The thread that I try to weave through most what I do (including my writing in this space) is that communication can be strategic on the smallest (micro) levels. By strategic, I mean trying to get the most for the least. By communication, I mean storytelling through writing, talking or meeting with people. Sample supply-chain related stories (aka – agendas) include: sharing the upside of the switch to centralized purchasing, understanding why a process is not working in practice, or encouraging diverse groups to share all their information.
Some ears may be deaf to these storylines, but there are three things that I think can help you be more strategic in telling your story (even to the metaphorical hard of hearing).
Three enablers of strategic storylines
1 – Seed the idea
Communication works on networks social, informal, or otherwise. People may pay more attention to things that are being discussed. Favourable discussion can lead to: “everyone is talking about how good this is, so it must be good.”
Deferring judgment, I bring you the social media example of the “tweet sheet,” which is, under one definition, a list of “key messages” that you send to your friends so they can independently “tweet” your messages to their networks and beyond.
Judgmental note: I was gobsmacked when I heard this. Isn’t social media supposed to be this bastion of authenticity? Everyone has an agenda!
The ethical discussion is beyond the scope of this column. Seeding ideas is one way to tell a story. You may be able to plant seeds in ways that fit with your way of operating.
2 – Use what’s there
Again, I draw from a marketing discipline. A consultant relayed the story of working with a producer of breakfast cereal: “One of the things that kept coming up was the stat that a cereal box is read X number of times. Finally someone decided to capitalize on that real estate!” Similar rational sits behind using the cleverly placed ads on bathroom walls.
Where are people looking already? Does the company newsletter attract eyes? Is there a place where people tend to wait (e.g. outside a particular directors office)?
Again, be wary of the line between “clever and subtle” and “overt and cheesy.” Best to keep well on the former side.
3 – Question the change
I was in a discussion last month that questioned the entire premise of “buy-in.” The logic being that, looking back at theories of motivation, people won’t do what they don’t want to do. (I was in a discussion yesterday where a client had recently realized that “power” was the answer.)
Asking the “what if” question of yourself gives you what you need to go forward. So, what if we can’t centralize all purchasing? What if we can’t get reliable information from sales? The steepness of the downside may illustrate how much effort you put into this.
My secret hope is that everyone makes their case well, and the result is actions and directions that serve the best interests of all involved. (My “best” includes a good dose of sustainability.) I will get you my “tweet sheet” and cereal box decals, if you want to help get this message out. Of course, we all realize that much of this could be (1) happening already, and (2) impossible to achieve. More of 1 will put me out of business, and I haven’t “bought into” 2 just yet.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MAY NEWSLETTER ON supplychaincanada.org
The theme of telling “the truth” vs. telling “your story” recurs in the world of business communication. (The question of the existence of “the truth” opens a philosophical conversation best kept to coffee houses and whiskey bars… We want practice, please!) One specific application of business communication is in trying to find a job. A dripping irony is that “the truth” probably won’t get you a job.
“Hi there. I am really good at analyzing business data to improve supply chain performance. I get bored pretty easily if I am not challenged. I have a low tolerance for arbitrary rules, and I hate to be rushed to make a decision when I know I need to do more analysis.”
However, as the storyteller of your skills and abilities, you carry a responsibility to align your story with your truth. A colleague of mine shared some insight from one of his field contacts:
“The context and the technical expertise is the easiest type of knowledge to share with a new hire. Give me someone who has a desire and ability to learn, and can work with others in a team environment. That is the kind of person that I want to hire.”
Apparently, there are challenges in filling this particular bill. Even if those are the requirements, I guarantee you won’t see a job description that says only:
“Wanted: someone who can learn our systems reasonably quickly, and work with our people reasonably well. Good benefits. Pay commensurate with experience.”
JOB EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, SKILLS and ABILITIES are parts of your storyline (and maybe even headings on your resume), however the underlying questions you face are: Can you do this job? And, if you can do it, do you want to do it for us? Deeper questions include, “have your overstated your qualifications and abilities?” and, especially if you a shifting careers, “do you have a realistic appraisal of your value (in this new marketplace)?”
You may be able to defer the answers to these questions almost indefinitely. I will suggest that for all concerned, truthful answers to these create the most value for employee and employer. Everyone expects a degree of story, especially in the written communications (Cover letters, C.V., resumes, etc.). The interview process, especially the latter rounds, provides an opportunity for both sides to explore and share a bit of truth. On both sides of the equation, it is dangerous for the story to stray too far from it!
Type “Competition + Process Improvement” into the News section of your favourite search engine, and you will likely get a story (or a press release) that talks about a company overcoming new-millennium hyper-competition. The focus is on the solution (especially if you land in a press release), but one can imagine the work that goes into getting to solution. Not to mention, sustaining it. You may be living that “work” right now.
The classic problem-solving methodology is very straightforward: (1) identify the problem, (2) generate possible solutions, and (3) pick the best one. A prerequisite is to maintain a rational and objective focus, along the lines of “Getting-to-YES” style negotiating. Emotions cloud those operating “in the moment,” but in situations where parties (willingly or not) have to collaborate, distortion can come from many different – and surprising – places.
Rightly or wrongly, we have all pushed back (or been pushed) with a challenge to the legitimacy of our interests. Parents talk about “needing vs. wanting” ice cream after dinner (remember all those children that go to bed hungry); in the workplace, we ask people to separate “nice to have” from “need to have.” In all of this, the message is that “need” trumps “want,” which may cause some subtle limitations to successful results.
Too often, “need” identifies one potential solution (”We need a better inventory system”), while “want” can get to the root goal (”We want to remain competitive with as few changes as possible”). The wording and semantics may seem a better fit with strategic visioning than with everyday discussions, but think of the “want” behind some of these “need” statements:
- “We need more budget to do this project.”
- “We need to reduce head count.”
- “We need support from management/other divisions/the union.”
At the risk of treading into a discussion on inspirational leadership, visions talk about wants (or hope) that would offer almost-universal solutions. Each of our above “need” messages offers a solution that will become a problem for at least one other party:
- Extra dollars come from someone else’s budget;
- Head-count reduction hits “Joe Plumber” pretty hard, and
- Support takes other people’s time and energy.
The first thing to identify is a problem that we can all address. The corporate vision statement may do it, but the responsibility may fall to leaders and micro-leaders.
- “We want this company/unit to remain in business/this country.”
- “We want to reach a sustainable operating size.”
- “We want our company to be more responsive to external change.”
Far from being flowery, these may convey the real, wider-reaching need for change and improvement.With a recent MBA class of mine, the discussion focussed on an idealistic entrepreneur’s encounter with venture capitalists (from CBC’s Dragon’s Den). In the “identify the problem” stage, the initial class consensus was “she needs money,” (which, by the way, is the whole reason for going on the show in the first place, right?). I would (and did) argue that a focus on what you want to accomplish changes the discussion from “give me your money” to “do you want to help me do what I want to do?”
The difference can be very subtle, but can be extremely important. The latter offers more options, including, for example, referrals to other contacts or organizations if the dollar return happens not to be there. Money is one answer, and it may be the only one. You risk not finding out for sure unless you explain your vision. It is not simply a matter of substituting words (find and replace “need” for “want” won’t do it). Try switching the approach to the problem…from mine to ours. Some leaders/vision statements do it well; other times, those in the day-to-day discussion have to help identify shared problems.
This originally appeared in the October 2008 e-Newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (www.supplychaincanada.org).
There are two questions arise whenever a change initiative hits a snag that requires a decision: 1) “Who can make the call?” and, 2) “Who knows best?” Such is the interplay between authority and expertise in moving change forward. The manner in which individuals manage this interplay can have drastic effects on the success or failure of any given improvement initiative.
Authority – Who’s in charge?
Things are straightforward when the person who should make the decision has the visibility to come up with the best answer. Small operations, where the founder/owner knows every detail of every process, supplier, procedure, etc., will fall into this category. It is not long, however, before organizations reach a size where authority and expertise sit with different individuals. In the SMB space, as well as with larger corporations, necessary functional divisions make it impossible for those at the top of the organizational chart to see everything beneath them. Culturally and structurally these organizations have to create an environment where information flows up and down. Also, different layers of management can create a dynamic by which those at different managerial rungs will be tempted to cover their respective backsides, on the off chance that results are not as favourable as expected.
Two things to watch out for in the authority structure are:
1.Are those in charge accessing all the information that they need to make decisions?
2.Are those in authority taking responsibility for the decisions they make (or should be making)?
“No” to either of these will hurt implementation in every case.
Expertise – Who knows best?
There is a human tendency to over-recognize ones own expertise (and I say this as an expert in interpersonal communications in change environments…). In process improvement projects, however, those “doing the work” can add significant value by sharing their “on the ground” expertise. Familiarity with the day-to-day operations provides excellent visibility to identify areas for cost and/or time savings. These process experts may not, however, have visibility for the overall operations or the wider improvement initiatives that are underway.
Good information comes from tapping into the expertise at all levels of the organization. This may sound easy but can get hung up on a couple of areas:
1.Managers who have “come through the ranks” may have to realise that times might have changed;
2.In engaging the “rank and file” managers must foster trust and manage expectations (e.g. just because I am asking you what you think, doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to do it.)
3.Once the decisions are made, managers have the responsibility to “close the loop” with those whose expertise has been tapped.
Authority and expertise play different and important roles in enabling the most effective changes to take place. The interplay has the potential to slow or stop some of the best initiatives from smooth implementation. I would suggest that more responsibility sits with those in formal authority to reduce the interpersonal noise that habitually arises. This type of “micro leadership” can pay macro dividends as the right information moves to the top of the pile.
This originally appeared in the September 2008 e-Newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (www.supplychaincanada.org).
I had the very good fortune of hearing Deepak Chopra speak at the conference of the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres (OACCAC) this week. He was speaking to a room of various individuals involved in the delivery of health care at a community level, but his messages were wide sweeping.
According to Dr. Chopra, the trend toward well-being is the single biggest trend in the world today. He extrapolated to include economic well-being and environmental well-being, in addition to personal well-being. In short, people want the best end result to complex situations that include many interdependencies. In order to overcome the challenges of today, thus achieving well-being, we need to speak in non-violent metaphors. This demands a paradigm shift.
He navigated an impressive range of topics and, perhaps playing to his audience, spent a significant amount of time discussing biological and neural happenings. I say “perhaps playing to his audience” because he spent time as well on quantum physics.
The key message was indisputably focussed on the best way to bring about the best change. Given the state of the health care system–and that Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long-Term Care recently changed–the forum was a good one. The talk was teeming with fascinating insight and inspiring stories, but one of the most tangible pieces of advice that he shared was around leadership. Although Deepak Chopra leads a session on the Soul of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Business, the advice was accessible and applicable to all who were there… a “Micro Leadership” message, if you will.
Effective leaders do two things, according to Dr. Chopra: (1) self reflect to self understand; and (2) remain open to opportunity. (Although he says many leaders mention luck, he defines “luck” as opportunity meeting preparedness.)
Clearly if everyone adopted this line of thinking, things would be easier. Although many hung on his every word (and bought the book after), not all were or will be able to embody or sustain this approach. Those who do, have a responsibility to (1) focus on the greater good and (2) look for ways to merge opposing interests with those of the former. Tough work, to say the least. Here are but two applications from follow on sessions that I attended:
1. Dr. Joshua Tepper from Ontario Health Force spoke about opportunities and necessity to have medical schools and colleges breed practitioners with cross-discipline awareness. What better way to find new opportunities than to have more people working together. The functional disciplines will have to be very comfortable with one another and secure in themselves to be open to this. You can imagine all the reasoning for not collaborating: what is they start doing our work? who decides if we don’t agree?
2. Jeff Dolweerd discussed a LEAN case study underway the Central CCAC. The rigorous focus on value from the client’s perspective identifies clear ways to create value more effectively. In a situation where supply is staff and demand is uncertain, the answer lies in getting people to work more flexibly, both with hours and job roles. Sounds simple, until you run into a union mindset (like this one), which may not be able to open up to possibility. (Not to suggest that privatization is the answer; it is definitely a possibility!)
I thoroughly enjoyed Deepak Chopra’s talk and it set a perfect tone for the rest of the day, in my opinion. Not everyone will “get” or will be able to follow his prescription to lead. For those that do, given that we are very emotional beings, it may be tough to stay that course. According to Chopra “there is a creative solution to every problem.” I have cast doubt on that thought on this blog, but I have pause to reconsider now. It is there; we are all tasked to find it.
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