Question Time

No I am not going to get political! It is Christmas Week after all!!. A lot of the feedback I received during the week centred on what are some useful leadership hacks that could ensure how we can ignite passion in the workplace. And more pertinently how to put these ideas to work inside their organisations and in their careers. As a result, some you special people put forward some questions that you would like solved. And like Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi stated: Lift & Shift those ideas out of the arena in which they took shape and apply them to your company and industry. What better way to fuel your imagination than to look for inspiration beyond your field?

Hence, I’ve assembled this all-new Passion Workbook – questions that define the core challenges of change for leaders in any field, along with exercises to meet those challenges and do the hard work of making long-lasting progress in fast-moving times. Here’s hoping these questions and exercises unleash energy and inspire answers for you and your colleagues. Part 1 can be found here: Lift & Shift

This is an urgent question for companies in every industry, because every industry has customers with vast array of products and brands from which to choose. Remember, in a world defined by unlimited choice and sensory overload, if you have customers who can live without you, eventually they will. Harvard Business School Professor Youngme Moon, author of the must-read marketing treatise Different, likes to say that for companies, products, and brands, breakaway success requires “a commitment to the unprecedented.”

That’s why it’s not enough to satisfy customers rationally. You have to engage them emotionally, to conduct yourself in ways that are unusual and unforgettable. At Umpqua Bank, Ray Davis and his colleagues have devised a retail experience that appeals to all five human experiences. Their goal: “We don’t want the the experience of banking here to feel like banking anywhere else.” At Life Time Fitness, a “healthy way of life” company that has reimagined how the health-club business works, leaders say their goal is “operating to artistry” – devising a blend of well-chosen offerings, high energy spaces, and thoroughly engaged staffers that leads to a deeply felt level of engagement with customers. One of the make or break challenges for any organisation is to become irreplaceable in the eyes of its customers.

If you have spent any amount of time in executive retreats or offsites, you’ve probably been asked to participate in a familiar evaluation of your career and impact. “Take twenty minutes,” the facilitator will say, “and read your leadership obituary. What legacy did you leave? What contribution did you make? What might your colleagues remember about you?”

At one level, it’s a strange (and slightly morbid) exercise. At another level, it serves a worthwhile purpose – encouraging leaders to see themselves the way their colleagues see them, to evaluate their impact from the perspective of the people who feel that impact. I’d suggest that what goes for individuals goes for organisations too. Take some time (probably much longer than twenty minutes) and write your company’s obituary. What legacy did your company leave? What contributions did your company make to its industry? What might your customers remember about the company and its product and services?

It’s a simple exercise that grows out of a powerful question I heard many years ago from Jim Collins of Good to Great fame. When Collins visits a client, he says, he makes it a point to ask them: “If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?”

Why might a company be missed? Because its products and services are so distinctive, because its culture is so unique, because its mission is so compelling, that other organisations can’t come close to duplicating them. Precious few organisations meet any of these criteria, which may be why so many companies feel like they’re on the verge of going out of business. Write an unblinking “obituary” for your organisation, wrestle with its observations and implications, and perhaps you can avoid the real thing by creating connections with customers that make it hard for them to live without you.

Transformation is all about ideas, so new models of innovation demand new answers to the question of where ideas come from in the first place. My simple answer is that new ideas for your organisation can come from any organisation in the world, in any field you can think of, if you as a leader are open-minded enough to look for them.

Leaders at Lexus identified all sorts of new ideas to reshape the market for luxury cars by searching for clues at brands such as Four Seasons and Apple – companies that were great at what they did, even though what they did had nothing to do with automobiles. Physicians from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children redesigned many of their surgical procedures by studying how Ferrari’s Formula One racing team handled pit stops.

Sure, there’s always a place for R&D as research & development. But there’s also a place for R&D as rip-off and duplicate. Ideas that are routine in one industry, especially when they challenge the prevailing assumptions and conventional wisdom that have come to define so many industries.

One way to look at problems and opportunities as if you’re seeing them for the first time is to survey a wide array of fields for ideas that have been working for a long time. That’s what Gary Kaplan and his colleagues from Virginia Mason Medical Centre (VMMC) realised when wave after wave of doctors, nurses and administrators left their comfortable surroundings in Seattle not just to study the Toyota production System but also to work and live it themselves, spending a week on factory floors in Japan to master the techniques through which Toyota mastered the challenges of quality, efficiency and productivity. VMMC’s field trips, which have gone on for years, didn’t just allow hospital personnel to import techniques and practices from Toyota; they also inspired a new mindset about what was possible in Seattle and unleashed far-reaching transformations.

You don’t have to travel to Asia to organise mind-stretching exercises for you and your colleagues to get beyond traditional modes of thinking. Maxine Clark, founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, and Kip Tindell, cofounder and CEO of the Container Store, spent time working on the front lines of each other’s operations – and discovered all kinds of practices they transferred back to their organisation. All of your employees have companies they love to do business with, brands that make a huge impression on them, services that are a big part of their lives. Ask them to identify companies from far outside your field whose ideas and practices might reshape your field – and then encourage them to find ways to spend time inside those companies, switch jobs for a day with their counterparts at those companies, and otherwise get exposed to techniques that are working well in an unrelated field, and challenge the established order in your field.

I first heard this question from strategy guru (and personal hero) Gary Hamel, the world renowned innovation expert, and it remains the ultimate challenge for any executive determined to unleash big change in difficult circumstances. In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning. The challenge for leaders at every level is no longer just to out-hustle, out-muscle, and out-maneover the competition, it is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future, and help the organisation get there before anyone else.

IDEO’s Tom Kelley likes to quote French novelist Marcel Proust, who famously said, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but with seeing with new eyes.” What goes for novelists goes for leaders searching to discover a novel game plan for the future. If you believe that what you see shapes how you change, then the challenge for leaders is to see opportunities that other leaders don’t see. 

But remember: You don’t have to look all by yourself. These days, the most powerful insights often come from the most unexpected places – the hidden genius inside your company, the collective genius of customers, suppliers, and other smart people who surround your company. Tapping this genius requires a new leadership mindset – enough ambition to address tough problems, enough humility to know you don’t have all the answers.

Last week I described how the brilliant marketers at TBWA, the global advertising agency behind game-changing brands such as Apple, Adidas and Absolut, help clients develop new lines of sight into the future – by challenging obselete visions from the past. They call the methodology “Disruption Days” – wide-open, freewheeling, yet highly structured examinations of the assumptions and behaviours that stand in the way of progress for a brand, a company, or an industry.

TBWA’s methodology has evolved over the years. But certain techniques remain central to the process. For example, the agency has developed a rich list of ‘what if’ questions to reframe strategic thinking. What if we stop focusing on the traditional competitors and focus instead on the source of business (often indirect competition)? What if we reconsider using strategies usually considered unsuccessful (or taboo) for the category? What if, instead of differentiating the brand, we redefine the category experience? What if we reverse the logic of things?

Moreover, Disruption Days invite participants to rummage through their “brand attic’ and reinterpret what’s come before with a company or a product as a way to develop a line of sight into what comes next. Seeing the future with fresh eyes doesnt mean turning a blind eye to history. Sometimes, the very set of rediscovering the past creates the clarity and confidence necessary to craft a distinctive game plan for the future.

TBWA’s specific questions and techniques, of course, are less important than the general spirit of the exercise, which is to challenge received wisdom. So why not organise a Disruption Day of your own to help “see with new eyes” – whether that applies to the organisation as a whole or you as an individual leader. As Jean-Marie Dru, the agencies chairman puts it, the point of the exercise is “questioning the way things are, of breaking with what has been done or seen before, of rejecting the conventional. That’s how you keep learning as fast as the world is changing.

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