The problem with “Follow your passion”

Y living in the momentIn the face of adversity, a highly recognizable trait of Generation Y is their ability to make use of creative resourcefulness to go around obstacles. It is indeed through this ability that they make sense of a constantly changing world and obtain an adaptative edge over their colleagues from other generations.

However, like any other behaviour, the excess and all-purpose application of going around obstacles is not without a cost. Its cost lies clearly in the helplessness some Gen Y members feel in the face of obstacles which one can only go through. This uncomfortable helplessness is often translated into behaviours that attest for a lack of perseverance and resilience.

No other generational slogan epitomizes more this behaviour than “Follow your passion”. On his HBR article “Solving Gen Y’s passion problem” , Cal Newport show the explosion of this sentence as a widespread career advice during Gen Y’s formative years.

Born from a mix of well-intentioned parenting and a general lack of meaningful work (a research from Georges Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni indicates that in the period of 1976 and 1986, two thirds of the 500 largest american organizations were engaging in varying degrees of illegal activities), this sentence was transformed by some Yers into a “noble” shield, protecting them from confronting adversity altogether.

An enlightening analogy can be made when one ventures out of the professional spheres into the more personal realm. Although any wise adult would not wait for Prince Charming (or Beautiful Princess), it is precisely during the same period of “Follow your passion” (80s-00s) that divorce rates doubled and first-mariage age increased by 4 years. Put together, this data attest for a well-known behaviour of job (or relationship) hopping on the first sign of conflict, that is not only characteristic of Gen Y but also of the times we live in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the upmost supporter of following one’s heart, whether in work or love. However, the assumption that there’s such a job or person ready to understand us entirely and delight us forever is a lure. There is no such thing as a fulfilled life, because meaning and happiness cannot be found in the destination, they’re a consequence of the path we trail.

In our hunger for connection, achievement and meaning, we read “Follow” in the imperative as an obligation to be met, a box to be checked, and, most importantly as something lying out there, in the outside world, waiting for us to claim. Pushing this logic further, if our “Passion” is already out there, then it precedes the encounter (with the job or the person) and one should be able to love it from day one.

And it is in this final deduction that lies the biggest problem with “Follow your passion”. By assuming it’s out there, then how can we not love it from the start? Conversely, if we can’t immediately and constantly take joy out of a particular job (or relationship), then it mustn’t be our passion. Hence the aimless hopping.

The hard truth is that more often than not love and passion develop slowly, through complex and unexpected paths. Except for a few lucky ones that meet early on their vocation or lifelong companion, most of us will get there after awkward, uncomfortable and frequent encounters with ourselves. Our passions are not found, but revealed to us, once and again, as we create the conditions inside us.

And even when they’re revealed to us, it doesn’t mean they’re any easier. The instant gratification and understanding of our impact are not in arm’s reach every single day, the fear of failure (or worse yet, the fear of success) haunts us, and the gremlins in our mind comparing our choices with the alternate path return when times get tough.

In summary, living your passion is exhilirating and liberating, and it also hurts. As poet David Whyte once said “There’s no path you can take without getting your heart broken, so why just not get on with the job and make sure it’s broken in a direction that’s worthwhile?”

The human adventure (and Gen Y’s challenge) is not finding your passion, but having the perseverance to live through it. For those who do, a broad range of feelings and experiences await. It is precisely in this movement that hides the essence of meaning.

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches”― Rainer Maria Rilke

To understand Gen Y, work with them

A little less than a year ago, I’ve embarked on the genYus journey into the essence of human interaction and motivation. Part of this journey included a personal tansformation from the role of the manager to the role of the coach. Another part included taking a helicopter view to speak from a place of expertise about intergenerational relations. This meant going to dozens of conferences and through dozens of books (as well as hundreds of articles and research papers).

Since last May, I’ve been co-organizing a TEDx event with a friend (TEDxLouvainLaNeuve). With only 4 months to D-Day, last week we started recruiting for a team of student volunteers to help us out. In other words, I jumped back into the role I had left behind: the manager’s.

The recruitment process we put in place was a reflection of what we (as Gen Y ourselves) expected from a recruiter. We explained our vision, shared passionately what we want to achieve (namelly, to start a community and spread inspiring ideas), clearly stated our high level of demand, told about our live’s stories and then listened to them. No crazy requirements about years of experience, languages spoken or previous work for a “blue chip” company.

The questions we’ve asked to all of them were:

- What do you love to do? (as opposed to What can you do?)

- How will you bring what you love into this project?

- What do you want to personally take away from this experience (and how can we help you get it)?

It is possibly luck but by the end of one day of interviews we had filled all 10 positions with highly motivated volunteers, who will be working on what they love and what stretches them. The best part is that yesterday all of them came and participated with excitement to a 3-hour meeting.  They aren’t paid a dime and it was a Sunday afternoon! Who said Gen Y was not a committed cohort?

What made this recruitment and meeting a success? Trust and belief.

We’ve showed interest for the human beings they were, shared parts of ourselves, created a space where everyone’s ideas are welcomed and disclosed confidential information. My ego would like to think they came for us but, as Simon Sinek elegantly puts it, in truth they came because “they believe what we believe”.

Given the 10-month hiatus, I was worried before the meeting of not being enough of a manager. It is easier to be the expert that dissects human interactions, the consultant, sociologist or psychologists taking notes behind a glass wall than it is to be the man in the arena, the one whose every word and act has the potential to generate an impact inside the group.

Will I be able to keep this team engaged and committed through all the hardships? Will I be error-free after reading and writing so much about Gen Y? I sincerely doubt so! But I’m convinced that as long as trust and belief are present, we will be able to advance and grow together, both as individuals and as a team.

More than the conferences, the books, the gourous and the experts stopped in time, dare to face the challenges of leadership with an open heart. By doing so, you’ll learn more about people than any of them can teach you.

What challenges are you facing in your work today that no book can help you with?

21st century entrepreneurship

spiritgames.co.uk

Meet Rachel Lowe.

One fine day, Rachel had an idea and a desire: to launch a board game that would compete against the 7-decade top-seller “Monopoly”. She researched the market for a few months before she pitched her plan to experienced venture capitalists. The result was a resounding “No” as her inexperience (she was 27 years-old then) and lack of long-term plan got in the way.

Rachel’s pitch on the Dragon’s Den gets to the core of what the shifts of the 21st century are all about.

In a predictable world where “stability leads to growth”, the way to approach business was quite straightforward:

1)      You research the market (eg. Porter’s 5 forces) and forecast how the future will be (with a little error margin)

2)      You lay out several strategies, choosing the optimal one (that maximizes your profits)

3)      You gather resources, mostly by pitching your 3-year plan to investors

4)      You work very hard and become a “winner”

In such a world, the only possible endpoint was achieving your goals.

The problem with that approach is that there’s very little that is predictable or certain about the 21st century. Just the simple exercise of Porter’s 5 forces becomes a nightmare in the face of the complexity and interconnectedness of the stakeholders’ network.

To provide a solution to this frustration, Leonard Schlesinger and Charles Kiefer met serial entrepreneurs to understand how they approached uncertainty. The result is a very interesting book called “Just Start” that outlines the principles of what they called “Creaction”.

1)      Start with desire. You don’t need to be passionate about your business in the beginning, just have enough desire to give it a try.

2)      Act quickly by taking a small smart step (that is within your acceptable loss) with the means at hand. A healthy step would be to enroll others in your idea, to multiply resources, and dilute risks. The question should be “How much am I willing to put in to see how it’ll play out?” instead of “How much will I make at the end-point of my venture?”

3)      Reflect and build from the lessons learned from that step. Reality-check is a gift and both positive and negative results give you an opportunity to adapt your aim for the next step.

4)      Repeat until you’ve succeeded, exceeded your acceptable loss, proven yourself it can’t be done or changed your mind.

Back to Rachel, Creaction was exactly her approach. She started with desire. Then, she tried to enrol others to gather resources (money and experience) by focusing her attention on the next step (the launch at Hamley’s Toy Store). She was not as concerned with the long-term plan of her venture, as she understood that trying to become the first competitor of an established brand was an unpredictable scenario. She defined her acceptable loss and built on what she has learned from the dragons and the launch.

As it turns out, Rachel’s product was an outstanding success, debunking “Monopoly” from the top-seller position already in its first year. She has then brought others along by establishing partnerships with Disney and Warner Brothers (a Harry Potter’s version) and has now sold 26 different versions of her game.

The road was not failure-free as she filed bankruptcy during the 2008 crisis, but in every  step she built from what she has learned from reality. Eight years down the road, Rachel has gained the experience of a serial entrepreneur. She knows what works and what she likes. She has saved money and has created successful opportunity-based partnerships. Had she adopted the Predictive model, her reality would have been nothing more than a line on a regret list.

The reason I’m sharing this story here is not to tell you how Generation Y is chosing entrepreneurship as an alternative to meaning inside the traditional workplace, or to explain how rampant youth unemployment (around 1 out of 3 young individuals in Europe) has contributed to the rise of entrepreneurship, or how the resources in the Idea Era have allowed individuals to express their creativity and innovation. You know this already!

Sharing stories about the many Rachel’s in this new world is essential if we’re going through and out the many crisis in our societies. Whether you’re researching about a topic with an endless list of resources (like generations at work) or jumping into 21st century entrepreneurship, your first and foremost challenge is leaning into the discomfort of uncertainty. Those who accept to let go of control and create a space that welcomes chance opportunities will be the global leaders we need so much.

How are you doing on letting go of control?

Generation Y, money and career orientation

Generation Y and education work satisfactionAt a moment when the youngest members of Generation Y graduate from high school, it would be interesting to address a somewhat common complaint about the young population starting their first job experience: “They only think about their salary”.

Far from me to engage in a polemic discussion about the correctness (or not) of this rather unalluring statement. It is my belief that in all generations, we’ll find people adopting this behaviour and its opposite, and any generalization would only fuel controversy. However, I invite you instead to join me in an empathic exercise on the root causes on why this statement is heard so often lately and add some nuance to the debate.

a)      The age effect

By definition, the end of adolescence is a period in which young individuals thrive to obtain both a place in an enlarged social group (by joining a company) and financial autonomy. The reason these goals are sought after is that they embody society’s representation of adulthood: social responsibility and autonomy.

Since this is a period of great confusion about one’s own singular identity and the disruption from the peer group can be sudden, young adults tend to cling to parental representations and projections for their future, while at the same time seeking physical separation from them.

b)      The context effect

It is precisely on these 2 last points where the current context has seen significant changes in the last decades.

From Traditionalists’ to Boomers’ time, though family expectations and social class limited the career choices, the easiness to acquire a job facilitated the expression of natural inclinations. There was a focus on career orientation that was first talent-based and then limited by social status. Back then, house mortgages were reasonable even on sprawling cities and young adults were able to leave their parent’s homes quickly and constitute family.

With the oil crisis and the massive lay-offs, we’ve entered the age of diploma “overbidding” to land a first job. Not long after that, city realstate prices skyrocketed and haven’t stopped since. These 2 factors combined were responsible for a delayed adolescence period and de-nesting process of Generation Y.

At the same period, corporate raiders changed the way the general population viewed the business world: from a community of engaged individuals with a common goal to a profit-based dehumanized structure. The speech given by Boomers and early-Xers parents, teachers and career counselors about the job market became quite different. Concerns about financial stability and social de-classification gave rise to a message of caution: “focus on market needs and on studies that pay well”. Career orientation became first financially driven and then socially driven. Vocation and meaning were to be pursued outside careers.

c)       The generational effect

Pressured by social demands of financial autonomy, most Yers followed this terrible advice and redirected their passion to family, friends and volunteering.

After gaining work experience and attaining the coveted financial independency, many Yers in their early 30s discovered themselves severely dissatisfied with a job or profession that never passed the personal alignment test.

What for previous generations is a cross to bear, for Generation Y it can’t be endured (as they grew up in a social environment in which the meaning of one’s life is determined by the individual). Some turn to psychotherapists and coachs to reconnect with their early passions and prepare meaningful job transitions. Less fortunate ones hop from a job to another in a vain hope of finding one that motivates them without knowing what values drive them in the first place. In either case, the impression they leave with those who stay at the company is one of “mercenaries”.

d)      The eye of the beholder effect

By now, you might have experienced not only the complexity but also the personal tragedy behind the origins of this loosely used statement. Empathizing with other generations is the first step to tackling the challenges of today’s world.

By looking more broadly into our societies and businesses for the kind of people we need and value, by realizing the most sought after professions didn’t exist 5 years ago, I hope that you might have realized that as a society we’ve failed in the meaning of work we’ve transmitted to Generation Y. Had the focus remained on vocation, self-discovery and meaning, the story might have been different.

In the midst of a new world crisis, we (parents, teachers and counselors) have the same question in front of us: “How do we prepare our children for entering the job market and adulthood?”  The way we answer this question will determine the way future generations will find personal fulfillment and put their real talents to the service of society.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we should save our country.” Abraham Lincoln

How do you prepare your children for adulthood?

5 tips to shape you Corporate Social Responsibility program up

Generation Y and Corporate Social ResponsibilityIn my previous post, I’ve proposed to look at CSR programs through a more humanistic approach. Now that I (hope to) have convinced you of its importance and you’ve bust your brain designing your own unique CSR program, it’d be interesting to go through a brief-checklist to turn it into a best-in-class model.

1) Be authentic and leverage it with your assets

There are 2 major differences between corporate philanthropy and an effective CSR program. The first one is that corporate philanthropy is unfortunately rooted in a patronizing circle of win-lose: the business gives a bit to a cause, recovers a bit from the government and a cause gets to make up a bit for government’s social shortcomings, while CSR is about creating win-win growth opportunities. It’s businesses taking in their own hands the responsibility for creating shared added-value in the society. The second major difference is that CSR engages and transforms the business from within in ways that philanthropy can’t: after all, signing a check is just another task on a to-do list.

In order for CSR to be really transformative for the business, it has to be authentic and rely on its assets. By this I mean that whichever impact the company wants to create over the community, the best one certainly is the one that motivated its founder in the first place, daily engages employees and over which the business has built experience over decades. It sounds obvious, but how many CSR initiatives are designed upon opportunistic randomness rather than reflected strategy? In other words, unless you’re Betty Crocker, you have no place in a bake sale fundraiser!

A great example of an authentic and leveraged social program is Home Depot’s “Habitat for Humanity”. The business donates materials and its expertise in their core activity (building materials) while its employees actually build homes for those without one. The end result is not only a positive impact in the community and a stronger customer link, but employee expertise building beyond any training program and a renewed engagement and sense of purpose: win-win!

2) Live it through social media and apps

Every year, 40.000 CSR reports are issued from over 9.000 corporations worldwide.

Most of them are a 40-page pdf file covered with colorful pictures of exotic places and people wearing funny hats, a few testimonies and vague business jargon to please the few shareholders that bother reading them. There’s nothing really distinctive about the way they’re presented: they’re the void politician speech, full of “what I’ve done” and of “what I promise I’ll do”; the latter being more often than not an overly optimistic estimation.

The problem with these reports is that they’re miles away from the reality of the work really done: who were the people on the field, what motivated them, what were the challenges they hadn’t planned for, and how were they overcome, how did they impact the community: then, 1 month after, 2 years after…?

If you really want to create powerful brand connections with all stakeholders and attract Gen Y talent and consumers, your CSR program has to live and breathe, continuously! Or else, despite all your efforts, everyone will just see it at best as a one-off tax advantage, at worst as Hollywood-made green washing campaign.

To achieve a strong CSR recognition, create a dedicated social media space and make a reality-show out of it (Gen Y has grown up with MTV’s shows and they’re unabashed to confess their attraction to these journey-sharing shows). It doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be a full-blown production (as the camera significantly reduces authenticity), just a simple journey diary fed by the participants (amateur on-the-field photos and description of daily minor event should suffice).

The most important is to have it under a format where stakeholders can really live the human dimension on a daily basis, wonder at the evolutions in individual spirituality crossing barriers and cultures, and anticipate on the next steps in making real impact.

If you’re really innovative and wants to connect with Generation Z as well, you’ll take it a step further and create an app just for it (especially if your CSR is in community education on your area of expertise). App culture is still a forming wave, but it will certainly have a huge impact on life for the next 20 years, so you better get on the wave before it gets crowded and you can’t freely surf anymore.

3) Crowd-source improvements to your employees

Effective CSR programs not only impact the community but also increase participants’ commitment.

By all means, have your CSR program designed by those in your company with a unique transversal, strategic view and powerful socio-economic insight. It’s naïve to think that anyone could launch a program that has a real impact in our complex world.

But once the launch phase is over and the champagne bottle has been opened, crowd-source ideas for tweaks and improvements to those who will live it. Don’t allow the excitement of the launch to fade nor limit yourself to the lucky few who will actually participate in the first installments of the program.

Every employee in your organization lives in a community and has therefore inspiring ideas on how the expertise he gains at work can make an impact in the world outside, and which of his unique talent or passion can be mobilized. If you guess for him and focus solely on job contents or the company’s formal IP, it’s very likely you’ll miss the tiny detail that will make him cross from an indifferent state towards a your most energetic ambassador.

Moreover, by allowing employees to bring in their ideas and responding to them, you’ll create a culture of ownership to the profound meaning we each give to our work. This action will most certainly liberate them from the current state of victimization we witness so often in organizations these days.

4) Develop a global talent pool

Social development programs are by far the best training program a 21st century leader could have.

University, regular L&D programs and business schools are outstanding developers of the left-brain. They teach future leaders to analyze, measure and deal with all sorts of “rational”, predictable and detailed information, but they let us hanging when it comes to treating right-brain information: contextualized, implicit, evolving and paradoxical.  As markets become more complex and interconnected, as attention becomes scattered in an informational flood and as Generation Y requests for a higher part of social and emotional elements in governance, we will increasingly need right-brain educational programs that enhance comfort with ambiguity and human irrationality, lateral thinking and improved emotional management. In a very comprehensive video, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains the differences between both sides of the brain.

By immersing employees in an environment of cultural ambiguity and perspective-taking that encourages both creative solution-finding and relationship-building (unencumbered by power struggles), social development programs develop precisely this part of the brain. Not using this platform to invest, test and follow-up on talent would be a seriously missed opportunity to engage your next generation of leaders.

5) Create social joint-ventures

Perhaps the most innovative (and obvious) CSR initiative is the concept of social joint-ventures.

In his HBR article “Why go it alone in community development”, Rio Tinto’s Andrew MacLeod makes the case for a renewed approach to what he calls the “billboard” model of CSR, in which each company supports one individual program. He proposes instead a “grand prix car” approach, in which a cause is supported by different sponsors, each contributing in his own expert way to the success of a venture.

Whereas a “billboard” model might work in communities with a certain amount of infra-structure, when companies decide to expand to developing countries, they’re quite rapidly confronted with complex and strongly intertwined community problems. In such regions, CSR programs that focus only on one aspect of the problem end up broken as soon as the mission is finished. This is the case of educational programs that fail to ignore transport issues or infra-structure/medical programs that underestimate maintenance limitations.

The good news is that in developing countries, the market landscape has a very peculiar structure: for each product or service available, one would often find either a multitude of small competitors or a monopoly. If non-competing market leaders in the same community joined forces instead of trying to go it alone, communities would be better served. If CSR leaders met frequently and combined their expertise in a structured program they would not only increase local productivity and consumption, but they would benefit from greater political influence, provide richer experiences to those participating in the programs and ensure that communities will remain stable even when a player leaves the scene.

What other Corporate Social Responsibility innovative ideas do you have?

The need for Corporate Social Responsibility

Gen Y Corporate Social Responsibility Note: The next 2 articles are a sequel to the 9th force described in my previous post “10 forces changing our workplace: Society” post.

During the last days, I’ve been collecting smart ideas for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.

Over the dozens of articles and newspaper clips I’ve read, I found some interesting and sound approaches. At the same rate, they were overly rational. It’s as if “do good” is not enough, we must envelop humanistic initiatives into arguments about bottom line growth, Gen Y consumer attraction, market economic development, talent attraction, employee engagement, and asset protection from unstable governments. Although I could write several articles on each one of these arguments, I’ve thought it would be better to go back to a basic question: Are corporations people?

1) CSR reminds companies where they came from

In the midst of this rational avalanche, one HBR article by John G. Taft stood out: “Yes, corporations are people”. Behind this apparently naïve tautology lies a powerful reframing: behind every secular global corporation hides the story of an entrepreneur, an innovator and a believer, someone that rejected the limitations of his time to build something new for him and his community.

Taft argues that the ultimate role of every organization is the same of the average human being: to leave a legacy and a better world, not just generate profit. Like every human, in order to thrive in health, an organization must see itself as a member of a community, consider the impact of its actions on others and formulate its mission in terms of serving others.

The problem with this reframing is that, with time and growth, corporations tend forget its own story and values to turn into this allegedly dehumanized entity. At this point, Corporate Social Responsibility becomes essential to remind them of their origins!

2) CSR drives every employee to action and transforms the external and internal landscape

Reading the outraged comments to the article and the rants about the “evilness of corporations”, I became aware of the reverse of the coin: “people are corporations” too. Like it or not, each and every worker in a corporation holds differing degrees of responsibility over the direction their corporation takes.

The problem is that in today’s business world everyone feels like a victim and no accountable individual can be found: from the line worker all the way to the CEO. So the only solution is to create this fictional evil entity, capable of relieving us from our responsibilities. In reality, every day in our hustled routine, each and everyone of us replaces customers for numbers, employees for costs, and colleague’s relations for performance blindness (a 0.01% yearly bonus surplus counting more than the distress of the colleague sitting next to us). And believe me, I’ve been there!

Moreover, in global corporations, there’s a unison helpless speech: “I can’t do anything about it, I’m not here by choice”. What a BS! Everyone, no exception, has made a series of choices in their lives to arrive there and has an infinite amount of choices ahead of them. If you’re unhappy, there’s a world outside big corporations and plenty of people are (increasingly) living in it, while paying their mortgages.

To counter this learned helplessness, Corporation Social Responsibility programs leveraged internally allow employees to have immediate impact and establish a direct connection between the work they do and the community they serve, providing a deeper meaning to their activity.

An interesting side benefit of CSR participation is that it defocalizes the mind from the busyness of work and performance blindness, thus increasing employee personal alignment, improving work relations around him and transforming the organizational landscape (when a sufficient amount of employees participate).

I have a fundamental belief that most people are good and that they urge to make a positive difference in the world. As Generation Y holds a more prominent place in business and society, CSR programs shift from the realm of “nice to have” to “must have”, and this is a natural and sane evolution. In a recent study by Net Impact, we’re able to uncover how central this issue has become:

Generation Y Corporate Social ResponsibilityGeneration Y Corporate Social Responsibility

In my next post, I’ll present 5 innovative ways to shape your current CSR program up.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do you participate in your company’s CSR program?

If so, how satisfied are you and how does it impact your relationships with colleagues?

If not, which improvements need to be made and what role will you play?

Information indigestion and Generation Y (II)

Generation Y Reporting

The reporting indigestion analogy is not accidental. To understand how organizations can better manage information we’ll look in 5 steps at what and how they’re “eating”*:

1) Know what and why you’re measuring and when it’s time to act

The first and most difficult step is letting go. It means accepting that in today’s world it’s impossible to absorb all information available. Instead of ignoring it, organizations should mirror Yer’s behaviour and ask themselves more often “What do we need to know?” “Why do we need it?” and “Does it pay the effort to obtain this info?”

Letting go means reworking your reporting process to a reduced number of KPIs. I’m always astonished to discover organizations working with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of KPIs, whereas the name itself suggests they should be KEY performance indicators.

Once you’ve picked KPIs, does it give you a solid basis for action? Do you know what impact it has when your KPI goes below the threshold (falls below a 85% level for instance) or are you reacting to a top-down incentive? Do you know what you’ve got to do to leverage it above threshold? What’s the price to pay for a corrective action versus a preventive one? If you can’t answer these questions, like in the case of an obscure “customer response rate” KPI, then your KPI is better off in the bin.

2) Does your data tell you a story (concise, coherence and in a trend)

Ok, it’s fun to do a cross-section of every item sold (or produced) in your catalogue by region, customer age, customer sex, salesperson, distribution channel, range, etc. But which story does this tell you? How often do you really need this information? Do you need it in a report or can you generate it to answer a one-time question? Is this a changing information that needs to be observed up close (like in a product launch) or will you get the same figure month after month?

In order for your data to tell a story, it needs to be concise, coherent and generate a trend.

Concise information means that anything could be bundled into 5 or 6 categories maximum. Everything that’s below 5% of anything should be “Others” (just like in polling results). Once one element of “Others” floats above 5%, a new category is created. Conversely, if your “Others” represents 25% of something, then you’re not measuring anything.

Coherent means management should get 2 A4s maximum of graphs and charts that are connected to tell a story of how the organization is evolving. Add to that a one-pager with qualitative data, ideally selected from customer and front-line employees testimonies. From that story, it should be clear where the trends are.

3) Deep-dive trends outside your regular reporting process

To deep-dive a trend, you must know what would be a relevant time span. How further back must you look in order to turn past-oriented information into safe future-projections? In which range of possible outcomes does my estimation sit? How long into the future? Is this a projection that’s helpful and worth the effort? What are the assumptions and the hard data in this trend? From which point can I say my estimation becomes “guesstimation”?

Those are not easy questions to answer for most cases, so it makes no sense measuring them into regular reports. Only when it becomes important to focus on a KPI should managers incur in trend analysis.

4) Automate reports that are official obligations

SAPs shouldn’t be used to generate monthly strategic reports. Instead, they should produce automated reports to cover financial and legal obligations.

It’s daunting to see how many organizations have polluted their systems with unstructured information to a point they’re unable to generate automatic reports on key financial figures. The “cheapest” and most common solution is to hire an army of accountants to pass around home-made Excel sheets in mind-numbing number crunching and to copy figures around to serve headquarters’ fanciful requests.

The problem is that there’s nothing cheap about it: mistakes are made, sources are lost and most importantly those employees leave disappointed with the lack of meaning they obtain from their job (forcing newcomers to rebuild their own Excel sheets).

If it’s an official obligation, hire an external consultant to adapt your SAP to respond to it and consolidate global figures in HQ at the push of a button. This is certainly a short-term investment that pays off for a long term substantial (and often invisible) cost.

5) Periodically look at the ecosystem and use the data as a basis for dialogue

As reports become concise and coherent, it won’t be long before management notices they’ll need new information. Resist the urge to “add” and instead “replace”. What don’t I need to know at this frequency anymore? What could become a quarterly or annual indicator?

By having a short management report, managers will spend less time in meetings going through non-actionable data and more time discussing strategic decisions and how the reports can evolve with the direction of the company. They could also use this time to conduct specific deep-dive studies on trends. Conversely, the longer the report and variety of sources, the higher are the risks of option paralysis and poor decision making (based on awkward data integration and biased interpretation).

To the employees that were producing those reports (mostly Yers), there are also many benefits. First, they’ll spend more time participating in value-adding activities and less time stressing about collecting meaningless data in short delays. The ownership and engagement in the work delivered will increase along with the recognition for their inputs. Since the report will change more frequently, managers will engage with them more often to discuss new directions, clearly share new strategies, obtain feedback from the field on feasibility and provide much appreciated mentoring on business administration.

Generation Y Data Process

Managing data in a productive manner is not a side question, it’s a priority item. Transforming a heavy administrative machine into a lean and nimble start-up is more a matter of will than organizational size. The key to achieving this is to break the vicious cycle by moving the scale from “Doing things right” to “Doing the right things”.

Once an organization focuses on doing more of the right things, innovation and commitment follow. Psychologist Barry Schwartz reminds us in the following video that “even the wisest and most well-meaning people will give up if they have to swim against the current in the organizations in which they work”, the same way Tom did in the previous post. How many Toms are you willing to lose?

 

How’s your company managing data?

* The five steps are inspired in a couple of HBR articles by Ron Ashkenas: “Do You Need All that Data” and “Managing the Information Avalanche”

How’s your company managing data?

Information indigestion and Generation Y (I)

We’ve all heard about Generation Y’s unprecedented skills in navigating through large amounts of information, combining virtual and live sources, and filtering against publicity.

Thousands of studies and parents will confirm how cable TV has taught Yers to flip through 500 channels faster than most people can absorb an image, how excessive advertisement has rendered them disinterested and how videogames have rewired their brain. Though there are tons of interesting consequences to this overexposure (on the positive and negative side), I’d like to share with you today the subtlest one: the link between organizational data indigestion and Yers’ engagement levels. To do so, let me illustrate it with the Tom’s story.

Tom is an energetic Yer and brilliant financial analyst, with a diploma from an Ivy League university. After a 2-year experience in another company, he joins a multinational organization and reports directly to the Business Unit Director. In very little time, his manager discovers Tom’s skills in cutting through large amounts of data and setting strategic priorities. He then asks Tom to head the BU’s reporting cycle (an activity responsible for 10% of his time).

Tom supports the idea, as participating in the reporting cycle would naturally feed him with enough information to play a big role in the yearly strategic planning. In the first months, Tom runs through a few frustrations running the cycle: the quality of input from his colleagues was below acceptable level and needed to be reworked, there was little alignment between BU and global reports, large amounts of data were merely copies from a report to another with very little automation, several KPIs were outdated or had an unclear calculation method, and output delays were often shorter than input’s due to constant calendar changes.

On the bright side, collecting and analyzing with patience this large amount of information allowed him to significantly improve strategic input and budget planning, which set his BU from the underperforming to an over-performing status the following year.

During his first and second year, Tom was passionate about this challenging part of his job. He explained to colleagues the importance of their contribution and trained the less-analytical ones on precise reporting, he renegotiated reporting calendar, he explained the strategic importance of KPI reduction and revision, automation of data collection and reporting alignment, both inside his market but also in direct contact with headquarters.

Despite his creative efforts, within 2 or 3 months after each boost, Tom would find himself with the same problems. Each month, headquarters pushed reporting revision down the priority list. When the economic crisis arrived, instead of decreasing, the number of reports increased (each company leader creating his own template in a technocratic effort to justify lower revenues).

The reporting days of each month became stress-filled and during those nights Tom would rarely sleep. He became increasingly aggressive towards his non-compliant colleagues and headquarters started to avoid him. He was tired of the continuous fight and felt conflicted between his will to do the right things and his organization’s sole focus on completing the task. Moreover, he didn’t see the meaning behind the company’s thousands of monthly man-hours spent in producing a reporting booklet several inches thick (filled with disconnected data that no one read). He expressed to his manager his discomfort with this intense micromanaging effort: a “we don’t trust you” message the board was sending to all employees.

10% of his job became the source of 90% of his stress. One fine day, Tom handed in his resignation.

Tom’s story is not uncommon these days.

The traditional “command and conquer” management style required that information be readily shared with the higher parts of the pyramid and until a couple of decades ago, this approach made perfect sense! We lived in a business environment where speed of information translated into speed to market and speed to market was all that mattered in a zero-sum environment.

During the last decade, ERP, SAP and other acronyms became a real fad. They were specifically developed to produce any imaginable data about supply and demand, cross-analyzed into dozens of criteria. After a 2-year installation project, information could become exponentially available and rigidly aligned.

At first, management was inebriated: they could categorize, sort and put everything into context. However, as data reached the threshold of their capability to consume it and market trends evolved, the organizations started to experience indigestion.

This indigestion we’re experiencing globally can be translated in 2 levels:

On a first level, it creates a parallel organization within the organization, one that doesn’t add any value. It’s a heavy machine (operated by thousands of employees) that regularly produces summaries, reports and summaries of reports, and multiplies managers’ meetings to present and consolidate data.  This reporting cycle reduces the ability to react rather than increase it, because by the time the past-oriented data is fully understood it’s often too late to take action.

On a second level, it reduces engagement throughout the organization (and most significantly at entry-level positions held by Yers, that don’t see the benefit of the time spent in it). Just like in Tom’s story, reduced engagement breeds office aggression, lack of ownership, reporting errors and ultimately in high turnover rates. In turn, reporting errors cause managers to spend more time in meetings consolidating figures, which account for an increase in burn-out cases and a reinforced obsession for reporting precision. The figure below summarizes this frustrating vicious cycle.

Generation Y reportingBreaking the cycle is not an easy nor cheap task (but then again, neither was the installation of that all-mighty SAP you have now nor the fortune you spend every month on generating those reports). It is however vital for a company’s improvement of working relations and ultimate survival.

In my next post, I’ll go over some of the main steps in digesting all this information while keeping everyone in your company happy, healthy and engaged. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your ideas on the subject.

How would you turn this information indigestion into a happy meal?

Charlie, Max and Harry: 3 unexpected generational heroes

Children literature (and cinema) is a very subtle art-form. The most powerful books of the genre are the ones that can only be read in wholeheartedness because they connect us to deep, pure and indescribable emotions: emotions unencumbered by the complexities of society and our mental programs.

The talent of a great children novelist (like Andersen, Saint-Exupéry, Carroll, Disney, Collodi, Sendak, Grimm, La Fontaine and Rowling) lies in their ability to transform the confusion of our times into fine lessons with which children can identify. Though the narrative can take paradoxical, nonsense, dark, or even gruesome tones, the end result is a powerful emotional insight that values children uniqueness while welcoming and approaching them to the world of adults. While the world of former is somewhat timeless and unbounded by cultural differences, the latter’s intensely determined by time and culture.

For that reason, it’s not surprising to find amongst big stories a generational bias.


Charlie Bucket and the Corporate Ladder:

Baby Boomers

Cover to first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Published in 1964 by Roald Dahl and inspired in his experience of chocolate companies in his schooldays, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is the quintessential description of the Baby Boomer generation.

Boomer Charlie grows up in an overcrowded house, in an overcrowded world. Though extremely poor, he remains hopeful in a better future. In an immense stroke of luck, he obtains a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (a golden ticket), but luck is certainly not enough to guarantee success in his world. The golden ticket is just the entrance to a contest in which Charlie must win over the competition by remaining faithful to his character and obedient to the imposed rules (and the contract he signs). Conversely, the naughty children will be severely punished and, for their misdeeds, will remain deformed to everyone’s eyes. If he succeeds, Charlie will be rewarded with an unknown prize.

Charlie’s relations with the Traditionalist authority figures and social immobility are quite surprising in today’s world. He defers great respect towards his uncles and aunts and turns to them for guidance in figuring out the social conventions that rule his life. He understands the handicap of his social status and is willing to be twice as vigilant and well-behaved in order to access greater spheres. Most of all, Charlie believes in character and that previous generations know what’s best for him: all he has to do is “pay his dues” and society will give him back, and at the end explain him what he has done right.

Max and the Wild Emotional World:

Generation X

Maurice Sendak’s original illustration

Published in 1963 by recently deceased Maurice Sendak and beautifully turned into a movie by Spike Jonze in 2009, “Where the wild things are” tells a very different story from Dahl’s novel.

Gen X Max lives in a lonely and wild world in which emotions are difficult to control and understand. He connects to the rebel within him and is punished not physically, but with the psychological parenting that was gaining popularity then: he’s sent to his room to figure out for himself the consequences of his misdeeds. Once there, he lets his creativity fly him to a world of scary figures and scary rules, but in which he manages to be crowned king. He gains respect from the wild things because he “stares longer” and discovers the possibility of leading those “above him” through dialogue and personalized attention (this part is only present in the movie). At the end, Max returns home to a better-managed emotional state and to the discovery of the unconditional love of his mother.

Max is the portrait of a generation of “latchkey kids” that have had the challenge of defining their own path.  Because they rebel against authority figures, Xers are in a quest of finding their own leadership: a leadership that is profoundly linked to the right expression and balance of their own conflicting emotions (the wild things within them).

Harry and the School of Unhelpful Adults:

Generation Y Harry Potter

Original poster to “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

It’s hard to talk about J.K. Rowlings “Harry Potter” saga without thinking about Generation Y. There are so many connections that a book could easily be filled on the subject.

Gen Y Harry Potter is an orphan that is constantly reminded of his immense potential for change and how great he already is (“stars for everyone” culture). Ostracized by his uncles, that themselves behave as children, he sees in a specialized, independent education the opportunity to fulfill his unique destiny and entrusts a respected institution to develop his personal magic.

Much to his surprise, Harry quickly realizes that the institution itself is unequipped to provide him with the keys to fight the immediate threats around him: teachers are immersed in their egos and neurosis, important class programs are often changing direction (“protection against dark magic”) and gatekeepers are there to ensure the rules are respected no matter what (janitor and Dolores Umbridge).

Fortunately, Gen Y Harry believes in his smartness, resourcefulness, courage and ability to lead peers with complementary skills. Though the structure invites to competition between “houses”, he believes in the power of collaboration is unashamed to join the competition to accomplish small projects. Individualized mentoring and coaching (by Dumbledore) is also recognized as an important learning tool: the challenges and main elements of the framework are shared and explained first-hand, after which Harry determines his autonomy during execution. Together, those elements make the most important source of development: peer-to-peer, hands-on learning matters more than theoretical and top-down lectures.

Harry does not hold an overt position of authority defiance. His relationship with authority is determined by mutual respect and quite often the boundaries are blurred by transfer/counter-transfer processes (Dumbledore and Molly Weasley). Authority figures that do not deserve respect are fought off insistently or bypassed without culpability.

He’s however vocal in demanding for change and challenging the rules when they’re inappropriate, when extenuating consequences apply or when out-of-the-box thinking is required to solve a complex problem. Once the best strategy is decided in a peer group, he holds a clear position of “break the rules first, ask questions later”, a common characteristic of Yers individual expression.

Which other parallels can you draw between children stories and generational behaviour?

Top 5 Leadership X-Factors

Experiment made by NYU on Gen X’s self perception
http://wagner.nyu.edu/leadership/news/MultigenerationalLeadership0509.php

In the HBR article “The Leaders we need now”, generational expert Tammy Erickson proposes a deeper look into some of the changes in work relations brought to light by Generation’s X refusal of an outdated management model and invites us to consider 5 Xers’ competencies that will help them lead organizations into the future.

Before we understand what changes Generation X brought about, we must describe the organizational model of Traditionalists’ and Boomers’ time. Boomers’ formative years were filled with hope for the future, belief in stability and desire to win. Winning in Boomer’s terms meant attaining success recognized by society and winning over the competition. This desire allowed them to build (or climb) immense pyramidal hierarchies all the way to the top, not without their blood, sweat and tears.

Leadership in those major corporations meant running a tight ship through a “command and control”, “divide and conquer” management model. The role of the leader was to control performance, set direction and provide the answers. The competencies most sought after for promotions were experience coupled with business-relevant knowledge (significant career changes were rare back then), vision, discretion, decisiveness and command.

As they grew into middle management positions, Xers started applying a different model inside their own sphere of power.

First, through their pragmatic result-focus, Xers started to prefer a meritocracy model over seniority for employee promotion. Then, to support their family centric values they’ve humanized work relations and designed the first work-life balance programs. Inspired by a proclivity of leadership literature, they’ve flattened organizations, encouraged project-based teams, destroyed interdepartmental walls and transformed cubicles into open spaces for collaborative work.

Alone those feats are impressive, but the most impressive part is that Gen X was able to bring about them without holding C-suite positions or a demographic leverage. What allowed them to sell those changes to Boomers was their focus on results and belief in a humanized organizational model.

In order to face tomorrow’s challenges, there are 5 leadership attitudes that Gen X can bring to the table:

1) Increase collaborative capacity

Xers are outstanding networkers. They’re the ones with books filled with business cards and often start their morning by shaking colleagues’ hands and making happy birthday phone calls. The experience of being “latchkey kids” has thought them the importance of friends for companionship and support.

As opposed to Boomers’ ideas of safeguarding intelligence, Xers truly believe that intelligence should be mobilized and shared to foster innovation. As they were digital migrants early in their careers, we can be sure they’ll support the adoption of newer communication tools for as long as they support the development of effective networks.

2) Ask compelling questions

Xers’ scepticism and ability to isolate practical truths and discern trends early on are important catalysts of change.

In the 2020 workplace, Xers will help direct Yers’ energy and their tendency to dispersion into focused, action-driven solutions. Xers’ main competencies are those of great business coaches: questioning basic assumptions, reframing challenges in ways that are intriguing and memorable, posing questions that are ambitious and novel and encouraging personal autonomy and accountability.

3) Shape corporate identity

The biggest problem with our businesses is that we’re living in a meaning-less era.

The primary reason Generation Y job hops is because meaning does not come by in every corner of our businesses. Thanks to their deep belief in collaborative work, family values and their ability to ask compelling questions, Xers are in the best position to lead organizations into common objectives that are both ambitious and rich with meaning.

4) Embrace complexity and welcome disruptive information

While Boomers believed the boss had all the answers, Xers mistrust of institutions has helped them develop a certain wariness that anticipates a future full of change. The result is an acceptance of ambiguity, an inclination towards alternatives and back-up plans and a certainty that there are no bulletproof solutions.

Although Xers and Yers share this same skill, the way this competency is translated in each case is significantly different. The world as Yers know it has always been immersed in constant, ever-increasing change and therefore they welcome, encourage and demand organizational transformation. Their requests can be however incoherent and unfounded sometimes, based more on an individual need than a business imperative.

Xers on the other hand have experienced profound disruptive social changes. They’ve seen a world of “then” and “now” and their adaptation is rather a survival skill than an unquenchable thirst. Xers are therefore more apt to embrace complexity and disruption while keeping a constant eye on long-term vision and common objectives. More importantly, because they share this skill with Yers, they’re more apt (than Boomers) to teach and persuade Yers to sticking with the old ways when they’re proven effective.

5) Appreciate diversity

The complex interconnected world of today requires leaders open to diversity. More than tolerating, not offending nor harassing those with different perspectives, our organizations need everyone’s points of views, contributions and personal experiences in order to arrive at a full understanding of complex issues and connect profoundly with the 7 billion unique individuals they serve today.

Xers logical and realistic approach to life has taught them there’s no reason any one viewpoint should be given special significance over another. As opposed to Boomers zero-sum game and Yers all-or-nothing world, they provide organizations with a much needed lesson on flexibility and cultural openness.

 

As Boomers retire, the air is filled with anticipation of what will happen in the tug-of-war of our organizations: Will Generation X be finally recognized for their competencies and take up the reins? Or will Generation Y with their resourcefulness, their outspoken nature and their high self-esteem jump ahead in the chain of command? The question is interesting and understandably engaging for each individual involved. At the same time, it’s the wrong question!

It’s the wrong question because it works within the paradigm of the organizations built by the previous generations. The key factors of professional success in today’s world are leadership, connectivity and collaboration and they are not the product of a title, but of an attitude. Whether in the board rooms or energizing the open space, the leaders we need are a combination of the flawless execution of the Xers with the idealistic creativity of the Yers.

What other leadership skills we must all learn from Generation X?