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26 January 2010 • 10:51 am

Inevitable Lurches

The last couple of weeks have seen a coincidence of two sudden, massive, and mostly unexpected lurches. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that has devastated Haiti is human tragedy on a scale rarely seen (until one recalls the 2004 Asian tsunami), and was certainly not anticipated by the island’s millions of residents. Nearly as unanticipated was the lurch in the U.S. political landscape, marked by the GOP’s victory in the special election in Massachusetts and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn limits on corporate participation in election campaigns. I am closely following the aftermath of both Haiti and U.S. politics, since the response to unanticipated change reveals much about the health of the organizations involved.

(I write of Haiti and U.S. politics together only to illustrate a point, and not to imply any comparison between these events. I hope that you will join me and millions of others who have already contributed to one of the many organizations leading Haiti’s earthquake relief efforts.)

In my experience, organizational preparedness for major, unexpected changes varies widely. Most organizations pay lip service, with little more than rueful acknowledgement of the possibility of disruption. Some develop ‘business continuity’ plans, which are targeted at sustaining key assets and processes, like computer systems and networks, in the event of catastrophe. Far fewer have a comprehensive, robust capability to weather the literal and figurative storms of unknown and unexpected events. The most effective organizations prepare not for specific disasters, but with a well-tested process for making effective strategic and tactical decisions in the face of sudden, significant, unexpected change.

Every organization’s strategy is the result of its mission, its internal capabilities, and its external environment. Over time, mission and capability are likely to evolve to reflect the changing realities of the external environment. The normal strategic planning process, when properly executed, entails continuous monitoring of environment and management of capability and strategy itself. Sudden change in the external environment requires rapid and confident recalibration of the strategy. The decision making process is the same, only the time scale is different.

The difficulty with which most organizations mange and execute strategy means that they are ill-equipped to handle the inevitable lurches. Fingers are pointed, emotions flare, poor decisions are made, and must be made again, efforts are wasted, and chaos reigns. By contrast, healthy organizations quickly pick themselves up, look around to understand the new realities, quickly make well-informed decisions, and get on with the urgent tasks at hand.

How will your organization handle the next lurch?

16 November 2009 • 7:00 am

Aftershocks

Aftershock

I recently came across an article about earthquake aftershocks:  Earthquakes Actually 19th Century Aftershocks.  I’m fascinated by all things earth science and started to read.

“Aftershocks happen after a big earthquake because the movement on the fault changed the forces in the earth that act on the fault itself and nearby. Aftershocks go on until the fault recovers.”

In other words, after a large shift, aftershocks are felt as everything around it rearranges itself to accommodate the new state.

What a great analogy for change in organizations!

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12 November 2009 • 7:00 am

The Strategy-Focused Organization Concept is Still Robust

read this book

read this book

Most popular ideas in the domain of organizational management have a limited shelf-life. Those that gain widespread attention usually do so on the strength of a published work. My bookshelves are filled with titles that in their time, were purported to be the next ‘big idea’ in management, but have since faded into relative obscurity. This pattern is as much a function of the audience for the ideas as the ideas themselves; executives and managers crave the easy answers and magical insights that are promised by these works. So when an idea remains relevant and applicable for more than a few years, it stands out. 

Of course, balanced scorecard has been an exceptionally durable concept. The idea of a scorecard (a collection of measures) as a tool for management has been around for decades, and is thought to have originated at General Electric during the 1950s. Kaplan and Norton elaborated the idea of a scorecard as a tool for strategic management beginning with their first Harvard Business Review articles on the topic in 1992 and 1993, and their book The Balanced Scorecard in 1996. The BSC articles and original book were extremely popular, and remain so today.But I never recommend Kaplan and Norton’s first BSC book to anyone embarking on a journey of strategic management.
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25 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Four Reasons NOT to Conduct an Employee Survey

Employee surveys are useful tools for understanding the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of an organization as a whole.  Surveys are commonly used in pursuit of change to discover and understand organizational culture, resistance, morale, and a host of other characteristics that can shine the light on opportunities for improvement.

However, not all surveys will improve the situation.  The following are four warning signs that conducting a survey may do more harm than good.

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21 September 2009 • 7:00 am

What’s Your Proposition?

Amazon is shaking up retailers, both big rivals and small independent stores, as it speeds its way beyond books toward its goal of becoming a Web-sized general store. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Amazon is shaking up retailers, both big rivals and small independent stores, as it speeds its way beyond books toward its goal of becoming a Web-sized general store. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Try to imagine the largest bookstore in the world. Aisle after aisle, floor after floor of books, maps, audio books, music, video, you name it (if you’ve ever had the unique and wonderful experience of visiting Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, you’ve got a great visual image to begin with). But this bookstore isn’t limited by physical size, or shelf space or inventory cost; it carries nearly every title in print, and a huge back catalog of used and out-of-print books. And in the unusual case where they don’t have the book you want in stock, they can try to get it for you from other stores or the publisher. Every time you enter this store, you’re immediately recognized and greeted by name at the door, and your personal guide stands ready to recommend books and other goods you might be interested in. Of course, you don’t have to get in your car to visit this store, it is as near as your computer. Of course, the largest bookstore in the world is Amazon.com.

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10 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Best Practice in Best Practice?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech on healthcare. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech on healthcare. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama gave his highly-anticipated speech on health care reform to a joint session of the U.S. Congress and a national TV audience yesterday evening. For those outside of the U.S., speeches to both houses of Congress are relatively rare (except for an annual ‘state of the union’ address), and this speech marked a crucial point in the intense health care reform debate that has been raging here for the past several months. I am sure that several other bloggers have already or will shortly provide their take on the speech itself, so I will spare you my own interpretation. But Obama used the ‘best practice’ term to describe a couple of U.S. regions in which per-capita health care costs are both significantly lower than average, while quality of care and outcomes are better than average (a theme in a New Yorker article I reviewed over the summer), in his desire to improve the cost and quality of health care across the country.

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9 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Making Money From Giving Things Away

free_cover_200After a bit of a slog, I am now done reading Free: The Future of A Radical Price (Hyperion; $26.99), by Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine. You may have heard of Anderson from his 2006 bestseller, The Long Tail. Anderson’s book hit my radar screen from several directions at once over the summer, including an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air (listen for free) with one of my favorite interviewers, Terry Gross, and a review in the New Yorker (read it for free) by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. When Gross and Gladwell are both talking about the same thing, it is hard for me to resist. So in keeping with the spirit of the topic, I used an old model of free, and got the book from our local public library. Free is also available as an abridged audio book for free (of course), online at http://www.hyperionbooks.com/free.   

Anderson offers an initially breezy, but eventually somewhat tedious journey through the concept of free. Even the word itself (which I swear must appear an average of ten times on each page) has to be parsed – free as in “freedom” and free as in “at no cost.” To ensure our comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of free, Anderson journeys from history into behavioral science, literature (science fiction), and pop culture.

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4 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Perception Is Reality: Why Subjective Measures Matter, and How to Maximize Their Impact – Part III

This series of posts (in three parts) is adapted from an article of the same name that appeared in Harvard Business Publishing’s Balanced Scorecard Report in 2006.

In Part I, I asserted that perception matters very much to the strategy of an organization. Perception of external stakeholders, of customers, and of employees. Often, the change program requires measurements of customer and employee perceptions. How organizations go about gathering these perceptions is a key factor in the success of the change program. In Part II, we examined the challenges of survey design, and its impact on the effectiveness of the strategy-driven perception research. Here, we conclude with consideration of alternatives to surveys, and an examination of how to use perception data in the context of the change program.

Consider Focus Groups or Interviews

While most perception measures come from surveys, focus groups and interviews are also valuable tools. Focus groups can be a component of a survey (answering the complex question, “why are employees unhappy?”), or can simply serve as a way of capturing the perceptions of a small group when surveys would not be effective or practical. A focus group can reveal complex root causes for perceptions that may not be anticipated in a set of multiple choice responses.

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3 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Perception Is Reality: Why Subjective Measures Matter, and How to Maximize Their Impact – Part II

This series of posts (in three parts) is adapted from an article of the same name that appeared in Harvard Business Publishing’s Balanced Scorecard Report in 2006.

In Part I, I asserted that perception matters very much to the strategy of an organization. Perception of external stakeholders, of customers, and of employees. Often, the change program requires measurements of customer and employee perceptions. Here, we consider how organizations go about gathering these perceptions, which is a key factor in the success of the change program.

Ensuring Survey Success: Skillful Research Design is Vital

A survey program is the best way to regularly monitor stakeholder perceptions. E-mail and Web-based survey tools enable faster design, execution, and analysis, and have reduced the cost considerably. Many enterprises already have e-mail address lists from the Web sites and customer databases they maintain for direct communication and marketing purposes. Wireless telephony and text messaging enable nearly real-time data collection and analysis. Technology, however, is no substitute for good research design, and in amateur hands, such tools amplify the risk of getting unactionable results or even causing adverse consequences.

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2 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Perception Is Reality: Why Subjective Measures Matter, and How to Maximize Their Impact – Part I

This series of posts (in three parts) is adapted from an article of the same name that appeared in Harvard Business Publishing’s Balanced Scorecard Report in 2006.

When helping organizations design measures for their change programs, the moment comes when I float the idea of surveying employees or customers. Invariably, there is an uncomfortable silence, followed by protests that surveys are expensive, that they don’t tell them anything new, and that a steady diet of them annoys people and thus defeat their purpose. An unspoken source of resistance is leaders’ fear that survey results will challenge the comfortable fictions they may be sustaining to support their decisions.

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