5 Moments When Saying No May Be Your Best Strategy

Chinese businessman with head in hands

Over the years, I have noticed a pattern with leaders on the rise. Under pressure, it sometimes feels as though they have no choice but to say “yes” — to a request, a strategy, a promotion, or a demand — even when they have serious misgivings. Unfortunately, their gut often turns out to be right. Had they paused to reflect, they would have realized they faced a lose-lose situation, and everyone would likely have been better off if they had said “no.” But how do we recognize those moments when we should pay special attention to our choices?

In this month’s post on strategy + business, I outlined five moments when it is critical to pause and make a considered choice:

1. You are being pushed to make a promise you can’t keep.
2. Something sticks in your craw.
3. You feel you have no choice.
4. The “plan” has taken on a life of its own.
5. You see a dangerous trend in the works.

In each of these situations, it pays off to take a little time to ensure you know as much as possible about your options, what is at stake, and the likely consequences of saying both “yes” and “no.”

To read the full post, please go to: Five Moments When Saying No is Your Best Strategy.

See what you think! As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts or reflections.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

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Want Better Communication? Focus on the Listening Part.

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“I used to be the answer man. Now I’ve learned to listen. It is amazing what you learn when you open your mind,” said Gary, chief financial officer of a U.S. firm.

As Gary explains, listening is a very powerful leadership strategy. When leaders are genuinely interested in what others are seeing, thinking, and feeling — not as a way to get buy-in, but because others have information and insights they need — they make better decisions. They break the cycle of endless repetition and predictable responses that slows real communication to a snail’s pace. And they are more likely to get the buy-in they seek, because true dialogue helps everyone see the merits of a plan. Indeed, every major breakthrough I have witnessed — where teams, colleagues, or customers and suppliers get on the same page — has happened when people took the time for more open, balanced, and reciprocal conversation.

So, what gets in the way?

In a new business post at strategy + business, Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs, I take a deeper look at the outdated mental models that can inadvertently lead us to focus too much on our message, rather than true two-way conversation. For those who want to amp up their listening and initiate more effective conversations, I offer six practical strategies.

See what you think! I look forward to hearing your thoughts or reflections.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

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Dysfunctional Momentum can Undermine Your Company’s Values

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I was recently struck that Volkswagen’s goal has been to be the #1 car company in the world. This was also Toyota’s goal in the period before its recalls in 2010. Countrywide had a similar goal during the mortgage boom.It seems that each of these companies came up against a simple truth of human behavior: dysfunctional momentum eats values for breakfast.

First defined by safety researchers Michelle A. Barton and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, dysfunctional momentum occurs when people persist in working toward a goal despite evidence that their course of action will fail.This is more than greed or incentives. Many factors, including time pressure, groupthink, mental shortcuts, “normalization of deviance,” and “goals gone wild,” can take over people’s better judgment.

For leaders who are serious about embedding company values in action, this opens the door to some troubling risks.

  • Do your employees understand where to draw the line?
  • Would they tell you if they felt they were being pushed to compromise?

In this post on strategy + business, Dysfunctional Momentum can Undermine Company Values, I explore why a “values-in-action” culture matters more than ever in turbulent times, and offer several solutions leaders can borrow from the field of “high-reliability organizing.”

How well does your organization recognize and address dysfunctional momentum? What are the benefits when you do? The costs when you don’t?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Why Leaders Need to Ask, “Is that a Promise?”

Mobilize teamwork and execution by asking for commitment

Mobilize teamwork and execution by asking for commitment.

In today’s complex organizations, where managers must rely on others to take initiative and be accountable, one honest commitment is more valuable than all the lip service in the world. Yet many leaders are surprisingly sloppy when it comes to asking for commitments from others. They either accept ambiguity that leaves their teams with unclear agreements and conflicting priorities, or they do the work to lay out a vision and a plan and then fail to ask others to commit to making it happen.

I examine the costs of this ambiguity in my most recent post in strategy + business, “Why Leaders Need to Ask, ‘Is that a Promise?’” and offer ideas for negotiating clear, strong commitments.

Here’s a brief synopsis:
Open conversations about commitments are an essential part of a culture of responsibility, ownership, and accountability. In his 2012 Babson College case study, professor Jay Rao studied the secrets behind W.L. Gore’s 50-plus years of profitability, its reputation for being among Fortune’s best companies to work for, and its repeated awards for being one of the world’s innovative companies. He found that W.L. Gore focuses on voluntary “self-commitments” rather than assigned tasks. “Only the associate could make a commitment to do something—a task, a project, or a new role,” Rao wrote. He found the result was greater accountability. “…once someone said, ‘I will do this,’ it was considered a near-sacred oath.”

Rao’s research underscores this: Commitment is always a personal choice. When you make a request for someone’s commitment, you acknowledge their freedom to choose. You also offer them an opportunity to take real responsibility.

Consider this scenario: A leader who has been struggling to mobilize his team around a new sales strategy finally asks his team to spend 50 percent of their time on long-term sales. “Are you ready to take that step?” he asks. His directness brings the conference room to life. “We would need more coaching,” say several account representatives. “That’s fine,” responds the leader. “Let’s schedule a few sessions later this month. Once you have that coaching, will you put the new strategy into practice?” Around the table, his team replies yes. As this leader has learned, until there is a clear proposition people can say yes to, all discussion of visions, plans, and priorities is hypothetical.

There is one giant caveat when using this approach. If you want real ownership, you need to create space for people to say no to commitments they cannot keep, and to propose their own solutions. For example, a top performer might tell the leader, “I don’t know if I can do 50 percent. I might lose some sales in the current quarter. But I can commit to 30 percent now, and will check in again in a month to see if I can raise it.” While 30 percent falls short of the request the leader made, the top performer’s honest consideration and commitment creates an environment where people can prioritize and follow through.

Leaders who make and request commitments clearly, listen to what others need, and follow through are much more effective in mobilizing commitment in others and adapting to change as it unfolds. By mastering these practices, leaders can minimize bureaucracy and complexity while maximizing the teamwork that gets things done.

What are your thoughts? Are you and your team clear about your commitments? How much more agile and effective could you be by asking the question, “Is that a promise?”

Please feel free to share your comments here, or at strategy+business, where you can view the complete article.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

This post is adapted with permission from an article published by Elizabeth Doty in strategy+business entitled “Why Leaders Need to Ask, ‘Is That a Promise?’”

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Leading Teams through Change at the Speed of Business

Hello, friends,

Several years ago, I was musing with one of my clients about organizational change when he offered a perspective that was so self-evident, it completely reframed how I think about leading change.

My client (I’ll call him Dave) and I were discussing the road blocks that kept people and departments from achieving at their highest levels in his organization. The culprit? Uncoordinated change initiatives coming from home office.

Dave indicted his own department. “What business to do I have disrupting their priorities, just to meet a timeline I created out of thin air? How do I know my change is really a higher priority than what they are working on right now?” I think he’s right. Uncoordinated, pre-emptive change can destroy momentum, slowing adoption and putting your core business processes at risk.

Sparked by Dave’s insightful questions, I drafted the May post for strategy + business, “Leading Teams through Change at the Speed of Business.” I offer 11 strategies for taking a more integrated, team-centric approach so you can accelerate adoption without losing team momentum.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

Change is no longer an event for most businesses, but a constant process. In an increasingly VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—business executives have borrowed the military acronym), the demands on managers are enormous. For example, one leader I work with was asked to integrate new teams six times in nine months following a merger, until her department began calling themselves “the island of misfit toys.”

Many teams find themselves chasing zig-zagging priorities and can’t build the momentum they need to succeed. While our business environment and pace has changed, our approach to change hasn’t evolved with them. We still take an event-driven process and try to execute it more and more quickly. We tend to drive individual change initiatives, rather than creating the context that teams need to dispel confusion and ultimately thrive. Team-building activities are helpful, but many leaders struggle with how long that process can take, and, teams can still walk away unclear about the implications for their work.

But people generally want to commit and deliver. They get stuck in hesitation and churn when they are asked to change in ways that don’t make sense to them; when they are not convinced of the opportunity to improve; or when they feel undervalued. Leaders who create a routine for change can avoid these common pitfalls. Here are a few strategies to help teams stay engaged as the mission evolves. You can find the complete list of strategies here.

Weave changes into a narrative. Context and clarity go a long way. Connect the dots between past initiatives and what is underway now. This will help your team make sense of the bigger picture and where they fit.

Design convincing experiences. Teams move into action when they are convinced an opportunity is real. Involve employees in first-hand activities, such as field trips or customer visits, to help them see why change is needed and how they are a part of it.

Welcome questions. We often view questions as resistance, but creating an environment that is safe for questions will help your team take ownership of their new direction. You will also gain valuable insight to the team’s level of understanding and where you need to provide more context and clarity.

Clarify the economics. Creating a simple model of your key business drivers can help communicate the logic behind multiple changes and build business acumen on your team.

Sustain disciplined focus. Mock up a dashboard of the measures your team will review at regular check-ins. When new initiatives emerge, be ready to negotiate expectations with your team so you can deliver on your existing goals.

The payoff to this strategy is sustained momentum, for your team and your organization. Think of how a flock of birds changes course in mid-air: When you develop a day-to-day routine for aligning or realigning your team, you help people anticipate change and rise to the occasion. Remember the “island of misfit toys”? When the leader embraced several of these strategies, her team grew so skilled at change that they began to actively solicit mergers with other groups.

Please feel free to share your comments here, or at strategy+business, where you can view the complete article.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

This post is adapted with permission from an article published by Elizabeth Doty in strategy+business entitled

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Integrity is Free

There is an old saying in the operations world, that “quality is free.” Specifically, quality gurus such as Philip Crosby, W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran found that investments in improving product or service quality more than paid for themselves, because they simplified production processes, eliminated waste, reduced rework, reduced returns, and fostered customer loyalty.

As I think about promises and business momentum, it strikes me that the principle of “quality is free” also applies to questions of integrity and keeping our word. In fact, for the leaders of the quality movement, quality was a matter of integrity.

So, in this recent post in strategy + business, Integrity is Free, I explore the ways that integrity “more than pays for itself,” by improving credibility, galvanizing teams, accelerating innovation, and building trust. Here is a brief synopsis:

In the 1979 bestseller, “Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain,” quality guru Philip Crosby outlined a straightforward argument: It’s always cheaper to do things right the first time than to go back and do them again. Though the downstream benefits of doing things right the first time weren’t always easy to track, but they were invaluable. “Quality is free,” Crosby wrote. “It’s not a gift, but it is free.”Crosby and his contemporaries, Deming and Juran, noticed that problems with qualityusually arose because senior leadership had not been clear about what they were committed to deliver, or they acted in ways that didn’t align with those commitments in practice. Conversely, when companies transformed, it was often because a senior leader became convinced that defects were not inevitable and the status quo was hurting the bottom line.

Today, integrity—or lack thereof—remains a critical challenge for companies. “Commitment drift” can seem inevitable, as roles and priorities change, companies merge, and timelines shift. Indeed, it stretches the imagination to envision a world in which businesses deliver on 99.99966 percent of their commitments, as factories do with Six Sigma quality methods. Every day, business leaders face pressure to side step the truth, fudge the numbers, play politics, or pass the buck. In the moment, doing the right thing, or doing things right, always seems to cost more. Yet if we go along, the costs of compromise—damaged reputation, stress and added complexity—predictably follow.

Integrity isn’t easy, but research has found that acting in an honest and transparent way can pay off. For example, in “The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word,” Cornell University professor Tony Simons outlines a 2000 study of 76 franchise hotels that revealed a 3 percent difference between two hotels’ average employee “behavior integrity ratings” translated into a difference of US$250k in profit per hotel per year.

Why does integrity pay off?  First, honesty and transparency make things simpler. Second, when you have the courage to own your values and make clear commitments and keep them, others are more likely to trust, commit and engage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, integrity forces individuals and companies to invent. Rather than managing impressions and looking like we are achieving results, we are left with no choice but to really achieve them.

Waffling on integrity almost always involves some element of avoidance. Yet, when you step up with courage and conviction, less of your attention goes to managing appearances and putting out fires, so more of your effort can go to the actual work… and the next breakthrough.

What are your thoughts? Could integrity serve as a core business philosophy?

Please feel free to share your comments here, or at strategy+business, where you can view the complete article.

Find a more academic focus on The Safra Center blog.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

This post is adapted with permission from an article published by Elizabeth Doty in strategy+business entitled Integrity is Free.

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Does Your Company Keep Its Promises?

SB_00267_thumb2_220x244Hello, friends. I wanted to share a quick update and a new article in strategy+business

As many of you know, for the past two years, I have been exploring the question: How does a business keep a promise?     As companies become more complex and change becomes more constant, it is all the more difficult to deliver on key promises to employees, customers, shareholders and the world. Not only do we need committed individuals and cultures of commitment; we also need clearer, stronger commitments and reliable ways to “connect the dots” between groups.

Thanks to a Fellowship with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the generous sponsorship of a Fortune 500 company, I have been able to gather extensive data over two years on the day-to-day challenges of making strong commitments and keeping them.  We have developed and piloted several Commitment Tools, a survey and a scorecard. My research collaborators, Dr. Maryam Kouchaki and Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, and I are currently analyzing our data and plan to share our findings over the summer.

New article in strategy + business

Meanwhile, strategy+business has just published an article based on our preliminary findings: Does Your Company Keep Its Promises?  It outlines seven strategies to help leaders avoid the most common pitfalls we have observed thus far.  Here is a short summary:

Businesses today make a lot of promises. They promise high-quality products and experiences to customers, careers that offer opportunity and purpose to employees, ambitious strategies and programs that will accelerate innovation to investors, and ethical conduct and social and environmental responsibility to society at large.

It is troubling, then, that many companies struggle to keep their commitments. Under the pressure of a target, or amid the turmoil of constant change, many companies experience “commitment drift,” in which critical promises are forgotten or broken. Commitment drift is dangerous, because it leads people to neglect the investments needed to maintain key capabilities, sustain customer relationships, retain employees, execute strategies, and pursue innovations. It also introduces the risk of breakdowns in safety, privacy, and ethics, and erodes trust.

To avoid commitment drift and the chain reaction it can trigger, business leaders must sidestep some common pitfalls. The following seven strategies can help.

Make fewer, better commitments. Leaders sometimes make promises that do not really help and leave stakeholders uncertain on the issues that do. (ie, can I trust you?)

Track your key commitments. Leaders often do not really stop and think about what they are committing. Tracking helps you make promises you can keep and remember them over time.

Ask for commitment from others. Leaders often fail to articulate the commitments they are asking others to make, which slows down follow-through on company commitments.

Connect the dots between groups. Leaders tend to focus on what they own, yet the biggest barrier to keeping promises as a company is often the lack of coordination between groups.

Focus on processes, not heroics. Leaders wear out employees’ goodwill if they rely on heroic efforts rather than investing in processes that make it easy to deliver.

Know what commitments you are inheriting in a new role. Leaders start new roles focused on making their mark; yet, they can undermine trust if they don’t ask about prior commitments.

Continually check for contradictions. Contradictions create distrust. Yet a company can easily end up speaking out of both sides of its mouth if related departments don’t talk.

The article’s core message is that most leaders want to keep their commitments, but they need help a) finding the time to “stop and think” before they commit, b) sustaining attention over time, and c) “connecting the dots” with other groups, to ensure they deliver.

How to view the full article

To view the complete article please go to strategy + businessIf you have an opinion, I hope you will add a comment to the article.  (Please scroll down at the end of the article.)

In addition, the Safra Center has published a related blog post with more of an academic focus.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

This post is adapted with permission from an article published by Elizabeth Doty in strategy+business, entitled, Does Your Company Keep its Promises? 

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How Do I Mobilize Momentum?

78487665_8bLeaders often struggle to mobilize their teams. “Don’t they get it? Their jobs and the future of the business are at stake. How do I get them to care?”

Momentum is a spark. And a push. It’s commitment that attracts commitment and keeps an organization moving, growing and innovating. The good news is momentum works the same way whether you’re pedaling a bicycle or mobilizing an apathetic team. Like the bicycle in your garage, momentum in your organization is waiting to happen – and it’s up to you to unleash it.
Continue reading

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What is an Upward Spiral?

BlueSpiralUpwardIn September, 2011, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in his Letter to America, “Yours is the voice that can help ignite the contagious upward spiral of confidence that our country desperately needs.” He continued,“We must be catalysts for change… waiting for Washington to act is not a plan of action.”

Why is the CEO of a major public corporation asking everyday citizens to help shift the country’s cultural climate? And what does he mean by an “upward spiral”? Continue reading

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The Risks of Over-reaching

HowMightyFallIn How the Mighty Fall, And Why Some Companies Never Given In, Jim Collins asks: How do once-great companies fall into decline?

Amazingly, the answer was not complacency. In fact they found that over-reaching is far more likely to tip a company into decline than complacency. Continue reading

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