Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Power Of The Selfie: Forget Product Placement, Focus On Idea Placement

The Coca Cola Company and the ALS Foundation know something.  Do you know it, too?  
A picture is no longer worth a mere thousand words.  It's worth a a hundred thousand instant converts.    

That's the ingenuity behind the new Coke can that incorporates evocative words such as "Friend," or personal names, into the iconic Coke logo. 

By now, who hasn't seen an image come across their favorite social media venue with someone holding up one of these redesigned Coke cans?  The caption always reads something like:  "This one's for you, Ray/Julie/Larry/Mia/Boss/Star."  The new Coca Cola campaign is being turbo-boosted by willing accomplices who Like, Share and Comment on each others' photos of products, billboards, and light-up Times Square signage.

It's not product placement.  It's idea placement:

Coke = friendship.  

And Coke sales are surfing the wave of good feelings and goodwill. 


So are the ubiquitous ice bucket challenges which have netted record donations for ALS research while they forge an indelible, good-natured connection between idiot pranks and idealism.  This time, the idea placement looks like this:

Ice buckets = altruism.

Or, another way to put it:

Imagine a world where no one gets Lou Gehrig's Disease... and where all your friends get hilariously soaked to their skin in freezing water, and it's caught on camera for posterity.  

Brilliant -- again.  

But this time, the brilliance wasn't born in a marketing meeting and driven by corporate ad spending.  Did you know?  The ALS Challenge started with one average do-gooder who only had a smart phone, an ice bucket, and an idea.

Once, only Big Marketing or Big Journalism could mount a campaign that influenced society this way. They alone had the power to plaster society with pictures that delivered  pointed punchlines.  And those required vast quantities of network television airwaves and magazine ads.

Network television?  Magazines?  Those are relics now -- they've practically gone the way of the town crier.  Now anyone with a flair for attention-getting can use his smart phone to send up a flare that catches the world's attention.

Social media is the new influencer.  What can this mean for you?

Ask yourself: 
  • What's the core message I want to promote?  
  • What's the basic belief I want to place in heads and hearts?
  • What's the feel-good connection I want to create?

Load it into a seductive social media experience. Adopt the Coke Can Selfie approach to change attitudes.  Repair reputations. Raise awareness.  Raise money.  Spark a mania. 

If you can make your idea visual, you can make your idea viral. 

So now, about the mechanics. How do you persuade people to offer themselves as your poster children? 
  • Give them a glamorous or striking object to pose with: a mansion, a classic car, a celebrity look-alike.
  • Dress them up in your colors or your clothing line.  
  • Stage a carnival-style game so they can take pictures of themselves winning. 
  • Invite them to feed each other a free sample of your food product, on camera, in front of your eating establishment.
  • Offer them a prize to dance to your theme song.
  • Pose them with an funny oversize prop, a fistful of fake money, or cute animals.
  • Hold a team event, give players a team shirt with your message on it, and take action shots.  
  • Use a photogenic stunt to embody your idea.  Hula hoop performances, cup-stacking challenges, toilet paper mummy-wrapping, and shopping cart races come to mind.
You get the concept.  Try it.  

Give your target audience a story, and a stage to play it out, and they just might "selfie" your message out to all their friends.  

All it takes is an average person -- you -- a compelling message -- and an interesting image.  

What idea placement will you instigate? And how will it alter your life? 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Messaging for Martyrs

A note from Beth: this is a special post with a special message.  Please read and share.

The character shown here is the Arabic letter N.  It is a beautiful letter, from a beautiful alphabet.  Unfortunately, at the very moment this post is being written, it is being used in Iraq to target Christians for persecution as followers of the "Nazarene" (another name for Jesus).  
Does this remind anyone else of the way that little yellow stars were once used to mark Jews for destruction?
If you have the liberty to read this blog -- and my reporting shows that people read it from all over the world -- then please pardon my blatant plagiarism here.  I have never reprinted an entire news article in this blog before, but I do so for a reason.  I want all my readers who value freedom of speech to know about the persecution of Christians in Iraq.  Don't just take my word for it.  Read on and imagine how it would be if this was happening to you, simply because of what you believed.  These people have done nothing wrong.  They are modern martyrs, and this is the new century's holocaust.  
Also, as an advocate of remarkable messaging, I can't help but pose a question: 
What message does it send when, in order to honor your own religion, you are required to repress others' free speech, and even torture and kill those with different beliefs than your own?  
I'll tell you two messages that it sends to intelligent human beings: 
1.  A religion that does this must belong to darkness, not light. 
2.  It must be an especially weak religion if it can't stand on its own merit, but needs to be sustained by atrocity and savagery.
But those are my opinions. I am not forcing them on you. I believe in free speech.  No, more than that, I believe that "the truth will set you free."  (By the way, that quote comes from none other than the Nazarene himself.)  So read on and come to your own conclusions -- then please, use your own power of free speech to speak up for those who are not permitted to have a voice.
- - - - - - - 
 Reprinted From U S NEWS  / MOUNT ALFAF, Iraq — A little more than a decade ago, Mosul was home to 60,000 Christians who practiced their religion in the midst of their Muslim neighbors in Iraq's second-largest city.
No more. Earlier this month, Muslim extremists who had captured the city ordered all Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face execution. They later revoked the tax as an option.
The result has been a mass exodus of Christians to the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and laments that only Muslims are tolerated in the city today.
"It is no longer possible for Christians to live in Iraq," said the wife of Raad Ghanem, one of 250 Christians who fled to the picturesque Mar Mattai Monastery atop this mountain, 12 miles from Mosul.
Ghanem's wife, who did not want her name used because she worries about her safety, said that when she showed up one day at the hospital where she had worked for 30 years, she was told she wasn't welcome anymore. "They told me I couldn't work there because I am Christian," she said. "I told them that I am from Mosul, that this is my home."
To underscore that she and other Christians should not return, fighters from the al-Qaeda splinter group now known as the Islamic State, last week blew up a tomb believed to be the burial place of the biblical prophet Jonah, who survived in a whale's belly.
On Monday, France's interior and foreign ministers offered asylum to the fleeing Christians, who still have hope of remaining in their homeland.
Sipping tea at the monastery here, they recounted their frightening ordeal the night they were forced to flee. "The houses of Christians were specially marked with the Arabic letter "N," meaning Christian," said Nadia Nafik Ishaq, a woman with a broken leg.
"It was written that they were the property of the Islamic State. After that, all the properties were robbed. All our things were taken. What is the solution? How long will we have to be here?" Ishaq said.
"When we left in the middle of the night, we were stripped of everything. Money, wallets, jewelry, ID, passports, watches, everything," Raad Ghanem said. "At the Daesh checkpoint on the way out of the city, my wife was even stripped of her earrings. They took everything of value we had."
"They changed our church into a mosque, ruined historic museums and destroyed a monastery and manuscripts that were 1,000 years old. Iraq is gone. Iraq is finished. We're finished. It's impossible for us to go back," he said.
In a small bedroom on the second level of the monastery, a disabled woman was stretched out uncomfortably with her wheelchair beside her as her sister described how they were among the last Christian families to flee the city.
"It was illegal for us to leave the house, so we knew it wasn't going to end well," Ikram Hama said. "Luckily a Christian soldier helped us, and we escaped late at night with just the clothes on our back."
"Sick people, disabled people, poor people were all forced to leave. They killed my cousin after they looked at his ID," she continued. "We have no money and my sister has a disability. There is no doctor here and no hospitals close by. We are in a bad situation. For us, Iraq is over."
Twenty miles southeast of Mosul, the city of Qaraqosh has become a hub for Christians who fled the Islamic State fighters. But even it is unsafe. Although it is protected by Kurdish fighters, Islamist militants clashed with soldiers there in June, forcing thousands of Christians to flee to safer ground.
In an unfurnished townhouse still under construction on the outskirts of Qaraqosh, two families sat on the floor as they discussed the future of Iraq.
"I want to be a Christian but IS (Islamic State) took us to the mosque and tried to convert us to Islam," said Flora Adwa, a mother of three.
She said the owner of the townhouse had allowed the two families to temporarily stay at the home.
"We gave them all our money, but then they took our car and our house," she explained. "They told us that with the money we gave them we could go anywhere but Mosul. We cannot return. We are finished. What is our future?"

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Everyone feels the pressure to live up to others' expectations.  Some of us take it to the next level.  We battle the need to live up to our own impossibly high standards.  For us, "good enough" is never good enough.  

This poem has been a way for me to  answer back those paralyzing feelings and allow myself to celebrate my less-than-perfect performance.  


Always before, some neat tragedy,
Some excuse to pin my failure on.
Some reason not to be made at me:
  Some situation,
  Some attack upon my heart!
Now, nothing.
Nothing's wrong out there,
So why am I so wrong inside --
Tell me, where do I start?

Whoever said that I had to be
"Star Performer"  "Perfect Acrobat" --
  Toss the balls,
  Suspend them,
  Catch them in my hat!
They're dropping.
On my spotlit stage
My bright pretensions roll away
As the juggler falls flat.

What do you hear when all the harshest words are spoken,
Then you replay the tape,
and they're said in your own voice?
How do you fix the need to fix what isn't broken?
How do you choose to live,
When you think you have no choice?

God never gave me a guarantee
That I'd always please my audience.
He made the world, then He added me:
   So there must be 
   I bring...

To something. 
Why deny that I 
Can fly on my imperfect wings?
I can sigh, 
yet still sing.

But I will sing to sing, and not to hear some crowd applaud;
Live, not to prove my worth, but to see my worth applied.
Just as it says: 
"Humble yourself under the hand of God,
And He will lift you up when He knows the time is right."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Not Always The Place

I've had a day now to get over the emotional impact of the latest in my Disappointing Lack Of Customer Service experiences.  

I've already decided to call it the Ace Hardware 'Unhappy Birthday To You' Gift Card Incident.

I'm still feeling the disbelief, confusion, the insult, and the -- no other word for it -- humiliation.

I'm sure that someday I will shop at Ace again.  In fact, I'm morally obligated to now, for reasons you'll soon learn.  But will shopping there ever be the same?  I doubt it.  I'm now a dissatisfied customer, and it's going to be extremely hard to re-satisfy me.  

But worse still, I'm that Internet Age phenomenon that any retail establishment dreads the most: a dissatisfied customer using social media, putting the company name out there in a negative light for all search engines to find. 

It all started (cue flashback music) a week or so ago when an Ace Birthday Gift Card arrived in the mail.  How very nice, I thought.  This is a great marketing initiative to get existing customers back into the store and reinforce their repeat shopper status.

What -- doesn't everyone think like that?  Oh wait, I guess I should explain for those new to this blog that I have spent years designing sales training and customer service training programs, as well as training programs that support marketing campaigns.  So I guess when I get a gift card in the mail, I do react a little more analytically than the average consumer.

But when it comes to redeeming that card, I am every inch the penny-pinching female head of household that Ace thinks I am.  And Ace has been doing its research. 

Besides just winning a top industry customer satisfaction award (see this recent news article), Ace has really been trying to innovate and grow their appeal to women (for an example, see this recent news article). I do appreciate the way my local Costello Ace Hardware in Levittown hosted a Ladies' Night last fall.  I shop at Ace because I get a totally different feeling than when I shop at Home Depot.  I like the scale of the store -- cozier, not cavernous -- and I like the knowledgeable people who can explain DIY stuff to me without making me feel stupid.  They really ARE helpful hardware folks.

At least that's what I thought till yesterday.

Oops, we've somehow gotten out of flashback mode.  Sorry.  To return to my story (cue music again): the gift card offered $10 off a $35 purchase if redeemed in my birthday month (July).  What made it even better was that I already had a $5 Customer Loyalty card from a previous shopping trip. So I, ever thrifty, made a list and hit the Levittown location yesterday morning.  I roamed the well-proportioned and uncluttered aisles with my perfectly-sized, not too gigantic, female-friendly shopping cart.  I appreciated the nicely-organized displays which made me feel empowered, not assaulted.  I made my selections, carefully counting their cumulative cost to make sure it was over $35.00.  

I then took my seven assorted items to the check-out counter, happy with my deals and my double-whammy discount.

That's when it got kinda weird.

First of all, Deadpan Girl was my cashier.  I wish I had caught her name to add it to this narrative, but truthfully she acted nameless.  As she beeped my UPC codes, I brightly looked for some kind of an emotional connection that would match my happy in-store experience so far. Nada.  She was that clone we all get from time to time, that young bored thing who, if not actually chewing gum and rolling eyes, gives one that distinct impression.  I might as well have had an emoticon ring me up.  

Pulled down a notch from my hardware nirvana state, I stolidly waxed businesslike and pointed out to her that I had these two discount cards I was using today.  She received them with an expression that looked like  " :[ "  .  They got beeped, my stuff got bagged, and my credit card got scanned.  I could have been at a self-serve checkout for all the inhuman lack of interaction that took place.  

Then I looked at my receipt.  I noticed that the $5.00 from my Customer Loyalty card had been subtracted from the total in eye-catching red ink, but there was no corresponding $10.00 subtraction from my Birthday Gift Card.  Double-take.  Nope, not there.   Deadpan Girl was waiting for me to leave.  "I don't think the $10.00 was taken off," I told her, handing her the receipt.  She scanned it with this expression:  " :* " .   "I'll have to add it up," she said, and made a feeble, 10-second attempt to do so.  "I can't do this," she informed Clone # 2, the other checkout cashier, and turned away from me to flag down a man wearing a white Ace manager's shirt.

Manager Man came up, looked at the receipt, and turned to me without a greeting.  "It took the coupon, because see here at the bottom, it says,  'You Saved $15.00 Today," he told me, pointing to a legend emblazoned at the bottom of the receipt. "That's the $5.00 for one card, and the $10.00 for your other card.  They both got scanned."  

Disoriented by now, off-balance, and feeling vaguely like I was being accused of being an idiot,  I thanked them both -- for what, I don't know.  Then I took my bags of stuff and my receipt and beat it outta there.

I got as far as the lawn furniture display in the entryway, and stopped.  I looked at the receipt again.  I may not be the best at numbers, but that total was still too high to have had a $10.00 chunk taken out of it.  I sat down on a demo patio loveseat, took out a pen and pad from my pocketbook, wrote down the prices, and added up the receipt  -- twice.  Then I swept back into the store and approached Manager Man.  

"Please add this up again.  It doesn't seem right," I said.  "I don't think my Birthday card actually took.  Which doesn't make it a very happy birthday," I joked, trying to give Manager Man a little window of levity through which he could attempt to do relationship repair.  He didn't jump at the chance.  Sighing, he took the receipt again and stared at it.  No other communication came from him for about 30 seconds.  

I persevered. "Maybe since the total went below $35.00 when the other card was used, the Birthday card discount didn't qualify...?" I prompted, trying to sound like I was somewhat savvy and understood that this was a reasonable hypothesis that might indeed happen sometimes when two different types of pricing discounts battled it out inside the hard-coded logic of a point-of-sale computer system.  

Manager Man gruffed out a grufflike sound.  Still not looking at me -- I don't think he ever looked directly at me -- he said, "Well, some of what you bought was on sale, and the offer is good for regular-priced merchandise only." 

"Oh!" I sputtered, now understanding that I was being accused of being, not a mere idiot, but a criminal.  I was trying to scam Ace out of $10.00 worth of already-low, sale-priced pricing.  

What did I want, for them to just give me the whole store?  Who did I think I was, trying to pull off a con game on their computer?  Didn't I know that they would catch me red-handed in the end?

"I didn't realize it only applied to regular prices," I said lamely.  

Manager Man didn't respond.  

"I would have liked the cashier to tell me that... before she took my card... and now it's no good," I went on, in the same mystified tone of voice that I used some years ago after seeing The Lake House, when my friend and I were walking out of the movie theater, trying to reconstruct what had happened in the final scene and why Sandra Bullock couldn't have warned Keanu Reeves earlier about the car accident.  (By the way: NEVER rent The Lake House.)  

"Oh, we'll give you your card back," Manager Man said, making it sound sinister.  He turned to Deadpan Girl.  "You got your cards?"  She fished in her drawer and gave him a rubber-banded stack of cards.  He thumbed through them and found mine.  Then he drew an X through her cross-off and made a cryptic notation with his marker before wordlessly handing it back to me.

I looked at my mangled Happy Birthday Gift Card. "So I guess I can use this again if I come back to this store?" I asked, again attempting to help him finish the story and deliver some vestige of customer service, instead of forcing the customer to deliver it to herself.

"Yes," he said.

I had a pen, too.  "So you're name's Andy?" I had noticed his name tag, finally.  I started to write his name on the card.  

"My initials are on there," Andy said, not quite surly, but close, as he indicated the ambiguous scrawl he had just made.  He apparently thought I was being a drama queen at this point. 

"Okay!" I crumbled under his self-righteous demeanor.  "Well, thanks!"  And I stuffed the receipt and the card into my wallet, thinking, I NEVER WANT TO COME HERE AGAIN. 

But I will.  Oh, I will.  Exactly one more time.

And I will find $35.00 worth of regular-priced merchandise to buy.  Heaven knows, my house is falling apart, and it probably needs $3500 worth of stuff from Ace Hardware.  But I will perambulate my shopping cart around Levittown Ace Hardware's carefully curated displays, calculator in hand, and I will find exactly $35.00 worth of anything I need that's not on sale.  

Then I will go to the checkout and dare Deadpan Girl and Manager Man to just try and keep me from having a Gosh Darn Happy Birthday.  

Helpful Hardware Folks, maybe.  Helpful Cash Register Transaction Folks, not so much.   

Moral of the story:  

Retailers and other service industries:  does your floor staff have the tools and training they need to:
-  figure out and apply your company's promotions;
-  decipher your point-of-sale system's messaging;
-  do basic math, when necessary, to check the system's pricing?  

More importantly, are they adequately trained and incentivized to give great customer service, every time?  

Because messy blog posts like this can happen as a result of that one time that they don't.

Are your client-facing people authorized to do service recovery -- and are they required to do it with an apology, and a smile?

I swear to you, even with all the other bungling, if I had gotten either one of those, Ace Hardware, I would not be writing this now.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Easiest Way To Diagnose Performance Issues

Note:  This is a continuation of an earlier post on this blog, The 3 Things You Need To Maximize Employee Performance.  

This clump of daffodils is the only bright spot in my back yard today.  Bright spots are rare in this early spring on Long Island, especially after the brutal winter we just experienced.

"Bright spots" is also a term used in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath to describe a simple way to identify practical process improvements within a complex system.  In regards to workplace performance improvement, finding the bright spots -- finding the exceptional employees who are excelling at a task -- can be the gateway to lifting performance as a whole.

High-Poking Daffodils

In a previous post (see above), I mentioned that as a corporate trainer, I love training, but it's not always the solution.  Training can solve a skills gap or a knowledge gap. That's about it.

In many organizations, the way to performance improvement is always:

The Make Them DO Better Approach

  1. Identify the under-performers.
  2. Figure out what they're doing wrong.
  3. Correct those wrong things.  

As I'll explain in a minute, that's a fallacy-prone strategy. Instead, Chip and Dan Heath say it's smarter and more efficient to use the opposite approach, or, as I would call it:

The Take Them TO Better Approach

  1. Identify the over-performers.
  2. Figure out what they're doing right.
  3. Propagate those right things.

In one case example of the bright spots principle, Chip and Dan Heath cite how infant survival rates in postwar Vietnam were radically increased by discovering, then adopting, two simple nutritional differences that a small minority of village mothers had adopted, almost by accident, in their quest for improving their babies' diet.

This concept of finding and studying bright spots is elegant because it identifies readily-employable solutions that are already in play within the arena of activity and thus ripe for broader adoption.  Instead of low-hanging fruit, think high-poking daffodils.  They're there, they're thriving, and their very existence means two things:
1. Success is possible within the current system;
2. Under the right conditions, there could be more.

What's Wrong With Wrong

Most performance measurements focus on one problem metric: the number of service complaints, or the number of system failures, or the number of errors that required reprocessing, to name some examples.  These measurements fail to shed much light on the whole picture, which is probably filled with problem-riddled scenarios, variables, and bottlenecks.  It would cost way too much time and energy to produce a breakdown of all the various ways things are breaking down -- and if such a study could be done, it would only tend to highlight the hopelessness of it all.

So managers who are tasked with performance improvement will instead look for easy fixes that can move the needle and give the top brass a feeling that things are going better.  That's why a quick hit like a training program is such a seductive solution.  It would be so great to say, "We sent x number of employees for retraining, and their numbers improved by x %!"

(Unfortunately, if lack of training wasn't the root issue, the numbers won't move that much -- and even if lack of training was a factor, the general flow of business has a way of discounting its effects.  There will always be other events that steal training's thunder.  "Yeah, numbers went up, but don't forget, that was the same month that the business launched the new marketing campaign, or the new centralized purchasing process, or the new IVR system, or the new accounting software..."  The same can be said of all short-term, short-sighted fixes.  All measurable evidence can be reduced to anecdotal hypothesis by introducing competing success factors. )

So, how can the concept of finding bright spots help to stop this endlessly underwhelming performance improvement loop?

First, instead of focusing on what's going wrong, the opposite approach of analyzing what is going right can shed light on the most important operative deficits.  Here's how it works.

The Easiest Way To Identify Performance Issues

1. Find your "bright spots" - the workers who get the highest performance marks.  These are the ones who consistently score higher on the measures that mean the most to the business.  They might have won awards and recognition, or they might be hidden deep in the woodwork.   Either way, they are the people who are helping the enterprise the most.   They are the ones to watch.

2. Look at what these "bright spots" are doing differently.   Discover how they organize the work.  Watch what they use.  Map their habits.  What helps them overcome constraints?  But don't just watch them.  Talk to them.  Interview them.  Focus group them.  Find out how they are thinking differently. Listen to how they explain their tasks to themselves.  How have they reframed common problems to think about them from a different perspective? What gives them satisfaction?  What keeps them on track emotionally?

3.  Identify which homegrown tools, processes, beliefs and behaviors each "bright spot" employs that make the most impact on his or her workflow.  Not all of these factors will be reproducible. Some are innate and talent-based.  However, some will show potential for duplication on a bigger scale.

4.  Take it a step further. Sort these reproducible factors into categories.  You will see that they fall into our three component groups discussed in my prior blog post, shown here:

  • Training Components = how high-performing workers explain the work to themselves: how they sort their work into workflows, prioritize work or make work simpler via shortcuts
  • Motivating Components = how high-performing workers view their work from a value standpoint: what makes them they feel rewarded for achievement, what they say to themselves to keep pushing their performance, and what they say to others that indicates why their work matters to them
  • Equipping Components = how high-performers outfit themselves for success: checklists, cheat sheets, calendar reminders, files, containers, and other systems and tools that they have worked out for themselves to solve problems and boost their productivity 
The process of sorting your bright spots' innovations into these components can point you to the most profitable areas of concentration as you attempt to propagate their success across the whole company.  If most fall in the Equipping category, you will want to spend time and money on devising better tools and systems for your people.  If most fall in the Motivating category, your next step may be to create relevant changes in the reward structure and/or otherwise deliver an improved employee experience. If your discoveries are mainly in the Training category, you may need to develop standardized mentoring programs, online certification courses, and/or a series of simple awareness-building emails to combat shortfalls in skill and knowledge.

Now, let's talk about the other labels in the intersections on the diagram.  These are descriptors that managers often use for employees who aren't meeting expectations.  You won't find them in any official HR documentation, but you'll hear them verbalized bitterly in monthly management meetings. You might call these the "dark spots" in the organization.  (Sorry, Chip and Dan -- that term is my own creation.)  Pay attention to these labels!  They can identify performance issues as accurately as bright spots, but in a more roundabout way.  Use your awareness of the dark spots to focus your bright spots search.

Signs that You Need a Specific Bright Spots Study

  • "Complainers."  These are employees who blame their poor showing on things like impossible deadlines, unresponsive coworkers, outdated computer software, or other lack of resources (floor space, budget, equipment, etc.) It's too easy to target the pessimism in this group and merely write them off as disgruntled, when actually, they may be better described as dis-empowered. Listen closely to their feedback.  It could be that these employees are Trained and Motivated, but not Equipped.  Focus your bright spot search on the workarounds and homemade tools that your super-performers have invented to make things more doable.  Find out what your bright spots are doing.  You'll probably get some great ideas for process improvements, bottleneck solutions, and/or system enhancements that can streamline production.
  • "Slackers."  These are employees who have found a way to stay in a job without giving it their whole effort.  They view their work output as a bargaining chip.  They do exactly what is expected off them, and no more, and only under certain conditions. These employees are probably Trained and Equipped, but not Motivated.  If this is the general profile of your workforce, your bright spot search should look for super-performers who go against the do-the-minimum culture.  When you find them, focus group the heck out of them.  Find out what they are feeling.  How do they combat the cynicism, defeatism, and depression that affects their coworkers?  In your mixed bag of discoveries, there'll likely be some cost-effective ideas for improving communication, morale, and company policies to reflect a commitment to better employee treatment and stronger core values. 
  • "Bumblers." These are employees who can't get out of their own way.  They're not producing because they don't have adequate rules, guidance, or skill development.  They're mostly Motivated and Equipped, just not Trained enough.  Time to do a bright spot search to identify workers who actually are achieving.  Once you isolate those workers, find out what they are knowing.  Why are they, and only they, succeeding?  How have they cracked the code?  Have they taken the time and effort to train themselves?  Did they map their own process, write their own checklist, or recruit their own mentor to show them how?  You will learn a lot by shadowing them on a typical workday and asking "How did you know to do that?"  Be ready to capture their bootleg self-tutorials and market them to the top brass as potential add-ons to the current training regimen.

Bright spots are not the same as best practices.  They don't just formalize certain approved cookie-cutter behaviors.  They can empower change from a number of angles simultaneously, but always with this principle as common denominator:

It's already working for us somewhere -- why not systematize it?

When you find the high-poking daffodils in your business' back yard, don't just enjoy them.  Find out why they're there -- then make it your mission to cultivate them and grow more.

 Please leave a comment to share your thoughts on employee messaging, performance management, or bright spots. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The 3 Things You Need To Maximize Employee Performance

I am a corporate trainer because I enjoy communicating, problem-solving, leading, and helping people get better at what they do.   When I can provide the knowledge and skill development that employees need to do their jobs better, I know I've helped both the employees and the organization achieve their best.  

I also know that when performance needs to be improved, training is not always the answer.

For that reason, it should make perfect sense that I'm the first to object when the bosses send people for training when training is not the solution to the problem. And very often, it isn't.

I have a diagram that I use to explain how this works.  Here it is (see below).

In my experience, many organizations default to ordering more training for staff whenever they have a performance issue.  Employees aren't productive enough? Make them attend a webinar or go to a class. I call that the "Using Training As Duct Tape Approach."  It puts a patch on the problem, and then when the patch doesn't hold, everyone blames the Training Department... and orders new training.

I first drew this diagram during a corporate conference in Las Vegas.  I was the only training designer sitting at a table full of managers. I was asked the question, "How are we supposed to meet our numbers when the company doesn't provide enough training for our staff?"

I sympathized with their plight and asked a few clarifying questions before I said, "Did you know that training is only one third of the answer to better employee performance?"  I pulled out my conference agenda and drew three intersecting circles in the margin. "Training can only give people knowledge and skills -  the know-how."  I tapped one of the circles.  "But people also need the know-why.  They need to be given reasons that will motivate them to apply the knowledge they learn in training."  

I tapped the second circle.  "Motivating people is a separate issue than training, because training involves engaging people's brains, but motivating involves reaching their hearts.  A person who is trained, but not motivated, will continue to operate at levels just as low as before training happened."  

I tapped the third circle. "Suppose you have trained and motivated people.  They should be superstars, right?  Not if they're missing what's in this third circle. Aside from being trained and motivated, they also need to be equipped to do their jobs.  That means they need a full range of the tools and systems necessary to perform.  Those tools and systems need to be simple, available, and understandable."

"Training can train a person how to do their job better, but if part of doing that job means having to use clumsy tools, or inaccurate and unwieldy systems, then performance will still be a problem no matter how much training takes place. Worse still, if the right tools and systems don't even exist to empower or measure performance, then all the training in the world will be a waste of time."

I met the eyes of the managers around the table.  "Which of these do you think your staff is really lacking?  Training, Motivating, or Equipping?"  As they thought it over, I went on to say, "I would love to brainstorm with you about any actual missing training that is needed for your teams.  But I know the skills and knowledge that your folks need, and I know the programs we offer, and there are no real gaps there.  So your teams probably need either Equipping, or Motivating."

The managers were staring at my little circles.  One of them ventured, "Can't you do motivational trainings to motivate employees?"  I smiled and said, "We can add motivational content into our training courses -- and we do.  We can tell people the reasons we think it makes sense for them to do what we are training them to do.  We can explain and justify and promote those reasons, and hope that they will take away enough rationale to get them started.  But motivation mostly happens outside of training time.  Motivation..." I paused and surveyed the table.  "Motivation needs to come from you." 

What do you think of my little drawing?  Does it ring true for your situation at work?  Leave a comment and let me know!  

I'll be adding more to the diagram in my next post, The Easiest Way To Diagnose Performance Issues.  To be continued...


Saturday, February 15, 2014

For Powerful Messaging, Believe Everyone Is An Expert At Something

Here's a counter-intuitive communications principle:

Be humble to be heard.

Read on to find out why this applies to any message you want to convey.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is a widely-used construct in education.  Basically, it's a tool for understanding how people learn.  Its five levels of mastery are usually depicted in a pyramid, as shown here.  (Google searches will yield hundreds of articles on the Dreyfus model.  To check out the real deal -- a summary by Dreyfus himself -- click here.)

As a corporate trainer, I use this model to develop learning programs.  But it's also a very useful tool for understanding  how to do basic communication.  And it all relates to the human ego.

Let me put it to you in the form of a question:

What would you rather be known as: an expert, or a novice? 

Of course, you would much rather be considered an expert.  So would anyone.  People don't like to feel stupider than the next person.  

And there is the first problem of communications.  

Consider this: when you are speaking about a subject, it's probably because you know about it.  In fact, you probably have a knowledge base about that subject that is superior to that of the other person to whom you are speaking.  That's why you're talking about it, right?

It feels good to talk about something you know about.  You have all the power. You feel like the expert.  

This means that the other person is perilously close to feeling stupider than you.  Even as he is trying to absorb your message, your listener is (at some level) resenting the fact that you can currently feel like the expert, and he can't.  It's a huge problem for his typical human pride,and a huge emotional distraction. 

Good communicators know: resentment fuels resistance.  Your message won't get across if your words are being drowned out by an undercurrent of internal emotional static.  Don't believe me?  Think back to that smug seventh grade science teacher or that pompous college professor in your past -- the one who made you feel like you were being "talked down to."  Remember anything positive, inspiring or life-changing about that class?  I didn't think so. Chances are the only thing you do remember is feeling disgusted about being made to feel stupid.

Fast forward to adulthood.  The "I feel stupider than you and I don't like it" syndrome is still alive and well -- maybe more so, because due to their achievements so far, most adult learners feel some sense of competency.  When they are put back in the Novice position, as when asked to learn a new skill at work, they tend to squirm with rebellion.  In such scenarios, their radar is quick to discern, or invent, a condescending attitude on the part of the expert in the room.  If they do, there goes their attention.

If you want to be a good communicator, you need to defuse this distraction. Hence the power of humility.  

How exactly do you use humility to combat this problem?  You share your Expert status by granting your audience the power to be experts, too.  

My favorite way to do this is to get my intended listeners to expound on their own expertise, before I even mention my own. 

In my computer systems training classes for health insurance claims investigators, I know many of my learners are already at the Expert level in many aspects of industry knowledge. However, they may be only Novices in the computer system to be taught. No wonder they are uncomfortable. People don't want to check their credentials at the door and go back to the bottom of the competency scale.

I defuse this discomfort right away with a simple ice-breaker discussion.   Here's my game plan for how to do it, in case it might be useful for you.

Class Opener Activity: Everyone's An Expert

  1. Start with a simple round-robin question: "How long have you been with the company?"  Then ask follow up questions to help each person give a quick summary of their work history. 
  2. Respond to each learner's story by identifying, and expressing respect and appreciation for,  their areas of skill competency, proficiency, or mastery.  (See the Dreyfus model illustration above.) 
  3. As the discussion progresses, seed in comments that emphasize  the rapid pace of change in your profession, and the many opportunities all have had to learn and grow. 
  4. When everyone has finished introducing themselves, state today's class objectives. Ask them to review those objectives and think about how today's training will have applications to all of their work specializations going forward.  Invite them each to contribute knowledge and real-life examples from their areas of expertise as the class proceeds.  Say, "I hope we can all learn from each other today" (once again acknowledging their Proficient or Mastery level in some subjects).
  5. Finally, state that the skills focused on in class today may be new to many learners (tacitly defining them as being at Novice level), but these skills represent another opportunity for them  to stay ahead of the curve in your competitive industry.  Quote that great anonymous quote: "If you're not learning, you're becoming obsolete."  Praise them for already showing by their different career paths that they are excellent learners.  

I find that this is a great way to help professionals feel more at ease with learning new content that is outside their comfort zone.

In larger groups, or if time is pressing, I often revise the activity to a simple round-robin question where I ask learners to rate their industry knowledge on a scale of one to ten.  I then acknowledge their expertise collectively.  It's the same principle, but it compresses the time element.  

Either way, the outcome is the same.  Paying homage to my professional learners' existing high level of knowledge and skill gives three advantages:

1. It defuses the "I feel stupider than you" problem and secures their emotional buy-in; 
2. It sets expectations for their engagement as peers, not inferiors;
3. It leads to a more positive classroom experience for all.  

When I introduce a complex systems training topic this way, initially-resistant learners end up not only learning the material themselves, but forging alliances with other classmates to help each other develop strategies for its application and move quickly out of the Novice level.

No one is a know-it-all.  But everyone is a know-it-some.

Be intentionally humble, and share the expertise spotlight with your audience.  In the end, it will tear down the barricade of resentment, and clear your communications pathway so that optimal learning can take place. 

Want to leverage the Dreyfus model to succeed at your next messaging task?  Find a way to acknowledge your audience's innate worth and competency.  

Respect your learners.  Share your Expert status.  Believe everyone is an expert at something -- even if it's just an expert at being themselves.

Or, to put it more simply: 

Be humble to be heard.