What Bike Rides Teach Us About Life

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Does spring weather remind you of early bike rides as a kid? We learned a lot from those first rides. One of my earlier blog posts reminds us that it’s never to late to hop on and learn.

Remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike? I do. I even imagined how it would be during all through trial runs with training wheels. I saw myself racing down the street, legs pumping for speed, deftly making turns into circles.  Just like all of the other kids.

The day the training wheels came off was a big day. Heart pumping, palms sweating, I hopped on. I pushed off. I fell down. Hopped on again and got a gracious assist of a push off. The bike was moving. Now what do I do? How do you stop it, again? How do I keep it straight?  How much do I move the handles to turn? The wobbling, shaky 20 ft. ride to the end of the driveway was nothing like what I imagined it to be.

My wounded pride and I got back on the bike the next day, and the day after. Every day until I took for granted that I could hop on a bike and pedal away.

What You Really Learned When You Got on the Bike

My first bike ride, and perhaps yours, is the perfect metaphor for the learning process. It requires stepping up, letting go, trial and error. And falling. Lots of falling and getting back up. Peter Jarvis, professor of adult learning at The University of Georgia, describes the sensations produced by the first bike experience as “disjuncture.” It is the state of disequilibrium in a novel experience that shakes us out of our comfort zone.  It demands our attention. It is the feeling that our current knowledge or previous experiences  (our self “biography”, according to Jarvis) isn’t helping. We become uncomfortable . Disjuncture motivates us to learn so we can close the gap from being uncomfortable to comfortable.

So, we become better with the new thing.  We find our way. We practice. We commit it to memory. We take for granted that we know how to the thing that once made our palms sweat. Part of “take for granted-ness” is good, as we’d be really frustrated learning how to figure out how to speak, read or write every day. But too much “take for granted-ness” puts us in a comfort zone where we don’t do new things. We don’t experience disjuncture. We don’t have to learn. We become, as Jarvis describes, “trapped in the bars of our own minds.”

Even if we could arrange our careers to stay comfortable with what we already know and are good at, those things will change. We can stay in the same job, but it changes as we work with people from different cultures. We can sell the same products, but evolution in user needs will force them to change. We can work for the same company, but it may be sold to new owners. Even the things we try to keep the same will change, creating discomfort from that old friendly source.

The nature of disjuncture is sometimes you go to it and sometimes it comes to you. Reframe it as a friend instead of a threat. It’s the shake out of  “take for granted-ness” that alerts us that things have changed. The good news is that we can change, too. We already know how to learn; recognize shake-ups as the motivation to do it.

Three Ways to Encourage Learning Now

  1. Remind yourself of occasions in your life when you successfully learned something from the beginning; perhaps something that is now strength. When talents become strengths, we sometimes forget that once upon a time we had to learn it, too.
  2. Do the thing you’ve been putting off because it’s unfamiliar, uncertain or unclear. If you can’t do it all, take on the parts you can master.
  3. Find someone for help and encouragement. Perhaps it’s a mentor, a friend or a teacher, but find someone who can show you the way and believe that you can. And when you breakthrough, pay forward his or her favor to someone else.

Remember, we’ll always wobble in the new stuff. But to get better or get to great, just remember how you learned to ride a bike.

Reflections on Lilac Season

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It’s been a hectic few days. While I’ve greatly appreciated the change in my commute from doing freeway battle to walking a few slipper-covered steps to my home office, some of the old rat race has crept back in. Back to back conference calls, delivery deadlines, and meetings. Trust me, as an independent consultant, I’m grateful for the busy-ness. It’s far, far better than the alternative. But a one-woman show requires a lot, and I work for a very demanding boss!

Yesterday brought a wonderful distraction from the too much- too little problems. It’s lilac season! When they show up, you can’t miss them! Big, bold, beautiful fragrant…they shout, “It’s here! Spring is here!” Their reappearance forced reflections on what I can learn from this cycle of nature.

When It’s Your Turn to Bloom, Go Big

The lilac tree on the east side of our house is a scraggly looking thing 11 months of the year. It can be fairly mistaken for a weed in the dog days of late summer. But for one month every spring, it’s show time. The aroma is the first engagement  – there is no better perfume in spring air. The flowers are a sum of its parts – tiny clusters of purple, blue and grey open wide together for one stunning display. Lilacs are a reminder that no one does design better than Mother Nature.

What do I do when it’s my time to bloom? When a client calls, do I fully engage my problem solving capability? When I write, do I call on all of my creativity? When asked for help, am I fully present? I hope so. For the next few weeks, I have a stunning example of what “go big” means.

Small Investments, Many Rewards

The now blooming lilac tree preceded me to this house. I remember the effort to adopt it from the nursery, coax it into the back seat of my Honda, haul it from the back seat to deposit it at the back steps.  I knocked on the door of my future husbands’ home and announced that he needed a lilac tree and now he had one. Many years later, we have a lilac tree – one that returns the favor of my effort every spring.

What can I invest in today that will pay back many times over? What seems too much of an effort, too much of a hassle now, but later will reward me many times over? I think of some relationships that fall in this category.

Carpe Diem

The gift of the fleeting joy of lilacs in full bloom is that they force me to seize the moment.  Their show won’t wait for my convenience.  It will open and close on their schedule, not mine.

What else could I stop for right now? What experiences that won’t be available when I have time?  What should I stop ruminating about and just do? The annual lilac show reminds me that every moment offers advantages; it’s up to me to find them.

Today is another day of adventure. It will bring the never-ending puzzle of fitting too much into too little. But today, the big bouquet on my desk reminds me to stop and smell the lilacs.

If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done….

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Frustrated because efforts to encourage greater teamwork and collaboration aren’t working? Part two of this series challenges leaders to focus on what they do more than what they say.

Perhaps you’ve been to awards ceremonies like the one described in yesterday’s post: Do You Inspect What You Expect?   Have you participated in change efforts where buzzwords were one thing and the behavior quite another? Thirty seven years ago, Steve Kerr wrote a classic article:  On The Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B, citing the frequent inconsistency between what gets said and what gets rewarded in many organizations.  If A gets rewarded, A gets done – regardless of the number of colorful posters extolling the virtues of B.  To get something different we must do something different.

For organizations that want to experience expected behaviors beyond vision statements or values lists, Morton Hansen describes the basic routes to get there in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results.  First, know what you want when you see it.  Then, choose associates who demonstrate these behaviors, especially in hire and promote decisions.  Finally, encourage change in associates already in your organization by recognizing the behavior you want.

Yeah, But…

Are your eyes rolling? Oh, if it were only that easy. It’s not easy, but it’s also not as hard as some might think. It’s certainly not as hard as rewarding A and hoping for B.  There are three ways to modify behavior to aspirations that organizations of all types, sizes and resources can effectively use.

1. Describe it.  Words like “Teamwork” and “Collaboration” conjure up all kinds of behaviors for people.  The characters rewarded from the last post are good examples. The Region X leader might legitimately feel his role is to lead the team.  He leads, you follow. Know people who think like that? The Breakthrough Innovation leader thinks she collaborates because she brings people together for everything. Don’t assume people understand expected behavior through labels alone. Be explicit.  Hansen offers an example.  In German software maker SAP, the leaders didn’t just state they expected “collaboration” and hoped everyone would know what they meant. They stated an expectation that “leaders would ensure the appropriate involvement of others across roles, departments and locations to accomplish goals.”  It’s clear, has room for adaption, yet specific enough to spot it when it happens (or doesn’t).

2. Measure it. The gift of stating expectations in observable behavior means that people know it when they see it. When that happens, measurement is possible. In rewarding behavior change, how you measure is as important as what you measure. To really understand how someone is changing his or her behavior, ask peers and subordinates. Tools like Survey Monkey make this type of anonymous feedback easier than ever.  Hansen cites an unnamed investment bank that asks associates to rank their peers on a scale of helpfulness, and the list of the top ranked is provided to the senior team.   What a powerful idea! Can you imagine the behavior change in some organizations if rating and ranking of behavior came from the bottom up as well as the top down?

3. Reward it. This is the most obvious and brings us back full circle. Think of rewards, including incentives, promotions, and honors, as spotlights. They illuminate behaviors the organization wants and brings its intentions to life. Rewards also take the most discipline. It’s tough to tell Region Leader X that he’s not getting the award because of his behavior.  It’s difficult to deny the enthusiasm and effort of the Breakthrough Innovation Leader because her focus is misdirected.  Resist the temptation to dodge disappointment. Disappointment is temporary, your message is lasting.

These three steps look simple. Simple doesn’t mean easy. Easy is doing what you always do and expecting something different. While Hansen’s three steps for changing behavior of incumbents might not ultimately be enough, it’s hard to imagine a change plan without them. And, it’s a place to start. Sometimes, that’s the hardest place to find.

Part Two of Two

References

Kerr, S. (1975). On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping For B.  Academy of Management Journal, vol. 18. No. 4, pp. 769-783.

Hansen, M.T. (2009). Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Photo from istockphoto.

 

Do You Inspect What You Expect?

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The behavior an organization truly expects shows up in what it rewards.  Part one of this two part series shows how  an organization sends its clearest communication about what it values.

The awards dinner is designed to impress.  It’s the event of the year with no expense spared to create the ambiance of success. Laughter and chatter fill the room until the crowd is called to order. Associates and guests excitedly make their way to their seats. The CEO hosts this annual awards night every year as a way to publically acknowledge another year of success and reward those who made it happen. This year, the CEO emphasizes the importance of teamwork and collaboration as organizational tools to improve results and lower costs.

The crowd’s anticipation level rises as the first award is announced. The Sales Officer from the X Region is announced as the winner of The CEO Award. This announcement is followed by stifled gasps, then polite applause. As the winner accepted hugs and steps to the stage, the CEO proudly reviews a list of achievements as the basis for the award: revenue growth across all lines, increases in share and units sold, glowing customer reviews. Others in the audience reviewed their lists, too. The angry phone calls and hostile emails about promises he made to the customer that they were threatened to keep. Meetings about cross unit selling that the Region X leader blew off.  The fire drills that took up the weekends of their team members with little follow up on what happened, much less expressions of gratitude. All agreed that the Region X Sales Officer got results. They had his shoe prints on their backs to show it.

The CEO happily moves on to the next award, newly created this year to emphasize the organization’s increased emphasis on the benefits of collaboration. The Breakthrough Innovation leader excitedly jumps up as her name is called. The CEO beams as he discusses the passion this person holds for innovation and the enthusiasm thrown into the job. Her peers agree, but for different reasons. They wonder if she’s ever met an idea she didn’t like. Her enthusiasm for possibilities has produced dozens of disconnected ad hoc teams, resourced from other responsibilities, pulled together for days to “explore possibilities”.  The position of Breakthrough Innovation was created without the “burden” of a P&L to tamper exploration, and her lack of tangible results show it. Some wonder if her performance is measured by the number of meetings she creates.

As the lovely evening closes, the CEO thanks the award winners as role models for the type of teamwork and collaboration the organization values. All agree that he’s right about that.

Could this describe your organization? Does it expect behaviors it does not reward? Does it know how to spot behavior that represents stated expectations? Check back for tomorrow’s blog for some better ideas to “inspect what you expect.”

Part One of Two

Should Your Organization Play By Pick Up Game Rules?

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Remember playground pick up games? Can the enthusiasm of creating games, rounding up players and adapting on the fly become a model for collaboration in organizations? 

The ability to collaborate is an organizational requirement for the 21st century business. More wins happen in the white space working between organizational structures than within dedicated units and teams.  Resources and intellectual capital often span borders. This distributed capital combined with the speed of change and intensity of competition requires organizations to break the chains of reporting relationships and work across as well as up and down. There simply isn’t enough time to re-organize the boxes every time an opportunity arises. As Amy Edmonson writes in her article “Teamwork on the Fly” in the April issue of Harvard Business Review, organizations need to play more like pick up teams and less like carefully managed professional teams.

Why The Effort Is Worth It

Organizations that figure out how to collaborate are well rewarded. In Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results, Morton Hansen (2009) suggests attractive results. Hansen identifies three categories of collaboration benefits: innovation, better sales and better operations. His research suggests organizations that effectively work in the white space realize improved profit growth and asset efficiency, with a resulting healthy boost to return on equity.

What Gets In The Way

The reasons for building collaboration as an organizational competency are inherently obvious, which is why so many try. My guess is that more try than truly succeed. Hansen documents challenges to collaboration that perhaps you have experienced.  Incentive and performance systems that reward based solely upon unit and personal results contribute to organizational hoarding of people and ideas. Knowledge management systems are weak, so people don’t know how to connect with experience and expertise elsewhere. Support mechanisms are not in place to transfer resources across boundaries. These infrastructure challenges are real and must be changed to improve collaboration.

Just Get Better

While the infrastructure barriers to long-term collaboration must be removed for sustained success, those barriers should not excuse failure to get better at working in white space.  Edmonson (2012) shows the way.  Use the pick up team model for flexible, temporary organizations to capture unique opportunities. You don’t need to change infrastructure to play by pick up rules. 

The Pick Up Game Rules

Define the Game. Edmonson calls this “scoping.”  Before organizing the team, define the game. What’s the opportunity? Why do we think we can win? Where are the boundaries? What are we willing to commit? How do we keep score? Some organizations throw smart people together and ask them to “figure it out.” This not only wastes time, but also adds more chaos to an inherently messy proposition. Even in pick up games, the game and the rules are defined before teams are chosen.

Design the Team and Its Support.  Edmonson thinks of this as “scaffolding.” It’s the temporary design that supports the project, but is flexible enough to change as the work changes. What resources does it require? What roles? What knowledge management tools does the team need, at least to start? How are team members switched in and out? Don’t over think this. Unlike intact teams; pick up teams stay together only long enough to win.  But the more of the basic scaffolding the team doesn’t have to figure out, the quicker it can focus on the opportunity.

Pick the Players. Pick up players are talented volunteers. According to Edmonson, the best players are those confident enough to experiment, speak up, listen, reflect and integrate. A team is doomed when parts of the organization are asked to offer a team member as a “tax” and the most expendable member is offered.  The right talent is vital for pick up games, where speed, creativity and collaboration wins.

Practice Some Plays. Pick up games are more chaotic. People have to build trust and mutual understanding in the midst of the “fuzzy front end” of an opportunity. Make it easier by encouraging the team to develop assumptions about how it will work together. What are the interdependent relationships between the team and the rest of the organization? How does the team manage hand offs and communication? How does the team connect to learn? The best way to accelerate pick up team functioning is to experiment, observe, evaluate and adapt practices. Experiment early and deliberately rather than late and accidentally.

Have a Coach.  Pick up teams can be burdened with organizational drama. The right coach is vital to keep the effort focused and members motivated. According to Edmondson, a pick up team leader has the special role of emphasizing purpose, which can get lost in the commotion of white space projects. He or she also needs to provide the emotional support needed for members to freely and quickly test, try and share. Part of the emotional support is to reframe failure from something to be avoided to something that produces progress.

Embrace Messiness. Innovation comes from the creative destruction of boundaries and barriers replaced with something better. Expect the inconvenience of broken processes and the emotional dust ups of destruction. These are the price for a better solution that the old structure could not deliver.

The next prize for your organization may be in the white space. Practice collaboration by playing by pick up game rules. Encourage people to get better at working across and around instead of the comfort zone of up and down. Find the energy from a good short-term game that can help your organization win in the long season.

Resources

Edmondson, A. G. (2012). Teamwork on the Fly. Harvard Business Review, April, 2012. pp. 72- 79.

Hansen, M. T. (2009). Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and reap Big Results. Boston: Harvard Business Press.