Opportunity Knocks

Knocker_HeaderOne of the areas in which I consult is the facilitation of group visioning processes.  At first glance this might seem an odd thing for a Business Intelligence (BI) consultant.  Nevertheless, it is an integral part of my practice.  Over the years, I have discovered that while many enterprises recognize the need for analytic intelligence from a BI program, they have been unable to align all of the stakeholders behind goals and, more important, priorities.  More so than in most other types of technology projects, a BI project tends to cross departments or divisions (and, consequently, stakeholder groups) both with respect to data sourcing and the output metrics.  Lack of buy-in at the onset is a prescription for trouble.  But the need for group process goes far beyond BI.

My involvement with group facilitation processes goes back to a time well before I was in the information industry. I was working for a small nonprofit organization and found myself in the role of leading a Board of Directors planning retreat.  I had never done anything like that before and one of my mentors suggested several resources to consult.  These resources were books, by the way; this was back before the word “resource” was business-speak for “human being.”  This was also long before Amazon (or even personal use of the internet), so I actually had to order the volumes from a brick and mortar bookstore.

The books were worth the wait.  They opened up my eyes to the reasons meetings fail, and to how the right kind of process can lead groups of people to amazing results.  I did not have time to apply all of these principles the first time around, but was gratified by achieving surprising results from a normally contentious group.  I had struck gold.  Jim, my mentor, made certain that I had other opportunities to develop this process and to put my own personal spin on it.  Alas, Jim passed away years ago but those books – well thumbed and falling apart – remain near my desk.

Part of the reason these group-planning processes work so well is because process is paramount.  At the same time that the meetings are highly orchestrated with little left to chance, absolutely everyone in the room must participate.  More important, there is a set of ground rules that govern how the participants should interact with one another.  These ground rules eliminate the human emotions that often impede group decision-making or planning meetings.  I will not be sharing that list here (it is part of the “secret sauce” and therefore intellectual property), but I wish to discuss one of them that I think is key not just to project success, but also to life success as well.

This ground rule states simply that all issues and problems will be expressed as opportunities.  This is not as difficult as it might seem.   Let us take the hypothetical case of Acme Consolidated Enterprises. At Acme, the manufacturing division responsible for the GizmoWidget product line has failed to meet demand for three quarters running, and their quality control is also among the worst in the industry. It would be easy enough to say, “The GizmoWidget division has production and quality control problems and we need to fix them immediately.”   Our ground rule demands instead that we express this a different way.  “We have the opportunity to improve GizmoWidget production capability in order to meet expected demand.  Further, we have the opportunity to improve overall GizmoWidget production quality.”  So what have we gained?  Why are these restatements better?

In the first statement, “The GizmoWidget division has production and quality control problems and we need to fix them immediately,” the natural human inclination is to place blame.  “Who’s in charge over there?  Why haven’t they dealt with this already?  Do we need to shake up that team?”  This response might well inject wholesale instability into what is probably already an unstable situation.  The team and its management already know that performance is poor.  They certainly did not set out to underperform and it is unlikely that they prepare for staff meetings by coming up with new ways to sabotage production and undermine quality.  Placing blame is therefore unproductive, a waste of emotional energy, and counter-motivating to the team.

How does stating the problem as an opportunity turn this on its head?  First, it takes people out of the blame (the negative) and places them at the head of the solution (the positive).  We have the opportunity. Second, it eliminates the negative altogether, giving the team a positive viewpoint around which to rally.  Instead of looking at fault, they are focused on a goal that they are empowered to achieve together.  Finally, it removes the onus of individual culpability and invests in the team.  It is no longer about the division manager having his head on the block at the next performance review.  The team is in it together and there is power in numbers.

Expressing problems as opportunities goes beyond just the big objectives.  These set direction, but they answer only the what, not the how.  The same focus on the positive is desirable for identifying “the look of success” as well as the strategies for getting there.  Let us take the quality control objective and break it down by way of example.  We have the opportunity to improve GizmoWidget production quality.

The first step is to quantify the objective.  What does success look like?  What are the smaller goals that the team will need to achieve in order to be able to meet the objective?  Here are some ideas.

  • In six months, we will have reduced rejected GizmoWidgets by 15%.
  • In three months, we will be able to prevent any defective GizmoWidgets from leaving the factory.
  • In three months, we will have implemented an ongoing program for continued quality improvement.

In addition to being stated in a positive way, these three goals have some important characteristics.  First, they are time bound, not open-ended.  This means that a schedule will need to be implemented and followed, but also that the change cannot be allowed to drag on.  Second, the results in all three cases are quantifiable.  There is something tangible to measure in order to gauge success.  Third, the goals are achievable.  The team is not trying to boil the ocean, but rather make a reasonable start on a longer-term quest.

The next step is to articulate strategies to be used to achieve the stated goals.  Even these can be expressed as positive statements.  For instance, one strategy to reduce product rejections might be to identify three top quality improvements that can be effected in six months.  Of course, this is tantamount to saying, “Let us identify the top three causes of product quality failure.”  But once again, by expressing the strategy as an opportunity, the need to assign blame has been reduced substantially.  If one of the causes of product failure has been a low quality raw material, instead of dwelling on the reasons that quality is low today, it is inherently more productive for the organization to focus on what needs to be done to improve it.

The importance of leading away from negativity cannot be understated.  It is not a program of ignoring problems or issues, but of recognizing that anything can be changed for the better.  And rather than emphasizing that someone or something failed, it becomes an opportunity for improvement.  There is a tremendous motivational force in teams where negativity has been eliminated, in spite of the challenges, and the positive environment is supportive rather than recriminatory.  Ask yourself where you would choose to work.

This same attitude of leading toward the light is equally valid in all aspects of life.  It can be employed at home, in schools, and in virtually any public and private organization.  Understanding change and improvement as opportunity can galvanize a team, a Board of Directors, or a family.  It is the difference between looking up out of the pit and looking up to the mountains.  One engenders despair while the other instills hope and desire.  So remember to embrace opportunity.  It is always knocking, and something positive will be at the door.

How do you lead your teams toward the light?  What techniques do you use to reduce or eliminate negativity on your projects?

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