Making Organizations Awesome

Leadership lessons from a motivational listener

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Are good questions the new caffeine?

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What’s your goal when you speak to people?

What impression do you want to generate?

What feeling or action do you want to inspire?

Engagement is my number one goal when I’m presenting or leading a meeting. I’ve nailed it maybe two or three times in the last two years. Every time that I had total audience engagement, I started with a question or a request for them to do something.

“Why do presentations suck?” is what I asked a group of young bankers who wanted to make better presos.

“Why are you spending next week helping a Brazilian non-profit?” is how I opened an international leadership training in Sao Paulo.

“Get out a pen and a paper please. You’re going to want to write down every single thing that I say, because this is going to be the most riveting session ever.” That was my humble opening for a session on Learning to Learn. (Ninja secret: the most valuable thing that I’ve ever learned was learning how to learn. And I don’t mean learning about a topic, but learning the roadmap for developing any new skill.)

Do you have a presentation, conference call, or team meeting coming up? Chances are your audience is ready to tune out, be bored, and multitask. Wake them up. Give them a caffeinating question to kick it off.

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You need a conspiracy

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You want to fix something, change something, build something.

Maybe you’re in a big organization that you want to change, or about to launch your own startup. Either way you have a passion to Make Something Big Happen.

Much advice is directed at you as an individual – how to influence management, how to get venture capital, how to avoid venture capital, how to sell the benefits of your idea, etc. All of that advice may be great. But in my twenty years of watching and making things happen, there is one constant in every success I’ve observed.

At some point, if you’re going to reach scale, you need a partner.

Why is having a partner so crucial?

  1. To keep your eyes on the prize. If what you are doing is truly new and extraordinary, you will face distraction and discouragement on your way to victory. Your co-conspirator will remind you why the Big Idea is so important. She will keep you focused when you’re distracted and motivated when your frustrated. And in doing the same for her, you’ll feed your own passion and commitment.
  2. To save you from your blindspots. As brilliant and amazing as you are, you have blind spots. You’re great at enthusiasm but not the best at follow-up.  You’re fantastic at getting things done but not the best at selling the idea. We all have blindspots, but by definition it’s hard for us to see them in action. Your partner can tell you when to change your style or bring in a different skillset so that you get where you want to go.
  3. To help you decide when to hold tight, & when to let go. The trickiest dilemma in making change is knowing when to be uncompromising and when to be flexible. Is it better to push back the ship date to get that one extra feature in? Should you keep a key creative happy by letting go of that one detail that maybe no one else will notice? Or should you do the opposite? A good partner, if they are not a carbon copy of you, will help you thrash these choices out and learn as you go. Most of us have a general tendency to be either too insistent or too easy-going – try to find a partner with the opposite tendency to yours.

What’s your experience? Are you working on your current project(s) with or without a partner, and how is it going?

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How can we fix California’s tech systems?

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I had the pleasure last week of having breakfast with Vivek Wadhwa, and besides being completely charming and a great breakfast companion he told me that he was about to go speak to the leaders of California’s state technology organizations.

If you follow TechCrunch or Vivek’s tweets you will know that he has written two very interesting posts subsequently, and that his posts have led to real offers from proven entrepreneurs to reduce costs and improve cycle times on major state technology projects.

What fascinates me is the extent to which culture factors will support or impede success when these small, entrepreneurial shops start to collaborate with the state to fix or overhaul these major systems.

What I mean is, it’s not enough just to have a good technical solution or well-written requirements document. Everyone reading this blog knows of many large, well-organized IT projects which either failed outright or significantly under-delivered. Every investor and technical guru I ask tells me that team dynamics are a critical success factor in technology projects. So my question is, what will these talented startups and committed civil servants do to make absolutely sure that the human factors are optimized on this effort along with cost, schedule, and functionality?

Expect to hear more from me on this. I’m a great fan of doing things better, especially when it involves interesting people and public systems.

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How does your team smell?

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It’s easy when you’re on a team to let little complaints leak out to others in the organization. Let’s say you start a difficult project that runs in parallel with everyone’s main job, and at the beginning not everyone in your team is pulling their weight.

If you compain about that to even one person outside the team, it affects you, the team, and the project. If two people hear about it, you start to build a reputation for the team that only a few of you are doing the real work.

Turning this around takes two steps.
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How to talk to interesting people – UPDATED w/ videos!

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UPDATE: This week I knew I had calls with some interesting people coming up.  So I wrote this blog post Tuesday on three questions that make the most first conversations.

Then Wednesday I saw a tweet that grabbed my attention. I discovered there was a Twitter conference happening 15 miles from me that afternoon! I got to field-test the Three Questions and you can see some video evidence of the first trial runs at the end of the post.

What’s the first conversation you should have with someone interesting? How do you make the most of lunches with the cool people at the conferences you attend? Should you find out if you like the same music or movies, talk about your last vacation, or even thrill each other with a quick verbal resume? No.

Instead tell each other:

  • What you’re passionately working on (not your job title or something broad like “pets”  – the specific project, problem or idea that fascinates you)
  • The kind of help that would make the biggest difference to your passion project
  • The kind of help you most enjoy giving others (again, not your job title, the skills or expertise you can’t NOT give away)

If you can cover all that succinctly, you’ll feel more connected and may get ideas for how to move each other’s passion projects forward.

If you want to try this experiment on Twitter, you can use the hashtags #3qs [for anything to do with these three awesome questions], and #passionproject, #helpineed, #helpigive.

Here’s the longer version – with some video from the first field-tests of the Three Questions!

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Tribes who need each other

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I think the biggest problem for human beings is working together in groups, particularly in the face of disagreement. Whether I’m consulting in big companies or talking to friends about their marriage, the problem feels the same to me. How do we work with, learn from, and respect others who we may passionately disagree with? How can we handle our disagreements so that we get closer, become wiser, do better work?

The way we deal with conflict feels to me like the the source of so many other problems, whether large (global warming, discrimination against women) or small (lame customer service, crappy products).

Tonight I’m reflecting on different tribes who I think could learn a lot from each other, partly inspired by this post from Sonia Simone of the awesome Copyblogger.
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Do human beings need profit?

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What do you think?

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Seth’s right, and there’s more

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Is there anyone who doesn’t love Seth Godin’s blog?

I think it’s one of the first blogs I subscribed to by email because I didn’t want to miss anything.

Today he’s got a post on why joint ventures fail. It’s a quick and worthwhile read, but the problem he points to goes way beyond joint ventures. In a word, one key point of failure is lack of clear accountability. If you work in or with a large organization, you need no further explanation.  If you’re one of my clients whose started to use a methodology called the Action Cycle, you have way more traction on this. For every task in your work, there is a clear definition of the outcome and who is responsible for exactly what so that the outcome gets produced.

One of my clients last year led his retail bank branch region to become number one in the country using the Action Cycle. In a future post I’ll write more about what it is and how it can save you time, lower costs, help you lose weight, get dates, and get rippling abs.  OK, well, it does help a lot with the time/money/business performance stuff…you’re on your own for the rest.

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Twitter started as a hunch. Are you trusting yours? [w/ video]

· teams

At the end of this post is a great video of Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, talking about how it all started out as a hunch.  I’ll bet you’re working on something right now that might have a breakthrough if you tried out one of your hunches.  Here’s my hunch story and then the video of @ev.

In 2004 I had to get eight thousand overworked middle managers to schedule a training day they hadn’t asked for, show up for that training 2-3 months later, and not cancel, reschedule, or mysteriously “get the flu” when the day arrived. If even a small percentage of them no-showed or rescheduled, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Either my company would wind up running make-up sessions for free to fulfill our contract, or the client would have to pay extra because the original sessions hadn’t covered everybody. [Read more →]

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On London, Rome, and saying “hot” in business emails

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I’m having what I’ll call a “jet-lag organic” morning, which is to say that my sleep cycle is pretty disrupted from 12 days in Europe last week so I woke up very early and have been lazily browsing through email and things online for a few hours.

Chris Brogan who I follow on Twitter just published what I think is the best of several recent pieces on social media. (If you haven’t heard the term social media before it just means all the online conversations about life, business, politics, products, parenting etc. that new-ish tools have enabled in the past couple of years. And the interesting consequences of those conversations.) [Read more →]

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