Archive for the 'Business' Category

Week 3 Reflection: Stepping Outside of the Group Culture for a Moment

Being to married to process can prevent use from looking to new solutions or be married to the old ways of doing things

Being to married to process can prevent use from looking to new solutions or be married to the old ways of doing things

In this week’s lectures and materials we tackled the group obstacles to innovation as well as the often misused innovation tool: Brainstorming. In speaking of the group we’re referring to the immediate work-group or direct organization that one works in whether it’s a division, subgroup, project group, etc. Within the group Owen’s identifies 4 major constraints:

  • Emotion
  • Culture
  • Environment
  • Process

Emotion

  • These constraints include relationships that prevent trust, free sharing and productivity in the group.  Sometimes even loyalty can cloud our judgement about people’s actual skills or capabilities.
  • Also the emotion of fear (of rejection) can prevent us from willingly volunteering new ideas. If we’re afraid that we may be ridiculed or even ignored, we will stop sharing. Fear of being blamed for mistakes acts as an innovation killer.
  • Emotional and relationship conflict can cause team dysfunction. Lack of trust can destroy group dynamics.

Culture

Culture includes how the group both perceives and behaves. Culture defines what the group values. Here’s a really simple parable of how events in the past effect a group’s view of change. This view may prevent a group from finding new solutions. For example, let’s say Group X tried a new implementation Method Y to produce  Product Z under the leadership of a new manager who had good intentions. Unfortunately, the group was not properly trained or prepared in the implementation method, and there was an old guard who was quite married to their way of doing things and the decided to openly resist using the new methodology. Consequently Product Z failed miserably.

Upper management decided to blame not only the new manager and those who advocated for Method Y. From this time forward, in order to avoid conflict or shame, employees in this group avoided suggesting new ways of doing things unless they were blessed directly by upper management. This group consequently became married to ‘their tried and trusted ways’ of doing this.  This account may be slightly exaggerated but I’d be willing to bet many people working in business have seen a similar scenario some time in their career.

Cultural constraints can be the hardest to overcome when suggesting innovation or change because there’s some real hearts and minds stuff behind people’s investment and even pride in how they do things. Also, as in the example above, fear of the consequences of making mistakes within a group’s culture can be a negative constraint.

Environment

This constraint is quite simple to explain if you don’t have the right environment and tools, you may have a difficult time collaborating. Even having a document management system or an online collaboration system or tool that meets the group’s needs is important. Also, if there is no comfortable physical space to meet and work together the group will have a difficult time being productive as a group.

Process

Owen’s in his lectures this week spent a great deal of time explaining this constraint and how to overcome it.  Owens notes that groups can sometimes be so married to their process and focus on achieve efficiency in this process that they get stuck on a track. The problem with this again, is it makes the group less likely to adopt new ways of doing things when rapid change is needed.  This puts the group at risk of experiencing a process that may cause a bottleneck in their ability to change and be innovative.

Evolutionary bottleneck: The tens of thousands of Northern Elephant Seals today share genetic material from just a few ancestors

Evolutionary bottleneck: The tens of thousands of Northern Elephant Seals today share genetic material from just a few ancestors. We can experience innovation bottlenecks if we don’t branch out and look at new ways of doing things.

But to overcome process constraints Owens recommends a few remedies that make a great deal of sense.

First is to use a process, but a simple one that can be adaptable to the group. Owens suggests a Seven phase process that has different levels of engagement from the group as a group and as independent workers. In phase 1 the problem is identified and in phase 2 as many ideas to solve the problem are identified. There’s emphasis here in finding or listing as many ideas as possible.  As you travel down the path, this list naturally will be will be whittled down. But here’s the great part: The group doesn’t have to be involved as a whole in every step of the process.  Those committee meetings that caused projects to inch through the calendar like a limestone parade float – those are forbidden if any true innovation is to happen.

Owens' 7 Step Process for Innovation - details available in "Creative People Must be Stopped."

Owens’ 7 Step Process for Innovation – details available in “Creative People Must be Stopped.”

The second suggestion I walked away with was that it is important to analyze the problem or issue that requires innovation and determine if radical innovation is needed. If so, it’s important to assign the right kinds of people to the innovation team. But how do you do this? One answer: assign the right people on your team of innovators.

Owens explains that there are two types of Innovators (Team R & Team A). Their qualities can be described as follows:

Characteristics of both "R" & "A" innovators

Characteristics of both “R” & “A” innovators

The “R-type” innovator can be characterized as the person who often sees radical or even unconventional solutions, They are people who are good at laying a number of seemingly unrelated ideas or solutions down. They might also question how things are done.  Which can be frustrating to co-workers who don’t want to challenge the status quo.

The “A-type” innovator can be end-product focused. I worked with someone who was like this in a past worklife. He was highly detail-oriented and would manage the process every step of the way, making sure that each step had a milestone and the group would do want ever it could to accomplish it. I would use him has a springboard to find the possible execution problems in a project because of his broad analytical thinking and his meticulousness. However, not everyone saw his detail-orientation as I saw it and sometimes thought of him as being contrary to their process flow.

Initially I thought I was an “R” but then I realized after working at my last group I became the “A” person, always looking for a defined process, measurements, ways to determine or measure our success… because they didn’t seem to follow any process or even understand that one was necessary.   I wanted to have an end product to shoot for. This group was still struggling to define the product they wanted and would often rely on their upper leadership to set the tone.  This was fine when leadership had a clear picture and was well-informed about what they wanted. When it comes down to it, I’m probably a hybrid of the two types.

Owens teaches us that as innovation leaders we should be able to tell when to use the “A’s” and the “R’s” in a project timeline. As he illustrated in the diagram below, both the A’s & R’s have their place in a project and should be leveraged by the leader to work in harmony with each other. Now that’s something worth learning.

RsandAs

 

I forgot to add some resources I found earlier that related to this week’s topics:

Article from Fast Company: “Five Ways Process is Killing your Productivity”

How Collaboration can Kill Creativity:

What are the disadvantages of Project Management:

One word from the author of this post = “Obsession”

Can your Workplace Adopt/Embrace the Informal Learning Concept?

Many, many moons ago I wrote a post on Knowledge Management Systems that illustrated Marc Rosenberg’s KM model. This model depicts an organization that has a truly integrated system of sharing knowledge that includes formal training and an ongoing mentoring system for it’s employees. This model includes use of social media to connect employees.  Since I wrote this post, the use of social media online for both connecting and learning has exploded. Many more company executives (though not as many as there could be) are now schooled on the finer points of using social media as promotional vehicles as well as within the organization to enhance employee learning and knowledge.

Recently, On his blog, Jay Cross presented an adapted version of Jane Hart’s 5-Stage Model of the Evolution of Workplace Learning.

http://www.informl.com/2010/05/07/workscape-evolution/

Here’s the visual that illustrates this.

From informl.com (Jay Cross)

As Cross points out in his post, the more familiar your workers are with online networking tools and media,  the more they can readily use social networking support to improve their learning and skills.   You need to be able to assess where your audience of learners skill lies in the following areas: Web/Tech Expertise and Social Networking Familiarity.

From informl.com (Jay Cross)

Going back to the “5 Stages” illustration shown above, the newbies or novices to the workplace, culture, organization, or system would be FIRST guided to the LMS where formal learning can take place (your essentials such as terms of service, legal information, safety, organization mission, organizational structure, job skills, compliance training, etc.). If you need to track learning in a blended model (both face to face and online), you can use the LMS to keep track of who’s completed what training as they come into your workplace or program.

In the grand old days when most training was done in face to face sessions complete with massive binders and glossy handouts, training really only took place at the beginning and employees or trainees were expected to absorb what they could from the training. If they couldn’t remember everything that was okay because they had their gigantic binders as a print reference.  This system works when the nature of the work can be completely documented in print and is static. In other words, nothing changes about the nature of the job and there are NO variables.

Some workplaces assign ‘buddies’ or coaches to new employees. It’s often part of the work coach’s job to model or teach these learning behaviors to their employees. At one entry-level job I had many years ago, I remember my work coach or mentor telling me something as basic and obvious, as “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” In sharing this with me she was essentially letting me know, “It’s safe to ask questions here. We’d rather you do things right or learn by asking, and we won’t punish you for what you don’t know.”

Can you imagine what would happen if this guy afraid to ask questions about his job?

A truly rich “Informal Learning” environment can provide learners with the support they need to deal with variables NOT covered in formal training. And here’s the big “But,” you have to teach effective mentoring behaviors to all staff and reinforce these behaviors as much as possible. The informal learning model explicitly sets the expectation that learning and workplace improvement inherently part of the work culture. Employees must see it as part of their job responsibility to take  the new guy under their wing. The sooner you get the newbie up and flying the sooner everyone can be productive and creative. Managers and employees can build checklists of knowledge, skills and ‘tribal knowledge’ that new employees need to know. These lists and even ad hoc information can be shared during social or work activity.

But Informal Learning isn’t just what you’d learn about your fellow employees from washroom or smoking break talk. Informal Learning can happen via chat and discussion forums. The other day a work colleague and myself noted that we both got ourselves unstuck from work-related ‘problems’ by looking up similar situations or issues in professional forums online. It’s just as easy to set up an internal online work chat or forum.

I’ve seen some older employees cringe at the words “Informal Learning.” Many of the more ‘traditional’ workplaces place a lot of value on formal learning (lectures, lessons, face to face training, etc.)  because that’s the people, are used to.  I think  the key to building a truly learning rich environment and workplace is to highlight where social learning is really happening naturally and successfully and then introduce less familiar methods of leveraging informal learning. But again, if your company or organization doesn’t have a clear definition of what it means to learn effectively (outside of formal training) the concept of Informal Learning will be a hard sell. Maybe it’s just a matter of re-branding it or camouflaging it.  As for the acceptance of learning via social media… Maybe we just have to wait until the technologies that propel Informal and Social Learning (forums, chat, wikis, etc.) become more commonplace and accepted by the majority.  It will happen, eventually :)

Fighting Management Preconceptions about Social Learning

I just found this wonderful preso on Social Learning. I kept on slapping thigh laughing as I read… “Oh yeah, that’s a good one!” For me the highlights were:

Yes, Play is OK - you need it to grow innovative, collaborative and fast-adapting employees.

“Control is an illusion” – Okay… this is where I slip into incredulous teenager mode: Duh! You can control what people are learning and sharing about as easily as you can keep water in a sieve.  The presenters note that “80% of learning happens outside” of formal learning systems in their control. This is “Informal Learning” in action. The faster leadership realizes that building a company culture where learning is valued, the quicker they will start fostering a truly effective organization. Also, it’s very important to build the expectation that employees are really responsible for learning (their job and how to enhance their work).

People already share bad information - no kidding. Everyone has experienced the grapevine effect in a workplace. Human beings honestly seek knowledge about the goings on, some need it to function and work effectively without fear. They will even speculate on management’s behavior when they have no information, which is why transparency is less dangerous than keeping your lipped buttoned.

I also really liked the fact that they provided some solutions for measuring ROI (Return on Investment).(CRUD: I actually wrote this section but it got lost in the blog ether when I was trying to save my post)  I think it’s possible to tie a company’s increased success to social learning initiatives through anecdotal stories.  Also, connecting increased levels of innovation could also be possible. Think James Burke’s Connections (the show from the early eighties). Much of the show argued that the worlds most famous and influential innovations such as the combustion engine would not have happened if people did not make connections with each other.  I think if you analyzed the history or development of a particular innovation at your company you can actually trace the connections that were needed to make the innovation happen. You may be able to identify whether or not these connections would have happened with the social networking  efforts in place.

Some excellent points were made, but I suspect that no amount of brilliant arguments will convince the hardcore curmudgeons that insist that Social Learning/Networking is bad and evil. My only question… Can I work for the folks who made this presentation?

What Does the Ideal Virtual Workforce Look Like?

I was talking to my manager the other day about writing some sort of article that highlights the skills and talent needed to manage a virtual team. Last year I was able to briefly describe the ideal virtual employee. I decided to come up with characteristics for both virtual managers and virtual employees.  This is what I came up with so far… I’m still working on it.

Ideal Virtual Workforce

Click on the image to view the full sized mind map

I based the qualities and behaviors of managers on several of the managers I’ve had in the past whom I felt to be highly effective. In a nutshell, I really liked/like working for these people and I’d pick up another job with them in a heartbeat if it was available.

Honestly, I feel that the first thing an effective manager of a virtual team does is hire ‘the right people.’  In a sense, half the chore of managing a team is done once they’ve hired the correct type of person. This isn’t easy, because good employees are often hard to come by, and I speak from my own experience on hiring panels in a corporate workplace. Often interviewees have been coached to “talk the talk,” and a hiring manager needs to be able to see through this. A good virtual manager will probe employees to see if they can truly demonstrate the qualities and behaviors of the “ideal virtual employee.”  Moreover, a virtual manager will request and thoroughly review a portfolio of the prospective hiree’s past work before the actual interview. They will aslo ask pointed questions about how the interviewee accomplished or made these portfolio items.

To be honest, when I enter an interview, I actually look for the behaviors I described above in the hiring manager.  I want to know that the person who’s leading me is capable of managing me and the whole team effectively. There’s nothing worse that being hired into an extremely dysfunctional team. I’ve often thought of scripting scenarios that take the best moments from interviews I’ve had with managers.  I’ve even thought of taking the best coaching moments I’ve experienced and sharing them.  So many of us have in the past worked for or currently work with poor managers, sometimes It’s good to know that there are good ones out there. While the economy is bad right now and many people might be willing to put up with working in a dysfunctional workplace, it’s still important to hire good managers (virtual or not) who encourage productive innovation. Innovation and the ability to change and adapt readily is what helps companies survive in succeed in trying times.

Addendum… thanks to Twitter, I’ve found a number of interesting articles on virtual workers:

Schools, Please Don’t Kill Our Creativity

At a workshop I attended yesterday, Barry Dahl mentioned this unforgettable lecture by Ken Robinson at the TED conference. In his incredibly adroit and humorous talk, Robinson maintains that schools today thrash the creativity out of kids. I would argue that the final death knell takes place once they enter today’s corporate work world.

In another inspiring lecture, Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO champions the importance of play in productivity of design and innovation.

Tim Brown Teaches Adults How to Play at a Lecture

Tim Brown Teaches Adults How to Play at a Lecture

How can we, as educators promote creativity and play in our classrooms, while teaching important knowledge and skills? I feel that developing curriculum driven by “student created content” is key to developing the creative minds that will build our future. I don’t know about you, but as an old doddering woman, I would rather live in a world built by the next designer of earth shaking technologies and innovative policies that help promote progress and not in a world populated by people who are fettered by rules that squelch creativity and productivity.

“It’s in the making of things that kids actually do their learning”

(Exerpt below is from an article I wrote for our company blog.)

Creating content in schools extends past the traditional class-report or diorama making. I found this wonderful example of the King Middle School in Portland, Maine. I believe that this school is really putting the approaches to 21st Literacy Education in a Action. The video provides examples of how the school integrates subjects like science, English, math with technology education.


Click the photo to view the video. Note the video will open and play automatically in another browser window.

The kids participate in truly constructivist activities, by developing videos, artwork, and collaborating on the development of music and music scores. All of these activities and projects require formal knowledge in writing, math, science, research and history that used to be taught to students via textbooks in an isolated context. Here are a few quotes from the short film that really captured my attention:

“We don’t use textbooks, per se… we do a lot of research in class.”

“The approach is to bring out the best in every student.”

“It’s in the making of things, that kids do their learning.”

The school also partners with businesses like a local printing press to develop products. The students work together as teams to develop items such as books for the press. These students also have the opportunity to work with professionals like the professional documentary maker who help them improve the quality of their videos. They get real-life experience and are encouraged to stretch and deliver quality projects. They are not coddled or isolated from doing ‘real work’ because they are not ready to do it on a ‘professional level.’

As I finished watching the video, I realized that many teachers might have issues with the fact that some students contributed 7 pages of work to a final project while some contributed only three paragraphs. I like the attitude that these teachers at King have that “Everyone does what they can.” Plus everyone should contribute to the project using the skills and talents that they have. Perhaps a student who needs help with math but has kinesthetic talents can choreograph a dance, and teach the other students how to perform the dance to be included in a final project. A student who lags in writing but has design skills might lead the team that develops the costumes or set. Both students are exercising their communication and leadership skills in helping other get their tasks done. Students who are better at writing can help coach these students when they have to do the written component for the project.

I think the comment that sums up the value and power of this approach to education was made by the kids of King Middle School themselves, “No one feels stupid here anymore.”

Why wasn’t I born twenty years later? I would have loved to go to school in a place like this. Seeing examples like this really makes me excited about the work we do here at PLS because I believe that in what we do we strive to make learning experiences effective and powerful.

Work expectations/behaviors of the ideal virtual employee

  • Image from the Morguefile
    Image from the Morguefile
  • Are you a self-starter, a life-long learner?
  • Do you find yourself researching and looking up answers to questions on your own?
  • Can you effectively connect and communicate via e-mail, chat and phone?
  • Do you have exceptional written communication skills?
  • Can you work with out tons of positive reinforcement or those ‘pats on the back?’
  • Can you set your own reasonable timetables for getting your work done and then meet them consistently?

If you’ve answered yes to all or most of these questions, you’d probably make an ideal virtual employee.

When I tell people I work from home 100%, I usually get one of two responses.

“That’s great! You get to work in your pajamas!”

or…

“Work must be a cakewalk for you.”

Of course, I try to explain to them that it’s not that simple. It still astounds me that people have those preconceptions that working from home means 1.) You get to do what you want and 2.)You don’t have to do much work. In my own experience, neither of these two notions is true of working from home.

To be honest, after the first six months of working from home I seriously questioned whether or not I was the right person for this job. There were things I horribly missed: making connections with workmates when you work in an office. Informal coffee break talks, lunches, impromptu meetings at the whiteboard to explain or get some validation on a concept.

Working from home and working alone, I found myself having regular conversations with my dogs. At least they were happy because they now had a human being in the house with them twenty-four-seven.  In the end, I found that I needed to join extracurricular social groups outside of work or make sure I pencilled in lunches with former coworkers and current friends into my schedule.

More, I don’t really get to “do only what I want” when I work from home.  I realized early on, that I had to set my own project schedule and milestone deadlines and meet them. With virtual employment gone are the days when the boss sits in an elevated place where they can see what all their employees are doing. The virtual boss needs to trust his or her employees to get the job done, and reciprocally, the virtual employee needs to constantly deliver the products and services that make his group and company successful.

Setting these self goals for success is not the only challenge I face as a virtual employee. As my work now takes place in my home environment, I have to discipline myself to separate both of these worlds. I set boundaries. Work takes place in the room that is my ‘office.’ I stop work at exactly 5:00. I must set up  rituals and practices that enforce the law of separation of work and home life… otherwise I face the danger of work enveloping it all.

Working from home 100% of the time is not the simple cake walk some people make it to be. And oh, I haven’t noted the challenge that those of us face who work from home with other family members including children at home.

Is Web 2.0 over complicating things?

Technology allows me to be an ‘on-the-fly’ sort of tourist. I don’t have things planned out before I get to a destination like my parents did. They had travel agents who got them packaged tours where everything from morning wake-up to afternoon snack and evening meals were all scheduled on a daily plan. I shudder to think of enjoying travel in this way. I might read extensively about a place and it’s neighborhoods before I go, but if I know that I can have Internet access when I’m there, I pretty much leave it up to the moment. When we were vacationing in San Francisco, I did my usual thing… went straight to Google maps and searched for places that I wanted to see or needed to visit: food, shopping, neighborhood historical spots, or the nearest Rite-aid to buy a replacement pair of pantyhose. When I was searching for eating places and boutiques, I noticed that a number of places had websites. A number of restaurants sounded good, but they just had too much ricketa-racketa (flash) on their websites. Come on! I just want a menu… or maybe even photos to look at. I want to know what you’re store, business or restaurant has to offer. A few sites required me to download a plug in. Others sites seemed like some design nightmare similar to some conceptual art experience designed by an irritating esoteric character from Nathan Barley. Worse, important information like ‘store hours’ or a phone number was often hidden under some cryptic heading other than the obvious ‘about us.’

Nathan Barley's Website -Bells and whistles and too much junk

I actually thought if their websites are this pretentious, then they must be pretty annoying. Ergo, I didn’t want to give them my business. The funny thing is some small mobile devices don’t play Flash very well. Often the information I needed could just be on a list. Yes, from a consumer’s point of view the web needs to be simple and easy to use. As Jakob Nielsen put it:

“Most people just want to get in, get it and get out….For them the web is not a goal in itself. It is a tool.”

Pushing bells and whistles or other advanced features may be too much if you’re forcing them on users. On the other hand, people should be restricted to just using the ‘tried and true’ methods. Mr. Nielsen argues that focus on Web 2.0 development and applications is causing many website builders to forsake good design. But I think there’s a growing market/audience of people who know how to take advantages and use the newer web technologies. To be fair to these pioneering web developers… they’re still trying to figure out what works and how to make it work well. Though many business successes have demonstrated the power of social networking through blogs, wikis and social networks/online community. A product or service can take off if a few connected users or mavens start talking about it on the web.

From a web educator’s point of view, the web has great potential to bring people closer together and these tools are more than just ricketa-racketa. Also, users can work collaboratively to develop content from written text, to music, podcasts. They can even build on concepts and enrich discussion with video sharing.

If you read this article… Nielsen sounds kind of like (excuse my words) an old fogy… who predicts that people’s use and behavior with and on the Internet will not continue as they grow older. He predicts that Internet use will go down as people age. For the sector of society who will become more involved in the ‘creative’ and ‘technology’ economies this will not be the case. And, of course their use of the technology will change because technology changes. Something just tells me that Mr. Nielsen or his perception and vision of things is sort of …. stuck. Maybe things will be this way for me when everyone is plugging directly into USB (or some kind of electronic) ports or even buying cyborg bio-add ons… I just won’t get it or understand. (Of course, you know I’m joking about the cyborg thing… well sort of).


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