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Sunday, 26 May 2013

Do You Really Know How Good (or Bad) You Are? Ask Your Clients - They Certainly Know!

Management techniques come and go, some of them unlamented, and some genuinely useful and possibly could or even should be resuscitated. 

Remember the not much missed quality circles, or TQM (Total Quality Management), MBO (management by objectives) and many others. 

There was one, however, which never should have gone into darkness and indeed, may well still be in use here and there.  SWOT analysis when properly used gives an overall view of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a business and gives the top team a chance to offer their opinions in a safe environment (or so they hoped). 

A chance mention by the speaker, Dr Naftali Brawer, and the subsequent discussion at the recent retreat of my Vistage CEO group has caused me to have a radical rethink of the way in which a SWOT analysis should be conducted. 

It all started when some recent research by Dove cosmetics was mentioned.  This took the form of a police artist being employed to do a blind sketch of a woman who was behind a screen and had to describe her looks for the artist, who then produced a sketch. 

The woman then went into another room to meet a researcher who then went through the same procedure except that she described the original subject. 

When the two sketches were compared there was a massive difference and, would you believe, the one produced from the researcher’s description was by far the more accurate.  The one from the original subject brought out faults which were not really obvious or important to others. 

That caused me to think again about SWOT analysis.  The problem is that being very close to a business causes us to know too much about it and that leads to a skewed view of, particularly, its strengths and weaknesses. 

The classic technique for SWOT involves the top team offering their opinions of each section in a brainstorming session and listing them on a flip chart.  The team then votes for the top three most important in each case. 

While I believe that this method is valid for opportunities and threats to the business, I am very dubious about the validity of the results for strengths and weaknesses simply because of the Dove effect. 

Do we really see ourselves or our business as others see us?  I very much doubt it. 

What is needed is some research into the attitudes and opinions of people who know us and deal with us such as clients, customers, suppliers, professionals and so on, as to how they see what we are good at and where we need to improve. 

Crucially the responses must be kept strictly anonymous so that respondents can feel free to express their opinions as openly as possible. 

In actual terms I would suggest that this should certainly involve an outside facilitator and competent research with some high level questioning to bring out the real opinions in the analysis which may well be entirely different from our own opinions.  

That wise poet, Robert Burns, said: 

and that says it for me.
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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Do You Want to Continue Learning? The Process Should Never Stop!

I was chatting to the leader of a Yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) this week and the subject of learning came up.  The method used in a Yeshiva is for two students to sit opposite each other with the book, Torah, Talmud and so on, between them and discuss, even argue, about the meaning or significance of a sentence or phrase. 

This method, dialectics, is very old being mentioned by Plato and certainly has been the norm in Yeshivot throughout the world for upwards of 1,000 years and probably a lot more.  The fact is that it works so why change it? 

My friend told me of the time when the Yeshiva had a visit from the Department of Education and the inspector was at first shocked and then amazed at the sight and sounds of twenty or thirty pairs of students seemingly haranguing each other.

There is a constant hubbub in the room and the inspector asked how it was that anyone could learn in such an atmosphere.  His experience had been limited to the peace and tranquillity of a University library with the peace being broken only by the tapping of computer keys and sometimes by someone snoring. 

The reason for an exceptional level of learning in the Yeshiva is that the dedication and desire of the students to learn by the dialectic method is very high. 

These students are aged from perhaps 17 to 20 and their knowledge of the subject to an exceptional degree is quite remarkable. 

A wise sage once said that the best way to learn is to teach and in a way dialectics means that two people are teaching each other simply by discussing and arguing over the minutiae of the texts. 

So what can business learn from this?  First of all, people learn only if they want to do so.  I had a friend who was a ski instructor and took a general teaching degree after which he was allocated to a tough school in Liverpool.  We used to say that the noise you can hear down the East Lancashire Road was the sound of John’s illusions shattering. 

He once asked me why it was that the lads in Liverpool just wouldn’t take any notice of him in class while his ski students were really enthusiastic. 

It’s simple, I suggested, because the classroom didn’t offer enough interest to people who inherently weren’t interested anyway, whereas the ski students were there because they wanted to learn. 

It is frightening to hear people saying that as they had achieved high rank in business there was no need for them to take time out to learn anything more.  Would that that were the case. 

The nearest approach to the dialectic method in business is probably the peer group model espoused by Vistage which encourages people to bring issues to the table and for them to be discussed openly, honestly and transparently by a group of peers. 

A sub-group of this method is for breakout sessions with either pairs or triads discussing the issue and then reporting back to the main group which is much nearer to dialectics. 

Either way, it seems that the closer one can get to one-to-one learning (and often mutual learning) the better the result always assuming that there is both a desire to learn and knowledge to impart in each direction. 

To repeat the mantra of the first MD of Vistage (TEC) in the UK: 

·       “No-one is as smart as all of us"
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Sunday, 12 May 2013

What’s the Problem? Do You Know the Root Cause or is it Just a Symptom?

One of the central features of the Vistage International peer group model is the processing of issues brought to the table by the group members and there is a well trodden process path to help the members come to a satisfactory conclusion with lots of exciting opinions being put forward. 

Frequently it has been said that “there is nothing as much fun as telling other people how to run their business” and that shows in the “this is what you should do” part of the procedure. 

The Vistage process consists of the member describing the issue to the group, or at least, as he/she sees it, and this can take 10-15 minutes provided the facilitator makes sure that there is a minimum of digression.   

Not an easy task as most people in business are so full of information about the company that they can think of all sorts of side issues which they consider important but to the onlooker, seem to be at best irrelevant.  

The presentation of the issue should include such items as “What I have done about it so far”, “How important and significant is it to the business” among others and, most importantly, what the presenter wants the group to contribute. 

After the presentation the group goes into questioning mode to uncover the background to the issue which, by the way, can be a problem, an opportunity, a threat to the business and many more. 

It is very often at this stage that the big change occurs.  I have found it surprising that so many issues brought to the table are really operational matters disguised as strategic issues when, in fact, many of them are merely symptoms of perhaps a malaise when in fact the real issue is much deeper down. 

The questioning then needs to drill down to find out whether the issue as the presenter sees it is an accurate assessment of the situation or whether in fact it is a symptom of something deeper and more significant. 

In short, it is a matter of deciding whether the issue is a symptom of something deeper and if so, then what is the underlying cause?  Judicious questioning should elicit the answer. 

Understanding the cause of an issue is not always a happy position to be in.  For example, it may be that someone in the business is beginning to have behavioural problems which impact colleagues to the detriment of the smooth operation of the business. 

Careful use of the “why” question and much more of the “and what else” will take the presenter through the onion peeling process whereby the group gets closer and close to the real cause which is often hidden under a pile of irrelevant but comforting and understandable “stuff”. 

I recall in one such instance a somewhat acerbic group member looked at the presenter and said “This isn’t the issue at all.  YOU are the issue and the way that you handle things!” which was quite a challenge. 

In the end the presenter accepted that he had probably handled the matter badly and the group could then move on to give their opinions as to the best way to solve the problem.  

There are many techniques which can help to drill down to find the underlying cause and RCA or Root Cause Analysis (learn more) as widely used in the NHS is probably the best known. 

It is up to the leader to make sure that issues and problems are handled in such a way as to determine the root cause, to examine what action can be taken and what the desired outcome looks like.  In that way, it is feasible to take sensible and logical action to initiate valid change.
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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Are You Prepared for the Unexpected? I Wasn't!

Don't you just love technology!  I switched on my laptop as usual last Tuesday and all I got was a black screen, not encouraging. 

After resorting to the highly technical device of switching off and on again and then giving the thing a good rap, it was still 50 shades of black. 

There was nothing for it but to call the computer NHS (private patient) and it was taken away to go into intensive care.  I was very god. I didn't make anxious calls to enquire from the nurse how it was doing. 
   A couple of text massages and an inbound call told me that We would know more by Tuesday afternoon. The long and short of the position is that the hard disc can be recovered but there are so far undiscovered problems on the mother board, whatever that might be. 

It's decision time and I accept that the only option may be a new machine. PC or a big move to Mac?  Fortunately the iPad has kept me at least 80% in action but it does beg the question: was I prepared for the disaster scenario and the answer is a resounding negative.

It has been a big learning curve for me and although in the great scheme of things, it doesn't rate very high.  However, strange and unexpected occurrences can throw a spanner into any works and a little preparation can take a lot of the pain out of the situation. 

Just consider the Japanese nuclear/earthquake/tsunami disaster. Did they foresee it?  Of course not and the results were almost catastrophic. What will happen is that they will certainly learn from it.

I suppose that it is a matter of managing the risk and the clever thing is to cover all the possible permutations which would effectively stop you doing anything else.  The real answer is for the leader to look at all the possibilities and make cover plans for those considered strategically important. 

Not an easy task but it is a matter of perspective.  In my very minor case it is a simple decision and whether I should have a back-up machine on hand. Economically viable?  Probably not so I can expect a  repeat performance in another three years time. I can live with that. 

In the meantime this has been composed on the iPad and there may well be a mistake or two.  I hope you will understand and thanks to you all for your constant support and encouragement.

Visit www.vistage.c.uk
Email Ivan.goldberg@vistage.co.uk
Author of "Leading to Success" published on Amazon Kindle