Behind the website at Zappos

I recently had the opportunity to go with a client to visit Zappos and see its well publicized culture up close on a tour of their new headquarters in Las Vegas.

It was pretty cool to see a branded culture in action. They are explicit and direct about who they are and why, and they celebrate it in many ways.  The design of the space they share, the way in which they communicate, and the services they provide to employees all speak to the idea of living their core values.  Interestingly, every one of the employees with whom we spoke referenced the core values, but even more, they demonstrated them in the way they answered questions. That’s what it looks and feels like when values are embedded in everything you do – it isn’t a recitation, it is an embodyment.

We had a good debrief from the tour as well. My client is almost 100 years old, and in a fairly serious business.  As one person said, when the worst thing you can do is sell someone the wrong sized shoes, it is OK to be a little irreverent and edgy in your culture. But when the worst thing you can do is leave someone living in poverty at the end of their life, you probably need a branded culture that is a little more serious.  I think she was exactly right. The take-away from Zappos isn’t that everyone should have a wacky and fun culture, it is that there is power in having a well articulated and understood culture – that it gives your people and your customers a deeper understanding of your commitments and your brand promise.

What happens then?  You move product more effectively, and stand out in a commoditized market as having something unique and valuable.


Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth….

I recently referenced the famous D. D. Eisenhower quote on planning with a group of clients: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – to me, the relevant point in a strategy planning session is that people need to be present, engage in the conversation, and build connections to people in the room. Because the most beautiful artifact from the meeting will be close to meaningless once they walk out the door and are faced with the real world.

One of the clients in the meeting offered up a Mike Tyson quote – upon being asked by a reporter about his plan for an upcoming fight, he reportedly said “everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”  or something like that….

It is truly a great point – the best plans go out the window once things get very real. The metaphorical punch in the mouth comes in all sorts of ways in business – a budget cut, a key resource leaving, an unhappy client, a non-functioning government that changes regulations and requirements on a political whim – you name it, people deal with it in business every day.  So all the planning work that goes into delivering products and services to internal and external customers is still at the mercy of that punch to the mouth that causes everyone to react and move.

How well you deal with that as a leader, as a leadership team, and as a company is what is really important – more so than the beautiful roadmap you’ve all created. I’d suggest that back to Eisenhower’s point, the process of planning together builds the ties that bind that help you through all sorts of twists and turns, including getting punched in the face.  What happens then?  You are able to stay consistent and steady on direction while adjusting to the new reality.

What’s the value of a CIO?

The role of the CIO continues to be debated – operational? strategic? digital? data? innovative? keeping the lights on?  It is a mish-mash of expectations, skill sets, and desired outcomes.  These days it seems like CIOs are expected to do everything from keeping the lights on for the operations of the business to creating the next new innovation to be competitive and differentiated in the market.  This comes in part from the fact that it wasn’t very long ago that having what we now consider to be operational was actually innovative and differentiated.  The ERP systems of the 90s that companies actually told their customers about because it was SO COOL are now expected to be a part of how you run your business – they are table stakes. So CIOs who made their mark implementing those systems are now saddled with keeping them running in the face of rapid changes in technology, business expectations, customer expectations, and product support.

But one thing remains true – a C-suite level role is generally about a component of the business that is a strategic asset or a strategic differentiator. CIOs became popular in the 1980s and 1990s – prior to that, few companies had a C-level role focused on technology. Did you know that prior to 1990, the majority of companies did not have a CIO role defined?  So it is a young role, just hitting adolescence as a fixture in an organization. And we all know that’s an awkward time of life – full of strange things happening, changes, and growth.  What’s your thought on the role of the CIO in your organization? It is conflicted today?

The WSJ recently had an interesting article on the topic of the CIO, check it out for some good perspective.

Who do you think was the first CIO of a major US corporation, and when was the role assigned?  An interesting little research project.

Transformation? I’m not sure that means what you think it means.

Lately it seems like everything is “transforming” (when it isn’t being “disrupted”).  There’s transformative change, transformation of businesses, and a need to transform or “have a transformation”.  It often sounds very glamorous and exciting. It is also often described to me as being something being done for other people.  As in “the only way we can transform our business is if everyone (else) starts doing things differently.”  It is rare that someone says to me “we have to transform our business and that means I have to start doing things differently.”

That’s where I have a problem. For me, transformative change means that I feel three very conflicting emotions, and they materialize in my stomach (so I guess I could go on a “transformation diet” hmm…)

  1. I feel excitement that gives me butterflies in my stomach
  2. I feel anxiety that makes my stomach do flip flops
  3. I feel a sense of loss that is gut wrenching

If any one of those is missing, it is usually not what I would call transformative. It might be a big change, but it isn’t rocking my world. I have to be willing to own getting myself right with all three of those emotions to step out of my comfort zone and start to do thing differently, and to help the people around me to do thing differently.

Maybe that’s not everyone’s definition, but that’s what I mean when I say I’m working on transformation, and I challenge my clients to think in those terms. I get that it isn’t easy – especially the 3rd one. But transformation should be hard – otherwise it isn’t that big of a deal, right?

At the intersection of Creativity and Management

Somewhere in the world today there are ‘creative types’ chafing under the burden of management processes, who just want time and space to ‘do their thing’. Just down the virtual or real hallway from them is a ‘management type’ who is drowning in frustration with them because of a missed deadline, a failure to follow process, or a need to create a status report on progress that is not following the plan.

These archetypes populate many an article, TED Talk, or best seller on innovation – the thing so many companies say they want, and that so few companies truly foster. As I wrote about earlier this year, many companies say they want creativity, but they have really no interest in the messiness that it brings. They want the neat and tidy version of innovation, which rarely produces groundbreaking results. The yin and the yang of corporate life in the internet economy – freedom or bureaucracy, it is a dualism that cannot be resolved.

And yet, I think that creatives and management types are actually quite co-dependent. In today’s market, we need people who can comfortably move between the two, interpreting, guiding, and providing enough structure to validate budgets and enough freedom to encourage broad thinking. The best companies are seeing a convergence of technology, marketing, and management as they develop new products. This convergence creates a space where people who can conceptualize beautiful things, leverage new media to render their concepts, and by the way know their way around a project plan are the new rock stars – the triple threats as it were.

Take a look around you. Are you recruiting and retaining triple threats? Or are you starving them by forcing them to ‘choose a discipline’? People coming into the job market today aren’t likely to be satisfied with being one or the other. Roles need to be shaped and management processes rethought to create the space for these individuals to thrive. And yes, the creatives need to learn a few new skills themselves. That’s what convergence means – everyone moves.

If you have someone who is a triple threat, figure out how to grow them in all ways. If you are a triple threat, first congratulations, and second, don’t settle for being compartmentalized. You are the first of your kind, and you will have to fight to grow and to establish a place in the new economy.

Think your employees are engaged? You are probably wrong. And likely you aren’t very engaged yourself.

Back in August I published a link to a Gallup poll on employee engagement that had some pretty miserable results.  Out of 150,000 workers surveyed, 52% were ‘disengaged’, and 18% were ‘actively disengaged’. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?  What about you? Are you engaged in your work?  I heard a CEO recently refer to work as the ‘horrific concession’ we all eventually make, when we concede that the majority of our waking hours will be spent at work.  His goal is to make that time as fulfilling as possible for people.  The Gallup poll would indicate that he has a big mountain to climb (aside: he seems to be doing it – his company is one of the best to work for by almost all measures).

A friend recently brough to my attention an article in Fast Company by Mark C. Crowley where he takes a closer look at the results. It is worth a read, as he recounts his interview with a Gallup researcher who monitors employee engagement in the US.  More recently, also in Fast Company, Ian Clough talks about ways to turn the tide. He gives a few good places to start:

  1. Make it personal: Leaders need to connect directly, as human beings, in a sincere and motivating way.
  2. Employees make the difference: Employees have to be involved in planning, delivery, and follow up – they must have a place at the table for engagement to take hold.
  3. Find an anchor and plant it: Find something that connects people to the very fiber of the organization and make sure they all ‘get it’.
  4. When going global, don’t go overboard: Be culturally aware, but don’t feel compelled to tweak everything that you do for every country you touch – there is value in consistency in messages and format.
  5. Measure consistently: Find the things that matter most and measure them periodically.

I would add to measure qualitatively as well as quantiatively, but that of course is my bias as a qualitative researcher.  I would also avoid the allure of measuring to much too often, because you will run the risk of squelching engagement by over-monitoring.

Both articles are worth a read, have a look and see for yourself.

Commoditizing knowledge and expertise

Here’s a great article by Jessie Hempel from Fortune Magazine on the ways in which information fuels our economy today, and going forward.  It ties to my interest in the future of work and how knowledge is playing a role in shaping what we understand to be work. Tools like Watson (highlighted in the article) will challenge the assumptions around knowledge workers, and what it means to be an ‘expert’ by creating new ways to quickly aggregate and understand massive amounts of data in a specific and contextual way.  What happens then?  We will find out….. companies like the grocery chain Kroger’s (highlighted in the article) are experimenting with how to leverage Watson in their call centers.  It will be fascinating to watch and see what happens.