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.
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 - 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?
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:
Mary Kay Ash said that, in order to succeed in sales as well as life overall, we should each “Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, ‘Make me feel important.’” John Dewey, an American philosopher, said that the deepest human desire is “to be important”. So how do we go about making others feel important? Should we greet them with an honorific? Should we flatter and seek to boost their egos? Should we curtsey?
Honorifics have their place and help to convey respect, certainly. A curtsey or bow is sometimes called for. Many interactions, however, will require neither of those. And flattery is insincere and therefore a waste. The key to making people feel important is simple: just listen.
Now, I didn’t say it would be easy. Most things described as “simple” are not “easy” because they require some kind of a change. “Simplification” is a process. If you’re not a good listener, all you can do is: try, try again. Practice, after all, makes perfect.
The thing about listening is, it’s active. This is another one of those concepts that took me a while to grasp – the very phrase seemed misleading. How can listening be active? We’re not talking; we’re not doing anything but sitting there and staring at the other person… but that’s wrong. When you are listening, it’s true that you shouldn’t be talking – that’s called interrupting, and is, as you probably learned in kindergarten, very rude – but you should be working to understand what the other person is saying.
One of the things that many of us “good communicators” do is prepare how we’re going to respond, while the other person is still talking. You want to be on your toes, right? You don’t want to seem like you can’t hold up your end of the conversation. Well, guess what? You’re doing it wrong. In Dale Carnegie’s iconic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Isaac F. Marcosson, a celebrity journalist, is credited with saying that people fail to make a favorable impression because they don’t listen attentively: “They have been so much concerned with what they are going to say next that they do not keep their ears open”.
If you have a really hard time listening – for example perhaps you get bored and start planning your grocery list, or you start looking around the room instead of focusing on the person you’re conversing with – Mindtools.com offers this tip:
“Try repeating their words mentally as they say them – this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.”
Here’s a bonus that comes with listening well: It makes you seem more interesting. Dale Carnegie says “To be interesting, be interested”. This is because people like talking about themselves and their ideas; if you give them a chance to do that, and you seem genuinely interested, they will, consequently, like you. So, hand-in-hand with being a good listener is encouragement.
Encourage others to talk about themselves and their interests. Ask questions (another component of active listening). Show some enthusiasm. Even if you aren’t totally on-board with what they’re saying – in fact, especially if you’re not totally on-board with it. Questions further communication; they open doors. Simply passing judgement by deciding that you’re not going to be interested is a door-closer. So you don’t like to talk about the types of submarines used in World War II – maybe you’ll learn something anyway. At the very least keep an open mind, and demonstrate that somehow. Don’t shut down emotionally – if you’re emotionally withdrawn, your physical presence won’t buy you a penny’s worth of dirt. You need to be actively participating by actively listening.
Really, making people feel important is as “simple” as following the Golden Rule. Don’t you want to be listened to? Don’t you want to feel that your thoughts, opinions, ideas and interests have value? Do you want to talk to someone who is looking around the room, fidgeting with their nails, making a mental “to-do” list? You have it in you to be a good listener – just think of how you would want someone to behave while you were talking, and do that. Simple. Right?