Wednesday, May 25, 2016

How To Ensure Your Business Remains Innovative As It Grows

As companies get larger, there is a tendency for them to lose some of the innovative edge and versatility that defined them as start-ups and young enterprises. Several factors common to larger firms contribute to this, including increased bureaucracy and more rigid, hierarchical command structures.

Accordingly, one of the challenges that growing businesses face involves keeping the company nimble, and ensuring that the workforce and leadership alike continue to adapt to technology and changing market conditions.

Encourage experimentation, with some margin for error.

All businesses strive to offer products and services that are commercially viable, and for larger firms in particular, a preoccupation with maximizing shareholder value can intensify those commercial pressures. Unfortunately, a drive for immediate windfalls can undermine more sophisticated forms of innovation that require time and capital investment to develop.

Major innovations cannot happen without experimentation, and experimentation is inherently risky. Many successful businesses have invested in products and technologies that never really took off. (Think of Google Glass, or QR codes, for example.) To genuinely innovate, managers must be willing to take risks on novel concepts that may not always pan out.

Consider the potential, and not just past achievements, of job candidates.

In applying for a position at your company, job candidates will typically emphasize their past experience and achievements that are relevant to the role—and well they should. But in looking to hire and promote, don’t get so fixated on the past successes of a candidate that you overlook the potential of applicants to grow as individuals and expand their skill sets.

In the recruitment stage, in interviews, and in personality surveys, try to incorporate questions that will reveal whether a candidate is curious, open to new approaches to old problems, and believes in h/er own potential to cultivate new skills.

One question that may reveal all of these attributes is: “What new skills or knowledge have you gained in the past year, and what did the learning process involve?” Alternatively, the common interview question “Do you have any questions for me?” can help bring out the curiosity, level of engagement, and preparedness of the candidate. Consider giving job candidates an assignment that will test their skills and approach to problem-solving.

Personal accountability matters.

One of the most important attributes of strong leaders is a capacity to assume responsibility when something goes wrong. In other words, they believe the locus of control is primarily internal rather than external. These are the types of individuals you should seek to hire and promote.

Personal responsibility is important from the perspective of organizational growth. Individuals who are willing to assume primary responsibility for their own shortcomings are more likely to learn from them and modify their approach. By contrast, those who convince themselves that their errors are entirely attributable to bad luck or circumstances beyond their control risk missing the lesson.

Reflect on your performance.

It’s not enough to merely work harder or put in longer hours when your business faces a challenge: you need a plan to help steer your efforts in a productive direction. Real learning requires not only hard work and persistence, but also active mental engagement.

One practice that can help is daily reflection—over the course of the work day, what did you do well, what would you have done differently if offered a second chance, and where do you see room for improvement? To facilitate this kind of reflection, you can encourage staff to keep a work journal, and set aside time (10-15 minutes of the workday) for entry-writing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Getting The Most Out Of Focus Groups

Large organizations, including corporations, academic institutions, and government agencies, have recruited focus groups for decades to help them gain insight into the wants, needs, and behaviour of the public. For businesses, it’s useful to ascertain what current and potential customers and clients are looking for, and the focus group can be a cost-effective and highly revelatory source of information.

Consider the following points when you’re planning to recruit focus groups, so that you can separate the signal from the noise and ultimately derive useful data from the sessions.

The overall composition of the groups should accurately reflect your target demographic.

While this principle seems like common sense, its importance is difficult to overstate. A series of focus groups whose composition substantially differs from that of the target demographic won’t necessarily yield helpful data.

What age are your prospective clients or customers? Gender? Marital circumstances? Ethnicity, or mix of ethnicities? What language(s) do they speak? Where and in what circumstances do they live?

The better you can form a mental picture of your customer/client base before you begin recruitment, the more informative your focus group sessions are likely to be.

Stay on track.

One the of purposes of a focus group is to enable participants to share their own thoughts and feelings in an open, accepting environment, and in relative spontaneity. But whenever you gather strangers or acquaintances together and encourage them to converse spontaneously, the discussion is likely to wander off topic. This is where the skill set of a competent moderator becomes essential.

Attributes you should look for in a moderator include patience, firmness, articulacy, strong organization skills, the ability to appear neutral and impartial over the course of the discussion, and ideally some credible previous experience in the field. A moderator will also occasionally need to call on participants who haven’t said anything in a while, to encourage their input.

Would Goldilocks approve of the size of your group?

A focus group that is too small will tend to be stilted and fail to generate rich discussion. On the other hand, when the group is overly large, it will tend to segment into several smaller cliques, or a core group will form that excludes participants on the periphery.

Ideally, the scale of your group should be six to 10—not too big, not too small, but just the right size to facilitate an inclusive, respectful, productive exchange of ideas.

Ask the right questions.

To design effective questions for a focus group, you must begin by posing one to yourself: What exactly do you want to know? Until you can narrow down what you’re looking for, you’ll find it difficult to design questions that are specific enough to meet your needs.

You’ll also want to limit the number of questions to a manageable level. A good rule of thumb is that the number of questions (except for clarifying queries that the moderator may inject once in a while) should be roughly equal to the number of participants.

One of the main advantages of a focus group over a survey is the opportunity for participants to modify their views during the discussion. It’s common for a focus group participant to end the session with an opinion significantly different from the one s/he started with.

Conduct at least three or four unique group sessions.

This is likely the minimum you’ll require in order to generate valid, applicable results.

Each session should last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Beyond that point, group productivity tends to stall, and you’ll probably have covered all of your questions anyway.

You’ll know when you’ve reached the “saturation point”.

When new focus group sessions aren’t generating many new ideas, you’ve probably retrieved about as much data as you can reasonably expect from the focus group endeavour. It’s time to wrap up and analyze what you’ve collected.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dealing With an Unproductive Colleague

Among the most common complaints that employees of large organizations and co-founders of businesses express, involve a colleague or associate who doesn’t seem to pull h/er own weight.

This situation can become especially awkward if the aggrieved party and the espied slacker share equal authority within an organization. The reason for this is straightforward: bosses have the authority to keep under-performers in line, and to dismiss them if the problem persists. But staff members and associates who occupy the same position in the organizational hierarchy as an alleged slacker don’t have this luxury, and face a multifaceted dilemma.

Is it better to confront the offending party, or try to ignore the issue? Face to face, or by reporting the problem to superiors or other colleagues? What about the risk of being labeled a tattle-tale, the potential strain on interpersonal relationships, or even the prospect of retaliation? What if it becomes one person’s word against another’s?

How does the perceived slacker’s underperformance affect you?

The answer to this question will determine whether it’s worth your time and energy to actively address the problem.

If the behaviour of the alleged slacker affects your work and professional relationships very little, or not at all, then you’re better off minding your own business. On the other hand, if your ability to complete job tasks and/or your rapport with colleagues and superiors suffers due to an unproductive colleague, then you have a legitimate concern and should take action.

Once you resolve to act, your first step (barring extraordinary circumstances) should be to address the matter directly with the perceived slacker.

Start by favouring diplomacy over confrontation.

Even if you suspect your colleague’s lack of productivity owes to laziness, don’t assume that. Your colleague may be experiencing a legitimate mental health issue, may be distracted by difficult conditions in h/er personal life that are beyond h/er control, or may have an easily resoluble gap in h/er skill set that is slowing h/er down.
Instead of adopting a confrontational tone, try approaching the issue tactfully at first—e.g. “Is everything OK? I’ve noticed that you seem less engaged with this task than you normally are.” Then ask if there’s anything you can do to help. The “slacker” may call your attention to a factor you hadn’t considered that changes your perception of the problem. Be prepared to afford h/er the benefit of the doubt.

This exchange also gives you an opportunity to clarify exactly what you expect from your underperforming colleague, and ensure that you’re both on the same page.

Use impersonal, non-accusatory language, and cite specific examples.

Outward hostility on your part can cause your interlocutor to shut down or become defensive; you’ll effectively sabotage the conversation right at the outset. Pay close attention to the language and tone you use.

Instead of leading with “When you do (or fail to do) X, it makes me Y,” go with something like “Last week, this (specific event) happened, and consequently I had to remain at work late in order to complete some unfinished tasks. That experience was frustrating and unpleasant for me.”

Don’t make the conversation any more personal than it needs to be. Ultimately, the issue is not your colleague’s personality or character; it is h/er behaviour, which consists of identifiable actions and omissions. Keep a documentary record of these, and of your own efforts to improve the situation, so you can be accountable and transparent.

Don’t involve your boss or higher authorities unless you have to.

The capacity to deal with relatively minor, day-to-day differences of opinion in a constructive manner is a valuable skill. If you are an employee or middle-manager, don’t involve higher-ups in a “slacker” case unless you believe the problem is too serious for you to solve on your own.

Addressing a colleague’s underperformance directly with that person has two big advantages over reporting to higher authorities right away: 1) it is friendlier and more conducive to an amicable working relationship moving forward; 2) it shows that you are prepared to take initiative and demonstrate leadership in dealing with interpersonal conflict at work.

If you and the “slacker” are joint founders of a business, it is even more essential for you to confront the issue head-on rather than let it fester.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Finding Your Calling

Nearly everyone wants a career that is emotionally, spiritually, and financially rewarding. But unfortunately, a lot of people never find that professional sweet spot—either because their passion
doesn’t happen to pay well, or because they feel stuck at a job they dislike for the sake of a steady paycheque.

To achieve a fulfilling career, think about how you can find synergy between your professional endeavours and your personal affinities, values, and strengths.

Let your character and values be your compass.
Consider your basic personality traits. Are you typically organized or disorganized? Are you patient and deliberate, or do you prefer to see results quickly? Extroverted, or introverted? Analytical, or intuitive?

Most importantly, what are the principles you believe in most strongly?

We can all imagine blatant examples of career mismatches: people who are vegetarians and vegans for ethical reasons shouldn’t become butchers; innumerate individuals are unlikely to thrive as accountants.

But there are many more subtle instances of career misalignment as well. If you like to keep moving and spend much of your time outdoors, a sedentary office job may wear you down. And if you have an artistic flair, you may desire significant creative autonomy, and feel frustrated if your career path doesn’t offer that.

Perseverance and resiliency are essential.

The main difference between a dream and a goal, is that a goal revolves around a concrete and achievable plan. But there is another important distinction: dreams occupy the realm of fantasy, while goals must contend with reality. In dreams, you can envision your own triumphs, but not necessarily the barriers that stand in the way.

In the real world, meaningful success rarely happens overnight—in fact, it often requires years, if not decades. You might have an extraordinary passion for something, but you’ll also be competing against many other individuals and organizations that share your enthusiasm. Almost invariably, you will encounter a great deal of rejection and shortfalls before you experience the thrill of victory. To bring your vision to fruition, you’ll need to remain committed to your goals through thick and thin.

An alternative mental approach to failure or rejection is to remember that your disappointments needn’t define you or even necessarily set you back. You can instead look at them as stepping stones that bring your closer to your final goal by affording you valuable lessons and experience.

Instead of “work-life balance”, think about your life’s work.

Of course, human beings are social animals, and it’s important to make time for family and friends outside of work hours. Your physical and mental health also depend on a healthy diet and regular exercise.

However, the optimal career path for you should bring you enough satisfaction that you believe your time on the job is beneficial to you, and that your work is fully integrated into the life you want. This is one reason why the concept of “work-life balance” is flawed: it implies that a firewall should separate your profession from the rest of your existence, and not that your career endeavours are a vital component of your life.

Instead of trying to achieve equilibrium between work and “life”, consider instead what you’d like to accomplish during your lifetime, and why. If you can’t identify how your current professional trajectory is helping you achieve the long-term goals you’ve set for yourself, then it’s time to contemplate a career change.