On Leadership, Laughs, and Lunch


The young project manager was feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of his assignment. He was struggling. So, I asked him…

“Where do we find some small wins?”

Small wins help to create an environment where the big goals become manageable tasks.

In his 1984 article, Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems, Karl Weick defines small wins as a “series of concrete, complete outcomes of moderate importance that build a pattern that attracts allies and deters opponents.”

To generate small wins, the leader seeks “a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results.”

Gaining Perspective is a Small Win

I let this project manager talk, just to let him air out his thinking and vent his frustration (which is a small win in itself).  I then wrote a few questions on the white board:

  • Does your boss ask about this project?
  • Have you identified individuals who can support your mission, and have you asked for help?
  • Do you have a formal issues log?
  • Is there any start at project planning documentation? Tasks, due dates, responsibilities?
  • Do we have a written  definition of the problem?

Of those five questions, he could only say yes to the first one.

“That’s a small win. Let me give you a high five.”

We slapped hands. This small win was simple: a person in authority cared about the project (let me add that you can’t ever assume that a project remains on an executive’s radar). Next I challenged him,

“Let’s create another small win.”

The next small win was creation of an issues log to identify issues and record their status (as open or closed).  That took an hour, but now we could see written statements of the problems that would need resolution.

The reward in this case was me telling him a joke.  It wasn’t a particularly good joke, but the point was recognized: he was making progress and I was acknowledging it.

We continued and made progress. By the end of our meeting, the project manager had much more confidence in himself and in his ability to develop an solution to his strategic objectives. My reward to him (as if you haven’t already guessed it from the title),

“Let me buy you lunch.”

Three Rules for Creating Small Wins

1. Break down big goals into smaller objectives that are more concrete and short term.

I look for opportunities to apply the “de’s and dis:”  De-compose, de-construct, and dis-ambiguate. Consider this technique,

Use the phrase “inch-pebbles” rather than “milestones” in your planning.

There are 160,934.4 centimeters in a mile for those of you that use the Metric system; so there are many places to note accomplishment of a small win.

2. Be generous with rewards (for yourself and for others).  But don’t overdo it: Use this rule small wins = small rewards. Here are the small rewards that I offered:

  • We will exchange high fives.
  • I’ll tell you a joke.
  • I’ll buy lunch.

3. Don’t let methodology get in the way of letting good things happen. Many organizations have created structured project processes that dictate step-by-step what should be done.

The problem with these is that they work for routine situations but are ill-suited for non-routine, complex, and strategic situations. Remember,

An opportunistic and experimental mindset attracts success.

More Ideas for Recognizing Small Wins

Here are some more ideas that I have seen or used.

  • I know a manager who lets his facial hair grow as a software release date approaches. When the delivery is made, he shaves the growth.
  • Ask questions that open you to learning and opportunity. Facts are your friends. Ask what is known, unclear, assumed?
  • Find small wins in your own area of responsibility. Lead by example.
  • Ask team members to write out the tasks on sticky notes. Sticky notes are a great tool, because they are tactile and if you make a mistake you can rip them up and write out a new note.

How have you created small wins? What else can you do when faced with a goal that seems overwhelming?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Greg Githens
 helps organizations turn vision into results

He does this through coaching, seminars, speaking, and consulting
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What Leaders Can Learn from Lt. Columbo

"Just one more thing..."

The recent passing of the actor Peter Falk (age 83) reminded me of a useful technique for leadership effectiveness, which I call “The Columbo Question.”

The question is best used in a situation involving interviews with other people, so bear with me as I establish the analogy.

Lt. Columbo

Falk’s Lt. Columbo is a Los Angeles detective investigating to a crime scene (typically a homicide). He doesn’t fit the cliché of the authoritarian lead detective, or the intellectual clue gatherer, or the smarmy and charming gadfly.  He attire and demeanor is famously rumpled; the word bumbling is often used to describe his style.

Every episode of the television program has a scene where Lt. Columbo is inspecting a crime scene and interviewing people associated with the victim. Lt. Columbo is well-practiced in the technique of the false exit: he begins to leave the scene, and is nearly out the door when he stops and turns around to ask a question. The question is prefaced by his now-famous tag,

Just one more thing,…….”

Lt. Columbo makes an observation about some inconsistency. The seemingly trivial, it turns out to be the detail will tie together the entire investigation and establish the culpability.

Happy Endings

Now, here is the insight that you can capitalize upon: people will often reveal their important information at the end of a conversation.

Great insights appear when people thing that the interaction is over.

Therapists, salespeople, and consumer researchers repeatedly notice this when interviewing people in home visits and focus groups.  Don’t relax at the end of a session, be more alert.

You ask the Columbo question to take advantage of the principle that the best information might come at the end of a conversation. The Columbo Question is the last question you ask:

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that I should have asked you?

Give It a Shot

Try out the Columbo Question the next time you are searching for information.

Here are some examples of useful information that I and others have discovered with the Columbo Question:

  • There are unrecognized stakeholders who are affected by a decision
  • There are unrecognized project elements that need to be included in the scope
  • People have serious doubts about a strategy, but don’t feel that they have permission to reveal those doubts
  • People have expectations for follow-up from the conversation that might include roadmap that lays out the next steps

Peter Falk’s portrayal of Lt. Columbo made this unassuming-but-determined character a genius at putting people at ease and exploiting the strengths of his own personal style. He brought a sense of curiosity and was sensitive to inconsistencies and incongruities.  He wasn’t intimidated by wealthy, powerful, or brilliant people.

How can you use Columbo Question to improve your leadership skills?

Greg Githens
 helps organizations turn vision into results

He does this through coaching, seminars, speaking, and consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Blog | Web

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Innovation Curve Cross Chasm

Five Things Leaders Need to Know about Innovation


Leaders commonly speak the word innovation. It conveys a sense of excitement and newness that motivates people.

But let’s be honest...

Many times leaders use the word as filler in a speech or press release: a buzzword that occasionally engenders cynicism.

The 5ive Things

Innovation is important, and it deserves a spot in the leader’s toolbox.  Here are five things that leaders need to know about innovation:


Innovation is not the same thing as invention or as creativity

Innovation is best defined as “an idea, practice or object that is perceived as new by an individual or organization.”  So an innovation does not need to be new to the world, just new to a person. There are all kinds of great ideas and technologies already in existence. Innovators are people who search for outside of the familiar new ideas, and then bring the ideas into the existing culture.

Thus, an important principle of innovation is: The future is already here, it is just distributed unevenly

For example, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile nor did he invent mass production. Ford revolutionized the auto industry by combining existing technologies from meatpacking experts (the assembly line approach), electric motors, continuous flow, and machine tools. Every technology Ford needed was there, it was his ability to find and combine the elements that made him a world-changing innovator.

Ford’s genius was that he had a vision and the courage to look outside of his own industry for the best people and best ideas.


Innovations Do Not Sell Themselves

Scurvy was a killer of many ancient sailors on long voyages. In 1601, a doctor in the British Navy found that citrus juice would prevent the disease. However, it wasn’t until nearly 200 years later – with many unnecessary deaths – that the British Navy to made its use a policy. Whether it is a new technological gadget, or a quality improvement program, there is no assurance that people will adopt an innovation.

Leaders have an important role in developing the awareness of the innovation, positive attitude toward the innovation, and commitment to adopt the innovation.

This leads to an important implication for leadership…


Innovation Involves Choices and Decisions

People evaluate an innovation with five filters, which I call the TACOS criteria:

TTrialability:  Can I try it out before committing? If I don’t like it, can I abandon the innovation?

A – Advantage:  Is this innovation better for me? Does it have greater relative advantage over what I am doing now or the alternatives?

C – Compatibility: Is this compatible with my values? Does it match with the values of the organization?

O- Observability
: Can I physically see and experience it? Is it transparent to those involved?

S - Simplicity: Is it simple enough that I can understand its features, function, and benefits?


It is a Gross Exaggeration to Declare that People “Resist Change”

I have heard it said and written hundreds of times that people resist change, but that far overstates the reality.  It is more accurate to say that:

People adopt innovations at different rates, with laggards the last to adopt the innovation.

Innovation Curve Cross Chasm

The nearby graphic shows the distribution of a population of people into five categories of people, based on when they adopt.

  • Innovators are the smallest group. They are venturesome individuals who bring new ideas into the system. Henry Ford would be considered an innovator because he was successful at combining existing technologies found in other industries.
  • Early adopters are opinion leaders that have an important function of decreasing uncertainty for others by sharing their positive experiences with the innovation.
  • Early majority comprises people who consider the value of the innovation carefully – they deliberate – before committing.  They rely on information provided by the early adopters.
  • Late majority are people who are skeptical and need to have most of the uncertainty removed before they adopt the innovation.
  • Laggards may never adopt the innovation because,

The innovation is inconsistent with their closely-held values.


Leaders Help People Cross the Chasm

Notice “the chasm” on the graphic, where the innovation has penetrated 16% of population of potential users.  That’s less than 1 in 5! The chasm turns out to be particularly difficult to cross, and this is a place where championing behaviors are needed:

  • Influencing tactics such as presentations, use of status and celebrities, bargaining, and appeals to higher authority.
  • Relationship building tactics such as befriending others and building professional networks
  • Business case development, to show the economic benefits of making the change
  • Visioning to help people understand the anticipated future.

When the innovation “crosses the chasm” it gains the critical mass where the majorities adopt it.

Do you agree with these principles of innovation? How have you used them on your strategic initiatives? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Greg Githens
helps organizations turn vision into results

He does this through coaching, seminars, speaking, and consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Blog | Web

Image Sources: brainleadersandlearners.com

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Ambiguity Next Right

Clearing The Leader Fog: Fighting Ambiguity!

When a person “fights with” ambiguity, does that means that they are on the same side, the opposing side, or that ambiguity is a tool for fighting?

But of course… all of these meanings are possible…

Both or Neither

am·bi·gu·i·ty noun \ˌam-bə-ˈgyü-ə-tē\

A simple definition of ambiguity is that it signifies words, concepts, and situations that have multiple meanings. The Latin prefix ambi- means both.

For example, an ambidextrous (“both right”) person writes well with both hands, and an ambivalent attitude (“values both”) is one that is indifferent towards a the merits of a choice.

When organizations formulate strategy, they find themselves facing many vague, conflicting signals. Strategists spend much time and effort using tools of context analysis to interpret the threats and opportunities.

With Complexity Comes Ambiguity

In career development, people start with simpler tasks and master them with process and methodology.

As people develop in their career they:

Must expect to encounter ambiguity as they transition to more complex situations in their organizations. Strategic leaders must do a great deal of consensus building… to uncover information not previously held, perspectives not previously understood, and knowledge not previously applied to the solution-generating task. The challenge to strategic leadership is recognizing that the decision maker cannot have a “stand-alone” perspective.

~Strategic Leadership and Decision Making
US Air Force’s National Defense University

Signs of AmbiguityTo paraphrase, your job as leader is to accept that the strategic environment is interpreted by people and their subjective biases; it can never be fully understood.

Your job is to cut ambiguity by uncovering information, perspectives, and knowledge.

Academics tell us that organizations do poorly at implementing strategy.  Few of these scholars recognize the role of individual perspective:  each individual has their own worldview that influences how they make sense of ambiguity. Thus,

Strategy – the process of getting important things done – is largely a language game, where leaders use conversation to understand different individual perceptions of a problem or opportunity and gain commitment toward making progress.

We’re Number ONE!?

Ambiguous Goals

Sometimes leaders are sloppy with their language, but sometimes their ambiguity is intentional.

What would you think if the CEO of your organization announced This statement:

“Our vision is to be Number 1!”

One could interpret this statement in several ways. For example, one could think that:

  • Being #1 could mean “to posses the largest market share.”  If that is the case, you need to work through the definition of core market and adjacent markets.  If you sell into numerous markets, this becomes a very fuzzy mandate.
  • Being #1 could be a ranking on a list. The phone maker Nokia is ranked as the #1 most-trusted brand in many countries, but that trust has not created business advantage (in February 2011, its business difficulties drove it into the arms of Microsoft).
  • Being #1 could mean short term profitability in an industry group. This could be achieved by massive cost-cutting of R&D, but might destroy the ability to innovate with new products.  That might not be good for long-term performance.
  • Being #1 could be trying to inspire people. Perhaps the CEO did not intend to make this a strategic initiative that would strategy that will require resources.

Let’s assume this goal to “be #1really is a strategic initiative and you are assigned to lead the project. Your top priorities should be to recognize ambiguity, clarify the metrics and develop sensible action plans.

Balancing the Polarities

Many people like things “black and white, with no shades of gray.”  These are the people who will often struggle the most when in an ambiguous situation.  So, your job is balancing two polarities:  The first is an attitude that is tolerant, accepting, and patient. Leaders realize that they can’t let a rush to closure force them into a bad decision.

“The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas. ~ Abe Tannenbaum

Fight With AmbiguityThe second polarity is active resolution of tensions. It is important for the leader to step up with some structure and direction.

The leader starts the process of asking questions and encourages other to probe into the unknown and the assumptions.

The goal: a flexible plan that sets a direction but is open to new learnings.

But how is this balance practiced?

It might take some confident statements such as,

  • “The company has selected you to join this team because you are smart and have performed well in the past. If we trust each other, we will get this figured out.”
  • “Although we just starting our planning, I’m confident that when we’re done we will have a detailed roadmap for implementing this initiative.  We have a lot of questions, and we will learn the answers to those questions.”
  • “A lot of smart people have worked hard on strategy formulation.   Let’s resolve ourselves to doing a good job, and that includes managing the threats and the opportunities.”

Someone once quipped, “Give me ambiguity or give me something else.” How do you fight with ambiguity?

Greg Githens
helps organizations turn vision into results
He does this through coaching, seminars, speaking, and consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Blog | Web

Image Sources: adeepwell.com

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Action Items to Make You Sleep Better

What Keeps You Up At Night

Newsweek magazine called the opening guitar riff to the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, the “five notes that took the world.”

It has been widely reported that Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night, recorded the riff and chorus on a portable tape recorder, and fell back asleep (he later described the tape as “2 minutes of music and 40 minutes of snoring”).

He brought these two musical hooks to his band mates, and collectively the Rolling Stones launched a career breakthrough.

Your Inner Voice

Inner VoiceAn inner voice caused Richards to awake. Perhaps the Satisfaction riff came from an inner muse, but I suspect that Richards’ subconscious was processing tensions and anxieties from the Stone’s 1965 tour.

Similarly, an inner voice can help you with the tension and anxiety due to implementing strategy at work.

This analogy of Satisfaction with organizational strategy includes a dynamic context (e.g., a growing demand for bluesy British rock music), strategic intent (e.g., the Rolling Stones’ desire to be successful in the US market), and a group of talented collaborators.

The inner voice can resolve tension in ways that are good or bad. First the good….

Sparking Individual Creativity

As Keith Richards knew, the inner voice is an asset and a tool for problem solving.  Conrad Hilton explains,

“I know when I have a problem and have done all I can: thinking, figuring, planning, I keep listening in a sort of inside silence until something clicks and I feel a right answer.

Here are some good ideas for using the inner voice:

  • Work in very short, intensive bursts.  Strategy and its execution often involve considerable data, and this data requires analysis.  I find this helps me find clarity, and occasional breakthroughs: first, a deep dive into the data, and then a “time out” for a trip to the gym for some equally intense exercise.
  • Ask good questions.  For example, a company that was struggling with a vague strategic vision used this question: “How might we transform our organization from its current focus on operations to one where innovation is seen as an equally desirable activity?” As the team grappled with that question, they were often stuck by observations that everyone was busy, they had been successful to this point, and “that’s the way we do things.”  In other words, culture would get in the way of the transformation.  One breakthrough came when a member said he awoke with this question, “What are the core organizational values that give strength to this company?”  The resulting list became the pillars for making an effective transformation.
  • Listen well. People need to have a certain amount of venting to get their concerns off their chest.  A good leader will be patient listeners that are skilled in paraphrasing.

Your Unchecked Worrywart

The stresses of a strategic initiative can cause the inner voice to become overactive and anxious. Strategic initiatives have uncertain outcomes, and people are concerned that their personal association with a strategic initiative may lead to an unpleasant outcome.

As most know, people can get neurotic when they pay excessive attention to threats.

Action Items to Make You Sleep Better

Counting SheepWe need to manage the concerns that cause the inner voice to speak up. Of course, we can’t ignore the organization’s desire for rationality and structure.

I have observed and participated in numerous risk brainstorming sessions, many of them bureaucratic exercises of identifying risk events; followed by analysis, prioritization and contingency planning.

If facilitated well, there is a sense of relief from anxiety.

Here is an interesting approach that provides a rational structure yet allows the inner voice to express its concerns:

I am working with a 12-person virtual group and we rely on conference calls supplemented by web tools. In my earlier meetings, I would simply say, “Let’s identify risks, assumptions, issues etc.” Most of the time there was very little participation.

This time I posed the question, “What keeps you awake at night?” It turned out to be an interesting modification of the “What about….” technique.

People could relate to the stress and anxiety of worry by this question, and it really engaged them emotionally and they were much more enthusiastic participants. We are now calling we are now calling them, Action Items to Make You Sleep Better. Our discussions were much more lively and productive.

Shakeel Ahktar
Denver, Colorado, USA

Turning Tension Into Action

Our job as leaders is turning tension into action

Strategic initiatives are characterized by ambiguity; most people tend to avoid ambiguity, or at tolerate it with discomfort.  This creates tension, which we overcome with action. The psychologist and humanist Viktor Frankl wrote,

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

One of the leader’s jobs is helping people resolve the tension between what individuals want to achieve (vision) and what is holding them back.

How do you turn tension into action?

Greg Githens helps organizations turn vision into results.

He does this through coaching, seminars, speaking, and consulting.

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