Peter Senge: How to Overcome Learning Disabilities in Organizations

As an organization grows, managing the flow demands work items to move from one team/department to another. In quest to make these teams accountable, very specific KPI’s are established and that breeds non-systemic thinking. People look at meeting their own numbers and push the work to next stage and often, what happens is that while people win (in short term), the system fails. Every team meets the KPI numbers and yet, customers remain disgruntled.

Peter Senge, in his book “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” outlines 7 organizational learning disabilities. He says,

“It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best effort of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities – for they pervade all organizations to some degree.”

It then becomes very crucial that we identify clearly these learning disabilities. Here is a sketch note summary of these 7 learning disabilities.

Critical question then is: How to we overcome these learning disabilities and truly create an organization that learns better? Peter Senge answers that question through his 5 disciplines of learning organizations that I have written about in the past. Here is a sketchnote summary of five disciplines:

More on Creating Learning Organization at QAspire:

Organization Culture is a Reflection

You cannot change your reflection in the mirror if you want to change how you look and feel about yourself. YOU have to change and the reflection changes accordingly.

And to enable that change, you have to do all the right things based on what you wish to achieve.

Trying to change an organization’s culture is much like that too. Culture of an organization is a reflection – a by-product – of what people within the organization do.

If you want culture to change, you have to first change your intent, behavior, systems, processes, mindset and then narrative. Trying to change an organization’s culture only through narratives (tall mission statements, values on the wall and lip service) is like trying to change the reflection in the mirror. It doesn’t happen.

As Euan Semple so succintly puts it –

You can change things that affect people in the hope that doing so gives them a good reason to adapt their behaviour, but culture emerges from the collective behaviours of the people in your organisation over time.

Culture itself cannot be created – it just happens as a result of doing the right things.

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In the Photo: Mountains at the Dawn, Jhadol, Rajasthan, India (2013)

Building a Business Culture That Works for Everyone: An Interview with Diane K. Adams


Diane K. Adams is Chief People Officer at Qlik (NASDAQ: QLIK), one of the fastest-growing high-tech companies worldwide with nearly 2,300 employees in 30 countries. She has spent her career leading teams in Fortune 500 Human Resources organizations. Chief executives of smaller companies and international and national organizations and leaders also regularly tap her expertise as coach, consultant, and/or lecturer to help them hone their positive cultures. More than a ‘Human Resources’ executive, Adams is a ‘Culture and Talent’ expert. She specializes in helping companies recognize what’s required to energize their people and to achieve long-term success at the bottom line.

Diane recently published her new book “It Takes More Than Casual Fridays and Free Coffee – Building a Business Culture That Works for Everyone” which I read recently. Being a student of organization excellence, I caught up with Diane on a conversation about building high performance cultures. Here is what she shared:

[Tanmay Vora] Hi Diane, Congratulations for the new book. Culture of an organization always exists – either it is designed consciously or it happens by default. How can organizations be more deliberate about their culture?

[Diane K. Adams] Thanks Tanmay. You’re so right about culture. Every organization does have its own culture. Your company, your favorite sports team, a college or university, even a church, mosque or synagogue has its own culture.

Culture, after all, is the set of clear values that drive the thinking, actions, and attitudes of an organization and its people. One of my favorite definitions: culture is what you do when no one is looking.

Culture, after all, is the set of clear values that drive the thinking, actions, and attitudes of an organization and its people.

At successful companies, the culture is positive and values-based. It’s pervasive and intentional, and is reflected in everything the organization and its people say and do, in every action and every process internally and externally. In turn, team members, along with their companies, achieve excellence personally and professionally.

Whatever the culture, though, it’s important to remember that culture comes from the top. That means that to intentionally mold a culture starts with the leadership deciding those values that are important, and then modeling them in everything that’s said and done. Too often lofty values end up simply rhetoric. If a company’s leaders decide honesty and integrity is an essential value, they must act accordingly. Everyone, every action—from hiring and firing, to decisions, discussions, and more–must reflect honesty and integrity. For example, how someone’s employment is terminated says everything about a company’s culture. This is a time when everyone is watching. Too often terminations lack respect for the individual.

When it comes to reinforcing positive behaviors, top companies may reward team members who demonstrate excellence in terms of a specific value. The “reward” often is in the form of recognition—a note of praise from the leader or a mention of job-well-done at a peer meeting.

My personal approach to deliberately creating a successful culture adheres to the 7 Points to Culture Success outlined in my book. They include:

  1. Define Your Cultural Values and Behaviors
  2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
  3. Integrate Your Values into All Aspects of Your Company
  4. Drive Culture through Leadership
  5. Show You Care: Engage and Invest in Your Team
  6. Give Back: Make a Difference beyond the Workplace
  7. Make It Fun: Reward, Recognize, and Celebrate

[Tanmay Vora] Corporations have vision, mission and values that are propagated across the company through various programs. But culture is built around actions by people at all levels. How can organizations bridge the gap between values and behaviors?

[Diane K. Adams] That’s an excellent question. Again, it’s about modeling the behavior you expect of others—living the value and acting on it. Also keep in mind that reward and recognition drive behaviors. Therefore, the primary way to bridge the gap between values and behaviors is to reward and recognize employees who demonstrate the positive behavior.

it’s about modeling the behavior you expect of others—living the value and acting on it.

For example, consider the value social responsibility, so important to energize your teams and foster long-term loyalty internally and among your customers. As a leader, you help cement the value in your people with your behavior. You act in ways that give back to the community—volunteering your time, your efforts, your expertise in ways to help others.

At my employer, Qlik, for example, on our internal website we highlight givebacks by our team members. Recently we ran an internal campaign–How Was Your Day?–and each day highlighted how a different individual used his or her volunteer day to give back to the community.

[Tanmay Vora] The book has a chapter on building culture of innovation. What advice would you share with a CEO who is struggling to build a culture of innovation?

[Diane K. Adams] First, kudos for recognizing the importance of innovation. After all, if you’re not constantly innovating, you’re falling behind your competition.

It’s not enough to say innovation matters. Companies and their leaders must instill a mindset of innovation across the entire company, not just in the product or research and development organizations. Every leader and every employee must continually ask the question, what’s the newest and best way to accomplish a goal–whatever that goal might be.

As I mentioned above, you can encourage this innovative behavior by highlighting individuals who have creative and innovative ideas. That means a recognition program and often a rewards one, too, for the best of the best.

The additional advice I would offer a CEO is also to strive for a culture of collaboration. That’s because collaboration fosters teamwork, brainstorming, and ultimately generates the best ideas. Remember, success is a team effort. No matter your company, industry, or competition, it’s important to constantly ask each other and yourself the question, how can something be accomplished better, faster, and more efficiently.

[Tanmay Vora] How helpful are cultural assessments (based on standard models) in culture building initiatives?

[Diane K. Adams] Very. At Qlik we regularly do full-blown culture assessments with the help of metrics and organizations like the Great Place to Work® Institute. The results provide us a measure of our progress and lay the foundation for developing very thorough action plans so that we can continually be at our best.

In addition, we do interim assessments of various aspects of our culture. For example, we might use an assessment tool to measure our progress in maintaining two-way communications. We also use in-house surveys from organizations like Survey Monkey.

After all, to accomplish a goal, you first have to know where you are in order to develop the right strategies to get there.

[Tanmay Vora] What are your top 3 tips for creating a culture of learning and development?

[Diane K. Adams] 1. First, it’s important to create an environment in which every team member has an annual individual learning plan (ILP). The plan sets goals, lays out strategies for achieving those goals, and helps each individual see clearly how he or she will learn, grow, and succeed along with the company. The best companies with true learning and development cultures view ILP goals with the same importance as annual performance goals.

It’s important to create an environment in which every team member has an annual individual learning plan

To achieve the highest performance rating, for example, an individual must excel in his or her performance as well as with his or her personal learning goals.

2. Leverage your talent. Learning and development doesn’t have to cost lots of money. Everyone contributes in his or her own way, so capitalize on this broad expertise that’s already available to you. First, identify individual talents (often utilizing a StrengthsFinder assessment tool), and then be intentional about providing opportunities for your people to learn from each other.

Be intentional about providing opportunities for your people to learn from each other.

Some ways to do that include holding internal webinars on specific topics that are led by team members who excel in that area. For example, someone with outstanding presentation skills could share his or her expertise with other team members. Another example could be holding monthly “lunch and learn” meetings with your team. Everyone gets together for lunch and a team member leads the training. The “teacher” could alternate depending on the topic and the person’s area of expertise. The company could pick up the lunch tab, or it could even be a pitch-in lunch with the company providing the drinks and the facility space.

Another way to leverage your talent is with a simple mentoring plan. Again, it starts with identifying the strengths of individuals throughout the company, and then making those talents known and available to others. That way if someone needs improvement in a specific area, he or she can then reach out to the right person.

3. Conduct annual talent reviews to identify and understand the strengths of your individual team members and their career goals. In turn, leadership then can be intentional with developmental career moves for its team members.

Research indicates that 70 percent of our learning comes through experience, which is why career development job moves are so important.

[Tanmay Vora] There are a lot of assessments, theories and best practices for building a culture of excellence. How does one “make it all happen”?

[Diane K. Adams] That’s another great question, and it’s what inspired me to write this book. The answer goes back to the basic definition of culture. Remember, creating a positive values-based culture is about being intentional and pervasive about each of the 7 Points to Culture Success.

So, the secret to a successful culture lies in intentionally defining your values and integrating them into every part of your organization.

For example, are your values incorporated into your performance review process? Do you have a recognition process for individuals who excel at the core values? Are your leaders rewarded for building a positive-based culture? Those are just a few of the ways you incorporate your values into and make your positive culture happen. It all ties back to the 7 Points to Culture.

[Tanmay Vora] If there is only ONE advice from your book that you would like to share with companies and start-ups, what would that be?

[Diane K. Adams] Every person and every company has the potential to be extraordinary. Creating a positive values-based culture provides an environment to do just that.

[Tanmay Vora] Diane, thank you for writing this book and for sharing your valuable insights here. I am sure readers of this blog will find your book and ideas very helpful in their own journeys of building excellent culture within their teams and organizations.

[Diane K. Adams] Thank you Tanmay. One last thought for your readers: Creating that great culture doesn’t have to be overwhelming or expensive. But it does take a recognition of those positive values that matter to you and your company, and then the commitment and courage to live those values in everything the company and its people say and do.

If you would like to learn more about how you can build a positive culture in your organization, please check out the FREE online workbook that accompanies my book at my website,

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Also read: Other Book Reviews at QAspire Blog

7 Pointers to Build a Strong Company Culture

Much like electricity which cannot be seen but empowers the devices, culture is an invisible force that drives beliefs, habits, rituals and outcomes of an organization. In fact, culture is a sum total of an organization’s shared values, behaviors, rituals, beliefs, attitudes, goals and practices.

It exerts a powerful influence on day to day behaviors and choices of people. Yet, the truth is that most organizations are not aware about the current state of their culture.

The thing about culture is – even when you are not consciously building a culture, it is still being formed by default based on your actions and decisions on a day to day basis. And it impacts your bottom line.

“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will take care of itself.” – Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos

If culture is anyway being formed, why not work to build it consciously? Here are some good starting points to build a strong culture.

  • Clarify your motives: The goal of building a strong culture is not to merely extend a “feel good” factor to your people. The goal of building a great culture is to empower, enable and network your people through values, beliefs, rituals, systems and practices so that they can create real business value.
  • Understand the drivers of great culture: Many leaders associate culture with external perks like free lunches, vacation policies and such. Culture is driven by combination of internal and external forces and most importantly, understanding of what your business really needs.
  •  Define your values: Once you know what kind of culture you want to build, you need to establish values – guiding principles that should dictate the behaviors and actions and help people differentiate between right and the wrong. Involve your people in defining values for better buy-in and collective discovery of associated behaviors. 
  • Live them: Values defined, posters created,communication done and office space is decorated with new values – great! But culture, real culture, is built one action and one decision at a time. Your values will mean nothing unless they are lived at every level within the organization.  Reward what you want more of.
  • Assess your culture: Take time to periodically assess the culture. Are we living our values? What do people think about our culture? What are our strengths and opportunities for improvements? Assessments can vary from simple internal surveys to sophisticated external assessment tools. The key is to know where you stand and what needs improvement.
  • Take Actions: People make sense of an organization’s culture not by written words but by real actions. If building a strong culture is your priority, act on the feedback you receive from the culture assessment. Talk to your people, involve them in the change process and make real progress in areas that matter. Strong cultures are shaped largely by how leaders act.
  • Communicate Relentlessly: It helps to communicate about your culture and values continuously and explicitly. Your internal and external stakeholders need to understand your culture. Communicate through words and through your actions. Reward people who demonstrate right behaviors and live your values. Provide feedback to those who don’t.  Encourage open and honest dialogue about your culture whenever you can.

Yes, your product or service is the starting point of organization building activity. But unless you build a great culture, it is incredibly difficult to accelerate growth.

So, there is a reason why Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategy is created in boardroom but culture determines how people on the floor actually implement the strategy – and how well!

Humanity in Customer Service: A Touching Tale

I recently stumbled upon a very touching story of what it means to adopt a human approach when dealing with others at work.

In 2011, Mark Dickinson was devastated to learn about the murder of his three years old grandson. Mark immediately rushed to Los Angeles airport to reach Tucson and see his grandson for one last time. At the airport, Mark saw long queues for baggage check-in and security that would keep him from making it to the flight. Mark could not hold back his tears as he kept pleading to the staff members of Southwest Airlines to expedite the process and no one seemed to care. Finally, after clearing security check a good 12 minutes after flight’s planned departure, he did not even wait to put his shoes on and literally ran towards the terminal where he found  the pilot and gate attendant waiting for him.

“Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we’re so sorry about the loss of your grandson,” the pilot reportedly said. “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.”

Isn’t this amazing? How could a pilot – who is also an employee – take such a human call at the risk of delaying other passengers and violating corporate rules? Was this an individual decision OR outcome of a culture that Southwest Airlines has built?

I quickly visited their website to look for their values. Here’s what I found on their customer service page:

“We like to think of ourselves as a Customer Service company that happens to fly airplanes.”

Their purpose statement on website reads,

“To connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”

Most organizations have tall corporate values that are only confined to the plaque on the wall or a page on the website. They mean nothing unless they empower people to behave in line with those values.

It is an inspiring story about how corporate purpose (and culture) enabled an individual to connect a customer with his most important priority – to see the face of his departed grandson for one last time!

In an era when even brands are trying to project themselves as humans – can we, the real human beings, treat our customers and colleagues as human beings without trying to hide behind the layered corporate processes, rules and hierarchies?

This story exemplifies the importance of living the values and purpose. Of bringing your humanity at workplace. Of what it means to work in a new world.

How to Build a Great Team and Culture? 60 Pointers

I recently delivered a talk at a local entrepreneurship forum on the topic “How to Build a Great Team and Culture”.

It won’t be unfair to say that establishing a great culture and team is highest on priority of a business leader. And why not? A great culture enables success, builds team fabric and attracts talent too. We have all seen many talented teams failing simply because of a poor culture and human dynamics. Here is the running list of 60 odd lessons I shared during my talk:

A Great Team is all about “People”

  • Good team work is mathematics – it adds leverage, divides work and multiplies success.
  • People are at the heart of a great team. Where there are human beings, there will be dynamics of how they operate. Human dynamics remain the same –be it team, family or community.
  • Treat them as humans. Living, breathing, emotional and intelligent people are not “resources”. They are not a part of machinery. They are humans.
  • Human beings have self-esteem.
  • They are driven by ambition.
  • They want to grow.
  • They want independence.
  • If ambition is the driver, inspiration is the fuel. Feedback is the compass that enables them to validate direction. Trust is the currency.

Why Team?

  • A team of discrete individuals join hands because they want to achieve something that is beyond their own selves. Having a compelling purpose is the first pre-requisite of building a great team.
  • In today’s world, people cannot be simply “roped into” the team. They have to “opt-in” – which means that a leader’s first job and biggest value addition is to articulate the clear vision and principles for how the team will reach it. To clarify the purpose in so many words (and through actions). People need to know how their work fits into a larger picture.
  • Clarifying the purpose and setting the vision is not a one-time communication. It has to be re-iterated in every meeting and every interaction. Vision and values are not “feel good things” written on the wall plaque – they have to be lived in every decision that an organization takes. Formal and informal forums like water-cooler conversations, one-on-ones, all hands meetings, and internal newsletters are a great way to reinforce the message.
  • If you want to ENLIST people onto your vision, you have to LISTEN – probably a reason why both the words are made up of same letters.
  • Communication is the most important tool in a leader’s toolkit. Communication that sets expectations right!
  • “If people are subordinates, what are they subordinating to?” In my view, people never subordinate other people. They are subordinates to a cause. In that sense, even a leader is a subordinate to a cause.
  • Set expectations on behaviors you value. As Michael le Boeuf says, “You get more of the behavior you reward. You don’t get what you hope for, ask for, wish for or beg for. You get what you reward."

Getting Right People

  • A team is as good as the people in it. Get people on your team who are either rock stars with proven capabilities or the ones who possess the attitude of being rock stars.
  • Never hire on capabilities alone. Attitude is as important as capabilities. In fact, with the right attitude, a team member can build capabilities. Skills alone, without right attitude doesn’t move a needle.
  • As Tom Peters says, “Attitude > Ability”
  • Embrace diversity. Diversity is the key to an innovative team. If everyone belongs to a similar background or have similar thought processes, how will the team think different? How will they look at same things with a new set of lens? How will they challenge the status-quo? Celebrate these outliers, for they are the ones who will help you grow!
  • Before hiring a team members, look for actual working skills. Learning history. Communication. Adaptability and most importantly, integrity.
  • After all this, ensure that the person is fun to work with, social and emotionally intelligent.
  • Get people on team with complementary skills. A good team is the one where people complement each other. It is like a puzzle where the whole picture is not complete without any one of its parts. Each piece of puzzle fills the other!
  • Even after having all traffic rules, accidents still happen. It will happen when you are building team. The key is to know when to let someone go.

Managing Smart

  • People don’t need micromanagement. They don’t need carrot and stick. They need an ecosystem where they can exercise their discretionary effort and deliver their 102% – 100% of what is expected and 2% value addition.
  • How to create such an ecosystem? Dan Pink’s new theory of motivation comes in handy. People need autonomy (control over their work). They want to pursue mastery (work that helps them become better). They need a strong purpose (working on what matters).
  • Trust is the currency for eliciting excellence. Because it is simple: people only do their best work when they are trusted. With traditional “command-and-control”, people will comply at the best. With trust and empowerment, they will exceed the expectations.
  • In a team, people share the same vision, but not accountability. Establish clear roles, responsibilities and accountabilities early on.
  • If people are involved in planning, they co-own the plan (buy-in). Involve people when planning for tasks that impacts their work.
  • Rituals are powerful. Communication cannot be left to a chance. Establishing rituals (daily stand-ups, weekly meetings, one-on-ones, retrospective meetings) are a powerful way to ensure that team stays on track.
  • Have systems in place. It is said that “Processes without results are a waste. Results without processes are not sustainable.”
  • Share feedback early and often. Feedback validates the direction and helps in course correction.
  • Manage meetings well. Keep them short and focused on actions.
  • Foster collaboration. Don’t rely on emails when you can walk up and talk to a team member.
  • Play to their strengths and let them shine. A lot of team leadership is knowing who can do what and delegating accordingly.
  • Let them take lead. People fondly remember what they started or owned.

Grace Under Fire

  • In Storming phase of a team’s lifecycle, conflicts are inevitable. It is not about conflicts but how you manage them.
  • The harder the conflict, the glorious the triumph – because every conflict tests (and strengthens) the team fabric. It refreshes the dynamics.
  • Treat people well when they make mistakes – when they least expect it.
  • When you have to be firm, be firm – but not at the cost of politeness. Being firm and polite is an art! Dealing with others without grace kills autonomy.
  • Manage the grapevine. Avoid small talk within the team. Encourage people to address issues directly.
  • In all situations bad and good, always be transparent about what is really going on and how will it impact the team.
  • Monitor progress, not people.
  • Question process, not individuals.
  • When you encounter an ego situation, quiz your goals. Am I (are you) focusing on ‘who’ is right, or doing ‘what’ is right?
  • Be graceful, always!

Inspiration and Gratitude

  • Someone rightly said, “We always get more from people by building a ‘fire within them’ than we do by building ‘fire under them.’
  • Be generous about recognizing contributions. Be authentic when appreciating. Say more than just “good job” and tell them what exactly do you appreciate.
  • Thank often.
  • Own failures but share success.
  • Gratitude and Recognition feeds self-esteem (one’s assessment of self-worth) – one of our basic needs.
  • Inspire by improving the work, processes and rituals. Constant improvement leads to better engagement. “The greatest danger a team faces isn’t that it won’t become successful, but that it will, and then ease to improve.”
  • Celebrate successes and early wins.

A Note about Culture

  • It is said that an organization is an elongated shadow of the leader. As a leader, your beliefs, opinions, likes and dislikes will become the culture of your organization. It pays to be careful about what kind of organization you want to build.
  • Be the example others want to follow. If you want excellence, be excellent first. First “be” and then “seek”.
  • Culture is built one choice at a time. Choices made up in start-up phase often end up building culture.
  • If you are not conscious about what culture you want to build, culture will happen. Culture by default or Culture by Design? That is the choice every business leader has to make.

Growing Others

  • When people do the work, their work makes them. It helps to see what people are becoming as a result of the work. 
  • A leader’s real legacy is the net positive difference they have made in lives of people working in their team.
  • Actively mentor them through the journey. Mentors elevate human potential and hence performance. Mentors open up a world of possibilities for people being mentored. Great leaders are farmers – cultivators of human potential.
  • Practice tough love with them – push them to achieve more or achieve better!
  • Have a goal to make yourself redundant, so that others (with potential) can step up and play a bigger role.
  • Dr. John Maxwell puts in brilliantly, “The point of leading is not to cross the finish line first; it’s to take people across the finish line with you.”

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Also Download: Graceful Leadership 101 (PDF)

9 Simple Ideas for Employee Engagement

My last post emphasized on balancing processes and practices with emotion when leading projects. HR folks know this as “employee engagement”. In simplest terms, people have a choice to do a great job or a mediocre one. They exercise this choice based on the emotional connection with purpose of project/team/organization.

Why all this buzz around employee engagement, you may ask? Consider this: A Gallup study estimated that lower productivity due to disengaged workers costs the U.S. economy about $328 million. It is more than a pronounced fact now that level of employee engagement has a net direct impact on a company’s business bottom lines. On the brighter side, engaged team members delivered 12% higher customer satisfaction scores, 18% higher productivity and about 12% higher profitability. A 2010 study by AON Hewitt also confirms this.

Actively engaged team members are the greatest source of creativity, innovation, quality and improvements within an organization. In a knowledge world, only engaged team members go out of their way to delivery great customer experiences. If you are a leader at any level within the organization, your primary job is to build a culture of consistently high engagement. How do you achieve that?

Clarify the purpose continuously: People need to know the grand purpose to which they are subscribing. Constant reinforcement of purpose and matching that with team member’s individual aspirations is a great way to keep them engaged.

Show how they contribute: Most people working on various initiatives/projects want to know how their work contributes in achieving the purpose. Show them the results, give them a broader perspective, share feedback and let them understand how customer perceives value. Once this important link is established, people are more equipped to deliver better outcomes.

Be a “potential mirror”: I am not sure if there is such a word like “potential mirror”. But whenever you share feedback and communicate, nurture their self-esteem. Criticize constructively and show them their potential. Help them identify their unique strengths and how to put them to use.

Set Them Free: Align values, give them a purpose and then set them free. Autonomy is a great driver of employee engagement. Team members need a space where they can exercise their ideas and be creative. Let them make mistakes, but handhold them so they learn. Setting them free is also a great indicator that you trust them.

Involve Them in Leading Change: People often get into comfort of their work with time. Involving them in meaningful change/improvement initiatives is a great way to keep them alternately engaged. Sometimes, when people get bored with routine, such change initiatives can be reinvigorating.

Foster Communication: Build an eco-system where communication is free. Management methods like SCRUM do this nicely where team members do a daily stand-up meeting. It keeps them aligned and accountable. These daily forums are also a great way to share progress and feedback.

Use External and Internal Feedback: Allow people to share their feedback. Listen intentionally. People want to be heard and understood. Let customers speak about their perception of team and what can be improved. Internal and external feedback can often show you the right path.

Act on it: Show that you care by acting on the feedback. Better yet, involve people in implementing those actions. Taking feedback and not acting on it is a costly mistake that can quickly disengage people.

Celebrate: Team works hard and engaged people always end up walking extra-mile to get things done. Do not forget to celebrate the team, their achievements and their hard work. A team that works together and celebrates together, performs together.

Bonus Resources:

  1. Employee Engagement for Managers: In One Sentence” (free eBook) by David Zinger – a thought leader and authority on the subject of employee engagement.

  2. UpstartHR’s Guide to Employee Engagement (where I contributed a chapter.

Who Is Responsible For Improvements?

Improvements don’t happen if organizations don’t have someone responsible for it. This is the reason why a lot of organizations have senior executives who think about and plan improvement initiatives. From a strategic viewpoint, this makes a lot of sense.

However, there is another side to it. Just because there is one person responsible for improvements, no one else cares to thinks about any improvements. This is counter productive, simply because the most meaningful improvements in work can only come from those who are actually executing the work day in and out.

Improvement comes from learning of what works, what doesn’t and what works better. Learning comes from doing the work, from trying, from experimenting and from failing. So two key things emerge out of this thought process:

Building a culture where experimentation is valued is crucial for improvement

In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge writes,

The irony is that if we were only working at the top of the organization we might never have been aware of some of these problems and thus might never have attempted to solve them. But when you build a team that believes that change from any place in the system is possible, significant change can sprout from even the tiniest of seeds.

When people try to improve anything, they will make mistakes. Their experiments will fail. In overly risk-averse organizations where making mistakes is almost a crime, improvements will never come from the real practitioners. Hence, it is extremely important to build a culture where people are free to start new initiatives, look at fresh new ways of working and simplify the complex. They not only need encouragement, but empowerment. Leaders play a crucial role in building this culture.

Improvement is everybody’s job

Senior executives responsible for process improvement are facilitators. They facilitate the practitioners so that they can improve on work processes in tiny bits. Improvement managers then take those small local improvements to the organization level. But involving people in improvement is crucial.The goal of sponsoring improvement initiative is to empower people to enhance their capacity to create. For improvements to have net positive impact on an organization’s efficiency, they have to be driven by practitioners.

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Join in the conversation. What ideas would you suggest to involve practitioners in improvement game? What are the best ways to empower people so that they initiate improvements rather than just executing the instructions?

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Leaders Cannot Be Blamers: 3 Things

The true test of a leader is when things don’t go as planned. Worst yet, when things fail.

In an organizational context, I have seen so many leaders who drive the project/initiative right from the beginning – yet when the project fails, they blame others. They blame senior management, the organization culture, their own team members and sometimes even the customers. It tells me something – if you decide that you want to blame “others”, you will invariably find those “others”. That is an easy choice, and the one that puts everyone down.

When leaders indulge into the blame game, they lose respect because they throw a negative vibe around. This vibe is powerful (and sometimes even viral), because it comes from someone who is supposed to be a leader. It spreads fast, harms reputation of leader and culture of the organization on a longer run.

If you are a leader at any level, here are three things worth noting:

  • Blaming is easy but taking responsibility, learning from mistakes and implementing those lessons to improve constantly is difficult. It is these difficult things that makes a real leader. Similarly, for an organization, building a culture where people are not afraid of taking responsibility is critical.
  • Leaders need to watch and choose their words. Every conversation with others is an opportunity to make a difference. When you talk negative, focus too much on problems and blame others, you are missing the opportunity.
  • Leadership is about using “we” language more than “I versus them”, and that kind of leadership owns the failures as much as they own their successes. It is about celebrating the contributions from each team member when team succeeds, and take collective ownership of failures, learn from them and improve. It is also about knowing when to step up and take the lead, versus when to step down and let people perform.

Bottom line:

Leadership is not just about enjoying the fruits of success. It comes with a fair share of failures as well. We cannot be the leaders who blame others.

Join in the conversation:

Have you seen leaders who constantly blame others? How should an organization deal with such leaders?

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Also read:

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Have a great start into the week!

Fostering Peer Leadership In a Team

A few years back, I was facilitating a team that was responsible for pulling off a project in a completely new technology. This also meant that each one of the team members had to take initiative and explore new areas of the technology.

While the project had a designated project lead, we saw many team members who demonstrated “peer leadership”. Simply put, peer leadership happens when people at go beyond hierarchy and demonstrate leadership skills. It is the kind of leadership that exists among equals.

We had one particular team member who would think forward, anticipate issues and flag them to the team. He was also the one who pointed out some of the most important elements of the projects that the team missed. He was clearly a peer-leader, because the other team members started looking up to him as someone who carried higher visibility into the project (or some areas of the project).

Based on this and a few other experiences, here are a few important lessons I learned in peer leadership:

  • Peer leadership stems from an individual’s choice to do a great job. It is also a result of an individual’s know how of the subject matter.
  • Peer leadership transcends the traditional hierarchical structure where everyone on the team has an equal opportunity to lead and follow at the same time.
  • Organizations/leaders should foster peer leadership to engage and motivate people to think beyond their documented responsibilities and grow in the process.
  • Bottom-up innovation is generally a result of personal leadership from people at all levels within an organization.
  • To foster peer leadership, it is important to build a culture of empowerment where people are driven by the broad vision of the project/organization and are empowered to execute their decisions.

Peer leadership happens in a team context, and is very closely related to personal leadership at an individual level.

So here are two critical questions:

  • If you are a manager/leader, how do you foster peer leadership amongst team members where each member leads a part of the project?
  • If you are a professional, how can you elevate your work to differentiate and lead?

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Happy Monday!

Quality? Excellence? What?

I was casually discussing quality and excellence with one of my old friends. We were exchanging our ideas on these topics, when I realized that he used the words quality and excellence interchangeably. This led to some more thinking and here’s what I realized:

  • Quality is generally extrinsic. It is driven by external demands. We implement best practices in line with industry standards. We write our processes to get certified against a certain standard. We develop our products and services in line with the demands of our customers. When we continuously meet these demands, adhere to processes and improve upon them, we build repeatability in our success.
  • Excellence is always intrinsic. It is our innate desire to go out of our way to deliver a superior experience. Not because someone else demands it, but because ‘you’ want it that way. It is for your own satisfaction of having done a great job. Excellence is a ‘people’ game, and the one that pushes quality one step forward. In either cases, people are at the fulcrum.

So, how are they related?

In my view, quality is a route to excellence. People can do their best, walk that extra-mile and think of adding value once they are absolutely clear of how to do the basic things right. Processes given them a firm base on which they can build excellence. On the other hand, excellent people may fumble if they are not supported with right set of guidelines on delivering quality.

Secondly, excellence has a lot to do with people’s motivation to do a great job. It is their choice. Getting people to exercise their choice of delivering excellence is #1 leadership challenge. It starts with getting the right people and building the right culture.

Finally, just like quality, excellence is a moving target. Today’s excellent becomes tomorrow’s good enough and day-after-tomorrow’s mediocre.

Bottom line:

Pursuing excellence is a worthy goal. Knowing the close inter-relationship between quality and excellence is important. Defining them clearly is important. Getting people to excel, driving their motivation, creating a constantly improving culture and striking balance between adherence and motivation is a big challenge leaders face.

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Connected Thoughts at QAspire Blog:

Establishing Forums to Build a Quality Oriented Culture

Total Quality Management (TQM) says that quality is everybody’s job. Each individual’s approach to work, understanding of quality and personal standards of excellence are crucial for delivering quality. One of the biggest challenges for a lot of organizations today is to involve each and every team member in the quality game.

Most people in the organization can do a better job if they know:

  • What are the key values and beliefs on quality/excellence in the organization?
  • What key actions will help me to align myself to those values and belief system?
  • How will those actions add value to organization? How will it benefit me?

Constant communication (from top to bottom and vice versa) is the only way to answer these critical questions and  keep people engaged in excellence. Here are a few forums you can establish/use to promote quality consciousness across the organization:

  • Promote quality initiatives in all your monthly/weekly team meetings. Let people at all levels know that excellence in work is not optional. Use these meetings to give them a broad overview of strategies and purpose.
  • Establish quality circles or improvement/quality focus groups and rotate people to give everyone a chance to participate.
  • Deliver induction trainings to all new joinees and constantly train them thereafter. Train your middle managers on quality to build a right leadership ecosystem.
  • Organize events like group discussions and brainstorming sessions to promote ideas, share success stories, best practices and project case studies.
  • Spread awareness of your quality beliefs and systems by designing e-bulletins or newsletters. Record video messages on quality and upload them on your corporate intranet.
  • Encourage discussions/participation by using internal blogs/wiki/forums.
  • Set up a reward and recognition system to promote right behaviors with respect to quality of products/services delivered to customers.

Quality improvement involves transformation, and these forums helps in transforming culture for excellence in all spheres of an organization’s activities. Moreover, they are excellent tools to answer the questions most people have.

TQM is not just a philosophy. It is a vehicle to drive excellence across the organization. Probably that is the reason why it is called “total” quality management.

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Note: My book ‘#QUALITYtweet – 140 bite-sized ideas to deliver quality in every project’ explores the people, process and leadership aspects to build a constantly improving organization culture. Check it out if you haven’t already!

Leadership Belief and Building ‘People-Centric’ Culture

As a leader, you can lead others with a belief that “people are good” – or with a fear that people will default. Your belief is reflected in the way you structure up your leadership team, set up governance processes and treat people. You can choose to provide space and freedom for people to perform or suffocate them with stringent monitoring policies.

Managing by inducing fear (penalties woven in the processes) undermines trust amongst people – and between groups that work together. It undermines the attitude that we all need to grow, improve, prosper and most importantly – SERVE. It undermines the meaning people find in their work. It undermines freedom – which is so essential for people to think abundant. With fear, people are instigated to do wrong, to fudge the details and to dispassionately comply. Does it help?

Here are a few most prominent thoughts about building a people-oriented work culture:

  • Building culture is a choice – and that choice is driven by beliefs. If you strongly believe in people (and their goodness), that belief drives the choice of culture.
  • Choice matters only when it is acted upon – do what you decide, in the way you treat people, design compensation/reward policies, do hiring, create environment and set up processes within your organization.
  • Understand tradeoffs – when you choose to be people oriented, lot of people (factory-advocates) may suggest stringent processes to monitor people, control assets and increase their productivity. Take a call only after revisiting your belief system about people. Building a culture (like building anything) is a painful process that demands taking tough calls and understanding risks.
  • Train People: Focus on your middle management and ensure that they completely understand the belief system and culture. Build processes so that new hires learn the culture, understand it and most importantly, FEEL it.

We are out of the factory mode where fear worked. No longer in knowledge world, where people have a choice between doing “good enough” and doing “great”, between ”simply cruising along” and “driving”. People choose to give their best (discretionary effort) only when they are free, when they are out of fear, when they are believed in and supported.

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P.S: My post Survival mindset, abundance and leadership was featured in The HR Carnival – Summertime Edition along with a host of other GREAT posts on people management, leadership and culture building. If you are a manager, leader or an HR professional – this Carnival will add a lot of value to what you do.

The Best Time To Think About Processes…

… is when you are still small. That is when implementing process is easier and less risky. In the growth phase of the organization, business leaders get overly obsessed with growth (numbers, targets, team size etc.) without thinking how growth will be sustained (culture, processes, tools). The more you wait for your processes to be defined, the more damage it does. It is difficult (and costly) to implement process after you have attained a certain size – for two reasons:

  • Implementation takes more time, more training, more people, more friction and hence more costs.
  • Implementing processes is less about implementing robotic procedures and more about forming habits and changing the culture of the organization.

The bigger problem: In absence of processes, people will work according to their “personal” process (which is based on their past experiences).  What may be “right” for one person may be absolutely absurd for the another – because they see things through their own personalized lenses. This also happens when dealing with customers, managing people and approaching the work. There is a lot of disparity between performances of teams – and most of the time, performances of teams are governed by who is managing the team (and who all are a part of the team). Success is largely a result of individual heroism.

As a start-up business, you need to think about your processes when you are still small. When habits are still forming. When culture is still taking a shape. That is where, processes help you shape the culture and mindset of your core team. Thinking of processes while you are still small may sound little overwhelming for a moment – but if you take a long term view, the benefits are obvious. (Isn’t leadership all about taking a long term view?)

Bottom line: Have processes as an integral part of your business plan – even before you start up. If you want to build a sustainable and high-performance organization, you cannot ignore the power of processes. Processes help you build a culture on a long run.

‘Commitment to Quality’ and Organic Nature of Improvement

We live in the world of instant gratification. Technology has made it easier for us to respond quickly, and rising competition/customer expectations has made it mandatory.

We lay out a strategy and look for quick execution. The moment it goes into execution, we start looking for results. We need ‘early signals’ about probability of success. We launch a blog and look for readers to start flowing in. We impart training and look for instant improvement in people’s abilities to do things. Everything in an instant, and if it doesn’t, drop it and jump on to the next.

Sure, instant actions are needed when business is at stake. When major flaws come to the fore and beg for correction. When a customer is pissed off. When your people are pissed off. Quick actions and quicker results are necessary.

The problem starts when instant gratification becomes a constant expectation.

We forget that process of evolution is slow. Sustainable change and improvement happens slowly. A tree grows organically, so do we. Culture building, process improvement, relationships and team building are slow and painstaking tasks. Gratification is delayed and hence the need for patience, persistence and focus over a long period of time. Key is to hold it on.

Improvement (in processes and culture) is always going to be work in progress because standards will keep going up.

Taking an organic view of improvement, following it through with patience, persistence and focus is what I would call ‘commitment to quality’.