Whether you prefer to call it business coaching, leadership coaching or career coaching – it’s all very much the same. It’s serving the specific needs of somebody who needs a person with whom they can be completely transparent and vulnerable. It’s serving the person who may need short-term help through some specific challenge. It’s serving the person who may want longer term help through a transition. It’s anything, but one-size-fits-all. It’s specific, personal and targeted.

Those brave enough – wise enough – to seek it out will attest to the value of it. For many, it’s priceless. For most, it’s invaluable. When it’s done well, it’s a partnership. It’s focus is YOU. That’s a rare feeling for most. A good feeling, but rare. To know that another person is so vested in your outcome that they’ll do whatever they can to help you — it’s a terrific feeling. One that too few ever experience.

It’s not about fixing things necessarily. It’s about exploring possibilities. It’s about improvement and growth. It’s about vital friendships that can help us achieve higher levels of success faster.

Who do you listen to – and how do you decide?

Randy.Black

262 Every Significant Pay Raise Is Sparked By These Strong Desires

Every Significant Pay Raise Is Sparked By These Strong Desires - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 262

I’ve negotiated countless deals in my career. Some of them have involved my own pay and terms of employment. Those negotiations are personal with stakes that run deep. Each time I’ve done it I’ve thought about the representatives of professional athletes and others who rely on professional representation. I never reached altitudes that required it, but I can see the benefits of it.

Herb Cohen, author of You Can Negotiate Anything, published the first edition of that book in the shadow of the Cold War. For those of you too young to remember, the Cold War was more than strong-arm negotiations. It was an arms race to show strength of destructive power. The logic was simple. If we show the Russians that our guns are bigger and more powerful than theirs, then we’ll have the upper hand. It was problematic because it was constant one-ups-man-ship brought about by one country making a move that would be countered by the opposition.

Cohen had a front row seat in a number of negotiations with Russia. In the book, he depicts the Soviet negotiation style as a sort of “my way or the highway kind” of conversation. My entire life – and my generation – understood and learned that anybody who sat across from us at a bargaining table with such a posture was assuming a “Soviet” approach. From an American perspective, those Cold War negotiations made us believe the Russians never negotiated in good faith. I’m sure Russians my age likely feel the same way about Americans. Back then, you never heard that worn out phrase, win-win. If you won, that meant the other guy lost. If he won, then it meant you lost. And that didn’t just apply to international, governmental negotiations. It applied to business, divorce settlements and any other bargaining between two or more parties.

It was all a zero-sum game. My winning necessitates you losing. Your winning necessitates my losing.

That was then. This is now.

My early business career was not spent around many people who believed in the Golden Rule. Instead of doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you, the mantra was…

Do unto them before they have a chance to do unto you.

I wasn’t able to embrace that notion, or strategy. It violated everything I’d been taught as a child, and the philosophy I was determined to live. That didn’t preclude me from trying to get the very best deal possible. I always felt it was my job to do the very best I could for my employer. I assumed the other side was trying to do the same thing and if I bested them, it only meant they didn’t serve their boss better than me. Yes, it was personal. Whoever said, “It’s only business” was only saying that to make the loser feel better. It’s always personal. It can be professional, but it’s still personal.

Today’s show was prompted by some professional people who wanted to know my thoughts – and advice – on negotiating pay increases and higher end titles. I’ve mentioned all this Soviet stuff to establish my own history and background and to encourage you to respect the position of the other side of the table. Take your eye off the other side at your own risk. Assume the other side has your best interest at heart — at your own risk (and likely peril). You have to assume responsibility for your own welfare.

Negotiating pay raises or better titles isn’t the same as negotiating purchase orders. It’s far more personal. Our investment in the outcome is higher. And more sensitive.

Your Need For More Money Doesn’t Matter

One of my first experiences with an employee who wanted more money involved hearing how he needed more money. I heard about a wife and kids. I sat there, listened and at the first pause said something that sat him back.

“Your need for money isn’t my problem.”

I could tell he was stunned. Not wanting to appear heartless, I went on to explain to him that all of us had responsibilities – people who depended on us to provide. I was sympathetic with his sense of responsibility, but it wasn’t my problem. While I wanted him to have the best opportunities possible in our company, he had to understand that because he had 2 more kids than another employee didn’t warrant higher pay. I thought his argument was senseless, and it was.

I talked to him about adding value. However, like many people, he was solely focused on his need, not his value. I urged him to focus on that responsibility and let it propel him to higher levels of accomplishment in his work. “Your family ought to provide you with enough inspiration to be more valuable here at work,” I told him.

It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted me to grant his wish like some magic genie. I knew he left my office dejected, in spite of my best efforts to encourage him. But I was young and not likely as accomplished at encouraging people as I am now. But I knew that I couldn’t be held responsible for any income deficiencies he suffered. He needed to own it himself. His family was his burden to bear. My burden toward them was done only through serving him so he could serve them. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I tried.

It’s been 35 years or so since I had that encounter. Many more have happened since. Each time the focal point is the same – providing value. Far too many people seem stuck in thinking only of what they need or want, not how they can elevate their value to warrant a pay raise.

Just this week Jacquelyn Smith wrote a piece for Business Insider entitled, 7 tricks to talk your boss into the salary you want, from a former FBI hostage-negotiation trainer. Mark Goulston is the FBI. Now he’s an author. He’s written some very good books including, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone and Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In.

Mark’s negotiation experiences are very different than mine. Yours, too probably. I’ve felt like I was in a life-death negotiation before, but it was just a feeling. It wasn’t real. Money, profits and income were the highest stakes for most of my negotiations. I’m not minimizing those because those are the pain points in business life. They’re just not quite the same as knowing somebody may die if you fail.

I’ll leave it to Mark and Herb Cohen (and plenty of others) to teach us some tactics. I’m mostly focused today on the point – the purpose and motivation behind the ask. And maybe, to a lesser extent, the courage to simply do it – to ask. In that regard, I really agree with point number 4 of Ms. Smith’s article…

Most people are “receivers” who are not willing to give — unless you ask, he says.

My own experiences have found this to be true. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who is proactive to reward superior performance, but it’s more the exception than the rule. And yet almost every worker likely wishes the boss would observe their good performance and offer them more money and other rewards. Maybe in a future episode I’ll talk about the powerful impact such behavior can have on a culture and leadership.

There are 2 things I want to focus on today. These are the things I have found most powerful when people are yearning for a pay raise. One is internal and one is external. It can start from inside out, or outside in. It doesn’t really matter. That’s an odd thing because most things have a defined sequence. Not this.

Inner Drive

Both things are inner. But only 1 is external. Let me explain.

Value. The business or organization cares mostly about what you can do for them (it). That doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t care about you as a person, but not so much really. It’s not personal – or impersonal. Well, it can be. But mostly, it’s business. It’s how things operate and you can’t be offended by it. In spite of some managers saying, “We’re like family…” it’s not true. Unless you really ARE family, which fosters its own set of big issues. Don’t expect your boss or your organization to care for you like your family. It’s not that kind of relationship. But I think many problems arise because managers often communicate “we’re family” and employees believe it. Then, when people don’t behave in the ideal family way, people are disappointed and sometimes hurt.

Value is both internal and external. The organization wants it from you (external). If you’re conscientious, you want to deliver it (internal). Some argue that it has to begin here, but I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why.

There are things I want. You want different things. Maybe you want a bigger house, or a newer car. Maybe I want to give my wife an expensive trip. Whatever we want is our inner drive. It doesn’t have to be something others find valuable. It’s valuable to us. And it can be selfish or altruistic. Some people want to earn more because they’ve got a sick family member. Others want to earn more so they can buy a fancy wardrobe. I don’t care what you want to do with the money. The point is, you do. We all care about what we want.

Here’s where too many people get it wrong. It stops here! Self-centered motivation drives the bus toward the quest to make more money. All by itself, epic fail. Nobody cares that you want or need more money. Just because you’ve got 6 kids and I’ve got 2 doesn’t mean you’re worth more money. It definitely means you need more, but that’s not my problem. Or your boss’ problem.

Value to your organization = value to your family and what you want.

Value to your organization in the work you produce + your personal desires = getting what you’re worth.

It’s one thing to say, “I just want what I’m worth” but most of us want more than what we’re worth. That’s the describer word needed in all this, MORE.

More value.

Bring more value to your work.

Gain more value to your personal desires and needs.

One can fuel the other. You need them both though if you’re going to make it happen.

Randy

261 Is Innovation Valuable In Our Personal Lives?

Is Innovation Valuable In Our Personal Lives? - RANDY CANTRELLInnovation in the workplace has been a hot topic during my entire career. It accelerated when the digital age arrived, but it was present long before that. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when our businesses operated with manual, handwritten spreadsheets, telephones and postal service mail. Facsimile machines arrived and suddenly communication got faster. Computers arrived and with it a piece of software called VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. That made every act of accounting – including inventory control and payroll – faster!

Technical innovation has built up speed all along the way. Today, it’s coming at such a rate of speed we likely need super-computers to measure it. The resulting avalanche of data has drastically increased the stress in the workplace. Every executive I know complains of being overwhelmed more often than not. Keeping up wasn’t always the biggest concern of leaders, but it is today.

Simultaneously, many leaders complain about a lack of innovation in their workplace. The pace, they claim, prevents it. “We’re moving so fast and furious there’s no time to consider improvement or innovation,” said one executive. “Besides, we’re afraid if we slow down enough to consider there might be a better way that we’ll just fall further behind.”

Not all that long ago I released an episode of my Leaning Toward Wisdom podcast where I talked about the damage of “the hack.” We’re focused on short-cuts and recipes. So much so, that I fear we rob ourselves of giving our work a chance to be great. But great is often the result of taking the time to innovate.

At home many people tell me they’re working hard to figure out a better way.

Doesn’t that seem odd? Busy moms and dads are often driven to figure out some things – to innovate – at home because of the blistering pace. Yet, that same pace at work stymies innovation.

Dig deeper and there may be some obvious reasons. Two of them actually: bosses and results.

At work we’ve got bosses. Even the bosses have bosses. And everything is measured, especially in high performance organizations. Employees, even executives (especially executives), are driven to knock out that to-do-list, produce results, finish projects, start new projects and keep pushing in a “mush-mush” world. No rest for the weary. No time to consider if what we’re doing might be done in a more efficient or improved way. It’s the pressure of the workplace.

The pressures at home are different. It’s less about performance and more about efficiency. Get the shopping done. Pick up the dry cleaning. Clean the house. Wash the clothes. Take the kids to school. Life is a never-ending series of to-do-lists. It’s about accomplishment, not performance. So the innovation is geared mostly toward getting things done faster, or with greater efficiency. “If I swing by the dry cleaners on my way to the pharmacy, I can avoid that road construction on my way back home.” At home innovation often takes the form of mapping out geographical and time navigation!

The paradox is that busyness is driving both behaviors. At work, it’s clogging up the innovation. At home, it’s forcing it to happen.

The result is we’re getting more done. We have to. But are we doing great work? Are we building better businesses? More importantly, are we building better homes (better marriages, better environments for our children to thrive)?

Innovation isn’t about change. It’s about improvement. It’s about taking the time to ask – and answer – the question, “What if —?”

What if we spent more time having meaningful conversations with our spouse?

What if we turned off the TV and all the electronic devices, and asked our spouse what we could do to be a better husband/wife?

What if we established non-negotiable standards in our homes? Those things that matter the most to us!

What if we took the time to consider our short-term future, and actually tried to map out a strategy to get us there? What if we decided to do more than hope our future would be better than our past?

What if we took more time to ask more “What if?” questions, and what if we took the time to come up with good answers to those questions?

At the heart of all innovation is the two word question: What if…?

Innovation is really nothing more than improvement. For all of us – personally – it’s about giving ourselves the very best opportunity to be the people we know we should be. The power to be our best.

Randy

260 Isn’t It About Time Somebody Shook You By The Lapels?

Isn't It About Time Somebody Shook You By The Lapels? - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 260

1947 Best Picture winner at the Oscars, starring Gregory Peck – “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Why I oughta… is a line I grew up hearing  as a kid. Mostly on TV movies. It’s obviously an old-fashioned line, but every leader I know feels it. Maybe daily. Sometimes they may even say it out loud.

We want to lay our hands on people when we’re inflamed with anger or frustration. At other times it’s sparked because we can’t believe the foolishness of somebody. We want to grab them by the lapels and shake some sense into them. My parents sometimes knocked some sense into me when I was young, foolish and disobedient. No, it wasn’t abuse. It was corrective discipline, but this isn’t about your views (or mine) on raising wise kids with or without spanking.

“Shaking sense into somebody” is a phrase I suppose everybody can understand. After all, I don’t know anybody who ever shook themselves. We sometimes need others to serve us by shaking us. Mostly it’s a figurative sort of shaking. It’s not a good idea to lay hands on anybody at work. Consult your HR professional for more details. Or risk being fired, maybe arrested. WARNING: Do not behave inappropriately at work (or anywhere else for that matter)!

When Our Actions Aren’t Serving Us Well And There’s Nobody There To Shake Us

Sometimes we’re foolish. Sometimes we’re just not paying attention. Sometimes we’re stubborn.

We need somebody to grab us by our lapels and shake some sense into us. We need something disruptive to happen that will help us STOP and THINK. Those are the two benefits of figurative lapel grabbing.

In old movies somebody might grab another person by the lapels because they were angry enough to knock them out. It might be one guy jealous over a girl who wants to back down another suitor. Or it might be some rival in business. But it was almost always somebody who wanted the person to STOP doing something.

Let’s assume you’re not sitting on your rear end doing nothing. Most leaders aren’t guilty of slothfulness. More often they’re guilty of doing the wrong things – not doing nothing!

I’ve talked in the past about the people who serve leaders (in episode 237). Every leader needs somebody who will serve them with support and tell them the truth. Sometimes that person may need to do some lapel grabbing, too.

Leaders are like everybody else, except more so. That is, they get stuck in ruts, mindsets and workflows just like all the rest of us. Sometimes those things work well. Sometimes not. The challenge facing many leaders is ignorance about what’s working out. And what’s not working out. Ignorance vexes lots of leaders. Just watch an episode of Undercover Boss.

I sit in a conference room. The marble table and dark wood paneling of the room depicts financial success. Affluent people serving other affluent people. There’s a 55 inch flat panel TV mounted on one wall. High end bottled water is available. At the head of the table is The Man. Seated at the table are His Knights. They answer his every beck and call. It’s evident from the seating arrangement and the demeanor of every Knight that The Man isn’t somebody to be disagreed with, much less challenged. He speaks. They listen. Lots of nodding. All up and down. This room has no tolerance for dissenting.

The Man has the answers. Questions are only used to make others uncomfortable, or to make sure others know who has The Power.

The first quarter’s performance hasn’t hit the mark established in the plan. Last fall the team had projected higher growth than they’ve achieved. The Man isn’t happy. But it was His Plan. Mostly. Subtle suggestions made last August fell on deaf ears. The Man is like many others I’ve seen in my lifetime. He’s an Emperor with a clothing problem.

It’s hard to shake a lapel that’s not there. But when a leader has no clothes what’s a guy to do? Don’t expect me to provide a secret answer because there’s not one. Mostly, I’ve had to suggest people find a new leader. One with lapels they don’t mind being grabbed every now and again.

Leadership Is Not A One-Way Street

The Man in the fancy conference room is fond of grabbing lapels. He’ll grab them as needed. Sometimes when they don’t need it. He can give it, but he can’t take it. All his Knights know this, so in the effort to preserve their professional lives they endure The Man’s nakedness. They lift high his make believe train.

Good leaders don’t always get it right. They veer off track just like other mortals. They make poor decisions. They suffer knee-jerk reactions. You name it. Whatever happens among the troops can happen in the Chief Executive seat, too.

I live in an NFL city, home to the Dallas Cowboys. There’s always lots of talk about misbehavior among NFL players – all professional athletes really. Repeatedly we’re told that the poor behavior among the ranks of NFL players isn’t much different than the poor behavior among any population of people. We just tend to think these people are superior somehow to the rest of us. Turns out, they’re not.

If that’s true among NFL players (and I don’t honestly know if it is), then it’s bound to be true among leaders. All kinds of leaders. I suspect that’s right. But we tend to think that leaders reached their lofty perch by being better than the rest of us. And they likely were — in something. Or in a variety of somethings. But that doesn’t make them flawless or insusceptible to getting it wrong, or doing it wrong. Mistakes happen. But the leader has authority and power that can make the mistake much, much worse. The risks are higher when the mistake is made from a higher position of authority. President Obama can cause a lot more harm than I can.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  – Lord Acton

Lord Acton was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer who was fascinated by America. During the American Civil War he supported the Confederacy because he thought state independence was a more ideal way of government. He was also critical of the notion of the infallibility of the Pope. His quote was pulled from a letter he wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton, dated April 5, 1887. What most people may not know is the sentence he wrote right after that famous line.

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Not all leaders are corrupt. Or bad men. Some just need some lapel shaking so they’ll stop what they’re doing that isn’t work, or so they’ll start doing something more valuable. Some are crooked and intolerant of any corrections, but the very best ones will accept advice and information because they know that’s what determines the most effective decision-making. And what’s leadership all about if it’s not about making wise decisions?

We all need a jolt every now and again. People don’t normally change direction until or unless there’s something powerful enough to shake them. About a decade ago I began going to the gym regularly. I should have done it sooner, but I needed to be grabbed by the lapels. Nobody did that, but an event did. I saw an elderly man’s wife suffer to take care of him. He hadn’t done anything to fall into ill health, but after visiting him in the hospital my wife and I got in the car to leave. I turned to her and said, “I can’t do that to you.” This man hadn’t done anything to his wife, but that was what I said to my wife. In a flash, that experience grabbed me by the lapels and shook me. I began to workout and I’ve not looked back. I needed something – or somebody – to shake me out of my poor health habits. Well, some of them anyway. 😉

We’re all like that. Sometimes we can’t see clearly. Sometimes we’ve got blind spots we know nothing about. Others can help us see things more clearly, or see them in the first place. Don’t neglect the opportunities you’ve got as a leader to become more wise. Avoid the paranoia of thinking you are the smartest person in every room. Or thinking it’ll be a sign of weakness if you rely on others.

Listen. Look. Pay attention. Foster questions. And respectful debate. If you’re lapels are never ruffled you may be in trouble of walking about naked.

Randy

259 Avoiding The Loneliness Of Leadership

Avoiding The Loneliness Of Leadership - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 259

There you sit. Alone. Pondering the problems of the day. And the week. To say nothing of the quarterly performance worries.

Your organization’s performance hinges on lots of people. You stare at the ceiling tiles in your office and think of the various functions in your organization. Finance. Marketing. HR. Operations. Sales. Most days you never stop to think about all the moving parts and how they have to work almost perfectly to get it all done. But today isn’t one of those days. It’s one of THOSE days. A lonely at the top day.

Your gut is telling you all the right stuff, but that’s only because you remember being a young leader who made the mistake of sharing too much. Sharing the strains of your leadership with your direct reports — that’s a mistake you know all too well because you used to do it until an older, wiser head warned you about how destructive that could be to your people. You can still remember the day when he confronted you about it. “It’s not fair to them,” he said. You hadn’t considered that until he taught you. You felt better venting to them, but he was absolutely right…it wasn’t fair to them. It was just one of the many leadership lessons you had to learn. He told you it was “leadership courage” because it meant doing the hard things that would best serve your people.

But right now, sitting alone in your office, you’re sure wishing there were an easier way. Some way you could bring in a few of your most trusted people and just spill your guts about these worries. But you don’t. And that makes you feel even more lonely.

Part of you feels like a hypocrite because you’re constantly preaching teamwork. Just the other day you called in one of your top leaders who has 3 very capable direct reports. She was trying to pull all the weight alone and you had to coach her to “lean on your people and give them an opportunity.” Now, part of you is feeling like maybe you’re making the same mistake — but that’s your emotional heart talking in your ear and you know it’s different for you. This time.

Some problems are “rally the troops” problems. Not this one. This is one of those play your cards close to your vest kind of problems. Your head is telling you the right thing – keep this to yourself and figure it out. It’s the loneliness of being at the top. With the authority, power and prestige comes lots of loneliness. You signed on for it though so there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself.

But the weight is still there. Hovering on top of your shoulders like a bar bell filled with weights.

How do leaders handle the stress of this kind of loneliness? Like the punchline to a joke…I could say, “Very carefully.” But, there are some more serious answers to consider.

These answers can serve to help any lonely leader better cope with the stress and understand why loneliness is sometimes ideal for your work.

Okay, the title of today’s episode might be slightly misleading, but I didn’t intend it that way. It’s not really about avoiding the loneliness of leadership. It’s more about the realities of loneliness and why you should embrace them.

It’s Good For Your People

You want to be among the very best leaders, right? Of course you do. Leaders come in a variety of positions. There are team leaders, executives, supervisors and all sorts in between. Some have many direct reports. Some have one. None of that matters because it’s still lonely at the top of the leadership ladder. Whoever you are, whomever you serve — you want to be a high performer.

High performance leaders always serve their people. Decisions are made to maintain the healthiest organization possible. It doesn’t mean great leaders serve the individual, personal best interests of every single person because they can’t. Sometimes the best decision is to eliminate a position. You can’t hang your hat on that decision being the best for the person who holds that position because it’s not. But if it’s the best thing for the organization and the overall performance, then you have to do it. Those are difficult decisions that a great leader will make even in the face of knowing they’re putting somebody out of work. However, the great leader will still try to serve that soon-to-be displaced employee.

I’ve terminated managers before and in the process dug more deeply into ways I can help him land on their feet. It’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s because it’s just the right thing to do when you can.

The courage required to face down your fears is B-I-G. Make no mistake about it. Loneliness is a fear. It’ll suck you down the road of over-sharing if you let it. You’ve got to have courage to refuse the urge because it’s unfair to your people to burden them with something beyond their ability to handle. You’ll over share if you stop thinking of them though, and keep all the attention on poor, pitiful YOU.

I’m not talking about keeping your people in the dark about things they should know, or things they can help you with. I’m talking about things that you might share with them followed by, “…but that’s not your problem…I’m going to have to figure this out.” Too many leaders utter those words to their people. Far too many keep on uttering them. Why weigh down your people with something they can’t possibly help you with, and something that might only serve to distract them from their work? Or make them worry unnecessarily?

It’s not about nobility. It’s about service. Serving your organization. Serving your people. Protecting your people. Your leadership role is no different than the motto used by police all over the nation – To Protect And Serve.

It’s Good For The Process Of Improving

Improvement often stems from thoughtful consideration. In spite of all the hoopla on collaboration there’s a time when sitting alone in quiet contemplation works. Too often leaders are rushed from one meeting to another, from one text message to the next and from one conversation into another one. Every leader I know complains about not having enough margin in their life. Some want more white space on their calendar to coach their rising stars. Others want more margin so they can better prepare for the most important meetings. Still others want the white space so they can just “mange by walking around.”

Loneliness is represented by the white space on your calendar. It may not be utilized with quiet though — and that’s a mistake. You’re not embracing the loneliness of leadership if you sit alone in your office plugged into every web-based group think vehicle available. Twitter. Facebook. Reddit. Mashable. Business Insider. Pick your poison. It really doesn’t matter. Blogs, social media networks, aggregators and even podcasts take away your margin. They diminish your loneliness, which is why we all rush to them when we’re alone. Fearful we’ll miss something…we plug into the rest of the world and tune out our own thoughts and feelings.

Even people who claim to enjoy being alone (and I count myself among them), admit they’re not rarely quietly alone. As I type this I’m sitting inside The Yellow Studio. The radio is on a local sports talk radio station talking about the Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray going to Philadelphia. The flat panel TV is on – with the sound down – tuned to ESPN where there’s lots of talk about Murray going to Philadelphia. Over on the monitor to my right is a Tweeter client showing at least 4 columns of various content. Apple iTunes is open to my music library and I’ve got a pair headphones on my left ear only listening to some Hayes Carll tunes. And like Eric Carmen, I could sing, “All by myself…” You can relate. Sometimes it’s noisiest when we’re alone!

Okay, I’ve now turned off the TV. I’ve shut down iTunes. Sports talk radio is still playing ’cause I’m afraid I’ll miss the official announcement about Murray leaving Dallas. Now, prepare yourself for the real shocker that will prove how crazy we can all behave. I honestly don’t care one bit who Murray plays for next year. Sure, I’m a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, but only because I live here. I’m an Oklahoma Sooner football fan – where Murray played – and I still don’t care. But something in my brain compels me to listen for fear the news announcement will come and I won’t hear it in real time.

Don’t laugh. You do the same thing. We busy ourselves even when we have white space on our calendar. We say we want to do this or that – and the this or that is always something valuable or profitable – but when we have time, we avoid doing it. Instead, we do something less important, or less urgent. If you don’t do this, then keep it to yourself ’cause you’re more special than the rest of us. We battle these things. And thanks to Apple and other technology companies we’re losing the battle. I’m talking to you, iPhone. And you, too, iPad. And you, iTunes. All you “I” things are making me take my EYE off the more important things, sometimes.

Okay, I’ve shut down the radio. It’s all quiet now. And just like that, I find myself now with my thoughts. And this keyboard. And this post – this podcast. I’m suddenly thinking more seriously about the value loneliness can play in leadership IF it’s properly applied. And if we’ll stop to think of it for what it can do to serve us better.

Find what works for you. But make it quiet physically and mentally. I’ll share with you some things have worked for me through the years.

1. Turn the lights down. Or off. I don’t mean complete darkness, but turn off those florescent overhead lights. Pull down the shades over your windows. Turn on a lamp.

That warmer light helps quieten my mind down. And it happens pretty quickly for me, likely the result of years of practice.

2. Turn off anything that makes noise. I’m fond of white noise. When I sleep, I’ve got to have it. But when I’m embracing leadership loneliness, no noise is best. Even a ticking clock will drive me batty. Nothing will bring out a hammer faster than a ticking clock. I will beat a noisy clock to death quicker than you can say, New York second.”

3. Look up. I can’t explain it, but there’s a distinct difference in my mental state when I look down on the desk versus when I look up at the ceiling or toward the ceiling. Weird, huh? I know, but maybe life is metaphorically telling me something when I look up. When you’re facing a problem, or a challenge, or a decision – you want things to look up. So you may as well get things started by doing it yourself.

You’ve got to figure out what works best for you, but I can tell you right now — whatever you’ve been trying has probably not worked well for you. Not unless you’ve given some concerted effort to embracing being alone with your thoughts.

Daily Rituals by Mason CurryWe form habits that work for us on some level, but foil our improvement in others. One of my more recent favorite books is entitled, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Curry. The book chronicles the daily habits of creatives from the past and present. It’s done sort of in catalog fashion listing the person, followed by a page or two of how they went about their daily business. I find myself picking it up pretty regularly to just open a page and read of a few different people. The interesting thing you quickly find is that there’s not a single way to creativity. Nor is there a single path to being productive or being an effective leader. You have to not only find out what works for you, but you have to find out what works for your organization — because as a leader, your work impacts many other people.

Thinking time matters. And that’s the point. Drawing on your past experiences, your convictions, your philosophy and your intuition can flow more easily if you’re not looking outside yourself for every answer. There comes a time in every leader’s life – perhaps many times every week – when we just need time to think about our best course of action. Don’t rob yourself of that value found in loneliness.

It’s Good For Your Well Being

Let’s be selfish for a minute. Being alone is good for you. With all the demands on your time and with everybody tugging at you, it’s good to embrace the selfishness of being lonely, sometimes.

When I was a 25-year-old General Manager I was running a subsidiary of a larger company. The CEO of the parent company was about 10 years older and I really liked working for him. One day I was at the company’s headquarters (a different location than my offices). I was visiting with some folks in accounting and other people. I swung by the CEO’s office to stick my head in. The door was open, the lights were off. It was completely dark. I peeked in and say, “Dan?” He wheeled his chair around facing the doorway and I could see he was sitting there in complete darkness. I noticed a letter opener in his hand. I asked, “What you doing sitting in the dark?” He answered, “I’m contemplating suicide with this letter opener.” And we both laughed. I had caught my boss in a moment of loneliness. Leadership loneliness with a letter opener. A few years later Dan was killed in a car accident. It was a long time ago, but today I think of Dan every time I pick up a letter opener. A CEO sitting in the dark embracing a moment of loneliness.

You need time to exhale. Or inhale. Preferably both. It’s good for you to disconnect and just let your mind float to wherever it needs to go. Even before my days with Dan I had grown fond of using darkness. For as long as I can remember I’ve never used the overhead lighting in an office. I’m a fan of lamps. With bulbs that have a warm color temperature.

Good music and headphones plus darkness. That’s my personal recipe. You can mix up your own, but it’s important to go somewhere else in your mind. It’s a brain vacation without mind impairment. There’s a reason so many leaders, especially hard charging ones, are attracted to alcohol and drugs. The tension, stress and pressure of leadership must be released. Find a profitable, non-destructive outlet. I’m advising you to find moments while you’re at work. Sometimes 10 minutes is long enough. Sometimes you need an hour. Or two. Do it and don’t feel badly about it. Do it for yourself.

It’s lonely at the top. It’s necessarily lonely because the buck stops with you. It’s also lonely because as the head of your organization you’re driving. Only one person can drive. It’s the responsibility of the driver to get everybody to the destination safely.

Sometimes you want to roll down the road with ZZ TOP blaring through the sound system. Other times you want everybody to just shut up. The driver needs what the driver needs in order to navigate safely and successfully.

Embrace the tools of loneliness and you’ll be a more effective leader.

Randy

258 Creativity Lost, Creativity Found

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The most mundane businesses can exemplify high creativity. A plumber dispatches immaculately clean trucks, with crisply uniformed technicians (plumbers) who don booties before entering your house. Two hours earlier you called them – or maybe you visited their website. Your choice. After briefly describing your problem and giving them your location, you provided them with your cell phone so they could text you 30 minutes before their arrival. The experience infuriates you. Not at the plumber, but at all the other service providers who neglect this level of creativity. Your TV service provider. Your Internet provider. They all may as well arrive in a covered wagon compared to this plumber because they are so inept at being creative.

Wait a minute. You’re thinking, “That’s not creativity. That’s customer service.”

What’s the difference? What are the limitations of creativity?

I first learned creativity in business as a teenage hi-fi salesman. You may not think of it as creativity, but I knew firsthand the power of it.

A shopper enters the store looking for a pair of loudspeakers. We visit and I find out the type of music they love. “What’s your favorite record?” I ask. They tell me. I sit them down in a sound room – back when we had hi-fi stores and sound rooms – as I fetch their favorite record. I handle it as though it were a gem, because it is. To them. I carefully place the record on the turntable, manually clean it and gently lower the stylus into the groove. Then I turn up the volume, slightly higher than most people are used to. I say nothing. This experience – their favorite record coupled with a system unlike anything they’ve heard before – is captivating. Enthralling.

Where’s the creativity?

First, it’s in the thought process that compelled me to develop this simple process. Creativity is lost because of mindlessness. People act without thinking. Salespeople do it. Engineers do it. Accountants do it. Attorneys do it. Everybody does it ever now and again. Some more than others. Rote procedures foil creativity because we don’t think about “tricking it up.” Or we don’t think it needs to be tricked up. Why change? Why not change? I prefer to insert the word “improve” where others like the word “change.” That act of creativity changes everything because now the focus isn’t on simply changing for whatever reason, but it’s on improving. Who doesn’t want improvement?

Next, the creativity was in asking the shopper about their favorite record. Back in the 70’s when I was on a hi-fi sales floor nearly all the salespeople had their favorite tracks on records. Tracks they felt could really show off what a system could do. I was into music. I knew music was emotional. I knew songs were personal because everybody I knew – including myself – had certain feelings when specific songs were played. By asking, “What’s your favorite record?” I knew I’d get an honest answer. Come on, it’s a hi-fi store! Nobody ever said, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t really have a favorite record.” Everybody who came in had a favorite record.

The creativity was in my focus on their experience, not my own. It didn’t matter if I hated their favorite record. When the store was empty I could play whatever I wanted, but this was their moment. While I was looking for the record I’d engage them and find out why this was their favorite record. People love to tell the stories of the music in their life. Songs and albums have meaning to people – they did in the 70’s for sure. Everybody loved to talk about their favorite music. I gave them an opportunity to talk out loud about it. It also gave me some insight about the music in their life. Heavy rock fans loved lots of bass. Classical music lovers loved a more flat sound. That gave me insight about not only what products to show them, but how to adjust any system I played for them.

LInn Sondek turntableThere was also creativity in the presentation of the music. It started the moment I removed the vinyl from the album sleeve. I never touched anything other the very edges of the album with my outstretched palms or fingertips. Yes, it had technical merits of keeping the oil of your skin off the vinyl, but it also showed the average shopper who likely didn’t handle their vinyl properly…how to do it right! It was part presentation, part education.

Cleaning the record served the same 2 purposes, along with making sure the record was as clean as possible for the best sound. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to educate customers in proper record care while allowing me to sell them an accessory that would protect their record investment.

The whole thing was genuine and intentional. It all served a purpose other than to put on a show. The value provided was real and authentic. In the end, a memorable experience was the goal.

Creativity is lost in the sea of averageness. Stealing ideas. Copycatting. Following the template created by others. Following the leader. They’re all the crap of lost creativity.

Creativity is lost in lethargy. Laziness. That’s part of the reason for all the copycatting, but when I’m thinking of laziness I’m thinking of people who just don’t think. The company that answers the phone the same idiotic way they always have because nobody is thinking about it. The retailer whose people all use the same greeting to every shopper, “Can I help you?”

How hard would it be to rethink that? Not hard at all, but it would take more effort than to just fly every day on auto-pilot. It would require a leader willing to ask a very hard question, “How could we do this better?”

Creativity may be lost – in part – due to the fear of leadership. Maybe leaders are afraid to open up a can of worms by asking the questions creativity demands. Maybe they’re afraid nothing else will work as well as the status quo. Maybe they’re afraid the front line people will have an idea better than theirs.

Creativity may be lost due to distraction. We’re not improving things because we’re not paying attention to the right things at the right time. Todd Pedersen, CEO and Founder of Vivint, Inc. was recently featured on CBS’ Undercover Boss. Part of his undercover work involved spending time in the call center where he discovered the equipment was dreadful. Call center employees couldn’t even hear all the customers calling in. Oh, by the way, Vivint is a home security company! Being able to communicate with customers on the phone is critical. He had no idea the equipment was a problem until he went undercover.

So it goes. Creativity gives way to the ordinary, everyday activities that never seem to unearth the real problems that stymie our success. It’s the vast marketing budget and activities of companies like DirecTV when customers would be absolutely dazzled with simplified pricing. Or a better customer experience when they encounter a problem. It’s the small, no account budget of a solopreneur who gets VistaPrint business cards, but can’t embrace enough weirdness to use them in a creative way.

Big business. Small business. We all suffer the loss of creativity…sometimes. Some of us are chronic sufferers.

Time to find it again. Or for the first time.

Step 1 – Stop.

Forget what others are doing. Forget what you’re currently doing. Just hit the PAUSE button. I’m not saying to stop doing business. It’s more mental than physical. Well, it can be. Stop doing what you’ve always done simply because you’re assuming it’s working well enough. Stop thinking all is well. Stop thinking there are no better ways. Stop living in complacency. Stop being satisfied. Stop thinking things will never be better. Or stop thinking things will always be terrific. Stop.

Step 2 – Think.

Questions are your friends when it comes to embracing creativity. Ask questions. Lots of questions. Ask every question you can think of. The obvious ones. The not-so-obvious ones. And all the ones in between.

Then answer them. Get your team together. Wrestle them down. Take whatever time is necessary to find the best answers to your best questions.

Step 3 – Be Fearless.

Try things. Creativity guarantees only one thing – the prospect of failure. You can’t let that outweigh the prospect of wild success. Or even moderate success.

What if it fails? I’m not saying risk the whole company on one wild idea, but if you insist on a culture of playing it safe you’ll wind up broke and out of business. Radio Shack is dying. They were once a Ft. Worth, Texas institution. Not any more. They lost their way, but they join a long list of consumer electronics titans that are now gone. If you tell me creativity is risky I’ll argue not having it is far riskier!

Go in knowing some things may not work. The lessons you and your team can learn will be worth the failure though. Your fearlessness will foster greater creativity and the reflexes of your team will improve. Some of the best creative successes will come from adjustments made out of a failure. Post-It Notes by 3M is a famous example. This is what Wikipedia says:

In 1968, a scientist at 3M in the United States, Dr. Spencer Silver, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead he accidentally created a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. For five years, Silver promoted his “solution without a problem” within 3M both informally and through seminars but failed to gain acceptance. In 1974 a colleague who had attended one of his seminars, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook. Fry then utilized 3M’s officially sanctioned “permitted bootlegging” policy to develop the idea. The original notes’ yellow color was chosen by accident, as the lab next-door to the Post-it team had only yellow scrap paper to use.

3M launched the product as “Press ‘n Peel” in stores in four cities in 1977, but results were disappointing. A year later 3M instead issued free samples directly to consumers in Boise, Idaho, with 94 percent of those who tried them indicating they would buy the product. On April 6, 1980, “Press ‘n Peel” was re-introduced in US stores as “Post-It Notes”. The following year they were launched in Canada and Europe.

In 2003, the company came out with “Post-it Brand Super Sticky Notes”, with a stronger glue that adheres better to vertical and non-smooth surfaces.

Until 3M’s patent expired in the 1990s, post-it type notes were produced only in the company’s plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

 Try nothing and you’re sure to fail. Try something new – something creative – and you’re certain to learn something. And it must might work the first time out. If not, you’ll have something to work with, something you can then try to refine and improve.

Step 4 – Don’t Retreat.

Working up the courage to be fearless at first is one thing. Maintaining the courage is harder.

Some lessons are so costly they’re priceless. I used to hear horror stories of retail buyers who made colossally poor decisions. Every now and again you’d hear somebody remark that the buyer wasn’t fired because the executives in charge felt it was such an expensive lesson they couldn’t afford to terminate the guy. Those stories made sense to me, even if they were somewhat fictionalized. I mean, if a guy bought something for say $150,000 and the rate of sale was so poor that the margins were a negative number, resulting in a net loss of $100,000 — it seems sensible to me to view the buyer as now having had a $100K lesson. Sure, it assumes he’s competent and capable and just tried something that didn’t work out very well. How do you suppose he’ll vet the next buying opportunity? More carefully perhaps. But he could also be subjected to his own loss of courage. If that mistakes creates a new tentative nature, he’ll be fired for sure.

Courage in the face of failure has to be maintained and fostered. Winners don’t retreat. They regroup and come back.

Step 5 – Celebrate The Process.

If creativity isn’t part of your organization’s culture it’s likely because the price tag is deemed too high to pay. People are afraid to be creative because leadership values the status quo too much. Or they value the safe outcome too much to innovate.

Creativity is a process, not an outcome. Everybody wants to celebrate the successful outcome. That’s easy. But that’s not where creativity’s magic is found. It’s in the process of being creative.

Celebrate that and you’ll stand out from the crowd. When your team rolls the dice on a well-crafted creative plan celebrate it. Do it before you even know if it works. Do it even if it fails. Do it if it works. Foster more creativity by making sure the team knows you value the process. It’s that process that’ll help you achieve new heights of accomplishment. It’s the fuel for your team to rise above the fray, too.

The same excitement I saw in the shopper hearing the details of their favorite record for the first time on a stereo system unlike anything they’d heard before is the same excitement I see in team members lead by a person who loves creativity. They’re alive and thrilled to do the work. It’s a unique experience they want to keep having over and over again. Give them the celebration of the process and watch them soar. Then you can sit back and take credit for having been the leader who made it all possible.

Randy

* Linn Sondek turntable photo courtesy of Jacques on Flickr