Jamie Notter

Consulting: Targeted projects to strengthen your culture and improve performance.

Speaking: Keynotes and concurrent sessions on social business, conflict, and generations.

Writing: Two books (Humanize and Generational Diversity) and an industry-recognized leadership blog (see below).

clocksBy now, I assume you’ve heard of Google’s fabled 20% time. They’ve changed it recently, but the original idea was simple: give every engineer at Google 20% of their time to work on something THEY thougth would be both interesting and ultimately profitable to Google. The focus was on building a container for experimentation. These projects did not have to be approved by a manager. They did not have to connect (directly, anyway) to Goolge’s core business. After all, these employees were spending 80% of their time on the Google core business. But in this one day per week, they could develop something new. Although it appears inefficient, the end result was positive for Google. Things like Gmail, which now generates a significant amount of profit for Google, were developed during 20% time, as an email interface simply did not connect to Google’s core business back then. By creating the space for experimentation, they allowed their people to change things in a way that unlocked new value (my definition of innovation).

It is important to remember, however, that making this work requires more than just the cool idea of x% time (not everyone who does this uses 20%). I’m working with a client on implementing a version of this at their organization, and we’re getting into the nitty gritty of things like:

  • How will the learning from x% time projects be shared?
  • Who gives feedback on the projects, and how frequently?
  • What strategic purpose should x% time projects be tied to?
  • Do these projects need to be approved?
  • How do they transition from being experimental to being integrated into operations?
  • Can we find ways to protect people’s x% time so it doesn’t get swallowed by the latest crisis?

There aren’t simple, “right” answers to these questions. It will vary depending on the organization and the context. But you need answers. Never settle for the really cool idea you hear about in the business books. Think through the implementation details before you pitch it to management or try to sell it to staff. You don’t need all the answers, but lay out the key questions so people can see why and how it makes sense to YOUR organization.

I Miss Social Media

viewmasterI am 47 years old, and I recognize that I am either in or headed to the “get off my lawn” stage of life. I find myself looking back at the old days more than I used to, and I frequently want to remind my teenage children that when I was growing up, I had to get out of my chair to change the television channel, rather than just swiping my finger across an iPad.

So in that vein, I want to lament about something I miss about the old days: social media.

It’s funny to think of social media as a component of the “old days,” but honestly that’s what it feels like to me today. I miss social media when it was new, when conversations were alive, community was being built, and new relationships with smart people across the country and the world were forming on a weekly basis. I miss conversations among bloggers via linked blog posts. I miss the days when I could actually read my Twitter stream, versus only scanning my @replies.

I’m not saying social media is dead or even a bad thing now (this is a blog post, after all). I still love social media and the way it helps me learn and develop my practice in an accelerated way. But in the big picture, social media has been taken over by the marketing department, and as such, it has been assimilated into the borg. It has become an instrument of the machine. It is a tool we use to convince and convert. It is a channel for content (but at least you don’t have to stand up to change the channel).

Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Maybe it’s operator error and I need to reboot how I use social media. But it’s important to me that we NOT lose the revolutionary element of social media–where the power went to the people and authenticity was not only tolerated, but demanded. Organizations were not built to tolerate such heretical ideas, and as much as they truly desire to “embrace” social media, they will most certainly try to remove those foreign ideas in the process. Beware.

clockworkIn Chapter 5 of Humanize, we actually go back a few centuries in our analysis, pointing out that the entire western world has been looking at the universe in a very mechanistic way since the 1600s, and we have Sir Isaac Newton and his contemporaries to blame. They revolutionized science in a very short amount of time, and they felt their discoveries connected more deeply to the nature of the universe. According to historian Edward Dolnick:

When Isaac newton learned how gravity worked, for instance, he announced not merely a discovery but a “universal law” that embraced every object in creation. The same law regulated the moon in its orbit round the  Earth, an arrow arcing against the sky and an apple falling from a tree, and it described their motions not only in general terms, but precisely and quantitatively. God was a mathematician, seventeenth-century scientists firmly believed. He had written His laws in a mathematical code. Their task was to find the key.

I have nothing against math, gravity, or seventeenth-century scientists (they were pretty awesome, actually), but this view that the universe is some kind of divinely designed clock is actually bringing us down, particularly in the world of leadership and management.

You have to see the code in order to break it.

windowOne of the main points that I make in my keynote speeches these days is that we are currently standing in the neutral zone between two distinct eras of leadership and management. The old era started in the early 1900s, as we ramped up the industrial age, and for the first time in history we actually needed “management” on a widespread basis. Not surprisingly, management had a very mechanical, command-and-control feel to it. In the 1950s, our approach to management was overhauled, though it didn’t abandon its mechanically oriented roots. If anything, it reinforced those roots, as the overhaul focused more on developing the academic science of management.

So today, nearly all of us are quietly working away in organizations that are running on 50- to 100-year-old technology. We take it for granted, since it’s the only management model we’ve ever known, and there may not seem like a reason to question its dominance, given the explosion of productivity and efficiency we have witnessed over the last 100 years. But that’s the problem with eras: they work just fine, even as they are in decline. It’s not a light bulb that suddenly burns out, giving you a noticeable problem to solve. It’s more just a jumbled mess of horses, buggies, bicycles, and automobiles sharing the road until we figure out what the new era will be, and until we do, every mode of transportation out there still “works.”

So in that sense, I want to steer clear from a “is management dead” conversation. By the time we can actually declare it dead, no one will care, because we’ll be too busy doing things the new way. The challenge right now, then, is to simply invent the new way, even though we aren’t sure it’s going to stick. (That’s the conversation we started in Humanize.)

As I said, we’re in a neutral zone, and the work of the neutral zone is to  keep moving forward, even though it may not always feel like progress. Experiment. Try new ways of managing. Share your financial and  salary data. Don’t let bosses go to meetings. Put everyone in one big room instead of cubes. Allow more remote workers. Don’t use standard interviews when hiring. Give everyone time to work on experimental projects. These are just some of your options, but get creative here.

Success in the future belongs to the organizations who do the most effective work in the neutral zone. Now is your chance. Don’t miss it.

leadershipselfdeceptionLeadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box

by the Arbinger Institute

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2010

This book argues that many problems we face internally in our organizations (conflict among employees or silos, nasty bosses, ineffective employees, etc.) can actually be traced back to some basic psychological defense mechanisms in all of us. The truth is, every organization is run by human beings, and all human beings have egos to defend. And in the course of business, we are often not aware of how those deeper, ego-based psychological drives end up distorting our reality and generating behavior that really doesn’t work.

The one that the book focuses on is the human need we each have to portray ourselves in a positive light. We all deeply want to see ourselves as a good employee, a good boss, a good team-mate, and even a good parent, or a good spouse. And there’s nothing wrong with a little positive self-esteem, but when things get tough or stressful, you’d be amazed at how quickly our brains paint a picture of the “other” in the situation as less-than (selfish, overbearing, micromanaging, lazy, biased, out of touch, too negative, too positive, etc.). It happens quickly, and almost sub-consciously. But doing so allows us to meet that psychological need of being good and right.

My favorite easy example of this is our reactions when driving a car. Every time someone moves into our lane without seeing us or pulls out in front of us, we are instantly outraged. We typically launch into an angry diatribe inside our own car about how this other person is a complete and insensitive jerk (which is much nicer language than you’d use in the actual situation). Yet those other times when you’re distracted and move into someone else’s way, or pull out because you didn’t see the other person, you know that it was a simple and honest mistake. In fact you’ll get all huffy when they honk at you. It is an instant and visceral reaction: you are justified, and they are not.

Those are fleeting moments with complete strangers, but when this dynamic starts playing out at work, it can have negative effects. The book itself is written as a story about a company that outperforms its competitors specifically because every employee is coached in this dynamic. It enables everyone to focus on results and hold each other accountable, but without the defensiveness, posturing, and water-cooler gossiping that usually goes along with it.

I recommend this book. It’s a quick read, particularly since it’s written as a story (though to be honest, Patrick Lencioni is better at this art form; this one gets a little slow at times), and it is gets into an important aspect of leadership in today’s world: that as individuals the bar is being raised when it comes to our development and awareness. The people who do the work on the self-actualization scale are going to be the bosses that the Millennials want to work for, because as a generation they were not schooled in being “less than” as much as we Xers and Boomers were when we were kids.

cateringThis is a guest post from Eric Lanke, the CEO of the Fluid Power Association.

How does an association executive build and sustain the culture of his organization? Specifically, what is his role versus others in the organization’s hierarchy? Conventional wisdom says culture comes from the top and, in many respects, that’s true. But associations, like all organizations, are systems. And knowing that, are there also decentralized strategies that association CEOs should be leveraging?

This is the topic Jamie asked me to tackle in a series of guest posts–and I’ve already written about the use of very specific language in the office to help ensure staff are focused on the needs of actual members, not on their possibly misinformed ideas about who their members are, and about how professional education in the industry or profession your association represents can help association staff develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the world of your members.

Today, I’m going to talk about another thing happening in my own organization that will hopefully contribute to our ability to build and sustain a culture that actively seeks to understand the world of our members. We’re outsourcing our meeting planning functions.

I’ll bet that sounds counter intuitive to some of you. Early in my association career I, myself, was exposed to a culture that taught that our in-person meetings were the one definite place where we could interact directly with our members, and that seeing to all the event logistics on their behalf was integral to developing an understanding of their preferences and personalities. And while that perspective is not entirely without merit, what happens much more in my experience is not the development of uniquely tailored experiences, but the coordination of a series of homogeneous events, where expense savings and economies of scale take precedence. In other words, as a general rule of thumb, we don’t plan events for individuals. We plan events for groups, and the more we can streamline and standardize our approach to doing so, the more successful we will decide we have been.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But I’ve come to recognize that having my staff focused on those tasks takes a lot of their time and their energy. If you’re sending your staff people to your association’s events, what would you want them spending the majority of their time doing? Counting chairs and adjusting catering guarantees? Or interacting with your members and learning more about their preferences and personalities? For me, leading a relatively small-staffed association, I believe the bigger ROI is going to come with the latter.

The move has made me wonder what other tasks we could outsource in order to increase the amount of time our staff members spend interacting directly with our members. In the case of our meeting planning function, the change has helped me bring greater clarity to how everyone in the office perceives what we are there to do. Yes, we must plan engaging events for our members, and, yes, we must increase our understanding of our members in order to do so. But when some functional task gets in the way of increasing that understanding, it’s time to think about other ways of getting those tasks done.

Backsliding is Normal

51340299If you are out there actually changing your culture, then I need to prepare you for the inevitable. Well, maybe “inevitable” is too strong a word. But after you make progress moving in the direction of the desired culture, you are probably going to slide backwards towards the old ways.

Cultures are strong things. They’ve been around for a while They’ve worn grooves or ruts in your road, and even though you’ve popped the car out of those ruts to move in a different direction, every now and then those wheels will catch again, and you find yourself in your old patterns.

Don’t freak out about this, and don’t declare your culture effort to be a failure. This doesn’t have to be a drama-laden episode. Simply pop those wheels back out of the rut, since now you know it can be done. This is the work of culture change, particularly at the beginning.

Do the work.

You Don’t Copy a Culture

copyStrategic moves can be copied, or at least emulated. We can study what other companies do strategically, and then copy, to some extent, their approach within our context. Strategies and the organizations they are attached to are complex things, so it’s not as an easy task and there’s always a lot of adapting you need to do. But the learning process does contain that copying element. You find out what the successful people have done, and you emulate their approach.

That doesn’t work with culture, which can be somewhat frustrating. You go out and learn about companies that have cultures that are very clearly strong and do a good job at attracting the best employees and higher-value customers, and you want to do what they do. You want a culture as strong as theirs. So do you change your employee manual to be a 4×6 card like Nordstrom does? Do you offer your new employees a few thousand dollars to quit after their training like Zappos and now Amazon does? Do you make your employees work in pairs and share a computer like Menlo Innovations does?

Maybe, but probably not. The fact is, you can’t copy a culture. You can’t just do what they do and have your culture be as strong as their culture. They spent a lot of time building their culture. And so have you. Yours may not be very strong, but it is there, and all cultures have strong roots. So your task is not to copy the great cultures out there. Your task is to change your culture from what it is, to what it needs to be.

You can still learn a lot by studying the strong cultures. Don’t give up on that. But don’t be looking for best practices to copy. Look for insights that will guide you on your journey to create an organization worth working for.

640px-UnclesamwantyouIn case you hadn’t heard yet, Maddie and I are doing some research for our next book, and we are looking specifically for the perspectives of Millennial employees in the workforce (even more specifically, ages 25 to 30, but we’re somewhat flexible). Millennials: we want YOU.

There are two ways to participate in the research.

First, if your organization is interested in getting an advance view of the research results, then we will create a specific Survey Link to send to people in your organization. If you want the advance results and have at least FIVE millennial employees that will take our brief online survey, then have the right person in your organization contact Maddie directly to set that up, and we’ll give you a unique link you can distribute internally.

Second, if you and other Millennials in your organization want your voice to be heard, then you don’t have to wait around for your organization to get involved. Just point you and your millennial colleagues to this generic link to our survey. We still are looking for five people to complete the survey per company, so tell your friends.

We will be doing some follow up interviews with people that complete the survey, but you have to do the survey first.

Thanks in advance! (And please help spread the word.)

conversationMost organizations don’t talk about their culture too much. We’re too busy doing the work, and the culture sits in the background mostly. It’s how we do things here, but that doesn’t mean we need to talk about it. It is what it is. At some point, however, we might start to realize that maybe we NEED to talk more about the culture. Maybe the culture we have now isn’t a good match for the company’s current stage of growth. Maybe the employe retention issue we’ve been experiencing isn’t just about that one program or that one manager. Maybe we need to intentionally shift our culture to make us more effective.

So how do you start that conversation? You might be tempted to convene a meeting of people that matter under the agenda heading of “Improving our Culture.” That effort is doomed. Some will resist the conversation because they LIKE the culture that you have now (and/or they were instrumental in creating it), so they will move the conversation away from culture and towards solving the individual symptoms. And then among the people who do see the need to make it better, you’ll  have some conflict about what a “better” culture looks like. Even if you come in to the meeting with a general consensus that the culture could be improved, you will not likely leave the meeting with a concrete understanding of how to actually improve it.

The culture conversation needs to start with clarifying the culture that exists now. 

Before you talk about whether it should be improved, or how it should be improved, you need a clear understanding of what it is. And that means going beyond the word-smithed values statement and certainly beyond your stock answer to “tell me about the culture here” that you get from employee candidates during their interview. You need a frank and honest conversation about what is truly valued in this organization, and why.

If you push yourself for real clarity in that conversation, then you’ll be in a position to talk about what might need to be improved. There will still be conflict in that conversation, but you’ll be able to pull out the conflict that is really meaningful–if we improved our culture in X way, will that help us get better performance and deliver on our strategy? That’s the kind of conflict you really need to have. Before the clarity, the conflict you would have would be subjective, high-level, and not productive.

The assessment that I have developed for organizations starts by having the whole staff evaluate the culture in four separate areas that don’t necessarily give you the answer of how your culture SHOULD be, but it helps you focus your conversation on what the culture is. The four areas give you some objective guide posts that focus the conversation away from the subjective notions of “I like the culture here” or “we need a more cohesive culture” and towards making that connection between what is valued and what drives success.