Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When Do the Best Leaders Pull the Plug?

I find the decision to pull the plug on a project to be one of the most interesting leadership challenges. There are generally two schools of thought.

1. Pull the plug early and often. Your organization has limited time and limited resources and lots of things it wants to accomplish. Initially invest your resources broadly across many projects and monitor each closely. Take resources away from those that stumble and invest them in those that show promise. Continue to reallocate resources until they're all being applied to the surest bets. You will demonstrate to the team you lead that results matter and that you are capable of making tough decisions. Sacred cows are there to be slaughtered. Advocates of this approach say it'll give you the most wins.

2. If the plug falls out of the socket, plug it back in and tape it to the wall. The biggest prizes are the hardest to accomplish, and there are going to be some early stumbles in anything that's worth doing. It's important for leaders to champion these causes and to set a vision for success that transcends what people believe are the organization's current capabilities. If the objective is an important one, double down on floundering projects by allocating more resources and getting personally invested in their success. You will demonstrate to the team that you have high expectations for performance, and that you support their development. Some windmills can actually be defeated. Advocates of this apporoach say it'll give you the biggest wins.

Which approach do you generally take? In our day-to-day worlds I know we're likely to use a mixture of both approaches, but which one do you consistently lean to? What does that say about the kind of leader you are?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Open Innovation and the Association Community

The second meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force was held on March 19, 2010. For those of you new to this conversation, I'm heading up an effort for my state society to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. Inspired by the dedicated, defined and resourced “innovation function” that exists in many for-profit companies, we are examining a series of case studies that profile these processes. I'm also blogging about it here. By examining the principles of innovation successfully employed by the organizations profiled we hope to identify practical strategies for applying those principles to the association environment.

We focused on two case studies during our March 19 meeting:

1. “Connect and Develop: Inside Procter & Gamble’s New Model for Innovation,” a March 2006 Harvard Business Review article by Larry Huston and Nabil Sakkab

2. The website,

Both case studies presented examples of what we chose to call “open innovation”—a process of leveraging knowledge and expertise from outside an organization to drive innovation within the organization. Each case study offered a different methodology.

We found Procter & Gamble’s model for open innovation—an initiative they called “Connect and Develop”—to be an organized and disciplined one. It core characteristics appeared to be:

1. Leadership from the top. Connect and Develop was more than just another program within P&G. The CEO was a vocal champion for it and for innovation in general. He set the expectation that 50% of the company’s new products were to come through partnerships with outside entities.

2. Driving cultural change. For Connect and Develop to work, traditional views about what was “inside” and what was “outside” the company had to change. An innovation model based on in-house idea generation and invention had to give way to one based on leveraging the expertise of external stakeholders. Rewards were provided for the free exchange of ideas within the company to better support innovation and information sharing as core company principles. Employees had to learn their jobs were not in jeopardy if they leveraged the ideas of others.

3. Commitment of resources. A senior vice president was put in charge of the initiative and real resources were committed for its execution and sustainability. External networks of researchers, laboratories, suppliers, and ancillary services—some of them proprietary to P&G—had to be organized and maintained.

4. Clear focus on the problems that need addressing. P&G spent a lot of time defining the specific areas in which innovation was sought. Before turning the external networks on to a problem, they wanted to make sure it was a problem they felt was worth solving. Information about their top ten consumer needs was regularly refreshed and inserted into this decision process. They also carefully looked to leverage existing solutions in the marketplace.

In contrast, the Starbucks model appeared much less centrally-planned and hierarchical. We saw “My Starbucks Idea” as essentially a crowdsourcing website, with the following core characteristics:

1. User-driven. The website allows a community of Starbucks customers to submit, share and vote on ideas for improvements to Starbucks products and services. Login is required, but the site allows and contains both positive and negative feedback.

2. Crowdsourced. Voting on the ideas of others is a big part of the site. The most popular ideas are indexed on the home page, as well a leaderboard of the most frequent commenters.

3. Follow through. Several Starbucks representatives regularly interact with people in the community. They keep things organized, and report back to the community on the status of the most popular ideas (i.e., is Starbucks reviewing them and will they be launched?).

In discussing how to apply these open innovation principles to the association community, we made the following observations:

1. Associations may be uniquely positioned to incorporate open innovation techniques into their operations due to their inherent connections to various stakeholder networks. Staff members, Board members, association volunteers, association members, and suppliers can all form ready-made networks to suggest, test or promote innovative products and services. The boundary between which of these networks are “inside” and which are “outside” the organization are likely to be different for each association.

2. A cultural shift was seen as a common prerequisite for associations to adopt the open innovation principles described in the case studies. It was perceived that the culture of many, if not most, associations would be at least suspicious and at most hostile to the principles of open innovation described here. Support of the staff and the Board, with the CEO and CGO serving as vocal champions of these efforts was seen as essential. For associations with members already familiar with and perhaps practicing open innovation in their own organizations, this constituency could form an essential demographic for engagement and possible leadership development.

3. Different associations will have different perspectives on how much to “control” their open innovation practices. Some may wish to be like P&G—very targeted with regard to the subjects to be addressed and the constituencies to include. Others may wish to be more like Starbucks—open to suggestions from anyone on any subject. Each association should decide their own best placement on this continuum.

4. Social media technology may assist some associations in organizing open innovation initiatives, but it should not be viewed as the required mechanism. The communities an association wishes to engage in an open innovation initiative should be the driving force behind selecting the right mechanism to get them engaged. Too much reliance on social media for an audience not accustomed to it will likely result in failure of the initiative.

5. Adding an open innovation component to an association’s conference may provide an ideal mechanism for engagement with traditional and non-traditional stakeholders. Many associations are already using new education modalities to help their members connect with their peers and collectively derive innovative solutions to common problems in their industry or profession. Association leaders could leverage these positive experiences to champion a similar approach on issues of importance to association service and operation. Additionally, a national convention or similar association event could serve as a catalyst to bring local thought leaders from a variety of backgrounds together to add new perspectives and ideas to these discussions.

Our next meeting has been scheduled for May 14, where we will continue to examine case studies of innovation practices in the for-profit community and discuss ways to translate those principles to the association environment. 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.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Networking in a Box

Those of you who follow the Hourglass Twitter Feed know that I was at a WSAE event on social media earlier this week. Our speaker was Andy Steggles of Higher Logic.

Believe it or not, it was my first experience at a live event that came with its own social media back channel. Those of us on Twitter actively tweeted during the session (some folks even tweeting for the very first time) using the hashtag #wsae to organize all of our tweets. You can go read that "transcript" if you're interested.

My tweets focused on what I usually think of as "pearls of wisdom." When I attend an event like this, I'm not interested in a copy of the speaker's slides, or in taking copious notes on everything the speaker says. All I want is to come away with a couple of nuggets of information--sound bytes, if you like--concise and memorable thoughts that I can reflect on back in the office and maybe use to change behaviors or practices in the real world. Here's my list from the event:

1. In person meetings let you connect with your peers. Social networking allows you to connect with your peers' peers.
2. Monitor your own brand by regularly Googling your own name.
3. Who would produce the best content for your website? Your staff? Or your members?
4. Speakers say you have to get comfortable with losing control. I say you're not really in control in the first place.
5. Drive your social media by what you have to say, not what you have to sell.

Good stuff. But for me the session brought forth a bigger issue that's harder to put in a sound byte. It has to do with truth and authenticity in the digital age--a topic fellow Hourglass blogger Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant recently presented at the Great Ideas Conference. Go check out their slide deck on Prezi. It rocks! In it, they say this:

No matter how much you try to carefully control and compartmentalize different personas in different places, everything gets mixed and aggregated by Google in an instant.

You see, Andy Steggles was in Madison partly because he is helping WSAE launch a new online community for its members on Higher Logic's platform. We got a grand tour of it during the session. It's robust, intuitive and fun to play with. But it is what I think of as a "captured" social network, something owned and operated by an association, with a specific login needed to gain entry and an independent profile of me that needs to be maintained.

I belong to several of these "captured" networks, one for each of the associations I belong to. I think of them a little like "networking in a box." Sure, you can have good connections with people once you're inside each box, but the process of climbing inside one in order to connect with one part of your network, and then climbing out of that box and into another in order to connect with a different part of your network, is often very cumbersome. And the trend, I'm afraid, is that more and more organizations are building more and more of their own networking boxes with the expectation that I'll want to climb inside them all to see what they have going on inside.

Well, that just creates a fractured networking landscape for me. I'd rather use an "open" social network and tear down all those cardboard walls that are being put up to defend each organization's turf. My social network doesn't include just the members of one association, or even just the members of the association community. It's broader than all of the organizations I belong to, and that's the way I want it.

Does such a tool for "open" social networking really exist? Aren't even Facebook and LinkedIn "captured" social networks in their own way? If we're all going to be truthful and authentic in the digital age, don't we all need a completely open platform to allow us to connect in all the ways we wish to?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

James Brown, Henry James and Generation X

The reference in my last post to Jeff Gordinier's X Saves the World reminded me that I never actually got around to finishing Gordinier's book (even though I started reading it last August!). Sorry about that, Jeff. But don't worry, that oversight is something I decided to correct this weekend.

If you haven't read the book, I would suggest you do so, especially if you're at all interested in Generation X and believe, like I do, that it is somewhat uniquely positioned to drive meaningful change in our society. Gordinier believes so, too, but like many in our generation, he's a bit snarky and self-effacing about it. But both his prose and his wit are equally sharp, making the time spent with his thoughts and words always entertaining and, despite my X sensibilities, occaisonally inspiring.

He ends the book with a discussion of James Brown and a John Marcher, a character from one of Henry James' novellas, The Beast in the Jungle. Marcher, he says, is an individual that epitomizes inaction and indecision, someone who spends his entire life waiting for something monumental and life-changing to happen (described metaphorically as "the Beast"), and Brown is exactly the opposite--representing life lived at its sensual fullest, sacrificing health of body and human relationships in an endless quest to embrace creative change. His point in bringing these two to our attention follows.

Now ask yourself: What's the way to go out? Like John Marcher, dandified in spats and an ascot, staring at a hole full of dirt, bent over with regret over things undone? Or like James Brown--bruised, crunched, Quasimodally damaged, and yet proud of having kept nothing in storage, having emptied out the arsenal, having swallowed life like a mescal worm, having left a deep and long-lasting imprint on the world?

Gordinier clearly advocates for a more Brown-like approach to life for Generation X, even after spending 170 pages self-assuredly describing Generation X as "above" and disdainful of all the excess and world-changing cockiness that Brown seems to embody. He doesn't make the comparison directly, but I as read his descriptions of Marcher and Brown, schooled as I now was Gordinier generational theory, I came to see Marcher as undeniably representative of Generation X and Brown just as undeniably representative of the Baby Boomers.

Which leaves me with an interesting question. If X is truly going to "save the world," is it going to need just a smidge of that self-possessed Boomer idealism it finds so tiresome? In singing James Brown's praises, Gordinier seems to say so.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Where Have All the Slackers Gone?

Ran across this short item in a recent issue of The Week magazine.

Only a decade ago we were deeply concerned about the meandering fate of Generation X, a cohort of natural-born clerks so unambitious it couldn't even muster a proper name for itself. Swaddled in grunge and flannel, benumbed by rap music ("a great big cultural cancer," as one critic called it), Gen X was marked not only by its unwholesome aversion to work but by its members' vague yet ostensibly crippling anxieties--a result of the latchkey lassitude of their broken families.

It was authored by one of The Week's executive editors, Francis Wilkinson, who goes on to speculate about the reasons why the slackers may not be slacking any more.

For starters, the towers of 9/11 erupted, burying youthful idylls beneath their toxic lava. That eruption was followed by two wars, for which Gen X has provided much of the blood and courage, and finally by a financial collapse brought on by the overreach of just about everyone but slackers.

And he ends up almost grudgingly admitting that perhaps "The Kids Are Alright."

In hindsight, those genial, laid-back slackers don't look like the end of civilization at all, but like its gentlest, most innocent eyes.

I'm not sure where to begin with this. Perhaps Mr. Wilkinson should read Jeff Gordinier's X Saves the World, to get a better idea about what Gen X has been doing for the past ten years and what all that "slacking" was about in the first place.

But what really struck me about the article was the way its tone sounded similar to the way I've heard Xers talk about Millennials. Meadering fate. Unambitious. Unwholesome aversion to work. Crippling anxieties. Sound familiar?

I wonder if ten years from now us Xers will also lift our noses off the grindstones they've been pressed to and realize that those "molly-coddled Millennials" actually figured out how to grow up and take responsibility for the society we've given them--the same way some Boomers seem to now realize that the world may actually be safe in our hands.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Leadership Lessons - You Break All Ties

I recently passed my three-year anniversary as an association CEO. Prior to that I had spent several years as the deputy CEO of a much larger association, and prior to that ten or so years in various positions of increasing responsibility at an association management company. When I came on board as the CEO, I knew I had some things to learn, but felt pretty confident in my abilities and knowledge. Here's one of the lessons I learned early on.

I've always been very focused on consensus. Working with a Board, a committee, or a staff team, building consensus around strategies and tactics is something I always seek. To the degree it engages people in a decision-making process and gets them to willingly act on those decisions, it's something I think is worth fighting for.

At a staff meeting about three months into my current CEO position I remember being stymied by trying to gain a consensus regarding the advancement of a certain initiative. No one was being difficult or antagonistic about it, but there were two clear and opposing views about what should be done. Each perspective had valid reasons to support it. And no matter how much I pushed and probed, neither side seemed willing to concede that the alternate approach was worth trying.

I was still learning things about the new association I worked for, and up to that point, I had relied heavily on the knowledge of the staff to help make the best decisions. At that time, I realize now, I saw my role as more of a facilitator than a leader, working with the staff as I had worked with Boards, taking responsibility for the decision-making process instead of the decisions themselves.

But no matter how much I facilitated, a consensus simply would not emerge in this particular meeting. After about 30 minutes of batting the same two balls around the table, I was feeling frustrated, and as I looked into the patient and knowing faces around me, the solution to the problem suddenly popped into my head.

You're the boss. They're waiting for you to make a decision.

Here's what I learned. Consensus is good, but there are times when a quest for consensus is counterproductive. There are times when competing points of view have equal weight and a judgment call has to be made. It's a leader's job to identify those situations and to make the necessary decisions.