Capability Insights Consulting



Time for Learning?

Posted on June 3, 2010 at 7:14 PM Comments comments (0)

In a comment on an earlier post, a reader asks about how much time leaders in a learning organization should spend helping their people directly. The full comment is shown below.

“I'd be fascinated to hear how much time you feel leaders in a learning organization should spend helping their people directly so they can take things they've learned and apply them in ongoing "practice" or actually trying the ideas or new approaches out on the job. Time available "from the organization" is what allows it to become reality. How do you feel the modern lean "close to the bone" organization from a personal perspective impedes the ability of private enterprise and public organizations from making new learnings reality?”

Just what is a learning organization and what is a leader’s role in one?


There are a number of definitions available for learning organizations but here are two that cover the core concept:

“an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself". (Pedler et al in The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development.)

“Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together.” (Senge in The Fifth Discipline)

Now, I cut my leadership teeth reading The Fifth Discipline and my Masters program was all about leaders as learners and learning organizations. I love this stuff and I try to live it. But few organizations actually make it all the way to these definitions.


For arguments sake let’s take a look at the leaders’ role in a true learning organization:

  • Leaders coach every team member to achieve self-mastery, to actively look for ways to improve the organization, to take accountability for making changes, to help other team members learn.
  • Leaders encourage experimentation, challenge teams to take on reasonable risk and accept that mistakes will happen; but insist on learning from them and even more importantly in taking the time to learn from successes.
  • Leaders encourage open discussion of directions needed, ideas and possibilities.
  • Leaders recognize that true change comes from team members involvement in, commitment to and accountability for improvement initiatives.
  • Leaders become learners as well, giving up the traditional view of driving from top.

In fact, in true learning organizations there is a far flatter hierarchy and far greater a sense of running the organization together. Leadership is a role taken more than a position held.


If you think this is not possible, that decision-making must rest with a defined position and that an organization based on this premise is interesting theory with no hope of pragmatic implementation…check out W.L. Gore & Associates. You will likely know them for GORE-TEX but they are far more than that. Gore is a thriving 50 year old business with innovations and products covering electronics, medical products, space fabrics and more. They have over 9000 associates (they do not call them employees) in 30 countries. There is virtually no hierarchy. Note this from their web site:

“How we work at Gore sets us apart. Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.

Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention."

They have been very successful. This year they made it to Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For for the 13th time. Sales in the last fiscal year were over $2.5 billion.


Learning organizations can and do exist and can and do thrive. And when they do exist, they make the questions the reader posed that started this post almost irrelevant. Every person in the organization is both a leader and a learner at various times and everyone is fully expected to coach and mentor each other.


But few of us will work for Gore-like organizations. I may secretly hope for the demise of the pyramid organization but I know it’s a very, very long way off.


It is better, and more hopeful, to think about a learning organization as a continuum from the ultimate (Gore) to the the Dilbert organization of tyranny. Any organization that lasts more than a few years is learning something. Perhaps not efficiently or effectively and perhaps not as profitably as it could; but it is learning.


As a leader you can embed many of the learning organization principals (systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning) in your team. It is not about how much time you spend with your team members but about the nature of the conversations and interactions you have with them and they have with each other. And about the expectations you have of them and allow them to have of you. I do not believe this takes more time than many, especially those in knowledge based jobs, spend today. In fact, done well it should take less of your time as the load is better shared.


Make no mistake, moving towards a learning organization or providing skills training to employees is not about being nice and feeling good (though these are often by-products). It is about less cost, or more profit, or more fundraising success, or research dollars, or whatever is the driving reason for the organization to exist.


And this brings us back to the questions the reader posed. How much time should a leader spend so the employee can take something provided to them in training and apply it effectively on the job? As much time as the leader and employee(s) determine is necessary to ensure the training investment pays off! No organizations, especially those running “close to the bone”, can afford to pay out real dollars for training events and not see a return on that investment. The skills/behaviors/techniques have to be applied and applied in a way that improves whatever it is the employee(s) is doing.


This is not a question of how much time the organization is willing to give to the leader and his/her employees. It is a question of how well laid out was the learning plan that included the formal training event as one component of the overall plan. My experience has been that even the toughest organizations and the stingiest bosses, if they are going to allow training at all, want and expect it to make a difference. Money and time for training is not endless in full-out learning organizations either. We owe efficiency and effectiveness to our organizations. That means working with your teams and individual employees to determine the needs and priorities and to put plans around those that fit within the dollar and time budgets available and/or that can be justified. We have to make the case. The nice thing is that making and proving the case once results in it being easier to do the next time and the time after that.


I know that this treads dangerously close to the typical consultant answer (or non-answer) of “it depends”! But there really is no magic formula for the right amount of time for follow-up after training events be they individual one-on-ones or group discussions.


In the next post I’ll share a case study of a team that did pretty well at continually getting training money and time.




Technology's Role Part 3

Posted on May 25, 2010 at 12:32 PM Comments comments (0)

The previous two posts (Technology’s Role Part 1, Technology’s Role Part 2) have been exploring the role of technology in building process and people capability. This final post of this series looks at the role of technology in building leadership capability.


As with process and people capability, technology plays an enabling role. But that role is not as obvious and is fraught with more risk and is frankly harder to do well. Let me state upfront that technology enablers cannot make a bad leader good or a great leader significantly greater. Yet there is still some magic available when done well.


Improved measurement and decision making


Leaders must make decisions like the ones below:


  • product pricing decisions, product development decisions, product retirement decisions
  • sales target decisions
  • project investment and prioritization decisions
  • decisions on competitive strategies, business models, annual budgets
  • organizational design decisions
  • performance management decisions

A leader’s day is made up of a series of decisions whether they lead a fairly small business unit or an entire global organization.


I’d be the very last person to take a certain amount of intuition out of decision making, but decisions that are based on having good metrics and data, properly analyzed and balanced with qualitative factors are better and more consistent decisions. They are defendable and explainable which is a tremendous help when asking people to make changes.


Decision support systems through to complex business intelligence systems (BI systems) can help leaders make better and more consistent decisions. They can enable a leader to have exactly the relevant metrics and facts in front of them when needed. They can combine facts and trends and offer analysis far faster than us mere humans. They can weed out the data that is not relevant or not terribly important for certain decisions helping us be more focused in our decision making.


The risks are not in the systems or technology itself. In order to be effective as an enabler the technology needs:

  • the organization to have defined the kinds of decisions the leaders need to make
  • the organization to define the metrics and data it needs to capture to aid those decisions and to ensure that the business functions/processes actually capture this data for later use
  • the organization to define the kind of data analysis and trending to be done
  • the organization to equip the leaders with the skills needed to use the metrics, data and data analysis
  • and potentially more around building capability to ensure data integrity and to continually evolve data analysis as the organization evolves

Technology applied incorrectly here can actually make decision making worse, can have leaders buried in too much data and basing their decisions on the wrong information. Even when applied well it can result in leaders relying too heavily on the data and not balancing data with real-world observations of what is happening in their organization and with their customers.


In short the organization must embark on some thinking about decisions and decision-making processes in their organization before running down the technology implementation path. In this do and activity based culture we live in, thinking time is often considered a luxury!


Summary: Technology and Capability

Technology can and should be used to help build people, process and leadership capability. What matters is how it is applied. Technology is not, nor will it ever be, a silver bullet. Understanding what your organization needs; its goals, its employee skills, its strategies, its products, the decisions that need to be made etc is hard work! That hard work matched with effective use of technology will be rewarding. Anything less than stepping up to that hard work is like taking a cut flower, shoving it in dirt and hoping it takes root. On rare occasions it works, the vast majority of time it looks good for a short time then wilts and dies. Except that technology is typically a lot more expensive than a cut flower!




Do a Reality Review

Posted on May 7, 2010 at 12:08 PM Comments comments (0)

External pressures like recessions, new competition or new regulations force you to look at your products or services and the processes used to deliver them. You move into improvement and change mode because there is no choice.


But when things are going well, the external world isn’t knocking hard on your door and no one in the company seems to be complaining, it is so easy to sit back, smile and enjoy. That is certainly understandable and maybe, for just a short period of time, a necessary rest period for the organization.


Do not rest for long! You have been given a unique and precious opportunity to examine your business, to do what I call the Reality Review.


What is this?

A Reality Review is a brutally honest assessment of the current state of your business or some piece of it. Here’s a sampling of the questions for a review:


For a key business process:

  • Is it as effective as it could be?
  • Is it as efficient as it could be?
  • Could error rates be lowered?
  • Is it shareable or locked inside a key employee’s head?
  • How many people and handoffs are required to get the job done?
  • Do the people involved have the skills they need to perform well? Is the time from hire to proficiency too long?
  • Is recruitment too difficult? Does it take too long?
  • For an existing product or service:
    • Does it sell as well as you’d originally hoped? Again, be honest, it may be selling but is really achieving what you believed possible when you started it?
    • Do your people know when and how to sell it? Do they like to sell it?
    • Could customer satisfaction be higher? Do you know what your customers are saying?

    A Reality Review can also take a look at your people management, performance management and leadership strengths and weaknesses.


    The point is to take the stance that good can always be better. In fact it is often also true that good can hide pockets of bad.


    Why do a Reality Review?

    Beyond assuming that you want to know what is working and what is not, here’s a list of reasons that all have bottom line impact:

    • You will find places where processes can be improved or streamlined. You will (hopefully!) find many things being done right and you get to celebrate that with your people and share those good practices to improve other areas of the organization.
    • You may find products or services that simply need to be retired. Getting rid of a product/service that is a drain on organizational resources allows more focus and attention on the products/services that are doing well. It also opens up the chance to explore new products/services to make use of the organizational capacity no longer needed for the old product/service.
    • You’ll be in a much stronger position to take on external pressures that will inevitably be just around the corner. You may well inoculate your organization from some competitive pressures by staying ahead of the pack.
    • Through doing an honest review of the current state you’ll be better positioned to communicate the changes needed to the people in your organization.

    How do you do it?

    You can and should gather some statistics. I would certainly want them as part of the overall picture. But too many organizations get buried in the “data trap”, arguing about which data should be collected and what the results of the data collection are actually saying.


    More importantly, statistics are a passive review. A true reality review requires something far more active. Consider:

    • The documented process is almost never the actual process that gets executed.
    • The explained process will be what someone thinks you want to hear.
    • The only way to really understand what is being said to customers – at all points of customer interaction – is to hear it.
    • Customers may fill out surveys but this cannot replace focused conversations on their experiences with your products and services.
    • Changes that are made on actual vs. documented processes achieve real improvement.

    You, or a small project team needs to get out there, live it, see it and experience your processes as your people do and your products and services as your customers do.

    • Sit with the people doing the work. Ask them to talk through their work as they do it. Get them to explain their understanding of what they are doing. Ask them what would work better.
    • See where they are interrupted and what impact that has on their ability to execute.
    • Experience how they use the automated systems provided to them.
    • Look for the sticky notes plastered on the screen and desk that indicate some process or system is not intuitive and requires a constant reminder.
    • Sit in on customer interactions.
    • Take the opportunity to ask customers for feedback.

    An active review does not have to take a lot of time, though it does require some planning to ensure the time used is effective in discovering the reality of your process, service or product.


    A side benefit to this active observation and review is that you will discover data points to track that will end up making your statistics much more meaningful in future. A quick story to illustrate…


    A few years ago I worked on a project that was focused on streamlining system interactions for several hundred customer service assistants across the country. The project team spent time sitting in regional offices getting a first-hand view of how the existing systems were used. While in these offices every team member watched the computer network go down unexpectedly, often several times a day. Input data was sometimes lost and the interruption time to restart and get back on track was several minutes. There were no help desk statistics to show this was an issue. People had given up calling to report something that no one seemed to do anything about anyway. The project team put some simple code into the new system they were delivering to track when the system did not close cleanly and were able, over just a few weeks, to statistically prove the network problem. The problem did get fixed and tracking was put in place to ensure the systems really were available and reliable on an ongoing basis.

    Make Reality Reviews a part of your culture

    You do not have to wait for down time to do a Reality Review. Every project has the opportunity to embed active observation into its work. Not only will the results of that project be improved, you will continually find areas for improvement.


    You will build leadership credibility. Your people will feel like they are really being listened to and consulted about the direction of the company.


    No one should bury an organization in constant change and knowing when to act on improvement opportunities is key. But go ahead and be the restless leader. The one who can take pleasure and pride in what has been accomplished while still looking for opportunities to further grow organizational capability.




    Context Is Everything

    Posted on May 3, 2010 at 7:42 AM Comments comments (1)

    While Capability Insights is all about pragmatically helping you improve your organization; this is after all a blog and will occasionally wander off on tangents and reflections on leadership. Such is the case today! I promise though to tie today’s wandering back to leadership and the previous posts on management of change...


    People are neither rational nor logical. Google either of those words and the definitions will look something like:

    • Definition of rational - consistent with or based on or using reason
    • Definition of logical - capable of or reflecting the capability for correct and valid reasoning

    The best boss I ever had would sit quietly while I railed, complained or ranted on the perceived issue of the day, then look over and gently say, “Brenda, you are expecting people to be rational and logical.” Now, if you hear that enough, and believe me I heard it a lot, you have to start thinking about what it means. I was forced to consider how this statement affected me and the projects I was trying to lead.


    I considered that perhaps I was capable of logic but “they” were not. There were 3 serious issues with this possibility:

    1. Based on my previous statement about people not being logical or rational, I would have been a non-person.
    2. The arrogance of such an assumption would surely astound even the most Trump-like amongst us.
    3. And pragmatically, I had seen “them” be logical and rational many times before so I knew this possibility was not realistic.

    At that point the light bulb went on for me. “They” were being rational and logical when I understood the reasons behind their actions or behaviours. When I was not aware of the reasons, the actions and behaviour appeared illogical and irrational. What did this mean for me:

    • I stopped ranting and starting asking. If someone involved with a project was not acting or behaving like I expected I simply asked what was going on for them. Sometimes they had valid reasons that needed to be considered as part of the project implementation. Occasionally I disagreed with their reasons. At least we had the basis for a good discussion that didn’t exist before I asked.
    • I started making the project and change rationale visible early and frequently. Way too often I found that peoples’ personal reasons for their actions were based on assumptions about the rationale of the project and change. It is just so much easier to get everyone on the same page as early as possible!

    So, in fact, people are quite rational and logical when you understand the context they are working within. Good thing since my whole light-bulb process feels quite logical and I’m now in no danger of being a non-person!


    What does this mean generally for leadership and for managing change in your organization?

    • Help people understand your reasons for the improvement initiative and the change. The people in your organization have an almost insatiable need to see their leaders being logical and rational. More importantly, they will make assumptions about the rational. Those assumptions are often wrong. See the post Just What is the First Step to Managing Change for more on this.
    • Ask questions. Solicit feedback. Find out about the personal context. You will very likely learn things that allow you to tweak your project for the better. Listening willingly is also a necessary skill for a leader. This expands the communication talked about in the post Organizational Change Isn’t to an improved two way communication.

    By the way, I’m not suggesting that irrationality and poor logic don’t exist; just that we jump to that conclusion more often than necessary. And it hurts our ability to improve our organizations.




    Just What is the First Step to Managing Change?

    Posted on April 26, 2010 at 11:43 AM Comments comments (0)

    Almost all management of change approaches or methodologies talk about building understanding as the first step in managing change. While true, management of change is part of a bigger picture. The first step in successfully managing change is knowing what the change is and why you have to make it. That places management of the change properly in the context of managing your business.


    It is very difficult to build understanding in others or to articulate effective change messages unless and until you and your leadership team have a clear view of:

    • The factors driving the need for change. These could be internal needs or external drivers. Can you describe the rationale behind the change?
    • The risks of not changing. Can you articulate what would happen if nothing changed?
    • What needs to be changed. Can you succinctly state what aspects of the business need to change? Have you looked at interrelationships between business processes, people and leadership to ensure you have nailed the scope of the change?
    • When the change needs to happen. Can you articulate the urgency or timeframe? Does that timeframe make sense when lined up against the drivers and the risks of not changing?

    Many sales organizations talk about having the elevator pitch for whatever they are selling. That’s a great concept to borrow for communicating and advocating for your change effort. Good elevator pitches come from having a solid understanding of the opportunity/product/service, or in this case the change.


    More importantly, if you have the answers to the questions above you are well positioned to build understanding of the change across the organization (be that an area, a department or an entire company).


    But let’s take a step back. You may be asking why you need to manage change at all. You know what’s needed and why, there is very likely some urgency to getting things moving. You are so ready to move into detailed planning and implementation! And there’s the problem. You and perhaps your leadership team may be ready. But the rest of the organization is not there with you. Yet.


    Improperly managed change often results in:

    • Resistance. That translates to the change taking longer and being more work.
    • Improperly used new business processes or practices. That translates to less benefit than planned and typically lower productivity. Worse, the risks of not changing may not have been avoided.
    • Turnover. Some turnover may be planned and necessary to affect the change. Badly managed change results in turnover you did not plan for and may not want.

    Properly managing change is not just about ensuring the absence of the negative. It is also about getting things done and getting them done in a manner that builds the organization's change capability and makes future evolution that much easier.


    So, the very first step in managing change is actually doing all the good disciplines of business management that leads to your understanding of the change. Then you can start to share that understanding with others.




    Capability Improvement Means Change

    Posted on April 22, 2010 at 11:13 AM Comments comments (0)

    Improving capability (people, process or leadership) inevitably means change. Management of change is a required element of success. Yet few of us do it well.


    Let's say you've embarked on a process change that impacts a couple business processes and by default the people working in those processes and the leaders of those processes.

    • A good vision or sense of the end state is necessary but not enough.
    • Project management will be required but will not be sufficient.
    • Business analysis and design is absolutely necessary but won't ensure success.
    • Automation can be great but may not be as welcomed as you imagined.
    • Having the best possible people on the project can help the project run smoothly but does not guarantee the ongoing change will be a success.

    Management of change is the glue that pulls all those excellent elements together. Rather than think of management of change as "that soft, fuzzy people stuff" think about it as a governance framework for making sure the time and effort you've put into changing those business processes actually results in improved capability.


    The next few posts will cover some management of change basics for you to apply.