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Opinion Editorials

The secret to a high-performance culture

(EDITORIAL) The secret to high-performance culture has nothing to do with having beer in the fridge at work. Let’s discuss…

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goals

Good to great

I can’t believe it’s been more than fifteen years since Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great was released. I liked that book a lot, and I wasn’t the only one. It was a perennial best-seller and lauded as one of the best business culture books around.

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The seven characteristics of great companies (level 5 leadership, the hedgehog concept, etc.) seemed like a great guide for all of us.

But is it really helping us to become great?

I’m not encouraged by the fact that two of the “great” case studies are now either out of business (Circuit City) or in some deep trouble (Wells Fargo).

In Collins’ defense, he never promised those companies they would always be great.

Either way, can we honestly say that the wisdom in this book has helped a significant number of today’s companies make the leap from good to great? I assume there are some out there, but I think if it were a significant trend, it would be more obvious to all of us.

This is frustrating

We were promised some research-based insights that were going to lead our organizations to greatness.

Yet when we tried to implement that, we generally ended up with organizations that continued to plod along the same trajectory they were on before.

We made some improvements, for sure, but we failed to create truly high-performance cultures.

And I think I know why.

The body of research behind books like Good to Great is certainly well intended, and I do believe it can generate some insights that could genuinely help you improve your company, but it misses one of the most important truths I’ve discovered about culture in my two decades of consulting with organizations:

all great cultures start on the inside—not with the external ideas.

The external ideas do matter, and studying great organizations can teach us a lot, but the work of culture is always going to be about building and growing, not copying.

Define your culture

And that means you can’t make your culture better until you know what it is. You can’t create a Jim-Collins-approved culture that excels at confronting the brutal facts, for example, until you know how your people already experience your culture when it comes to things like speaking the truth, sharing information across department lines, articulating strategic imperatives, and even letting people be their whole selves at work.

Are the two related?

These cultural themes may seem disconnected from your quest to move from good to great, but simply declaring to your people that you want your new culture to be brutally honest—when they are already uncomfortable sharing even a little bit of their personal identity in the workplace, or they already notice that people refuse to say anything controversial when a leader is in the room—is going to be a huge disconnect.

Your people already know what your culture is.

They experience it every day. And when you set out to create a new awesome culture that is fundamentally disconnected from their experience, then the change will not make sense to them, and you will see resistance.

I am told frequently that it is natural for people to resist change, but I don’t believe that’s entirely true.

People don’t resist change—they resist change that doesn’t make sense to them.

Where you are, not where you want to be

So if you want to make the leap from good to great and create a high-performance culture, you won’t get very far unless you design that effort with your current culture as the starting point. Here’s what that looks like.

I worked recently with a small nonprofit that was doing good work, but had become a little slow.

They were creating important products and services that advanced their mission, but they were bringing them to market just a little too late.

To solve that problem, they started by digging into their current culture. We worked together to map out 64 distinct culture building blocks within 8 culture markers—measuring things like agility, growth, inclusion, transparency and innovation.

This wasn’t about evaluating their culture as good or bad (which is what most culture assessments do, benchmark you against some abstract model).

Instead, this work focused on accurately describing their current state. It placed each culture building block on a continuum, ranging from traditionalist, to contemporary, to futurist. In other words, how close are they to traditional management practices, versus the “future of work” leadership and management practices that cutting-edge companies are inventing today.

Transparency

When they saw the scan of their workplace culture, they noticed something interesting in the data. Several of the building blocks related to transparency were outliers, scoring closer to the traditional end of the spectrum compared to the rest of their culture.

In other words, their people felt like the quantity of information being shared internally was limited, particularly when it had to cross silo lines (in traditionalist cultures, information is guarded, and silos focus internally first).

But if you’re thinking to yourself that the solution for this group is obviously to become more futurist and start sharing more information in order to get faster, then you’re falling into that same, benchmark-based, good-to-great trap that we’ve all been falling into for the last twenty years.

And they knew that they actually did a great job sharing information – that was a cultural value for them that had historical significance.

So what was this data telling them?

Decision-making

The culture scan had also uncovered an internal pattern around decision-making that connected to their transparency scores. In their historical desire to not withhold information from each other, they had developed a pattern of including many different people and groups in the organization in just about every decision that was made.

And with more people included in the decision-making process, it is inevitable that some of them felt like they didn’t have enough information (hence the traditional-leaning scores).

But the problem wasn’t a lack of information—the problem was in their ability to move quickly on decisions with so many cooks in the kitchen, each of whom was asking for more and more information about issues that were probably not central to their work in the first place. As they uncovered these insights, they developed a clear new priority for their culture:

Everyone has a voice, but not everyone decides.

They started to map out decisions using the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed), in order to clarify decision-making roles internally. For some people, that meant they were getting LESS information.

If they were only being “consulted” on the decision, they would probably hear about it more toward the end of the process.

Those in the “informed” role wouldn’t hear about it until after the decision had been made.

In this case, the association was able to unlock speed NOT by putting more information into everyone’s hands, but by putting less out there but in the right hands.

And streamlining the decision-making process so everyone had clarity about why they were being included or not included.

Chase what you want

They are now well on their way to a faster, high-performance culture, but they are doing it on their own terms, and incorporating the historical/traditional values that still matter to them. They are getting strong buy-in internally because the cultural shift (a) ties directly to how their people already experience their culture, and (b) helps them meet member needs better.

This story is just one aspect of their current culture shift, of course, and they have more work to do before we could call this a good-to-great leap.

But by tying their efforts to a more nuanced understanding of their existing culture, and in some cases even moving in the opposite direction from what the management experts cite as “best practices,” they are moving towards a high-performance culture customized to what drives their success – not anyone else’s.

#GoodToGreat

Maddie Grant is author of Humanize and When Millennials Take Over, and is Founding Partner at WorkXO, a culture startup that helps forward thinking leaders in growth oriented organizations activate their workplace culture to attract the right talent, increase engagement, and unleash human potential through the Workplace Genome™ Project.

Opinion Editorials

Improve UX design by tracking your users’ eye movements

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Research shows that the fastest way to determine user behavior and predict their response is by watching their eyesight. Use this data to improve your UX design.

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UX design being created by a designer on a laptop.

By design, an ice cream truck is meant to entice. It is colorful, stupidly loud with two whole songs from the 30s (usually off key because no one is left alive who can service those bells), and lots of colorful stickers that depict delicious frozen treats that look nothing like reality. If you need an off model Disney character that already looks a little melted even when frozen, look no further.

This is design in action – the use of clever techniques to drive engagement. Brightly colored decor and the Pavlovian association of hearing The Sting in chirpy little ding dings is all working together to encourage sales and interaction.

These principles work in all industries, and the tech sector has devoted entire teams, agencies, companies, groups, and departments to the study of User Experience (UX) explicitly to help create slick, usable applications and websites that are immediately understandable by users. Tools to improve utility exist by measuring user behavior, with style guides and accepted theories preached and sang and TED-talked all over.

The best way to check behavior is to observe it directly, and options to check where someone clicks has proven invaluable in determining how to improve layouts and designs. These applications are able to draw a heat map that shows intensified red color in areas where clicks congregate the most. An evolution of this concept is to watch eyesight itself, allowing developers a quicker avenue to determining where a user will most likely go. Arguably the shortest path between predicting response, this is one of the holy grails of behavioral measurement. If your eyes can be tracked, your cursor is likely to follow.

UX design can benefit greatly from this research as this article shows. Here’s some highlights:

Techwyse completed a case study that shows conversion on landing pages is improved with clear call-to-action elements. Users will focus on objects that stand out based on position, size, bright colors, or exaggerated fonts. If these design choices are placed on a static, non-interactive component, a business will lose a customer’s interest quickly, as their click is meant with no response. This quickly leads to confusion or abandonment. Finding where a person is immediately drawn to means you should capitalize on that particular piece with executable code. Want it boiled down? Grocery stores put Cheetos front and center, because everyone want them thangs.

Going along with this, Moz found that search results with attractive elements – pictures and video – are given much more attention than simple text. We are visually inclined creatures, and should never undervalue that part of our primal minds. Adding some visual flair will bring attention, which in turn can be leveraged usefully to guide users.

Here’s an interesting study – being that we are social animals, follow the gaze of others. If you’ve ever seen kittens watching a game of ping pong, they are in sync and drawn to the action. Similarly, if we notice someone look to the left, we instinctively want to look left as well. While this sounds very specific, the idea is simple – visual cues can be optimized to direct users where to focus.

The Nielsen Group says we look at things in an F pattern. I just think that’s funny, or at least a funny way to describe it. We follow from left-to-right (just like we read, and as websites are laid out using techniques first developed for newspapers, it naturally makes sense that we’d do the same). Of course, cultural or national differences arise here – right-to-left readers need the opposite. Always be sure to keep your target audience in mind.

Of course, there are several other findings and studies that can further promote idealistic layout and design, and it should always be the goal of designers to look to the future and evaluate trends. (Interestingly, eye tracking is the first option on this list!)

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Opinion Editorials

Easy ways to help an unhappy customer

(EDITORIAL) We’ve all had to deal with an unhappy client or two, and maybe some situations didn’t play out too well. Here are some simple tips that will help.

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unhappy client

Who here hasn’t had a client get aggravated for what seems like no good reason?

(Raise your hand!)

Who here hasn’t had that awkward “I hear what you’re saying, but…” conversation?

(More hands!)

Whether you’re providing marketing work, strategic planning services, graphic design ideas, or basic business advice, you’re going to run into the occasional client who Just. Is. Not. Here. For. It. And it can be so hard to help that unhappy client get back to a place where you can all come together to get the job done.

(Hands! Hands! Hands!)

Especially in this day and age of angry emoji reaction clicks, dealing with confrontational feedback can require a new level of diplomacy and tact. You’ve got an unhappy client who doesn’t have the ability to communicate their “why” to you, so instead, they go nuclear and your inbox is suddenly filled with the kind of unhappy vitriol you’re more used to seeing in your Facebook feed.

How do you handle it?

Because… you can actually handle it.

First and foremost, understand where the negative reaction is coming from. They’ve asked you for help with their cherished project. Maybe they wouldn’t be happy with anyone’s work. Maybe they can’t quite communicate what they want. Regardless of where the sticking point is, understand that the sticking point is (a) not your fault and (b) not going to be acknowledged by them.

So then, the second step… remove yourself from the criticism. Even if they make it personal, remove yourself from the situation. Look at it in terms of the work. The client wants X. You feel you have given them X, but they see it as Y. Can you see it from their perspective? Because if you can, you are way more than halfway there. Where are they coming from?

If this is an external review, on Google or such, just ignore it and move on. It’s done. You can’t argue it. But if it’s feedback you’re getting from a current client and your project is still in play… seriously, take a deep breath and give it a harder look. It might feel personal. But is it?

The best assumption to make is that there is something else going on. If you can keep your cool and work with your unhappy client to determine what’s making them uncomfortable, in a non-confrontational way, and to get them to an acceptable delivery — you’ve won. Because you’re continuing to provide them the service they’ve come to you for.

So take a look at the situation, and figure out the best response.

1. Is the argument clear?
Don’t waste your time trying to establish whether you’re right or they’re wrong. Instead, look at framing it in terms of what the client is trying to accomplish. Ask them to give you specific examples of what they hope to achieve. Allow them to tell you what they feel isn’t good… in fact, encourage them to tell you why they’re unhappy with what you’ve given them. All of this will help frame what they’re looking for and what you need to give them in round two.

2. Is their feedback relevant?
Well, yeah. There are times when you know that your client knows nothing. But they feel the need to demonstrate that They Know What They Are Doing.

Let them.

Just let them tell you, and let it go.

And… keep searching for that nugget of truth in what they’re saying. Their feedback may seem ridiculous. But what’s at the heart of it? Look for that. Look at this negative reaction as a signpost for what they’re truly after.

3. IS IT WORTH DEBATING?
This fits right in with number 2. They feel passionately that you need two spaces after every period. Is this something you really need to argue? CHOOSE. YOUR. BATTLES.

If your client really wants to engage on an issue … two spaces, or the use of a particular phrase … then let them say their piece. Then say your piece. But giving them room for an out. And once again, think about it from their perspective.

Maybe it’s someone who didn’t spend all their time in their first post-college job debating the niceties of the Oxford comma. Does it ultimately matter to the overall success of the project? If it does… go to the mat. Show them, with respect, why it’s important. But if it’s just a point of pride for you, the provider? Can you let it go?

I can’t sometimes. So I get it if you can’t. But still, it’s a good point to keep in mind. A good question to ask yourself, as a provider of a service. Which sword do you fall on… and why?

Clearly, you shouldn’t just roll over because a client has turned nasty. But neither should you turn every unhappy client response into your personal cause du jour. When you encounter negative, hostile client reactions, take a moment. Try to see it from their point of view. At the very least, the shift in perspective will help you handle their concerns. And at best, you’ll re-frame the discussion in a way that gives you both a handle on how to move forward.

You might learn from the exchange. Or maybe you’re just right, dammit. But you still have to think about what’s worth getting worked up over.

Finally, don’t let it bring you down. If it’s serious enough that you have to part ways over their reaction, help them do so amicably. Point them in the direction of someone you think might be able to accommodate their ideas. Stay positive for them, and for yourself. Then chalk it up to experience, and take the lessons on to the next client.

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Opinion Editorials

This website is like Pinterest for WFH desk setups

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) If you’ve been working from home at the same, unchanged desk setup, it may be time for an upgrade. My Desk Tour has the inspiration you need.

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Man browsing desk setups on My Desk Tour

Whether you’re sitting, standing, or reclining your way through the pandemic, you’re most likely doing it from home these days. You’re also probably contending with an uninspired desk configuration hastily cobbled together in 2020, which—while understandable—might be bringing you down. Fortunately, there’s an easy, personable solution to spark your creativity: My Desk Tour.

My Desk Tour is a small website started by Jonathan Cai. On this site, you will find pictures of unique and highly customized desk setups; these desk configurations range from being optimized for gamers to coders to audiophiles, so there’s arguably something for everyone—even if you’re just swinging by to drool for a bit.

Cai also implements a feature in which site users can tag products seen in desk photos with direct links to Amazon so you don’t have to poke around the Internet for an hour in search of an obscure mouse pad. This is something Cai initially encountered on Reddit and, after receiving guidance from various subreddits on the issue of which mouse to purchase, he found the inspiration to create My Desk Tour.

The service itself is pretty light—the landing page consists of a few desk setup photos and a rotating carousel of featured configurations—but it has great potential to grow into a desk-focused social experience of sorts.

It’s also a great place to drop in on if you’re missing the extra level of adoration for your desk space that a truly great setup invokes. Since most people who have been working from home since the spring didn’t receive a ton of advance notice, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks have resigned themselves to a boring or inefficient desk configuration. With a bit of inspiration from My Desk Tour, that can change overnight.

Of course, some of the desk options featured on the site are a bit over the top. One configuration boasts dual ultra-wide monitors stacked atop each other, and another shows off a monitor flanked by additional vertical monitors—presumably for the sake of coding. If you’re scrambling to stay employed, such a setup might be egregious.

If you’re just looking for a new way to orient your workspace for the next few months, though, My Desk Tour is worth a visit.

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