Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: March 2012

Houston, We Have A Problem – Making the problem not a problem

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.  Albert Einstein

As a dedicated Kelleher-ian, I am obviously an advocate for taking action and doing things. And I love solving business problems. But in our eagerness to come up with ideas, possibilities, and innovative solutions when confronted with problems, we must never forget the crucial first step – clearly defining the situation. So, before I bandy about any possible solutions to the problems dumped on my desk, I always begin with a simple question. “What problem are we solving?”

This simple question does a ton of very heavy lifting. It disarms those who are already shooting off tons of ideas before they even understand what they’re looking for. It makes people ask questions, review the back-story, understand the context, and align on the objectives. Anyone tossing out ideas before doing this is rarely successful. And any hope of folks agreeing on a solution is out of the question.

There are lots of reasons it’s critical to define the problem you’re solving:

Alignment is helpful. Asking the question “What problem are we solving?” demands agreement.  Work teams need to define it and agree to it together. This puts everyone on the same page, with the same objectives. And it has the entire team reviewing ideas and possible solutions with the same criteria. Conversely, when team members have differing opinions as to what the problem is, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to agree on solutions.

You reduce opinion and bias. Without a clearly defined and agreed-upon problem, reactions will be purely subjective. “I don’t like that idea”, “that will never work”, “that’s ridiculous”. But when you’re working from a clear problem statement, responses must begin with whether the ideas address the task at hand, vs. whether they’re liked. This is extremely helpful. Subjectivity, naturally, will come into play – which idea is liked best – but only after it’s agreed that the solutions proposed are on-target for the objective.

You get rid of bad assumptions. Similarly, aligning on the problem means you’ve gotten away from assumptions and basic, conventional wisdom. Usually, problems come with lots of built-in assumptions. Often, those assumptions are out-dated, oversimplifications, or simply untrue. So, when defining the real problem you’re solving, you have to attack those assumptions skeptically (I’ve talked about the benefit of skepticism before). This will drive your solutions around the actual problem, not your prejudices or assumptions.

No chasing shiny objects. As I’ve written about before, people can get seduced by chasing “cool” or “wow” and forget their objectives, targets, and goals. This happens often when teams have poorly defined their problem.  But if you’re team has properly and clearly defined the problem, the ideas must lead to solving the problem. The amount of shininess they have is only secondary.

You go beyond treating the symptoms. Sometimes a team will describe their problem merely as a symptom. This would be like a doctor saying your problem was fever, vs. pneumonia. Or you saying that the problem was declining revenue, vs. what is causing this. Obviously, this is not too helpful – and solutions designed for these symptoms won’t like solve the true problem. A properly defined problem successfully goes beyond listing the symptoms and addresses the root cause. This demands that solutions attack the real problem.

How you define your problem is up to you. There are lots of ways to do it – I found 270,000,000 million Google search results from “how to define a problem”. You just have to spend the time doing it. The fact of the matter is, as Einstein alludes to, that the quality of your solutions will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description and clarity of the problem you’re trying to solve.

So what do you think?

Beware of Your Strengths – How your strengths can hurt you as much as your weaknesses

We’ve all said things like “do what you’re good at.” “Go with what you know.” “Leverage your strengths.” And they all make dead-simple, perfect sense – you’re better at doing things you have an aptitude for. You like doing those things better. You’re comfortable doing them. Thus, you are more successful at them. You get promoted, you get big raises, you retire early, you die happy. QED.

And avoiding things that you are weaker at?  Hey, that’s not just smart, that’s a career saver. Steer clear of those things, they’ll only get you into trouble. Showing your weaknesses makes you vulnerable and, well, weaker, right?

Well, I’m here to say that focusing only on your strengths is dangerous, as well. Because people are more likely to get into trouble by misusing their strengths than by stumbling from a weakness.  As counter-intuitive as that sounds, it’s true.

Why do I say that? Well, as Michael Watkins says in “The First 90 Days”, every strength has its attendant pitfall, and the qualities that made you successful in the past can prove to be a weakness in newer roles. Over-relying on a strength can cause you, like an overworked muscle, to get out of balance – causing you to avoid other key aspects of a job or task that are equally important. “Certain skills relied upon too heavily can become weaknesses,” says Center for Creative Leadership expert Sylvester Taylor. “Being overly decisive, for example, can lead to the impression of arrogance.” Or, for example, the strongly articulate leader needs to know when to keep quiet, or risk being seen as a know-it-all or an attention-hog.

So, how do you know when you are over-relying on your strengths?

When they become knee-jerk responses. The problem with this is, your strengths may not necessarily be right or relevant to answer the current problem. For example, an agency creative leader who is a strong TV writer may focus on writing TV commercials to solve a problem, when what is needed is a direct marketing effort. Or, a leader taking on a new team uses his attention to detail and organizational strengths – the traits that got him promoted to this new position – and ends up micro-managing and stifling them. As I’ve posted in the past, don’t assume the results you’ve achieved in the past are projectable to current situations. Instead, always diagnose the real problem you’re solving for and what is needed from you and the team for success. It may require you to leverage different skills than you have before.

When your strengths keep you from trying new things. It’s true, when you know what you’re good at, you do it a lot. And you tend to stay away from things you don’t view as strengths. But the fact is, you naturally won’t be good at anything you’re not doing very much. It becomes a vicious circle – the more you rely on your strengths, the less you do other activities, and the less likely you become to do or try them in the future. While it’s important to know what you are not inherently or innately good at, at the same time it’s important to find ways to be good enough at lots of things you don’t see as strengths. And I’ve said before how important it is to try things and do things. Sometimes you’ll find you’re better at them (and enjoy doing them more) than you ever thought.

When your strength makes you seem arrogant. To you, acting on your strength is a way to solve problems, get stuff done, and be successful. To others, it can make you look like a show-off. Never forget your humility – being good at something doesn’t mean you’re better than others, or that you’re allowed to act superior towards those less adept than you. Stay in tune with yourself and others, regardless of how good you are at things.

When you seem like you’re on auto-pilot. Over-relying on your strengths can get you stuck in a rut. Your response to any problem becomes the same. You, and your team, can become predictable – minimizing creativity, open-mindedness and innovation. Again, stop and think about the problem. And, occasionally, flip your strength on its head – what if you couldn’t use it? What else would you need to try?

So what should you do about your strengths? First of all, recognize that strengths are good – you’ll need them to succeed. But be conscious of them. And rein them in, occasionally. This can be hard to do – you’ll need self awareness and self control. But you’ll find that when you dial back on your overused strength, you’ll give yourself space to step-up your other, under-leveraged ones.

What are your thoughts? Care to share any examples?

The Road From Hopeless to Hopeful – Don’t get caught in the hopelessness cycle

One of my teams was recently faced with a difficult work problem. The team was dealing with a complicated problem, with a difficult timeline, and an expectation of rough-sledding during the client review and approval process. This led to a palpable sense of negativity and a feeling of near-hopelessness among some team members. The situation spurred me to remember a parable related in the famous book “The Art of Possibility” by Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander. The story goes like this:

  • A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. The first scout sends a telegram back to the factory, saying, “Situation hopeless. No one wears shoes.” But the second sends the triumphant message, “Glorious business opportunity. They have no shoes.”

Now, I’m not going to write much about that second scout – the sunny-side-up guy. It’s difficult to expect anyone to approach things quite so optimistically. But the first guy is the one we can learn from. His hopelessness is something we can relate to. When the pattern for success is missing. The situation seems dark, complex and without a map. And nothing anyone can do seems likely to solve it. So you feel stuck, without the mind, the means or the passion to attack it.

So how can we try to be more like that second scout? Here are few approaches:

1) Don’t be ruled by what’s happened in the past
Based on past experience, selling shoes requires people who wear shoes already. However, as mutual funds always warn, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Which is why one of the phrases I hate the most is “we tried that already and it doesn’t work.” Just because it didn’t work before doesn’t mean it won’t, again. And, similarly, just because you’ve done something one way in the past doesn’t mean that another way might not also work, if not work better.

In addition, we must do our best to not get too hung up on how we expect our clients or partners to respond and react. Yes, we’ve all worked with people whose personalities and behaviors play a role in shaping our approaches to problem solving. However, for your own sanity, try not to allow a “they’ll never allow us to try that” or “they always want things a certain way” to prescribe your actions too much. Allow for some ‘possibility’. In a way, try on a bit of the second scout’s enthusiasm – consider that there may be some “glorious opportunity” due to the fact they haven’t done it before!

2) Start with an answer, not necessarily the answer
Sometimes one’s hopelessness is the feeling that the right answer is impossible to arrive at. You’ve come across some good thought-starters, but can’t nail it. You see issues with the ideas you’ve come up with, so you dump them and move on, and on, and on. Or worse, you come up with some good stuff, but you or other team members say you need to wait until you find something that’s great.

Well, maybe the answer is to start with the thought-starters. Instead, look for and use some of the good stuff – don’t worry about what’s “right” or “great” just yet. As I’ve written about before, the good is not the enemy of the great, no matter what anyone tells you. In fact, you’ll most assuredly get to great faster by starting with good, than by doing nothing.

3) Ask for help
My team that was struggling was holed up in a conference room for a couple days. They were proud folks, and they believed their job was to crack the problem themselves. They didn’t want to bother me, or anyone else, until they had solved it. And, I believe, they felt it would have been a failure, or a sign of weakness, to have asked others for help.

This is silly. When you’re stuck, or feeling hopeless, call in for some reinforcements.  First of all, good people are always willing and able to help. And they won’t view the requesters as any less capable for asking.

But, more importantly, there are no problems that can’t be solved without a few smart people in a room, bouncing thoughts around. And there are no solutions that don’t get better with the same approach. So don’t hesitate to put together a tight, efficient work-session with some folks to help you crack your problem.

4) Add fresh people to the mix
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s natural for on-going teams to begin to develop a view of the limits of what’s possible, and establish a “right way” to do things. This can sometimes lead to getting stuck in a rut. It’s important, then, to occasionally add people to teams that can provide broader perspectives and new approaches, not just those that have worked in the past. Cynthia Rabe calls these folks “zero-gravity thinkers”. Think about adding this spice judiciously to your team, especially when you hear “Situation hopeless”.

What do you think? Any other advice for the hopeless? And should we all try to be more like the second shoe marketer?

The Age of the “Kordell Stewart” Employee – Why being a “Slash” is the key today


I recently took a new job at a Media agency. I’d spent my career at “creative” agencies. Been an account guy for more years than I’ll own up to. So, what do I bring my new employers? Hybridization.

That’s right, I’m a “hybrid employee”. I have varied and diverse skills. I know a lot about many different things. And I don’t bring to the party traditional, and vertical, skills that normally would have filled my role. I’m a “Slash”. Without the throwing, kicking and running skills, of course (fyi, we’re not talking about the guitarist for Guns n’ Roses).

Truth is, I believe I was a hybrid employee before my current job, as well. What is a hybrid employee, you ask? A hybrid employee is someone who is part generalist and part specialist rolled up into one. It’s someone who can fill various roles, step in for different people, and isn’t limited to expertise in a narrow area. And guess what – you better get ready, cause we’re living in the age of the hybrid.

Why is the time ripe for the “Kordell Stewart” employee? Because the advertising and marketing industry is in a great state of flux and evolution/revolution. Because things are changing nearly every day. Because digital, social and mobile are changing everyone’s jobs, anyway, every day. Because we need people comfortable with the gray-areas and uncertainty that defines today’s new normal.

So what do these hybrid employees, Kordell Stewarts and polymaths bring to the party?

  1. They may not be the best at one thing, but they’re good at lots.
    This is critical in the fast moving world of communications today. People need immersion and facility in lots of types of communications, projects, and execution. To be extremely deep in only one technology may work for you today, but not tomorrow. And, with technology changing so fast, non-hybrids might be expert in an area that is quickly outdated and passed by. As Business Partners International put it in a paper on hybrid employees, they’re like an amazing all-in-one tool. Sure, it may not be the best possible hammer you can buy, but it can nevertheless drive nails into concrete.
  2. They can adapt.
    Let’s face it, things change. Tasks and specs evolve. Objectives get added. Scope increases. Sometimes experts and specialists will take things only as far as their job-description and expertise go. If the spec or job changes, they’re out. However, the hybrid employee does whatever it takes. They’re comfortable following the job and the tasks and the scope as it evolves, even if that’s beyond their normal bailiwick.
  3. They speak multiple languages.
    Hybrids are able to understand the mindset of a variety of partners and functions. This helps them understand issues, shortcut problems, collaborate better and push to make work better in a way that non-hybrids struggle with. So, even without having expertise or depth in other functions, they are able to build bridges and make translations that make stuff better.
  4. They’re energized by activity and action.
    Hybrids have to be moving. While other employees might be happy to sit on the sidelines when not needed, the hybrid, like Kordell, want to return punts or play wide receiver when they’re not playing quarterback. And think about what an asset that is today – rather than being burned out by the never-changing world we live in, they relish the activity and excitement.
  5. They’re self-learners.
    Since the world is changing every day, it’s hard for anyone to keep up. But another good thing about the Hybrid, is that they tend to be self-learners, who stay on the cutting edge. They tend to be conversant about new technology, specs, norms or techniques before others. Because they like it. And they like surprising people.

Are your ready for the new hybrid employee? How do you find them and keep them? What are your thoughts? Are you still thinking I’m talking about “Slash”, the guitarist?

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