Thursday, November 15, 2012

Importance of Thinking Inside the Box

"You know, Ron," one senior manager said to me, "I don't think we've perfected the hamburger." I was coaching this gentleman as part of a top-level development initiative by a top player in Quick Service Restaurants, better known colloquially and collectively in the US as a fast-food joint.

Back to basics

There was such buzz and such hullabaloo in the company about innovation, that it was easy, perhaps even tacitly expected, to get caught up in it.  Innovation is a long playlist that by itself is music to the ears of managers and consultants alike.  His CEO, back then, pushed an array of new menu items, from healthy fare to gourmet coffee.  I was bemused when I even stumbled on an article about a hotel concept they were considering.

Problem was, these company efforts weren't improving performance. 

That CEO left, and it wasn't until three CEOs later that results turned northbound again.  The latest top guy incarnation emphasized 'back-to-basics.'  Which meant improving existing menu items and the all-important customer service.

How well do you think inside the box?

There is no questioning that innovation is critical to the success of any company and the growth of any country.  There is reason to believe, for example, that those enterprises that kept investing in Research and Development fared well during the recession.  Some were even innovative about the very process of innovation itself, that is, by opening their doors and fostering cross-company collaboration.  Crowd-sourcing creativity, as it were.

But I've had years of privilege and pleasure of consulting in many parts of the world, that when I hear anyone say "Let's think outside the box," I shudder inside.  Why?  Because I wonder if they can even think well inside the box.  Some, unfortunately, cannot.

Often the fundamentals of thinking seem to get the short shrift, I think, that young professionals and would-be leaders may not get the best schooling in this.  The ethos and the buzz of their university experience may be mainly about thinking outside the box.

What does it mean to think inside the box?

1. Look simply

It means looking at situations in a straightforward manner, first of all.  Complexity abounds in our world, but a good portion of what we face on a daily basis can be understood with simple, available paradigms in our arsenal.

2. Drill down

It also means drilling-down, and looking beneath the problem to see its root causes and identify any process issues.

For example, in one company I used to work for, I learned that some service providers did not get paid more than a year after project delivery and that late payments were a long recurring problem.  Finance and accounting (F&A) was a wholly different function from ours, but our department often suffered the brunt of complaints from these service providers.

My colleagues were trying to solve these late payments on a case-by-case basis, when clearly it wasn't at all a one-off incident.  Besides aggravating us, it drew valuable time and effort away from serving our partners and clients.

All I did was simply to ask questions and to listen openly, and to show an earnestness to solve the problem and reduce such aggravation.  As it turned out, our invoice tracking efforts were weak.  So we solved this with clearer timings and regular checks.

3. Consult, collaborate 

Also, our communications with F&A were often procedural and therefore impersonal.  So we met with a key manager, explored the problem openly, and learned that one staff was primarily responsible.  She shored up whatever she had to deal with on the F&A side, and we agreed that once-a-month, face-to-face conversations not only kept accounts payable running well but also steered our relationship onto a more pleasant track.

So it's important to know when and how to consult with others, and with whom, and weighing decisions that require joint implementation in a frankly collaborative manner.

4. Follow through

Can you spell accountability?  

Finally, it's about following through and following up.  How well a problem is solved means, again simply, that it remains solved over time.  In our case, my colleagues took better care of the logistics and timings of accounts payable.  For me, all that was required was an occasional "How's it going?" and visit with our friendly F&A colleague.

Thinking inside the box does require looking at problems holistically, but the right solutions sometimes can be positively conventional, even low-tech.  

In the end, there is very workable wisdom in getting back to basics.  There may be mundane yet philosophical value in perfecting the hamburger.      

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!  Also, if you'd like a PDF of this article, please e-mail me at

Ron Villejo, PhD

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Better Practice with Best Practices

Best practices and its fraternal twin - lessons learned - are quite the corporate buzzwords. Along with innovation, alignment and strategy, they are words that sound good, but those speaking these may not always know what they truly mean or how to make these happen. Some senior managers may be among the unwitting heralds of these buzzwords.

Benchmarking is one way to tease out best practices and lessons learned. A multinational client I consulted for did a massive study of major companies to help them decide how to best develop their leaders. They engaged (a) one firm to help them do the study, and engaged (b) another firm to help source and select (c) yet another firm who had the best capability to deliver that best practice on leadership development.


If this sounds positively convoluted and cumbersome, then you have a good sense for the complexity and effort behind proper benchmarking. To this client's credit, they had the renown, heft and funds to get inside executive offices at General Electric and Royal Dutch Shell. Their benchmarking was not only impressive in breadth and depth, but also effective in practice and delivery.

So what is a better practice with best practices, then?

1. Clarify what you are trying to accomplish

First, think long and hard about what you are trying to accomplish. What is the priority, the challenge, or the problem you're faced with? Some senior managers get enamored with a so-called proven method or process, and consequently neglect to fully examine and grasp their own situation.

2. Identify immediate impact steps

Once you have that clarity and certainty of purpose, you are in a better position to weigh the best options to serve that purpose. So identify those steps that affect your priority, challenge or problem directly. For example, if you're trying to lift company revenues, your sales people must step up to the plate and sell more of your widgets. That's an immediate impact on what you're trying to accomplish.  They may benefit from sales competency development, and enjoy motivational rah-rah sessions. However, what they may need most, in order to sell more widgets, is better mentoring and accountability from their direct managers.

3.  Drill down and go wide on best practices

When your immediate impact personnel and actions are clear, then come lessons learned and best practices. In general, I encourage senior managers to drill down into their own organization and tease out crowd wisdom, that is, the knowledge, experience and capability of their people. Present your purpose to them, and get feedback and ideas on how best to raise performance.

Drilling down may also mean exploring industry practices and lessons. So attending conferences or trade shows, talking with colleagues at sister (aka competitor) companies, and sampling relevant books and videos are fine learning opportunities.  

In addition, I encourage senior managers to go wide with their benchmarking study, for example, onto adjacent industries, cross-continental regions, or uncommon disciplines. Of course, this doesn't mean you have to adopt their practices. Instead, the important thing is expanding your horizons and having a sufficient array of ideas to help you deal with your situation.

4.  Grasp the reasoning behind best practices

Next, grasp the thinking, reasoning, and context of those best practices and lessons learned. This is a process I call extracting the algorithms. Maybe the best practice you surfaced from one company was a creative compensation-and-bonus scheme that lifted their sales people's results to the next level. But the risky thing to do, and potentially disastrous at that, is to apply this same scheme categorically with your sales people. What's the risk? They will appreciate the incentive, but the scheme may do little or nothing for their performance.

5.  Adapt, not just adopt, best practices for immediate impact

By probing and reflecting further on this scheme, you may learn that that company first launched an effort to find out what best motivated their sales people and to grasp what factors directly improved their performance. The real best practice to come away with, then, is not the scheme, but a successful engagement and active listening campaign. Maybe that company is in one region, where monetary reward has a certain impact on a wide diversity of nationalities, which is different from the impact it would have for the region and culture in which your organization operates and therefore your people work.

Your probing and reflecting consequently prompt you to talk more with your sales people, find out more of what challenges and motivates them, and listen earnestly to what they say. A sales person, for example, may have the requisite talent and commitment to sell at a higher level, but lack the right connections and introductions.  He or she is hampered by a direct manager who does not have enough relationship skills to reach upper echelon decision-makers at client companies.  Result: That keen, capable sales person feels discouraged and frustrated and, worse, underachieves.

However, because you have a better practice in mind, you examine your situation and clarify your purpose, extract the right algorithms, and determine a more effective, more immediate action to help him or her. Namely, use your upper echelon status to connect with your counterpart at the client company, and attend a joint sales call with your talented staff.

By the way, a key intermediate action may be to mentor and challenge the direct manager, in order to raise his or her effectiveness to a higher level. 

Be like Mike or be like Steve?

The 'Be like Mike' campaign persuaded youngsters that if they wore certain super-cool basketball shoes, they can soar 10 feet above the floor, just like Michael Jordan did.  'Be like Steve' is basically similar, and it concerns leadership, presentations and innovation.  Abide by his pithy exhortations (e.g., 'stay foolish'); practice what he did (e.g., merge technology and art); and innovate on products while eschewing customer feedback (e.g., don't do focus groups), and you're on your way to being the number one valuated company in the world!

Right?  No, of course not.  

None of us will ever be like Mike or Steve. Even if you study their personality 24/7 and adopt their practices 100%, you will never be like them.  Put differently, you are bound to fail whatever priority, challenge or problem you face, if you adopt their stuff wholesale and neglect to adapt it according to your particular situation.    

That client company, I mentioned at the outset, surmised that assessment centers was a best practice for leadership development. Because they grasped their situation fully and clarified their purpose, took great care in their benchmarking study, and engaged the right people to help them make complex decisions, they met with resounding success.

And one more thing ...

They arranged for the chosen firm to customize a complete, unique set of assessment centers, expressly with their purpose, people and industry in mind.  No off-the-shelf, standard best practices. This was a case of 100% adaptation. 

One last thing ... If Steve had had another decade tacked onto his life, he probably would've innovated on an entirely different but much better iJobs2! That's why I am cautious about campaigns, quotes or posts about being like Steve.  He himself would've probably dispensed with his own (previous) best practices or morphed these into a radically altered reality for product development.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!  Also, if you'd like a PDF of this article, please e-mail me at 

Ron Villejo, PhD