May I Help You?


The scene was from a must watch TV series for anyone interested in workplace effectiveness:
Undercover Boss. For those unfamiliar with the show, each episode features a CEO or other C Suite executive who works in disguise as a new employee. The objective is for the senior leader to experience the organization from a much different perspective.

The episode that stays with me features the CEO of a heavy equipment manufacturer who went to work on the assembly line in one of his organization’s lean, high tech manufacturing facilities. The trainer assigned to the CEO was a knowledgeable and skilled veteran working in the precision engine station. The associate was also patient, as the CEO found it difficult to keep up with the pace and standards of the job.

The CEO noticed that his co-worker kept photos of his grandchildren at his station. The associate explained that these children were the bright lights of his life. Sadly, both suffered from a rare medical condition that would shorten their lives. In the meantime, the children’s care took a heavy toll from the family’s emotional and financial resources. The associate explained that providing strength and stability to his family and being the “go to guy” at work was overwhelming. Then this rock of a man teared up. “Sometimes,” he said, ” I just want to wear a Help Me! button.”

How many of us can relate to his plea? How many of us carry burdens silently that overwhelm our energy and talent? How often could we perform much better with a little training, advice or support, yet are afraid to ask? Who among us doesn’t long for a “Help Me!” button once in a while?

Why is it so difficult to ask for the help we need? If you doubt this, think of how often someone has tripped, then loudly proclaim“I’m O.K.” before anyone asks? Or, have you watched someone with both arms and hands full deny an offer of assistance with a door? If we can’t allow ourselves the vulnerability of accepting help in these obvious and low risk situations, how can we open our fortress to accept help when we really need it?

I’d argue we have our view of accepting help upside down. Accepting help is a sign of strength. Necessary and appropriate help eases our burden, lightens our load, and allows us to contribute to our fullest potential. Denial of necessary and appropriate help is a sign of weakness. It sends false signs that we can handle more than we can or know more than we do; both puts us and our colleagues at risk.

What about you? Are you able to ask for help at work? What advice to you have for those who struggle with asking? Let’s help each other. In my next post, I’ll recap your advice with ideas from others.

In the meantime, does anyone know where I can get one of those “Help Me!” buttons?

Interview With Best Selling Author Kevin Sheridan: Building a Magnetic Culture


“Culture” is frequently cited as either the “secret sauce” of organizational success or the cause of institutional decline. Every executive I’ve ever spoken with has an opinion about his or her organization’s culture. It’s either something to carefully nourish as an asset or a success barrier to fix. Everyone seems to agree that a great culture with highly engaged employees is an advantage worth striving for.  The “What” seems settled; “How” is the question.

Well, we are in for a treat today! I recently interviewed Kevin Sheridan, author of Building a Magnetic Culture: How to Attract and Retain Top Talent to Create an Engaged, Productive Workforce.   His book has been on six bestseller lists, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. If you want to improve your organization’s culture through employee engagement, Kevin knows how!  His years of experience in leading and advising organizations are reflected in his incisive yet practical insights. Kevin generously shared his perspective on commonly asked questions about building a great culture through employee engagement. My questions are in italics; his responses follow.

The “Yes, But…” Leader

Imagine that you are meeting with a CEO who is leading an organizational turn around within a turbulent industry. She “gets” that employee engagement is important, but is something to focus upon when the organization is on more stable ground. How would you make the case to focus on engagement as part of a turn around strategy?

One of the things I’d say to that CEO is “Employee engagement equals performance. If you knew that engagement is a vital tool to turnaround the organization and avert future turnarounds, why wouldn’t you use it?” I’d share the Wharton Business School study, which shows that organizations with best in class employee engagement (i.e. top 10%) make 3.5 times more money than organizations with average employee engagement. Would she say that it’s not the right time to make more money? (Comment: Building a Magnetic Culture is loaded with data that proves the relationship between employee engagement levels and organizational performance.)

The other thing I’d ask about is employee turnover.  If she were in a turnaround and always fighting fires, I’d wonder if the organization is hemorrhaging people. Turnover costs the U.S. economy $300 billion each year. For each person who voluntarily leaves, estimate the annual salary of the departing person to find and hire his or her replacement. So, I’d ask her to look at the number of employee departures and multiply by their annual salaries to estimate her turnover cost. Then, I’d tell her that (in the U.S.), 59% of all new employees are gone within a year and 79% are gone within 18 months. So unless engagement is addressed, including how to hire for cultural fit and engage early, the cycle just repeats.

The key to this conversation is to make the business case that a focus on improving employee engagement, in particular the numbers of highly engaged employees, is a critical component to her turnaround strategy.

The Ambivalent Majority

Much of the engagement research has a focus on actively engaged or actively disengaged employees. You emphasize the importance of attending to ambivalent employees. Why? And, how might organizations do that?

Tend to the ambivalent employee population because that’s the biggest category.  There is a huge financial reward for getting the ambivalent population re-engaged. 60% of all U.S. employees approach their job with a “time to make the donuts” mentality. They have little vigor or passion in their work. They get by, but do not expend extra effort. Ambivalent employees display lower energy levels and lackluster performance.

There are three good ways to reignite ambivalent employees.  Ambivalent employees are the most easily influenced by their coworker’s engagement levels. So, match them with actively engaged, positive employees for a project. If they don’t volunteer, have them “voluntold.”  Tell them you can’t wait to see the awesome results this team will produce. Second, assign a mentor. Actively engaged employees tend to enjoy being mentors and can set a great examples for ambivalent employees to take charge of their engagement. Finally, examine the job fit for the ambivalent employee. Many are simply in the wrong jobs. People want to do meaningful work in ways that match their skills and interests. When possible, recast ambivalent employees in better-suited jobs and watch their engagement level rise.  As Jim Collins advises: “It’s not jut getting people on the right bus, but in the right seat.”

A very common error by managers is to spend too much time with the actively disengaged. The chances of turning the “water cooler malcontent” or the “workplace terrorist” around are slim. Either coach people up or coach people out. The solution for actively disengaged employees is to transition them out. They are toxic. If you want to build a highly engaged, magnetic culture, you must bring those willing to be highly engaged in and escort harmful, actively disengaged people out.   (Comment: Kevin shares an instructive story from his own experience to support this advice in his book.)

The Two-Way Street

You make the case for “shared ownership” of engagement between leaders and employees. How does a “shared ownership” model work? What’s the responsibility of leadership? Of employees?

Among the things of which I am most proud is that my firm was the first to advocate the concept of “shared ownership” for employee engagement.  Why are we setting up this model that engagement is only the responsibility of the leadership team? Shared ownership does not absolve the organization’s leadership for owning employee engagement and caring about it. In fact, in best in class companies, CEO’s and senior teams are intimately involved with improving engagement.  With that said, the predominant model is still: Do the survey, and then point your fingers at the leadership team to fix the issues. Employee engagement without the employee is the ultimate oxymoron. When the responsibility for increasing engagement is shared, outcomes are much more favorable for both the employee and the employer.

What’s the responsibility of management? Care about what employees think. Ask them.  Quantify it. Address the real issues with employees. Those companies who don’t do employee surveys  and work on opportunities with employees manage by the “squeaky wheel” effect; always responding to the loudest voice.

What’s the responsibility of employees? Be responsible for your engagement. Reflect upon what you can do to be your best in jour job and to help co workers be at their best. Discuss obstacles with your manager and suggest solutions. If you manage others, discuss engagement  in informal occasions like “one on ones” or formal ones such as performance reviews. Only 5% of managers discuss engagement with employees . Most aren’t asking questions like: “What makes you excited about your job? How can I help you do more of it? Is there anything disengaging you in your job?” (Comment: Kevin has a list of 20 questions that managers and employees, or employees on their own, can use as the basis of an engagement discussion. If you’d like a copy, email Kevin at

A Great Investment

The hour I spent with Kevin Sheridan about employee engagement was the best hour I spent at work last week. I was excited and energized just from our conversation. My only regret is that it came a few years too late for me to make a difference from within an organization. But it may not be too late for you. If you are responsible for building a dynamic culture through employee engagement (and if you work in an organization, you are), Building a Magnetic Culture is your Bible and “How To” Guide all in one resource. There is so much more that I could not include in a blog post: Engagement Drivers, Overcoming “De-Magnetizers”, Recruiting, Diversity, Engagement Trends, etc, etc. etc. If you’d like to know more about Kevin or order a discounted and personally signed copy of his New York Times and Wall Street Journal Best Seller, please visit his website: bamc_cover_small

Do Star Leaders Make Great Coaches?



One of the paradoxes of sports is that star athletes seldom make great coaches. Can you think of a Hall of Fame athlete in any sport who would go on to be a Hall of Fame coach? Outside of a few examples, we remember superstars on the field or superstars on the sideline, but seldom the same person in both roles.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has data and research that suggests that this paradox of leadership is not limited to athletics.  Using data from 100 C Suite Executives and over 900 of their direct reports, CCL researcher Pete Hammett concludes that superstar executives (as defined as those in the C Suite- CEO, COO, CFO, etc.) may have the best talent for their role but are seldom good at developing others.  In other words, they know how to be a great player but are a poor coach. Through analysis and interviews, CCL offers interesting insights into how the star talent/lousy coach paradox may play out in business. My interpretation of the findings from their research follows.

1. The C- Suite executives had an inflated self measure of their coaching abilities. On virtually every measure of coaching behavior, the executives rated their skills better, at times significantly so, than direct reports. The executives thought they were better at coaching than did those being coached. These C Suite incumbents might have been stars, but could not effectively encourage the potential of others.

2. The C Suite executives demonstrated a low need for interaction with associates. Executives were selective about interactions with others, preferring a small group of familiar contacts or working independently to working with a larger or more diverse set of colleagues. As a result, the executives really didn’t know or understand the talent on their team.

3. The C suite executives had higher confidence in their organization’s ability to identify, develop and nurture talent than the talent did. This may be a case of  “the system worked for me” attitudes or lack of feedback about organizational processes. Significant confidence gaps existed between the effectiveness of managerial skill to develop people and the ability to advance people based upon merit. It appeared that the talent at the top of the pipeline was more satisfied than those in it.

Creating Talent Dynasties

The 100 C Suite incumbents studied do not represent all C suite superstars. I happily count several exceptions that I have had the good fortune to “play with” and “play for.” They had superior talent. They made everyone around them better. When they left, they left the organization better. We need more of them.

As Hammett describes, C suite executives must be more like “player coaches” than exclusively a coach or the superstar player.  A player/coach has to care about developing his or her own talent and developing the talent around them. They must lead by example. They must lead with challenge and with empathy. They must spend enough time on the field to know how execution is different than the view from the skybox.

Careers are short. Legacies are long.  We do not have to accept a false choice of being remembered for having great talent or developing great talent. Do both, and be remembered for a talent dynasty.


Reference: Hammett, Pete (2008). The paradox of gifted leadership: Developing the generation of leaders. Industrial and Commercial Training, vol. 40, no 1. Pp. 3-9.

Five Ideas to Spread the Valentine Day Spirit at Work



The Beatles remind us All You Need Is Love.  That’s not quite true in life, including our work lives.  A little love, however, goes a long way to make us happier, more engaged and optimistic.  Who doesn’t want more of those things in the workplace? So, don’t limit the celebration of Valentine’s Day to your personal life. Bring it to work! Here are five ideas, one for each day of next week, to get you started.

1.  Count how many “human moments” you can have at work. “Human moments” is Ed Hallowell’s term for being completely present in every interaction. Hallowell argues that residual benefits of human moments last long after the exchange due to the positive mental energy they produce. How many times this week can you put down your phone or handheld device, look away from the screen, set aside reading material then devote your complete attention to others?

2.  See how many positive interactions you can have per day. Don’t be like Dilbert’s pointy-headed boss with a smiley button; just try for as many sincere expressions of good will as you can. It’s good for you, good for associates and good for business. According to research from Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, positive connection in the workplace may produce increased attention, learning and creative thinking. That’s pretty good pay back for an exchange of smiles.

3.  Select words with care. Words are among our most powerful tools to engage others and open possibilities. Susan Smalley describes words as living organisms because of their ability  to influence and change people. Think of how the substitution of What if…? for I/we can’t encourages ideas. Or, how the substitution of and for but opens up options. How often can your choice of words this week lead to better outcomes?

4.   Find occasions for people to use their strengths in their work.  This includes, you, too. According to the Gallup Organization, the hours each day that we do work related to our strengths is inversely related to levels of worry, stress, anxiety and sadness we feel.  The fact that we often produce better results when using strengths is the cherry on top!

5.   Move as much as you can. Show some love for you, too. Set a goal for 10 minutes of extra moving around in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon. (A professor in graduate school shared that one of the most important behaviors to stave off weight gain is walking for 15 minutes after lunch.) Sit less and move more.


What if every year, we devoted Valentine’s Week as a time when everyone tried to make the workplace a little nicer? That’s a goal to get behind, one day at a time this week.

What will you do to make life at work a little better for someone else this week? For you?

It’s Alive! Organizational Change In Real Time


My former colleague and current friend, Nadine Pearce, forwarded a remarkable find. Autodesk mapped the impact of three types of change on their organization over a four year period: 1) when an employee joined 2) when an employee left and 3) when an employee changed managers. Watch this!


This amazing depiction prompts three questions:

For individuals: How can you refresh your organizational network to develop relevant relationships?

For team leaders:  How can you refresh or recreate a team structure to reflect the current organization?

For organizations: How do your talent management and incentive systems enable success, given the pace of change?

Once again, you’ve given me much to think about, Nadine. Thank you!

It’s Never Too Late to Start Over



The company was a giant in its industry.  It began in 1886 as a symbol of  ingenuity when an entrepreneur saw an “office writing” machine demonstrated at a Centennial Exhibition and decided that he could build a better one. So, Alexander Brown approached two brothers, Lyman and Willard Smith, to design and produce a “newfangled writing machine.” Thus, the “Smith Premier Typewriting Company” was born.

Smith Typewriters soon became one of the most popular pieces of office equipment because of the insight and innovation of the Smith Brothers. It’s because of them we have a standard keyboard today where keys can do double duty through a shift key. We can read text as we produce it thanks to the Smith brothers’ insight that the ribbon should face away from, not towards, the typist. After business losses due to the 1929 market crash, they recovered after introducing a portable machine to be used anywhere. In 1955, Smith Corona introduced the first electronic typewriter that accelerated production with less effort on the keys.  It wasn’t done innovating yet. Smith Corona introduced one of the first Word Processors in the 1980’s, and led the word processing marketing in 1989.  Its word processors introduced us to features we use today, such as spell checker and grammar checker.

In 1990, a Smith Corona marketing executive declared that the industry was in a transition between “word processors and typewriters.” Even though it launched a line of personal computers, Smith Corona believed there would be a strong role for typewriters and word processors as personal computers were too expensive and complicated to use. In hindsight, clinging to the typewriter and word processing market was a fatally bad bet.  One hundred and nine years after Alexander Brown approached the Smith Brothers with his idea for a writing machine, Smith Corona stopped making typewriters and declared bankruptcy in 1995. It has re emerged as a thermal label maker.

When Success is an Obstacle to Change

In its prime, Smith Corona was a success by any measure. It dominated an industry that it began. It produced great products. It innovated.  It was focused. It adjusted its business through a great depression and two World Wars; clearly it knew how to cope with crisis. While I don’t know the entire story of Smith Corona, I can’t help but wonder. Was its success a barrier to the changes it needed to survive?

Smith Corona imagined itself as late as 1990 as a typewriter company. And, it was a damn good typewriter company. From what’s written, the leaders of Smith Corona did not imagine that it could disappear because the need for typewriters would disappear. Smith Corona had to let go of its greatest success to keep itself successful. For whatever reason, it could not.

The White Sheet of Paper Exercise

In his book What To Ask the Person In the Mirror, Robert Kaplan challenges organizational leaders to regularly test alignment to its vision and purpose. He argues,  “Crises have long roots.” It’s not only unnecessary, but also reckless, to wait until a crisis appears to make the adjustments an organization needs to survive.

One alternative Kaplan suggests is to test organizational strategy and alignment in the midst of success, not in imminent danger. Consider a white sheet of paper approach to your organization, starting with the fundamental question: If we started this business today, how would we do it?

What products or services would we offer? To whom?  In what places or regions?

How would we be organized? Who would we hire? What partners would we develop?

What would we need to start doing or stop doing?

Why would people want to work for us and with us?

The white sheet of paper exercise demands deep introspection and perhaps difficult answers. These are the kinds of questions that are easy to avoid when everything is going well.  However, success gives the cover to make any changes necessary while change is possible. The same questions are impossible to avoid in a crisis, when the options may be fewer and resources scarcer.

I can’t help but wonder about the eager entrepreneur who built an industry around a machine he saw at an exposition. How did Alexander Brown and the Smith Brothers think about their company at its start?  Would the Smith Corona story have ended differently if its leaders had the courage to challenge what it meant to produce “a newfangled writing machine” at the height of its success? What can the rest of us learn from their story?


Kaplan, R.S. (2011). What to Ask The Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


The Performance Difference


Google is a pretty cool place to work.  It’s cutting edge in innovation, offers perks to drool over with attractive compensation and is full of really smart people.  There is no shortage of people who want to work at Google, evidenced by the fact that it receives one million job applications a year and can be more selective than Harvard.

As a result of its desirability and selectivity, it’s a fair assumption that Goggle has the cream of the crop of employees.  Leaders from the outside looking in might think of Google as a leadership utopia – a wonderland filled with best in class talent competing to work there, motivated to bring their best because of the dollar signs dangling in front of them.  A reason that leaders who think this way are in the outside of Google looking in could rest partly in the fact that Google understands what they do not about motivating people. Even at Goggle, a magnet for attracting top talent to exciting opportunities, leaders understand that the performance difference rests not in the promise of external rewards, but offering the conditions for intrinsic ones.

Rewards from the Inside Out

Here’s a summary of a whole lot of research: Our motivation is at its peak when we are engaged in something we chose that we love. There is a strong relationship between our level of motivation and our performance. Even on those occasions when we are motivated but not very good, motivation acts as the catalyst to get better.

The joy returned when you master something or just get better at it is intrinsic motivation. It’s the gold star of satisfaction because you did it- you dreamed it, you planned it, you worked on it, you saw it through – that creates a renewable resource of motivation that powers good performance.

If it’s That Easy…

If intrinsic motivation is as easy as opening doors for people to apply their talents to areas they love, and motivation fuels improved performance, then why don’t more leaders and organizations do it? Here’s why: too many of us confuse complexity with excellence, control with outcome and measurement with results. Too many leaders believe that if they don’t tell people what to do, how to do it and when to do it that it won’t get done. Too many organizations think that if they just reward past performance, they’ll get better future performance. (They should read their own marketing literature that informs us that “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results”, but I digress.)

Creating the engine of intrinsic motivation IS as easy as allowing people some level of autonomy over their work and opportunities to master areas of special interest. Goggle, an organization that has models and measures for just about everything, knows this. It’s why they allow their prized engineers 20 percent of their time to work on projects of their choice. Recently, Google’s Manager of the Year, Farzad  “Fuzzy” Khosrowshani explained that he improved loyalty and moral on his Google Docs team by allowing employees even more discretionary time to work on projects of their choice. If Google, with its deep pockets and lavish perks, knows that even it can’t drive performance through extrinsic motivation alone, why do so many others keep trying?

Ideas to Create the Performance Difference

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, describes several practical ways leaders and organizations everywhere can tap into the intrinsic motivation that rests inside each employee and unleash it onto improved performance. A few are listed below to get you started.

1. Ask your associates what they really want to be good at.  Help them find ways they can do more of it. Don’t hand them the list of competencies from HR that tells them what the organization wants them to be good at, but ask what they want to be good at. Here’s an example. I once worked with an analyst who had the responsibility for data maintenance, analytics and reports. During a conversation, she shared that she had a journalism degree and experience as a reporter for a local paper. She loved to write as a hobby. I asked her to write up summaries of the analysis she produced like “special investigative stories.” She looked for opportunities to take on other department communications. She enjoyed the challenge, was better at it than I was, and was motivated to do well. It was a classic win/win outcome.

2. Carve out time for associates to think about how they could improve their jobs or contribute differently. Ask them to share their ideas the next day.  Daniel Pink gives several examples of creative managers “clearing the day” for associates to “advise up” on how they could improve performance or results. The only rule is that associates have to present their ideas the next day. Other than that, associates can work where they want, on what they want, with whom they want. In a related idea, Pink talks about a customer service manager who periodically manages customer calls for an hour so her associates can take the time to develop ideas about how they could improve performance. The manager gets much better insight into the experience of her associates and receives good ideas about improving performance. All for a couple of hours.

3.  Just get out of the way.  Assume your associates are capable and interested in doing well. They (gasp) may even know more about their jobs than you do. As a leader, focus 80 % of time on why their contributions matter and 20% on how the work should be done.  Better yet, ask associates to tell you how they’ll deliver.  Care less that someone works differently and care more that his or her performance continually gets better.

We do not have to look at cutting edge employers like Google and wonder “if only.” We can get the same performance momentum by realizing that what really motivates associates is autonomy over their work, the opportunity to find something they enjoy and the pride that comes with just getting better. And, accepting that some things that are easy don’t have to be so hard.


Examples of the “whole lot of research” on motivation:

Blitzer, J., Schrettl, W. and Schroeder, P.J.H. (2007). Intrinsic motivation in open software development. Journal of Comparative Economics (35) 7, 4

Frey, B. (1997) Not Just for the Money: An Economic Theory of Personal Motivation. Burlington, VT: Edward Elger.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Books.

Google Reference:

Walker, J. ( 2012). Google’s Algorithms for Talent. Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2012, page B1.

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


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


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?


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?


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.


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.