“Brand On!”

I like going to rock concerts as much as the next guy. In fact, probably more. Nothing beats the raw energy, power, soul, and communal-spirit-as-one vibe of good live music. However, sometimes my business brain finds itself at the same show standing right next to me. Fortunately or unfortunately, I can’t shut it off or stop it from coming in with me, and that’s become a familiar tune in a familiar key for me – in Bringing Business to Life.

 

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Who’s on First?

Very recently I attended  a small stadium concert (not at all oxymoronic in this particular case) with general admission seating in a small market city and noticed something. As background and with almost full transparency, I can tell you a this point that there were two “co-headliners”.  Each was cut from a different cloth, but really can be thought of as being of the same rock and roll church but maybe just different pews.

Arriving at the show, the first issue I saw is that someone had to play first. “Which act would it be?”, wondered the caring and the thinking. Others who didn’t care and/or weren’t thinking probably just got another beer or something to eat. Thorough analysis of the possibilities revealed that whoever didn’t play first would occupy the true headliner’s spot for this grand evening’s rock and roll festivities.

The First Guy

So with an early June evening sun still very much on the clock, the first guy and his band rather quietly but confidently took the stage to a strong and supportive ovation. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were wearing the clothes they just happened to have on that day when they came work. Very much, here we are, as we are. The whole vibe seemed pretty copasetic and consistent with the flavor of the appreciative and enthusiastic down front tribe.

Many in the audience, especially those up front, seemed quite pleased to be hanging out with and listening to this guy again after quite a few years had passed for both artist and audience. What followed was an energetic and well-played set, where it was clear that this guy and his band were having a lot of fun at work that day. In particular, the gentleman who sang and played amazing guitar seemed like he couldn’t be any happier to still have the opportunity to do what he was doing at that particular moment.

Turn and Face the Changes

As soon as the set ended, the changes began.  The changes went considerably beyond swapping out mics, drums, amps, and guitar stands. What transpired slowly at first gained momentum as the set break progressed.  Very quickly after the last notes of this first guy and his band had faded, the house mix seemed as if it got louder.  The next thing I noticed was that the crowd down front was changing. My neighborhood was undergoing obvious and visible change. As the Clash once said, I said to self, “Should I stay or should I go now?”

I noticed that the attire of those aspiring to occupy coveted down front positions now was screaming in its juxtaposition that black should become the new orange. Some of the black featured the next band’s name or interesting social commentary. Perhaps even a few ads for a Lynchburg, Tennessee spirt, cigarettes, or firearms. Also evident was that a good number of wide-brimmed hats had replaced what was probably a similar number of ball caps.  Budweiser replaced Miller Lite, Coors Light, and a microbrew or two as the beverage of choice.  More than just the change of equipment on the stage, true cultural change had swept the neighborhood.

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Free as a Bird Now

As the band members took their places, the stage announcer (who seemed like he was a tour employee or manager) bellowed in his reference to the “Skynyrd Nation” that now had completed its takeover of the precious down front real estate.  First thought from business brain on this new input was, “Is this somehow supposed to be a parallel to the NASCAR nation?”. Probably many of the same people, so I guess that works.

So I catch a quick first look at the bass player. Standing right in front of me – dressed in all black, big hat, boots, bank-robber like bandanna across his face. Stage name Johnny Colt (see note below). He eventually lost the bandanna and changed hats, temporarily favoring something that looked like a dead animal skin for headwear. The keyboard player, Peter Keys (stage name) visually put me in mind of a southern rock adaptation of Professor Longhair.  With red solo cup in hand, singer Johnnie Van Zant demonstrated apparent and almost obligatory liquid consumption to the Skynyrd Nation, while handling the mic stand hauntily like his brother Ronnie did in the original band.

No detail had been left to chance. All the way around the horn, there was a very consistent uniform and attitude of the day with these guys.  Audience reflected band, and band threw it right back at them. It was a take no prisoners “Brand On!” approach to marketing.

Brand On!

Named in “honor” of a high school gym teacher in Jacksonville Florida back in the early 70’s, Lynyrd Skynyrd has always and forever will be known for its three guitar army attack on the senses, the tragic plane crash, and its classic rock anthems like “Freebird”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, and “Gimme Three Steps”.  More than just of themselves, this band more than any other became something culturally more important. Skynyrd became the indisputable and symbolic torch bearing icon of the “Southern Rock” genre.

What it was, is, and apparently will continue to be is exceptional branding.  Not sure who owns the name and corporation under which Lynyrd Skynyrd is organized, but this is truly impressive marketing in this day and age where it’s all about touring revenue and not about album sales. The strength of the brand is even more amazing if we stop to think that there’s only one original member and the discography of new music over the years is at best scarce and sporadic.

Tuesday’s Gone (or least my hearing was until Tuesday)

Did I mention yet how loud these guys play?  Yep, it’s part of the brand too, I guess.  Similar to my 9th grade experience with the fully-intact original Skynyrd at JFK Stadium in Philly years ago, I couldn’t hear normally for the better part of a week again this time. Back in the day, I can clearly remember taking my Algebra final with ringing in my ears. This time, it was the challenge of conducting business during the next day with the ringing and temporary threshold loss.

What was cool is that I still knew every song they played, and the band played them very well. The musicians were all very professional and were very good players. Dude with red solo cup seemed right as rain-perhaps the red solo cup was just a prop? That Johnny Colt fella I referenced above is no lightweight…..looks up his credits…Black Crowes, Train….yes, that Train….that’s how impressive this Skynyrd branding is. Mr. Colt is a true rock and roll chameleon! Despite my feeling that I was attending a reenactment of sorts, the performance was very strong and the music definitely has survived the test of time. The Skynyrd Nation seemed to love ’em and seemed to revel in their shared brand identity. This brand definitely still throws off some cash for its owners some 40 years later.  And that’s pretty impressive from a business standpoint!

First Guy – Reprise

By the way, “the first guy” and his band that played before Skynyrd…….was none other than Peter Frampton. You see, he’s pretty good too.  Straight forward, amazingly humble for his stature in the business and literally its history, he seems like a good guy who remains one of the most underrated guitarists on the planet…which may I add is probably related to how he was once branded and marketed as a teen idol rock star back in the day. Some of us knew how good he really was back then. And he’s better now, which is a story worthy of its own future Bringing Business to Life post (tags = continuous improvement, development, life-long learning, etc….).

Photo credit – me.

Frampton

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Listen Up!

earphonesWe all know people who like to talk.  Talk, talk, talk. And then talk some more. Even the most eloquent orators are best advised to shut up and listen once in awhile. Sometimes silence really can be golden.

Opening Remarks

Listening can be hard work, so it’s no surprise that so few people choose to engage in this challenging behavior. It really does take practice, and after all, who has time these days to do anything but say what they need to say and then move on to the next task or one-sided discussion?

We just have too much going on to care about what someone else is saying. Unfortunately, all too many people see listening as a non-productive use of their time.  When organizational leaders feel this way, sub-optimization cannot be too far behind.

Soliloquy & Segue

Ask any good musician what it takes to be successful. One of the tips they almost always give is that the best musicians listen to what others are playing. That’s how the great bands become more than just the sum of their parts.  Sure it’s always about having the chops necessary to play one’s parts; however, an unwillingness to listen – by even the most naturally gifted and talented player in the band – will keep the overall unit from reaching its potential.

Corporations, small businesses, governments, and non-profits alike, as well as the organizations within them, all work the same way in this regard. The bully pulpit that often attaches to leadership positions and subject matter expertise is a bit like Eve and that apple. Tempting as it may be to push the agenda forward as quickly as possible, those who keep talking and don’t listen run the risk of missing things. Sometimes the devil really is in the details…details which only become known by listening to what someone else has to say.

Rambling On

The lost art of  listening can lead to better solutions to every day business problems.  In many professions, it’s not unusual to get caught in the middle between functional and business leaders. There seems to really be no shortage of those situations that put proverbial body parts of employees within the tight grips of proverbial vises.  Not a fun place to be, but hardly unusual or unique.

Both protagonists and antagonists of high rank often tend to be quite good at making the meek, humble, and occupationally-dependent feel overwhelming and unhealthy senses of personal responsibility/accountability for whatever the problem is in a particular situation. Usually the “science” of the competing arguments is clear and at least somewhat justified. However, it’s the lost “art” of listening that is a lot less obvious in its potential to help everyone move past apparent impasse and productivity loss.

Closing Arguments

In arguing its case through you, does each side make its point in a way that considers that there is an opposing view that could have some merit? Are they stopping to get your opinion or just telling you how it is and how it’s going to be? Is self-promotion and/or self-preservation behavior evident? Do tone and word selection convey emotion?

Depending on the answers to these questions,  there’s probably not much to be gained at any level from matching word count, volume, or apparent strength of conviction. Sometimes it’s best to just let it all go down and be the sponge. Soak it all in. Walk away. Think. Let things chill a bit – especially if there’s been a precipitating event that touched things off.

Now just might be the time for everyone to ‘Listen Up!‘.

True Dat

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                                                                                                                                                                                                             These 12 truths appear in no particular order.Their apparent simplicity belies their underlying complexity. 

                                                                                                                                                                                     1. Monetary incentives really can promote bad behaviors. This truth often appears along side of its “smart people do stupid things” corollary.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                             2. Selling on price really is easier. That’s why so many people do it.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                3. Analysis really can lead to paralysis. At a certain point, it’s time to move forward.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 4. Self-interest really does rule the roost. People are rarely willing to truly take one for the team, especially when they know it’s really going to sting.
                                                                                                                                                                                                   5. Relationships really are important. They are arguably the best way to build something that lasts in an organization.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 6. Team building really does not effectively simulate real life to any great extent. The co-worker who catches your fall during the “trust exercise” may just be one most likely to throw you under a bus.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                7. Following the money really does work. This time-honored analysis technique is one you can always count on to more fully explain human behavior.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                8. Innovation, invention, and originality really are hard work. That’s why people often find it easier to copy rather to create.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                              9. There are really only two kinds of people in a privately-owned company. Those who own it, and those who don’t.
                                                                                                                                                                                                               10. Customer service really is important. Remove it or compromise it if you want to see how quickly bad things can happen to your business.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        11. Occupational stereotypes really can and do ring true. Sales people are often outgoing, accountants-boring, engineers-introverted, scientists-meticulously methodical, IT folks-geeky, and so on….
                                                                                                                                                                                                              12.  There really is not enough credit to go around. That’s why people feel they have to steal it from others.

 

 

Taxman Cometh

 

 

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“Should five per cent appear too small. Be thankful I don’t take it all. ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman.” -the Beatles 

Deep sighs of relief abound as another Tax Day has come and gone. But if you listen closely, those sighs aren’t the only sounds you can hear. You can still hear the sounds of people grumbling about their taxes.

Grumble, Grumble

People grumbling over taxes goes way back. Yes, even before 1966 when the Fab Four’s George Harrison penned his critique, aggrieved parties in Boston held their tea party and sent a tax message back accross the pond to England. While the issues have changed, it remains true that no one really likes paying taxes. Nor thinks all aspects of the U.S. tax code make sense.

Tax Day

April 15th is a day that almost everyone knows to be an important one. It is arguably the most known date that is not a national holiday or one that appears on a religious calendar. For sure, it’s also a date that’s much more important for those who owe taxes versus those who by this date have already spent their tax refunds on consumer electronics or otherwise put the funds back into the economy.

But one thing that has changed is what Tax Day looks like at the local post office. Remember when there actually used to be traffic jams around U.S. Post Offices on Tax Day?  Youngsters will someday find this hard to believe. Local news teams covered the annual ritual with gusto. For those trying to get anywhere by car, it was necessary to select alternate travel routes.  I think people even sold coffee and donuts out front. These days, not so much.

Sweet Redemption

Another reason that April 15th stands out is that it is that one day in the year where the tables get temporarily turned. It’s a bit illogical, but it’s a day where events that seemed bad when they happened now become worth something financially. Did you sell your house or shares of stock at a loss? Or maybe cringe as you wrote out those alimony checks? What about paying mortgage interest, PMI, and real estate taxes? Perhaps you awoke to find your pockets empty after a long fuzzy night in the casino? Or maybe even experienced something as terrible as death in the family.

But Oh Mother of Mercy and Sweet Redemption -these decidedly negative events may have positive value on April 15th! This could only pretty much be true in the topsy-turvy, upside down, mixed up shook up world of tax. Of course, deductibility of these events and any associated positive tax value may be subject to this, that, and the other limitation, exclusion, or exception. So check the code first, as should always be the disclaimer in the wacky world of tax.

Kramer : It’s just a write off for them .

Jerry : How is it a write off ?

Kramer : They just write it off .

Kramer : Jerry all these big companies they write off everything

Jerry : You don’t even know what a write off is .

Kramer : Do you ?

Jerry : No . I don’t .

Kramer : But they do and they are the ones writing it off .

No Taxes

Once upon a time, I had a job as the top finance person in a company. Accordingly I took great pride in the profitability and balance sheet strength the company had built. For as long as I live and probably even a bit longer, I will never forget the retired company founder, who had just returned from Florida one spring, telling me that I was not doing a very good job at all when it came to taxes.

At first this puzzled me, but then retired owner dude made it crystal clear that we should be paying a lot less in taxes. Retired owner dude apparently had met another similarly retired owner dude who had done quite well but paid very little in taxes each year. Right in line with our CPAs who had been similarly charged in the allegations, my response was to point out that since we were making money, we should expect to be paying some taxes. Silly me.

If you lock in on the mental imagery, you can surely picture these two retired owner dudes talking tax (or lack thereof) while feeding the sea gulls down in Florida- Gulf side of course – in their black knee socks, sandals, and Bermuda shorts!

Bad Policy

I’m no different from anyone else when it comes to having a few pet peeves around taxes. First and foremost, I tend to be critical of what I call “bad policy”. Simply put, this is what results when the tax code discourages the right behaviors from happening, or encourages the wrong behaviors, and in general does not serve the greater collective good of our great nation.

In my opinion, one excellent example at the federal level is found with the alternative minimum tax or AMT. Attempting to ensure that those at higher income levels take their share of the tax burden does not seem like such a bad thing. However, above a certain income level, several overly nasty, almost punitive, tax penalties kick in that discourage the right behaviors from happening. At least in some cases, folks wishing to avoid AMT magically seem to earn right up to the limit and then stop earning (and paying in additional funds to the tax kitty). Bad policy.

We should want these relatively successful individuals and small businesses to “keep going”, earning more and creating jobs as they go. Which obviously would be good for the greater good.

More Bad Policy

Another example is found in at least one state’s capital stock franchise tax. What it does is tax the retained earnings of a business. This is analogous to the government taxing the entire balance in an individual’s savings account. This does not serve well in attracting new corporate residents. Bad policy.

I know of a small businessman who is engaged in what is primarily a service business. His mistake is that he keeps some taxable retail stock on hand to service a very specialized and often medically referred subset of his clientele. He is quick to point out that he pays the same tax bill twice if the specific unit of inventory is on hand at the end of two successive tax years. Bad policy….Maybe he needs to winter in Florida to get some tax tips.

Real Alternative?

There’s a Stanford professor named Joseph Bankman, who advocates that the IRS should prepare our tax returns. His logic goes that employers and financial institutions are already sending the IRS our tax information, so why not let the IRS do the work for us? Critics point out that this reduces the involvement of taxpayers in the tax process, which then starts to sound like that whole taxation without representation thing all over again.

It seems that there is also a strong lobby against Bankman’s thinking. It turns out that the company Intuit thinks the IRS preparing our tax returns is a bad idea. Their product portfolio includes Turbo Tax.

As with most things, it pays to follow the money!

 

Build Something!

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Why not build something?  Something that will last.

Out there in the streets of corporate America, life seems to be getting tougher with each passing day. The pressure to achieve short-term results has never been greater. In fact, this pressure seems to be increasing exponentially.  Perhaps it is an idealistic delusion that tells us that by now we should be much further beyond where we are in this regard.  The good news is that each and every day places us at a series of crossroads. This is precisely where we can make choices about how we go about doing what it is we do.

While top-level objectives, especially earnings targets in public companies, are best and more safely viewed as fixed, there is probably greater latitude to build something that will last than first seems apparent.  There often exists some amount of room for artistic freedom, individual conscience, and long-term thinking in how we choose to go about meeting the top-level requirements.

Build products

Not everyone gets to play in the product sandbox every day when they go to work. However, those who do are in a great position to literally build something that will last rather than just build something that gets out the door quickly, works for a while, and then falls apart or stops working altogether. Engineers, brand managers, and ultimately production organizations collectively decide how long a tangible product that we as consumers buy will last.

Even with cost and go-to-market constraints, the decisions these folks make determine how long your car, refrigerator, or cell phone will last. Not that everything can or should last forever.  But building something that will last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build experiences

On the service side, sales representation, delivery, technical support, and customer service go together to define what is commonly called “customer experience”.  Depending on the business, billing, credit, and collections are financial areas that enter into the experiential realm.  And these days, who can deny the role of web sites and other IT services in building experience?

Building customer experience is not a slam dunk. It’s hard work and involves many pieces and parts of an organization. Applied to tangible product or services, for-profit and non-profit, building customer experiences that will last leads to market differentiation which ultimately builds brand equity. Building customer experiences that last is ultimately good for a company and all its stakeholders.

Build processes

Processes are the support systems that hold together entire product and service experience structures. Arguably the first two “builds” above are not likely to happen without first building processes that last. This is an areas where organizations who choose the easy short-term answers get burnt in the long-run. It is easy to build a process “house of cards”. It takes less time and costs less. Is it any great wonder that they fall apart just as easily?

Processes involve many people and departments throughout an organization.  As a result, they are very vulnerable to short-term cost pressures. Downsizing, reorganization, and ill-advised tinkering works against strength in process. When processes fail, entire companies, or at least businesses and individuals within them, fail because customers, products, and services are impacted. Building processes that last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build bridges

Regardless of what job we hold in our organizations, we all have the opportunity to build relationships that last. Always important but often overlooked as aspect of organizational life, this “build” becomes even more critical as our work forces take on greater cultural, generational, and geographic diversity. Acute short-term pressure for results in our Darwin meets Dilbert organizational lives makes this at the same time both more challenging and more important. In the end, it is people who make the product, experience, and process “builds” possible.

Building relationships that last is not about co-workers and colleagues wanting to become life-long friends. Some of that happens, but by odds and necessity, it will always be the exception rather than the rule. What this “build” is really about is having more people within the workplace actively trying to find the spans of understanding that add up to a better set of sustainable working relationships with which to accomplish the organization’s work. Building relationship bridges that last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build futures

Mentoring and helping others to become better future contributors to building things that last may indeed be reaching lost art status in today’s workplace and maybe even the greater world at large.  It is highly likely that the whole short-term pressure thing is causing this organizational casualty. Overwhelmed people in overwhelmed organizations find it next to impossible to take the time to develop people. Everyone is fully occupied trying to manage their own short-term issues in order to meet their own short-term requirements and needs. Who has time to worry about building others beyond the short-term need?

From a broad organizational sense, this has significantly weakened bench strength everywhere and has led to increased hiring from the outside when positions requiring experiences not found internally do open up. While it may be too soon to know the long-term impacts of all this, it seems likely that it will become even harder to build products, experiences, processes, and bridges that last. Building futures that last is ultimately good for the organization and its stakeholders.

Build something that will last

The good news is that it is definitely not too late.  Everyone just needs to become a bit more of a builder by trying to do just a little more with this one each and everyday. Even with today’s mountain of short-term pressures, individuals making the right choices collectively can build something. We can build something that lasts.

014“You may say I’m a dreamer. 

But I’m not the only one.” 

-John Lennon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission Accomplished

 

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Do organizations still revisit their mission statements as often as they used to? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

Were mission statements somehow downsized during our last recession? Perhaps business leaders increasingly saw talking about them as unproductive dalliance. Or maybe doing so just became corporately uncool for some other reason. Any of these explanations would do fine by me, but it can’t be that simple. Can it?

Frustrations & Qualifications

Some of the most frustrating experiences I have endured in life have occurred during mission statement discussions. These discussions occurred in a variety of organization settings. Large and small, for-profit and non-profit, it didn’t seem to matter. It seemed that no organization with which I was associated could resist the temptation to revisit its reason for being. With calendars blocked, the offsites were scheduled. Consultants were hired, and off we went…sometimes literally into the wilderness or out into those wide open spaces.

Then it seemed to stop. At least for me, it did.  Probably a career-saving kind of thing, as I ponder this welcome and productive development…savoring the moment for just a second or two.

So you can clearly see by now that I feel as if I have studied a lifetime in order to amass what it takes to respectfully address this vaunted topic. I have received passing grades at undergrad and graduate levels in the requisite subject matter. I have been trained by the masters and facilitated by the experts.  I have participated in mission statement discussions at just about every possible corporate level and also in non-profits as a volunteer.  One might go so far as to say that I have been repeatedly summoned to the mission to worship at its altar.

When We Need ‘Em Most

Picture yourself sitting in a room of smart talented individuals with a big pile of money on the table. Further envision that no one really knows for sure where the money came from or what it’s for. However, everyone in the room sees the seed money as some sort of a divine calling of capitalist intervention.

“What should we do with the money?” “Let’s invest it and the plow the dividends back in nanomaterial futures.” “No, we really should make a product.” “OK, I hear you, but how ’bout a service instead?” Energy and ideas fill the room. All that remains is to narrow the field, select a winner, and then write it down in as few words as possible in the form of a mission statement. Destination nirvana, utopia or some other similar realm of free enterprise!

(Note – it’s often the selection and placement of such key words such as “a”, “an” and “the” that takes the most time in mission statement discussions. You may also it find it useful to know that “in a way that”, “in order to” and “so that” are key linking phrases with which to show your mastery of mission.)

Reality Interlude

While a completely blank slate like the one above rarely becomes our reality, most would agree that such a case is definitely worthy of some good old-fashioned mission statement discussion. In fact, let’s go ahead and admit it right here.  It sounds like a lot of fun and would be a great problem to have!

Slightly further along our continuum of reality exists a collection of considerably more believable situations where necessity becomes the impetus for mission statement tweaks. When faced with market, regulatory, or technological disruptors, validating “what it is we that we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it” seems to make good sense as a necessary first step to articulating new identity aspirations and/or changes in direction.

Likewise, significant shifts in ownership, funding, or both should set even the most mission statement discussion-adverse folks like me running toward our multi-colored marker sets, flipcharts and powerpoints.

When We Need ‘Em Not So Much

However most mission statement discussions lack this degree of necessity.  In fact, many that I have seen proved to be completely unnecessary exercises that simply reaffirmed the obvious or were in the end very ineffectual discussions at best. At their worst, they were confusing, dividing, and borderline absurd. I have even seen people cry at these things. I guess discussing the obvious can become hugely emotional for some.

Despite the consumption of expensive resources, an annual reaffirmation of the current mission can make a few top people feel good about current direction and leadership. Obviously this would justify the cost. In one company, this ritual of inconsequential discussion featured idyllic, disconnected, and delusional generation of alternatives while the key issues that would ultimately cause the company significant pain remained off-limits and out of focus. Rome was burning, or at least the fire-starting sparks were assembling while we endlessly and inanely debated the unimportant.

So, it seems to me that having a good sense of corporate self-identity goes a long way to keeping the lines and arrows aligned along the right path. Organizations who do not understand their own DNA are likely to spend more time discussing it. A well run company has a way of letting its own results clarify its mission without wasting a whole lot of time and resources on defining it. I happen to work for one of these companies. We know what we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it.  Mission accomplished!

I Alone

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I alone can’t do it.  Can you? 

After all, it’s hard to have diversity without people. Not even the most adept cost cutters and top-tier value engineers have figured out how to achieve diversity without people.  Not to put it past some to try…but everyone needs someone to help them succeed. 

Adaptive Behaviors

Differences in people and between teams within organizations should be embraced.  Awareness, adaptation, and inclusion are the catalysts through which the raw materials of diversity are set in motion. No amount of stand alone best-in-class attributes will yield an advantage for your company or organization on its own. Someone still has to put it all together. Or at least try.

Adaptive behavior has become a mode of corporate necessity. Survivors at all levels of the organization’s hierarchy continue to exhibit remarkable adaptability. It has become considerably more difficult to navigate within organizational waters. Like never before, survival out in the swirl and white water chop of Corporate America requires not just having the right set of paddles but constantly finding new ways to use them.

This illustrates both the spirit and essence of adaptive behaviors. If individuals can do it, why do many organizations come up short in this area? Maybe organizations do not automatically equal the sum of their parts?

Definitional Subjectivity

Despite attempts to standardize, defining diversity remains a relative and subjective pursuit. Taking a closer look at diversity through a lens that sees beyond the word’s most obvious and traditional definitions is a necessary first step. The main point here is that the definition of diversity most often depends on who is defining it.

For example, Augusta National Golf Club’s diversity for years has been and perhaps still is best defined by its exclusion. With the exception of a few notable inclusions, Augusta has somewhat infamously been able to rest on its status as a private organization as it defines diversity or its lack thereof. Each and every May, TV cameras, spectators, and advertising dollars still flock to these sacred grounds of golf. Membership must have its privileges after all.

In relative obscurity when compared to our Augusta National example, business owners, organizations, and leaders within them also tend to define diversity in their own terms. I guess that’s how they know when they get it right. While they get some help from the legal system and regulatory agencies, diversity that goes beyond the tenets of the U.S. Constitution is definitionally inconsistent and subjective.

Broader Context

There are many aspects to diversity, inclusion and adaptability. And with these aspects come implications for organizational effectiveness and corporate life.  While the Augusta example walks along the cart paths of race, ethnicity, and gender, issues of diversity in organizations are characterized by more subtle and in many cases less fundamental differences.

After all, it’s not enough just to hire people whose presence on the employee rolls allows HR to check off the necessary boxes on EEO reports. Thinking that employing the best and brightest from every walk of life and a variety of different cultures is the end is like thinking that  the world’s finest food ingredients will magically assemble themselves into the perfect meal.

Obviously, it just doesn’t work that way. For as a chef must do in the kitchen, an organization must similarly take proper care and measure to achieve the successful blend of its handpicked ingredients. Without careful attention, the result ends up being something  less than the sum of its parts.

Inability to Blend

It can be argued that most organizations demonstrate an inability to optimize blend. And that failing to do so hurts organizational effectiveness.

Do employees receive the right diversity cues from their organization and its leaders?

Is there organizational acceptance for sharing ideas that may differ from the organization’s conventional wisdom? 

Does the organization stand by as managers consistently fill their teams with people just like them?

Are employees allowed to be themselves?

When enough of the answers to these questions or questions like these turn out to be, “no”, “never”, “not enough”, or “not really” , the resulting environment is almost certain to carry with it a real or perceived political risk associated with engaging in behaviors that can actually strengthen organizational effectiveness.  It is downright ironic from an organizational behavior point of view because the enterprise essentially robs itself of basic connections needed to make its diversity current flow.

Consequently, the collective sum in organizations like these will not add up.

Diversity Disconnects

Some amount of diversity leakage occurs when employees feel that they are not allowed to be themselves when performing their particular work role. If employees do not feel comfortable being themselves at work, the organization loses potential contribution and connectivity. In a classic statistical sense , over-constraining variables results in suboptimization of the output variable.

If the organization does not send a message that it values some amount of constructive differences within its walls, then the individuals within these walls will be unlikely to value differences. They will become less likely to express themselves or interact with those who they perceive might be just a little bit off the corporate mark. Consequently, the connections that trigger the sparks of innovation remain disconnected.

Rolling It Up

Diversity disconnects like this very naturally and effortlessly roll up to departments, business units, and divisions. They parallel organizational structure with uncanny accuracy. If one functional discipline or business unit always dominates, the attributes of others are suppressed. The largest animals in the jungle continue to be fed while others possessing other very useful and adaptive attributes are left to compete for the scraps.

In the animal kingdom, these may include possessing lightning speed, having acute night vision, or being able to fly.  In a corporate sense, these attributes may center around technology, customer service, or market adaptations. If budget dollars and other resources always flow to the department or business unit with the biggest clout or most current success, the environment becomes primed for complacency and stagnation.

Myopic self-imposed barriers become limiting factors for organizational adaptation as the big dogs keep doing the same things and fail to innovate. This becomes extremely dangerous because this is exactly when disruptive market behavior of competitors can go unnoticed. Ostriches with their heads in the sand have trouble seeing what’s coming at them. By the time they look up, it may well be too late.

Benefits of Blend

All this said, it is obviously extremely difficult to run an organization in a way that maximizes diversity through adaptive behaviors at individual, department, business unit, and enterprise levels.  After all, this must be achieved while at the same doing such mundane and existential things as protecting market share and delivering required financial returns. It becomes a full-time job on top of what already is one.

For a corporate culture to even make any movement toward this idyllic amalgamic state, its leaders must nudge it forward. To do so requires some key people at the top holding the belief that the “benefits of blend” outweigh homogenous efficiencies. After all, business does not and should not see itself primarily in terms of a social mission. To be sure, business is a capitalist pursuit, and success is its imperative.

In the end, this really is what we’ve been talking about here all along – corporate success achieved through organizational effectiveness. Diversity is not an end state. What’s important is getting the benefits of blend. I alone can’t do it. Can you? 

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