Saturday, September 24, 2011

5 Tips For Becoming A Better Leader

Earlier this week I reviewed the book Designing for Growth, by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie. In it, they propose that today's business professional, whether entrepreneur or seasoned corporate manager, needs to be become a designer of sorts, irrespective of their daily function. It's not a new idea, since design thinking has become mainstream over the past few years.

I liked how the authors made their case that the traditional business approach to a problem is profoundly different than a design approach: imagine two student teams—one composed of MBAs and the other of design students—tackling the challenge of how a consumer products firm should think about and respond to changes in the retail world over the next decade. How would they approach the problem?

The MBAs would most likely do a sweep of published data and analyses by industry experts, perhaps interview them, and benchmark leading retailers and competitors. They'd then extrapolate, produce forecasts, present a set of strategies, including financial pro forma spreadsheets, and deliver the whole thing in a PowerPoint presentation.

The design students would take a different approach. Analytical reports would be a part of their investigation as well, but they would use the reports to develop multiple scenarios of possible future states. They'd go out into the real world and start observing and talking to the real experts: customers. They'd focus on human needs, develop sketches of different customer profiles, called "archetypes" or "personas," and use the scenarios to craft storylines and model changes in the lives of these various profiles. They might conduct a brainstorm around "the store of the future." In the end, they wouldn't issue strategies or solutions in a PowerPoint, but rather mock up a few concepts to be quickly prototyped. Those concepts would be tested with real people in an effort to learn and get feedback.

The authors follow up their assertion by pointing out that "...professional managers tend to follow a set of maxims that simplify their professional lives. Sayings like 'keep your boss in the loop' and 'it's sometimes better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission' are good examples. Unfortunately, some of the old, reliable tenets don't work anymore. Here are six common management myths..."

Myth 1: Don't ask a question you don't know the answer to

This one is borrowed from trial lawyers, and it traveled into mainstream business because it always seems career-enhancing to look smart. Unfortunately, growth opportunities do not yield easily to leading questions and preconceived solutions.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Start in the unknown.

Myth 2: Think big

There is always pressure to be sure an opportunity is big enough, but most big solutions begin small and build momentum. How seriously would you have taken eBay or PayPal? To seize growth opportunities, it is better to start small and find a deep, underlying human need to connect with.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Focus on meeting genuine human needs.

Myth 3: If the idea is good, then the money will follow

Managers often look at unfunded ideas with disdain, confident that if the idea were good it would have attracted money on its own merits. The truth about ideas is that we don't know if they are good; only customers know that. Gmail sounds absurd: free e-mail in exchange for letting a software bot read your personal messages and serve ads tailored to your apparent interests. Who would have put money behind that? The answer, of course, is Google.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Provide seed funding to the right people and problems, and the the growth will follow.

Myth 4: Measure twice, cut once

This one works fine in an operations setting, but when it comes to creating an as-yet-unseen future, there isn't much to measure. And spending time trying to measure the unmeasurable offers temporary comfort, but does little to reduce risk.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Place small bets fast.

Myth 5: Be bold and decisive

In the past, business cultures were dominated by competition metaphors (sports and war being the most popular). During the 1980s and 1990s, mergers and acquisitions lent themselves to conquest language. Organic growth, by contrast, requires a lot of nurturing, intuition and a tolerance for uncertainty.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Explore multiple options.

Myth 6: Sell your solution

When you are trying to create the future, it is difficult to know when you have it right. It is fine to be skeptical of your solutions, but be absolutely certain you have focused on a worthy problem. You'll iterate your way to a workable solution in due time.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Choose a worthwhile customer problem. Let others validate.

These six new maxims will not simplify your life. They will make it more difficult. And that's a good thing!

Thanks to Karen-Michelle Mirko / Open Forum / American Express Company


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