Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Inspiring words to remember .... Again!!!

Over the course of my career, I have had the chance and honor to lead a wide variety of teams and organizations.  As you can see in various essays on this blog, I deeply believe that “Leadership” and “Management” are radically different ideas; the simple truth being that one “leads” people and “manages” projects.  You can see more on this if you dive into the blog archive on the left of the homepage and look up essays on “Leadership.”

In a wide number of leadership settings and moments, I have looked to historic writings, speeches, and documents as personal points of inspiration and ones that I have shared broadly with my teams.  While I have covered writers and documents that literally span millennium, (from Cicero/Plutarch to Walt Whitman and Aung San Suu Kyi) there has been no single inspirational figure (or specific reference) that I continue to reflect on and share broadly with others than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech from December 1964. 

Regardless of the specific team, the business / life moment at hand, or the pressing challenges of current events, I keep finding my way back to this speech and specifically to the 5th paragraph.  Just a week ago, I shared this speech with the young leaders of a Tech startup that I am advising as part of a strategy retreat that I lead.

Quite literally I was drawn back to the speech this week by the shootings at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston S.C.  Clearly I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and deeply saddened by the oppressive burden and insanity of hatred, racism, and violence that pervades our country and communities today.  In this moment of a pervading sense of hopelessness, once again I turn to the inspiration of Dr. King.  It is truly amazing and certainly uplifting to “re-read” this speech, written amidst the violence and madness of the 60’s in America.  If he can “call out” that he has “an audacious faith in the future of mankind” and that he refuses “to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching  up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.” 

While we are surrounded by a wide and growing set of dramatic, hate and violence filled examples of our “isness, we all need to find a moment and reconnect to Dr. Kings’ admonition to not lose focus or hope on humanity’s “eternal “oughtness.””  We all have real work to do in our communities for our county to be safer, more just and less filled with racism and hatred.  Let Dr. King’s words strengthen and inspire us for the hard work ahead; take a moment and reread the entire speech, and please take the next few moments and reflect on the 5th paragraph below:

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”   
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Noble Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 1964.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Navigating the “swamp” of a packaging project gone awry

It happens all the time, good intentions combined with strong instincts, and a desire to act quickly, conspire together to create quite a mess.  That exact setup was the reality I stepped into on a recent client trip.

I have had the pleasure over the past few months to start working with a wide variety of engaging clients as I started my consulting business, (to see more on Levisay Consulting, click the link on the top left of this blog’s homepage.)  Ranging from a tech startup, a logistics software company, a telemedicine company, a vineyard/winery and a global pharmaceutical firm, it has been a fun and challenging, “pivot” in my professional career.  The range of business models, organization structures, p&l dynamics and business issues is extraordinary. It is certainly “sharpening my saw” regularly and it “feels” great to be building new skills at this point in my career.

A few weeks ago I had a client call, frustrated and challenged with a packaging project that was his responsibility.  The project had been underway for a number of months, and had become stalled amidst a cloud of competing opinions and agendas.  As is often the case with any “subjective” topic (and candidly this happens all the time across the board), everyone has an opinion, everyone is an expert, and no one is ready to make the final call.  There were competing groups, everyone by now getting frustrated with the project and “digging in “ on their favorite designs.  That was the situation that I entered as an “outside voice” that might be helpful….. yikes!

By the time that I got involved, there were 30+ designs being discussed, emanating from a variety of design firms and designer “friends”.  While I was asked the simple question, “Bill, which design do you like?” I was smart and cagy enough not to fall for that bait!  Rather than adding my voice to the cacophony, I asked to convene a live meeting of ALL stakeholders and lead a “little decision process.”

A Touch of Discipline

What was clear to me, working outside the company and project, was that a “touch of discipline” was needed immediately.  I gathered the group together, with plenty of time to work through this project, and started by taking a few steps backward.  I had one of the senior folks refresh all of us on his view of the strategy for the company.  While nothing was on paper (as of yet, I am working on that one next!), he had a clear idea and was pretty eloquent on what the next 3-5 years looked like and what key strategic priorities would be the focus for the team.  With those captured on flip charts, I then asked for someone to share the packaging design “brief.”

Well, to put it mildly that question was met with silence and stares.  OK, no “brief,” so I asked the packaging project lead to share his thoughts about where they needed to go.  Laced with market-based insight, opinions and a desire to “act fast,” the drivers of the project were still muddy across the room.

Design Principles

Rather than let the meeting break down, I started a process where everyone in the room, privately, put together “their” list of “design principles” for the project.  As they did that work, I opened up excel on my laptop and started building a worksheet.  (more on that later)  once everyone had their list I asked everyone to share their lists, and not surprisingly there was significant overlap and alignment.  We had a bit of debate about what each “principle” meant, and pretty quickly came up with a list of 6-7 agreed on “design principles” for the project. 

Rank & Multi-Vote

Once I had them in my excel worksheet, I lead the team through a weighting exercise and had everyone rank the “design principles.”  I captured the “votes” on a flip chart and the debate ensued.  Wide ranging opinions about what should be most/least important came bubbling up through the process, no wonder that the project had stalled!  To clear the logjam, I had everyone “multi-vote” their top 2/bottom 2 “principles.  The list became clearer quickly and we had an agreed on list of “design principles”, in order of priority.

Weighted Scoring

Now the tedious work really began.  I quickly completed an excel work sheet with the 6 “design principles” as rows, with a “weighted” value for each principle so that the sum of the 6 “design principles” equaled 100.  Once completed, we put each design  (yes all 30) through the “design filter” and gave each a score (1-5).  Everyone’s score had the same “weight” and I randomized who scored first and which “design principle” I started on.  While slow and tedious, two hours later we had weighted average scores for each of the 30 designs.

Clarity and Decision Making

While no one liked the tedious process, the output was startling.  The scoring process “sorted” the 30+ designs into three distinct buckets:  there were 3-4 designs at the very top, 6-7 designs at the very bottom, and a bunch in the middle.  Once we agreed that we could eliminate the bottom designs (a very quick call), we turned off the excel worksheet and did a “fast flash” through all the middle group to see if there were any that “needed” to be kept in the running.  Interestingly, 1-2 did pop up for a variety of reasons and we added them to the “top bucket,” so we had 4-5 designs to really work on.

Design IS ultimately subjective

Keeping in mind the retail reality for this product category, we pulled all of the top designs up on the screen at once, and discussed (time boxed to 30 minutes) the pros and cons of each one, whether there were any production realities/challenges that one or another might cause, etc.  Finally we had 2 of the top list left, and quickly the group ALL gravitated to a single “winning design”; one that they would “be proud of”, and would “represent their brand” in a winning way, etc.

Well the proof will ultimately be seen in the market, and I will need to wait a few months/quarters until the new packaging hits retail to see how well my “little process” really worked.  It took about a full day to work our way to the final decision, after the project had “wandered” for weeks and months.  I share this story and the specific steps so you all might try it in your worlds.  While I used it to help guide a packaging project, the idea and approach is applicable in almost any situation where there are a variety of opinions / voices/ approaches for a project.  Rather than waiting for the project to stagnate and the team to “meltdown,” try bringing this approach into the process on the front end, I am confident that it will help you guide the initiative to a successful conclusion.  Good luck!!