You have a big problem. And you’re trying to solve it, but you just can’t. You keep saying to yourself and your team “Okay, here’s the problem”. “Here’s the issue.” “Let’s clarify the issue”. And all those words and focus, and the attempt to really gain an understanding of the problem… just aren’t working.
How do you get everyone to come together and find an explanation? Maybe you should try a new tactic: focus on the potential, not the problem. Be outcome-oriented.
The term “outcome-oriented” comes up in discussions about problem-solving, goal-setting, and strategy. Some people don’t like it. They say that you should instead focus on the process, because if you keep your eyes squarely on the prize, you’ll lose sight of everything that needs to happen along the way. There’s a simple answer to that: every big project is made up of a bunch of little projects; manage those projects capably, and you’re golden.
Naysayers of an outcome-oriented approach sometimes think that with too much focus on the end result, any means are justifiable. But I think that’s largely determined by your overall corporate culture. It won’t be a problem for you, because all throughout your company, from the tippy-top corner office to the basement broom closet, your employees know that your Big Goal is to help people – you’re good guys. You’re not greedy, you’re not going to lie, cheat or steal to improve the bottom line.
So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the upside of an outcome-oriented approach.
If you approach a problem scenario from an at-the-finish-line perspective, you can put together a plan that, when you account as best you can for the unforeseen, lets you finish the race on time and injury-free.
There is a bridge that I cross nearly every day. It’s an intersection bridge, with three lanes in each direction. I usually wind up waiting at the light to turn left. A while ago, when waiting for my green arrow, I noticed my car shaking. At first I thought it was car trouble, but then I realized the whole bridge was shaking, from the weight and movement of traffic crossing over it in opposite directions. What a cheap bridge, I thought. Shaking and quaking and – this thing could cave in at any minute! Eventually, I had an epiphany – the bridge was not dangerous because it shook. The bridge would be dangerous if it didn’t shake. That “shaking” was caused by the bridge flexing. If it didn’t flex, I realized, then it really could cave in! The engineers who built that bridge knew that flexibility was key to ensuring thousands of cars could safely traverse it each day. Without that flexibility, the columns supporting the bridge would experience too much friction and pressure – they’d crack and eventually crumble. The same is true in your business.
In today’s business world, there is no such thing as a constant. Changes come swiftly, and while consistency is vital, the only way to keep from crumbling is to be flexible. Whether working on a short-term project or mapping out long-term strategy, you must be prepared for the unexpected, and build flexibility into your blueprints. Good strategy means thinking up “if, then” scenarios ahead of time, but sometimes all the “ifs” can’t be predicted. So you have to prepare your team to react, and adapt, to change. Make sure your team has the tools to deal effectively with the unexpected: accountability and authority.
Accountability has to do with accepting responsibility and then taking actions that will get you to the place you wish to be. As a component of flexibility, accountability allows each team member to take on a role in adapting to change, and follow through with their tasks in an efficient manner – since they know that every other team member is also reliably completing his portion of the project (being accountable,) they have a sense of freedom to do their own work, because they know they are contributing to a viable project.
Authority is the power to make decisions and take actions that are in line with those decisions. As a component of flexibility, authority allows each team member to redefine the scope of their work and then do the work accordingly. Responsibility without authority is a deadly burden, and will drag your team members straight down into the water under the crumbling bridge.
A bridge is designed to get you from point a to point b. Maybe your whole business is a bridge; maybe one project is a bridge to larger business goals. Maybe you’re in a start-up phase and your bridge will take you to long-term viability or acquisition goals. Regardless of what phase you’re in, what your “bridge” is, you must engineer flexibility from the start, to ensure the business can handle the friction from multiple traffic streams and all the changes that will arise along the way. Flexibility should be an integral part of the way your business is structured – at every level, with every team, and in every employee’s duties.
As an aspiring novelist (isn’t everyone an aspiring novelist?) I know all too well the fear that comes with an attempt at “serious writing”. I know what it’s like to sweat and slave and struggle to eek out just a few sentences. I know what it’s like to think you’re a super-fantastic-awesome storyteller, until you join your first critique group – and how then even the mildest, softest, kindest criticism feels like a blow to the gut. I know the fretting, plotting and angst that go into turning a series of ideas into a story- something that people want to read, that engages and enthralls and leaves the reader panting for MORE. I know all about it.
As a copywriter, I also know some other stuff. I know what it’s like to be assigned a 600-word article, punch out 1,000+ words and turn it in, figuring that more is better and the client just got a big bonus…. and then to be told, no, it needs to be no more than 700 words, max. I know what it’s like, at that point, to think “Okay, what am I going to cut? What vital piece of information will the reader now be forced to miss out on because my client can’t accept all the lovely,worth-their-weight-in-gold words that I’ve just GIFTED to them? I’ll go ahead and do this thing, but it’s not going to be good… not good at all.” And then you do it and find that, lo and behold, you were wrong… a few hundred words can indeed be chopped (fully 1/3 of the work, mind you!) and in fact the article – which is, after all, a story – will still be good. In fact, better.
I know what it’s like to then have the client say to you “Actually, due to space constraints, this article has to be cut down to 300 words.” And you think: “300 paltry words?! Now that is ridiculous. There’s no way I could possibly cut this work of art down to 300 words. What crucial points will the poor reader miss out on now? I’ve already taken out some of the best bits. Impossible. Okay… well, I’ll do it, but now it’s REALLY gonna suck.” And you know what? You do it and… no, it couldn’t be… better?!
Yep. It’s great. It’s so concise, so meaningful - every word makes an impact! Every vital fact has not only been preserved, but now each one simply shines. Ahhh… the art of concision. Such an elusion to so many novelists. We can’t cut our precious stories… how will we present every nuance of every character? How will the readers get all the back-story they deserve? How can we possibly show – not tell, no, no – in fewer words? Well, you should give it a try. I know you’ll like it… once it’s over. You’ll see. It’ll be for the story’s own good. Grab your red pen, and just start crossing out. Fear not the delete key and the backspace, dear author – they are perhaps the best tools in your arsenal.
You know that “new relationship” feeling? The one with all the euphoria? Well, that’s kind of what I imagine it feels like to be involved in a start-up. As a person who loves to collaborate on big ideas, I know that head-in-the-clouds, anything-is-possible feeling. It’s like everything is gonna be great – it’s a feeling of promise and hope and eager desire. For a marketer like me, it kinda equates with “engagement”. And in a business setting, that feeling gets ideas churning like nothing else. Because there’s just So. Much. Possibility. How can well-established companies, whose own start-up roots are buried deep in the bedrock, hone in on – and gain from - that feeling? One word: “Innovation”.
The world of Internet marketing is young – it’s vibrant, bold, and growing all the time. It seems like every day, I learn of another new method to reach customers (and by “customers” I mean people at every stage of engagement – potential customers, existing customers, estranged customers and evangelists) and it’s so exciting. Social media, webinars, pop-up ads, PPC, content marketing, email - the Internet offers a wealth of possibility!
New businesses seem to always be jumping right onto the bandwagon – they see a great marketing opportunity rolling by, and boy do they hop on board. I think it’s because a new company still has such a great entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone’s excited because everything is so new – since the marketers don’t yet know what works for them, they’re open to new things. Instead of saying “oh, we tried that once, it didn’t work,” or “oh, well sure company X is doing it, but it’ll fail” they say “hey, here’s this new thing that might help us be a little faster, a little stronger, let’s try it!” They haven’t “learned” what doesn’t work for them, so they see everything through the eyes of potential. “Hey, this might work!”
It’s not just new companies that manage to do this, though; some very well-established companies manage to keep their entrepreneurial spirit alive throughout the business. Google, for example, doesn’t let their talent pool stagnate due to specialization. Under Google’s “20 percent time” initiative, employees are encouraged to have pet projects, and are even given company-time to work on those projects, to recruit team members and to advertise inside the company so that their ideas will catch on. Maybe every company can’t be Google, but we can all learn from this innovative, can-do grass-roots attitude.
In a previous post, I talked about how you can create your own engagement at work by taking on a pet project – well, I didn’t even know about 20 percent time then (I guess I was under a rock?), so that’s just proof that I’m a genius. Anyway, Google’s not the only company that concurs (about the innovation/pet project thing, not about me being a genius… though I’m sure they’d agree with me there, too) - Apple has Blue Sky, LinkedIn has InCubator, and William McKnight, IBM’s Chairman of the Board from 1949 – 1966 said, in essence, that it is imperative for companies to foster creativity, rather than stifle it, even in the face of mistakes…
“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”
I have always loved maps. And graphs. In my home office, I have a giant map above my desk. Somehow that colorful map, with its measurements and lines, just makes me feel good. Maps, charts, graphs, globes – all of it - I never knew why I loved these things so much, until I stumbled across two stunningly beautiful books by Edward R. Tufte: Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and I am so in love with the images therein. With the graphs.There is, for example, on page 106 of Envisioning, the most beautiful, black-and-white comparison of river lengths, and somehow it took me right back to social studies classes as a kid. I always loved the pie charts and line graph illustrations in those weighty tomes. I think I now understand why. Tufte has made it so clear to me: these graphs, diagrams, studies and charts are all about sharing information. I love information! What a profound statement, huh? But seriously, it’s true – Information levels the playing field. Information is meant to be shared, to help make the world more beautiful. Information brings people together, and isn’t that what marketing is all about?
Marketing, as an information vehicle, helps people make decisions. It helps companies portray their highest ideals, their best offerings, to the world. I guess it could easily be argued that not all marketing is noble, and not all companies are noble – but at our hearts, I think all people are noble – and sharing information is noble, too. I know I’m not the only one who thinks so – today’s love affair with infographics tells me that. What’s your favorite graph ever?
The phrase “random acts of kindness” used to really bother me. I thought, an act of kindness is not random; it is need-based – you see a need and you fill it. Shouldn’t we all be doing this, all of the time?
Perhaps, I thought, the “random” refers to the fact that the need is random – you randomly see that someone with a bunch of luggage needs help opening the doors at the train station, for example – your act of kindness, then, is not random – it is purposeful; it is a choice… as would be your reaction if you chose not to help the person in need.
Then I thought, Perhaps it’s okay that the phrase exists – if you randomly give a flower to a
stranger on the street, and you don’t see that they seem to “need” a flower, I guess that qualifies… maybe the phrase is just too-often misused (and therefore overused).
Then I began to think, Perhaps I’m just looking at this the wrong way – maybe I’m being a “Debbie Downer”. I decided to do some more research. Wikipedia says that a random act of kindness is “a selfless act performed by a person or people wishing to either assist or cheer up an individual person or people,” and that sounds like a fine thing to me – although, Hello, it’s me again: Ms. Know-It-All – Wikipedia’s definition does kind of prove my whole “need-based” point.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
Then I came across this great post at QueensU Be Well, a health blog for Queens University students, that helped me realize that the semantics of the phrase (which, according to my original thinking, should actually be something like “Kind responses to random needs,”) don’t matter – what matters is that we are all encouraging each other to simply be nice to one another. I know, I know, we should all be nice all of the time – maybe we shouldn’t have to be encouraged – but our pesky human nature prevents us from living ideally; or perhaps the nature of ideals prevents us from living them (after all – they can’t exist; that’s why they’re ideals). Pushing philosophy to the side along with the semantics, the bottom line is that kindness, random or not, should be spread. If I behave nicely toward you, rather than behaving meanly, it’s good for both of us: it makes us both feel good, and we’ll share those good feelings with others. So whether I want to call kindness a choice or a random act, doesn’t matter.
Did you know there is a Random Act of Kindness Day? In the US, it is celebrated on February 17. Perhaps on that day, I will hold the doors for two people at the train station.
My dear friend Arindam granted me an honor, for which I am very thankful: The Candle Lighter Award. To borrow a description of the award from Arindam, this award originated for blogs “that bring light to the world [and offer] inspiration, hope, optimism, good advice, faith-filled assurances, and even humor”. Every day through his blog, Arindam fills the world with so much love and hope and honesty, that, if I were to choose one candle to stay lit and one to extinguish, I would extinguish my own and tell Arindam to keep moving forward. But I know that he wouldn’t want to hear that. He would have none of it – he would say that there is plenty of room in the world, and that we must fill it with as many hopeful candles as we possibly can – and he would be right. So it is with great thanks, and humble sincerity, that I accept the candle, and hope that I will be able to live up to Arindam’s expectations and light a candle for someone else. That’s what this life is all about, right: paying it forward, lighting each other’s candles so that, when it seems there is darkness, suddenly we realize how much great company we have.
To learn more about the Candle Lighter Award, please visit my friend Arindam’s blog: