Optimism in a time of Economic Gloom

August 4th, 2011

I read an itneresting article in the Associated Press about the economic doldrums affecting the United States. There is a lot of cause for pessimism. Employment is sky high with almost 20% of real unemployment/ underemployment, people are not shopping and families are struggling. What I found really interesting was this quote:

To some economists, the United States is starting to look eerily like Japan. The Japanese economy fell into a recession in the early `90s. It has never fully returned to health, largely because of policy mistakes. The government raised taxes after declaring victory over the downturn prematurely. And U.S. economists, including current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, criticized the Japanese central bank, the Bank of Japan, for being too passive to turn the economy around.

Economists are trained to look at numbers. When I was an economics major at the University of Illinois I spent a lot of time analyzing graphs and charts. That is probably why I ended up switching over to become a theater major at New York University! I agree that sound policies do have a positive impact on the economy. However, the economists miss one difference between the North American economy and the Japanese. In both Canada and the U.S. economic success is based on innovation. It is innovation that is the key element of growth. The Japanese are very good at process improvement such as Kaizan and creating well built products (i.e. Honda). What they lack, however, is the diversity and entrepreneurial spirit that has built North America into the world’s leading economy for over 75 years. Advances in software, the internet, biomedical technology and telecom have mainly come from North America. The succes of its economy is people having new ideas and then have the freedom to implement them.

What is hurting the U.S. more than anything is regulation that stops entrepreneurship. You see it in Europe where it is very hard to start a business because of all the regulations and bureaucracy that a person has to go through to start one. Yes, many of those regulations are necessary but many are not. If we want to kickstart the economy, the best way is to streamline regulations and bureaucracy and invest in small businesses and new ideas.

Americans and Canadian have always been creative problem solvers and it is for this reason that I believe that the economic gloom we are facing is temporary and I am optimistic that our creativity will ultimately create an economic turnaround.

Models of Appreciative Inquiry and Problem Solving

August 1st, 2011

Appreciative Inquiry is a wonderful organizational development model developed by David Cooperrider at Case Western University that is very applicable to what is happening in today’s economy. When dealing with problem solving and change, many times how we ask the question and what vision we create has a direct impact on how we solve the problem. For instance, instead of asking ‘what are our problems?’ or ‘what are we weak at?’, we can instead ask ‘what are our are strengths and how can we make them stronger?’. In Appreciative Inquiry there are four phases:
1.DISCOVER: The identification of organizational processes that work well.
2.DREAM: The envisioning of processes that would work well in the future.
3.DESIGN: Planning and prioritizing processes that would work well.
4.DESTINY (or DELIVER): The implementation (execution) of the proposed design

It is a strong addition to what I originally wrote in Flexible Thinker For our economic woes, if we look at phase 1 and ask ourselves what are our processes that work well. For instance, we are good at entrepreneurship and creativity. There is a reason companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple. Blackberry and Intel were founded in North America. Because we are free and are measured not by our lineage but by our accomplishments.

In process 2, we can dream of ways to make it easier to be create. These include less and more streamlined regulations to allow businesses to start. Investment in small business to help people have the capital to make their visions a reality.

In Phase 3 we can start to brainstorm ways to implement that vision. It could be discarding unnecessary paperwork and out-of-date process or finding ways to directly invest in various businesses and ideas.

Finally in Phase 4, we build SMART plans (Specific, Measurable, Actions, Realistic, Timeframe) to make those plans a reality.

By looking positively at what is the best of us, no matter your political persuasion, you build on the strengths we have. In other words, by focusing on the positive we achieve positive results.

Retention in the Age of Unemployment

July 28th, 2011

With unemployment in Canada at 7.6% and in the U.S. at 9.8%, there does not seem to be a real need for organizations to worry about retention. After all, for every person leaving a job there are 10 people waiting to fill it. Also, people are staying where they are because they fear being unemployed. Also, in bad times, many business leaders have more important things on their mind than retaining staff. Their largest retention issue is with customers.

The reason that retention is still a major issues comes down to one word – competitiveness. The reality of today is that people are being asked to work harder for less money just to keep afloat. There still is a shortage of people – qualified people who can work faster and smarter.

There was a story I head a while ago about a chicken plant. The plant went on strike and the union was broken in the process as people crossed the line. People there were working for slightly more than minimum wage and being treated rather poorly. The result was that, in order to get revenge on the plant, they were spitting in the chickens on the assembly line and letting the customers know about it.

This brings me to my central point. A business is only as good as the people who deliver the product and services to the customers. Organizations that search out entrepreneurial, creative people and allow them to solve problems will thrive. Attraction and retention of these people will determine an organization’s ultimate success or failure and provide them with a sustainable competitive advantage. This is where human resources becomes a funciton of the business (and in fact an integral part of it) as opposed to a spectator.

Leadership, Vision and Landing on the Moon

July 21st, 2011

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had a vision that the United States could land a man on the moon within 10 years. It was only 60 years before that that the Wright brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk. Yet, Kennedy had this vision that we could push our creativity and limits and within a short timeframe achieve what everybody else thought was impossible. That vision rallied people and resources and ignited the imagination and creativity not just of an entire country but of the world. The interesting thing is that it was the competition from the U.S.’s enemy at the time, the Soviet Union, that spurred that vision.

Today, sadly, marks the final landing of the space shuttle.  NASA will no longer be out beacon to the cosmos.  Instead NASA’s mission is to apologize and perform “outreach to the Muslim world“.  In a twisted perversion of Kennedy’s vision, we no longer should compete against others to better mankind and reach the stars but to subjugate our interests and apologize to others for a host of litanys that had nothing to do with us.  Where Kennedy once showed strong vision and leadership, with the killing of the space program and the ‘redefining’ of NASA President Obama shows lack of leadership and stifling of creativity and innovation into a set of strange apologies.  The irony is that with all of this ‘outreach’, America is more despised than ever in the Arab world.  Why?  Because we are no longer strong leaders with visions but reactive weaklings who ‘lead from behind’, which should more aptly be called following and passing the buck.

The lesson learned is that people respect leaders who have vision, tenacity and challenge those around them instead of trying to appease them.  It is a good lesson for all of us to learn, whether we are leading families, businesses or governments.  Strong leaders have vision and rallying people to those visions.  Weak leaders simply react to events and try to please everybody.  The irony is that instead of pleasing everybody, they please nobody!

Politics and Leadership

July 17th, 2011

Any one looking at the current group of people who want to President have to notice that there seems to be a lack of leadership. It is even true of the current occupant of the White House. Instead of leading, he seems to be more focused on re-election and playing to his base. He says one thing but in reality is doing the opposite. It is the same a lot of times with many organizations. The best politicians do not make the best leaders. Why does it seem that there is such a shortage of leaders at the very moment in history when we need them most.

The answer is that a good politician does not make a good leader. The ‘art’ of politics is to please as many people as possible. The best way to do that is to give them ‘red meat’ or tell them what they want to hear exactly as they want to hear it. You build a base of power with a specific group of people.  The ‘art’ of leadership is to have a vision, adapt and often times do what people do not want because it is needed.  Leadership is fundamentally about actions.  Politics is about words.  It helps a good leader in many ways to be a good politician, especially the ability to communicate a message clearly and effectively to others.  However, a politican can be a hypocrite, flattering those above them who have a direct impact on their ability to ‘climb the ladder’.

The reason that I am writing this is that there seem to be a lot of politicians but no leaders running to lead the United States right now.  The same, unfortunately, can even be said of the current occupant.  Sometimes it is difficult to be a leader because you have to make decisions that are in the country or organization’s best interest and they may upset your ‘base’.  When decisions are made to get “elected” or “re-elected” because they appease a certain group/ideology and because they promote your individual self-interest, you are acting as a politician and not a leader.  It seems that that is what is happening now with the current budget crisis.  As you read the various press, it becomes clear that instead of working to solve the crisis there is a paralysis as both sides pander to their respective bases.  Leadership is often the art of compromise to solve a problem and when people are simply speaking empty rhetoric above each other rather than offering solid plans to solve a problem.

Talent Management – On Building All Stars

July 6th, 2011

As baseball enters its all star break, it is time to think about developing all stars from a talent management perspective. It is interesting to note that many people become stars in one organization only to become low performers in another. The reverse of that is also true. There are many people who are considered low performers in one organization only to become all stars somewhere else. Like Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays who went from “journeyman” center fielder to the largest vote getter in all star history, there are people who become top performers even though the ‘tag’ on them was mediocrity. So, what is the difference?

The difference is culture. There is a culture in sports. Some organizations win no matter who they have playing the game while another organization goes out, buys the best talent for top money and still ends up losing.  Culture is made up of a number of elements.  Each element interacts with the other.  The main ones we put together for the Tetrahedron Culture Instrument are  leadership, attitudes and behaviors, rewards and compensation and process and procedures.  For instance, if a player is given a number of incentives for performance – they will perform.  If the unwritten attitude of the organization is that they cannot win and are losers – they will lose.  There are always external factors that can limit performance (i.e. injury, personal situation, etc.).  However, the way the organization deals with those situations has a tremendous bearing as well on performance.  Fpr instance, is there succession planning in place so that when somebody is injured somebody else can quickly take their place?    Is there an effective ‘minor league’ program where people are allowed to develop their skills and given the best coaching and mentoring to ensure that they fulfill their promise?  This has as much of an effect on an organization as simply trying to bring in the superstars.

Free Improvisation Exercises

June 22nd, 2011

Due to popular demand, we now have a section that features FREE improvisation games that you can use with your training and course design. These exercises, along with some debrief points, are your to use. Just click here and check in periodically (perhaps mark as a ‘favorite’) for more games as we post them. Many of these are great for leadership debriefs (especially the 3 Up/Freeze Tag), change management, and innovation as well as team building. Enjoy!


June 16th, 2011

The reason that behavioural interviewing is so popular is that it is predicated on the very logical belief that past performance indicates future performance.  It is the same with most performance.  We can look at the what has or has not worked in the past to make a fair determination of whether it will or will not work in the present/future.  Thus the famous quote that insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a differrent result.  That is why I found this article by Victor Davis Hanson in the National Review so interesting.  Hanson talks about President Obama’s economic policies and how he is trying to turn the clock back to the 60’s and 70’s to policies that did not work.

What I find interesting is that so many very smart people believe that centralized economic planning can work.  It has never, in the history of mankind, done anything but create poverty and war.  The problem is that mankind and our economy is so fluid that nobody can ‘control’ it.  The reason that some people have is their own hubris and ‘false ego’.  They think they are smarter and/or want more power that they want to control everything.  These leaders often end up creating their own demise as we see time and time again.

The problem with ideology is that people hold onto beliefs no matter what the evidence is.  It is the same for people on the ‘other’ side of the political spectrum.  For instance, the idea that government should not do anything.  This extends to healthcare.  There are some things that should be provided by government.  The facts, for instance, on healthcare in systems that are government funded (i.e. Canada) versus fully private (i.e. U.S.).  The facts speak for themselves.  Canadians spent less per capita for healthcare than Americans do.  The infant mortality rate in Canada is significantly lower than the U.S. and the average lifespan in the population is higher.  Yes, there are wait times for ‘non emergency’ services (i.e. MRIs), but overall it does work better.

As I write in Flexible Thinker, the problems we have to overcome are the ones we ourselves control (i.e. preconceived ideas, false ego, etc.).  Can the Canadian healthcare system be improved by some type of competition?  Yes.  However, when we shut ourselves off to looking for solutions that work (and have worked) because of ideology, we become the problem and not the solution.

Learning as a “Holy” Expericence

June 12th, 2011

Learning is an intregal part of organizational development because it allows organizations to adapt and compete. It can be used to build a culture that is efficient and competitive. It allows change. The problem is that most organizations really have no concept of both how to design courses and how to implement them as part of a strategy.

I recently had two recent events which coincided against each other. My daughter had her Bat Mitzvah at the end of May and the following week I had the great honour of delivering the morning keynote to the International Alliance of Learning conference in Akron.

What do these events have in common? My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was exceptional. I expected to be moved because, after all, it is my daughter. However, afterwards a number of people (including the Rabbi) told me that the event deeply moved them for some reason. It was, as they said, the intangibles that happen.  They are not sure, but sometimes an event is so deeply moving that it changes a person.  In terms of brain activity, it is creating a new neural pathway.  I have found it sometimes in workshops (not very frequently but it has happened).  That got me to thinking.  If the goal of learning is to create long-term sustainable change that is part of a defined organizational strategy, how do we create an environment where people work in their alpha state (which is optimal for learning) and will benefit both the individual and the organization.  Here are ways that we can create a “holy” learning experience.

1.  Greet People Before the Program Starts

This makes them feel welcomed and wanted.  Right away, they feel special and a part of the learning experience.  By asking them a few questions and getting to know them before the session, they feel a bond to you and are in your corner.

2.  Walk the Talk

One comment about my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah is that people knew that my wife and I are involved in the synagogue and active as teachers.  That meant that people knew that this was not just a formality for us but had meaning.  It is the same with learning.  When people know you are involved in what you are teaching and practice it yourself, it makes a huge difference.

3.  Preparation

My daughter worked very hard and went well beyond the minimum.  She did everything flawlessly and ‘wowed’ the ‘audience’.  It is the same with workshops.  The more prepared you are, the greater your ability to ‘wow’ them.

When both the material and the people matter to you, both you and the material will matter to the participants.  That combination can go a long way in helping to create a “holy” experience in learning.

Why MBAs Make the Worst Leaders

May 11th, 2011

Interesting interview from Henry Mintzberg. As many people know, i am a big fan of Prof. Mintzberg, the head of the business school at McGill University in Montreal and professor of business at Harvard. His point is very well taken. MBAs make rotten leaders. The reason is that they know how to say ‘no’ to everything, are by nature conformist thinkers and non-entrepreneurial. Most of all, though, as Mintzberg points out, they are so full of themselves that they cannot manage others.

Confidence without competence. Which to me is equivalent to arrogance.

MBA courses tend to attract people who aren’t necessarily sensitive to people issues. We have a lot of evidence that these are people more concerned with numbers, and getting themselves ahead, than dealing with people. There’s a wonderful quote which comes from an interview with Harvard professor John Kotter. He did a study of the Harvard MBA class of 1974, tracking their careers. A journalist asked him if the people he tracked were team players. He said no, they want to run the team, create the team and lead it to glory rather than be a member of someone else’s team. And that is the antithesis of team working, wanting to run the team.

The problem with most organizations, though, is that they have become lead by a social clique that doesn’t necessarily care about the people of the organization and think short sighted.  This is closely aligned with the book Freakonmics wonderful chapter about how the people who stole the cookies and candies most from the Good Sam box were the senior management.  It also reflects on the organization that it becomes a bullying organization where people are promoted by who they know and not by their accomplishments.