Take a minute to watch this instructional video from 1954 on how to dial a rotary telephone
Now take a minute to think about how new these concepts must have seemed to people in 1954. Now take another minute to think about how much the widespread practice of using telephones in this way participated in changing
How sales and marketing are done
How customers connect with companies
How customers connect with each other
How geographically spread out organizations would become
The speed at which information spread across those organizations and beyond
Now take one last minute to think about how the widespread practice of using internet-connected digital technologies in the many ways that people are today are starting to change these things too, and how different many of them might be in 1,5,10, 50 years.
The first questions we ask a client who is interested in using digital media have to do with the quality of their strategy execution processes. In fact, this initial questionnaire is front-loaded with these sorts of questions. Why is this so important? Our research and work has begun to reveal a connection between the two. Here is one way to think about it:
Digital media has begun to give people an (almost) infinite choice of what they can do and when they can do it. In a world of (almost) infinite choice, the ability to focus everyone on shared strategic goals becomes more important than ever.
Perhaps an analogy will make this connection more clear. Imagine you are a teacher leading a small group of Bloomington, Indiana high school students on a 5-day museum tour around their town. The choice of museums, according to the city’s visitor page, is far from infinite. In fact, there are fourteen. The systems and technologies that the students will have to learn in order to visit those museums is small as well. They will probably either drive, walk or take the local bus. They will be able to easily find them on a map, and could probably just ask friends for most of the locations. It will not be difficult for you and your students focus on, and to achieve a positive outcome.
Now imagine you are leading the same group of Bloomington students on a 5-day museum tour around New York City.
The choices are overwhelming. According to this web site, there are at least 70 museums from which to choose. To add to this, the systems and technologies that the students will have to learn in order to visit those museums may be overwhelming. They may have to learn to navigate the subway system, learn how to negotiate a cab fare, how to find the museums, how to cross busy streets, how to catch and take a bus, etc. etc.
To have a successful 3-day trip in New York–the city of (almost) infinite choice–your ability to focus everyone on shared goals–becomes more important than ever.
This is analogous to the situation organizations find themselves in today. Every person in a company now has an (almost) infinite choice of things that they can do from their computer, their iPad, their phone, and even from their car. They can pose an idea to their friends or to the world, they can raise money for a project, they can instantly shoot and upload video to a public website from a phone, they can surf the web for competitive information, they can send an encouraging message to their colleagues, they can meet up with people to share knowledge, they can blast an email to the entire company, or just to their spouse.. the choices are (almost) infinite. To add to this, the number of different technologies that they can use to do these things is (almost) infinite as well.
Because of this, one big key to an organization’s success in the digital age is the effectiveness of its strategy execution process. And by this we don’t mean putting together a 40-page strategy document and filing it away for a year. Rather, we mean the discipline of making sure that every person in the company is constantly aware of the organization’s 5 or 10 top strategic goals, that they are able to understand how their daily decisions support those goals, that the company is measuring and communicating everyone’s progress on those goals, and that the organization is adapting its strategic goals often enough to keep up with the pace of change.
When an organization’s strategy execution is lacking, the blessing of (almost) infinite choice in the digital age can quickly turn into the curse of chaos, like a bunch of small-town students who try to visit all 70 museums in New York in 5 days. When an organization’s strategy execution is solid, it enables its people to make smarter choices, ignore the potential distractions, and use digital media to help accomplish the organization’s biggest goals.
TEDxBloomington was a great event that brought together local government officials, citizens, students, researchers, celebrities, employees, business owners, to share knowledge about today and ideas for the future. A question that was on many lips and on even more minds was
How can we make sure that some of these ideas turn into effective action?
SociaLens has recently started using a series of questions to help organizations reflect on the things that either inhibit or enable their ability to turn their ideas into effective action. While we tend to focus specifically on helping clients with the strategic and digital challenges that face them, the general gist of these questions can also apply to the Bloomington community. It is important to know that these questions are built on the assumption that in order to get things done, every organization and every community (every person, really) goes through some version of the following general process when trying to turn their ideas into effective action:
Using this as a starting point, we then ask organizations the following set of questions. Any boxes in the diagram below that an organization finds difficult to mark “most” or “often enough” represents an area that may be a sticking point for turning ideas into a reality (to apply this to Bloomington, we would change the wording in the questions a bit of course to include things beyond just digital).
TEDx has given us a huge boost in the “prepare” part of this process by providing a large group of folks with a better shared knowledge of where our world is today, and some ideas for how it might be able to improve in the areas of environmental, psychological and sexual health, mutual understanding and cooperation, educational initiatives, and many others. It has also made that shared knowledge more vivid (easy to remember) for us. Our next step as a community is to put together a simple strategy or strategies (and by this i mean a shared goal or two) that are vivid (easy to remember) and relevant (are easy for a person to turn into everyday actions), and to move around this cycle in ways that allow us all to answer “yes” to each of these questions.
* This set of questions does not get at everything that a city or organization needs in order to thrive, of course (there are also questions of financial and natural resources, values and beliefs, governance, etc.), but we are finding that it helps to reveal a lot of the common barriers that keep people, organizations or communities from turning their ideas into effective action.
I have been spending a decent amount of time recently with political scientists, behavioral economists and their research. Why? Because they study how groups of people make decisions and get things done. During a talk on group behavior this afternoon at Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, it occurred to me that
Your organizational chart might be distracting your people from executing on the organizational strategy
Why? Let’s jump to some basic principles of how people get things done together (from a behavioral economics perspective):
Every individual creates some sort of mental model of their current situation, and the effects that their actions are likely to have on the situation. So when i show up at work every day, my brain automatically starts searching for the answer to the question: “How is my organization doing today, and what do i need to do today to get our project done, or to improve this month’s profits, or to please my co-workers or to improve our organization?”
The ability of a group to work together effectively depends on its ability to create and maintain a shared mental model of the sort mentioned above. If one member of my team thinks that coding today will get our project done, but the others think that sketching will, and still others think we should go on a picnic, there is a good chance that we are not going to work together very effectively.
The more vivid (easy to remember) and relevant (easy for each individual to apply to their own choices) the mental model, the easier it is for the group to create and maintain that shared mental model. This is why heavily visual, simple representations like the X’s and O’s of a football play book or a simple strategy map are usually more effective than a 40-page binder of instructions or a series of vague proclamations. In the absence of a vivid and relevant mental model though, people’s minds will automatically search for anything that will help them to make sense of the situation.
One of the most vivid and relevant artifacts in any organization is the organizational chart which shows who reports to whom. It is arguably one of the things which enjoys the greatest amount of shared understanding (there isn’t usually a lot of debate about whether Bob works in accounting or in marketing, about who holds the position of CEO, or how many divisions there are). It is also very easy to represent visually, which increases its vividness.
Anecdotally, i have found that, in organizations where the strategy or the strategy process are either too complicated or non-existent (see previous post here on other symptoms of this problem), there seems to be a heavy emphasis on the organizational chart and the organizational structure. These same organizations also tend to report that they are not achieving the overall results that they would like.
This is a very unscientific and preliminary hypothesis, but my sense is that these things are related. What do you think?
The return on any investment depends on what return i expect to gain, and how soon i hope to gain it. If the return i hope to gain on running marathons or going to bed early is to get a degree in physics in 6 months, then the return on running and getting lots of sleep is very low. If the return i hope to gain is to get that degree in the next ten years, running marathons and going to bed early might turn out to be a good investment, because of the positive effects that these disciplines have on my work day, ability to focus, and emotional health.
The ability to accurately evaluate a return on investment depends on the ability to understand both short and long-term goals, and how the first support the second.
I have conversations with many people in organizations right now who are not sure about the potential ROI of using digital media as part of their internal or external communications. One reason for the struggle is a lack of fluency with digital media that has to be gained by participation. It would be like a person who has always stayed up late, and who has never put on running shoes trying to figure out how in the world exercise and sleep might help them in their physics research.
A surprising (and surprisingly prevalent) reason for the struggle is a fuzzy or non-existent knowledge of the organization’s set of strategic goals beyond just increasing revenue or getting more customers, etc. Without this knowledge, the ROI of using social media is questionable. Will it make you money soon? Probably not. Will it get you more customers tomorrow? Perhaps.
But if we understand that revenue comes partially from efficiency, that efficiency comes from effective handling of information, and that effective handling of information often necessitates a partial shift away from email (something our research has shown to be a problem), then the ROI of the use of digital media like wikis internally becomes more clear. Or if we understand that more customers may result partially from the authenticity of an organization and that authenticity comes from the ability of customers to connect online with non-marketing people in an organization, then the ROI of the use of social media like social networks becomes more clear.
One final note: digital fluency is the one thing that will help throughout the entire process. The more digitally fluent a person is, the easier it will be to look ahead and to think critically about the potential ROI of using digital media in parts of their organization. To go back to the original analogy, if i have run in the past, i know how the endorphins that running releases may help me to think more clearly about physics. Also, the more digitally fluent the people are who are using the digital media, the greater the likely ROI. An experienced runner is more likely to avoid injuries and to get the benefits of running which will help to support her research goals.
Many people think a good strategy or a strategy process must be complicated. As a result, many organizations either institute highly-complicated strategy processes, or they choose not to institute any at all. Either way, the result is usually not good for the people or for the organization. But how can we know if my organization is in need of a better strategy process?
You might be unstrategic if..
People in your organization are mostly interested in their personal job success or in the success of their department, and not so much in the success of the organization. Why? Without a shared set of goals, we often tend to fall back on self-interest.
Projects in your organization often go over time and budget. Why? A good strategy process helps people to make smart daily decisions when trying to reach a goal. If those choices are difficult to make, efficiency is difficulty to achieve.
People in your organization do not start projects that are not in their job description. Why? If people are not sure where the organization is trying to go or what it is trying to do, then they are not sure what new things are worth risking. They tend to default to doing whatever their job requires.
People in your organization tend to start lots of new projects that are not in their job description, but have a hard time finishing them. Why? Different from the previous example, some people’s reaction to lack of direction is to create their own, whether or not it supports the goals of the organization. Most of these projects stall at some point, though, because they don’t get enough support from the organization.
People in your organization don’t trust each other. Why? One of the keys to trust is repeated interactions in a way that lets one person trust that the other shares their goals. If everyone is out to serve their own goals or only those of their own department (see symptom 1), then trust is difficult to build.
People in your organization are generally anxious. Why? Lack of knowledge about a situation and about the future is one of the biggest causes for anxiety. A strategy helps turn that anxiety into a practical to-do list. 
Not all of these symptoms are caused exclusively by the lack of a good strategy or a strategy process, of course. But all of them can be helped by one. The really good news is that a great strategy process can be simple, can bring people together, can improve efficiency, and will make for a better quality of life for employees.
Are there other symptoms that you see in your own organization that you can trace back to this root cause?
 quote adapted from a fantastic Tedx talk by the late Tom Music who stated that “..knowledge turns monsters into to-do lists.”
A friend wrote this to me yesterday, hinting at the fact that some people in his organization question the need for strategy. More accurately, these people probably question the usefulness of a strategy process. And they are right to question its usefulness. They have 12 hours of work to squeeze into 8. Previous strategy processes probably consisted of weeks or months of meetings that resulted in a rambling pdf which is now archived in the bottom of every inbox, and a 40-page binder that is gathering dust in people’s cubicles. If this is the type of strategy process these people are thinking of, then they are right to feel that a strategy process is not useful. But processes like that are not good strategy processes. So what is a good strategy process?
A strategy process is nothing more than..
a way to choose between actions to take when trying to reach a goal.
Strategies can take many forms, including..
a to-do list, a one-page strategy map, a verbal plan of action, a 40-page binder, etc.
Good strategy processes..
Have the right level of detail for the group and for the situation. Some groups of people in some situations need a highly-detailed, granular strategy with a formal process for weekly or monthly review. Some will even need sophisticated ways of measuring strategic progress by pulling and displaying data from business systems. Others work best with a very general, simple set of five or six overall goals that are talked about for 5 minutes at weekly meetings. Either way, a good strategy process, for a particular group, will..
Include a vividstrategy that is easy to remember for the people who are choosing what to do in a situation.
Include arelevantstrategy that is easy to apply to each person’s current situation
Include a shared strategy. Every member of the group (team, department, organization) should have a similar idea of the overall strategy.
Encourage people to talk about the strategy. The best way to ensure that a group has a shared strategy is to ensure that it is talked about as part of daily conversations. The more vivid and relevant it is, the easier this will be.
What good strategy processes do.. If a strategy process gets these 5 characteristics right (there are more, but these are the fundamentals), it will help a group or organization to
make better decisions to support the good of the group or the organization
feel less anxiety about the future
decrease the number of irrelevant pet projects
increase the number of relevant pet projects
focus less on corporate structure and technology and more on why these exist
increase trust between people
increase the ability to measure progress
With this in-mind, the question at the beginning of the post should probably be changed to
Does our staff know which kind of strategy process we need?
Does a leader or a manager who is not naturally drawn to the use of digital media need to use them?
I have heard two valid-sounding arguments against this, which sound valid at first glance, but which don’t hold up very well under closer scrutiny. The first argument comes from leaders who feel that their organization needs to use digital media for marketing or for internal collaboration, but who echo the logic of one leader who recently suggested to me that
I don’t have to be a rocket scientist myself to manage a team of rocket scientists, so why do i need to be a social media user to manage people who are using social media?
The second argument suggests, as Dorie Clark writes in a recent Huffington Post post entitled “Why Social Media Wastes Leaders’ Time”, that rather than using digital media..
..it’s the forgotten 19th century arts (handwritten notes, personal phone calls, and high-quality personal meetings) that can have the greatest impact.
Both of these arguments are false for many reasons. Rather than spending time picking them apart, let me suggest two alternate arguments (please let me know in the comments if you would like for me to spend some more time picking the original ones apart and i will gladly do so). Here is the first argument:
While a great leader of rocket scientists does not have be a rocket scientist herself, she had better know how to get into their heads and understand the scientific, get-it-done, go-to-the moon engineering culture. She had also better know how to use the media of statistics, blueprints and flow diagrams as a way of communicating with those rocket scientists. A leader in 2011 who does not at least understand digital media (and digital media is not something you can understand by reading about it) probably does not understand the culture of her employees and of her customers, and will have trouble not only understanding and communicating with these two groups, but she will also have trouble understanding how to empower, motivate and help them to develop in a culture which is mediated in increasing amounts by digital media.
Here is the second argument:
Any leader who ever used just one form of media, whether it be face-to-face, email, written notes, letters, emails, smoke signals, carrier pigeons or social media, was never an effective leader. Great leaders always have, and always will communicate through a mix of media. Using each of these enough to know which mix is appropriate for which context is a core leadership skill. A leader in 2011 who does not know when to consider mixing a Tweet with a face-to-face meeting, and when to just send a hand-written note is probably not going to achieve good results.
If you are a leader who is reading this and recoiling because you can’t imagine how you can possibly learn something new like this when there are so many other fires to put out every day, you need not be worried. You can start simply by setting aside a few minutes per day–every day–engaging with your family, friends, and even your colleagues and employees on blogs, Twitter, Facebook or an internal social network. At first though, don’t think of the return on this time investment in terms of profit or efficiency. That will come later. Instead, think of it in terms of understanding your people and your culture, which is core to your long-term ability to lead.
What is the difference between new media and old media? Between informal learning and formal learning? Between a business and a university? Between journalism and marketing? Between a professional and an amateur? Between a designer and a coder? Between social media and digital media? Between design thinking and creativity?
If you have spent any time debating these differences, i would like to humbly suggest that you be careful of wasting a huge amount of time.
In times of great change (like the one we are in now) the coherence between words like these and the things they represent starts to strain. Broadcast media is incorporating Twitter posts into newscasts, while blogs embed traditional news into their pages. Formal classroom learning includes very informal methods. Top universities rely on corporate funding and businesses do real research. Journalists have to consider their audience, while marketers are realizing the necessity of truth-telling. Amateurs produce professional quality software. Coders design systems and even interfaces. People in organizations have been doing what we now call design thinking and creativity for millenia.
What most of us (with the exception of philosophers) really care about is not what these things are called, but what they do. With this in mind, we have to be careful not to get caught up in endless debates about the words we use to describe them. As the movie character Forrest Gump suggested, the only people who should be called “stupid” are people who do stupid things
or as Jimmie Dodd and Doreen suggest, a “beautiful” person does beautiful things
or to put it more directly
Journalism is as journalism does
Universities are as universities do
Marketing is as marketing does, etc.
In other words, for most of the people reading this post (if you are a philosopher, you are exempted from this generalization) the things or actions behind the terms are much more important to you than the terms themselves. So the next time you feel a conversation heading down the road of a debate over terms, try steering it away from the terms, and toward the things and actions behind the terms. Try this tactic, for example:
I don’t care whether it is a [noun] or a [noun], so long as it [verb].
If we consider for a moment that [noun] seem to be [verb]ing a lot more in recent years, then..
I think you will see that you will have a much more productive conversation.
I’ve been thinking for a while that we need to move away from discussions of how to categorize new technology and practices, and move toward discussions of what those technologies and practices enable.
So, for example, is Twitter social media or social CRM? I don’t really care.* What i do care about is how Twitter and the practices that have grown up around it (hashtags, following, re-tweeting) enable different sorts of social interactions between people inside and outside of organizations than do other media.
Is the use of a wiki enterprise 2.0 or social business? I don’t really care about this either. What i do care about is how wikis and the practices that have grown up around them (collaborative editing, tagging) enable different ways of getting things done.
What do you think?
* To be fair, whether or not i care has to do with which disciplinary hat i am wearing at the time. One hat is the hat of a practitioner, who cares mainly about the outcomes of using a technology. When i’m wearing this hat, i don’t care about the categories. If you call a technology gobbledeglook, but it achieves a good overall outcome, the practitioner in me is satisfied. The second hat is the hat of an academic, whose job it is to think deeply about the categories and the effects that those might have on the outcomes. If you use the word media when i’m wearing this hat, i’m back looking at the etymology of the word and reams of media theory and the philosophy of technology before you can shake a mobile phone at me.