Business Transformation Weekly Digest: December 11, 2015

As I create these digests, I keep seeing business transformation basically being described as a move to the cloud and mobile. I like that this article from Gulf News Technology reminds us that moving to cloud is just replacing one technology with another. True business transformation has to include people and business process changes to reap the full benefits.  A lightweight article but a good reminder:

Driving Business Transformation Through Cloud Services

 

Don Tennant at IT Business Edge discusses the need for reducing legacy investment and starting to spend money “stepping up” to modern technologies with João Baptista, president of Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe operations at CGI, Montreal, Canada.

Saving IT Budgets from the Legacy Quagmire

CGI’s research and whitepaper “Keeping Up versus Stepping Up” can be found here:  Keeping Up versus Stepping Up

 

BuiltIn Austin offers ten bold predictions for what digital transformation will mean over the next five years.

Leading Digital Business Transformation in 2016

 

An article in this week’s Harvard Business Review about how to help people open up when talking to you really caught my eye. If part of your business transformation is to encourage honest, transparent communication, an important part of that is how to influence people to want to do that. Non-verbal cues can help the people you are talking with open up or shut down.

Nonverbal Cues

 

My offering this week addresses the tendency to jump in and just do it. While a lot of up-front planning may be counter-productive (no plan survives contact with reality), some up-front planning can save you a lot of grief. I address specifically Agile transformations, but the same mindset applies to any business transformation.

Don’t start a transformation by hiring coaches

Why starting an Agile Transformation by hiring Agile Coaches is a Bad Idea

I see so many Agile transformations go like this.

“We want to be Agile. Put out an ad for Scrum coaches (or XP coaches)!”

The next thing is that a bunch of coaches are brought in from many different places, each with their own ideas, and they start working with teams. The result is generally chaos, confusion, fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

As time goes on, issues get worked out, teams show they are doing Scrum (or XP), and the coaches move on to the next engagement. Then the teams start backsliding, returning to how they worked before the Agile coaches arrived.

Why?

To bring about lasting change in an organization requires far more than coaching individuals and teams. While needing to know a new skill is important, it is only one factor in bringing about change, and it is the weakest way to influence change.  This is not where a business transformation should start.

To enact real change requires you to start with a clear, measurable, compelling goal. Without this, there is no purpose to coaching since we do not know what we are coaching toward. Note that “We are implementing Agile” is not clear, measurable, or compelling.

Consider WHY you want to make a change. What do you expect becoming Agile will do for your company? How will employees’ lives be better after the change? Why will this be better for your customers?  Good marketers know that the most powerful question to answer is WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). Everyone impacted by your change needs to know what is in it for them personally. This is how you make your goal compelling.

Now that you have your goal, what are the things today that are preventing you from being where you want to be?  To answer this question, it can be helpful to consider an influencer framework.

There are many influencers of behavior at any company. The team at VitalSmarts described 6 categories of influencers in their book “Influencer” by Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler. Start with the 6 categories and find what things in each category are preventing you from achieving your goal.

These categories are:

  • Personal motivation – what is motivating individuals to not make change.
  • Personal ability – what skills are they lacking that they need in order to make change
  • Social motivation – what is their community saying that opposes the change
  • Social ability – what assistance is lacking in the community that someone needs in order to change
  • Structural motivation – how are we rewarding people for staying with the old way of doing things (metrics, money, praise, promotions)
  • Structural ability – how are the physical space, business structures, and business processes preventing people from making change

I think there is another category to consider as well, and that is what behaviors are the managers and executives modeling? People watch successful people and copy them. If the managers and executives are acting opposite to the new way of being, it will be hard to get anyone to change. People will do what you do much more than they will do what you say. Actions do speak louder than words.

Social influence is by far the strongest influencer and should be addressed long before coaching of individuals and teams is considered. Who are the people that others look up to? How can you convince them to champion the change to Agile? Besides talking, what programs can you set up, set as peer mentoring, an Agile community, or a Scrum Master guild that will show people that their social community supports the change?

Structural influence is also much stronger than individual skill or motivation. Many in the Agile community are aware of the importance of physical space to Agile adoption. But if the business processes, metrics, and rewards are for behavior counter to Agile, then coaching individuals and teams in Scrum and XP practices is a waste of time and money. Change of the cultural and physical environment must come before considering bringing in coaches for the teams.

Executives have tremendous power to influence change and so helping executives model the desired behavioral changes will have a strong impact on an individual’s willingness to change.

Now executives are not going to be doing XP practices, and probably not most of the Scrum practices. But what they can do is model fundamental behaviors that Agile depends on such as honest and transparent communication, using failure to learn (instead of punish), working collaboratively with their peers, and recognizing that they do not have to be right all the time, they need to know how to quickly correct their course when wrong.

Modeling these behaviors sends a powerful message to the organization that everyone should behave the same.  While training is good, reinforcement with executive coaching on these leadership skills will help executives maintain the new behaviors.

With all that in place, most individuals and teams will quickly pick up the basics of Scrum, XP, or other Agile practices. You can send them to outside classes or offer training inside your company.  There will likely be a need for some team coaching for a month or so to support the team as they begin applying the new practices.

As more teams take the training and adopt the practices, the need for Scrum or XP coaches goes away. What you need after that are not generic Scrum or XP coaches but rather experts in the specific areas where teams are struggling.

Are teams having trouble forming? You need an expert on team formation to come in for a short engagement to find out what they are missing and point them on the right path. Teams do not understand pairing? Find someone with extensive experience using pairing in their work and bring them in for a short engagement to find out the problem and help the teams overcome it. Having trouble with retrospectives (this is common over time)? Bring in someone who has many years experience perfecting the art of the retrospective to help the teams learn new and better ways to conduct them.

You do not need long term “Agile” coaches. You need to use the 6+1 areas of influence to create a culture where behaving in an Agile manner is the most natural thing to do. You need people to be good at coaching each other.  Then, as teams grow in knowledge and experience with Agile, you may need targeted coaching by experts to help teams with specific issues.

If you are finding a need for a lot of Scrum or XP coaches over many years, look at the 6+1 areas of influence and find out what you are putting in the way that is preventing your teams from maintaining the Agile practices they learned.

Business Transformation Weekly Digest: December 5, 2015

Telling your story in your marketplace is really important for finding and engaging with your customers. The ideas in this article apply just as much to telling a story internally about your business transformation. A compelling story will get people excited and motivated about the changes you bring to your company.  Read this article and think about how you could use the ideas to market inside your own company to promote your initiatives:

Storytelling in Business: Lessons for Brands of All Sizes

 

This article from Knowledge Path reminds us that we have to look inside our own company to find opportunities for improvement. Instead of just maintaining the status quo, we should have processes in place for continuous improvement.

Business Transformation: Questioning the Status Quo for Positive Change

 

Another little gem from IT Pro Portal summarizes a recent survey of IT frontline workers around the world conducted by BPI Network. It points out the problems with business transformations and offers some tips for a successful process. The article includes a link to the original paper.

What’s Holding up the Transformation?

 

An article at Enterprise Irregulars summarizes a variety of research done by other companies that paints a pretty dismal picture of what business leaders think of the CIO and IT.  It clearly shows that CIOs (in general) have done a poor job building trusting relationships with their business counterparts and a poor job delivering business value. Food for thought:

What do Business People Think of their CIO?

 

My own offering this week concerns what makes a great leader of an empowered organization.

If it is not Command and Control, What Does the Executive Do?

 

Finally, some papers you can review in your “spare time”.  Cisco and IMD released the “Digital Vortex” report earlier this year, investigating “How Digital Disruption Is Redefining Industries”. If you have not looked through it yet, pick up a copy here:

Digital Vortex

After reading that, you might peruse the other 3 related documents they released in November:

Disruptor and Disrupted Strategy in the Digital Vortex

Competing in the Digital Vortex: Value Vampires and Value Vacancies

New Paths to Customer Value: Disruptive Business Models in the Digital Vortex

 

Business Transformation Bonus Digest: December 1, 2015

There have been so many good business transformation articles lately! And I missed sending out a digest on November 20. So this week I’m giving you a bonus digest to enjoy.

In this interview on ZDNet, David Bray and Corina DuBois share what they have learned about being successful change agents. I particularly liked this tip:

“Build consensus by listening to the narrative, build trust and reduce fear with consistent communication, and articulate a vision of the future that others will support and around which they will rally.”

Tips for Change Agents

 

Information Age has a thought-provoking article about challenges faced by Financial Services and Insurance Providers (FSP) when trying to support a more digital economy.  In particular, the author points out the difficulties of an Agile contracting model in a regulated environment and suggests the possibility of ‘contractualised Agile’ as an in-between model (a middle ground between working out the requirements as you go and determining all the requirements up front).

How FSPs can become true digital creatures

 

Forbes offers a look inside the IT transformation at BDP International which was done to support a larger digital transformation of the company.  The 6 tips include:  Run IT like a software shop, become an early adopter of new technologies, work with colleagues and customers as a true business leader, be fast and flexible, bring in new skills and talent to create a continuous learning environment, and engage with the broader community.

6 IT Transformation moves for a successful digital transformation

 

The blog Radius1 reminds executives that we cannot transform our organizations with our old thought patterns, which for executives generally means to be sure you are always right. To transform our organizations, we have to transform how we ourselves think and approach problem solving. We have to change from always being right, to being open-minded to finding out what is actually going on and eliciting input from others throughout the organization.

Meta Transformation – Change Your Thinking!

 

Finally this article from CIO.com minds us to avoid bimodal thinking when it comes to IT. Bimodal IT is where you split IT – one part does traditional IT and the other part does innovation. While this may fix some short term problems, there are many perils down this path.

Think multi-threaded not bimodal

If it is not Command and Control, What Does the Executive Do?

I had the good fortune recently to spend some time with a VP I know who is currently working for a very large company. This is someone I think is very effective – his organization runs well, his people are empowered and love working for him, and he is not spending all his time fighting fires. He has built 2 such organizations at his current company and was just assigned a new one. His previous organizations continue to run well without him (which is one of his personal tests for whether or not he has done a good job).

I really like, admire, and respect this VP (he is my role model for an executive) so I asked, “What do you do? How do you make all this work?” He was happy to share his thoughts with me. What follows combines things he told me and things I have observed over the years I have known him.

When I start with a new organization, I do not hit the ground running, ripping everything apart and rebuilding it. Rather, I wait at least 90 days until I am sure I understand what is going on before making any change. Often, I think I know early on what the needs are, but as I spend more time with people, I find my knowledge grows deeper. I often change my mind as to the best approach before the 90 days have passed.

I also spend time learning what my leader really wants. How can I personally support his or her goals? What does my organization need to do to support those goals?

The best use of my time is to keep an eye on 3 years out. I should not be involved in the day-to-day business. My directors should be working on the 1-3 year period. The front line managers should be looking at the next 1-13 months. The project managers and their teams worry about the day-to-day.  I have to trust my teams to do the job. I do not sweat the details.

I set the vision, strategy, and rules of engagement, then let my teams run. The know they can come to me any time with problems they cannot solve themselves. But they also know I expect them to solve the problems they can solve. I need to leverage relationships, influence, and my position to remove barriers for my teams so they can do what they need to do.

My job is to shake hands and kiss babies, to build those relationships with other executives. I also have to tell compelling stories. Statistics and reports are not compelling stories, people are. What are the people stories that will inspire and motivate my organization? Stories about us yes, but more importantly stories about our customers, the people we serve. If we do our jobs well, what will their lives look like in 3 years or even further out? What is that future we are looking toward?

I walk the floor at least an hour a week to give people the opportunity to reach out to me in a less formal manner. This is not to look over their shoulder, but rather to provide an opportunity for them to share with me whatever they want me to hear. I cannot rely on statistics; I need to spend time with the people behind the numbers. It is important that I really listen and provide a psychologically safe environment so they can share. It is about building trust with the people who work for me.

I look out for my people and they know it. I have put myself at risk to move the executives working for me to other organizations to build their careers. When they transition to a new area, I continue to meet with them one-on-one until they are really transitioned. I work with their new manager to share with him or her how I think these people need to develop.

If I do things right, if my teams are truly empowered, I work my way out of a job. The organization should be able to perform at a high level without me.

So what does this look like from below?  What is work like for people supporting such an executive?

Throughout the organization, everyone always know the goal and purpose of the organization. Communication through all levels of the organization is frequent and clear.  People are comfortable asking for clarification when they do not understand.

Doing something wrong is not bad. Continuing to do it wrong is bad. Failure is an opportunity for growth, and those who do not take that opportunity will be moved somewhere else.

Decisions are made close to the action. The person with the most knowledge is the person making the decision. People are not waiting for permission but doing what needs to be done to support the goal and purpose.

People working in this organization know they are expected to grow and learn.  There is no place to hide and get comfortable until you retire. Some people do not like that and move elsewhere.

People at all levels of this organization are comfortable proposing ways to work better or more efficiently. The person with the idea is generally the one tasked to try it out and report on the results.

Managers at all levels are expected to actively help their people develop professionally. This is part of how managers are rewarded.

Executives working for this VP know that he will pull them out of a fire, get them special opportunities, and always be available to lend an ear. He really works hard to help the people working for him progress in their careers.

By describing a clear purpose, encouraging and rewarding mastery, and granting a large degree of autonomy, in return this VP gets an empowered organization of enthusiastic and dedicated employees, and a tribe of executives who support him.

If you liked this article, you might also like this recent article in the Harvard Business Review:  What Amazing Bosses Do

Business Transformation Weekly Digest: November 29, 2015

An article this week in the Harvard Business Review discussed what is a great company culture. If you want to transform your company, you have to know where you are going, and being able to define the culture you want is a great place to start.  The author suggests that a company with a great culture maximizes good motives for working and minimizes bad motives for working. Good motives are play, purpose, and potential. Bad motives are emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

How company culture shapes employee motivation

 

From The Economist I learned about the changing corporate culture in South Korea. The leaders of the big corporations are finding that their younger employees are not interested in the traditional Korean corporate culture, so to retain that talent, companies are relaxing their demands on employees’ time. It will not happen overnight, but change is necessary.

Loosening Their Ties

 

This intriguing article from the blog Innovation Enterprise suggests how the CFO can be deeply involved in a business transformation effort.  Thought provoking ideas here.

CFO Role in business change and transformation

 

Is “Facebook at Work” the way to go for better workplace collaboration? The BBC explores this topic.

Online chatting at work gets thumbs up from bosses

 

Finally, my latest article reminds us that if we are going to do a business transformation we should have a goal in mind.  If you do not know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?

Before making the plan, describe where you are going

Before Making the Plan, Describe Where You Are Going

All too often I am asked to help with a business change or transformation after it has started and is not going well. In almost all cases, a major reason it is not going well is no one described where they wanted to go, or if they did the destination was poorly defined.

These are not well-defined destinations:

  • “We want to be a more effective organization.”
  • “We want to be Agile.”
  • “We want to be collaborative with our customers.”
  • “We want to provide world-class support.”
  • “We want to be a Lean Startup kind of company.”
  • “We think we should be communicating better.”
  • “We are going to roll-out Scrum to the whole organization.”

In fact all of these statements are solutions for some perceived problem that is not described. Since we do not know what the problem is, we do not know if any of these is the right solution, nor will we know if the problem is solved.

I always ask WHY. Why do we want to do these things? What problem are we trying to solve? What challenge are we facing? What result will we get if we apply that solution?

Here are some examples of concrete problem descriptions that will allow us to determine a well-defined destination.

  • Our cycle time from proposed change to release is 6 months but the average in our industry is 3 months. We are losing business and our research suggests it is because we are often too late to market.
  • Our product sales are steadily decreasing compared to competitors. Feedback from our customers is that they find our product to be harder to use than similar products.
  • Our markets change quickly. We need decisions at least quarterly (monthly would be better) about product direction, but our leadership team takes 6-12 months to make a decision.
  • We are getting a lot of feedback on social media that our support team members are often not solving the customer’s problems.

Can you see that with a good description of the problem or challenge that describing a destination becomes much easier?

Once we have a clear description of the problem, we want to describe relatively short term goals. What can you do this quarter or by the end of the year? This will allow us to get feedback on whether or not the solution is working, and allows us to change the approach if it is not (or we discover the solution is not sustainable over the long term).

  • In 12 months we will reduce our cycle time from proposed change to release to a maximum of 5 months. Though it is infeasible to reduce the cycle time for everyone to less than that in a 12 month period, we will find one product where reducing the cycle time is likely to improve sales, and we will reduce the cycle time for that product to 3 months.
  • In 3 months we will release a new version of our product that fixes the top 3 usability problems.
  • We will select a product that is particularly market sensitive and work with the leadership team to get decisions quarterly throughout the coming fiscal year.
  • Every month in the coming fiscal year we will provide a solution to the current number 1 problem customer support has been unable to solve. By the end of the year we will have solutions to the top 12 problems. Either they are no longer problems or we have trained our support team members in how to solve them.

With a clear description of the problem or challenge, and a clear description of the destination, we have a way to measure if we got the results we were looking for. We still have to work out how to get from problem to destination, but once we know where we are going we can find a way to get there.

In order to get to a solution, we often have to do deeper analysis of the problem. This is because the problem that we see comes from some place in a overall process that may be quite large.  What part (or parts) of that larger process is causing the problem?

Let’s take the example of the cycle time from proposed change to release. Many people will assume it must be the implementation team that is not efficient. We can hire some coaches and teach them more efficient practices and that will solve the problem. But will it really?

We need to take a deeper look at the whole process. The implementation team is just one part of it. Is the problem convincing someone to fund the change? Is it how long it takes the delivery team to implement a solution? Is the problem how long it takes to release the solution once it has been implemented? Is there a quality issue?

This deeper analysis of the problem is very important or we risk applying the wrong solution. We waste time and money and still the problem is not solved.

At one company where I consulted in the past, my client had just this problem – the cycle time from proposed change to release was far longer than their industry average. They brought me in to help the delivery teams work more efficiently in order to reduce the cycle time.

I did some investigating and found that the delivery teams were already working very efficiently. The problem was in two other places. The first problem was that once a change was proposed, it took many months to get it approved and funded. That part of the process took as long as implementing the solution!  The second problem was that to release the change took many months. That part of the cycle was also as long as implementing the solution. The whole focus of the process improvement work had to change, and the nature of the solution had to change.

(If you are wondering what happened … changing the release process was a long, difficult effort because there were a lot of things causing the release process to be long, each of which had to change. It was done over a period of years and the overall cycle time was reduced a lot. Changing the funding process was not even addressed until the Board of Directors fired the CEO and there was a big shake up at the top of the company.  It was actually a pretty easy process to fix once there were people who wanted to fix it, and was done in a couple of months. And fixing that process had a much larger positive impact on the efficiency of the whole company.)

In conclusion: To be able to measure the effectiveness of a solution, we have to first clearly describe the problem we are trying to solve, then describe what things will be like when the problem is solved (the destination). We then do some deeper analysis to determine the actual source of the problem, and propose a solution to try. We apply the solution in a small way and measure to see if it is moving us toward our destination in a manner that is sustainable and able to be applied on a larger scale. If the answer is yes, we expand the solution to a larger part of the organization, and again measure the results. If the answer is no, we can try a different solution to see if it works better. We can also review our analysis to be sure we are solving the right problem.

Business Transformation Weekly Digest: November 13, 2015

The BBC this week explores what having a manager like Steve Jobs can do to the workforce. This is important to think about if you want an empowered engaged organization.   Could your behaviors as a leader be preventing the very culture you are trying to achieve?

“So does being rude, ruthless and self-absorbed give you an advantage when it comes to getting ahead in business? Quite the reverse, according to Professor Christine Porath, at the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University. She says uncivil behaviour from bosses and colleagues affects sickness rate and mental health, stifles creativity and above all affects staff retention. None of which reflects well on those in charge.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34604387

 

The Economist explores the break up of HP. They point out that HP in the past was the original startup, but now is seen as stodgy and uninteresting to young engineers. And they point out that breaking the company in half does not change that image problem.

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21677635-hps-break-up-will-not-solve-all-its-problems-growing-old-not-together

Does your company or organization have an image problem? What kind of transformation could help change that? Renaming or reorganizing your group is not sufficient.

 

Harvard Business Review gave us three thoughtful articles this week in the areas of leading transformation, building culture, and being a high performing leader – all important parts of a business transformation.

First they explore Marissa Mayer’s recent actions at Yahoo. Ms. Mayer is leading a turnaround at Yahoo and asked for her leadership team to pledge to stay at Yahoo for 3-5 years to effect that transformation.  Some of her leadership team quit. But that is actually a good thing because now she has a leadership team committed to change.

In any transformation it is important for the leadership team to work together. While a pledge is not always needed, it was an effective means in this case for Ms.  Mayer to assure she had a committed team.

https://hbr.org/2015/11/marissa-mayer-was-right-to-ask-executives-to-commit-to-staying-at-yahoo

 

Employee engagement is a clear competitive advantage for a corporation, but how do you create an engaged workforce? One key component is to have a clear, compelling mission that people can rally around. This is especially important as companies grow.

This article has some practical examples of practices companies have used to engage the people who work there in the mission and vision of the company.

https://hbr.org/2015/11/how-upworthy-gets-its-staff-to-bond

 

“Leadership is messy, it is relational, and it happens in millions of interactions every day around real work. … You have to understand the social system you’re working in first.”

Not only do you have to understand the context you are working in, but high performing leaders also have regular ceremonies or routines. Identifying a few key ceremonies (such as one-on-ones or team meetings) and doing them well is a foundational skill for a high performing leader. The article has practical suggestions for how to do this.

https://hbr.org/2015/11/what-separates-high-performing-leaders-from-average-ones

 

My own offering this week encourages us to really look at the people we work with as individual people. If Steve Job’s management style tends to stifle creativity and engagement, what is a different way to work. This article explores some practical approaches to engaging people at work.

http://thefluidapproach.com/wordpress/?p=15

Business Transformation Weekly Digest: November 6, 2015

Malcolm Turnbull, the new Prime Minister of Australia is calling for corporate Australia to develop a more open and flexible culture that embraces change:

“That means organisations need to be much less hierarchical, they cannot be blame-based,” he said. “You have to, as chief executives or senior executives; you’ve got to encourage the people that work for you to challenge you.”

http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/nov/06/malcolm-turnbull-woos-business-call-embrace-rapid-change

 

Though not a new post, this one makes an important distinction between a discrete change and a business transformation and argues we need to treat them differently.

https://hbr.org/2015/01/we-still-dont-know-the-difference-between-change-and-transformation

 

While it starts off suggesting that firing the leader when a transformation fails is a really bad idea, the post closes with 17 action items to minimize the risk that the transformation will fail. Some good advice in here.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terri-wallin/if-something-goes-wrong-f_b_7999166.html

 

Finally my own offering this week which reminds us that if we want to change people’s mindset and approach to work, we have to also change the environment they work in.

http://thefluidapproach.com/wordpress/?p=13

People are People, Not Objects

I was recently reading “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute. Fundamentally, this about the two mindsets we have when interacting with others. We either see the other person as a unique individual or we see them as an object (problem, hinderance, annoyance, etc.). We go back and forth between these two mindsets all day every day, even during the same conversation, and they color the effectiveness of our communications.

I got a personal taste of this when returning home from the business trip where I was reading “Leadership and Self-Deception”. Since I live a 4 hour drive from the San Francisco airport, I had left my car at the airport parking garage for the return trip. When I got to my car, I discovered the battery was dead. I was a little annoyed by the delay, but someone from airport parking authority came right away, jump started my car, and I was on my way.

I got on Highway 280 and headed north to San Francisco. Just after exiting on Highway 1, the heavy traffic slowed to a brief stop and my car died. I was in the middle lane with no power in the car. No flashers, no lights, no starter. I was on a flat spot of the road and could not get the car rolling. There I was completely stuck with heavy traffic all around me.

I called 911 and a kind woman in dispatch took my information and forwarded it to the San Francisco police department. Meanwhile, people all around me were shouting at me and honking, but there was nothing I could do. I was feeling pretty miserable and I was afraid I might be hit by a car trying to go around.

Then a nice gentleman in a car on my left asked if I wanted help pushing the car. I replied that I thought it was probably too dangerous with the traffic. His companion pulled off the road and the gentleman carefully got out, paused traffic, and came to my car. He talked me gently through what to do as he held out his right hand to pause traffic to the right. People actually stopped and let us in!!

The next lane over was an exit to another road, and again a polite hand gesture stopped traffic to let us through. He pushed me past the exit to the right shoulder and said:

“A while back my car died on the Sacramento Bridge in heavy traffic. There was nothing I could do but wait for help. For 2.5 hours I was the most hated man on the bridge. So I had to stop to help you.”

People who were angry with me were treating me as an object, and it was a pretty miserable experience. I was upset and not thinking very well about what to do. The gentleman who stopped to help saw me as a human being in need and it changed my whole day. I still had a problem with the car, but I was able to resolve the issue (and get home) quickly, easily, and in a positive state of mind.

It does feel different to the receiver of your message when you view them as an object or an individual person. When you view them in any way as an object, no matter how kindly, they will tend to resist you and your message. When you view them as a person, unique and special, they will tend to be positive and receptive.

In business, we have to work hard to get over the people are objects mindset. How often do you hear people referred to as resources (you mean like paperclips?) or they are the “offshore group” or the “contractors”, but certainly not people like the employees right here in the room. How often do you refer to the people working for you as “my directs”?  Of course sometimes we need a shorthand way to describe a whole group of people, but if we get into the habit of doing it all the time, we stop seeing the individuals and just think of the group, and the group is usually “them” not “us” or “me”.

Language is a huge indicator of our mindset toward others. Being aware of and changing the language we use when thinking, writing, and speaking is a big step toward seeing others as people.

While reading “Leadership and Self-Deception”, it hit me hard that one of the business situations where we most often treat people as objects is when giving a presentation. The other people are “students”, “employees”, “delegates”, “congregation”, etc., but we are not thinking of each person as a person. They are not people “like us” because we are the “teacher”, “boss”, “expert”, “minister”, and so are in some way “better”. This us-versus-them mindset is treating others as objects. We are less effective at communicating our message when other people feel we are treating them as objects.

Interesting, in 2009 I took a workshop with Edward Tufte on data visualization. During the workshop he mentioned that he hates using PowerPoint. He says the word power describes precisely what happens – the speaker is in a position of power over the others in the room. He does not use presentation software in his workshops; he makes use of posters and other objects to illustrate his points, and he spends a lot of time walking among the people attending the workshop.

Over the past few years, I have worked with a small group of consultants on creating professional training that does not involve someone presenting at the front of the room.  Making the training more interactive is another way to get past the “I am an expert, you are not” mindset that creeps into typical training.

I have been doing something similar with progress reports. Instead of creating a typical report, I create some kind of interactive tool to help people get engaged with the information and make it their own. For example, after interviewing a lot of people on a particular topic, I created a poster that looked like a bunch of sticky notes with statements gleaned from the interviews. Then I invited the leadership team to not only review the suggestions, but cross off the ones they disagreed with and create their own stickies for things they thought were missing. This provided far superior feedback because the leaders were engaged with the information in a way they had never been when reading a report or seeing a PowerPoint presentation.

If you are paying attention, you will see that this article itself is not very personal. As an example, I will rewrite the previous paragraph using names of people instead of referring to them generically.  See how this changes the feel of the information for you.

“I have been doing something similar with progress reports. Instead of creating a typical report, I worked with George to create an interactive tool to help Helen, Mike, Sarah, Jason, and Henry get engaged with the information. After interviewing Mike, Sarah, Jason, Henry, Bob, Joe, Liz, Mary, Susan, and Paul, George and I created a poster with sticky notes that had statements from the interviews. Then I invited Helen, Mike, Sarah, Jason, and Henry to review the suggestions, crossing off those they disagreed with and creating new stickies for information they thought was missing.”

Now instead of a generic “leadership team” reviewing the information, we have Helen, Mike, Sarah, Jason, and Henry reviewing the information. It is easier to see them as people when they have names instead of a generic description.

It is real work to change a mindset from viewing people as people instead of objects. No one is perfect at it. But when we really try to think of the actual people, then not only do we communicate better, we also create a work environment that is a much more pleasant place to be. I think you will find that when you really focus on thinking of the individual people working for you, instead of thinking of them as “my directs” or “my resources”, you will become the kind of leader that everyone wants to work for.