(special shout-out to those of you who saw the typo the 30 sec it existed!)
In college, to meet my phys ed requirement, I chose a class where I wouldn’t have to exert much physical energy: golf. Almost three decades later, I still can’t play golf, but I did learn one thing in that class that has helped me through life.
When you’re trying to reach a goal, figure out a process to help you reach that goal, then focus on the process instead of the goal. I used this approach to improve my putting. Here’s how it worked: to get the ball in the hole, don’t aim for the hole… aim for a point along the line that goes to the hole, which should be easier to hit. If your ball hits that midpoint, it’s more likely that your putt will go in.
For example, if you’re at the white dot, aim for the Red X, not the hole:
This approach centers you on the process of making the putt. Getting your mind off the pressure of the goal results in the freedom to focus on what’s most important: developing the discipline and habit that will lead to success.
Bryan Cranston, the actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, had a similar experience until he was in his mid-40s. Although he had landed many roles in films and television series, none were the kind of long-lived and memorable performance Cranston was aiming for. So he made a conscious effort to shift his perspective.
Author Scott Mautz, citing Cranston’s 2016 memoir, describes the process:
Early in Cranston’s career he was an auditioning machine for commercials or guest-starring roles, a bevy of high-pressure stabs that might serve as at least a step up to the big time. But he was walking into a slew of rooms where he felt he had no power. All that changed when a mentor suggested a new outlook, and it led to an honest-to-goodness six-word secret to his success.
Focus on process rather than outcome.
Suddenly, Cranston felt free. He approached each audition as not going to get something, but to give something–a performance. And giving a great performance requires staying obsessively focused on the process of preparing to be able to give a great performance. He learned that if he overly focused on the outcome (will he get that part?) it set him up for disappointment and left him yearning for validation. Focusing solely on the outcome had also kept him from taking risks as he didn’t want to give a potential gig away with a mis-step.
But this mindset shift, of falling in love with and staying laser-focused on the process, changed everything for him. Soon after he adopted it, he got the role in Malcolm in the Middle, and then the career-changing Breaking Bad starring role.
When you have a challenging or aspirational goal in your sights, like when your organization is starting a lean transformation or digital transformation, it can seem overwhelming. The heavy feeling can actually prevent you from getting where you want to go.
The solution is to identify your intermediary goals — the ones you can achieve by developing and tuning an operational process. Let go of the aspirations, and focus on the daily work, creating the habits that will make you and your organization successful.
That’s the way this process works. As a National Examiner, you will be frustrated, you may cry, and you may think your team of examiners will never come to consensus on the right words to say to the applicant! But because there is a structured process and a discipline, it always happens, and everyone learns.
I’ve been working with the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) for almost 20 years. In the beginning, I used it as a template. Need to develop a Workforce Management Plan that’s solid, and integrates well with leadership, governance, and operations? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 5). Need to beef up your strategic planning process so you do the right thing and get it done right? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 2).
Need to develop Standard Work in any area of your organization, and don’t know where to start (or, want to make sure you covered all the bases)? There’s a framework for that.
Once you become a National Examiner (my first year was 2009), you get to look at the Criteria Questions through a completely different lens. You start to see the rich layers of its structure. You begin to appreciate that this guidebook was carefully and iteratively crafted over three decades, drawing from the experiences of executives and senior leaders across a wide swath of industries, faced with both common and unique challenges.
The benefits to companies that are assessed for the award are clear and actionable, but helping others helps examiners, too. Yes, we put in a lot of volunteer hours on evenings and weekends (56 total, for me, this year) — but I got to go deep with one more organization. I got to see how they think of themselves, how they designed their organization to meet their strategic goals, how they act on that design. Our team of examiners got to discuss the strengths we noticed individually, the gaps that concerned us, and we worked together to come to consensus on the most useful and actionable recommendations for the applicant so they can advance to the next stage of quality maturity.
One of the things I learned this year was how well Baldrige complements other frameworks like ISO 9001 and lean. You may have a solid process in place for managing operations, leading continuous improvement events, and sustaining the improvements. You may have a robust strategic planning process, with clear connections between overall objectives and individual actions.
What Baldrige can add to this, even if you’re already a high performance organization, is:
tighten the gaps
call out places where standard work should be defined
identify new breakthrough opportunities for improvement
help everyone in your workforce see and understand the connections between people, processes, and technologies
The whitespace — those connections and seams — are where the greatest opportunities for improvement and innovation are hiding. The Criteria Questions in the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) can help you illuminate them.
Like a champion rowing team, your organization needs to make sure everyone is working together, engaged in synchronized work and active collaboration, and not working at cross-purposes.
But like risk management, working on alignment can seem like a luxury. No one really has time to slow down and make sure everyone’s moving in the same direction. And besides, alignment just happens naturally if each functional area knows what they’re supposed to be working on… right?
Neither of these statements are, of course, true. Synchronizing people and processes – and making sure they’re aware of the needs and desires of real customers instead of cardboard personas – takes dedicated effort and a commitment from senior leaders. There are other critical impacts too: lack of alignment negatively impacts not only project outcomes – but also professional relationships and the bottom line.
An Example of Diagnosing Misalignment
Although alignment is a many-to-many problem, and requires you to look at relationships between people in all your functional areas, a January 2018 survey from Altify examined one part of the organizational puzzle: alignment between sales and marketing. This is a big one, because sales teams use marketing materials to understand and sell the product or service your company offers. Their survey of 422 enterprise-level executives and sales leaders showed that:
74% of marketers think they understood customer needs, but only 44% of sales people in their organizations agreed
71% of marketers think sales and marketing are aligned, but only 59% of sales people in their organizations agreed
These differences may seem small, but they reveal a lack of alignment between sales and marketing. One group thinks they “get it” – while people in the other group are just shaking their heads.
Symptoms of Misalignment
…include things like:
of Fear. Your organization has a strategic plan (knows WHAT it wants to do),
but there is little to no coordination regarding HOW people across the
organization will accomplish strategic objectives. You know what KPIs you’re
supposed to deliver on, but you don’t know how exactly you’re supposed to work
with anything in your power or control to “move the needle.”
Tower Syndrome. You’re in a meeting and get the visceral sense that things
aren’t clear, or that different people have different expectations for a
project or initiative. But you’re too nervous or uncertain to ask for clarification
– or maybe you do ask, but you get an equally unclear answer.
Naturally, you assume that everyone in the room is smarter than you (particularly
the managers) so you shut up and hope that it makes sense later. The reality is
that you may be picking up on a legitimate problem that’s going to be problematic
for the organization later on.
A department committed you to a task, but you weren’t part of that decision. Once
you find out about it, the task just may not get done. Alternatively, you’ll
have to adjust your workload and reset expectations with the stakeholders who
will now be disappointed that you can’t meet their needs according to the
original schedule. Or maybe work evenings and weekends to get the job done on
time. Either way, it’s not pleasant for anyone.
How often are you called on to respond to something that’s absolutely needed by close of
business today? How often are you expected to drop everything and take care
of it? How often do you have to work nights and weekends to make sure you don’t
In this scenario, key stakeholders are called into projects at the 11th
hour, when they are unable to guide or influence the direction of an
initiative. The initiative becomes a “dead man walking” that’s doomed to an
untimely end, but since the organization has sunk time and effort into it, people
will push ahead anyway.
Cut Off at
the Pass. Have you ever been working on a project and find out – somewhere in
the middle of doing it – that some other
person or team has been working on the same
thing? Or maybe they’ve been working on a different project, but it’s ultimately
at cross purposes with yours. Whatever way this situation works out, your
organization ends up with a pile of waste and potential rework.
That’s the subject for more blog posts that will be coming this spring – as well as what causes misalignment in the first place (hint: it’s individual behaviors on an organizational scale). The good news is – misalignment can be fixed, and the degree of alignment can be measured and continuously improved. Sign up to follow this blog so you don’t miss the rest of the story.
What other symptoms of misalignment have you experienced?
Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.
In his September post to the Influential Voices, ASQ CEO Bill Troy discusses principles for effective strategic planning, gleaned from his years of experience with the U.S. Army. He also asks what principles we’ve found useful. Today, I’d like to share a little heuristic that Ron DuPlain and I came up with over lunch several years ago. It’s useful not only for strategic planning, but also for creating your daily or weekly to-do list, or even things like making a good grocery list.
EASE stands for Expectations, Actionability, Sustainability, and Evaluation. Here are some excerpts on EASE from a book I wrote for college students. (Note that several of the examples have to do with setting goals as a student… but these can be easily applied to any work situation.)
When you face a challenging problem, examine your scenario through the lens of EASE. Usually, you’ll find that you have a “failure” in only one or two of the EASE letters, and when you remedy that issue, all of a sudden your problem becomes easier to solve. Make sure all four elements are addressed when tackling a challenge that involves people (including you!) and obligations (such as meeting due dates, completing exams, and satisfying learning objectives).
E: Expectations. Did you ever ask your parents to borrow their car so you could go out with your friends? Chances are, unless you have the kind of parents I wished I’d had growing up, they set some expectations with you up front. When are you going to be home? Is anyone else going to be riding in the car with you? Are you going to pay for your own gas? Expectations like these help two people establish a shared situation that won’t get either of them mad or upset. You will need to set expectations with your stakeholders (in college, that primarily means your professors) and yourself about what you would want to get out of a particular class. Make sure everyone knows what the expectations are!! Check out the learning objectives that are outlined in the syllabus, and decide how you want to achieve them. (This means you need to set clear, specific, and reasonable goals.) Expectation setting ALWAYS beats surprises.
A: Actionability. Once you set your own clear goals, you need to figure out what actions to take to achieve those goals, and the actions must be actionable. I know this sounds funny, but I have seen way too many to-do lists where the doer has no hope to actually get the stuff done. Example: I had an item on my to-do list this morning that said “Tax Woman.” (What? I’m supposed to do the tax woman? OMG.) That task is not actionable, but if I’d said “Look up tax woman’s address, write and send payment” then… all of a sudden… I can get that job done. Making tasks actionable means figuring out how you are going to be an active and informed participant in achieving your goals. Figure out what you NEED for items on your to-do list to actually get done. All too often, you will have some tasks on your to-do list that you have no clue how to begin, and those items are not actionable. If you do not have all the resources, help, confidence, information, time, and skills to knock a task off your list, that task is not actionable. Don’t even try to start a task that’s not actionable, because you’ll end up sad or confused. You could potentially even start a downward spiral or fuel a pre-existing spiral with vigor and reckless abandon, if you dare to spend time on a task that’s not actionable.
S: Sustainability. Figure out how you are going to sustain the effort and the semblance of mind throughout the duration of your efforts… so that you can actually make your goal happen. Before the semester begins, figure out how you’re going to balance work life and school life so that you’re not maxing out your waking hours on the stressful pursuit of progress. (For example: if you are working at three jobs a total of 45 hours a week and taking 21 semester hours, this is not sustainable. However, you probably won’t know that until 70% of the way through the term when you catch pneumonia due to exhaustion, lose two of your three jobs, and miss so many classes and so much homework that you have to withdraw from one class and take an incomplete on another. What? You say that’s a completely unbelievable story? Answer: you’re wrong. This was my personal story the second semester of my sophomore year.)
E: Evaluation. Figure out how you’re going to measure whether you are on track or off track – and what you’re going to do as a corrective action if you find out you’re off track. Similarly, identify up front how often you are going to take a critical look at your progress. For coursework, you might want to check and see whether you’re allowing enough time to do your assignments. You may want to take a look at the grades and feedback you’re getting. Most of the time, just gauging how you feel about a situation or a problem is the most useful way to evaluate whether you’re progressing. If you feel nervous, anxious, or unsettled, chances are you’re not responding and reacting to that situation in a positive way. If you feel calm, peaceful, in control, paced, and you are enjoying yourself, chances are you are visualizing your desired goals constructively, detaching from outcomes (especially grades), and appreciating the journey towards your goals.
When you examine a strategy using EASE, oftentimes, you’ll find that you have a major failure on one or two of the four points. Simply by addressing those points, you will strengthen your ability to realize your strategy. Here are four types of “EASE failures”:
Expectation Gap – One or more stakeholders in your situation has no expectations or ill-defined expectations, or different players have conflicting expectations which sets up an expectation gap. The solution here is to set expectations through conversations and by recording points you agree on, or alternatively, to close expectation gaps through conversation and consensus.
Limited or No Actionability – You’ve got stuff to do and tasks defined, but you don’t have the time, resources, skills or clarity required to do them. Fix this by making sure you have everything you need to get started on each to-do list item, and you can launch into them with confidence.
Inability to Sustain – You’ve bit off more than you can chew or are working at a pace that will exhaust your time, resources, emotions, or well-being. Scope down and set more reasonable expectations. Figure out how to work at a comfortable pace where you can make more regular, steady progress.
Lack of Assessment or Evaluation – You’ve set expectations and have actionable tasks, but you aren’t revisiting the expectations to make sure that they remain relevant, or perhaps you’re just not doing it frequently enough. Also check your emotional barometer.
By examining your intended strategy or activity through the lens of EASE, you can identify and remove potential blocks before they become problematic. Good luck!
Somehow, some way, over the course of too many years growing up staring into a computer screen — my eyesight became much-less-than-perfect.
Only I didn’t know it. I thought everyone lived in a slightly hazy, cloudy world, where all the colors naturally blended into postmodern mosaics of distant trees and mountains. It was never a problem for me until the day about ten years ago that I was headed east on I-64 into Charlottesville, and coming over the hill into town, struggled to identify what that giant number on the speed limit sign was. I squinted, closed one eye at a time, and figured that the number was probably 55… so I slowed down. Then I realized:
They probably make those speed limit signs big enough for anyone to see.
I got scared, and drove straight to the walk-in eyeglass clinic, where I explained my predicament. They quickly made room in their schedule for an emergency appointment. Usually afterwards, they make you wait 24 hours to pick up your new glasses, but with my 20/400 vision, they wouldn’t let me leave without them. Fortunately, my eyesight could be corrected to almost 20/20, which was nice. I walked out of the store with my new glasses on — and into an amazing, sparkly new world! The trees all had individual leaves on them!! Cars were so shiny! I could read license plates — from MY driver’s seat!
But immediately, I recognized how I’d managed to drive for all those years with bad vision!
Because I couldn’t really see what was ahead of me, I just focused my vision off and to the right side of the road, on the ground. I kept the road and the cars in my peripheral vision, so I could easily sense where they were, and make accommodations. If I tried to look straight ahead, I got frustrated quickly, emotionally wrapped around my own axle, because I couldn’t see any of the detail… and ultimately, that state of being wasn’t safe for driving. I couldn’t focus on what I was worried about, or I’d be a danger on the road.
Not long after that, I realized how effective a strategy this was in my work — because there’s so much change and uncertainty, it’s impossible to look directly ahead of you and see clearly. And that can be scary and unsettling! My solution was: if there was some big goal I was trying to achieve, the best way to reduce my angst and qualm my (sometimes very subtle) emotional stranglehold on myself — was to focus on something else. Something just as important, maybe even something that contributed to the main goal, but something I was not quite so emotionally wrangled by!
I starting calling this my “peripheral visioning” technique.It actually helped me achieve my primary goals – because by consciously setting my primary goal to the side, and focusing on something related to it (or maybe in support of it), I was still making progress but I wasn’t experiencing as much stress. And as a result, I was more open to the serendipity and the chance encounters – with people and with information – that helped me make progress on the primary goal!
Set an intention, get your ducks in a row, and then get out of your own way by focusing on something else!
SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) is a strategic planning tool, originally developed by Albert Humphrey of SRI in the 1960’s, to clarify an organization’s capabilities within a particular competitive environment. It’s not just a useful technique for business… I encourage many of my graduate students to use SWOT to better understand the context of their thesis problem or capstone project. SWOT is also a popular tool for quality professionals – the ASQ Service Quality Division maintains an introduction to SWOT on their web site.
However, it is REALLY EASY to do a BAD SWOT. If you try to use a bad SWOT to support your strategic decision making, it’s very likely that you’ll draw conclusions that are inconsistent (at best). The worst case scenario is that your SWOT can lead you to totally incorrect conclusions – and interventions or strategic decisions that damage your organization, rather than support and grow it. In a collaborative situation, it’s easy to deliver a BAD SWOT, especially when you genuinely wish to acknowledge all voices – and this wish is coupled with a tight schedule to deliver the SWOT.
How do you prepare a GOOD SWOT? Here are the four tests I ask my students to perform on each and every point within the SWOT analysis:
Is the point supported by data or a reference in the literature? It’s easy to let anecdotes or personal opinions slip in to a SWOT. Requiring that all points are supported by data or research helps; personal opinions must be captured carefully (e.g. survey results over a representative sample of the population).
Does the point address the issue at the right scale? If you are analyzing strategy for your organization as a whole, you don’t want your individual SWOT points to address the division, product-line, or product level – unless you can make a clear case for how your point impacts the scale of the whole analysis.
Have you accounted for variation? Not everyone will agree with all points. One way around this is the poll the stakeholders within an organization (at the appropriate scale) to determine whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, etc. with each point. Prioritize the items according to greatest agreement.
Do you know why the point should be classified as a strength, weakness, opportunity, or threat? Sometimes a threat or a weakness is an opportunity, when considered in the context of the strengths; try to make connections between the four quadrants by considering these relationships.
And in addition, it’s important to do this final test at the end of the SWOT:
Do any of the points directly conflict with one another? If so, REMOVE THEM.
Here are some real (modified) examples extracted from real SWOTs (to show you what I mean). Feel free to add your own guidelines to the Comments about what makes a GOOD SWOT.
Our headquarters is beautiful. This statement fails primarily on #3 and #4. Does everyone agree that the headquarters is beautiful? Probably not. But if they do, why should this be considered a strength? Do we have evidence that a beautiful headquarters contributes in any way to our organization’s ability to meet its strategic goals? A simple link should be made explaining why this is relevant as a strength.
The number of new customers is increasing. This statement is OK, but should be supported by data, a check to make sure that data is at the right scale, and an explanation of why this is a strength. “The number of new customers has been steadily increasing over the past 5 years, from 600 new customers in 2007 to over 8,000 new customers in 2012. Demand for our services across the organization is strong.”
Two thirds of our budget goes to supporting our consultants. So what? Why is this a strength? How do we compare to other organizations that also allocate budget to supporting consultants? Does this indicate that our funds are being prioritized properly? Maybe this in, in fact, a weakness – but we won’t know it until we compare ourselves to benchmarks.
We don’t acknowledge or discuss our weaknesses. This point is weak on all four criteria. If this is a true statement, what data do we have that supports it? Are such conversations lacking at the organizational level, the division level, or the team level (or all three)? Most significantly, which one of those levels is relevant to the SWOT at hand? Does everyone feel this way, or is there some variation in the sentiment? Furthermore, is this really a weakness? I’d say it is potentially more of an opportunity to stimulate wider discussion. Can we position this statement as an opportunity instead? I also find it funny that this is a weakness in a SWOT that is specifically designed to encourage acknowledging and discussing weaknesses. Hmm.
Our technology organization is decentralized. This point fails on all criteria except #2. How is the technology organization decentralized, and why is this a weakness? Comparison to benchmarks of organizations with centralized vs. decentralized technology is merited here. For some organizations, decentralization of technology services in fact makes it easier to achieve high levels of customer service.
Nationally, there is low or declining confidence among employees of their executive management teams, particularly in larger companies. OK, this one fails on all four criteria. First, where’s the data? Second, this is totally outside the scale of the organization, and I’m not sure what relevance it has to the organization completing the SWOT. Furthermore, there’s definitely an issue of variation here: what’s the variation in the opinions among employees here? And finally, why is this a weakness? It might actually be a threat.
Globalization provides opportunities for international experiences for our consultants. According to what data? And what opportunities are relevant to our people? Do all of our consultants need international experiences, or do we just want to make it possible for the ones who are interested to get such experience? Is this an opportunity across the organization, or maybe just for our consultants who we are assigning to projects for which international experience is appropriate?
We are competing with other organizations for top-quality entry level employees. How do we know that we’re competing? Are we defining this opportunity at the right scale – that is, are we competing across the organization, or maybe just for one or two key products or product lines? Furthermore, is this really an opportunity? Seems it might be more of a threat.
We should leverage our high demand. OK, fantastic… even more fantastic if you can reiterate the data that justifies that claim, and make sure that the data is on the appropriate scale. But why? Why should we invest the time or resources in leveraging this demand? Towards what goal are we reaching here? And do our defined strengths point to ways how we can accomplish this?
The human capital threat. Retirement of knowledgeable and qualified people are on the rise. Fails on all four criteria. How do we know retirements are on the rise? How do we know those retiring people are qualified (maybe it’s good that they’re leaving, and we have room for new blood and new ideas in our organization – meaning this would be an opportunity). Perhaps the real threat is that we’ll lose their institutional knowledge. And if so, is this across the board, or just in one division or product line?
Population growth of our consultant pool undermines the rigor with which they are solving problems. Senior consultants are spread too thin. This statement is a tricky one, because it’s assuming a cause and effect relationship: the pool of internal people is growing, so the mentors are stretched thin, and so the teams aren’t able to solve problems with such high levels of rigor. How do we know that this causal relationship exists? In addition, how do we know that it results in less rigorous solutions?
We may have utilized all available, qualified, local part-time staff in the community. Again, this is an example where the data is key, and it’s not provided. How many people do we have? How many people do we need? What are our projections, across the organization, for how many people we’ll need in the future? This may not be a problem or a threat at all, unless our plans for growth and the ability of the local community to support that growth are not aligned. More analysis is needed.
I recently saw the two statements below in a SWOT for a university, conducted at the university level. First, as a strength: “Our intercollegiate athletic programs add value.” Second, as a weakness: “The athletic funding model and return on investment are questioned.” In addition to being in direct conflict, there is no data provided, and there is no assertion of why this is a significant issue. I can guess, but I don’t want to. I want the data to guide me to my conclusions!