Sunday, April 29, 2007

The White Light of Cognition

We’re all creative and innovative even if we think we’re not. Some of us get a thrill out of re-designing an existing process, program or product to make it a little better. Others find continuous improvement not enough and go for the home run---inventing something entirely new. Both are equally important ways of trying to change the world. Both are fundamental to the mind set of a strong leader. The status quo is not an option. But the status quo wins out more often than not because it’s hard to let in the “white light of cognition”.

It’s the “aha” moment when you see a problem in a new light. Sometimes, that moment arrives serendipitously, in a flash without warning. Other times, it has to be coaxed by being deliberate in the pursuit of the new and better. It is at this nexus of puzzlement and will to dig deeper that leaders have an opportunity to move the situation forward.

Simple stories I read in the newspaper remind me of this creative power that we exploit too little. Take the example of a young woman suffering from what appears to be anorexia, as described in How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Despite multiple attempts by the health care providers to help her, they failed and concluded repeatedly that she was “mentally unstable”. However, a Boston gastroenterologist solved the mystery. He took a different tact. First, he suspended his judgment. That is, he decided to believe her when she emphatically said that she was eating. Then, he asked her lots of questions. That led to the diagnosis of celiac disease, an inability of her body to digest wheat gluten. In comes the white light overriding the “errors of cognition” of all who had treated her beforehand.

Leaders anywhere are faced with similar dilemmas. Accept the prevailing “wisdom” (group think) or push more because some facts, opinions or experiences don’t quite fit?

Here’s another example. Imagine the umbrella and a windy, rainy day. We’re in for many of those days over the few months. By the time the snow flakes fly, many thousands of umbrellas will have “bitten the dust”. Turned inside out and never to return to their former symmetrical shapes. But, what if the umbrella was shaped like an airplane wing and re-directed itself to the best position to fit the wind? Yes, there is one---“The Senz”---designed by a young Dutchman who got tired of throwing out umbrellas. When this innovative umbrella comes to North America, I’ll be one of the first ones in line.

Innovation is top of mind in all organizations. In a recent survey we undertook for a client on leadership development practices, that was the most desired and the weakest capability. It can be learned, as we know from creativity experts such as Edward de Bono and others. It can also be as simple as each of us committing to letting the “white light of cognition” in. That means not putting up with the status quo when it’s not working, suspending judgment, being interested rather than interesting (asking lots of questions) and accepting that what you know might be wrong.

It’s a tall order when the obstacles to change are many and the time to sit back and think is in short supply. The reward, however, will be the satisfaction of creating and inventing a better way. The excitement and joy are worth the flak necessary to get beyond the “errors of cognition”. The obstacles and the time constraints will seem a little less onerous in the midst of such an accomplishment!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

From "Sick Man" to "Rich Man" in a Generation: Collaboration's Magic Potion

With a fair amount of Irish in me, I have had more than a passing interest in Ireland’s rise from the ashes. In one generation, Ireland’s leaders have stunned the pundits, nay-sayers and anyone else who thinks “it just can’t be done”. By deciding to work together (read, “collaborate”), the various stakeholders have aptly demonstrated that a shared “game plan” really works to the advantage of many not just the few. The idea applies to organizations as much as countries.

My ancestors were dirt poor when they arrived on Halifax’s shoreline in the early part of the 20th century. They barely rose above poverty most of their lives here. Nevertheless, they did leave a rich legacy. Over three generations, we finally worked our way “up”. Post-secondary education provided the main ticket to greater prosperity. Good government policy helped too: national health care, student loans, labour laws, private and public pensions, land-use planning, flood control, the assurance (more or less) of clean water and electrical power and more dependable services such as telephone, legal, police, fire, garbage, conservation and flood control. These gains for the greater good came about through private-public partnerships and sensible creative thinking.

While Ireland has taken cross-sectoral partnering to new heights, in comparison, it feels as if we’re in a funk and a slump. We are reminded by Stats Canada and a number of think tanks in our country and around the world that in comparison to other developed countries, we’ve got some significant problems: our standard of living is declining relatively speaking, we’re dead last among developed nations in our spending on early childhood education, our cities are suffering from many afflictions including lack of sustainable infrastructure funding, universities are under-funded and Canada’s poorest are no better off than they were 25 years ago.

Yet, Ireland, which has had some very bad times, is proving that overcoming adversity can be done in record time if the right “parties” agree and put their shoulders to the wheel. Poverty is one example. In 1997, Ireland developed a National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) wherein poverty issues were placed at the heart of government decision making. The 10-year plan targeted all aspects of the problem: income, education, employment, health and housing. It took minimum wage-earners off the income tax roll and put more money into training, especially for immigrants and transient workers. It raised welfare payments, boosted child care and built more affordable housing. Poor neighbourhoods were provided with government investment if local partnerships of business leaders, activists and the poor themselves were formed to develop solutions.

The results speak to the effectiveness of Ireland’s collaborative, multi-faceted strategy: Ireland’s poverty rate has been slashed from 15 percent to 6.8 per cent. The Canadian rate has been stuck at 16 per cent for decades.

The seeds for change date back to the 1960s and continue unabated to this day. It’s a story of helping the “middle class” to get stronger and not lose ground in an increasingly interconnected global economy. The signal that better things were to come began with education. The Irish government created the policy structure for secondary education to be free (an issue we tackled long ago in Canada to our benefit). This enabled many more working class kids to get a high school or a technical degree. Joining the EU in 1973 widened the educated workforce upon which Ireland could draw. EU membership brought subsidies to build better infrastructure. As well, trade unionists, government, farmers and business people agreed on a plan of fiscal austerity, slashing corporate taxes to 12.6 per cent, moderating wages and prices and aggressively courting foreign investment. The icing on the cake occurred in 1996 when the government made college education free. Imagine what that would be like here!

By all accounts, the Irish “Way” is yielding benefits for many. According to Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat), nine out of ten of the top pharmaceutical companies, sixteen of the top twenty medical device companies and seven of the top software designers have operations in Ireland. Kick-started in one generation, this kind of synergy has no where to go but up. It’s not without warts and wrinkles, no doubt. However, the trend line looks good.

In Canada, there are ample examples of collaboration past and present within and across all sectors. These efforts continue despite a culture that is tentative in its support for balancing courageous, anticipatory decision making (tackling perceptible problems before they reach crisis proportions) with “90-day thinking” (focusing on those issues likely to blow up in a crisis in the next 90 days).

The lesson in the Irish “miracle” for me is this: collaboration in an organization or in a country will not happen without the endorsement and attention from the leaders at the top. Furthermore, those leaders must be willing to step out of their comfort zones and “let go” to experience the magic of many minds inventing a better way. Finally, they must act to pave the way for reform. Otherwise, we’re left to “work around”.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Customer Service Blooms

Spring must be in our collective psyche despite the persistently cool weather. For reasons inexplicable to me, I have been subject to unusually pleasant customer service. In that I am generally jaded about what I will encounter on the phone or face-to-face, these encounters came as a surprise. So low are my expectations that I barely recognized the good service I was receiving. Only when I basked in the benefits in my home environment did I realize that something special had happened.

Take the simple act of buying flowers. As my friends and family know very well, the ambience of a place either cheers me up or makes me grumpy. For example, candles in a restaurant are a must! Flowers are in the same category. The difference is they can cheer us up all day. But, I’ve been depriving myself of fresh cut flowers and small blooming plants for the house. I put myself on a flower budget over the past year because I realized that my “habit” was getting costly. I have not, therefore, frequented the flower kiosks in the grocery stores.

With the coming of Spring, I justified that my disciplined behaviour over the last several months warranted a reward---some flowers! Instead of avoiding the flower area in my local Dominion store, it became a magnet for my attention. My two visits have “exceeded my expectations”. With the benefit of my reflections on the first one, I asked a few questions of the woman who had taken care of me on both occasions.

This was her approach on my first visit. When completing the transaction, she took the opportunity to tell me how to take care of my new “Heather” plants. I did not know that cold, strong tea was the best source of water for them. I have dutifully followed her instructions with good results. I also purchased some roses; however, she mentioned nothing about them. Once home with the roses, I had some trouble with one drooping almost immediately. “No problem”, I said to myself. “That’s the norm and the price of working with fresh cut flowers.”

On my second visit, I repeated my pattern: roses and another flowering plant (lilies). This time, she met me while I was choosing the lily and provided advice on care and after care so I could re-use for next year. At the counter, she told me how to avoid drooping roses (very hot water). I would have walked away and repeated the same mistake and it certainly had not occurred to me to report my drooping problem. I had not one sad-looking rose upon following her advice. They were all still straight up even in the compost pile! The irony is that I have been advised of this “trick” in the past. I had simply forgotten it in the rush of life.

At the end of my second visit, I asked the employee how she gained her knowledge and why she was so helpful. She was essentially self-taught through books, the HGTV channel and experience over time. Her helpfulness was driven by a desire to send every single customer away with one tip. I don’t know whether management has made this a requirement (a positive attitude and an informed staff member) as I didn’t get that far in my questioning. I do know that my own attitude towards the store in general has gone up.

Some very successful organizations stress the importance of “attitude” in their recruiting strategy combined with a supportive working environment. Southwest Airlines is a prime example. I believe West Jet is the same---confirmed by a recent experience. Blockbuster tries by having a staff member say “Hello” to each entering customer. Home Depot is on the road to recovery with a new CEO who is stressing customer service for all, not just some. The previous one dropped the ball by focusing on the construction trades and making life miserable for staff (as different from the founders). Home Depot’s business suffered accordingly. Thus, the best attitudes can be spoiled in an environment that fails to enable an employee to shine and messes with customer relationships.

Yes, I know. This is old news. But, maybe, things are getting better. That is, leaders are becoming more determined to get customer service right as the hard evidence piles up. Dollar signs are not easily ignored in a world where great success can become great failure with unhappy, poorly prepared employees.

It’s not as simple as it seems. My experience evolved from the employee caring (a great attitude) and knowing something worthwhile (providing quality information). A reduction in quality of the service or the product would have compromised my satisfaction. For example, our own Issy Sharp has parlayed the Four Seasons Hotels over more than 40 years into a worldwide luxury brand. His deep regard for satisfied and well-selected and trained employees and attention to every detail of the customer experience are the prime sources of his success as a leader.

Another that comes to mind is the founder of Dyson vacuum cleaners. He has tapped into a disgruntled world wide customer base with a vacuum cleaner that really does the job. His passion for making something better and then providing the service and support to reach customers has made him a billionaire. At the same time, he’s contributing to making a “cleaner”, healthier world.

This Spring I’ve been on a roll. Better customer service at every turn as I go about my errands and business. I’m blowing my flower budget with my new found faith in service. I relented and bought a Dyson because I became more aware of how much I’ve been putting up with when I did not need to do so. The good experience of quality and customer service is stoking the fires of “ambience”, a feeling I cannot ignore.