February 25, 2007 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

A common business adage these days is that “if you don’t move forward, you will fall backwards”. This is reasonable, in a sense. There is a good chance that in a competitive environment, maintaining the status quo internally will give others an opportunity to make advances and leave you in the dust. In effect, you indeed fall backwards.

I have a problem with this, though, in that it implies that our approach should be to aggressively stay ahead of the competition in order to survive.

The competition. The other guys. The focus is often in the context of someone else. How do we make our products better than theirs? How do we ensure we have all the cool features that they have? Too many companies see this as the approach to success. Period.

Layer on top of this the obsessive devotion to doing things in a particular manner with dogmatically defined processes, and we get an environment where we are always focused externally for growth, and stagnating internally.

This consumerism culture mimics society in many ways, which is probably one of the reasons that it is so entrenched. Given that most fall into this trap, companies aren’t seen to be penalized for adopting this approach. People are treated as a disposable resource with this externally-focused viewpoint: as people leave, we can simply hire in new ones. It’s the cost of doing business, some would say.

These costs, though, are rarely quantified, and when they are, the magnitude is usually limited to the cost of recruiting, hiring and training. Rarely taken into account are the opportunity costs of the creativity that has departed, and the additional burden to the rest of the team. It is usually the most marketable people that depart on their own accord, but approaches to “cutting out the deadwood” also exact a toll on the team.

Philosophically, many shops treat their people the same way as office plants. You know, the ones that seem to be on the brink of extinction before they get watered. There may be a specific initiative to rally the troops once in a while, usually done after a disappointing quarter or the completion of a particularly challenged project. Take the team out for a paintball excursion, throw a lavish party, then drop them into another situation that looks eerily like the last one.

I think this philosophy is all backwards, and presents an opportunity to compete by differentiating from the crowds.

What every organization has as a largely untapped resource is the internal talent of the team. We want to consciously cultivate this renewable resource, much as we would a garden. There are a series of steps that we would need to take, in order, to successfully cultivate our team:

  • We need to be mindful of the attitude we bring to the game. Without a spirit of inclusiveness, without an appreciation that business success is not a zero-sum game where someone has to lose, we will get no further. The only way to thrive in this environment is to focus on the success of all participants. This attitude itself is counter to the way that many ‘leaders’ have managed to ‘succeed’ in business, but there are far more that have tried and failed with a zero-sum approach.
  • We need to appreciate the distinctions between the people we work with. This diversity in experience and motivations is the strength that we need to harness for innovation and success, rather than repress through cookie-cutter hiring approaches. Hire for attitude, train for skills, grow for broad perspectives. Explore and foster these perspectives, this is where novel ideas are born.
  • We need to respect the systems we use to coordinate our teams. We certainly need a system to ensure that everyone is working to the same objectives, but this system must be centered on the level of principles, rather than practices. To specify a set of practices to be followed before knowing what we are going to build will effectively handcuff the team, preventing them from flexibly using the right approaches for the task at hand. Focusing on the principles of a shared vision, thorough analysis and rigorous validation of the work products will give you a framework for success regardless of the tasks.
  • We need to understand our stakeholders that we are working to provide value for.

Once we have built a machine that can generate product, we need to be ruthlessly focused on understanding how we are adding value to our stakeholders. We also need to appreciate that stakeholders include more than the consumer of our product, but everyone who is involved in the construction of the product as well. If our team is consumed in the process of building a product, we have not succeeded.

Done in this order, we have a sustainable approach that only gets stronger with time. Skip any step, and the cultivation will fail. With proper focus, the business will thrive as a natural consequence of building an effective and motivated team.

We can easily name a few great successful companies that focus explicitly on their people. This is an indication that there remains a great deal of opportunity to use this as a strong differentiator, but it requires a significant mental shift. Winning at the expense of others, whether the external competition or our internal team, is a frail success.

We need to continuously cultivate an environment for growth and innovation. If we neglect it, it will decay. – JB

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