BOSSES MICRO-MANAGE. LEADERS MICRO-COACH.

As a new parent, I am increasingly getting sucked into the polarizing debate on how to best raise children these days. Should I adopt the more heavy-handed “helicopter-parenting” model, or should I run with the lighter-touch “free-range parenting” approach?

Coincidentally, as a leader who is driving change in a large organization, I face a similar challenge — I have to negotiate the fine line between being a “helicopter” leader and a “free-range” leader. I know that I would disempower my team if I micro-managed them, and I would most certainly turn into a people manager if I disengaged from the details of the content.Neither of the two options aligns with who I aspire to be as a leader.

What if it was not about choosing between being heavily involved and being completely hands off? I have had some success resolving this tension by thinking of each interaction with my team as an opportunity for, what I like to call, micro-coaching. If you think about it, micro-managing is ultimately about retaining control over the team’s outcomes; whereas, micro-coaching is about getting your hands dirty alongside your team with the intent of growing them so that they can get to the best outcomesYou may think that this is not a scaleable model; however, I have found that investing in your talent early and often will actually help you scale fast without comprising quality in the long run.

Here are some micro-coaching principles I have put into practice when working with my team.

BE VULNERABLE

Teams are closest to the content, so honor their expertise. As a coach, you need to lead with open-ended questions to rapidly catch up with where the team is. It means that you, as a leader, are willing to ask seemingly dumb questions. By doing so, you not only better understand the foundational assumptions the team is making, but you also show up as a vulnerable and safe thought partner who is in service of the team. As Intuit’s CEO Brad Smith always says, “as leaders, we work for the team, not the other way around.

ELIMINATE THE NOISE

In their pursuit of getting to the best solution, teams often get too close to their content area and become myopic. Your job is to help them see the forest for the trees. As a coach, you should keep the bigger picture in mind and help the team sort through the noise, whether the noise was created by various stakeholders or self-inflicted by the team itself. There is something very liberating for the team when the coach maniacally helps them focus on what truly matters. It’s not about you narrowing on the final solution, but rather about helping the team let go of unnecessary information that might be causing analysis paralysis.

BREAK FRAME

A very effective way of eliminating the noise is helping the team reframe the challenge at hand. Oftentimes, teams find themselves solving for an apparent tension between two different ways of looking at the problem. Your job as a coach is to help them see a third way that breaks frame and helps them unlock new creative ways of viewing the challenge. I have found that provoking the team to think of analogies or metaphors prompts them to think differently.

ASK FOR A SOLUTION

This one might be a little controversial amongst design thinking practitioners since we don’t like to jump to solutions too early. Many teams get stuck at the synthesis phase of the design process, at which point they need to extract key insights from their vast learnings and answer the ultimate ‘so what?’ question. I have seen many teams getting overwhelmed by the task of synthesis, leading them to question themselves and everything they have learned in the process. When I see teams doubt themselves, I know it’s time to intervene. In these situations, I often ask for 30 minutes of the team’s time to do what I call a gun to your head exercise, which essentially requires each team member to quickly craft the overall narrative of what they have learned and what is their conclusion (the so what?). Once everyone shares their narrative, the team quickly sees that they are collectively closer to the solution than anticipated. Of course, this exercise does not get you to the final solution, but it dramatically accelerates the team’s progress towards the solution and helps them trust their intuition again.

HAVE SKIN IN THE GAME

Being a coach is not a role that should be taken lightly. The coach not only helps the team stay true to the vision of the work, but is also there to protect the team from organizational hazards. We all know the usual suspects — too many stakeholders with different opinions, not enough resources, and compressed timelines just to name a few. The team needs to know that you have skin in the game and that you will be part of the team in good and bad times. You own the outcome as much as the team does. In other words, you cannot disassociate yourself from the work if things go wrong. I always like to compare my role to a coach in the NFL or the NBA. Who is the first person to get fired when the team does not perform well? The coach is. The team needs to know that you are part of the team.

I’d like to leave you with a quote I once heard from an inspiring leader I worked with — I believe he was quoting Coach Krzyzewski. It went something along these lines:

“You know you are not a team when you blame each other. You know you are a team when you save each other.“

I hope these principles will inspire you to try new ways of working with your teams. Micro-coaching has been a key component in helping us build a strong team while generating high quality, actionable content that the team can be proud of. I really encourage leaders to put on the coaching hat (and a whistle if you want) and give yourselves permission to strike the right balance between being a “helicopter” leader and a “free-range” leader.

Would love to hear from you about other coaching tips that you have tried with your teams. While you’re at it, throw in a couple of parenting tips, I could use it 🙂

The Power of Touch

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It’s innovation time. Your team has been blessed by leadership to come up with the next big thing that will win the hearts and minds of your customers. Meet the team. Joe the designer likes to work remotely from his house – he wants to spend more time with his kids. Sarah the engineer is located in your East Coast office – given the latest budget cuts, she cannot travel that often. Marc the Product Manager is located in your West Coast office – he’s always in the office, but spends 80% of his time in meetings giving updates to the leadership team.

No problem, your organization is giving you all the tools you need to “collaborate” and become a “high performing team”. The chances are that your IT department has spent a good amount of money to create an infrastructure that will theoretically increase productivity and minimize traveling costs. Webex and Cisco Telepresence are the weapons of choice. Past experiences have eroded your faith in these tools, so you’ve also built your own arsenal of reliable workarounds…Skype and Google Hangout, just to name a few.

You lay out a project plan with key milestones, daily check-ins, monthly face-to-face meetings, and clear roles and responsibilities on the team. This all makes sense until the sexy plan on the page turns into the reality of collaborating in meetings.

“Hey team, Webex is acting out today. I don’t see you on the video. Let’s try Skype. Oh, Skype is slow today; let’s go to Google Hangout. Dammit, for some reason Marc can’t get on Google Hangout. Let me text him and see if he can try Webex again.”

And round and round you go. Before you know it, you have spent 20 minutes figuring out how to finally get to a mediocre workaround to actually start the meeting. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.  Unfortunately, this has become the norm for millions of corporate workers around the world. Somehow, we have become numb to the imperfections of these tools with the hope that the technology will one day catch up with our collaboration needs.

Being a true believer in intact and co-located teams, it occurred to be me that technology is not really the problem here. The real problem might be our assumption that technology can enable true collaboration. Perhaps we are conflating communication and collaboration.

We don’t have to go far to witness true collaboration. All we have to do is turn on ESPN and learn from athletes. They high five, chest bump, butt slap, fist bump, and hug more than they play the game. Whether they’re celebrating as a team, encouraging each other, or consoling one another, these moments all have one thing in common – the power of touch.

fist_bump

These are not empty gestures – they reflect the true essence of a team. Touch strengthens relationships; establishes trust, equality and respect in the team; and more importantly it creates a system of accountability amongst the team members (in other words, friendship) that goes beyond individual performance. These gestures create rituals and traditions that the team can fall back on in good or bad times.

Leaders need to understand that innovation is ultimately a team sport, not a resourcing sport. Teams are not set up for success if you simply enable them to communicate. Innovation is harder than that – it’s garbage in, garbage out. You need to create the space for a group of random people to build genuine, personal relationships and let them emerge as a real team that is passionate about changing the world, and not preoccupied with the mechanics of working together.

Here’s to letting your teams “touch” each other, literally and figuratively, as well as HR appropriately 🙂

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Why you are not the hero

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Design Thinking puts people at the center of innovation. As designers, we try hard to build empathy for the people we are here to serve. We go out in the world to observe them, talk to them, and learn from them. We seek to understand their pain points to inspire solutions that will improve their lives. For most organizations, it’s becoming clear that customer empathy is a key component of good design.

But what happens when we confuse empathy with sympathy? What happens when we start judging our customers’ lives and think of ourselves as their saviors? What happens when we fall in love with our solutions so much so that we convince ourselves that people’s lives simply suck without our products and services?

How can something as selfless as empathy turn into something as judgmental as sympathy? Before I go on, I’d like to share this short Nike commercial – it’s served for me as a great reminder of what true empathy means.

At first glance, one might jump to assumptions on why the seemingly obese teenager is running, “he must/should lose weight, obviously he’s too fat and he can’t possibly be happy living that way. I feel bad for him and we should help him with our products.” This is simply human nature – as people, we want to help those who struggle with resources we are most familiar with. We often sympathize for people who face adversity. But what if we were wrong? What if the teenage boy was actually not running to lose weight? What if instead he was running because his dad had just passed away from a massive heart attack? What if he was actually running to look good for an upcoming school dance? What if he was running to make the Football team next year? What if he was running to prove to himself that strength is more than an idealized body?

This commercial does an amazing job of making the customer the hero of the story. This is not about Nike saving the obese teenager. This is about him taking control of his life – oh, and by the way, it happens that Nike will be there to support him as he sees fit. Nike is essentially meeting the customer where he is on his personal journey. Nike does not own the journey, or the destination for that matter. He does. He is great.

As innovators, we all have an obese teenager we are trying to save, whether he comes in the form of a struggling small business owner or a patient fighting a chronic disease. We need to go beyond the obvious sympathetic feelings and really dig deeper to better understand people’s motivations and attitudes.

So the next time you find yourself using words such as should and must, ask yourself whether you’re truly approaching the problem from a place of empathy (caring and empowering) vs. a place of sympathy (judging and saving).

Find the greatness in your customers. Just do it!

Safe Innovation: why best practices lead to mediocre outcomes

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If you work in an organization, you have most likely been part of a group of talented employees regularly gathering around a rectangular conference table. The meeting starts off well. You have a clear problem you want to solve. It’s gnarly, but it feels like the right thing to focus on. You collectively brainstorm a few different ways to tackle the design challenge. Wow, you actually see yourself dreaming big dreams and painting a vision for what the future might look like. But the deeper you get into it, the more you realize that you are entering uncharted waters. Before you know it, you realize that for you to innovate you have no other choice than to take a risk. Shit just got real.

Your body language changes as you contemplate the consequences of failure. What if it doesn’t work? How will it affect your personal brand? How will you get others to follow? And then it happens – someone has the brilliant idea to say, “What are the best practices that we should put in place to get there?”

Allow me to translate what this person is really thinking: How might we minimize risk by copying what other innovators in the world have done to achieve greatness?

The team loves that idea. Yes, best practices…that ought to get us to the best outcomes (and cover our behinds in case something goes wrong).

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe in the power of seeking external/analogous inspiration, as long as it inspires new thinking that is followed with bold action. In organizations, the term “best practices” inherently puts you into a follower mindset when leadership is truly needed to innovate.

It’s easy to forget why some innovate and others don’t. At the end of the day, it comes down to courage – the courage to challenge the status quo and take action in situations of high uncertainty; the courage to go where no one has gone before and experiment your way to the answer; the courage to lead the way and not expect to follow in other people’s footsteps; and yes, the courage to put your job on the line to achieve a vision that you believe in.

Best practices might inspire you, but they won’t save you. There is no such thing as “safe innovation”…and if you think there is, you are probably not innovating.

Innovation is tough. There is no right answer…other than getting started.

Design gone soft: lessons learned from P90-X

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INSPIRATION

We’ve all been there – waking up slightly hung-over on a Saturday morning and turning on the TV. You already find yourself making the most important decision of your day. Will you watch the local Bollywood channel this morning, or perhaps a Pokemon-like cartoon? As appealing as these options sound, you discover another glimmer of hope in this moment of confusion: an awesome infomercial showcasing the latest fitness fad that promises unbelievable results with minimal effort. Before you know it, you’ve already heard the infomercial go through three loops, and at this point a part of you – not that you would ever admit it publically – starts believing in the theory of it all. But of course you could get a six-pack if you shocked your stomach with electrical signals.

And then you snap out of it! You come back to your senses and put this latest fad in the context of innumerous crazy fads that you have seen fail over the years. You know deep inside, through years of built-up wisdom and cynicism, that you cannot reach exceptional results without hard work.

And then one Saturday morning in 2010, you hear something different on TV. There’s a guy trying to sell you a DVD fitness program called P90-X. The tone sounds strangely unfamiliar for what you think is yet another fitness fad. It still promises amazing results, but only if you are willing to push yourself as hard as possible. You hear the dude with the huge muscles (aka Tony Horton) tell you that P90-X is not for everyone. The message is coming out loud and clear – if you want an easy shortcut to fitness, P90-X is just not it! The competitor in you appreciates the challenge, but you are still skeptical about the whole thing…that is until a year later a friend of yours tells you about how awesome the program has been for him. Your friend looks transformed, mentally and physically, and your skepticism quickly turns into curiosity. Before you know it, you make the jump and join your friends for a group session of P90-X. And that’s how I was initially introduced to the P90-X program. The first few sessions were unbelievably, and almost laughably, difficult. The dude with the huge muscles on the DVD was asking us regular folks to do things we had never imagined doing before. Say what? You want me to do jumping push-ups, are you out of your mind? Well, fast-forward a few months (and hundreds of jumping push-ups later), I am still a firm believer in the P90-X program.

If you’ve made it that far, you might be wondering why I am writing about fitness on a design blog. Having spent the past decade deep into the world of design innovation, I have witnessed a significant pendulum swing in the world of design – one that moved the design process out of the shadow of an elitist craft to the main street of the innovation world. The democratization of design thinking has been an amazing phenomenon that has inspired a larger group of people and organizations to rethink how they innovate in a highly complex world. Exciting times for design thinkers…finally, the world gets us! Or do they really?

As with any pendulum swing, there is a risk of going too far. In the spirit of democratizing design thinking, we, design practitioners, have had to simplify – and at times over-simplify – the craft of design to make it more accessible to as many as possible in organizations and beyond. This broad movement has been very successful in terms of fostering creative and imaginative conversations in the most unexpected places, but we are now at a moment of truth where thinking breadth and craft depth need to realign to truly unleash the power of design thinking, which is ultimately about bringing desirable and viable solutions to life in the pursuit of tackling some of the most challenging and exciting opportunities of our time.

So the question I ask here today: has design gone too soft? In our effort to enlist more people to follow our philosophy, are we conveying a message that is similar to the Saturday morning infomercial that promises a six-pack with minimal effort? Are we promising innovation in exchange for an artificial mindset shift? Of course, I am not advocating for a P90-X tone – it would probably scare most people off. However, I do believe that the tremendous market success of P90-X can teach us a few things about enabling true behavior change that will lead to tangible changes in organizations. .

P90-X: LESSONS LEARNED

1.    Meet people where they are…and don’t stay there

Muscle confusion

As with most fitness programs, P90-X taps into existing human motivations to first get your attention (e.g. losing weight, looking good at the beach, fitting in your favorite pair of jeans, etc.).  However, as you go through the program you quickly realize that the program is more than about getting in shape. The program constantly pushes you beyond your limits. From personal experiences, whether as a designer or a former Rugby player, I truly think that personal transformation happens when you get past tough roadblocks and feel the pride on the other side. The P90-X program switches things up by providing 12 different workout routines that focus on different muscles to make sure you that your muscles do not get used to same old routines – Tony Horton refers to this concept as “muscle confusion.” Innovation muscles – at the individual and organization level – are built over long periods of time through hard work and tough organizational decisions (i.e. do not expect electrodes in a belt to give you a 6-pack in less than 30 days).

How might we keep people engaged in innovation work in the long run?

 2.    Allow people to rise to the challenge

Bring it!

P90-X presents you with a clear challenge – can you make it through 60 minutes of fast-paced physical pain without hurting yourself? The DVD program shows you what good looks like and does not attempt to make it look easy. They recognize that not everyone will be able to immediately get it right, but they still make you strive for the best of the best. I am a true believer in people’s ability to step up in the face of adversity to challenge the status quo. The reality is that innovation is not easy, so we need to respect the complexity of the task at hand.

How might we frame innovation as inspiring challenges, not corporate goals?

3.    Respect the speed limit

P90-X worksheets

In the process of democratizing high-octane fitness, P90-X recognizes that different people come in with various levels of fitness. To help people work up their learning curve, the program gives you lots of freedom to adjust weights and number of repetitions, as long as you track these details over time. The idea is that initially anything is better than nothing, and that you will only seek to push your limits as you get stronger and become comfortable with the routines. Repetition is the key to learning, and if you create the right framework for people to constantly improve they will feel more confident in pushing their own limits. Innovation is not a destination, it’s a transformative journey that results in an obsession to constantly push the boundaries of the possible.

How might we empower people to adopt new behaviors at their own pace?

4.    Strike the right tone

There’s a fine line between motivating and discouraging. The P90-X dude with the huge muscles does an amazing job of striking the right tone. He challenges you while keeping it humorous and playful, qualities that are essential to keeping design thinking fun and engaging. A failure to do so would only result in frustration and insult, and ultimately disengagement. You can find some of Tony’s funniest lines here. Though design thinking and innovation are serious business, we should never take ourselves too seriously. Play is a key component to a culture of innovation.

How might we create an environment for serious play?

5.    Tap into the power of community

P90-X together

As it was the case for me when I started P90-X, there is something very powerful in sharing this ambiguous and uncomfortable experience with friends and family. There is something very powerful about going through pain and fun together. I remember watching a video on Youtube, titled “A family that does P90-X together, stays together.”  In a group setting, you feel accountable to do your best and push yourself. That experience also creates a shared language for the group that goes beyond the gym room. I believe the same is true in organizations. There’s nothing lonelier than being a change agent in an organization.

How might we foster a sense of community amongst your budding innovators?

As always, I am looking forward to hearing from you. Bring it!

Leadership by the window

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INSPIRATION

It ‘s not often that a designer gets to use Borat as an example for how organizations behave, but this might just be the case for me today. Don’t worry I will NOT reference any of the vulgar jokes that make up about 99% of the movie.

For no apparent reason other than doing the Borat accent with a colleague at work, I decided to watch the DVD a few weeks ago. To my big surprise, I had completely overlooked one of the most insightful scenes the first time I watched the film: Borat’s interpretation of leadership – well, at least my interpretation of Borat’s interpretation of leadership.

In this scene Borat associates the access to a mundane hotel chair with the authority and power of a leader. He sits on the chair and immediately takes on the personality of a demanding king. And then it hit me! Leaders in large organizations have their own version of Borat’s chair – it’s called a window.

I have had the opportunity to work on a few space redesign projects over the past few years. The design briefs are always about transforming cube farms into more open, innovative spaces that foster collaboration and innovation. As with any design project, you first engage key stakeholders in establishing the hard constraints. Well, when it comes to most organizations, the constraints are pretty simple:

  1. x number of people need to fit in this space
  2. the location of the restrooms cannot move by much because of plumbing
  3. every senior leader must get an office by a window

While I can live with the first two constraints, I have always questioned the rationality of automatically giving a window to the leaders at the top of the corporate ladder. If the purpose of the space is to foster collaboration and innovation, shouldn’t it be designed to facilitate such interactions and behaviors for the majority of the occupants? I can’t recall the number of times my team and I had to stay clear of the space’s “prime real estate” (i.e. the corners where two windows intersect) because it was reserved for the highest ranking (and mostly traveling) leaders in the space.

As a result, the buildings of most companies are filled with empty, well-lit offices for the “kings of the castle”, and dark cube farms for expected-to-be innovative and collaborative minions.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

As usual, this blog is not about throwing stones at the status quo. It’s important to recognize the symbolic meaning of having a window. In most organizations, the window becomes the tangible manifestation of one’s successful career. That said, it is also important to balance that reality with the fact that traditional workplace models are being challenged in a rapidly changing environment. As designers, it is our job to challenge the third constraint by engaging leaders in co-designing and exploring alternative configurations. Here are three principles that have helped me and my teams get key stakeholders (facilities, architects, occupants) to think beyond their existing assumptions about leadership and status:

1. DESIGN WITH, DON’T DESIGN FOR – It is amazing how easy it actually is to break taken-for-granted assumptions when you get occupants (including leaders) to co-design with you. We have often built full-scale foam core models to immerse key stakeholders in the design process. By building together, occupants develop empathy for one another and open up to new win-win possibilities.

2. GET LEADERS OFF THE BENCH – Good leaders want to be part of the action, and not just via email. Many leaders actually miss the daily face-to-face interactions with their teams. Unfortunately, the office by the window reinforces the gap between leaders and their teams. We often hear the term “leading from the front” or “leading from behind”, but we never hear “leader from the bench”.

3. LET THERE BE LIGHT…FOR EVERYONE – Light is energy. Light is inspiration. Light is fuel for innovation. Light is a reminder that there is a world outside of our buildings. That’s the same world where our customers live and breathe. Capitalize on the “prime real-estate” available to you by making them hot spots of collaboration and innovation.

ACTION

As Borat would say, “Dziekuje” [thank you] for reading my blog, and as always I hope to hear from you!

New year’s resolution: cultivate today, thrive tomorrow

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While walking down the hallways at Antioch University in Seattle a few weeks ago, I ran into this great illustration of a Guinean proverb on one of the walls. It read, “He who does not cultivate his field will die of hunger.” Wow, that proverb really resonated with me, and came back to mind as I was quickly listing my resolutions during the yearly countdown.

 

I often hear leaders talk about the need to establish a burning platform for change, a sense of urgency for stakeholders to rally around and make stuff happen. Unfortunately, a “burning platform” implicitly suggests that the organization is already in a reactive mode — playing catch-up instead of proactively anticipating the need for change.

In a moment of optimism, as we embark on an intriguing 2012, I chose to spin the Guinean proverb into a slightly more positive light: An organization that cultivates its field today will thrive tomorrow. What would that look like? Well, I think it starts with leaders:

What if leaders made tough decisions to balance short-term revenue goals — often driven by Wall Street and the need to keep the lights on — and the long-term viability of their organization? Steve Jobs made many tough decisions over the years to turn things around at Apple, one of which was to completely rethink Apple’s product line (i.e. killing a bunch of Apple products) while expanding the Apple brand beyond personal computers. The iPod and the Apple store are two good examples of how Apple cultivated its field to thrive over time.

What if leaders were patient enough to foster a culture of innovation and excellence? Take Pixar as an example. They have “only” released 12 films since 1995. The dedication to craft and excellence trumps short-term pressures as Pixar knows that quality is more important than quantity. The data speaks for itself as all 12 films have been global blockbusters.

What if leaders were rewarded for investing in their people and growing the next generation of leaders?  Large business consulting firms, such as McKinsey and Accenture, are well known for working their employees to death (long hours, lots of travel, etc.). What they may not be necessarily known for is their focus on growing a large pool of leaders that will help them grow and sustain their business over time. Partners at these firms are not only responsible for growing the business and generating revenue, but also for growing and retaining talent on their respective teams. These organizations recognize that their network of leaders — whether they stay with the organization or leave for leadership positions elsewhere — ultimately contribute to the sustainability of their business.

Here’s to 2012! A year of transition and hope. A year of aspirations and tough realities. A year to cultivate and to thrive. Happy New Year, fellow doers!

How will you cultivate your field in 2012?