Remember that INNOVATION PROCESSES Work for You… You Don’t Work for the Processes

Innovation Process

I will begin with a disclaimer… I am not a process-oriented individual.  I am, by nature, a divergent and chaotic thinker who craves freedom and creativity in my work.  I am one of those “crazy” people, who is comfortable at operating outside the stereotypical “box”, in breaking rules (that I deem unnecessary), and in jumping out of the airplane without a parachute… confident that I will figure out a solution before I hit the ground.  If you are “crazy” like me, then this probably sounds like an inspiring and refreshing approach to innovation.  If not… well, then you probably want to lock me up in that “box” that I got out of.

It is not that I do not value processes.  In fact, I am a huge supporter of any system, approach, or tool that allows me to save time, to be more efficient, and to simplify the work.  I like to push the envelope, to experiment as much as possible, and to move quickly and agilely… and the more tools in my toolbox the better.  Net, I love processes that are designed to work for me and to make my job easier, so that I can focus on what breakthrough innovations that I should design and deliver and not so much on how I walk through the work.  My problem with processes is when they are elevated in such a way that I am supposed to work for them.  Statements such as “The process won’t allow you to do that”, or “You need to do x, y, or z instead to satisfy the process” drive me mad.  It is as if my tool has somehow jumped out of my toolbox and suddenly become my master… and that I have now become the tool.  I don’t want to be a tool.

I recently had a serious office debate about what was more important to delivering successful innovation- the process or the people.  To me the answer is obvious…  People- no question.  While processes can facilitate innovation, they are a means and not an ends.  Give me any challenge, big or small, and I would rather have a small group of amazing people with no established process than a world-class process with mediocre people.  To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world.  In fact it is the only thing that ever has.”

That said, I do believe that processes have an important part to play, not just in the execution of initiatives but also in the culture of an organization.  When effective processes are in place for activities such as initiative management, resource allocation, and quality control and used to propel teams forward, then innovation can be take to an even higher level.  Basically, it is not just about having an effective tool… it is also about how you use it.  Thus, a corporate culture that supports innovation is the essential element – without an atmosphere that supports some risk-taking and uncertainty, the innovators will suffocate… regardless of the process.  And while I completely agree that an effective process can be essential in driving ideas to reality, I also believe that over-reliance on a process can be a severe hindrance as well.   When strict adherence to the process becomes more important than the realization of the invention, more harm will be done than good.

The following are four examples of how Innovation can be harmed in a world of “Processes Gone Wild”:

  • Teams are steered to focus more on “Checking Boxes” than on delivering “Big ideas”.  When the process is in charge rather than being used as a tool, then a team can easily fall into a mode of mindlessly crossing activities off of a list rather than of mindfully looking for new ways to drive bigger and better ideas.  Have you ever been in a situation where delivering against the right date became more important than delivering against the right proposition?  If the team is truly a slave to the process, then the priority can become focused on delivering something solely “Actionable” rather than something “Amazing”, and the innovative potential will be diminished.
  • Process outputs are treated as “decisions” rather than as “data”.  Have you ever had some form of this conversation, “I know that the team thinks that this is the right idea and that it has the resources to get it done, but ‘The Process” says that it cannot be done.  Therefore, this discussion is over.”?  Essentially, when we work for “the Process”, then the data output can be used as an excuse to avoid hard discussions.  Process data should be a resource to aid smart people debate and to make decisions… even if the ultimate decision is contrary to what the data might suggest.  As leaders and innovators, we should use data to aid in our thought process and to facilitate decision making, but not arbitrarily trust it to be a decision.  Process output should not replace thought.
  • Teams are “forced” to utilize a process even when it does not add value.  Processes should facilitate rather than be a mandate.  For example, if an initiative management tool is designed around a 5 year innovation cycle, and a team suddenly needs to get an innovation from idea to market in 6 months, then strict adherence to that process likely will not be useful.  Now, there may be principles or aspects of the process that can help steer the team forward, but most likely there will be steps and activities that need to be eliminated and skipped.  If this team is mandated to use the process and to follow each step, it will lose agility, create inefficiency, and likely fail to focus on the top critical issues.  Net, teams should be empowered to use what is useful in helping them to complete their mission, and to exclude what is not.
  • Processes drive Rigidity rather than Agility.  Not all projects are created equal.  And more importantly, not all teams are created equal either.  A “one size fits all” process may be beneficial from a portfolio assessment standpoint as it makes tracking initiative success, progress, and consistency easier.  But from a team standpoint, a process needs to be agile enough to allow for different needs, approaches, and talents.  That is not to say that there should not be any “hard points”… there are likely certain financial measures and technical proofs of principle that need to be met no matter the program.  However, there also should be “soft points” that are customized based on the specific project needs as well as the team capabilities.

Again, this is not a call to banish all processes from organizations and to let anarchy reign in the corporate world.  Fun as that would be for someone like me, it is not realistic or intelligent, particularly in a large, complex, matrixed organization.  The call here is to put the processes in their place… back in the toolbox.  If your organization has personified or even deified a process so that individuals, teams, and even management are being held accountable to it (i.e. “We are all slaves to the process”), then that has to change.  Swing the hammer and don’t let the hammer swing you.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Break the ADRENALINE ADDICTION and stop Workaholism before it Starts

need for speed

My name is Mike and I’m a Workaholic.  And… I am not alone.

A wise former manager of mine once gave me a valuable piece of advice, one which I initially ignored but have since leveraged and repeated countless times over the years.  He told me to “Beware the Adrenaline Addiction!”  Essentially, when work gets to a frantic level of stress, speed, and excitement, then we learn to survive… and even to thrive, on the adrenaline rush that comes with it.  This “drugged up” state becomes the norm, and we can become an “adrenaline junkie”.  Even though we know that it is self destructive, it has become a habit… and one that is hard to break.  Eventually, though, something has to give, and we find ourselves needing to slow down.  Whether it is because health issues start to arise, work performance starts to suffer, or family life begins to erode, we find a need to take a step back- to get our priorities in order and get work back under control.

And while, on the surface, this sounds like a very straightforward decision to make, it does not account for the powerful and lingering effects of the adrenaline addiction.  There will be a period of “withdrawal” that occurs, and even as we consciously want to slow down, we find ourselves looking for a “quick fix”- a crisis or late-night presentation that we can throw ourselves into so as to get the rush to which we have become so accustomed.  And this effect is not exclusive to individuals.  Whole organizations can get so accustomed to operating in an almost out-of-control crisis mode that when it is rightfully time to pull out of the crisis, it is extremely difficult to do so.  Organizations often continue running in a frenetic, tactical pace long after the crisis has passed, because slowing down and becoming strategic is unnatural and even painful.  This “adrenaline effect” is very real, and the accompanying “withdrawal” needs to be expected and overcome.

The first several years of my career were spent in a fast-paced “downstream” innovation environment, littered with one crisis after another, and largely focused on “fire-fighting”.  It was a whirlwind, high pressure role that was entirely unpredictable and dynamic.  It was extremely intense and highly stressful… and, if I am completely honest with myself, it was a lot of fun.  As fun as it was though, after several years I started to burn out.  While I know that I am built more as a “sprinter” than a “marathoner” when it comes to work style, it became clear that in trying to “sprint the career marathon” I was going to run out of gas before the finish line.  I was working far too many hours, not leaving myself time for hobbies and activities I loved, and, most importantly, not investing as much time in the central relationships in my life.

Something had to give… so after a lot of debate, I decided to pursue a much more upstream innovation role in the hopes of not only growing my skills and experiences, but to hopefully “catch my breath” as well.  That is not to say that upstream work is easier, less challenging, or less important… in reality, this new role was far more technically complex, creative, and critical to the long-term success of the business.  The main difference was that this role was now proactive rather than reactive as I was focused on building the future rather than on keeping the present from burning down.

As I prepared to start this upstream work, I was excited to take on the new challenge and particularly to now have more time to think, to be strategic, and to create a vision.  As I asked my wise manager for advice, he did not talk to me about best practices, technology approaches, or strategic thinking… what he instead cautioned was to “Prepare for the withdrawal effects… they are going to be your biggest challenge.”  He insisted again and again that this would be a big hurdle, and that I needed to be prepared for it and to resist the urge to “relapse”.  And while I listened intently, I truthfully thought that he was crazy.  The thought of slowing down and growing in depth rather than breadth was exactly what I wanted, and I wasn’t expecting a case of withdrawal but rather was anticipating a sense of relief!

Well… I couldn’t have been more wrong.  When the constant flux of requests, accomplishments, and crises were removed from my life, I felt anxious, worthless, and even depressed.  The adrenaline rush that had been my constant companion for so many years was now gone, and the sense of withdrawal had a significant impact on my performance (at least my perceived performance), my efficiency, and my overall job satisfaction.  While I now had more time to think, plan, and design, both the quality and quantity of my work felt to be decreasing rather than increasing.  Adrenaline had been my “performance-enhancing” drug, and it was clear that I had developed an unhealthy addiction to get me through my job.  I was an “addict” and I needed to break the habit.

Ultimately, I did learn to overcome this (although I am not immune from an occasional relapse!), and as a leader I have tried to help coach and guide my organizations to be aware of the signs of “adrenaline addiction” and the “withdrawal effects” that can ensue.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Workaholism resulting from Adrenaline Addiction 

1)      You have built up an “overworking” tolerance- it takes more and more time, contributions, and commitments to experience the effect of “job satisfaction”.

2)      You work harder and longer to avoid or relieve “withdrawal” symptoms.  If you experience a “lull” or go too long without experiencing the “thrill” of an urgent deadline, excessive “overtime”, or being stretched beyond capacity then you experience symptoms such as guilt, boredom, or restlessness.

3)      You’ve lost control over your workaholism.  You often work excessively even though you have promised yourself or your significant others that you wouldn’t.  You may want to stop over-working, but it is compulsive and you feel powerless.

4)      Your life revolves around your work addiction.

5)      You spend your waking hours alternating between obsessing about work and recovering from the toll your addiction takes on you.

6)      You have abandoned activities that you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your work-aholism.

7)      You continue to over-work, despite the major problems it causes, such as sleep deprivation, relationship struggles, health concerns, or even depression.

                                 

5 Step Program to Overcome the “Addiction

1)      Admit You Have a Problem… and that You Want to Fix It.  Like any form of addiction, until you acknowledge that you have a problem and that you want, or even need, to fix it then no change can be initiated.  If the symptoms above resonate strongly with you, then you must actively decide that this is a problem that you want to fix.

2)      Get Clear and Deliberate on the 3-5 Things that You Will Actively Do.  Look at all the priorities and activities in your job and declare the top 3-5 in which you will invest your time.  Be specific.  Imagine yourself a year into the future and looking backwards… what are the areas in which you will be proud and in which will most impact the business.  Resist the urge to cram several sub-points into your top points (i.e. don’t have 3 to 5 priorities each with 3 to 5 more hidden sub-priorities!).  You should be able to rattle them off quickly in an elevator speech if needed.

3)      Be even more deliberate on 1-2 Things that You Will Actively NOT Do.  This step should be painful.  In some ways, it is easy to declare what you will do.  It is, however, far more difficult to declare what you will stop doing.  Write them down, share them, and keep yourself honest.

4)      Take control of your calendar.  Schedule Thinking Time, Talking Time, and Downtime for yourself and block it off on the calendar.  Treat this time as if you would any other meeting and stick to it.  Not only will this “slow you down”, this time will actually make the rest of the day far more effective and efficient.

5)      It Takes 2 Weeks to Change a Habit.  Don’t expect an overnight miracle.  Commit to making the change and force yourself to tow the line for at least two full weeks.  Ideally, find someone else to hold you accountable and help you “get back on the wagon” if you stumble.

Once free from the grips of addiction, you will find that you can start doing “Less with More” rather than “More with Less”.  Your work will become more instrumental and not just incremental. Your teams and your organization will become stronger as you can further invest in building relationships and making connections.  You will find that investing more in yourself and less in your job will actually increase your impact at the office.  And, most importantly, your health, relationships, and overall well-being will increase.

I would love to say that I have completely overcome this addiction and that I have mastered a “drug free” life.  Unfortunately, I relapse more often than I would like.  This “adrenaline effect” is real and the accompanying withdrawal is significant.  The trick is in being aware of the signs and taking action to turn things around before it is too late.  I now am much faster to recognize the problem and to catch myself before I go through too long of a self-destructive period.  It isn’t easy, but is critical in leading a fulfilled and happy life… both at work and at home.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

The CARTWHEEL EFFECT of Innovation- Perception versus… Perception

Cartwheel Effect

My oldest daughter is an amazing kid.  She is extremely clever, very graceful, and more daring than any 8-year old girl I know (if I do say so myself!).  She is also entirely independent (stubbornly so) and can sometimes possess very little awareness, and frankly minimal concern, of the perceptions of those around her (I can’t imagine where she gets that…).  While this independent streak can be frustrating at times as her parent, I truly hope that she always maintains this spirit and continues to prioritize her own expectations and desires over those placed upon her by society.

I took some creative license with the following story, but the point holds true… A while back, my amazing daughter started to take a Gymnastics class at the YMCA.  This was not a competitive program by any means, but a chance for her to exercise, meet some kids, and to get out some of that endless supply of energy.  One of the first moves that she practiced was a basic cartwheel, and one evening she came to me excited and proclaimed, “Dad, I just did a perfect cartwheel!”  So, as the proud Dad that I am, I followed her into the basement and sat back and waited to witness perfection.  She vaulted herself forward, put her hands on the mat, and went head over heels with legs bent, flailing with a unique “twist” as she spun, in a move that vaguely resembled a cartwheel… “See Dad, I did it!”.  It was extremely cute and, being the ever supportive and “helpful” father and coach, I smiled, praised her effort, and offered her some advice.  “Hey, kid, that was awesome, BUT… next time why don’t you try and keep your legs a little straighter?”  She looked at me with what I first thought was disappointment but then recognized as defiance, “Dad… my legs were exactly how they were supposed to be- that was a good cartwheel.”  After a short and unproductive back-and-forth, she walked away disgusted that her Dad had no concept of what a cartwheel was supposed to look like, and I walked away thinking she needed more practice.

Some form of this conversation happened periodically over the coming days, until eventually she stopped asking for my advice and I stopped giving it.  Finally, one evening I had the “brilliant” idea (if I do say so myself) to take a video so that she could see for herself what I was trying to say.  “Hey… you’ve probably never had a chance to actually see yourself do a cartwheel.  Would you like me to take a video?”, I offered slyly.  “Yeah, Dad, that would be awesome!”, she exclaimed with a big anticipatory grin.  So she set up for a cartwheel and I whipped out my iPhone.  A few seconds later, we sat together and watched the video, and for the first time she had recognition that her cartwheel was not being executed in reality as she had perceived it in her own mind.  The video “data” showed her conclusively what I was trying to say and allowed her for the first time to internalize the feedback.  So she went back to the mat, launched herself into a cartwheel and kept her legs much straighter.  “How was that, Dad?”, she anxiously asked.  “That was much better,” I said, “that was the best cartwheel you’ve ever done!”.  Now, newly confident in my coaching abilities I decided to offer her another bit of advice, “Now, this time you can try to do it with a little less of that interesting twist so that you land straight ahead”, I said, trying to paint a picture of my view of the perfect cartwheel.  “But Dad,” she said, “I am trying to do that twist.  I don’t want to do a cartwheel exactly like everyone else… I want to do it my way!”  And with that, I realized a fundamental flaw in my approach.  I had been focused so much on what I perceived to be the “right way” to do a cartwheel from my perspective, that I never took the time to understand what she perceived the “right way” to be from hers.  The communication gap was not only that her perception has failing to match up with reality, but further that her perception was failing to meet up with my perception.  While I was trying to illustrate to her that her results were not matching the objectives, I failed to realize that my objectives for a “perfect cartwheel” were different than hers.

Thus the “Cartwheel Effect” was a recognition that there was a gap in:

  • My objectives versus her objectives
  • Her perception versus her own objectives
  • Her perception versus my perception, and
  • My perception versus my own objectives

This “Cartwheel Effect” extends beyond my basement, and into innovation teams and organizations.  Conflicts both within teams as well as between teams and their management often arise due to misalignment in objectives and perceptions.  Managers might feel the need to micro-manage due to teams delivering against the “wrong” objectives.  Teams might feel a lack of empowerment and accountability as managers’ demands do not match their vision for the work.  Teams can end up in an endless cycle of re-work and swirl as no one seems to ever being rowing in the same direction.  To overcome this “Cartwheel Effect”, teams need to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate their objectives and perceptions so as to maximize results as well as the journey in obtaining them.

5 Steps to Overcome the “Cartwheel Effect”:

  1. Align on the definition of the Desired Objectives at the onset.  Make sure that all teammates and managers are very clear, transparent, and aligned on the objectives of the project.  While this seems obvious, it is often overlooked.  At the beginning stages of a project, all key stakeholders should invest whatever time is necessary to define all of the goals and get them on paper.  Have the debates and hard discussions at the start to drive focus and to minimize “swirl” moving forward.  Essentially, make sure everyone had the same understanding of why you are attempting a “cartwheel”, who is playing what role, and what a successful “cartwheel” would be.
  2. Get clear on the measures for Project Success Criteria.  Once the team has aligned on what a successful cartwheel should look like, they should next get clear on how they will measure it.  “We are what we measure,” and thus driving clarity on aligned criteria will help make decisions more pragmatic than emotional.  Getting everyone’s perceptions out in the open and assigning quantitative (or even qualitative) measures around success will be key in insuring that objectives are being broadly met.
  3. Define “hard points” versus “soft points” for Innovation Design, particularly as the team works with their management on how to deliver against success criteria.  Essentially, what specific executional elements are mandated by management and which are optional, so as to give the team degrees of freedom in which to deliver the project goals?  Using a hypothetical example from my daughter’s case, maybe her Gymnastics coach expects a successful cartwheel to involve good form and a perfect landing, but will allow creativity in her “twist”, tempo, and expressiveness.  My daughter can then focus on delivering the base criteria that must be met to satisfy the Coach, while owning the creativity and agility to design and deliver in the way that she best sees fit.  This will drive accountability, ownership, and creativity, ultimately leading to a better overall solution.
  4. Make all of the various perceptions visible and tangible by “Bringing the Tiger in the Room“.  I’ve talked a lot previously about the benefits of “bringing the tiger”, i.e. taking a verbal or written debate and bringing it to life in a real way that is interactive and obvious.  In the example about my daughter, we debated fruitlessly until we actually had  video proof that we could both react to and thus bring to life the previously hidden differences in our perceptions.  Creating a prototype to be shared and discussed, bringing data to life with examples and metaphors, role playing scenarios with the entire team can all bring to life differences in perceptions in a very real way, far better than weeks of debates over memos, meetings, and emails.
  5. Review the “game tape” together.  As the teams learn and evolve along the journey, everyone should share the “game tapes” with each other as they move from milestone to milestone.  Again, with my daughter, I could have analyzed the video in a vacuum and given her feedback through my viewpoint alone, or my daughter could have done something similar from her own perspective.  By sharing and assessing the data, prototypes, and analyses together we can more easily break through each other’s perceptions and more clearly align on how to proceed.

Investing the time in aligning on objectives from the start of a project, in communicating various perceptions along the way, and on actively and tangibly sharing progress and results can all help teams to overcome the “Cartwheel Effect”.  Until there is a shared,  tangible vision for success on the horizon, then individuals on the team will ride forward in different directions and struggle along the way.  As to my daughter… we both now agree that her cartwheels are beyond perfect… they are Amazing!

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Servant Leadership… Be a REBEL WITH A CAUSE

Servant Leadership

“Servant Leadership” is one of those terms that should be both aspirational and inspirational.  Ken Blanchard has written much on the philosophy of servant leadership, describing it this way:

The servant leader feels that once the direction is clear, his or her role is to help people achieve their goals. The servant leader seeks to help people win through teaching and coaching individuals so that they can do their best. You need to listen to your people, praise them, support them and redirect them when they deviate from their goals.

The servant leader is constantly trying to find out what his or her people need to be successful. Rather than wanting them to please him or her, they are interested in making a difference in the lives of their people and, in the process, impacting the organization. The role of the servant leader is to do anything that is necessary to help his or her people win and accomplish their goals.

Reading this, it is hard to imagine anyone NOT aspiring to be this type of leader- a humble servant, enabler, and coach, whose sole purpose is to enable greatness for and through his organization.  Yet, if that is the case then why is this leadership philosophy so rare in practice?  Often, I believe that the terms “servant” and “leader” are seen as wildly contradictory forces rather than complementary assets.  Leaders are strong.  Servants are weak.  Leaders are bold.  Servants are meek.  Leaders tell others what to do.  Servants do as they are told.  As much as I am being dramatic to make a point and intentionally writing statements with which I principally disagree, they do, on some level, ring true.  If you were to do a word association exercise for the term “Leader”, what would you see?  I see a bold, confident, directive individual, standing in front of the room and directing the crowd.  If I were to do the same exercise for “Servant”, I see a shy, introverted, passive follower, sitting in the crowd awaiting instructions from the leader.  And looking around at the individuals who tend to quickly and most often climb the corporate ladder, I would surmise that in virtually every organization that “Leaders” as associated above are far more prevalent than “Servants” on the rise to the top.

So, if “servant leadership” as a concept is both sought after by organizations and successful in delivering results, then why is it so uncommon in practice?  And, yes, it is successful… in Jim Collins’s brilliant book, Good to Great,  he researched companies who were able to drastically out-perform their peers for a sustained duration of time.  Of the several factors he found in driving this success, one key was a type of servant leadership that he referred to as “Level 5 Leadership”:

The best CEOs in our research display tremendous ambition for their company combined with the stoic will to do whatever it takes, no matter how brutal (within the bounds of the company’s core values), to make the company great. Yet at the same time they display a remarkable humility about themselves, ascribing much of their own success to luck, discipline and preparation rather than personal genius…

…Level 5 leaders are differentiated from other levels of leaders in that they have a wonderful blend of personal humility combined with extraordinary professional will. Understand that they are very ambitious; but their ambition, first and foremost, is for the company’s success. They realize that the most important step they must make to become a Level 5 leader is to subjugate their ego to the company’s performance. When asked for interviews, these leaders will agree only if it’s about the company and not about them.

 

Basically, “Servant Leadership” works… but it is hard.  It takes self-assurance, dismissing one’s ego, and courage from an individual to put his/her personal ambitions aside and to do what is best for the greater good.  It also takes visionary, connected, and humble management to recognize the effective “servant leaders” in an organization, and to support and promote them… especially given that these individuals will likely not promote themselves.  Said another way, committing to a culture of “servant leadership” is not a passive commitment to boost morale and to make everyone happier.  It is an active act of rebellion to serve and to protect the organization at all costs and to promote a culture of empowerment, trust, and service.

Beyond Servant Leadership… REBELS WITH A CAUSE

So, I am now making an active choice to transform my word association for “servant” into a more bold, rebellious, and inspiring image.  From now on, when I say “servant leadership”, I am going to imagine Han Solo from the original Star Wars trilogy.  Bear with me here.  First of all, yes, I was raised on Star Wars and can probably quote every line from the movies. I grew up playing with my brothers, pretending to be heroes like Han Solo or Luke Skywalker… and now, decades later, I play similarly with my own kids (although they typically make me be Darth Vader).  We cheered as these heroes served the Rebel Alliance and fought for freedom against the Evil Empire.  These “Rebels” were willing to sacrifice everything for a cause greater than themselves, and went on to an improbable victory restroing freedom to the galaxy.  Nerdy, but awesome.

Han Solo entered the story as a smuggler, out for only himself, and was more of a rebel without a cause than with one.  He carried himself with a silent swagger and a sort of poished indifference that made him bold, daring, and adventurous.  As he ultimately became part of something bigger than himself, he maintained his swagger and boldness, but directed it now at the service of others.  Han always did whatever was necessary to protect his friends, accepted the most daring and risky missions for the good of the team, and reluctantly accepted leadership positions granted because of his accomplishments rather than his ambition.  Solo was bold, spirited, and comfortable taking charge… and he was a servant leader.

With that new standard in mind, here are some traits of the evolved Servant Leader… a “Rebel with a Cause”:

  • Puts the mission above all else, always making decisions and taking action based upon the greater good of the organization and not on personal ambition or gain.
  • Lives knowing that sacrifice is braver than survival, and is able and willing to what needs to be done…. even if personal risks are at stake.
  • Uses personal humility to build individuals in the organization.  The servant leader does not want his organization to ride on his coat tails- he wants to help and to enable them to fly on their own.
  • Possesses the courage to accept that she may not be recognized externally for victories that he experiences internally.
  • Re-defines success as the change he can make in his organization and in the world around him… rather than by the change and advancement that others can enable in his rank and status.
  • Holds faith and trust that, in the long run, doing what is right and just will work out best for everyone in the end.
  • Lives under the philosophy that investing is her own personal gain is far less impactful than investing in others.
  • Recognizes that every day is a choice.  The servant leader does not feel a victim to his circumstances or believe that he deserves to be treated differently than those around him.  He is defined by his own actions and choices and not by results that are out of his control.

The terms “Servant” and “Leadership” clearly do seem to oppose each other and to create a tension that is uncomfortable and unnatural.  The resolution of this tension, however, is the root of greatness and requires boldness, risk, and humility.  Servant Leaders are not weak, meek, and passive… they are “Rebels with a Cause”, sacrificing whatever it takes to drive the greater good of their people, their organization, and the world around them.  So for you Rebels out there in your organization, go forth with a silent swagger and “May the Force be With You”.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

The Perils of FIREFIGHTING in the Office… STOP, DROP, and ROLL

Firefighting in the Office

I can’t remember the last time I have needed a vacation as much as the one I am starting today.  And it is not that I am just excited for a few days off or hoping for a little rest & relaxation… I fundamentally need a vacation to get away from my recent and sustained insanity at the office.  I reached the point where a simple one hour request was taking three hours to complete, where my response to the typical day-to-day office politics went from “tolerated quietly” to “argumentative cynical sarcasm”, and where my activation energy to start any new project is extremely high.  For a variety of reasons, I need to detach and to hit the reset button.

And when I talk about the insanity, I was careful to say my insanity and not the insanity.  As much as I like to believe that I am a passive victim to the craziness around me (and there is no shortage of craziness these days), I know deep down that I am actively responsible for the majority of the stress that I take on.  It’s not that I cause it (usually!), but how I choose to engage and to respond to the various “crises” at work ultimately dictate my result.  Basically, it is not the craziness of the world around me that brings me down… it is my response.

I don’t know if it is the speed of the workplace today, the financial pressures and uncertainties, or the ever growing demands to do “more with less”, but it does feel like the work environment is far more out of control than ever before.  And this is not just my office… as I talk to my friends and colleagues at various companies around the world, the corporate landscape has a “Business ADHD” vibe about it that is leading to a dramatic increase in activity and panic and a decrease in strategy and common sense.  I don’t think this is intentional by any means and I cannot imagine that anyone deliberately started to operate this way… but what started as a gradual increase in office entropy feels like it is now bordering on absolute chaos.  The once sporadic crisis and “fire drill” is now a sustained sequence of one new “fire” after another, and this pace cannot be sustained in a healthy way.

I hesitate to use the term “fire” here, as there are so many true “fire fighters” out in the world dealing with real life-and-death issues.  What we do each day may be treated as “life or death” situations within the cubicles, but the heat and destruction that our office “fires” cause are largely overly dramatic…  It’s just “soap” afterall.  That said, I do think the “fire” metaphor is a good one in talking about dealing with the crises and panic that can ensue on any given day in the office.  This includes the actual fires that we are responsible for effectively and urgently extinguishing, the “fire drills” that are a false alarm to generate a sense of action but with an artificial source, and the avoidance of future fires when environmental factors suggest that the threat of fire is imminent.  The following “Fire Safety” tips are designed to help respond and react to office fires and for the prevention of getting “burned out”.

1)  When you are being burned by a real and and intense office “fire”… STOP, DROP, and ROLL.  In the event that the crisis at the office is real, the danger is imminent, and that you are actively getting “burned”:

  • STOP all other activities and deal with the fire.  Yes, you probably have 10 other issues at hand and 200 emails in your Inbox begging for a response… but if there is an inferno raging, stop all non-critical activities and put the fire out.
  • DROP the extra balls that you are juggling and singly focus on the crisis at hand.  Delegate, delay, or denounce extraneous activities so as to keep the fire at bay and to keep it from spreading.
  • ROLL with the situation and don’t panic.  Running faster without thinking will just fan the flames and accelerate the burning.  Deal with the issue in a controlled yet urgent manner and calmly roll through the situation until the fire is out.

2)  Beware the Office Pyromaniac.  Every office has at least one “fire starter”… whether because he just likes to carelessly “play with matches”, because he likes the excitement and drama of a burning building, or because he has a “hero complex” and likes the praise for putting out fires (even if it means he has to start them in the first place!).  If an individual seems to always be running in and out of burning buildings and surrounded by danger, this person may be doing more damage than good.  Try to keep the pyromaniac away from your teams, so as not to get burned through reckless or deliberate fire starting.

3)  As managers, remember that not every fire makes “the News”.  For every public and celebrated firefighter, there are typically dozens of fires extinguished each day behind the scenes and with little fanfare.  If there is someone on your team who is producing strong results with seemingly little drama, it is likely not because she is “lucky” and avoiding fires but rather that she is putting them out without requesting backup or praise.  Know your organization and be sure not to just reward and recognize the firefighters who relish the limelight, but also the humble “public servants” who fight the fire quietly, under the radar, for the good of the team.

4)  Fire preventers are just as heroic as Fire extinguishers.  Similarly, respect and reward the individuals who manage to keep the fires from starting in the first place.  While it is easy to see the heroism of the individual ready to run into the burning conference room and save the day with a stream of analysis and clever rhetoric, it is often more difficult to recognize the everyday heroes who never let the fires get started in the first place.  Make sure that the Preventers get as much heroic treatment as the Extinguishers… or else you will end up with a culture of individuals constantly starting and fighting fires so as to show their heroism so as to earn praise, rewards, and recognition.

5) Don’t fight fire with fire.  Sadly the “Fight fire with fire” response happens far too often.  Do you know of a manager whose response to a crisis is to pick an individual or a team and “light a fire under their ‘seats’” to try and fuel an even greater sense of urgency and panic?  First, if there is truly a fire burning and your team is not urgently working to put it out, then you probably have the wrong team.  Second, by lighting this added fire you generally are just accelerating the issue and ensuring that your team gets further burned.  Third, sending panicked, nervous people into a dangerous situation only adds fear into a situation where courage is needed.  Net, don’t fight fire with fire… fight it with “H2O” and give your “Help 2 the Organization”- Provide the essential tools, support, and protection they need to confidently address the issue, knowing that they have your confidence and your reinforcements if help is needed.

6)  Don’t assume that every fire is a systemic issue.  Typically, a crisis is an isolated issue and does not warrant a preventative and restrictive solution to never let it happen again.  Sometimes fires just happen and an over reaction must be avoided. Often though, in a desire to prevent accidents from happening in the future, excessive “security measures” can be put in place in an attempt to eliminate future fires.  While the intention is good, extra rules, procedures, and complexity can hinder progress across an organization while overkilling an issue that may have been a one-time occurrence in the first place.  While it is important to react and to learn from a fire, it is equally important not to over-react and add restriction and rules to a system that is actually not even broken.

7)  Remember that where there is smoke, there is NOT necessarily fire.  Typically before a fire starts, there will be signs that it is coming… A warning call from a colleague, an elevating series of emails, or the calling of an urgent crisis meeting can all preclude an urgent fire drill. That said, sometimes this “smoke” is truly just smoke, and what might look like a fire on the outside may truly be an illusion- an overzealous colleague making a mountain out of a molehill, an alarmist prematurely pulling the fire alarm, or maybe just a troublesome co-worker who can’t stop “blowing smoke”.  Before calling in the cavalry and dialing up the fire hoses, sift through the smoke and make sure that there is actually a fire to be extinguished.

At the end of the day, stress and “fires” are and will continue to be a constant reality in our jobs (and in our lives), and our health, well-being, and job satisfaction will be dictated not by the fires themselves, but by how we respond to them.  For me, my first step is to take this week of vacation and to “flee the scene of the crime” so as to detach, de-stress, and decompress.  The trick will be to keep a grounded perspective when I ultimately return to the office and to take the appropriate measures to make sure that I don’t get “burned” or “burned out”.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com