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Leadership Today

Author: Andrew Beveridge

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Weekly research-based tips and advice to tackle today's biggest leadership challenges, all in under ten minutes. Hosted by leadership development specialist and psychologist Andrew Beveridge. Go to for more information.
46 Episodes
Summary We have come to celebrate workaholics in our organisations - those people who always seem to be busy and putting in long hours. But is it possible for a person to be too engaged with their work? And does that lead to burnout and negative performance? Transcript Welcome to episode 40 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore whether workaholics are bad for business. We have come to celebrate workaholics in our organisations - those people who always seem to be busy and putting in long hours. But is it possible for a person to be too engaged with their work? And does that lead to burnout and negative performance? Most models of employee engagement don't examine what actually drives people to work hard and contribute more to an organisation. This muddies the water between what researchers call workaholism and work engagement. As a result, employee engagement scores and measures of performance don't always align. Organisations with high employee engagement can sometimes be perplexed by relatively poor performance and the high incidence of burnout and other negative health outcomes amongst their people. One study by van Beek and her colleagues separated workaholism and work engagement into two distinct concepts. The researchers then looked at various combinations of the two including the impact on burnout. They defined workaholism as the tendency to work excessively hard and being obsessed with work - working compulsively. In contrast, they saw work engagement as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind characterised by energy, dedication and becoming absorbed in your work. Their research showed that workaholism and work engagement both lead people to work harder and for longer hours. But it was the incidence of burnout amongst these groups that was most interesting.  Perhaps not surprisingly, being a workaholic increased the incidence of burnout over non-workaholics. The researchers linked this to work-home interference, poor social relationships, and high levels of job strain. In contrast, being engaged with work decreased the incidence of burnout versus the non-engaged. Interestingly, combining the two, that is being a work-engaged workaholic, decreased the level of burnout below that of your regular workaholic. It also reduced the incidence of burnout to below that of non-engaged non-workaholics. Being positively engaged with work appears to dampen the negative impact of being a workaholic when it comes to burnout.  This research suggests that improving work engagement will lessen the chance of burnout, even for the workaholics in our organisations. As leaders we can help workaholics in our teams to become aware of what motivates them, allowing them to identify greater meaning and purpose in their work. Understanding the difference between workaholism and employee engagement can do wonders to increasing the sustainability of performance in your organisation. Leaders can set up the conditions that encourage our people to become absorbed in their work versus becoming obsessed and compulsive about the work they complete. Reference Ilona van Beek, Toon W. Taris and Wilmar B. Schaufeli (2011) Workaholic and Work Engaged Employees: Dead Ringers or Worlds Apart? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol 16, No 4, 468-482.
Summary Trust is the essential currency of any organisation however, it seems to be in short supply these days. This week we look at four ways in which leaders can build trust.   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 39 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at four ways in which leaders can build trust. Trust is the essential currency of any organisation, however it seems to be in short supply these days. And trust has a huge impact on the effectiveness of teams and organisations. Without trust, three things happen: People hesitate - they become reluctant to act, and instead sit back, giving less than their best People make up stories - they try to make sense of what’s happening, and create stories, usually negative, that help to explain actions and events People leave - as the trust bank account dwindles, staff turnover increases So why is it that we trust some people more than others? Psychological research gives us some important insights. We trust people that we believe have good intentions for us, and who follow through on those intentions. First, let’s look at the good intentions part - we trust people who have good intentions for us. It’s important to note that it’s good intentions for us that matters - having good intentions for the organisation or even others is not enough. For a leader to build trust, they need to understand what matters to their people. You can’t build trust without uncovering the needs and interests of your people. Without that, people begin to question the leader’s motives and anticipate a negative impact of their actions. And, second, a leader you can trust is someone who follows through. They’re predictable and act in the way you expect. It’s not enough to just say the right things - trustworthy leaders follow through. I was a leader in a management consulting firm as we sailed towards the Global Financial Crisis. After several years of record growth, clients were suddenly delaying projects as they tried to cut back on spending. As a result we made a decision to decrease our costs by 10% which, in a consulting firm, equates to people. I laid out the facts to my team - that our revenue was falling and we had to reduce costs or start laying off staff. We wanted to keep people, and were exploring ways to achieve a cost saving while having the smallest impact on people possible. We worked together to propose everyone on the team voluntarily move to a nine day fortnight, meaning they would lose one day of work every two weeks and take a 10% pay cut. People signed up to this because they understood we had their best interests at heart - people wanted to keep their jobs, and this was one way of ensuring they could do that. We also found that people quite liked having a day off every two weeks, and that productivity even lifted despite fewer days being worked. And I moved to a nine day fortnight too, which was an important demonstration of my personal commitment to the change. Without trust, people might have seen the change as a money-grabbing exercise and been less engaged with their work and the organisation.  Here are four ways you can build trust as a leader: Uncover your team members’ interests and needs - in that way you can align your actions to their needs Share your intent - let people know what you’re trying to achieve, and how that aligns with their interests, being as open as you can Follow through - do what you said you would do Let them know you’ve followed through - don’t just leave them to join the dots, help them to see that you have followed through I believe any leader can build trust, but it needs to be authentic. People are finely tuned to when someone’s words don’t align with their actions. So keep in mind what it takes to be a trustworthy leader - it’s someone who demonstrates good intentions for others, and follows through on those intentions.
Summary As a leader, it’s likely that you have had to deliver bad news. It can be extremely difficult to do well. This week we look at practical ways to deliver negative news, and hopefully not become the messenger that gets shot in the process.   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 38 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at practical ways to deliver negative news, and hopefully not become the messenger that gets shot in the process.   No doubt you’ve heard the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger”. You might think it’s just another saying, but recent research suggests that is exactly what we do. Through a series of experiments the researchers at Harvard found that people end up not liking those who bear bad news, even when the person wasn’t the decision maker. And the impact is literally on ratings of the messenger - people don’t end up thinking any less of another representative standing next to the messenger while the bad news is shared. The effect of people disliking the messenger is particularly strong when the bad news isn’t expected or doesn’t make complete sense to the person receiving the news. The researchers saw such news as challenging our assumptions that the world is “just, predictable, and comprehensible”. In such circumstances we tend to question the motives of the messenger - what are they really trying to do, and what are they getting out of it?   Once the bad news is delivered, people may be less likely to then want to interact with the messenger, but the messenger is often the very person who is best placed to offer support for next steps.   As a leader, the most difficult news I had to deliver was making people redundant - people I knew well and liked that we had to let go for reasons entirely out of their control. We had about as good a process as we could around that, but the relationships with the individuals were permanently damaged. Just like the research suggested, they naturally thought less of me as the messenger. After all, who wants to keep in touch with the person who made them redundant?   But there are some steps we can take to help avoid being the messenger that gets shot: Be direct and clear - it can be tempting to try to soften the news, but just end up making it less clear. What are the fewest words you can use to distil the message down to the core. Let them know the reasons behind the decision or information - be honest about what you do and don’t know. Let them know how you feel and your motives - you are a human being delivering a message to another human being. It’s not about you - conveying the message is primarily about them, so don’t make it about you. Acknowledge the emotions - that the news is likely to impact them, and that’s perfectly understandable. Check in for understanding - ask them to share the news in their own words and clarify anything that isn’t clear. Commit to supporting them - let them know that you’re here to help. Look after yourself - sharing bad news can knock you around, so find others who can support you. If we follow each of these steps, we’re in a much better position to deliver negative news in a way where people can hear it, process it, and then seek additional support.   Reference
Summary This week we explore why everyone is a born leader - that we all have a head start in some facet of leadership.   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 37 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are exploring why everyone is a born leader. I was just about to give a presentation at a conference recently when someone said “I see you’re talking about leadership today - don’t you think leaders are born?” My answer, having had over 20 years to research and think about it, might surprise you. The answer is yes - I do think leaders are born. But probably not in the way you expect. When most people think about ‘born leaders’ they’re usually thinking about things like charisma, confidence, and extraversion - those up front skills that draw others in and create enthusiasm. The reality is that some people have a head start in these areas through genetics and the environment in which they grow up, so you might consider them to be born leaders. But these skills and traits are just part of effective leadership. In fact, not every great leader is charismatic, confident and extraverted. There are many different ways to be an effective leader. Research into leadership and Emotional Intelligence highlights a suite of competencies that can help people to be great leaders, each of which can be learned and developed. I recall an interview with Daniel Goleman, whose books on Emotional Intelligence helped popularise the concept in the 1990s and beyond. Goleman was asked what he thought about Steve Jobs as a leader, and whether Jobs had great emotional intelligence. Now, this was a loaded question, particularly since Jobs had only just passed away earlier that same year. Jobs was clearly a very successful leader who transformed the way we think about technology, music distribution and even animated movies. But he was also renowned for being extremely demanding to the point of being aggressive, often belittling people in front of others. In fact, his close friend and Apple designer Jony Ive described it like this: “I once asked him why he gets so mad about stuff. He said, 'But I don't stay mad.' He has this very childish ability to get really worked up about something, and it doesn't stay with him at all. But, there are other times, I think honestly, when he's very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and licence to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don't apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that.” That doesn’t sound very emotionally intelligent. But Goleman drew out Job’s vision and inspirational leadership - his ability to come up with new ways of thinking and bring people around that vision. You only have to watch the launch on the first iPhone to see these strengths in full display. Goleman also pointed out that emotional intelligence is a spectrum of abilities, and that you don’t have to be great at all of them to be great as a leader. In fact, great leadership can be built on empathy and insight into others. Or resilience and the ability to bounce back quickly from setbacks. Or warmth and the ability to connect with others. Or analytical capacity - being able to pull things apart into their component parts. Or conceptual ability - being able to link disparate ideas into a unified whole. Once we broaden out the list of capabilities associated with success as a leader, you start to recognise that we all have a head start in at least a few areas. That we are all born leaders in our own way. When I’m facilitating I often ask groups to repeat some statements about leadership. There’s something powerful about a group of 50 or 100 people all saying the same thing. The two statements that have the biggest impact are “Anyone can become a great leader” and “The best leader you can be is yourself.” This week I challenge you to think of yourself as a born leader, with just as much capacity and potential for great leadership as anyone else.
Summary Leadership isn’t just what you do in the moment - it’s the legacy you leave. This week we look at four steps to building a legacy of leaders. Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 36 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at four steps to building a legacy of leaders. Leadership isn’t just what you do in the moment - it’s the legacy you leave. In fact, the most effective leaders create a lasting legacy in people - they create more leaders. The effectiveness of a leader is best measured at least 5 to 10 years further on. Great leadership takes time - there aren’t many quick wins. It’s best to think of leadership as a long-term investment. I recently spoke at a conference in Malaysia with a group of Doctors, mainly heads of departments in major hospitals from around the world, on this very topic. Hospitals are a tricky environment in which to identify and develop leaders - there’s time pressure, people spreading their hours across multiple hospitals, highly technical work - lots of things to grapple with. Perhaps you have similar pressures in your environment as well. But there are still steps we can take to make progress. There are four things each of us can do to build a legacy of leaders: 1. Build Understanding - develop a clear and shared view of what ‘great leadership’ looks like in your context. People have often had poor experiences of leadership or have a limited view of what leadership is - that it’s about bossing people around or being taken away from the work that I enjoy. In workshops I ask people to share examples of great leadership. I’m always impressed by the range of answers given. The exercise helps people to understand that leadership isn’t one thing, and that people can be effective leaders in many different ways. That the best way to lead is firstly to be yourself. This helps people to broaden their view of what leadership looks like, and consider whether leadership may, in fact, be for them. That anyone can be a great leader - we all have something to bring and capabilities that we can develop. 2. Explore Aspiration - it’s essential to have development discussions to explore a person’s level of interest in leadership. I worked with a large organisation that had identified hundreds of people in a leadership high potential pool. But the people didn’t know they were in the high potential pool. It was all too common for someone from the pool to be tapped on the shoulder and offered a leadership role, but they had no interest in leadership. No one had even asked them if they aspired to a leadership position. Exploring aspirations makes a real difference. 3. Develop Capability - allow opportunities for practise, feedback and coaching. This can include step up, secondment and project opportunities, but with focused development attached. I’m a big fan of monthly one-on-one meetings that include discussion around an individual’s development. And you don’t need to do all the capability development yourself. You can help them to find mentors both within and outside the organisation that can focus on specific areas they’re interested in developing. 4. Provide Capacity - people need time to develop leadership capability, and this needs to be factored into the job design. A great question for discussion is how much time a person should have each week for leading others versus personally delivering work. Now I know you can’t necessarily carve out specific activities as pure leadership, but it intrigues me when people provide really low numbers - like 3 or 4 hours a week. A study in Harvard Business Review found CEOs spent between 32% to 67% of their time with their direct reports. In fact, they spent more time with their direct reports when they had greater confidence in them. Other research suggested each employee should have around 6 hours a week interacting with their leader to maximise engagement, rising to 10 or even 20 hours for innovation focused work. And increased face to face time with their leader saw a dramatic reduction in the volume of emails they sent and received. This data also suggests each leader should have a cap of around seven direct reports to be most effective - beyond that, the leader can’t dedicate enough time to leading people. I encourage you to spend some time this week considering your own legacy as a leader, and how you can create even more leaders who can multiply your efforts and impact. References
Summary Most of us have what I call infinite jobs - where we could just keep working more hours and never quite get everything done. This week we look at practical ways to manage infinite jobs, improving our productivity while also regaining control over our hours.   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 35 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at practical ways to manage infinite jobs - improving our productivity while also regaining control over our hours. There are two types of jobs - what I call finite jobs and infinite jobs. Chances are at some point in your career you’ve had a finite job - one where you had set work hours, and were paid for every hour you worked. For example, retail jobs are typically finite jobs - you start your shift at a particular time, complete as much work as you can during your shift, then walk away at the end of your shift. Whatever work was left over is either there for you the next day, or handed across to someone else. And there’s no expectation to work beyond the hours you’re given - remember those days? In this environment, leaders assess the overall workload and determine the resources needed to deliver. If more work needs to be done, more resources are allocated. Infinite jobs are quite different. These jobs have objectives to deliver - some being set up front, and some which emerge over time. Here you’re not really paid by the hour. Your contract may specify that you’re employed to work 38 or 40 hours, but you’re really employed to deliver results. Contracts might refer to ‘reasonable overtime’ or something similar. Or you might be running your own business, where you just work the hours you need to deliver results. Infinite jobs are different because there isn’t an end point. You could potentially keep working more and more hours and never ‘finish’ an infinite job. There’s always more you could do - more clients to contact, more processes to improve, more development of people to undertake. The vast majority of leadership roles are infinite jobs, so chances are you’re currently in an infinite job. And more finite jobs are either being automated or converted into infinite jobs. The reality of the modern workplace is that more and more of our work will not have a natural end point. So how do you manage an infinite job? I remember when I first took on a leadership role. I had worked as a management consultant, so was pretty familiar with having an infinite job, but was able to manage my time reasonably well despite the high demands. But nothing had prepared me for leadership. My work hours began to increase. I started with a bit over 45 hours a week, but found it quickly rose to 50 hours, then 55, then 60 plus. I was getting into work earlier and earlier to try to get something done before my team arrived, then worked later and later to catch up on things at the end of the day. Then I would log in again after dinner, finding myself swapping instant messages with the rest of the leadership team until late at night, before crawling into bed and starting it all over again the next day. I felt exhausted and dissatisfied, and there was still more to do. When the weekend rolled around I’d sleep for much of Saturday morning and try to recover in time for Monday, but would find myself gradually become more and more worn down.  Eventually it dawned on me that there actually wasn’t an end point to my job. There was never going to be a point where, as a leader, I could say “I’m finished” or “job done”. In fact, the more hours of work I completed, the more work I generated for myself and others. I wasn’t even approaching completion - even though I was hitting all my targets, I was pushing completion even further down the road. There was an ever-present level of stress and dissatisfaction - a constant worry that I was missing something or had more to do. Maybe you can relate to my experience - and maybe you’re in the middle of it right now. The key lesson for me from this experience was we can’t manage an infinite job by just adding more and more hours to our work week. We need to change the way we think about and manage our work. A framework you’re probably familiar with involves thinking about our work in terms of the Important versus Urgent - basically that every task we complete can be thought of in terms of how important it is, and how urgent it is. While he wasn’t the first to think of this framework, Steven Covey popularised it in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Even 30 years on this book is still worth a read. Covey highlighted that we tend to get caught up in urgent work, and don’t prioritise important work enough. Clearly, if something is both urgent and important, then we should tackle that deadline, crisis or emergency straight away. But much of our time is spent with seemingly urgent but not important tasks which we should delegate to others. And we definitely need to get rid of the not urgent and not important distractions that soak up our time. But the other category - the not urgent but important - is what most leaders end up neglecting. This can include planning, reflection, long term development, networking and relationship building, creative thinking - all the things that so often get pushed aside in an infinite job. So how do we make sure we have time to do this important work, while also making our infinite job a little more finite? Here’s an approach you might want to try: Determine your ideal work hours. For most people you should aim to reduce what you’re doing at the moment, but why not start with around 40 hours as a target. A company called Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand experimented with people working four eight-hour days a week but being paid for five. Aside from the numerous benefits to individuals, they actually saw an overall productivity increase - people completed more in 32 hours than they used to complete in 40 hours. People came up with all sorts of creative ways to be more productive in their infinite jobs. We will fill whatever hours we set, so take this moment to reset. Use your calendar to schedule everything - and I mean everything. This includes putting things in your calendar that unexpectedly come up so you have a record at the end of the week of how you’ve actually spent your time. Identify your priorities and schedule the not urgent but important work for when you’re at your best. Each of us has a time in the day when we’re best at focused work, and that’s where the important but not urgent work should sit. Schedule in breaks - at least three if not four per day. Actual get up, go for a walk, chat with someone else - take at least 10 to 15 minutes to re-engergise and refresh. You will be amazed how much more productive you are with some well-placed breaks every 90 minutes. Leave time for the inevitable urgent and important activities - leave blank periods in your schedule. It’s tempting to schedule every minute then be disappointed when other things come up. I recommend trying to leave an hour or two per day for most people, but it could vary depending on your job.  Be ruthless when it comes to meetings - if there isn’t a clear purpose, agenda and role for you, don’t go. Sure, you might need to negotiate that, but if you’re spending more than a couple of hours per day in meetings, you’re unlikely to be performing at your best. The beauty of this approach is that you’ve set the overall number of hours, and you can’t be doing two things at once. So if you’ve filled your calendar and something else comes up, you need to get rid of or reschedule something else. You’ve effectively made your job finite by setting your work hours.  Now, you might ask, what if I can’t get everything done in those hours? Well, now your calendar is evidence of your overall workload which will help when negotiating additional resources or a change in accountabilities. Just like those employees in New Zealand, you’ll be amazed at how creative you can get when you make your job more finite. Reference:
Summary Nearly half of all employees often experience negative work-related stress, flowing through to lower levels of engagement and motivation. As leaders, we can dramatically reduce this figure, and transform the performance of individuals and our organisations.     Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 34 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at how leaders can move their people from ‘stressed’ to ‘strong’.   Negative work-related stress takes a significant toll on individuals and the organisations for which they work. My recent research with over 1,400 not for profit leaders and employees reveals 46% of people report often experiencing negative work-related stress – a group I call “The Stressed”. Furthermore, 80% see their work as demanding – a group I call “The Stretched”.   The experience of these two groups is quite different. Those who often experience negative work-related stress have 17% lower employee engagement ratings compared to the rest - “The Stressed” are less likely to be engaged with their work and organisation than others. And this negative sentiment is reflected in all aspects of employee engagement, particularly in a 24% lower rating of their likelihood to recommend their organisation to others as a place to work.    In contrast, those who find their work demanding have 21% higher employee engagement than those who don’t see their work as demanding. “The Stretched” are much more likely to be engaged with their work and their organisation. This group’s level of motivation to do their best work for the organisation is particularly notable, being 29% higher than the rest of the people surveyed.   However, there is overlap between these two groups. It’s possible to be both “Stressed” and “Stretched”, or any other combination of these two factors.   In the research I separated out those who find their work demanding, but don’t often experience negative work-related stress – a group I call “The Strong”. This 38% of employees report 34% higher levels of employee engagement than the rest of those surveyed. Their ratings of whether they would recommend their organisation to others as a place to work are 40% higher than others. They’re much more likely to be motivated to do their best work for the organisation, and are also more likely to want to stay with the organisation. The positive impact of being amongst “The Strong” flows through to all elements of employee engagement.   This raises an important question – what is different about the experience of individuals that might account for these dramatically different outcomes in employee engagement?   It turns out that “The Stressed” provide particularly poor ratings of the level of autonomy they have in how they achieve outcomes, being 21% lower than the rest of those surveyed. Their ratings of the opportunity to develop capability in areas that are important to them are 17% lower than others. This is consistent with broader research into stress at work – a lack of autonomy and capability to do your job well is a recipe for negative stress.   In contrast, “The Stretched” are 32% more likely to see their work as contributing to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. This sense of purpose appears to buffer people from the adverse impocts of negative stress, helping the individual to interpret challenges and demands in a more positive light. It’s much easier to see a demanding job as a good thing if you believe you are making a positive impact on something that matters. The ability to develop meaningful connections at work also appears to help, with “The Stretched” rating this 24% higher than others.   “The Strong” have particularly positive ratings of purpose, development, connections and autonomy. These four work environment factors are also significantly positively correlated with employee engagement. Each of these factors individually accounts for 28% to 40% of the variance in employee engagement.   For leaders the message is clear. We need to provide a clear and compelling direction first. We then need to provide development opportunities so people are equiped and confident to tackle their work. Thirdly, we need to connect our people with others that can support them and with whom they can collaborate. And, lastly, we need to delegate the authority to our people to act, providing them with the autonomy they need.   As leaders we have a unique opportunity to turn “The Stressed” into “The Strong”, and to create a work environment where everyone can bring their best and flourish. This isn’t just great for our people, it’s also great for our organisations and those we serve.
We're taking a couple of weeks to look back at two of our favourite previous episodes - enjoy!
We're taking a couple of weeks to look back at two of our favourite previous episodes - enjoy!
Summary The problem with solving problems is that we often rush towards solutions without spending enough time clearly identifying the challenge we’re facing. In this episode we explore the power of a well crafted problem statement.   Transcript Welcome to episode 33 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at the problem with solving problems - that we often rush towards solutions without spending enough time clearly identifying the challenge we’re facing. There’s a quote typically attributed to Albert Einstein that goes along the lines of “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Now, there’s not great evidence that Einstein ever uttered those words, but there is still a great deal of truth in them. We often rush into solution mode when we’ve only partially, or even incorrectly, identified the problem we’re trying to solve. I’ve spent around half of my career working in management consulting focusing on complex problems and solutions. Over that time I lost count of the number of times I heard the classic attempted put down - “consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time, then charge you for it”. Of course, if you ask a consultant to tell you the time while you’re wearing a watch, then maybe the consultant isn’t the problem. Either way, it highlights that organisations often outsource solution generation, and are then frustrated when the expensive solutions don’t quite hit the mark. I believe this is often because the problem isn’t clearly and accurately identified, so people end up frantically working towards solving the wrong problem. Once the problem is clear, organisations are usually pretty good at developing and implementing solutions. I shared an example in the last episode of a person who inherited a task to prepare a series of reports. Preparing all of these reports was arduous and took 8 hours to complete - it was a real problem for him as he struggled to get the rest of his work completed in the rest of the week. He initially identified the problem as “these reports take too long to complete”, and so came up with and implemented improvements that meant he could prepare the reports in just four hours. But there was a deeper question that needed answering - “why are these reports needed?” It turned out people weren’t actually using the reports - no one really needed the reports to be generated, and so he took an eight hour task and reduced it to zero. The problem to explore was around the need for the reports, not the efficiency of report production. It’s hard to identify the real problem when you’re in the middle of it, but using a clear structure and approach can help. It might even save you from using a consultant or, at least, make your investment in an external consultant more valuable. We need to start by trying to identify the root cause of the problem. I’ve talked about using the “5 whys” approach in episode 20 - repeatedly asking the question “why?” to step back towards the root cause. Once we think we’re close to the root cause, a structured problem statement can help. It provides some rigour around identifying the problem and its impact, while also making it easier to communicate the problem to others, and assess the value of various proposed solutions. One simple structure for a problem statement includes four elements: Ideal scenario – what it would be like if this problem didn’t exist Current situation – what it is currently like - the current reality Consequences – the implications for this audience if we do nothing - can help build momentum towards change Focus – the areas we will explore to solve the problem Here’s an example of applying that approach to a business that’s struggling to have sufficient stock in stores. Ideal - We want our customers to be able to easily purchase our products with an emphasis on experience and convenience. Current - Our most loyal customers are complaining that their local stores are often out of stock of our most popular products, so they’re forced to phone ahead or drive around to other stores looking for stock. Consequences - We are losing sales and frustrating our customers, leaving ourselves open to them switching to competitor products. Focus - To address this problem, we are going to explore three elements. The first being the reliability of transport of product from our warehouse to stores. The second - building our capacity to track current stock levels at stores. And thirdly, explore our ability to provide stock to customers directly via a new home delivery channel. Now it’s important to also be responsive. Sometimes as we are seeking to solve the problem, we come across further information which may further clarify the problem. You can always refine the problem statement to reflect this new information.
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