Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama: A Leader That Stymies Xers and Boomers Alike

With the anniversary of President Obama's first year in office passing a few days ago--to say nothing of his State of the Union address--there's been a lot of analysis in the media and in the blogosphere about his leadership qualities or, depending on your point of view, his lack thereof.

Jeff DeCagna recently directed my attention to this report, which is based on something that Tammy Erickson recently posted on the Harvard Business blog. Her basic thesis is that Obama embodies all the classic traits of GenX leaders--he's pragmatic, he keeps his options open, and he embraces diversity.

I touched on these same thoughts on another recent post of mine, but there I focused more on GenX's emerging leadership style as Erickson describes it, rather than on whether or not Obama truly embodies it. So now let me weigh on on that part of the discussion.

Generally speaking, the one point I think Erickson gets the most right is the idea of GenX leaders being more about quiet, practical solutions to problems and less about adherence to strategies that support an ideological framework. And while I think Obama certainly campaigned on this theme, it’s not clear to me that he has actually governed that way. He's decided to tackle some tough problems, and he's talks about seeking practical solutions to them, but he has up to now been willing to let the legislative process come up with those solutions. What's naturally resulted from that political process is a bunch of ideological solutions--none of which "practical" Obama has rejected.

And this Xer, at least, doesn't expect him to. Erickson talks about Obama being on the cusp of the Boomers and Xers (some, in fact, say Generation Jones), and looking at him that way makes a lot more sense to me. He's not a GenX leader and he's not a Boomer leader. He's a hybrid--the practical Xer merging with the ideological Boomer. His leadership challenge comes from trying to split the middle, which, as often happens in politics and in leadership, means that neither group is likely to be happy with him. Indeed, the Boomer perspective seems downright pessimistic about his chances for success.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

First Draft – Principles of Innovation for the Association Community

Well, the first meeting of WSAE’s Innovation Task Force took place on January 22. Check this prior post for all the necessary backstory if you’re just joining the conversation now.

In summary, I’m heading up an effort for my state society for association execs and staff to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. Intrigued by the dedicated, defined and resourced “innovation function” that exists in many for-profit companies, I have proposed that we examine a series of case studies that profile these processes, and then discuss principles of innovation successfully employed by the organizations profiled and identify strategies for applying those principles to the association environment.

Our first case study was comprised of a series of YouTube videos, stringing together an old Nightline episode about IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm. There were three short videos in all. If you’re interested in watching them, you can find them here, here and here. Here’s how the Nightline producers described the show:

How does the process of designing a better product work? To show you, Nightline went to Palo Alto, CA to the designers at IDEO, and gave them the toughest problem we could think of. Take something old and familiar like the shopping cart and completely redesign it in just five days. IDEO's unique brand of brainstorming is called ''Deep Dive,'' a sort of total immersion into the problem at hand. It's one company's secret weapon for innovation.

So, our first task on January 22 was to develop a list of “innovation principles” that IDEO seemed to employ in their practice of innovation. These weren’t formally codified as such by IDEO, but to us they all seemed an important part of IDEO’s successful process. We tossed a lot of ideas up onto our flipchart paper, but I think they all boiled down to the following three concepts:

#1 - A commitment of time, talent and resources to the business of innovation
Innovation wasn’t something that just happened at IDEO. It was their business. As such, they had deliberately invested and supported a culture of innovation throughout their organization. One of their mottos was “fail often to succeed sooner,” and they lived it. Their staff was given the freedom to try new things (including the design of their own workspaces) and were not disciplined for every failure. The company viewed failure as one of the necessary steps on the path towards success, and encouraged its people to ask for forgiveness, not permission.

#2 - A team-driven process with clear timelines and decision points
We found IDEO to use a process that finely balanced the generative productivity of team brainstorming with the practical discipline needed for making decisions and ending projects on time. Their rules for brainstorming were self-policed by the eclectic teams they brought together to perform it—encourage wild ideas, defer judgment, and seek to build on the ideas of others. Within the team there was an absence of hierarchy, ensuring that no one could overrule the idea of another. At the same time, there were a smaller set of decision makers, people whose authority seemed more process-focused than idea-focused. They kept an eye on the calendar and the checkbook, knowing that each project had to be completed on time and on budget. With the brainstorming team providing a multitude of ideas to choose from, these decision-makers were responsible for “green lighting” those ideas that achieved the project goal while best meeting the time and budget parameters.

#3 - A clear understanding of the mission and of the customer’s needs
One of our task force members called it “checking the premise,” and the people at IDEO did it constantly. The challenge in the videos was for them to design a better shopping cart for use in a grocery store, and they continually checked their ideas against the practicality of that environment. They also did an impressive amount of field research throughout the process—talking with shoppers and grocery store managers and employees to get a clear understanding of their needs and using them to pilot test several prototypes before settling on a final design.

With these proposed principles of innovation in hand, our task force then looked at our own organizations and at the association industry in general to determine if these principles were prevalent, possible or preposterous in our world. There was a lot of discussion around this, but if I were to plot our final decisions on an axis, it might look something like this:

Of the three principles described above, we thought associations did the best job with #3—gaining a clear understanding of our missions and our customer’s needs. Most associations in our experience had a good handle on these issues, with perhaps some needing to do a better job communicating the concepts throughout the depths of their organizations.

We found #2—a team-driven process with clear timelines and decision points—to be a little more challenging. We felt associations had a lot of underlying strengths that could be leveraged for success in this area—including a built-in diversity of thoughts and ideas across various staff positions and membership categories, as well as a track record of consensus-based decision making—but felt that too many associations were hampered from capitalizing on these strengths because of the often rigid and seemingly implacable structures and hierarchies in which those constituencies were placed.

And #1—committing time, talent and resources to the business of innovation—seemed even farther removed from our reality. The “freedom to fail” was an especially foreign concept to many of us, believing the association world to be a place where risk-taking was generally not encouraged—the consequences of failure often perceived as presenting too large a barrier.

If these three concepts truly do represent principles of innovation, our group felt a stinging lack of practical strategies to begin employing them in an association environment. We brainstormed a little on what some of those strategies might be, and returned several times to the idea that each association was different, and that each association would be a different distance away from the goal of embracing these principles. If they had anything in common, we felt that it might be that the journey towards an innovation culture would best be completed through a series of baby steps.

We scheduled our next meeting for March 19, and will be looking for another case study of successful innovation to review. Knowing that all of the above is based on a single example, we’ll want to see what principles of innovation we can draw from a second case study, and how they compare to those drawn from the first. We’ll also want to dig deeper into the question of practical strategies for embracing those principles in an association environment. One task force member suggested we divide that discussion in two—with one part focused on staff-level activities and the other on interactions with the membership and the Board of Directors.

I encourage all interested readers of The Hourglass Blog to participate in this process with us. Your thoughts and comments are welcome, as well as any suggestions you might have for additional case studies for us to review.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Xers and Recessionary Leadership

I've linked to couple of articles by Tammy Erickson before. As a leadership guru, she seems a little more pro-Generation X than a lot of her colleagues. She's got a new book out, What's Next, Gen X?: Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want, and as part of the promotion for that book, the Harvard Business Blog put up this short audio interview with her. I found it to be an interesting perspective on the leadership strengths that she thinks GenX brings to the table, especially at this difficult time.

Most of the coverage I've seen about generations and the Great Recession seems focused on the Millennials, and about how the economic calamity may have derailled them and their careers. Newsweek, in fact, had a big story about it a few weeks ago, comparing them to the generation that came of age during the Great Depression.

Well, Erickson seems to say the more interesting generation to watch in the wake of the Great Recession is GenX.

First of all, let's look at how the Recession has hit the different generations. Everyone got hit hard--Boomers losing large portions of their retirement nest eggs and Millennials trying to get their careers started when there are far fewer opportunities for them. But isn't it the Xers who have the more pressing financial realities to deal with? Xers are now in the prime of life--the middle of their careers. They're the ones with unpaid mortgages and young kids who will need money for college in ten to fifteen years.

But in many ways, Erickson believes GenX is ready for this trouble. After all, they grew up during the little 'r' recession of the 1980s, and they watched as the adults in their lives got laid off and abandoned by the companies they had staked their careers on. This, remember, was really the beginning of corporate downsizing, of actually letting people go in hard times, and the expectations for lifelong employment at a single company were much more realistic than they are today. Because of this experience, GenX learned how to keep its options open, to not put too many eggs in the same basket, and to keep an eye out for themselves because no one else had any reason to.

And these are exactly the leadership traits that will be necessary to see our way through this Recession. Erickson says the other two generations tend to belittle this "let's keep our options open" perspective--calling it wishy-washy and indecisive. She compares that view to the criticisms levelled against President Obama for taking too long to make decisions and for letting the legislative process decide what's best instead of moving forward with a more principled stand. Think what you want about the President, but when GenX does this it isn't indecisiveness. A "keep the options open" leadership style means going with what works instead of what is needed to validate a particular perspective or point of view.

Most Xers I know are better at dealing with uncertainty and change than either their older or their younger colleagues. Erickson isn't surprised by that, and she says these are just the kind of leaders we need now to move our organizations forward.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

For-Profit Boomers, Think Twice Before Leading a Non-Profit

If you've been reading my posts for a while then you've probably realized that I link to and comment on a lot of stuff on leadership from the for-profit community. Later this month I'll be celebrating my three-year anniversary as the Executive Director of a stand-alone trade association, and before that I spent thirteen years working for a variety of professional societies as part of an association management company. These experiences have created an interest in me about the interplay between for-profit and non-profit sensibilities in the association world.

I've also blogged a few times about the switch some for-profit Boomers are making to leadership positions in the non-profit community. Whether it's in response to them being downsized in the bad economy or to help them better fulfill their dreams in their last years before retirement, a whole cottage industry seems to be developing to help them make this transition to a new, encore career.

So I couldn't help but laugh at this advice for Boomers that are thinking of making the switch, coming from Wayne Luke at the Harvard Business Blog. He entreats Boomers to ask themselves three questions before taking the plunge. The first question in my favorite:

Why do you really want to make this move? Switching sectors is a big deal. It's a bit like Alice in the looking glass, in that it's often difficult to climb back through once you've started the journey. So you need to be crystal clear about your reasons for doing so. In the current economy, for instance, it might be easy to see a move to the nonprofit sector as a way to expand your job-search options — another "port in the storm" so to speak. Don't do it. Trying to be something you're fundamentally not, solely for the purpose of cash flow, is a choice you'll live to regret — particularly when you have to work with comparatively scarce resources, practice more collaborative decision making, and strive to align mission and action.

Hmmm. Scarce resources, collaborative decision making, and striving to align mission and action. These are certainly hallmarks of the association world I'm familiar with, but is Wayne trying to suggest that these things DON'T exist in the for-profit universe? Go ask some of my members what they think of that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New Year - Looking Back and Looking Forward

I've seen a couple of other bloggers post their stats at the start of each new year and I thought that might be a good idea for The Hourglass Blog. Jamie and I started this experiment back in February 2009, so we have almost a year under our belts, and I think we're both pretty pleased with our activity and the response we've received so far. Here are the stats for 2009:

Blog posts = 61
Comments = 81
Peak Subscribers through Feedburner = 83
Peak Followers on Blogger =15
Absolute Unique Visitors = 547
Total Page Views = 1,430

I hope you've enjoyed reading the blog and plan to continue reading, because I certainly plan to continue writing. If you know of someone who might also enjoy it, please spread the word. It would be great to see those numbers double by next year!

When Jamie and I were brainstorming a few weeks ago about generations and leadership, he mentioned that he had been getting some feedback from colleagues that the whole issue of generations has kind of "jumped the shark" in our community. And I'll admit, the last year of reading up and digging into the subject has revealed a lot of hype and mischaracterizations that seem to plague the topic. Indeed, after an early comment that, according to census data, GenX is in fact a larger generation than either the Boomers or the Millennials (and thereby destroying the blog's whole concept of GenX as an "hourglass" generation), I spent a tedious afternoon Googling and squinting my eyes at actuarial tables to see if I could validate that claim.

But whatever it is that the birth year charts tell us about the size of the generations, I'm interested in the subject of how new generations embrace leadership, and I'd like to think that your response to this blog demonstrates that you have a real interest in that subject, too.

One of the questions I think we're all chasing is this--Do generations really matter to leadership? In other words, is leadership a set of universal skills that are learned by each new generation as they rise to take the mantle from their predecessors, or does leadership mean something different to each generation, and therefore our leadership systems will constantly change as each new generational perspective comes into power?

I very much think the latter. And when I read things like this from Seth Godin, I get intrigued by what kind of leadership changes we're going to see over the next ten years.

Thanks for joining us on the journey so far.