First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end. Aristotle
Many of us, when setting goals, have been exposed to the popular SMART acronym as a guide for our goal-setting. In the standard approach, goals are defined as “good” if they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
The more I work with leaders, or teams establishing strategic or tactical plans, the more I believe that while these elements of a goal are ok, they may not cover everything. For example, while a goal may be specific, it is not uncommon for it to still be difficult to understand. We can write a “specific” goal that still has too many elements, or is couched in a language that is hard for our team to grasp. Relevant is a wonderful characteristic as well, but is a broad concept to work with. The question may still linger, “relevant in what way?”
I fully recognize that suggesting a different acronym to follow is just this side of heresy, but I’m going to give it a go anyway. If SMART goals are working for you, then please keep using them. But perhaps you want to consider not just making your goals smart, but instead making them STRONG.
Simple: For a goal to be useful, it has to be understandable. By “simple” I don’t mean it has to be elementary, but it needs to be focused on a single activity and outcome and phrased in a way that is clear to those who see it. Goals that have multiple parts are hard to understand and are difficult to deliver since the employee is unsure of what part of the goal is most important. Goals that are loaded with jargon, or specialized language, are difficult to access. A simple goal for one person may be an overly complicated goal for another person so this is a relative term based on the individual and the task at hand.
Timely: For a goal to be useful it also has to be relevant to the situation at the moment. Each goal should have an importance that is immediate. If you truly want me to make this goal a priority, I have to see how it plays a role in our success right now. This doesn’t mean that all goals are short-term goals, but they need to have a connection to the current moment. If the goal is set for 24 months from now, I need to understand why it is identified as a goal today
Realistic: For a goal to have its desired effect on performance, it has to be seen by the recipient of the goal as somehow possible to achieve. Unrealistic goals create demoralized troops. This is a point of negotiation. If you see the goal as realistic and your follower does not, you need to take the time to explain your thinking in a way that they can see the same reality you do. This does not mean the goal has to be easy…just possible. Our goals should stretch us and push us to achieve more than we think possible at times. But if I don’t see any reality between the current situation and the one you want with the goal, I will likely not engage.
Objective: For goals to be strong, they must be viewed as unbiased and objectively measurable. One of the definitions of “objective” is “having a real existence.” If you want me to attempt to achieve a goal, it has to be termed in a way that it is real. “Making people happy” is not an objective goal. “Improving customer satisfaction” is if I can define what it looks like. If I can define what the goal looks like when achieved, then I have (or can have) a measure attached to the goal.
For some people, this specific element just sounds like another way of saying “measurable” in the standard SMART approach. While an objective goal IS measurable, and should have measures associated with it, I would argue that the focus here is on the concrete nature of the goal, not the measure itself. Telling me that a goal is to achieve a 5% increase in profitability doesn’t tell me anything about the action, it only tells me the expected outcome. The measure may technically BE a goal, but it doesn’t have any essence until that is turned into additional goals that get me there
Necessary: Useless goals are the bane of high-performance. For a follower to be motivated to achieve a goal he or she has to see the value of the goal being pursued. Goals need to be provided in a context of understanding so that employees understand not only the specifics of the goal, but also the goal’s importance in the bigger picture. The necessity of the goal can be a strong performance driver, especially for employees who are personally committed to the overall success of the department or organization.
Grand: Goals need to be aspirational. They need to represent performance that requires ingenuity and persistence. They need to be challenging. Remember that I suggested they are realistic, which means they are not SO grand that they are unattainable. But realistic does not mean that it’s a piece-of-cake…it just means that it is doable. Grand goals are goals that stretch us to grow in ways that mediocre goals do not. Grand goals can be exciting, if they are agreed upon by both the leader and the follower.
Whether SMART or STRONG or some combination of the two, goals that are imposed on people tend to be less successful than those that are established with people. A goal-setting session should be a dialogue…the actual establishment of the goal should be the outcome of the dialogue. “Gifting” your employees with their goals creates confusion about what you mean and what the priorities are. But a goal-setting session where each individual has the opportunity to share in the crafting of the objective can be inspirational in itself.
So here’s a question for you. If you give feedback to a friend or colleague, and they disagree with your perspective or don’t take it well, is the fault for the communication breakdown the fault of the feedback giver or the feedback receiver? On the one hand, many of us don’t want to hear negative feedback about ourselves and immediately go on the defensive when somebody gives it to us, even if it’s in our best interest. On the other hand, it is possible to give somebody feedback who neither agrees nor is particularly open to the feedback we’re giving.
I have had this experience during the last few weeks and the personal research shows one thing. I’m not particularly good at receiving feedback I don’t agree with and I am not good at all receiving feedback that is couched in anything that sounds like, “somebody said to me,” or “other people see it this way.” My kneejerk reaction is to respond as if the feedback giver in this case is simply not owning up to their own opinion. That, plus the fact that I can’t clarify or respond to an unnamed source, pushes a button for me that is difficult to unpush. I then become fairly unreasonable and instead of simply saying, “I see, thanks” I tend to go somewhere beyond annoyed and respond in a way that is neither particularly professional nor personally rewarding.
I honestly take responsibility for this, but it makes me think that those of us who coach and teach about giving feedback tend to always take the point of view that if the receiver of feedback is defensive, it is their problem because they aren’t open-minded enough to listen to our well-intended comment. But as I’ve experienced this a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think there is a principle we tend to ignore: The giver of feedback, rather a manager, a coworker, or a friend, has no more or less of a right to give the feedback than the receiver has to ignore it or be offended by it. The balance of responsibility goes both ways and, as I’ve preached for years, intent has very little to do with it. I don’t know your intent, I only know your behavior, and if you intended to be helpful but I took it as offensive, we have both started down a miscommunication path. If I intend to explain myself and you take it as being petty and defensive, the same thing is true.
The problem is that we communicate ourselves into the mess which means we somehow have to communicate ourselves out of it. And we tend to continue the communication about the content of the interaction rather than about the communication breakdown. So here are a few suggestions when you find yourself in this predicament.
- Stop the conversation about the content long enough to deal with the conversation about the communication. Falling into, “yes, but you were wrong” kinds of comments are still about the content and are going to simply exacerbate the problem.
- Accept that there are at least two parties involved, neither of which probably handled the situation perfectly. That means that the odds are highly stacked that you are likely to also be part of the problem, no matter which of the parties you are.
- Figure out what it was about the delivery or the reception that went wrong. In my case it is almost always that I don’t know when to stop talking and just let things go. In other cases it might be that the timing was off, or the phrasing was too personal. Accept that, if the other person perceives it that way, then it actually WAS that way.
- Stop being righteous. As I said, my problem is that I tend not to stop talking when I should stop talking. That’s because I know I’m “right,” and I am determined to make sure you know that I’m “right” and eventually concede. Feedback shouldn’t be about winning and losing, although once it feels personal, it can go there easily. Ask yourself with each comment whether or not the process is being helped. And if not…stop talking.
- The final one is tough, at least for me. Own your own hurt feelings and let it go. If you were giving the feedback with the best interest of the other person in mind, and they lash out at you, remember that this was always a possibility when you gave the feedback in the first place and that they are likely responding to their own hurt feelings in the process. If you feel angry at the beginning of the process, remember that the person has taken a chance in giving you the feedback in the first place. A little benefit-of-the-doubt goes a long way in both directions.
There’s an old saying about the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. There are times when the best intentions place us in an awkward, no-win situation. When you’re there, stop digging. Figure out which is most important…that you make your point or that your relationship stays whole. If it is the latter, then you might have to drop the issue regardless of how wrong you think the feedback is or how hard you were trying to help. Once the relationship is broken, it is a much harder task to repair. And in most cases, the content of what is being discussed just simply isn’t worth letting the relationship deteriorate.
One of the key success factors for leaders at all levels is the ability to communicate to others. We spend a lot of time in this blog talking about interpersonal elements of communication and leadership, but the fact remains that it is the rare leader that can avoid making some kind of group presentation. In fact, by definition, leaders have to communicate to groups of people at a time. There has been a lot of study and writing on the act of oral presentation so it would seem that there’s probably not much more we need to learn, eh? As leaders we know we need to “Tell ’em what we’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em and then tell ’em what we told ’em.” At least that’s the conventional wisdom. The problem of course is that being redundant is not only sometimes very boring it is also not a guarantee that our message will have any impact at all.
I generally have an immediate suspicion of conventional wisdom anyway. Typically it became conventional wisdom over a long period of time and is so general as to be not of much use. At the very least, conventional wisdom tends to be…well…conventional. In other words, average is not what we’re after here so perhaps we need to try a little harder. Recent evidence in brain research of participants listening to speakers gives us some ideas as to how we might make presentations to our followers more powerful. Here are three ideas for example that are not likely to be intuitive or in your basic speech workshop:
1. Focus on multiple processing: Very often leaders approach communication to groups of people as information dumps. A few charts, a bunch of numbers, and that’s about it. Then they wonder why nobody seems to remember what they said. Research however indicates that the more diversity in the presentation, not just with information but with our senses, the more likely we are to retain the information. Most speakers stick to audio and visual, but are there some ways you can bring your message alive by activity within the group. Can you pass out an object or have them engage in an activity to illustrate your point. The more ways they have to experience the information the more likely they are to retain it.
2. Be “level” with the audience: Of course we have been trained to do this through a story or joke or whatever else we throw into the introduction of the speech, but connecting with the audience is really about being a credible and trustworthy source. Be real and authentic. Avoid acting out the power position. For example, if these are employees within your company or department do you really need a formal introduction? Do your assistants really need to be visible to everybody all of the time? Come down the hierarchy for a while and really speak with your folks.
3. Tie into existing knowledge: While every presentation should have a unique component (otherwise, why are you doing it?) participants can make meaning of your discussion more easily if it is related to stuff they already know. Whether it is a continuation of an earlier presentation, connected to current events, or even product related, it is helpful to overtly tie your new information to previously understood content. The more you can help the audience make the connection, the less cognitive effort it takes for them to figure it out on their own. One thing stands out above all others when it comes to making presentations with impact. If you are not considering your audience in the process of creating your speech, you will not be as effective as you could be.
Speaking is all about the audience. If you have others who are creating your speech, make sure that they are doing it from the perspective of the receiver. No matter how powerful a leader you are, if you stand there and tell us what you think is important, without considering what is important to us and how we can best understand the information, your presentations will fall short every time.
I have recently had the great opportunity to join a Chamber choir in my hometown. Yes, I know that reflects the tremendously exciting life that I live, but it’s fun. It’s also an interesting study in how groups work. In fact, the similarities to this highly talented, but volunteer group are amazing when you compare them to the work place. See if you can relate:
This choir has been together for many years and has a really tight group of very talented singers. On an individual basis, each of them is a truly delightful person. But as a group, there is a “membership effect” that makes it difficult for new members to assimilate.
For one thing, a fairly large percentage of their repertoire is made up of songs that have been performed at some point in the past. This common experience prompts reminiscing which, by definition, excludes anybody who was not around when the piece was originally added to the list.
There are also many rules that are not formally presented in any way but are discovered with time. Some are small rules—when to open the folder, when to sit during a performance, or whether or not a bottle of water can be on stage. Some are large rules—do we actually start rehearsal on time, how do you speak to the conductor, how hard do you practice.
Learning all of these rules is part of becoming a member of the group. The more forthcoming group members are about the rules, the faster a new person becomes a member of the tribe. The harder it is to determine what are the norms of the group, the harder it is to be accepted.
How many barriers do you have in accepting a new member to your team? More importantly, do you have time for a long acclimation process or do you need them to be collaborating and working with each other quickly? Chances are, if you leave the team to it’s own devices, the assimilation of new talent can be a long and costly process. The longer it takes, the more the new member questions whether or not this is a team they want to run with. One of the first rules of any organized group of people is to preserve their identity. A new member challenges that preservation.
Orientations are great and you should keep doing them in order to let the new people know what the basic rules, policies and procedures for their position are. Even more important is to arrange opportunities for the new folks to learn the hidden rules. If you’re the boss, some of these rules will be hidden from you as well since your membership is specified by a role.
Arrange time for lunch or dinner between new team members and the rest of the team. Don’t gang-team them though…as a group the members will be more likely to inadvertently show how different they are rather than similar to the new person. Arrange for some casual one-on-one team with various members of the team and the newbie. If you really want to do it right, figure out who the leader of the tribe actually is (it’s not you by the way) and make sure that this person gets some alone time with the new member.
As the leader of the team, you can’t really force the process of assimilation of new members. You can, however, create an environment where new members are welcome and given every opportunity to connect with not only the team, but the individual members on the team. It may take a little time, but it will pay off in employee satisfaction and productivity fairly quickly.
How ambidextrous is your organization? If you want it to be around for awhile, the answer should be “Very.” Take a look at this recent article, written by Marina Krakosvky and reprinted by Quartz.com.
All companies hit rough patches from time to time. But only a few manage to survive decade after decade—some of them in a form that bears no resemblance to the original organization. Nokia began in 1865 as a riverside paper mill along the Tammerkoski Rapids in southwestern Finland. In the late 1880s, Johnson & Johnson got its start by manufacturing the first commercial sterile surgical dressings and first-aid kits. And in 1924, the founder of Toyota came out with his company’s first invention—an automatic loom.
What explains the longevity? Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Charles O’Reilly calls it “organizational ambidexterity,” the ability of a company to manage its current business while simultaneously preparing for changing conditions. “You often see successful organizations failing, and it’s not obvious why they should fail,” O’Reilly says. The reason, he says, is that a strategy that had been successful within the context of a particular time and place may suddenly be all wrong once the world changes.
Staying competitive, then, means changing what you’re doing. But the change can’t be an abrupt switch from old to new—from print to digital distribution, say, or from selling products to selling services—if that means abandoning a business that’s still profitable. Hence the call for ambidexterity. You can’t just choose between exploiting your current opportunities and exploring new ones; you have to do both. And the companies that last for decades are able to do so time and time again.
O’Reilly’s work builds on that of other organizational scholars who have noted the value of a two-pronged survival strategy. In a seminal paper published in 1991, Stanford professor James March wrote about the need for organizations to do two things at once, and articulated the challenge. “Both exploration and exploitation are essential for organizations,” March wrote, “but they compete for scarce resources.” That means organizations that try to do both face difficult trade-offs, choosing one only at the expense of the other. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen went a step further, pointing out in The Innovator’s Dilemma in 2011 that the very things that make an organization successful today will actually work against it as conditions change. It’s not just that resting on your laurels is tempting, or that managers are blind to the changes around them. Rather, innovation can easily seem like a threat to a business that is already working well.
When Christensen wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma, he saw no way out, O’Reilly says, except to spin out the innovative part of the organization. According to that approach, the best way for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, to cope with the advent of internet retailing was to continue to focus on its brick-and-mortar stores and to spin off website Walmart.com as a separate company, as it did in 2000.
But a spinoff doesn’t really solve the problem, O’Reilly says, because it doesn’t help Wal-Mart make money in the long run. A better way, his research suggests, is to run the mature business alongside the newer business under the same organization—but, crucially, to do it in a way that makes smart use of the organization’s resources.
A good model is the way in which Wal-Mart is rolling out its Express stores, the much smaller alternatives to the company’s behemoth supercenters and among its best hopes for continued growth. This venture, which is moving in on the turf occupied by the likes of CVS and Walgreen, seems likely to pay off, O’Reilly says, because Wal-Mart’s senior managers aren’t merely moving into a new, related business; they’re leveraging “the strengths of the mother ship” to do so. For Wal-Mart, those strengths are in real estate, purchasing, logistics, and information technology—all capabilities that will be useful in the drugstore business, too.
Christensen, O’Reilly says, now sees ambidexterity as the solution to the innovator’s dilemma, but not everybody does. The idea that organizations can reshape themselves to adapt to change runs counter to a decades-old tradition in organizational studies that says, in effect, that organizational survival is a matter of luck. That school of thought, influenced by evolutionary theory and known as organizational ecology, holds that the companies that survive today are products of natural selection. These organizations have the right features to thrive in their current environment, organizational ecologists say, but sooner or later, the environment is bound to change. And if it changes in ways that favor a different set of traits, the argument goes, an individual business can’t adapt any more than a zebra can change its stripes.
That view is too fatalistic, O’Reilly believes, because it ignores managers’ power to learn and change. If Wal-Mart is continuing to grow while Sears is in decline, it’s because Wal-Mart’s leaders are deliberately doing the right things.
O’Reilly and his colleagues, especially his close collaborator Michael Tushman, of Harvard Business School, have found what some of those things are. Above all, an ambidextrous organization needs a leader with an “overarching vision,” or clarity about why different businesses within the organization are important. But their research also shows that problems arise when other senior managers disagree with that vision. Therefore, the leader must also “make sure that everybody is singing off the same hymnal,” O’Reilly says.
Managers must make sure their organizations actually align with that vision, as well—a difficult feat, given that different business units’ cultures and incentives might be tugging them in different directions.
The best leaders manage to pull it off. One example is Glen Bradley, who in the early 1990s led Ciba Vision, a maker of contact lenses that was losing ground to Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson had the economies of scale to defeat Ciba Vision in the market for conventional lenses, so Bradley redirected his organization’s resources toward developing innovations, such as contacts that people could wear while sleeping. At the time, the concept of extended-wear contact lenses was to conventional contacts what digital photography had been to Kodak’s film business: If successful, many feared, the new product would kill the old one.
To make clear why the old business should support the exploratory projects, Bradley crafted a new vision for the entire company: “Healthy Eyes for Life,” a statement whose breadth conveys the idea that the company should pursue whatever technologies and opportunities they had to promote healthy eyes. To forestall conflicts over resources, he set up a separate organization for each project, each with its own research and development, marketing, and finance group, and each headed by a leader given free rein to create the right culture to meet that organization’s goals.
At the same time, Bradley wanted to make sure the new projects benefited from the expertise of the old business, so he put all of them under the control of a single executive, who knew the old business and had the personal relationships to facilitate sharing across divisional boundaries. Bradley also revamped the company’s incentive systems, to reward managers mainly for the performance of Ciba Vision as a whole. Thanks to these efforts, the new project teams became remarkably productive: Besides new types of contact lenses, Ciba Vision successfully introduced a drug to fight eye disease and pioneered a manufacturing process that greatly reduced the cost of making lenses. In the first 10 years after Bradley’s move to ambidexterity, the company’s annual revenues grew from $300 million to more than $1 billion.
Ciba’s experience shows that with deft ambidextrous leadership, an underdog can stand up to a powerful rival. But Johnson & Johnson could have done what Ciba did. We often think of large organizations as lumbering bureaucracies incapable of swift change, a notion perpetuated by highly visible David-and-Goliath stories in business. (Think Netflix trouncing Blockbuster, which had years to respond to the little company with the red mailers.) In fact, large companies are often better-positioned for ambidexterity than small ones, O’Reilly says, because one bad bet won’t wipe them out. “If you’re a small company, you place all your chips on this one thing, whereas a large organization can do lots of experiments,” he explains.
IBM, an organization that O’Reilly has studied extensively (and for which he and Tushman have consulted), is a case in point. In 2000, the company’s leaders, acknowledging that running their existing businesses with incremental improvements wasn’t enough to grow revenue, launched a project to foster more exploration. Called Emerging Business Opportunities, the initiative might sound like just another stuffy big-company acronym. But reading O’Reilly’s descriptions of the EBOs makes them look almost like startups within Big Blue, with each reporting to a division head and to the head of new growth opportunities—somewhat the way entrepreneurs remain accountable to their funders. Like actual startups, some of these organizations failed to bear fruit. But there were enough of them (seven in the beginning) that in the first five years alone, the EBOs added $15.2 billion to IBM’s top line, O’Reilly and his colleagues report, or more than twice as much as acquisitions did.
A recent study by O’Reilly and colleagues suggests that while IBM’s experience was extraordinary, the company does have something in common with other thriving organizations. The researchers looked specifically at what type of corporate culture was associated with growth in revenue and net income, and found that more adaptive cultures, or ones that emphasized speed and experimentation, did much better. “A culture that says, ‘We don’t have all the answers; we’ve got to try these experiments’—that’s the type of culture that promotes ambidexterity.”
What determines the ideal balance between exploration and exploitation is one of the big open questions in the research on ambidextrous organizations. It’s safe to say, though, that the right amount of experimentation has much to do not only with a company’s resources, but also with the pace of change in its industry. “If the industry isn’t changing rapidly, doing 100 experiments is unproductive and expensive. But if you don’t do experiments, you’re likely to be in trouble if the industry is changing.”
Marina Krakovsky is a Bay Area writer whose work has appeared in Discover, the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, Slate, Stanford Magazine, and the Washington Post.
If leadership is needed everywhere in the organization, is it possible that the problem is not that there is a lack of leaders, but instead that there are organizational structures that limit the opportunity of others to lead? Even more importantly, is it possible that change is so difficult in many organizations because, by the time a problem is evident enough to be addressed at the top, it is already to late to get in front of it?
I had the opportunity to hear Gary Hamel speak a number of years ago and was impressed by his thought leadership and his practicality. The author of Competing for the Future and Leading the Revolution has always been a futurist who has challenged the status quo.
Along with McKinsey,the Harvard Business Review, and his colleagues at the London Business School, Hamel has created the Management Innovation Exchange to offer a platform for sharing ideas and examples of leading throughout the organization. Through that venue, the HBR/McKinsey Leadership Challenge has been created for the best disruptive idea or practice in syndicating leadership. Click on those links to discover more about the prize and the challenge.
A final word about what is exciting to me regarding this approach. Traditionally we academics go off into a lab or an office, do surveys, and try to find something meaningful to share in regards to management theory. The approach of the Leadership Challenge is to reach out to those places where positive action is taking place, and make it available for the rest of us.
Here is a link to a quick but fascinating interview with Gary Hamel regarding this approach: Interview with Gary Hamel