My brother is a great guy…and a great investment banker whose boutique firm uses the Haviland & Co brand that our family’s china business made famous. We talked recently about business problems that show up because of misalignment between people.
First, some background… He and I do similar work – he focuses on the owner’s exit, and works with the leadership team to make the business better to support that, while I focus on working with the leadership team to make the business better, and as a result position the company for the owner’s exit. We both talk about business value and ROI – but what I call mission and vision and strategy…he calls “the investment thesis.”
His experience is that when people come into conflict, it’s because they have different perceptions of what’s valuable. As a guy who has brokered $700MM in deals, it’s not surprising to me that he’s got a special skill at recognizing different values, and helping people to common ground.
As he describes it, when a small orange cube shows up, one person could focus on its small-ness, another could focus on its orange-ness, and another could focus on its cube-ness. The way to get through misalignment, then, is to identify how each person defines value, get them to appreciate the different perspectives, and come up with a common understanding of the facts, their meaning, and what to do about them.
Most of the time, when in this kind of situation, we’re able to talk about the facts, and the person focused on the small-ness listens to the others and expands their view of the facts to include the orange-ness and cube-ness. When everyone does that, it takes work to create alignment, but it’s not particularly hard to come up with a common understanding of the facts, their meaning, and what to do about them.
When “hard” misalignment happens – let’s call it dysalignment, to give it a dysfunction flavor – that dialogue doesn’t work. Instead, there are blockages and blindspots that prevent people from seeing the whole picture.
As a business leader, the question is, when does dysalignment happen? And why? If we can understand that, then we can recognize when we’re in those positions, and take extra steps to create alignment.
While talking with my bro, here’s what I came up with for when dysalignment happens…
At the core of values. Not all of our values are equal. Some we’re more flexible on, some are hard-core. When a deep-set value of mine comes up against a deep-set value of yours, those values will create blockages to us being able to see the same set of facts and to being open-minded to see the other perspective.
At the edge of the investment thesis. In all areas of life, we invest our time and resources with an assumption about what we’ll get for that investment. Sometimes our investment thesis is clear and certain; other times, it’s unclear and uncertain. If we start to get worried that our investment thesis is wrong – that we’ve made an investment and it’s not going to generate the results we expected – that is a time of high stress and uncertainty. And that makes it hard for us to see other perspectives.
At the bottom of performance. If something is not performing well, that creates stress…and calls into question whether we can trust the other people that we’re working with. Why are we not performing? What’s the cause? Who’s to blame? There is a lot of uncertainty and interpretation that goes into answering those questions, and because it’s so subjective and so stressful, we can be blind to seeing other perspectives.
At the height of uncertainty. The edge of the investment thesis and the bottom of performance both involve a lot of uncertainty…and that uncertainty can show up at other times of change – with similar dynamics. When we’re not sure what the “rules” are for how things are working around us, and we’re not certain what/who we can trust, we’re more likely to stick to our views and less likely to be open to alternatives.
My brother is right – when misalignment shows up, it’s time to talk about how people perceive value.
If that conversation doesn’t work, though, then you’re likely facing dysalignment, and the blockages and blind spots that come with it. At the heart of dysalignment is the following question: how do you deal with change, uncertainty, and the “boundaries” of performance (failure and success). When we’re in The Comfort Zone, alignment takes work but is very achievable with the right people facilitating the right discussions. If people are struggling with dysalignment, my preferred approach is to change the conversation to a “meta discussion” about being outside The Comfort Zone, and hearing how people handle being there.
I recently decided to learn how to cook. This is a huge change for me – since I was raised on cans of Spaghetti-Os and ready-serve packets of creamed chip beef (for breakfast!), and then was married to an excellent cook for many years.
But now that I’m in charge of nutrition and culinary delights in my household, I want more than the steady parade of pasta-with-butter, pancakes-for-dinner, veggie-dogs-and-mayo (don’t ask…), and take-out that I’ve been serving up.
So, I signed up for Dinnerly, and have been doing it for 7 weeks. I’d looked at the subscription-box services before, but the prices were way more than I was used to spending on food, and I wasn’t confident that I would be able to actually make the stuff, or like it. Dinnerly’s price point was better, and that made it easier for me to take the leap.
Let’s recap how I’ve been doing, since I think it’s a good representation of what it looks like to make a meaningful change and to build up a capability that you’ve never had before.
Week 1: Dinnerly arrives on Tuesday. I cram the ingredients in my fridge and eat 2 veggie dogs. I consider cooking twice during the week but I am too tired and settle for the usual instead.
Week 2: Dinnerly arrives. I cram ingredients into fridge, in addition to last week’s. I attempt my first meal, and it takes me about an hour to make. I have no idea what “finely chopped” means for garlic.
Week 3: Dinnerly arrives. I cram ingredients into fridge, which brings the total to 8 recipes worth of ingredients stuffed in fridge. There is little room for the other food I usually keep in there, and I decide that I will put ingredients in containers, by recipe, when they arrive…next week. I make 2 meals. During the first meal, I create a 3-foot high fireball on my stove when I add water to a pan of oil – turns out that when the recipe says to add ingredients to a pan of oil, and then add water…it actually matters that you do it that way.
Week 4: Dinnerly arrives. I throw out some ingredients in my fridge that are looking pretty rough. I put recipes in containers and add them to the fridge. Busy week at work; I don’t make any Dinnerly meals.
Week 5: Dinnerly arrives. I purge the fridge of more old ingredients, but all the containers are full, and I don’t have any for new items. Cram new ingredients in fridge. There is literally no room in my fridge. I make 1 meal, and realize that (a) every recipe I’ve made has called for 1 teaspoon of finely chopped garlic, and that’s probably a key ingredient for cooking, and (b) I can actually do this cooking thing, though it seems like it takes forrrrr-evvvvvvv-errrrrrrrr to make a meal.
Week 6: Dinnerly arrives. I have a loooong workday, and my fridge is stuffed, so I don’t even bring the box in from the porch for 24 hours. When I do, I purge a bunch of food, but don’t feel like dealing with the containers, so I just cram all the ingredients in the fridge. Things fall out when I open the fridge door…every time I open the fridge door. But the recipes seem pretty good this week, and I cook 3 nights in a row – one recipe from the previous week (I can’t find 2 ingredients that are somewhere in the fridge, but the food tastes OK without them). I make a foot-high fireball when I shake a pan and oil spills onto the burner. I like 2 of the 3 meals I cook.
Week 7: I purge fridge before this week’s box arrives. I use containers for the new meals and find it easy to grab a container and make the recipe. I make 2 meals and enjoy them both. I find that chopping isn’t taking as long, and I’m faster to clean up the kitchen after. I’m starting to see some rhythms, and some things even seem familiar to me.
That’s the journey so far. Before I share some observations about how the “change process” is going so far, I should share that I think our schooling provides a useful framework for understanding change, learning, and growth. Here’s what that framework looks like:
- Pre-school and Kindergarten – very basic understanding, knowledge, and ability
- Elementary School – learning the basics, not much higher-level thinking
- Junior High – starting to see the bigger picture but still basic in that
- High School – able to function independently, becoming expert at some things
- College – higher-level understanding and functioning, fully independent and capable
- Grad School – superior expertise, able to make expert contributions and lead others
So, I would make the following observations about my becoming-a-cook change journey:
- It’s been very helpful for me to imagine that I am a kindergartener as I’ve started into the process. If I hadn’t had that attitude, I would have canceled the service by now and said, “I don’t have room in my life to be a cook.” 7 weeks in, I can say that that is wrong – I do have room to cook 1-2-3 meals a week. I don’t have room (or interest) to cook 5-6-7 days a week. Which leads to another point…
- The vision I have of not wanting to be a kindergarten-level cook anymore has been important to me accepting the extra cost in money and time that I’ve had to put in to learn to cook. If I didn’t have that vision of wanting more, I wouldn’t stick with it – it does cost more and take more time than just throwing veggie dogs in the microwave.
- I can start to see how cooking fits into my life. There are a few recipes that I liked and could do without Dinnerly’s help. I’m starting to learn how to use “extra” ingredients (1 teaspoon garlic!…plus onions, tomatoes, even vinegar) to make the food taste more interesting. I’m still very much a novice, but I understand the tools I must work within a way I didn’t before.
- There is a whole bunch of related stuff that happens around cooking – like buying the ingredients and organizing the fridge – that I’m horrible at. Those have their own growth curve, and I’m just a kindergartener with those. But as the cooking gets easier, those will get better, because I won’t have to take so much energy on the cooking part.
- My cost/meal is trending down, and in another month or two, I expect that I will be able to make all 3 recipes that Dinnerly sends me, each week.
- I’m actually eating good food that I enjoy! For all my look at cost and process and stuff…what’s important is that (a) I’m way less intimidated in the kitchen, and (b) I’m eating better. I doubt I’ll ever care enough about cooking to become great at it, but at least I’m not a kindergartener anymore.
So, let’s look at the overall cost of the change I’m making.
I’m guessing that the cost for me to get to the “high school” level of being a cook is going to be somewhere around $1-2K.
And my guess is that 1/3 of that will be completely wasted (just not cooking the recipes at all and throwing the food out), 1/3 will be the “extra” burden of my learning (taking longer than needed to make things as I learn them), and 1/3 will be what I’ll call “suboptimal meal experience” when the meal either cost more or was less enjoyable than my alternative options (e.g., eating take-out or just making pasta-and-butter).
If we say that the cost-per-meal before I was a cook was $5/meal, then I’m saying that my change cost is equivalent to 200-400 meals! That’s almost a year’s worth of dinners – and that’s way more than I would have guessed…which would have been more like 3-4 months of dinners.
Should it cost less? Yes…in theory. I should commit to it, and focus on it, and bring my better self to it. But that’s just in theory. In reality, I have to run my business and parent my kids and keep myself healthy with exercise and recharge with some social and rest time. And I just don’t have the energy I “should” for change with all of that going on – or, said a better way, I need to have realistic expectations for how hard change is when it’s not the only thing I’m working on.
Change is not cheap, which makes it all-the-more important to make sure that (a) the change is important and desired, (b) you’re ready for what and how it costs, so you don’t change your path because it looks “wasteful” or unsuccessful (e.g., there are going to be weeks when no recipes get made), and (c) you see your way through so that the extra cost isn’t wasted.
I have 2 clients who are focused on “accountability” this year, and it’s proving a hard row to hoe for both of them. Why?
Well, first of all, accountability is a somewhat scary term. If someone is saying we need it, then that must mean that we are not being accountable, and that sounds like someone’s not happy with people’s performance.
Worse, if there’s not a way to gauge performance, then people are likely to take a need for accountability as a judgment on their dedication. They’ll confuse accountability with work ethic.
It’s unfortunate that accountability gets this reaction. In Stage 2 companies, accountability is more about making things that used to be managed intuitively into things that are managed objectively. It does make a judgment about how people are working, but not in the way they think – accountability focuses on working on the right things, not the level of effort.
In fact, most of the time I work on accountability, people have a clearer sense of direction and less stress in their jobs.
I can spend lots of time talking about how to make your organization more accountable, but for now, let me finish by answering the question, “How do you overcome the initial resistance to accountability?”
I recommend 3 steps. First, before you bring up accountability, praise the team’s work ethic (assuming it deserves praise…if it doesn’t, that’s a deeper problem…), so that they know that you know they are dedicated. Second, give them an example of people spending more time in an area than they should. (Serving the bottom 20% of your customer base is a fairly typical area.) Finally, ask the team, “Do you have a way of quickly seeing whether the other people on the Leadership Team are succeeding?” If you don’t, then you’re probably spending more time than you should simply understanding how you’re doing, instead of diving into the issues that will make your business better.
We have a free self-assessment to use to understand the strength and weaknesses of the ‘Operating System’ that you use to manage your business. If you’d like to assess the current state of your Operating System, click here to download.