The New Yeoman

Thoughts on Making a Living

Tag: operations management

Grit For Organizations

What is this “Grit” I keep hearing about?

Grit is a hot concept right now, but largely in the self-improvement space. I listened to a good Freakonomics Radio podcast interview of Angela Lee Duckworth by Steven J. Dubner about Duckworth’s book entitled, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance. Duckworth’s basic premise is that people with the most grit have the following characteristics, in order;

  1. They cultivate an interest in a subject
  2. They practice that subject deliberately (a la Anders Ericsson’s Peak)
  3. They feel the subject has meaning or purpose in their lives
  4.  They are optimistic about their outcomes with that subject

By the way, Duckworth reveals a great tool to fight off boredom of a subject. It involves nuance versus novelty, but you should listen to hear her talk about it.

So, that is the personal version of grit in a nutshell (according to Duckworth), but what about organizations?

Can organizations have grit?

On my walk yesterday, I came to this question as I pondered an organization that I was talking to recently about their culture and how to ensure they kept it as they grow. It occurred to me that, yes, organizations could have grit, but many organizations have only three of the four characteristics. They have interest in their work, they generally have purpose in their field, and for the most part they are optimistic that their hard work will result in good things. Sometimes, they have deliberate practice in the sexy fields of website and product design (e.g. A/B testing). However, many fail in the deliberate practice characteristic, especially with their sales and customer services work. For certain, they are “practicing” all day, every day at their work. They are answering an increasing number of phone calls, emails, webchats, etc., but are they deliberately trying to improve in a well-chosen and specific area every day in a way that stays true to their mission? Sadly, many are not. This led me to think of grit in another manner. Let’s call it “Strategic Grit.”

What is Strategic Grit?

First of all, it is entirely reasonable to have this conversation based on Anders Ericsson‘s concept of deliberate practice, instead of grit. However, I like to think of it in terms of grit, because deliberate practice is recursive inside of Duckworth’s concept of grit, so you get a twofer. In other words, to want to practice deliberately, you probably have to have an interest in the subject, feel that it has meaning (purpose) in your work, and be optimistic about the outcome. That’s when I started thinking about how, in order to know what to deliberately practice, an organization needs to analyze its current state and compare it honestly against its desired future state. In other words, finding out about what should interest the organization. This is the first step (Diagnosis) in Richard Rumelt‘s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (Excellent book, BTW. If you have not read it, the Kindle edition is $1.99 right now). But being clear-headed about strategy requires a little grit too. At this point, I was starting to confuse myself, so I tried to simplify what I thought grit was, in terms of analyzing (diagnosing) what should interest an organization. I decided to use Duckworth’s model of four characteristics, in order, that I had personally seen in organizations that truly faced up to what was causing them problems, especially in dealing with customer service and sales. I created an acronym, because that is what consultants do. Here is my attempt to define Strategic Grit.

TJ Linzy’s definition of Strategic Grit for Organizations

G – Guts – Have the guts to face up to the real issues (take interest) that confront your organization based on your core mission and prioritize them for deliberate practice. Not those that everyone else focusses on, but the ones that will most help meet your mission. This is where the nuance versus novelty discussion is often pertinent.
R – Resolve to improve (deliberately practice)  on the issues mentioned above, even if it means changing KPIs, bucking industry trends, or challenging the status quo. For the other issues that are not part of your core mission, resolve to be at the market standard and stop fretting about them.
I – Integrity. Know what you want to be remembered for ethically (feel what your doing has purpose). Ensure integrity with your ethics by ensuring your actions are aligned with your values.
T – Tenacity. Keep going, even when it looks bleak and going back to your old ways seems like a safe bet (optimism in the outcome helps with tenacity). If you honestly diagnosed your gaps, aligned your principles to guide you, and used logic to ensure your actions were coherent with your diagnosis and principles, you’ll be on the right track and only tenacity will separate you from success.

Well, that’s it. Any value to anyone?

 

Photo credit – By zaui/Scott Catron [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful Questions in a Target Rich Environment

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” ― ee cummings

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger makes the case that in a world full of easily accessed knowledge, the real skill is to pose better questions. I like the title wording of Warren Berger via ee cummings. Our new world is not bereft of questions. I get tons of them. Most of them could be solved by the person asking them with a DuckDuckGo search.

In fact, our new world is full of answers and full of questions. However, the answers often have no context and people don’t often frame the questions well. Part of this ties in with what I wrote last week in Deep Work and Self Education. The ability to think of a really good question is often what separates true understanding from mere collections of fact. What keeps us from formulating a good question is often not thinking about it deeply, because we are busy and awash in information. Its a vicious circle, but one we must break.

Elegant questions are what make our work meaningful and give us real priorities, rather than artificial deadlines to do something. Taking the time to answer the basics, understand them, help others understand them, and put them in context before posing an intelligent question is what separates the professional from the amateur. Insightful questions are also what gets the attention of the experts you may be seeking to involve in your project or cause. The best way to be ignored in professional circles, and social circles too, is to ask simple questions that show no understanding or empathy for others’ time or concerns. What intrigues people is when you ask something that shows you spent some time trying to understand the subject and you are looking to them for a deeper understanding.

Berger’s theme is that more beautiful questions are what is needed to increase innovation. To tie in Steven Johnson’s assertion that good ideas are derived from the chaos at the edge of current knowledge, the glut of information and lack of good questions present a target rich environment. For those who can grasp the context and continue to push out the knowledge with perceptive questions, the adjacent possible comes into view.

I also think that stimulating questions make for better plans. What I really like about the Minto method and the Army Operations Order is that you start with a fully acknowledged Situation and Complication before you decide what you should do and how you should do it. Using modern Army parlance, “The enemy gets a vote.” By making this understanding explicit, one gains the confidence of the people one will eventually ask to do something. With that confidence and an expectation that those involved will also be expected to ask compelling questions, the network mind is activated.

If you are looking for your next professional read, I highly recommend Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

Turbo-charging with Customer Service

Cross posted on LinkedIn.

In my first and second posts, I wrote about how to know if one’s organization is belching noxious customer service fumes and how to clean up the worst of them. In this post, I’ll discuss how to use those remaining, hard-to-clean-up emissions to drive your organization forward. This will not only improve one’s customer service, but has the very real potential to improve products and operations to the point where customers quit antagonizing the organization over poor customer service, but actually promote one’s products to their network.

I had the good fortune to be employed by Amazon.com in its early days (1999-2001) as a logistics manager, a project manager, a technical facilities manager, and finally as its Head of English Customer Services (CS) in Europe (three of those all at the same time with three separate bosses… ahh, the life of a start-up). To my good fortune as a consultant, I have been contacted by many companies that say they want to be the “Amazon of X.” Normally, what they mean is that they want to be as ubiquitous and forward-looking as Amazon in customer services and operations in their chosen field. Unfortunately, many of the people I speak to really don’t want to do the hard work to become the Amazon of their field. They are looking for shortcuts and tricks of the trade. Amazon.com is the king of “real CS” in taking CS problems to organizational fixes. The best way to fix the problem is to fix the source of the problem which, by the way, often fixes more than the evident CS problem. In my ongoing analogy, Amazon uses its exhaust as a turbo-charger. (It also uses the forward momentum that these actions create as a super-charger too, but that is for another post)

Turbocharging means fixing the underlying problem and not just providing a palliative to the customer for that particular situation. Providing a palliative (installing a catalytic converter in my previous post) may be required when you first find out about a problem. However, if pain relief is all one is providing and leaving the pain-causing situation in place unaddressed, the problem will continue to occur. That normally results in the following; customers appreciate the palliative (or not), but grow to expect that kind of pay-off as part of the deal. However, they still post on social media their problems and your palliatives. You may gain a reputation for fair-play, but that is also the new expectation. Eventually, and I have been in more of these meetings than I care to recount, the company will eventually focus on the high cost of CS relative to Revenue. This leads to the all-too-predictable responses of never-ending phone-trees, poorly designed self-help pages, and other cost-per-contact “fixes.” They bury the problem in a maze of confusing and misdirected KPIs that mask the problem. These frustrating technologies and processes inevitably slow sales, new and repeat, and are a veritable breeding ground for customer antagonists.

When I enter these situations, I often see the frustration on executives’ faces when their CS team is telling them that they are meeting all of their KPIs, but the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is falling, along with sales. Other departments are pointing to how bad CS is in dealing with customers. The CS team is doing their best with a limited budget and tool-set. They aren’t lying. They are measuringsomething. They may even be making headway in cleaning up the exhaust. Multiple meetings to address the issues result in a ton of actions for the contact center. New KPIs are proposed. However, the underlying problems never seem to get resolved. Where to begin?

Here is my take. To start, the organization’s product director, program director, and operations director need to be at the solution meeting. The focus needs to be on the reasons for customer contact, including customer search terms on the self-help pages. Convert the organization’s language to customer language. Look at the top 10 reasons one-by-one and determine, with the responsible people in the room, what actions would improve the customers’ situation. Then, quantify the total cost to the organization in time, effort, and lost sales. Yes, in simple cost terms, a problem may cost you $2.43 X 936 contacts a week, but what about lost sales from customer abandonment and countering social media meltdowns? What about improved reviews and recommendations? Once the key problems are identified, quantified, and total costs calculated, do the same with the proposed fixes. What would be the total cost to fix the problem, technically and/or operationally? Finally, make the CS projects report through the normal program management channels. Give them the visibility they deserve.

At this point, I often hear howls of protest from the also-busy product, program and operational teams. “But, we have our own problems and budgets!” That is why the leaders of each need to be in the room. CS is not the product and operations, but it is a good indicator of their health. All cards need to be on the table and organizational decisions on time and resources need to be made. This gets to the nub of my analogy. If the organization is spewing noxious exhaust, fixing the muffler is a start, but it cannot be the end point. If the CS total cost does not compete favorably with an honest assessment of other projects against the organization’s strategy, so be it. If they are competitive, they go on the list like everything else. Trust me, this outcome will happen sooner or later, through one means or another, many of them unpleasant. The question is whether one makesit happen or it happens to one.

Finally, there is often another, unspoken, problem. The CS leader, either by organizational design or professional experience/development, is not the equivalent of the operations head, the product head, or the program management head (especially in technical organizations). This is deadly. Ironically, this often comes about due to the CEO or COO making a junior CS Manager report directly to them as a way of showing that CS is important to the CEO/COO. Often, the CS manager is in meetings with Director level appointments and simply does not have the knowledge or courage to be a forceful advocate for his department or, more importantly, the customer. I’m not saying promote them to make it even. If they are too inexperienced, that will make things worse, not better. I’ve also seen some pretty savvy CS Managers hold their own in a room of senior directors. Each organization is different, but in one way or another, the CS head needs to hold his own. As an executive, if your CS head is not senior enough, either in rank or actions, get him a competent boss who is. If the CS lead has the title/authority and experience, but is not holding his own, get yourself a new one.

There are many specific techniques that fill in the gaps of what I discussed, but it is certainly the core infrastructure of what I have done many times. Good luck with your own turbo-charging.

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