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Recognizing Potential Leaders

Posted on July 10, 2010 at 11:12 AM Comments comments (0)

There is no one type of leader. Nor do I believe that there is a definitive list of characteristics that define a leader. That’s one of the reasons it is hard to look at your teams and find the leaders lurking within them.

But there are some tips to recognizing those in your groups that could be the next set of leaders. A wise boss of mine once said to me, “Leaders lead. They can’t help themselves.” So, what then does that look like?


Five things to look for

  1. They often speak up and ask the tough questions during meetings. Typically they ask the questions that everyone else was thinking but not asking. The politically mature ones ask the questions more effectively, meaning they don’t put you on the defensive. But do not dismiss the ones that ask bluntly. They may not have learned the political art to questioning but they have an instinct to challenge things, to not just accept authority. No good leader is born from acceptance of all that is told to them!
  2. They ask the “what about me” questions during meetings or they corner you after with those questions. They are very fast at recognizing the topic/situation may have implications to them. We often think idealistically about leaders as altruistic, selfless beings leading for the greater good. Frankly, I prefer a leader who has a strong sense of self-interest. For me, that has a ring of honesty and sustainability. And those leaders that are able to quickly recognize impacts to themselves are often the best leaders at managing change as they understand that their people will need to understand what a change means to them.
  3. They challenge the team. They do not reserve all their challenges for management. They are equally as willing to challenge their team members on ideas, approaches and directions. The more organizationally mature of them do this as part of the natural rhythm of the team. They know when and how to challenge based on the team’s dynamics. The less organizationally mature tend to throw off the rhythm of the team and you’ll see some annoyance in the other team members. But both the mature and less mature are driven by a passion to see things done right, done efficiently, to improve things: all good qualities for effective leadership.
  4. They are the informal organizers of the team. This does not mean they are the social organizers of the team, though that is sometimes also the case. They are the ones that push the team to have some structure to what they do so it can be repeated, to store team documents and artefacts in a useful way, to reorganize some aspect of the work to make it better, to present or share their work with others in the organization to help make the team and team successes more visible. This push for organization is about being an advocate and believer in what the team does and ensuring it can be easily seen and accessed by others.
  5. They ask you about the future, about the organization or about what’s next for them. Again, there is a difference in how the more vs. less organizationally mature do this. The more mature ask effectively, ask with a visible and audible sense of curiosity and make it clear they care enough about the organization and their career to ask the questions. The less organizationally mature often seem somewhat “prima donna-like”. They can appear arrogant or selfish or the questions may present as challenging you or the organization. Step back from reacting to that arrogance. Recognize that more or less mature, these people display a restlessness and curiosity that can and should be leveraged. Leaders do need to challenge, they need to be wary of the current state and they need a certain level of restlessness in order to keep pushing the organization forward.

A person may not exhibit everything on the above list. But where you see a couple of these behaviours you need to watch more closely and start discussions with the person on their desired career path.


The ones that are clearly more organizationally and politically mature are the most ready for promotions, or lateral movements or special projects that will build their skills and visibility in the organization.


Those that still have many rough edges clearly require more work on your part. They will still need projects or team initiatives to hone their skills. They may not yet be ready for broad exposure on projects that create visibility throughout the organization. They need your help understanding the negative impact they can sometimes have while trying to move the team or organization to a better place.


But please do not drill the edge out of them completely! They will need it to survive a leadership role. And since most leaders still have leaders, they need to feel that questioning and challenging upwards is still appropriate.


In my view a good leader challenges their team with more tact then their upper management. Other good leaders can and should be able to handle more direct challenges and questioning. Far too often people are inadvertently groomed to be hard managing down and soft when managing up. To me that is completely backwards and ultimately hurts the organization’s ability to progress and innovate.


So, take a look at the people in your teams and groups in a different way. Instead of always seeing the star practitioners or the best people at specific work tasks, look for the behaviours that can indicate future leaders. You may be surprised how much you see!




The Lost Art of Why

Posted on July 3, 2010 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (3)

Has anyone else noticed that asking “why” has become a problem in our corporate/organizational world?


The parents amongst us remember well the phase our children went through when they asked why constantly. Sure, it could be a bit annoying at times but it also marked that very special time when we knew they were trying to understand how their world worked, what the rules were and where their boundaries were. In short they were learning. Many of their “why” questions forced us to rethink what we take for granted. I know some of those “why” questions left me wondering “why” as well.


As business has moved faster and as the economy has tightened, far too often those that ask the “why” of something are seen as nay-sayers or as people getting in the way of getting things done. I see it as a symptom of the lack of thinking happening in too many organizations. Taking the time to think things through is seen as “so yesterday”. The mantra seems to be “do, do and redo”.


I get it – agility is good, doing something is often better than doing nothing. Though I take issue with the idea that thinking about something, asking “why”, and digging for root causes is doing nothing!


Doing can be a way of thinking if we keep “why” in our vocabulary and treat our early doings as learnings and evolution. But even then there needs to be the freedom to ask why:

  • Why did we do it that way before?
  • Why isn’t it working now?
  • Why do we think this way will be better?
  • Why did our first iteration not get us where we need to be?

I now have to coach people to not ask “why” directly but rather to rephrase to “can you help me understand”, “what about this is concerning”, etc. When did we become such a defensive culture? We think of the business world as logical and rational, as strong and assured – yet nowhere is the simple question of “why” so frowned upon. No where else does it create the same level of defensiveness. Why?


For sure, those asking why must be respectful of the ideas and needs of others. “Why” should never, ever be an excuse for a personal attack. Asking why should always be about gaining understanding, about wanting to make things better, about wanting to surface any issues that could get in the way of implementation success.


I challenge all of us to get better at asking why and at accepting “why” questions. Why questions are not about tearing down proposals or plans, they are about gaining understanding and clarity; about exploring the edges of ideas or the core of how things have always been.


I challenge all of us to use “why” questions to uncover inefficiencies, easily avoidable risks, learn how others see a situation and to generally improve the success of our projects and businesses.


Hey, why not?!




Getting the Most Bang for Training Bucks

Posted on June 24, 2010 at 11:44 AM Comments comments (0)

When organizations spend real dollars on training events they deserve to get as much from them as possible.


In too many cases, everyone in the organization, from staff to leaders, assumes that the training event will impart great skills and that the training participants will go back to their desk and start applying those skills to the betterment of the organization.


Sounds great doesn’t it? Oh, were it so! I love the statement from John Maxwell, “The best teacher is an evaluated experience.” The reality is that the training event is necessary but insufficient to achieve changes in skills, behaviours and business effectiveness. What then is necessary?


Moving from training to learning to real improvement

There must be some discussion and evaluation of the new concepts/ideas/practices/tools and specifically how they will fit into your organizational environment. Simply put this is about figuring out what exactly will change as a result of the training. For example:

  • Will there be a new best practice implemented?
  • Will there be new deliverables as output of the business process related to the training?
  • How and when will the new tool or template be used?
  • What are the scenarios or situations where new skills will be applied and what exactly does it look like to apply those new skills?

If the training is for one person this may be a matter of some time in 1-1 discussions to help them put new skills or practices to use. When the training involves a whole group the stakes are higher. Significant dollars have been invested and the investment needs to pay off.


Below is a case study of a group that followed an easy but structured approach to move from training to real improvement. There were many side benefits for this group as well: stronger sense of team, improving their ability to collaborate, commitment to their personal development, sense that the organization was really supporting them and helping them grow.


Case Study

The situation

This group of business/systems analysts felt they needed to grow their skills and abilities in gathering and analyzing business and systems requirements as the core the services analysts provide. They made the business case to bring a 3 day training program in-house as the per person cost was significantly reduced both for the training and because they avoided travel costs. They would also be able to have discussions with the instructor that would be fully tailored to their environment. The training was planned well in advance and all projects were aware of the 3 days that people would be “off the job”. It was also planned for a time of year that was off peak demand time.


In this case the group as a whole was allocated a certain percent of their overall work time as non-billable hours for things like professional development, group meetings, best practice work etc. This training used some but certainly not all of that allocated non-billable time.


Then what

Once the training days were completed the group agreed to have a few more frequent team meetings for the following couple of months. Each of those meetings was designed to go through the training module by module to determine what it would mean to them in their roles and what changes they wanted to make as a group.


Six one-hour meetings were held. All the time spent fit in the allocated non-billable time budget. There was active discussion and debate on potential new activities, templates and best practices. Decisions were made at the end of each meeting and people assigned to take any action required to get new activities or template into their intranet site.


The results

The group added a few new templates to their toolkit with a clear picture of the situational need for each (when to apply). They related the training to some of their existing templates and deliverables and in a few cases made some modifications to those. They improved their part of the organization’s software development methodology to include some new activities and reference new or improved templates.


The end result was more consistent approaches and results for the work they were doing on their projects. Within 6-9 months of that training there was a marked increase in the credibility of the group and the demand for their skills on projects.


Sustaining the change

The training course that initiated the work was made a standard part of training for new analysts for the next couple of years. The manager of the group would then meet with the analyst after the training and show how the training was adopted into the organization.


Lessons from the case study

It comes back to the earlier quote, “The best teacher is evaluated experience.” Find a way to help the person or people involved in a training event to make it a learning process. Plan to do it within the organizational constraints you face. If the training is worth paying for it is worth allocating existing 1-1 or team meeting time to evaluate and discuss. Consider lunch sessions. Most people will give some of their own time when they see a real commitment from the organization to their professional development.


Professional development is not about what the organization will do for me as an individual. Your people must be part of the planning and must commit to spending the time and energy. Otherwise don’t bother. They’ll attend the training as a nice break from day-to-day work and nothing will change after. There is and must be mutual responsibility.


I certainly prefer a situation where I can plan this holistic approach as part of the business case for the training in the first place. But, sometimes you need to beg forgiveness vs. ask permission. The old Nike poster, “Just Do IT” held a prominent place on my wall for a long time! Just be very committed as a group to show real improvement from your approach.


I can tell you from my involvement with the case study above and many others that once you have shown the organizations and budget-holders what you are capable of doing as a group, getting ongoing dollars and time every year gets easier. To the point where you, as a leader, may have to take some barbs from your peers who are also fighting for dollars and time without the same success. That’s a problem I can live with!

What Does Good Sponsorship Look Like?

Posted on June 9, 2010 at 5:55 PM Comments comments (6)

Recently a friend of mine wrote an article for Project Times (From The Sponsor's Desk; In Your Face) on a project I led a few years ago. As he and I emailed back-and-forth about his article I was reflecting on went well with that project since successful projects are never just about the project manager.


We had a skilled and enthusiastic team and we had great sponsors. As I further thought about other successful projects I’ve led or been part of it seemed that great sponsorship was a consistent pattern. Strong teams and strong project managers may overcome mediocre sponsorship to deliver not-bad projects. Truly great projects need all of strong teams, strong project managers and great sponsorship. 


Of the many great sponsors I’ve been lucky enough to work with, few have had the same personality or business skill set. So, I started to think about what they did share. Here’s my list of things to look for in a sponsor or aspire to as a sponsor. I’m sure many of you can add to this list and I’d love to hear from you!


Clear understanding and definite dissatisfaction with the current state

  • They understand what is wrong or not working and why
  • They understand the business consequences of the issues
  • They believe the current state is untenable
  • They share this with everyone, often – not by blaming, rather by explaining

Clear sense of the future direction without preconceived notions of the final solution

  • They know what business results they need from the project
  • They believe the project can and will provide a solution that delivers the results needed
  • They trust the project team to come up with solution options and a recommended solution as part of executing on the project
  • They communicate all of this with everyone, often – with a sense of passion and persistence

Active in risk management

  • They are not head-in-the-sand optimists nor are they afraid of people that bring forward risks and challenges
  • They expect those identifying risks to also propose risk mitigation actions
  • They see risk plans not as pessimism but as the method to ensure realistic and sustainable optimism
  • They share that brand of optimism with everyone, often

Makes the right decisions

  • They set clear boundaries and a framework for decision making in partnership with the project manager and based on the needs and situation for that project
  • They do not usurp the project manager and team’s role in making the project-based decisions on how the project is run
  • They do make the decisions they are asked to make as quickly as possible to help the team avoid delays
  • They facilitate getting decisions made by others when (not if, when!) politics threatens to derail progress
  • They are not afraid to make decisions and they stand behind the decisions they make and that the project team makes
  • They communicate decisions needed or made as often as necessary to whoever is necessary

Willingness to serve the project and the project team

  • They expect the project manager to let them know when there are problems – yet they are not invisible until a problem arises; they check in to see how things are going not as micro-managers, but as servants to the team, ready and willing to help
  • They clear roadblocks that only they, with their authority and position, can clear
  • They do not take over problems the project team can handle; they trust the team to do its job
  • They provide a dome of protection and focus for the project team; they support the project manager in ensuring the project team is not raided for its talent or diverted to things that do not meet project goals
  • They keep the project visible and reiterate its importance to everyone, often

Expects results and is willing to pay for them

  • They set high standards of behaviour and action and expect the same from the project team
  • They do not set unrealistic or unachievable goals; yet they expect the team to be better than the sum of its individual members and to stretch themselves
  • They do not expect to get great results at bargain basement prices nor do they provide an open wallet
  • They provide that sense of balance on the path to results to everyone, always

Acknowledges results

  • They celebrate the interim results and the final results
  • They provide ongoing encouragement to the project team and to everyone involved in or impacted by the project
  • They deflect the glory to those that worked on the project in any capacity
  • They share their excitement and pride widely

I can think of many more detailed items but these are the key things I look for from a sponsor.  


Perhaps it is no surprise that this is a very similar list of things I look for in a leader! 




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!




Technology's Role (Part 2)

Posted on May 20, 2010 at 11:35 AM Comments comments (1)

In the last post Technology’s Role in Building Capability (Part 1), I talked about the promise of technology that is too often not realized. Specifically I looked at the role technology should play in building process capability. But what about the role of technology in building people capability?


Technology’s role in building people capability


The possibilities are exciting and astounding. Here’s a story to show just how far technology can go to build people capability...


A few years ago I led a team of people looking at advanced learning systems. We completed a number of great projects but one stands out. The learning system was designed to help new insurance sales reps build their skills and confidence in the sales process and in matching the organization’s product to the potential customer’s needs. The system was built on a simulation model, not unlike many computer games today. So, for example, one simulation had the sales rep cold-calling door-to-door. The system has built in video and the rep could choose their “script” at the door and then the potential customer video was tailored to react to reps choice of approach. The result was anything from a slammed door in their face to the opening they needed to enter into the next part of the sales process. In every situation there was performance coaching available – some automatic and some that the rep could call on – to help them learn what they did right or wrong and what they could do better. The system was very popular as it was extremely engaging, very realistic and provided a safe and private learning environment. I can also tell you that it quickly proved to me that I was not cut out for the sales rep role!

Unfortunately technology is often under-utilized or ignored as a people enabler.


We use technology to improve processes and functions which typically means we are changing the workflow and skills needed for the people executing the process. Here’s 4 ways technology can be used as an enabler.


1. The system supporting the function/process is built with humans in mind.

Whether building a system from scratch or customizing or configuring a purchased application, ensure the workflow embedded in the technology matches what your people are really going to do and how they are really going to do it. Ensure the system reacts well to needed hand-offs, to approval checkpoints, to interruptions that force the users of the system to temporarily abandon their work to deal with another business issue. Ensure the system is designed to allow power users to get around easily while still providing the flow needed for new users as they learn both the system and the business process.

There is a vast body of knowledge available on human-computer interaction, human- centered design and usability engineering; mountains more than this one post could cover! But if you start from the principal that the system must enable the people using it, you will have better results. Also if you start with a clear understanding of how your people are currently working and exactly what workflow needs to change you’ll be better prepared to factor effective workflow design into the enabling technology. See the post Do a Reality Review for more on getting to the truth of the current state.

2. The system has built in performance support.

Imagine your people using a system that helps them learn the new business process, business terminology or business policies simply as part of doing their work; where new hires are provided with what they need to do the job as they do the job. This is not a pipe dream. Technology has never been more able to build in contextual help, integrated learning aids, policy updates and the like. Having this or not is a choice we make as leaders when we embark on improvement projects that involve automation.

3. Technology-based training and education.

Some skills and concepts that employees need to improve their capability are not about the specific skills for a specific process. These may be more general skills like analysis and problem solving, project management concepts, time management or specific technical skills. The range of technology-based online learning available is huge and can be arranged with remarkably low expense.

Of course, not everyone can learn this way and no training whether technology-based or in person has any staying power unless it is treated as a learning process vs. a training event. There needs to be a commitment from the organization and its leaders to help people get access to this training, schedule time for them to take the training and work with them to translate the general learning into specific organizational scenarios where the learning can be applied. In short, technology-based training can and should be a key part of professional development but does not replace the role of the leader as a coach to determine the training needs and help people integrate the new material into their business practices.

4. Simulation training.

This relates back to the story above. This kind of technology driven training is sometimes built into online training as mentioned above or is created for the specific needs of an organization. Clearly much more sophisticated it also often comes with a higher price tag. You would want to focus this level of technology enablement at very complex and high-value processes that typically have a long learning curve.

The last post in this series will look at technology’s role in building leadership capability.




Technology's Role in Building Capability (Part 1)

Posted on May 18, 2010 at 10:19 AM Comments comments (0)

Having worked inside IT and consulted with many IT and business leaders, I have to state upfront that I am a fan of technology. Some would say I’m borderline geeky! I believe that every organization and most business functions need technology to reach their potential.

  • Manufacturing processes rely on technology; Business processes/functions are often more efficient and effective when people are paired with enabling applications
  • Business Intelligence and analytics applications help leaders make better informed decisions
  • Social media applications help organizations reach out to a broader community for sharing information and recruiting
  • Entrepreneurs can have a business idea, create a corporation online, get a web site set up and be in business inside a week

Technology can create whole new industries and change the fabric of business.


But mostly, it doesn’t. Doesn’t improve things as much as expected, doesn’t change the way organizations run and doesn’t live up to the hype.


Technology’s role in building process capability

A poorly designed business process automated by technology is just a poorly designed business process that may execute faster. Automating existing processes without a good look at how they can be designed to use fewer resources, produce better products, improve customer service or retention, increase fundraising success etc is just leaving money on the table. You must have a clear picture of the goal of the process and how that goal helps the organization.


Technology’s (hardware, software, networks or infrastructure) role is to:

  • Improve the efficiency of the business process – make it easier and yes, faster to execute; to help it cost less for the organization to support
  • Increase the effectiveness of the process - provide the opportunity for that process to create new products or services or to deliver existing ones in new ways; improve the experience of the customer of the process; reduce errors; create more useful data for analysis and product/service improvement

Technology plays an enabling role. A very important role but not the only one. People have to execute the process. Leaders must oversee the process and support the people executing it.


When process improvement projects are called technology projects (because they happen to be implementing a new system), they are set up to produce subpar results. If the “project” is just about the technology without considering the people needs and skills and the leadership requirements, the “project” is building a one-legged stool. There is no balance and it will not work well.


In the next post I’ll explore technology’s role in building people and leadership capability. As with building process capability there is promise, yet too often it is unrealized.




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.