Print This Post Print This Post

Your Performance Improvement Trap

We all want to be good at SOMEthing. When performance improvement is on your mind, it’s easy to fall for one particular trap that will surely hold you back.

For instance, it might be a trap for me to write on this topic myself. Why? Because somebody else has already written about it so well. Allow me to introduce you to Garold Markle, who is an expert at performance improvement in the workplace. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I am glad to see his book, Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review, continue to do so well. As you’ll see, one of his strengths is writing. Now I turn the “pen” over to him, so he can share with you…

THE WEAKNESS TRAP

By Garold L. Markle

What is the best thing to do with a weakness? According to the Gallup Poll data, the most successful managers don’t normally try to fix an employee’s weakness. Instead, they work around it. Ignore it, if possible. While this sounds counter intuitive to some, it actually agrees with what most of us have noticed in life. Consider coaching.

What would a football coach do with a short but fast player who has quick hands? Try to fatten him up and make him stronger? Of course not. The coach would place him in the defensive backfield where speed and agility are key. He would charge the small, fast guy with getting faster. Meanwhile, he’d take his biggest, strongest player and challenge him to become bigger and stronger.

“Markle! Don’t put the ball on the floor!!” That’s what my basketball coach used to scream at me. 40 years later, the words still echo in my ears. At six foot seven inches tall, I was not a very adept dribbler. When I tried to dribble, the ball would hit one of my feet almost as often as it hit the floor. On the other hand, I could rebound with the best of them. So what did the coach do with me? He asked me to stand under the basket and retrieve missed shots. Did he ask me to work on my dribbling? Are you kidding? He actually forbade me from doing it. I got benched if I dribbled the ball, even if I did it successfully. The coach made it clear that my playing time would be determined by my ability to rebound. If I wanted to maximize my contribution to the team, I would not attempt to become some kind of well rounded version of Michael Jordan. I would emulate Dennis Rodman – the ultimate rebounding specialist.

In Catalytic Coaching we ask managers to select four “Areas for Improvement” that they want a direct report to focus on for the upcoming year. Since we compel them to do this immediately after discussing “Strengths” it‘s quite natural that people draw the wrong conclusions. Their mind thinks in parallel structure. They select four things that form the person’s competitive advantage and call those Strengths. They assume then that the next section is where they “write him up” for his shortcomings. If they follow this instinctual path, however, they will greatly reduce the effectiveness of the coaching process. They’ll fall quickly into The Weakness Trap spending good energy on a bad idea.

For a fully functioning employee, Areas for Improvement are more productively focused on Strengths that a coach would like to see more of. I can recall several years ago praising an executive assistant for her “Organization Skills” under the Strengths section only to request that she use these abilities more aggressively as an Area for Improvement. Rather than smile with bemusement at how I muddled my complicated travel plans, I challenged her to take them on as one of her responsibilities. Was she deficient in travel planning? Absolutely not. She had never been asked to do it. It was, however, a wonderful way for her to enhance her contribution.

No matter what I say to managers and supervisors in coaching training sessions, people seem to miss this point. When I work with them one on one (in a ritual we call “In-Flight Training”) it is often their biggest revelation. “I didn’t know we could ask her to do more of what she’s good at,” they’ll say, despite the fact that I made this point several times in class. Once they have this experience, however, the light comes on and they advance to a different level of coaching effectiveness.

When people tell me that coaching becomes redundant over the years, often the reason is that they’ve fallen into a rut of treating Areas for Improvement like Weaknesses. Here’s what someone told me recently. “I’ve written Thomas up as needing to work on his Analytical Skills for the last three years. I can do it again, but I don’t really think he’s going to improve.” When I asked if Thomas was worth keeping, the answer was both quick and unequivocal. “Absolutely! He produces a high volume of work.” The only thing needed here was for the coach to refocus his employee’s improvement efforts on things that were more realistic and valuable. Challenge Thomas to do more heavy lifting, just don’t assign him tasks that require heavy analysis.

The same ideas apply at home. When a child walks through the door with a report card showing five As, two Bs and one D, what do we always talk to her about? The low grade, of course. We tell her how the subpar subject matter is critical to proper growth and development and force her to spend more time focused on areas in which she’s potentially ill equipped to excel. Instead of lecturing our mathematically-inclined daughter on the merits of mastering English and Geography, if that’s where she’s behind, perhaps we’d be better served to encourage her to focus the bulk of her attention on Physics and Calculus, where she sits at the head of her class. After all, who cares whether the nuclear physicist that designs the first truly viable electric car can write creatively or explain haiku? And her computer or secretary can clean up her misspelled words.

So how do we avoid The Weakness Trap? Consider taking the following actions:

  1. Design Around Weaknesses. Whenever possible shift roles and responsibilities to give those who work for you a chance to focus on what they’re good at and what they enjoy. Fit the job to the people and the people to the job. Not all accountants have to have identical responsibilities. The same goes for supervisors, managers and executive assistants. Few of us are universally talented. It is more important to create a team that wins through working together than to mandate that all jobs with similar titles are carbon copies.
  2. Shorten Improvement Cycles. If you’ve got a direct report that has a weakness that you can’t build out of her position (for example, a manager who can’t delegate), give her a limited amount of focused attention to make the improvement. In general, if she can’t start making demonstrable progress in a one to three month period, she is not worth spending additional time on. Great sports coaches move quickly when they determine that a player’s aptitude is insufficient for a given role. Remember that “Catalytic” means speeding the pace of significant change. In business, time is money. Repurposing or replacing usually beat rewiring.
  3. Focus on Strengths. Do your homework to determine what people are good at. Things they have a competitive advantage at. Identify activities that give them energy. Knowing someone’s weaknesses is valuable information for selection and placement decisions. If they’re not tall enough, fast enough, agile enough (in other words, a poor match for the position), consider making a change. If you’re going to coach them where they’re at, however, the key is to take what they’re good at and make it better. Do that and someday the Gallup Poll researchers will be writing stories about you.


About the Author of The Weakness Trap:

Garold Markle is author of Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review and No More Performance Evaluations! Gary is also founder and CEO of Energage, Inc. For more of his teachings go to www.energage.com.

This article was first published in Catalytic Connection in August of 2009. Copyright 2009 by Energage, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Garold L. Markle, glmarkle@energage.com.

Posted: under Managing Change (Leadership).
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (0) Mar 01 2010

Print This Post Print This Post

Can Sales Operations Mend “Broken” Salespeople?

By Paul Johnson

893 words. Abstract: All new sales hires are chosen for their talent and expected to succeed, yet the frustration as to why some fail to produce goes on and on. Before you have to cut more underperformers loose, consider the potential impact of sales operations.

Some salespeople do well in your organization, and some don’t. Why the difference? The more important question may be what can you do about the ones who are limping along? Could Sales Operations make a difference?

Not just sales managers, but all company executives want a smooth running sales operation. When revenue is unpredictable and fluctuates from month to month, management is hard for everybody. Frustration, poor decisions, finger-pointing, and waste are often the result. With steady sales, operations gains productivity and efficiency. The whole company gains stability, growth, and profits.

An Important Meating
In departments other than sales, operations are often process-driven and focused. The result is lean and efficient production. I was struck by the power of strong operations during a ride-along with a sales rep.

We arrived for our early afternoon appointment at a meat packing plant near Green Bay Wisconsin. As we pulled past the gate and approached the visitor parking area, we passed a long line of semi trucks hauling cattle up to the loading docks. A few semis passed us going in the other direction, pulling their empty trailers out through the gate.

Once inside, we met with the controller. As he began describing their operation, he casually mentioned “We process 2,800 head a day.” I didn’t hear what he said for the next several minutes because I was doing math. 2,800 a day… that’s about 115 cattle “processed” each hour. That seemed like a really big number to me. And tons of work — literally. They must have developed great processes for each employee in the back to use. And the director of operations would make sure each production employee used the SAME process. That’s where their productivity, efficiency and profits come from.

Divide and Conquer
I didn’t get to see what went on back there, but I’m pretty sure no one employee did everything. In other words, there was a team of people, each with different roles, who did specific parts of the process from the time the cattle arrived at the loading dock until the time the “finished goods” were loaded into refrigeration trucks at the other side of the building. A process is involved, but no one person handles every part of the process.

The concept of a process for selling is nothing new. However, it may be a mistake to expect the salesperson to handle every part of the sales process.

Many companies expect to hire the Swiss Army knife salesperson who can find the lead, respond to the RFP, create the presentation, do the demonstration, close the sale, and train the customer on use of the product. Sales Operations enables selling to be treated more like a multi-part production operation, where one person — the salesperson — is not expected to do three or more jobs. Instead, Sales Operations supports many functions of the selling process so that salespeople they can focus on what they do best: manage customer interactions.

Avoiding Sales Productivity Killers
It’s the distractions and job corruption that kill sales productivity. For example, new products are often released to the salespeople with the requisite brochures and spec sheets and some training from the product manager. From there, each salesperson is often left to figure out how to succeed in selling it. If you have 50 salespeople, there may be 50 different approaches taken in the field. Some of these approaches will succeed, and others will fail.

We were launching a powerful and complex ERP software system that would enable our customers to better run their businesses. Before turning the product over to the salespeople, we asked ourselves, “How can we make this product…

  • easy to present,
  • simple to understand,
  • memorable for customers
  • and compelling to buy?”

We developed a day-in-the-life scenario of how a business would use this software in their daily operation, and wrote a storyline that was brought to life through demonstration of the software. This would make it easy for buyers to understand how our software would help them solve their real-world problems. To make the presentation even more memorable, we grouped the software’s capabilities into seven primary functions and created a visual icon for each. After this approach was prototyped by the Sales Operations Group and proven to convert customers, it was rolled out to the Sales team.

As a result, this winning demo format was easy for the salespeople to learn and deliver in a powerful, memorable and compelling way. More importantly, it was easy for buyers to understand and remember why our software stood head and shoulders above our competition. Instead of each salesperson having to come up with their own presentation formula, the results of the work of a few in Sales Operations was multiplied across the entire sales department.

The Surgical Suggestion
If you have talented salespeople that fail to produce, they may not be broken. It’s more likely that you’re just asking them to do too many things. Consider how top talent in other arenas has support:

  • Musicians have roadies
  • Race car drivers have pit crews
  • Doctors have nurses

If you’re looking for more consistent and efficient production from your salespeople, cut away some of their duties and hand them over to a Sales Operations group. Even your top talent will be more productive if they don’t have to go it alone.

© 2010 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson is an award-winning sales manager who explains the six competencies of the sales operations manager at http://salesoperations.us. He has gotten great results for some big players like Siebel Systems (Oracle), ADP and Akzo Nobel and works with medium to large corporate sales teams.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When did dividing a project or process into separate components cause everyone to be more productive?

Posted: under Gaining Commitment (Sales).
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (1) Feb 01 2010

Print This Post Print This Post

Why Performance Improvement is an Uphill Battle

By Paul Johnson

1,190 words. Abstract: Performance improvement can be easy when you avoid your uphill battles. Get past the three myths that are thwarting the success of you and your team.

Who doesn’t get frustrated once in awhile? Either we’re disappointed with our own failure to achieve a goal, or with the failure of someone else we were counting on to perform.

  • We work hard and achieve a deadline, but we know the quality of our work has fallen short.
  • We’re counting on someone to hit their sales target, but revenues will fall short… again.
  • We’ve shown someone over and over how to do something new, but they just don’t “get it.”

Many of us are challenged with the performance improvement of someone, whether that someone is someone else or ourselves. If you’re frustrated in your efforts to reach goals, perhaps you need a better plan for achieving results.

While many factors affect performance improvement, one subtle aspect is often overlooked. By recognizing and managing this aspect, you have an opportunity to avoid the frustration and wasted effort that otherwise occurs. This may be your chance to avoid repeating the same failure-inducing mistake over and over again.

Stop Mything Out

Three myths stand in the way of recognizing and applying a solution. The first myth is the common promotion of the idea that education and skill-building results in success. While those factors are important, we need to accept that learning a topic does not mean you’re assured of applying it successfully, especially in a competitive environment. Going to a training class will help you gain additional skills, but at some point performance improvement plateaus regardless of how much training is received. Yes, education and training support success, but there is more.

The second myth is that hard work is necessary for success. Instead, I contend that most people work too hard but don’t practice enough. If the work is hard, I suggest you may be wasting your efforts on the wrong work. On the other hand, when you find work that is fun and easy for you, continual practice will lead to higher and higher levels of performance improvement. Your practice must be focused on work that is right for you. Work easy and practice hard.

The third myth is that people assume that people who succeed in one area know how to succeed in them all. We see this all the time when people get promoted. Those that fail to achieve in their new roles are scrutinized for their failures. We wonder what’s wrong with them, when there may be nothing wrong with them at all. It’s silly to assume anyone can be good at everything we ask of them. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it IS hard to say “no” when presented with an “opportunity.”

Picture the Perfect Pachyderm

One key insight can help us resolve all these myths and help us understand where and how performance improvement is truly possible. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it really comes from nature. I guess we could call it a big idea, because I learned it from studying elephants.

These days you rarely hear the words “war” and “elephant” in the same sentence. Yet War Elephants were an important combat tool in Asia and the Mediterranean centuries ago. Armies would enlist elephants to participate in the charge against the enemy to instill fear and breakup their lines. And fearful the enemy should be. Unlike horses, elephants have no reservations about trampling humans. Their thick skins made them relatively difficult to wound with common weapons of the time, and their strength allowed them to carry armor to make that possibility even more remote. Then, to literally top things off, soldiers would strap a mini-fort, called a howdah, to the top of the elephant. Here, a handful of archers could reside with a birds-eye view of their opponents.

Many of us have heard of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He is noted for taking his army over the Alps to attack the Roman Empire from the north in a surprise attack. In addition to 40,000 troops, Hannibal brought several dozen War Elephants to Europe to traverse the Alps. Unfortunately, Hannibal wasn’t aware of a significant shortcoming of elephants.

Find the Fate-ful Flaw

We can’t really blame Hannibal for this knowledge shortfall, because he never had a chance to meet Professor Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University. Professor Vollrath’s research team did a study on African elephants, using global positioning system (GPS) devices to track elephants crossing the savannas. They discovered that elephants “don’t do hills.” Elephants routinely avoid any types of slopes and hills, as even minor hills make them really hungry. Elephants only eat vegetation, and they need lots of it. Climbing hills requires a significant boost in calorie consumption and that means finding lots more to eat. The researchers reported, “Climbing 100 meters [@300 ft] would burn [2,500 calories] which would have to be either replenished by an extra half hour of foraging or paid for by using up body reserves.”

Now imagine you’re Hannibal, trying to get dozens of elephants over mountains not hundreds, but thousands of feet high. The elephants see the slopes and their instincts tell them not to climb them, but their human handlers drive them forward. Then they get hungry because there’s not enough food growing on the mountain slopes. And a ticked-off elephant has no reservations about trampling people. THAT must have been a fun journey. Sadly, all but a handful of elephants died crossing the Alps.

Role with the Flow

The lesson that elephants (and other animals) can teach us is this: humans are versatile, but no one is good at everything. Performance improvement comes easiest when a human who is “wired” to succeed in a specific endeavor is placed in that role.

  • We know Michael Jordan as a phenomenal performer in basketball, yet he was much less impressive in a baseball uniform no matter how much hard work and practice he was willing to perform.
  • We saw Susan Boyle become an “overnight success” at the age of 47 on the “Britain’s Got Talent” contest. She owned the stage once given the opportunity to demonstrate the gifts and abilities she has owned all her life.
  • I bet we can all name our own examples of people who have taken advantage of every education and training opportunity presented to them, yet are still identified with mediocre performance and lackluster results.

Hopefully that’s not you. Or maybe it is.

Don’t Do Hills

Your uphill battle may not be going literally uphill as it is for elephants. Yet we each face our own challenges. Some of these challenges we were never designed to overcome. When a task seems like an uphill battle to you, consider that maybe, just maybe, you were never intended to do it. Instead, find those tasks which come easy to you, where learning is easy and practice is fun. Aim for performance improvement in those areas where you are “wired” to do well.

We each have our own unique set of gifts, talents and abilities. It may be hard to find them in yourself and in other people but, when you do, results will come fast and success will be easy.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About the author
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who describes his approach to transformational leadership at http://TroubleBreaker.com. He enables companies to achieve breakthrough growth and team performance improvement at http://ShortcutsToResults.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When did you say “Yes” to an “opportunity” when later you discovered you should have said “No, thanks”?

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (0) Nov 01 2009

Print This Post Print This Post

Who is Cheating You Now?

By Paul Johnson

1,500 words. Abstract: Perhaps you’re frustrated because your hard work to create a better life seems thwarted at every turn. Use this approach to win against the people and problems blocking the paths to the results you desire.

Despite all our efforts at work, sometimes it seems we make little economic progress. Over the years, many metaphors have been used to describe our despair. “I am…

  • running in place.”
  • a hamster on a wheel.”
  • stuck on a treadmill.”

My favorite is, “I feel like a dog on linoleum.” When we’re not getting ahead, who is cheating us out of the rewards we deserve for our efforts? Many are potentially to blame:

  • Bosses that show favoritism at work.
  • Unfair labor practices.
  • Oppressive decisions inflicted as a result of greed, jealousy or ego.

While it may be true that these events cheat you out of rewards and opportunities you deserve, these events are not the ones you should worry about or even attempt to fix.

The Waste of Life
When we’re feeling stuck and not making the progress we want, frustration is often the symptom. We’re frustrated with our failure to achieve, our failure to earn, and our failure to attain a position of comfort and stability. By escaping the tyranny that is holding us back, our liberation will give us the ability to enjoy steady progress and enjoy more of the fruits of our labors.

My inspiration for this article came from Chris Anderson and his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Chris is also author of the best seller, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, published in 2006). In Free, Chris Anderson explores the concept of waste. He points out that in the animal kingdom, mammals (including humans) have an unusual attitude toward waste. In short, we have an unhealthy aversion to it.

It’s actually bred into us because of our procreation patterns. He points out that the Bluefin tuna releases up to 10 million fertilized eggs in a single spawning season. Of those, maybe 10 will make it to adulthood. That means one in a million survives, and the rest are wasted. While the numbers are smaller, the story is pretty much the same for insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Only mammals attempt to preserve every life.

I was watching the Discovery Channel and learned that hundreds of sea turtles hatch from a single nest in the sand and then scamper down the beach into the ocean. The camera showed how one of them didn’t make it; a crab caught it and was going to eat it for dinner. Admit it; don’t you feel terrible about that? While we can rationalize that that’s the way nature is supposed to work, we still don’t like it. Our nature tells us not to waste anything, even the life of a single baby sea turtle.

Waste Not, Want More
This means that, deep down, we believe we live in a world of scarcity. Resources are limited. The number of jobs is finite. Energy is expensive. And for every problem, there is only one right solution.

That last statement is the myth that is cheating you out of the progress you desire. In our search for the perfect answer to our problem, we continually seek more information, spend more time, and consume more resources. Why? Because we want to find the perfect risk-free approach. Why does risk repulse us? Because we are genetically programmed to avoid waste.

Perhaps your progress has been limited because you’ve been trying to engineer the perfect risk-free solution to each of your problems. Perhaps you should start considering that there may be a million answers to your problem. Pick one. Try it. Repeat as necessary.

This simple approach allowed Thomas Edison to bring us the light bulb. He “wasted” 999 versions so he could produce the one that worked. None of us care about those 999, yet they were critical to the process that eventually produced success. Understand that none of your failed efforts are ever really wasted as long as you don’t neglect one little thing.

While this may seem like a simple concept to understand, overcoming millions of years of evolution is no easy task for us. Let’s break this down into three distinct components that can make this concept easier for you to internalize.

I. Choose to Waste
See? You’re already feeling guilty. Here we are, living in an age when we’re trying to preserve our planet and the daily news is filled with reports of our dwindling oil reserves, food shortages and unemployment statistics. Yet there are many things you could choose to waste with little consequence to you or anyone else.

  • Long-distance minutes.
  • Space on your hard drive.
  • The fuzzy leftovers in the back of your fridge.
  • The clothes in your closet you’re really never going to wear again.

Sometimes I waste air-conditioning. On days that are warm, but not too warm, I turn on the air conditioning in my car and roll down the windows. I want the fresh air, the breeze and the connection to the outside, but it’s a little too warm to rely on just a breeze to keep me comfortable. I decided that once the air conditioning is running, having the windows up or down has negligible impact on my fuel consumption but major impact on my comfort.

Choosing to waste like this makes it easier when it comes time to face a problem and you have to make a choice. More often than not, the choices available are not mutually exclusive. Just pick one and get going. As long as you don’t neglect to learn something from each attempt — like Edison did — none are really wasted.

II. Take a Second Chance
After you’ve made a choice and tried it, you’ll often find that it doesn’t work. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a second chance (and a third and fourth as well). I routinely try new things. When they work, I keep doing them. If they don’t work, I try something else. Thomas J. Watson, former president of IBM had this to say: “The way to succeed is to double your error rate.” He understood the value of learning from mistakes, and as a result built IBM into a huge business.

I’ve spent the better part of my career in sales, and have frequently needed to take a second chance. In one case, a customer got a little aggressive deep in the negotiation phase. When I wouldn’t acquiesce to his demands, he threw me out of his office. I never saw or spoke to him again. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get the order. I took a second chance and figured out a different way to “close the deal” and earn the commission.

III. Let Possessions Flow
At an early age, we all learn the word, “Mine!” We tend to get attached to and protective of our possessions like our houses, cars, and the money in our bank account. Instead of being a collector of possessions, I’m suggesting you accept that they will ebb and flow during your life like the tides of the oceans. Sometimes you’ll have to give something up for the opportunity to make progress.

In baseball, base runners know that they have to take their foot off first base to have any hope of attaining second base. They are vulnerable to being called out whenever they are not safely standing on a base (the only totally risk-free way of attaining second base is by hitting an out-of-the-park home run). Letting go is the key to achieving more.

Unfortunately, letting go is another form of waste to us mammals. This innate behavior was supposedly used successfully to hunt monkeys. A hole was cut in a coconut just large enough for a monkey’s open hand to enter. The coconut would be tethered to a nearby tree, and then some nuts would be placed inside. A passing monkey would discover the nuts, reach in and grab them, but couldn’t remove their hand because their closed fist was too large to fit through the opening. There they remained, unwilling to let go of the nuts even as the hunters returned to kill them.

Let Go and Get Going
Sometimes we need to be willing to release what’s already in our grasp so we can move on to something better. When you’re feeling stuck and yet afraid to let go of the familiar, consider that the worst case scenario is seldom the most probable scenario. The things we most fear rarely materialize. You CAN work around the obstacles that are making it difficult for you to achieve the progress and gain the rewards you desire and deserve. Always begin by believing that there is more than one “right” answer to the problem you’d like to solve. Pick one and get going. Don’t cheat yourself out of the better life you’re searching for.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who gives teams the courage, motivation, and insight to overcome obstacles and create breakthrough growth opportunities at http://TroubleBreaker.com. Learn about business growth topics at http://Paul-Johnson.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When has taking a second chance paid off for you?

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (0) Sep 01 2009

Print This Post Print This Post

When to Encourage Deviant Behavior at Work

By Paul Johnson

621 words. Abstract: When employees don’t follow the rules, what can you do? Considering their color can give you the answer.

Policies and procedures, processes and standards. Every company has rules to be followed to ensure that expectations are met and disappointment is avoided. But when is it OK for employees to deviate from these rules, if ever?

After we were married, I learned that my wife has rules.

  • Toothpaste tubes are squeezed from the end only.
  • Clothes go on hangers facing the left.
  • When the toilet is not in use, the seat must be DOWN.

While these rules seemed somewhat arbitrary, I was eager to adopt these new standards of behavior because I didn’t want to disappoint her. She had expectations for me, and I am willing to follow these rules to keep her happy — still.

She soon discovered I had a few rules of my own. These, of course, were much more logical and well thought-out, or so they seemed to me.

  • Turn your wheels when you park on a hill.
  • Get a copy of anything you sign.
  • Never discard my beer bottles that aren’t COMPLETELY empty.

Decades later, we still get along fine.

Confusion Rules
In business, rules help us avoid costly mistakes. They enable us to fulfill the expectations of our customers and co-workers. Rules allow us to replace confusion and disappointment with consistency, stability and satisfaction. If rules are so wonderful, why would we ever want to deviate from the norm and break a rule?

We can observe that rules are logical, plainly needed and completely obvious to the person who makes them, but not necessarily to everybody else. All rules have an underlying reason — and sometimes many reasons — for their existence. Sometimes these reasons are simple and other times they are complex and even arcane. Problems occur when all rules are treated as black-and-white. Performance at your company will improve when leadership makes it clear which rules are made to be broken.

Red Looks Black-and-White
Steve Cohn, a customer experience expert at People to People Learning, points out the difference between Red Rules and Blue Rules. “Red Rules are those that cannot be broken under any circumstances ever. They usually have to do with safety, health and legal. Blue Rules are everything else. You can bend them if it means making the customer happy and it doesn’t cost the company an enormous amount of money.”

The Red Rules are those black-and-white rules where deviation can’t be tolerated. Blue Rules reflect preferred standards that should be strived for. But if Blue Rules are meant to be broken on occasion, it’s critical that these rules come with additional information; specifically, the intent behind the rule.

  • What greater good is the rule intended to achieve?
  • What expectations does the rule attempt to ensure?
  • What will disappointment cost us as a company?

Once employees are clear on the proper ways to interpret and apply Blue Rules, they are then qualified to deviate from the letter of the rule when conditions warrant.

Rule Intent
Rules are important to the success of both business and personal relationships, but don’t get sucked into believing that, “A rule is a rule.” Some rules should be held firm, and others need to bend. Make it clear which are the Red Rules, the rules that must be adhered to with no exceptions. After all, when you hear your wife splashing around in the dark, it’s too late to put the seat down. The rest of the rules then become bendable rules, the Blue Rules that carry implied flexibility.  Make sure everyone who must apply a Blue Rule understands the intent behind the rule. When that happens, employees feel empowered to always do the right thing, and deviant behavior won’t be so unwelcome after all.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who describes his approach to transformational leadership at http://TroubleBreaker.com. His company, Shortcuts to Results LLC, collects business shortcuts and shows clients how to find and apply them for performance improvement at http://ShortcutsToResults.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: What rule do you routinely bend, and why?

Posted: under Managing Change (Leadership).
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (0) Jun 01 2009