SEE.

Envisioning solutions to our nation’s most complex challenges

BELIEVE.

Engaging the untapped passion and talents of our public workforce

ACHIEVE.

Delivering results that showcase great government in action

 

A core part of being human is the passion to serve. Through my conversations with many people over many years it’s easy to see that for most human beings nothing is more fundamental than the desire to serve others.

People who chose to work in government are no different. Yet, as citizens we are often critical of government workers and the word “bureaucrat” has become a negative word. It stands for red tape and poor service.

Do you see the disconnect though?

People go to work in government to serve citizens, but something gets in the way. Something prevents them from providing the great service they very much want to provide.

My work and my beliefs center around the fact that we all live and work in systems.  A system is a collection of processes that all lead to some sort of outcome. Most systems are the result of a collective set of actions, policies and decisions made over a long period of time. My experience is that over time certain systems unintentionally make it more difficult, not less, to achieve the outcomes we want. Then it becomes easy to lose sight of the outcome we desire.

For those who work in government today the simple reality is they are often not able to do what they want or what citizens need. They do what the system requires of them. This is not different than any private company – the rules people work in are the rules the organization has adopted.

But the reality is that if the system does not allow people to do the right thing to achieve the desired outcomes, then the system needs to be improved or possibly redesigned. Unintended results come from systems that are not designed but are really, in blunt terms, an accident. This unintended system is the result of so many laws and regulations having accumulated over the years and the system has become extremely complex and convoluted. When you hear such things as education reform, those are code words for a systems redesign.

If you work inside an accidental system you understand what I mean.

The solution is to step back and intentionally design the system, design the system with one thing in mind: the outcomes you want. Yes, certain laws and regulations need to exist to protect against undesired outcomes.  However, balance needs to be restored to the system so that employees’ good intentions can be better realized.

When you talk to your friend or neighbor who works for a government agency, you’ll find they are just as passionate about service as you are. They truly do care.

So, redesigning government’s systems makes all the sense in the world.

It’s easy in an organization to spot the bright stars, the individuals who seem to be in the center of all the creativity and positive change. But in fact our organizations have many, many stars – multiple galaxies full of them ranging from barely twinkling to awesomely bright.

When I wrote Business at the Speed of Now I wasn’t focused on all the bright stars because they thrive in the sky of work. I was focused on all the less bright stars that no one currently notices.

Our organizations are filled with people with unseen talent. We get to see them sparkle on rare occasions. But if you could peek into their personal lives you would see people with gifts and talents far beyond what we see at work.

I just wanted to draw attention to the person you regularly see at work who is a fully capable human being – yet is a person who works the way they have been trained to work. Head down. Mouth shut.

There is much discussed about employee engagement that views this body of work as being about employee satisfaction. It’s not. Employee engagement is about tapping into all those stars so they can constantly help your organization grow, create amazing customer experiences, and reduce your costs.

We have so many stars to work with… but we have to get them aligned to where we want them to go.  Then we need to give them the tools, information, development opportunities, and coaching they need to become bright stars – or at least brighter stars. That’s how you drive up employee engagement.

Engaging your employees is not about creating a satisfying environment because that does not assume creativity or going the extra mile.  Instead, employee engagement is about creating specific expectations and the tools needed to excel. It’s about running your business in a way that expects accountability and also enables it.

If every one of your employees really understood where you are trying to take the organization, if they really understood their part, and if they had everything they needed to be a bright star, don’t you think you could better achieve your vision?

Of course you could.

“There’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill — and rightfully so because his bold leadership — triggers an instant insight into one of life’s most paralyzing dangers.

Churchill knew that the worse thing England could do in response to the German threat was be paralyzed with fear. On September 1, 1939, the day Poland was invaded by Germany, the British began the largest single organized movement of people in world history. The country evacuated some 3.5 million children out of London before the inevitable bombing began. It is hard to imagine the mothers watching as their children marched off to train stations to be transported to some unknown place for an unknown period of time.

The courage to do what was needed to eventually win the war was demonstrated before the war even reached England’s skies. Because of the decisiveness of its leaders to face reality and do the right thing, even if it was incredibly hard, the Allies prevailed.

When change is inevitable, being paralyzed by fear only moves control of the change out of your hands and into the hands of others.

As leaders when we make decisions that set transformative change in motion, everyone involved will experience some degree of fear. Even when organizations make a commitment to dramatically increase employee engagement — something you would think employees would embrace — the fear of change can haunt people like a monster under their bed.

Equally paralyzing in the midst of inevitable change is blame. When change is coming, fear can cause us to blame people who are driving the change and make them the enemy. The enemy is not those who are leading the change — the enemy is the problem that requires change.

The only viable response when changes is inevitable is to head into the it with eyes wide open and a commitment to do something to help it be successful.

Yes, the monster under the bed is dangerous indeed, but only as long as we refuse to look it square in the face – only to discover the monster was our fear.

Transforming an organization into a culture of high employee engagement is challenging enough, but leaders have to face the reality that certain entrenched naysayers may have to leave in order for the effort to be successful.

In my first major management job I learned an important lesson about change. That lesson was that some people have no interest in change, and will do everything in their power to stop it.  I learned that deeply entrenched naysayers need to either genuinely get on board or leave the organization in order to make way for positive changes.

One guy who worked for me, I’ll call him Jack, was a real downer on ideas his teammates had for making things better. He had a tremendously negative impact on his team because every time someone put out an idea he would immediately shoot it down. For some reason Jack set the tone for the team and it was not a pleasant tone. He happened to be physically bigger than the others, more experienced, and more educated.

As leaders we all run across naysayers – people who pretty much have a negative response to everything. But over the years I have learned to sort “challengers” into two categories: Barkers and Biters.

Barkers are people who care about good work and want to make a real contribution to the success of the organization, however they are frustrated when the organization resists making common sense changes.  Barkers are some of your best people who, when they see change that makes sense, often quickly embrace it. They are the people that when you persuade them to join a team to fix a problem make huge contributions and do what it takes to make sure the problem is really fixed – and fixed right.

In the end, barkers are huge supporters of effective employee engagement efforts.  They know that employees will become more engaged when common sense changes are implemented.  So their barking has always been about the absence of common sense. Once their frustration is removed they put their energy into fixing the very problems that have long driven them (and others) crazy.

On the other hand, biters are a different lot. They are like the unsociable dog who is just itching for a fight. Their anger is barely below the surface, however it is anger not frustration. They are mad at the world and it has nothing to do with work.  It has everything to do with their ”stuff.” They have an ax to grind and it is an ax that never seems to get sharpened enough to stop the biting.

I remember coaching my employee, Jack — before I finally faced the reality that he was a biter, not a barker — saying to him, “You are a tidal wave of cold water on good ideas.” When I said that, I was nearing my conclusion that the change we were trying to make couldn’t happen with Jack on the team. Jack needed to go and it was my job to make that so. And I did.

When people resist change, it’s critical we differentiate the barkers from the biters. Barkers become your best change agents, but biters need to be let out.

What are you doing about your biters?

People are messy. They have feelings, opinions, moods and likes and dislikes. But in all this human messiness is human brilliance.

One of the very first major articles I had published over 20 years ago was titled, “Thanks Boris and Mikhail, The Soviet Lesson for American Business.” I wrote it shortly after Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev had been instrumental in the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991.

The message was clear: if you try to control people and try to centrally plan everything, you are destined to failure. And, I argued, the vast majority of businesses apply principles more aligned with the Soviet Union than with those of a genuine free market system.

At the human level setting up a management system designed to control people, whether be it for a profit-making venture or for a government entity, removes the natural human drivers and motivators.We as humans, each of us, come equipped with gifts. Human gifts, aligned to a meaningful vision, are what enable a vision to be fulfilled. The more we are able to tap into and align those gifts to our purpose the more readily any vision will be achieved.

That’s what management is. That’s what real employee engagement is.

We face a crisis in this nation. After all these years we still run our organizations more like the Soviet Union was run — than on the ideals that our nation was founded upon. Our systems of management are old, faded and tired at every level of endeavor.

It’s time we learn the lesson.

It may be tempting to dismiss the millennial generation as a bunch of spoiled brats, however we have something important to learn from the millennial mindset. The millennial outlook on life is forcing previous generations to reconsider some serious workplace issues. A key driver in the shift from a Mass Production driven economy to one based on Mass Customization is the millennials approach to life.

Often called the “trophy kids,” parents of these children replaced the old adage that, “Children should be seen, not heard” with “The sun rises and sets on our children’s wants and needs.” As a result, this generation disdains hierarchy and authority.

The millennial generation’s teachers focused on building self-esteem insisting every child gets a gold star regardless of the quality of their work. According to Dr. Nicole Lipkin, author of Y in the Workplace: Managing the “Me First” Generation, this generation lacks resilience and exhibits weak critical thinking skills. Spoiled or not. millennials want their products and services customized to fit their particular wants and needs.

While it is easy to focus on the negatives of this generation, in Business at the Speed of NowI explore three major positive aspects of the millennial generation:

  • Strong bias for the healthy integration of work and non-work life
  • Deep unwavering commitment to social responsibility
  • Low fear of change that enables their creativity and inventiveness

My own belief about millennials is that their positives actually align with beliefs of previous generations with one huge difference: this generation is intolerant of compromise. This impatient generation struggles to understand when something needs to change in their workplace why it is not changed NOW. They have little respect for slow chain-of-command decisions and they are used to instant gratification.

The power in these aspects of generational difference is that they insist that wrongs should be righted as soon as they are discovered. When they see a solution they pressure management to make the change immediately and if they hear, “It will take about six months” it is a completely unacceptable answer.

I share and value the beliefs of this generation, however like many in my baby boomer generation the temptation to compromise is ever present. So, what are the implications of the millennial mindset for how we run our organizations and how we engage our people? I think we need to remember that when something is wrong we should make it right – NOW. If a process is broken or a customer is wronged, our people need to have the skills and authority to solve the problem in real time.

While millennials may come across as self-absorbed and spoiled, it might be worth looking beyond appearances and instead focus on the underlying social good they are calling on us to do.

One of the great beliefs we have as managers is that our job is to listen to our employees’ ideas and then go implement those that we find valuable. Sounds like a great idea. But as managers we know the reality is that a good many employee ideas just don’t make business sense.

My last week’s post was titled Engaging Employees: The Economics of Micro Ingenuity. In that post, I referred to research that shows for every employee that crosses over from being disengaged (meaning they do only what they are told to do) to engaged (meaning they make decisions and implement improvements without being asked), you can expect to add an incremental $13,000 to the bottom line each and every year.  That’s $13,000 per year per employee. Just do the math.

So if employee ideas often don’t make business sense, how is it possible that when employees implement their own ideas they somehow magically bring great results?

In traditional low-engagement organizations there are five reasons employee ideas are only half-baked if they were baked at all:

  1. The idea solves a problem that is not really a problem
  2. The idea addresses a problem in some other department, addressing work they do not understand
  3. The solution has negative impacts the employee has not considered or intended
  4. The cost of the solution exceeds its benefits
  5. The solution addresses a problem’s symptom not its root cause

In organizations where employee engagement is high, as I explain in Business at the Speed of Now, it is high because management has worked hard to ensure employees know where the organization is going, they understand their specific accountabilities, and they know how to effectively use facts to solve problems.

Then, when employees know they are expected to implement their own ideas they actually come up with ideas that focus on the things they can control. They also focus on improvements in the areas where they have a lot of knowledge, experience and insight.

As a manager if you routinely experience employees coming to you with half-baked ideas, you might want to look in the mirror and ask yourself why the ideas are not focused on the work the employee controls.

When employee ideas focus on the routine work they do and know well, and they have data-driven problem solving skills, the ideas almost always make good sense.

What’s been the most half-baked suggestion an employee has ever made to you?

BY JOHN M. BERNARD

With the access we as customers have today to a plethora of options, we place enormous value on an organization’s ability and willingness to say “yes” to our unique needs. Not only do we want to hear that magic word, but we want to hear it NOW!

Call us spoiled, but we want what we want and we have learned we can increasingly get it thanks to the incredible options we find on the Internet.

During the time I was writing Business at the Speed of Now I had a conversation with some colleagues during which the term “YESability” was coined. I was explaining how critical it is in these highly competitive times that employees have the authority to say yes to opportunities, yes to solving problems, and yes to how best to move the organization closer to its goals.

While I know some people find made-up words annoying, I use YESability because it poses two questions every leader needs to explore: How yes-able are my people? Can they take action when they need to or do they need to seek permission?

If employees have to go to their supervisor or manager to get permission to do anything out of the ordinary, you have a problem. A competitive problem that will directly impact your customers’ experience. Why do I say that? Because seeking permission takes time. And in a real-time NOW economy that extra time is just enough for the customer to give up and move on to a more responsive competitor.

But the concept of YESability goes well beyond the conspicuously important real-time customer opportunity. It impacts the daily opportunities employees see to solve a problem, trim a cost, or improve a process.

It is human nature to improve things. We do it in every aspect of life.

But in traditionally managed organizations decisions happen through the chain of command. That fact of life slows down every decision and dramatically reduces the volume of decisions that can be made.

When only a handful of people have YESability, namely management, only a handful of problems get solved, only a handful of costs get cut, only a handful of ideas get implemented. It’s simple math and customers bear the brunt of this model.

Enabling people to say yes requires that management do its job BEFORE an opportunity knocks. Management needs to shift from making the decisions to enabling the decisions, which fundamentally redefines the work of management.

The job of management in our modern economy is to make sure every employee has the business knowledge, problem solving skills, and authority to say yes to customers — and to be able to say it now — when yes is the right answer (which is most of the time).

Can your employees say yes?

BY JOHN M. BERNARD

Before the automobile was in common use many people believed that high-speed car travel would cause the human body to disintegrate starting at about 60 miles per hour. Only 100 years later that belief now sounds so far fetched you probably think I made it up. I did not.

Speed fascinates us and the mystery of it taps into our imagination. As I write this I am traveling in an ordinary jet aircraft traveling some 400 miles per hour and about seven miles above Mother Earth. Ironically, after the flight ended my young daughter told me that the plane we took was “too slow,” which I knew was because once we reached cruising altitude she thought it had actually stopped moving.

It is a strange world.

Second only to our love to move fast is our passion to get information fast. It wasn’t that long ago that a letter from a far away relative was a treasured possession as it took many weeks to travel to its destination.

Today we get information in real-time. An email traveling at the speed of light circles our globe seven times in one second. So, I don’t know about you but when a web page doesn’t load instantly or when I have to wait for my computer to boot, I am a bit impatient.

It is true that we live in a NOW world with instant access to everything. And the faster things move the more we value time. In fact, we so hate wasting time that when an organization puts us through the hoops as we try to get our needs met we simply want to scream with frustration.

Our NOW world has redefined what customers expect. Yes, they expect your organization to meet their needs, although that’s really just the price of admission. Increasingly time is the dimension from which our speed-driven world derives the greatest value when meeting their needs. These are known as the NOW Moments.

That value creation most often requires the intervention of employees. Unless those employees have the skills and authority to take action NOW, your business is at risk of becoming irrelevant to your customers.

And our passion for speed is only accelerating.

We live in a time where we must do Business at the Speed of Now. Management’s new job is to enable their employees to deliver on the NOW Moments.

BY JOHN M. BERNARD

PART THREE OF A FOUR-PART SERIES

Employee engagement is the Holy Grail because when it improves so does the customer experience, productivity and revenue. Also when it moves up, costs, absenteeism, turnover, theft, accidents, and defects go down. In the search to drive up employee engagement there have been many alluring paths to explore. Over the years most organizations have jumped at dozens of programs to boost the degree to which people, their most valuable asset, take initiative and go the extra mile to make improvements.

However, not only has employee engagement NOT improved in the past 25 years, it has actually declined according to research by Gallup. Today in the typical company less than 30 percent of employees do anything more than the minimum required.

Our hunger to engage people creates an unrelenting appetite for anything and everything that might help. We hope the Balanced Scorecard will transform engagement. Maybe if we just emulate the Good to Great companies we can pull it off. Or if we can get past the Five Dysfunctions of a Team or if we all just practice The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People our employees would finally be more fully engaged. Then there is the promise that lean, six sigma, Kaizen, the whole world of process improvement, certainly must be the path to true engagement. Right?

Unfortunately, programs and tools like these do NOT transform employee engagement. Every one of the great books I mentioned and the very powerful world of process improvement all support engaging employees. Yet, supporting employee engagement does not create transformation.

Take lean as an example. You can engage employees in a project to take the waste out of a given process. But projects of this nature are almost always special sanctuaries where the over-riding norms of the organization are temporarily set aside. What that means is the improvement effort is a special event during which employees actually have a voice and are highly engaged.

For these reasons, there is no doubt that lean is a good thing. But the problem is we hope that if we just keep repeating these projects we will transform the underlying behaviors, expectations and routines of the organization in such a way that results in a highly engaged workforce. It’s like remodeling a 1,200 square foot track home one room at a time and hoping when you are done you have a 8,000 square foot mansion.

Repeating a good practice, no matter how much we hope it does, can’t transform an organization. As Einstein put it, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

In reality, employee engagement is driven by the underlying system of management, the logic that organizes and runs the business. That logic is often unseen and unconscious, and it is that logic that creates organizational culture and behaviors.

Learn about our exciting results by reading Business at the Speed of Now.