Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Not My Fault. Oh?

We've all heard this sorry chorus (and if we put on our Big Boy/Big Girl duds, we can admit that we've even said things like this):

  • That's wasn't my job
  • The customer didn't get me the information I needed
  • I was drunk, but I wasn't the cause of the accident
  • My hard-drive failed
  • I have a slow metabolism
  • It was the traffic
  • It wasn't me.
We belong to a culture of decreasing accountability.

That's why this episode of This American Life stopped me from my Saturday night's reading. When he was 18 years old, Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and More Than It Hurts You, killed a girl. He was driving--sober and straight--along a highway when she swerved her bicycle into the path of his car. There was nothing he could do to save her. He describes his "stomach-turning" behavior at points where he was more concerned about himself--how he might appear--than about the girl the car he was driving struck.

While there was nothing he could have done, Darin's story repeats this refrain: "the girl I killed." He's clear that, while her bike turned crisply into his lane, he was piloting the car that intersected with her and her bike. He was responsible, as the instrument of her death.

Life has become about "who did it" and "who's to blame," with biz owners, executives, sales reps, technicians, husbands, politician, and children taking sometimes draconian steps to avoid blame...or, better, to shift it to someone else. Jack Welch was lionized as a "genius" for his competitive stance "Be first or second in the market or begone." The detritus of Jack Welch's turn at the GE rudder gave us "rank and yank," an "HR system" based on the Vitality Curve wherein the top 20% get raises and promotions, the bottom 10% get the door and the middle 70% get to keep their jobs. To keep your job, one would have to be either in the first or second ranking. Those on the third rung are dispatched, regardless of their contributions. After several iterations, GE professional and execs, speaking privately, of course, have said that the chorus of "it wasn't me" is deafening, as people struggle to look better than their neighbor as the strongest players in the industry compete with their equally-stellar peers. The workplace culture has become increasingly toxic, with less collaboration, sharing of knowledge assets and mentoring? Who would want to be mentored if that mentor could "turn state's evidence" and become party to one's termination. HR staffers, under Welch's system, were reduced to ranch hands who conducted the annual culling.

I remember a course I took some years ago that served up a brutal take on responsibility. "Responsibility," they said "begins with being 'cause in the matter' of one's life." Here's the entire quote:

Responsibility begins with the willingness to be cause in the matter of one's life. Ultimately, it is a context from which one chooses to live. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what's so, and your stand. Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. That is not the truth. It is a place to stand. No one can make you responsible, nor can you impose responsibility on another. It is a grace you give yourself - an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life.
-Werner Erhard
Claim no responsibility? You're a victim and have admitted that there's nothing that can be done.


As a result of my participation in this program (drank the Kool-Ade as with a protein shot), I don't offer excuses--really stylized cover-ups--which are about me rather than a sincere apology and offer to make it right, which is about the person I'd fallen short with. No one has ever cared about my excuses and--here's the money shot--most of those excuses could have been avoided.

  • Not your job? Tell the boss that there's a gap in the job design rather than letting it be a surprise.
  • Missing customer info? Tell them so and that you won't be able to get then what they need in a timely way
  • Drunk and talking to the police? Suck it up and blow, hard, into the Breathalyzer
  • Hard-drive failure? Set up that backup you've been talking about and pretending wasn't a priority
  • Got a slow metabolism? Move!
  • Heavy traffic and you've got a meeting? Leave earlier. Most of us in Indy know where the trouble spots are on I465. Traffic is just an excuse.
  • Not you? Who else, then?

In an instance I got to hear a leader take responsibility back. Their company had deleted my text messaging ability, then my picture messaging, and finally -- Poof! -- there went my ability to make phone calls. After serveral calls, several reps and several hours, it was finally corrected. Then, I got a call from those people's manager. He had listened to recordings of the calls I'd made and was completely chagrinned: "That's not the kind of service we're committed to." He said, baldly, "We dropped the ball and sucked up a whole lot of your time" and promised to retrain his staff and to credit my plan for the days of lost service.

I was so stunned I couldn't speak.

Full Episode: Darin's piece is about 9 1/2 minutes into it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

There Are Things Bigger than Us All

I saw this and couldn't stop weeping at the love and faith of these men and this big cat.

This is just right on so many levels.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Notes from the Productivity Industrial Complex

My friend, Nwokedi, suggested I read this (below). Like the diversity workshops that were legion during the 80's and 90's, productivity discussions tend to focus on what's in the best interest of companies and not in the best interest of people. To take a deeper cut at that, they tend to focus on "getting things done" but not as much on "getting the right things done." Even the Covey workshops. the self-appointed Gold Standard of the Productivity Industrial Complex, doesn't have much to say about how a lowly employee, having happily sorted their tasks into A, B and C priorities, can prevail upon their leader to moving the C items off everyone's list. As workplaces continue to contract, workers are doing more, but very little job redesign is happening.

I’ll include my thoughts inline with the quoted text:

Alternative Productivity’s Tenets (David Allen):

  1. “Productivity” is an Industrial Era economics term that applies to factories, machines, and economies. When applied to people it often has a dehumanizing effect and negates both individual differences and unique talents.

    : Amen. I found myself concerned about the entire concept of "productivity." As an economic term, it refers to a ratio of outputs to inputs, like labor productivity as the relationship between results and the work that went into their creation. People aren’t machines and even a machine can’t simply be tasked to produce more without looking at upstream and down stream inputs and outputs as well as system capabilities. We are more concerned with equipment failure from being over-stressed than we are about burning out people.
  2. If your productivity increases, but your pay stays the same, then you’re effectively taking a pay cut (same goes if you begin working longer hours for the same pay).

    : This is a conversation I have with consultants constantly. One bragged to me about his hourly rate. When I asked him to calculate how many hours he was working this billing cycle and how much money he was getting, he quietly began scribbling (“I’ll show you.”). You can’t imagine the look of horror on his face when he figured out that his effective hourly rate was one-fifth his rack rate. We had a long talk that afternoon that shifted his world.
  3. The 40-hour work week hasn’t changed since 1940 and is ridiculously outdated.
  4. If you’re consistently having trouble focusing, it’s often because you’re focusing on the wrong things (i.e. things you’re not passionate about or things that aren’t best suited to your skillset).

    : Trouble focusing may be a symptom of memory erosion as our plates get more and more full. People today have access, in one issue of the New York Times, to more information than was available to the average human being in an entire lifetime just a century ago. As hoards of new information are being fed in, other information is organized for long-term storage--even if that information is needed for short-term, immediate use. Add in stress, which has been proven to reduce retention and attentiveness, and it gets, I forgot what I was writing about....*

    Frankly, we aren’t experiencing a focus deficit: we’re experiencing too much garbage on the plate with little leadership support to move it to the trash where it belongs.
  5. Increased productivity should equal less time on the job. If you’re getting more done, you should get more vacation time.

    : Not sure how this follows as employers are able to set up, within legally-prescribed limits, any kind of work rules they choose. Besides, there is an important external driver pressuring leaders to produce more: stockholders. These “owners” are interested in one thing and than it increased revenue for their investment. Few leaders at the C-Suite level are willing to buck their boards or say “No mas” at stockholders’ meetings where initiatives are being put forth that will impact the footprint the job takes up in a worker’s life.
  6. Most best-selling productivity gurus are working in the interests of large corporations and often advocate values and approaches that are not in the best interests of individuals.

    Working in the best interests of companies? Not if these productivity gurus aren't tying their programs to retention. As people run out of bandwidth, they leave. In droves. Over a decade ago, HR strategists started seeing an increasing trend for “downshifting” where career climbers chose to shift career tracks to paths that would allow for more time to engage in other pursuits (see how I didn’t say “work/life balance”—a term I despise...but that’s another post).

    A rule of thumb for calculating the cost of turnover is to take an employee's salary and divide it by 30%. That, very roughly, is base cost of turnover for that one position. Add in a recruiter’s fee or executive signing bonuses, stock options or Golden Parachutes (like a prenupt for the C-Suite set) and the percentage continues to climb. In addition, it can take months for a newly-placed staffer to gain proficiency in a new corporate and departmental cultures and the expectations of the job.

    Then there’s the matter of proof. Most productivity workshops have never been vetted for validity (measures the right things) and reliability (measures consistently over time). They "work" simply because the guru has collected anecdotal information from participants that says so.

    Just a tad self-referential, no?
  7. Increased productivity should result in greater carefree time, more vacations, and more time away from work. Most of the time, however, it does not.
  8. We are living in a time and place that is more “productive” than ever before, but high levels of productivity aren’t making us any happier.

    : Please. “Productive” is not the same as “effective.” You can be doing a lot of things, but not the right things.

    You and I both know people who, during meetings, answer phone calls and respond to or send emails. By not focusing on the people in front of them, meeting durations balloon as topics are started and stopped over and over again. In addition, there’s the little matter of credibility. Doing everything else at a meeting but conducting the meeting is seen as incredibly rude, impacting future promotional opportunities and damaging key relationships.

    Measures of effectiveness can easily been found in most process improvement initiatives with a clearly-defined outcome stated in advance and work to reduce variation around that stated goal. Not so in productivity workshops, which tend to operate at the tactical level rather than the strategic.
  9. Productivity should be designed around our lives, not the other way around.

    : Productivity should be designed around systems of increased effectiveness inside a value chain which should connect to desired outcomes which should connect to the strategic mission of the department, the business unit and the company.

  10. The workforce is laboring for more hours and for less pay, taking fewer vacations, and generally burning out.

    : Yup. In another entry I scribed, I detailed the differences in vacation for the major developed nations. The US leads the pack of industrialized nations in the lack of vacation time: That’s less than France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Japan and Canada. A whopping 26% of US workers take no vacation at all. Many who do, spend more time with their Blackberrys than they do their families, fearing that if they’re too disconnected (1) people will figure out that they’re expendable and (2) the workload when they return will be insurmountable.

  11. The best way to increase productivity is often to quit a lot of things.

    Lalita: Good idea, but most leaders are unwilling to insist on job re-design or to challenge their leaders on the best use of their staffers’ time.

  12. Productivity often poses as the self-development genre but it is not. Self-development and productivity are two very different things. What is best for us as individuals is often bad for productivity.

    : Huh? People development and the resulting impacts on productivity are connected.

  13. The societally scripted routes to success via productivity are failing us.

  14. Products marketed towards busy people (e.g. “Productivity for Busy People,” “Cooking for Busy People,” etc.) only serve to reinforce the problem and often glamorize, excuse, and support the unnecessarily busy life and cult of hyper-efficiency.

    : Is there really something “sexy” about scurrying about like a rat in a maze? Really? Telegraphing that you can't get meaningful work done in a humane way is glamouous? Indeed.

  15. Hacks, tweaks, tricks, etc. have emerged from a productivity hobbyist culture, are largely insufficient at solving bigger life problems, and often do not increase productivity. These hacks etc. are vestiges of the largely "techie" demographic of the early (but self-reinforcing) blogosphere.

  16. Early to bed, early to rise does not necessarily lead to greater productivity. Contrary to several blog posts advocating early rising as a means to greater productivity, the practice of early rising can actually be harmful.

    : Cookie-cutter fixes assume that we’re all the same and have the same requirements. Not so. I get some of my best writing done late at night. Telling me to go to bed at 10 would have me running out the door with my hair on fire. However, an early bird who’s staying up late, can benefit from supports to get to bed at their earlier bedtime.

    In a conversation with a fledgeling business owner, he asked me my opinion about something his "coach" (a marketing consultant who had decided--damn the skillset--to hang out a shingle as a business coach) had said. "Lalita, he told me to play business development CD's in my car while I'm driving." When I asked him what he really liked to do while driving he said "Listen to music." Guess what I told him to do? And I'm looking for his "coach" to suggest he stop treating his clients like they're all him.

  17. More technology often leads to decreased productivity.

  18. Hyper-focusing on productivity often gets in the way of the messy, circuitous, and discursive routes of personal development.

  19. When most people speak of productivity in the office, they’re usually speaking about a specific kind of productivity: cubical-land, desk-job, information-worker productivity. The methods used to produce this kind of productivity often do not generalize to other contexts.

  20. No productivity system can put you in a zen like, meditative, or mind like water state. A calm, focused, and meditative mind leads to greater productivity, but productivity systems cannot create a mind like water.

  21. Too much productivity can turn you into a real tool.

  22. Massive value creation often happens during times when no work is ostensibly being accomplished and productivity levels are ostensibly nil.

  23. What makes people productive varies considerably from person to person.

    Lalita: Huzzah! Truer words have not been written. Task -related productivity is the "booby prize." Figuring out the right things to do and then getting the barriers out of the way so we can focus on the most effective ways of doing those things--that's the juicy cherry.

  24. Productivity is often a necessary evil: if you dislike your job, you’re going to need a water-tight productivity system in place to keep you on task.
  25. Productivity should be designed around lives, not the other way around.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Randy Pausch, Author of "The Last Lecture," Has Died at 47

Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science died today of pancreatic cancer at 47. He died in Virginia, having insisted on moving so that his wife and children could be closer to beloved family members after his death.

His academic achievements are many--he was co-founder with Don Marinelli, of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and started the Building Virtual World course which he taught for a decade. He was a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator and a Lilly Foundation Teaching Fellow and did sabbaticals at Walt Disney Imagineering and Electronic Arts. He authored or co-authored five books, including the book, The Last Lecture; over 70 articles and was the founder of the Alice software project. He topped the list of the World's Top-100 Most Influential People (Time magazine).

Aside from his academic credentials, his relationship with his wife, Jai, and his children, his other crowning achievement was his entry for Carnegie Mellon's Last Lecture series, "Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." In August, 2006, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a mean-spirited disease that is both pitiless and merciless as it eats up the life of the person afflicted with it. By August, 2007, he was told that it had mestastisized and that his time was short. Instead of putting his affairs in order and going on his last vacation, he went to the classroom. Here's his lecture.

Watch it, get your hands on the book, plaster on a broad smile about the beauty of your dreams and then get to work.

Some of my fave nuggets from The Last Lecture:
  • "The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the OTHER people!" — from The Last Lecture
  • "...when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering you to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." — from The Last Lecture
  • "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted." — from The Last Lecture
  • "It's not about how to achieve your dreams, it's all about leading your life. If you lead your life in a right way, karma will take care of itself. And dreams will come to you." — from The Last Lecture
  • "We're not going to talk about spirituality and religion. Although I will tell you that I have experienced a deathbed conversion. I just bought a Macintosh." — from The Last Lecture
  • We cannot change the card we are dealt, just how we play the hand." from The Last Lecture

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Starbucks to Shutter 600 Stores. Is "Your" Fave on the List?

In a cost saving move, Starbucks is shuttering 600 stores (click here for the national list), with job losses totaling in excess of 12,000. Long the ubiquitous coffee retailer, the java giant has noted that (1) McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts has been "eating their lunch" winning coffee tastings and now offering free wifi and confortable louges and (2) the retailer is no longer "special" with the now-jettisoned breakfast sandwiches, increasingly dirty stores, inconsistent brew and stores on every corner. In an effort to getting back to its core business and core market, returning Starbucks head roaster, Howard Schultz, has high hopes for the newly-reengineered, post-closure chain.

I'm sure that this is not the only changes the coffee retailer will be making in the near term. After the beans settle, I'm certain there will be other store closures. What has long bothered me about $tarbuck$ is that it says it is "really selling an experience." OK, but in truth they're using the Walgreens hedgehog (read Good to Great for an explanation) of ubiquity--being everywhere. Hell with the experience. Me? I would have closed those stores in Targets--the ones next to the pizza stands and bedraggle stoppers--and any other location that didn't have the customer feel "special." Because in not doing so, McDonald's, which is now offering free Wifi and cafe lounges, will continue to eat up their market share.

Just as an interesting point of reference, LA lost only two stores to my home city's (Indianapolis) seven, three are stopping operations in Sacramento and a whopping 10 in San Diego. Makes me wonder which set of miscreants was asleep at the switch to have green-lighted the opening of so many stores past the saturation point, particularly in overly-caffeinated San Diego. Even a fouth grader could look at market trends and see that Starbucks had been in trouble for quite some time--that market share would drop off the moment a cuppa joe cost more than a gallon of gas. Hope they get their marching papers soon.

As many of you know, I'm not a fan of RIF's as a way to "clean up" bad business decisions. As an executive coach focusing on business and people strategy, I know that workforce reductions should be the last resort after having made careful decisions along the way. You wouldn't want a doc who was amputation-happy, now would you? Didn't think so. Neither would one want company leaders who, ignoring reports of organizational "pain" (increased competition, declining revenues, changes in purchasing patterns), opt to make workforce cuts to clean up their messes without working to ensure that they've gotten to the root of the malaise.

Oh and promise not to cry if you see your store on the list.

Cross-posted at Smaller Indiana and American Values Alliance

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rush Appears on The Colbert Report. Lalita Dies in Peace

Gerck! Thud. So this is what heaven looks like. Awfully quiet.

OK, so I'm not dead, exactly. But I am pretty blissful. After waiting patiently (not really) for most of the week, I got to see Rush perform for the first time on television in 30 years on The Colbert Report.

Love this group. Their cataloge of songs and amazing wall of sound perforances have them ranked fifth behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kiss and Aerosmith in most consecutive gold and platinum albums by a rock band. They performed Tom Sawyer (here's an earlier version). Had it been Free Will, I might have melted into a puddle with a few smouldering dreadlocks on top.

Here are the lyrics to this song, written over two decades ago. Almost prescient as it contrasts who a boy is perceived to be and who he actually is. People I meet tell me that, in their business dealings, they're not who they "really are." I have to ask them, when are you going to give that up and just "do you?"

Tom Sawyer
A modern-day warrior
Mean mean stride,
Today's Tom Sawyer
Mean mean pride.

Though his mind is not for rent,
Don't put him down as arrogant.
His reserve, a quiet defense,
Riding out the day's events.
The river

And what you say about his company
Is what you say about society.
Catch the mist, catch the myth
Catch the mystery, catch the drift.

The world is, the world is,
Love and life are deep,
Maybe as his eyes are wide.

Today's Tom Sawyer,
He gets high on you,
And the space he invades
He gets by on you.

No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government.
Always hopeful, yet discontent,
He knows changes aren't permanent,
But change is.

And what you say about his company
Is what you say about society.
Catch the witness, catch the wit,
Catch the spirit, catch the spit.

The world is, the world is,
Love and life are deep,
Maybe as his skies are wide.

Exit the warrior,
Today's Tom Sawyer,
He gets high on you,
And the energy you trade,
He gets right on to the friction of the day

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What the Auto Industry Can Learn From Apple

David Murphy
David Murphy

Like hundreds of thousands of people across the country, I stood in
line last weekend at the Apple Store in Newport Beach, Calif., to buy
the new iPhone 3G for my daughter after three unsuccessful attempts at
nearby AT&T stores.

Witnessing this exuberant demand for a new product made me
wonder if this feat could be repeated in other categories, such as the
auto business. What would an automaker have to do to seduce consumers
to stand in line to buy a hot new car? Here are some lessons from the

read more at Ad Age

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

GM CEO Promises to Restructure to Improve Company for the Long Haul. I Hope He Means It.

This morning on NPR, I heard a report from GM CEO, Rick Wagoner. GM is restructuring to try to react to tightening market conditions. Last month, the auto manufacturer announced that it was shuttering 4 assembly plants and selling off or retiring many of its truck divisions including the Hummer brand. Today, they announced that they are trying to generate over $10 BB US through cost-cutting measures that include a 20% reduction in its 40,000-strong salaried workforce and the dramatic scaling back of salaried retiree healthcare benefits.

Wagoner admitted to trying to move the company into a position where it could do more than survive the current economic downturn (though this was an immediate and tantamount concern). He also discussed wanting to position the company (through RIFs and other cost-saving measures) so that it could move quickly and decisively when conditions began showing signs of improvement. This last bit was what struck me from the interview. Given the fact that the downturn coincided with the emerging move to cap greenhouse gases and reduce the proliferation of “petrol pigs,” Wagoner was right to want to use this unfortunate time on our economic landscape to advance the company.

You can listen to the report here. You can also go to the main link (if the one provided doesn’t open up the report).

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Happenning.....