Archive for April, 2011

Those BHAGs Will Kill You.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined the term BHAG (“big, hairy, audacious goal”) in their article, Building Your Company’s Vision, back in 1996. Since that time it’s become so much a part of the lingua franca of business that you practically can’t call yourself a leader if you haven’t set some BHAGs for your company, your team, or yourself.

It’s fascinating, though, to see just how many BHAGs are entombed in 2” D-ring binders collecting dust on people’s bookshelves, with pretty much zero chance of actually being implemented. There are all kinds of reasons—you don’t have the time or money or people, for example, or first you have to take care of your boss’s stupid pet project, or you’re trapped in too many meetings—but regardless of the excuse, those BHAGs are joining flying pigs in the list of things you won’t see in this life.

Now Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, explains why in an article in CIO:

Goals that are too big paralyze you. They literally shut off your brain, says Achor.

Here’s what happens to your brain when faced with a daunting goal or project: The amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to fear and threats, hijacks the “thinker” part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, says Achor. The amygdala steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, the creative part of the brain that makes decisions and sees possibilities.

“We watch this on a brain scan,” he says. “The more the amygdala lights up, the less the prefrontal cortex does.”

Breaking a big goal into smaller, more achievable goals prevents the fear part of your brain from hijacking your thinking cap and gives you victories.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think your lizard brain (in Seth Godin’s term) is the only reason that so many organizations fail to achieve their BHAGs. Corporate inertia has a thousand fathers—reading any Dilbert is proof of that. But the daunting prospect of a BHAG, combined with a lack of clarity of how, precisely, to get from here to there, often plays a role in paralysis at the individual level.

In companies that struggle to realize their BHAGs, it’s frequently because no one has taken the time to map out precisely what small steps are needed to reach them. When I worked at Asics years ago, we set ourselves a goal to dethrone Nike as the number one brand among running enthusiasts. (To put this goal in perspective: Nike was a $4 billion company at the time. Asics was $180 million.) Pretty ambitious stuff for us.

We laid out a careful roadmap to reach this goal: recasting our running product line by eliminating lower-end shoes and building our first legitimate high-end shoe; providing special sales and customer service support to specialty running stores; creating special sales programs; focusing our advertising on the core running enthusiast; and having the product marketing and development teams spend more time visiting specialty running retailers during the product development stage. No step by itself would have done the job, but the steady accretion of these moves eventually toppled Nike among these customers.

We didn’t talk about BHAGs then. (That was before Collins’ article, for one thing.) But we did achieve one, by rigorously implementing a series of small steps. And because we were dealing with small steps, we didn’t have to worry about illuminated amygdalae, or struggle to clarify the vacuous ambiguities that too often paralyze good people.

Why is (business) execution so hard?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Why is business execution so hard? Why are offices littered with the dessicated carcasses of strategic plans? Why can small companies work miracles with a tiny staff, but large organizations can’t even get out of their own way?

I don’t have all the answers to those questions. But I do have some of the questions that you should be asking to get to the bottom of this issue. I just co-authored an article at Fast Company that might help you think about the problem more clearly. Read “Are You Excited About Your Business Execution & Collaboration?” here.

Reducing the communication burden.

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Exhibit 1: Computer consulting firm Atos Origin announces that it’s abandoning email within three years. The CEO says that “information pollution” burdens managers with an unsustainable load of 5-20 hours of email per week (and climbing), so the company is shifting to social media in order to lighten the load.

Exhibit 2: Google announces that for part of each day, new CEO Larry Page and other top executives will sit and work together in an area of the company’s headquarters that’s accessible to all employees. As part of the effort to recapture some of the nimbleness and entrepreneurial speed of a smaller company, he’s also encouraged employees to pitch him new product ideas in emails of 60 words or less.

I think we’re seeing a trend here. As organizations grow in size and complexity, the volume of communication (via email or meetings) explodes. But it’s becoming painfully obvious that the use of meetings and email just doesn’t scale very well. Past a certain point, the very tools that expedited communication at a smaller scale begin to throttle it. Organizations sclerose under the weight of their tools – too many emails, too many formal meetings. The attempt to communicate crowds out all other work — even the value-creating work. Nothing gets done, and people bemoan the hulking, slow-moving battleship their company has become.

Certainly, there’s no panacea for this problem. Atos Origin has taken a technological approach, while Google has taken a physical approach. W.L. Gore has, since 1965, taken an entirely different path: no teams bigger than 200 people, so as to ensure that it will be free of stifling bureaucracy. I worked with one client that used to hold an unending string of formal (and time-consuming) status update meetings to ensure that product development teams would cross-pollinate ideas. They eventually gave up those meetings and just bought the teams pizza for lunch every other month. That worked better and eliminated the time suck of needless meetings.  Other firms are adopting visual management systems—often, low-tech whiteboards or corkboards—to communicate important information quickly and efficiently. Still other organizations are now using A3s to not only aid problem solving, but also to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of communication.

If the goal of lean is to provide the greatest value at the lowest possible cost, then there’s plenty of room for improvement in our communication. But the first step is to realize that the status quo just isn’t good enough, that the way we communicate is needlessly costly and inefficient. Atos Origin, Google, and Gore are taking steps to eliminate that waste. What about you?