Finally focus on failure

Ed Catmull (CEO of Pixar) explains how he cultivates trust in teams

It took three years after the credit crunch before the masters of leadership development, Harvard Business Review, to offer us a major exploration into the art of corporate failure (April 2011 issue of the journal).

Now the respected business journal has finally set aside a complete edition of its wondeful magazine to failure. Respect to them. But it was a slow response.

Ed Catmull on learning from failure

In 2010 the Economist interviewed the CEO and President of Pixar, Ed Catmull. He talks a lot about learning from failure, enable peers to develop each other and get things right sooner.

Read highligts or watch the interview

Scott Burkin provides a splendid summary of the conversation.

Finally focus on failure

Train consultancy skills

Harajuku Cowboys

Sharing knowledge and training internal consultancy skills

Below is a half-day workshop design I prepared for a management training a couple of years ago. I believe it still works. I found it useful when there was a need for both training people in acting as internal consultants as well as providing problem owners, those sharing a business challenge, with some useful input.

Workshop purpose

  1. Enable people to get help dealing with a specific business challenge they are currently facing
  2. Increase participants’ insight across units
  3. Build corporate pride

Participants’ profile

Participants can be experts, managers or regular employees. For instance, if you design a training for managers, politics will become an aspect more important to manage. If running the workshop for regular employees, make sure to have dead specific tasks written down on handouts.

Time needed

Three hours for a group of 20-40 persons. It’s flexible, of course. However, squeezing it below two hours will make participants frustrated due to time constraint. In addition, there’ll be a danger of ruining the group dynamics.

Workshop design

1. Articulate a problem statement [two weeks prior to the workshop]

Invite a selection of the participants (for instance half of the group) to articulate a specific business problem they are currently facing in their daily work. The statement should be brief, ideally a one sentence ‘elevator pitch’ understandable to everyone (avoid internal jargon).

Some ideas for topics:

  • how to manage communication related to an upcoming downsizing process
  • identify new revenue streams within division’s strategy
  • cut costs in a way that makes sense to employees
  • how to become more efficient in day to day business within xx unit

What is important is that those you invite to articulate a ‘problem statement’ should be motivated for sharing their challenge. Thus, consider who you ask. Depending what your additional objectives for the training are (build team spirit, make some junior managers visible, enable women managers to take the stage, etc), you can make a selection that makes sense in the group as a whole.

2. Organise participants into problem owners vs consultants [in the workshop]

Sort participants into smaller teams of, say, three problem owners and three consultants. Allow each problem owner to present their challenge to the group in 5 min.

When all three problem owners have presented, ask the three consultants to reflect upon the three pitches. Which one do they want to go for. They can only choose one problem.

The two ‘left over’ problem owners joins the group.

The group (of roughly six persons) spends the next 60-90 minutes discussing the problem decided upon.

3. Problem cracking, caramba!

Each group works on the problem chosen in 60-90 minutes, depending on the complexity of it.
Make sure to dedicate one person per group who is charge of documenting the work (flip charts or similar tools). Unless something is decided during the group work, this person will at least have to present a synopsis of what took place in the group when all partcipants come together in plenary by the end of the workshop.

4. Plenary sharing

When groups return to plenary after having worked on their group task, it is time for sharing some reflections, both on the challenges decided upon, as well as the consultants’ input.

Please note that the result, advice or specific outcome of the session is not necessarily the most valuable aspect of the group work. Do make sure to challenge the groups on other things, such as work process. For instance how did they cooperate, listen, decide, discuss and prioritise?

An ethical note in the end: Make sure to remind participants in the end that information shared may be sensitive. Thus, show respect and be cautious about sharing if so is necessary.


Advice for the facilitator: Make a role description for ‘internal consultants’

It’s vital that consultants understand their role when they enter into position of internal consultant. Please provide internal consultants with an A4 sheet describing their role, beneficial attitudes, as well as what to avoid. For instance:

  • The internal consultants are supposed to help the problem owner to open up the problem, not solve it. In the end it is the problem owner who will need to do the hard work.
  • Challenge the problem owner to frame (and reframe) the problem in simple terms
  • Take the problem owner’s point of view: what would you do in his or her position?
  • Avoid rushing for conclusions. There’s no speed competition to complete first.
  • Be aware that feedback can be interpreted differently from person to person. Frame your input in a specific and constructive manner. Be respectful.
Train consultancy skills

Influential uncertainty

Demonstrate uncertainty and structure brainstorming

Two pieces of insight struck me this week:

  • a fresh take on sometimes being open about your uncertainty
  • make brainsteering, not brainstorming sessions

Dare to be uncertain

A podcast by Harvard Business Review this week puzzled me: Experts are more persuasive when they’re less certain. Zakary Tormala, a Stanford professor in marketing, explained how his team had researched the power of experts expressing uncertainty in certain contexts. It was an eyeopening experience.

Tormala claims that experts can engage their listeners by expressing uncertainty rather than the ‘I know it all’ attitude. The research had demonstrated that people being exposed to experts opening up for pondering and hesitation actually paid more attention, became more engaged and trusted the expert more. Why? Because they were not expecting an expert to do so. They were surprised, the different attitude represented a fresh contrast to conventional behaviour.

Brainsteering is focused brainstorming, not ranting

I must confess that I have initiated my share of brainstorming sessions that did not materialise into more than endless post-it notes on a wall or a flip chart ending up in the bin afterwards. Apologies.

Therefore I was delighted to come across McKinsey Quarterly’s post on brainsteering: Seven steps to better brainstorming. The main point in the article is that simply by posing more focused questions a huge improvement in the output quality is likely to happen.

Instead of cheering a team into brainstorming by enthusiastically claiming ‘anything goes!’ or ‘the more questions, the better!’, rather make it easy: Strip it down to a few sharp and well articulated questions. Then make small teams work on one question (yep, that is one as in ‘1’) for 30 minutes. That’ll get some real and valuable output from a team’s work on a question.

For a more detailed how-to-do-it description, follow the steps in the article linked above.

Photo: Cop Call / Originally uploaded by antonkawasaki

Influential uncertainty

Great tool for challenging status quo

Volkswagen demonstrates how to think outside the box

An acquaintance of mine was asked to challenge the management of a classical orchestra on how they could attract new audience. That challenge made me think of Volkswagen’s initiaive ‘The Fun Theory’. The company has produced a fresh and eye opening experiment on how to make people change behaviour.

My experience is that people stuck in a corner normally will not appreciate a quick solution to their problem. They want help to think out of the box. Since they are often better equiped to tackle their issues than their helpers are, providing a hand in order to change focus can free up lots of great perspectives.

The woman gave her speech, showed the Volkswagen video and asked the listeners to reflect upon how they could apply the wisdom to their own problem. It worked.

Great tool for challenging status quo

Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

Recruit T-shaped people in to order create a collaborative, organisational culture.

Morten Hansen, a lecturer at INSEAD business school in France, has written a wonderful book on how to transform collaboration as a buzzword into real, corporate value. He claims loads of interesting things in his recent book ‘Collaboration: how leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results’ (2009). In his book he offers a couple of really interesting suggestions on how to ensure collaborative culture is embedded in a corporate culture:1.

1. Recruit T-shaped people

When searching for colleagues or leaders for your organisation, look for people who have demonstrated asking other people for help to solve a problem. He mentions Roy’s Restaurants in California and Hawaii where the interviewer may ask the candidate to describe ‘what obstacles have you faced in a previous job that prevente you from doing a quality job? How di you overcome these obstacles?’ In many companies the interviewer would be satisfied with a response showing that the candidate managed to take care of the situation and solve it all by herself. However, for Roy’s Restaurants, that kind of answer would likely indicate that this person possibly is someone who do not ask for assistance when in trouble and communicated the situation to colleagues. Asking for help indicates a collaborative orientation, Roy’s Restaurants would claim.

2. Give the assignment centre a twist

Hansen brings up another example on how to recruit t-shaped people. The example is from Southwestern Airlines, a hugely successful airline company in the U.S. In this company the interviewer in an assignment centre context would ask applicants to spend a some minutes preparing a statement about themeselves that they are supposed to present in front of the group. Job applicants may think that they are being tested for their oral and communication skills. However, what they are really being tested on is their listening skills. Is the applicant listening actively and supporting the others when they are making their statements? Od to they mostly look into their papers, concentrating on their own statement? In case the candidate doesn’t manage to listen provide the other with attention and feedback, this would indicate low degree of collaborative orientation.



Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

What I’ve learnt from the media industry

I’ve spent two years working for Schibsted, a European media group. Upon leaving the company I’ve tried to summarise my learnings as an employee.

  1. Media will prosper: The web has enabled us all to become media producers. That’s fun! The big question is how to capitalise on heaploads of people who are actually sharing their insight through the channels offered by interactive web sites, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, chat clients, etc. One day someone will understand how to make money on online news. That’ll probably improve the quality of the journalism as well as serving shareowners with higher value and customers with better user experiences. I’ve no clue on how it will become reality, but I’m looking forward to it.
  2. Respect to everyone making profit: Business is about creating value for your customers and shareholders when it’s a public company. That’s actually quite hard. Thus, when the advertisement market plummeted for many of our companies during second half of 2008, crucial veins of income dissappeared. Then, what do you do if you’re in charge of a company? You’ll have to cut costs. People tend to be the largest post on the budget. I was downsized (together with 25 percent of the head office’s staff) and it does make sense.
  3. Diversification is king: Schibsted has survived the economic turmoil after Lehman Brothers hit the ground in September 2008. This is much thanks to Kjell Aamot, the visionary CEO of Schibsted, who acquired a large, online classified company (previously knowns as ‘Trader’, now Schibsted Classified Media). The steady incomes from the classified business made us capable of leaning on this revenue stream when incomes from printed and online news shrinked dramatically.
  4. Knowledge work requires long term perspective: I’ve been part of a company where its primary asset is its employees’ ability to create ideas that they transform into viable, commercial initiatives. These will next need to trigger incomes for the company. When one business model dissapears (advertisement incomes steadily pouring in) and new ones are still at the stage of being invented, there is logically a stark contrast between income and costs. Nevertheless, it is necessary to invest over time in knowledge workers in order to make them prosper.
  5. Organisational transparency requires courage: In 2008 Schibsted managed to launch an intranet that was available across the group. Even though it’s still in its moulding pot, it’s steadily growing its traffic and unique visitors. However, my impression is that a lot of people find it tiring to share knowledge outside their own cubicles because it requires an extra effort that it is hard to gras p if will be reciprocated soon, later or never. Thus, high ranking leaders must repeatedly drive forward the value of sharing, involving ‘strangers’ and building upon each other.
  6. Feedback is underestimated: My own company is not good enough at providing its employees with systematic, constructive feedback. Even though several segments of leaders in our company has carried out 360-degree feedback processes, employee surveys tend to highlight the need for leaders to acknowledge its employees. Of course there are exceptions (both companies and individuals). But why on earth can’t our business get a grip on the crucial, motivating power of continuous feedback to people. It’s all about being valued and developed.
  7. Change is good: Sudden changes can help one prioritise and discover until then hidden possibilities. The two years I’ve spent at the company has been a constant flux of work tasks: designing a performance management system for young professionals, rolling out a 360-degree feedback process for executives, developing leadership training programmes for executives, implementing learning initiatives across corporate and national cultures, and implementing arenas for knowledge sharing across companies within the group. It’s been a joyride – and at times quite demanding.

That’s some of my reflections. I guess more will be drippling ino my head the next few months.

When did you last reflect upon your own job and what you get out of it?

What I’ve learnt from the media industry

Do something different for once

Inspiration is always good for business. Go run your meetings outside the box.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to attend a presentation by a very inspiring colleague within one of Schibsted Media Group’s companies: Lena K. Samuelsson. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish daily.

She said something that you may find ordinary, but that I think is at the core of  corporate challenge today: keeping your employees engaged.

She shared a story about an editorial meeting she was going to run a morning. There were plenty of topics to be dealt with and, of course, not enough time to go through all of them. So what can you do? Start the meeting and drag yourself through all items of the agenda, even though you notice that the team is not inspired at all to do so? (Well, here I’m adding something of my own imagination, because I don’t know exactly whether Ms Samuelsson’screw was inspired or not that particular morning. However, let’s pretend that was the context, okay?)

I guess the Editor-in-Chief said something like this: ‘Let’s skip the agenda, we’re not in the mood for decision making anyhow. Therefore there’s no use in sitting down here. Let’s go the Museum of Modern Art! Let’s go search for inspiration! OPEN YOUR EYES and think about something completely different. Perhaps it’ll bring us forward, fill us with energy, hey? Okay? Yeah! We’re off, hurray!’

They didn’t do the agenda. They probably did the whole meeting another day. But she managed to create a story which I’m probably not the only one remembering and sharing.

Right, then watch the video above, it’s a delicious piece of visual and emotional inspiration. Five minutes of your time.

We should all once in a while allow some fresh air and perspectives into our busy days. That counts in particularly for leaders aiming to inspire their workers to go to work full of energy when times are rough.

Do something different for once