Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Playing Baseball in the Fog and The Power of Feedback

Imagine that you’re at home plate waiting for the pitch to come. First, let me set this scenario up. The fog has come in. You can barely see the pitcher and nothing else beyond that. All you can really see clearly is the pitcher’s arm as it comes out of the fog and hurls a pitch at you. Sometimes you swing and miss; sometimes you don’t swing at all. But, the umpire is silent and won’t tell you which are balls and which are strikes. Every once in a while, you swing with all you’ve got and hit it high into the fog. Silence. Was it caught? Was it a base-hit? Did you knock it out of the park? Just silence. The pitch comes again; you swing again. You just keep swinging over and over.

You’re left wondering where the game stands. What’s the count? What’s the score? Is anyone on base? What inning is it? Is your team leading, tied or behind? Should you bunt? Should you go for a sacrifice fly to right field? Should you stop swinging and hope for a walk? Do you need a grand slam homer?

That’s an organization that doesn’t provide feedback. It’s frustrating. You don’t know where you stand. You don’t know where all those hits went. Did they use your ideas? Did the changes you made in your department make any difference for the organization? Where exactly does the organization stand?

Now, let’s look at another scenario. You’re back at the plate. It’s still foggy. You keep swinging. Every once in a while when you hit the ball, you hear someone shout out: you’re out or base-hit or home run! Sometimes the umpire calls a ball or strike. Otherwise, it’s just silence. The pitch comes again; you swing again. You just keep swinging over and over.

That’s an organization with limited feedback. It’s also frustrating. You only get some infrequent comments but not really enough to get a handle on things. You still don’t really know where you and the organization stand.

Now, let’s look at a real baseball game played in bright sunlight. Every time you come up to the plate, you know exactly where everything stands: the score, players on base, inning, who’s pitching, etc. You know if you're facing that pitcher with the lightning fast ball, the quirky knuckle ball or that dancing curve ball. You know whether you need to bunt, sacrifice, get on base, etc. You don’t have to guess. You can take control of what you need to do. You even know if you need to stay in the dugout and call in a pinch hitter because you aren’t the right person to bat in that situation. In this situation, the batter and everyone in the park knows exactly whether they did their job right. He/she can’t hide it or explain it away.

That’s an organization with good, effective feedback. With good feedback, you need less supervision, and you have to accept greater responsibility for your own actions and results. You can’t get out of it without looking like a complete idiot. This goes back to one of the Nine Critical Leadership Skills: communication. Good leadership requires effective communication, both at the personal and organizational level. Too many companies wait until they’re in crisis before they start giving out information to fire up the team. By then, it’s probably too late. What everyone in the park can now see is the critical mistake someone made in keeping their teams in the fog. That’s the power of feedback in any environment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two types of networks: ideas and action

Andrew Revkin posted a lengthy but quite intriguing commentary from Andrew Hargadon, a University of California, Davis, researcher focused on the roots of innovation. Essentially, Hargadon says that innovation needs to move through two types of networks: ideas networks and action networks. I will admit that I am firmly in the ideas networks realm.

Hargadon notes that an idea has to go through a process of evolution and change. This is the idea network where one collects a variety of ideas and even shares his/her ideas with others to create better ideas. In many organizations, that’s where it stops, right after the brainstorming session. If it doesn’t get pushed into the next network, the idea remains just that – and idea.

This is where action networks kick in. Work gets assigned, supplies are bought, people are hired, products are manufactured, strategies are implemented, etc. In other words, action starts to take place. This is also a different group of people in many organizations or communities.

It is this key transition that makes the difference between idea and reality. When you start thinking of new ideas, start thinking of who is going to be part of your action network. Who will help you make your ideas a reality. It is this second vision that makes good leaders great leaders.