Navigating the corporate world means you are always negotiating. You may be negotiating with a coworker about a project deadline. Or, with a client about how to resolve an issue. Or, you may be negotiating with your boss about a promotion or a raise. Whether you think about it consciously or not, you are always negotiating. And, because our goal is to help you be successful in your career, we want to spend 10 minutes with you this week teaching you one component of negotiation.
The concept we are going to be covering is called BANTA. It stands for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.
Negotiation always involves at least two people, and you are always one of them. Chances are good that you and the other person involved in the negotiation have different priorities.
This doesn’t even have to be dramatic. Its really only natural that 2 people will have different priorities. You both have different interests as well. They don’t necessarily have to be competing interests, but if you are negotiating with someone, you are really, by definition, in a place where you don’t currently have agreement.
Entering the Negotiation
So, as you enter into any negotiation, you should be aware that, at the start of the negotiation, you have a gap to close. There are two parts to closing that gap:
As you think about your personal priorities, you are going to come up with a list of your demands:
You need to be clear on these things so that as you get into the negotiation, you can remain more calm. You will have already thought through the possible outcomes and you aren’t having to think on your feet when the heat is on.
BANTA takes you to the next step
Again, BANTA stands for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It is your best course of action for satisfying your interests if you can not reach agreement with the other side.
It is about being clear in your mind about what action you will take in the event the negotiation does not go your way.
The reason BANTA is important is because it is the emergency exit. When you don’t have an emergency exit, you panic.
You make rash decisions.
You may dig in.
Your mind shuts down and you lose your ability to think creatively. And, because you can’t think creatively, you rely on the goals and objectives you had identified as the only possible options.
BANTA is your exit plan. If a negotiation doesn’t result in the outcome you were looking for, you need to know how you’ll exit.
Having BANTA in your toolkit will help you reach a new ability to negotiate because it will help bring clarity to your negotiation.
If you are a Scale My Skills subscriber, we’ve sent you a worksheet to help you plan your negotiation, including your BANTA. If not, you can sign up here.
Everyone in your management chain – and everyone in a leadership position at your company is making decisions based on your company’s financial position every day. So, it is important for you to have some basic understanding about some of the core building blocks of financials. If you understand these, you are better able to understand why your leadership team makes some of the decisions they do. It helps to give you better insight. It helps you better understand the strategy decisions they are making. And, it helps you better anticipate what decisions they might make in the future.
Today we are going to talk about the difference between fixed and variable cost. If you can really understand this concept, you’ll have a better ability to analyze business strategy. So, this is fixed and variable cost 101.
Fixed cost is any cost incurred by your company that doesn’t change based on the business. So, for example, the rent paid for your office is fixed. Whether you make $100 in sales this month, or $1,000000, the rent is the same.
If you are in a manufacturing business that has large equipment – that equipment is a fixed cost. It is likely that there is some sort of monthly payment on the equipment that has to be made regardless of sales.
If you are in the transportation business, you likely have a fleet of trucks that are being paid for each month.
If you are working for a start up, maybe your company has taken out a loan. That loan payment is a fixed expense.
Chances are good that your company has some sort of insurance – whether it is liability insurance, key man insurance, or something specific to your industry. The insurance payment is fixed. It doesn’t change based on the volume of your sales.
The other type of cost is variable. Variable costs fluctuate based on volume. Inventory is a classic variable cost. Whatever business you are in, if it involves inventory, then your company can control costs by controlling inventory. You pay based on the volume you buy. So, if you are in a seasonal business, you would minimize the cost of inventory during the months that are not part of your season and your costs would go way up in the months that were your season.
What if you are in an industry that doesn’t involve inventory? Maybe you work for a software company or an accounting firm. In that case, the largest variable cost is salary expense. The amount of expense is going to increase or decrease based on the number of employees.
Services businesses like software, accounting, real estate, consulting – the largest expense they have is the cost of employees. So, the best way to control costs is to control headcount. In an accounting or consulting business where revenue is linked directly to headcount because you are literally charging by the hour – then the costs that the business incurs automatically goes up or down with the revenue.
For a software business – there isn’t as much of a direct link. You can sell a lot more software licenses without having to add more developers.
But, the fact still remains that salary expense is a variable cost because it increases or decreases based on the number of employees. So, your salary, regardless of what industry you work in, is a variable expense for your company.
Benefits are also variable expenses. Each time they add headcount, they also add expenses related to whatever benefits are offered.
So, you can start to see how understanding fixed versus variable costs is important. The leaders of your company have to make decisions based on the specific situation they are in. As they are making decisions, they have to look at the options based on what is variable and what is fixed. And, these aren’t always easy decisions. If you see your company making some belt tightening decisions, it could be an indicator that cash is tight and they are looking for ways to decrease variable costs in order to be able to ensure they can cover their fixed costs during a lean time.
And, on a side note – all of this applies at home as well. What are your fixed and variable costs at home? You are constantly making decisions based on this and may not even realize you are doing it.
You can learn more about financial acumen with our Financial Acumen Curriculum.
There is one thing that will, without a doubt keep you from being successful in your career. If your coworkers and bosses don’t have trust in you, you will be like Sisyphus, pushing your career up the mountain only to see it slip back down.
Mahatma Gandhi said it very well, “The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted.”
A lack of trust is something you can’t afford in your career. And, the thing is, trust is something other’s get to decide. Do they trust you or not? Of course, it is based on your actions, but the decision to place trust is still theirs.
So, how do you increase your chances of ending up in a place where your coworkers and bosses make a decision to place their trust in you? On this episode, we are going to talk through the different components of trust. By understanding the components, you can determine if there are any levers you can pull that may help you improve your trustworthiness in other’s eyes.
A lot of the basis for this is based on the book “The Speed of Trust – The One Thing that Change Everything” by Stephen MR Covey.
How Do You Define Trust?
First, think about what it is that you consider when you decide to place your trust in others. Think about someone you trust. What makes you trust them? Now, think about someone you don’t trust. What makes you lack trust in them? What would they need to do to build a reputation with you that would lead to you trusting them?
Even the most trustworthy person you can think of can lose your trust in a given situation. It is hard to make an argument that Mother Theresa was untrustworthy.
But, would you trust her to fix your car? No.
Would you trust her to treat your cancer? No.
Trustworthiness is relative because one component of trust is competence. In your career, your level of trustworthiness can not be separated from your competence.
Obviously, you are not going to ever gain competency in all areas. Nobody is. This is why trust is relative. Your goal is to build your competency in your particular area of focus. If you find yourself struggling to gain your bosses trust, you should consider whether or not the lack of trust is driven by a competency issue.
Competency is made up of: capability, results, and your track record. It takes all three to build trust.
Capability is your skill level for a given area. If you are in finance, it is your skill level understanding financial models, data modeling, your ability to manipulate a spreadsheet. If you are in customer service, it is your ability to solve problems, to stay calm under pressure, and to learn your company’s product or service well enough to answer questions from customers. If you are in sales, it is knowing how to read the room, how to build a business case, and how to listen for what your prospective client really needs.
Whatever role you are in – what you need to do is understand the skills that are core for your area and determine how you increase these so that you become known as competent.
By the way, if you are a Scale My Skills subscriber, you’ve got a guide in your inbox that will walk you through this process.
We don’t trust people who don’t give us results. You need to be seen as someone who gets things done.
Keep your promises.
Do what you say you will do.
Under promise and over deliver.
Are you someone who delivers results? More importantly, are you someone others see as delivering results?
We build trust by delivering results consistency over a long period of time. Trust deepens each time you deliver, and you build a track record that becomes a foundation of trust with someone. We will give someone who breaks our trust the benefit of the doubt if they have a track record with us. We see the episode as out of character for them and we think to ourselves “this isn’t like Jim – he usually delivers on his promises. Something must be going on.” Someone without a track record won’t get that same level of benefit.
So, one side of the trust equation is your competency – your skill level, the results you achieve, and your track record over time. If you feel like you aren’t getting the respect you deserve at work, take a good hard look at these areas and see if there is something you can work on.
The second side of the trust equation is character. Whereas competencies are situation, character is constant. Character is made up of integrity, motive, and intent.
Integrity is honestly, congruence, humility, and courage. Are you telling the truth and leaving the right impression. Are you acting in harmony with your values and beliefs? Are you concerned more about what is right than about being right? And, do you have the courage to do what is right even when it is hard?
Having integrity is foundational to building trust. Can you imagine trusting someone who has no integrity? It is table stakes. Without integrity, it’s a non-starter.
Intent is also important when it comes to trust. Intent is your reason for doing something. When your intent is in the right place, but you screw up anyway, people are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. They won’t penalize you as much for the violation. Its like you just got off with a warning instead of a speeding ticket. Having a positive intent is character building.
Character is also influenced by your agenda. People will determine whether or not they can trust you by whether they feel your agenda is self serving or seeking mutual benefit. How often do you operate with an open agenda versus one where you maybe have an alternative motive? When you catch yourself in alternative motive mode, remind yourself that you are not acting in accordance with building trust.
And finally, character is built on your behavior. Behavior is simply the manifestation of your intent and agenda. People can see when your behavior is not trustworthy. Behaving out of alignment with intent is a sure fire indicator of a hidden agenda.
Every single one of us has a lot to learn. You may be an expert at something, but a complete novice in another area. Or, maybe you have only been out of school for a short time and you are pretty much a novice at everything. So, whatever your situation, you are going to be put into a scenario where you are not the most knowledgeable person on the topic, and you are going to need to rely on the advice or feedback of someone else. When this happens, one of the most important things you can do is accurately assess how much weight you should give to their advice.
Assess How Much Weight to Give Advice
How do you do that? By considering how much experience the person has and what their track record is on the subject. So, someone who has been working in sales for 20 years and has won top sales person over and over is very reliable when it comes to topics related to sales. But, you may not want to take tax advice from them. For tax advice, you will go to someone with a CPA who has 20 years of experience doing tax returns.
It seems pretty obvious when I use those examples, but in day-to-day situations, it isn’t always so clear cut.
If you want to improve your ability to make good decisions, you need to evaluate your decision making process. When you make a decision, who are you relying on? Are you taking into consideration the advice you are being given weighed against the person’s experience and expertise? Not every person is right for advice on every topic. Someone who is super smart in one area can still give you horrible advice in another area.
You must be able to distinguish the person’s believability when it comes to the topic. What most people do is they give equal weight to everyone in the room. Or, they may give weight based on likeability or how long they’ve known someone. But, even in those cases, they are usually doing it unconsciously.
Consider Experience and Track Record
When you are trying to make a decision about something and you are involving others, you must consider their experience and track record when weighing the impact their opinion will have on your decision.
When you are considering someone’s advice, ask yourself:
This 3rd point is really important. A lot of people have opinions they are willing to share, but when you dig into it, you find out it is not based on any personal experience. Many times, it is based on something they’ve heard someone else say. A person’s believability is tied to first-hand experience. If they don’t have 1st hand experience, then they aren’t the right person for you to be getting advice from.
Separating your respect for someone from the fact that they aren’t believable in certain areas is an important skill. In order to do that, you need to ask yourself if they have a good explanation for their advice. If not, you should consider how much weight you give it.
What Role Are You Playing?
The other thing to think about when making a decision based on other people’s advice is the role that you are playing in this specific instance. When considering your relative experience to the other person’s – are you a student, a teacher, or a peer?
If the other person is relatively more experienced than you on the topic, then you are in the role of student and you should be asking questions in order to gain understanding.
If the other person is relatively less experienced than you on the topic, then you are in the role of teaching. You should be explaining the process and experience that led you to your conclusion.
And, if you and the other person are relative peers – have a similar level of experience, then your role is to debate. To balance open-minded exploration of the experiences that led your colleague to his opinions while also being assertive in explaining your own experiences and opinions.
If you have signed up for Scale My Skills, our weekly newsletter, you received a matrix to help you assess your role and the actions you should take when you find yourself in each of the roles.
We all have a portfolio of skills that are used in combination to provide us with our living. Each person listening to this podcast makes their living in a different way, using a different combination of talents, selling them for different rates to different buyers – otherwise known as your employer.
Have you ever thought of your skills as a portfolio? A portfolio is more often associated with investments or creative careers than business careers, but the reality is – we each build our portfolio of skills.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines portfolio as a portable showcase of your talents. I guess in the traditional sense, our portfolio is our resume or CV. The strategy behind a portfolio is that you are typically trying to put it together in a way that maximizes its value. For an investor, they are picking the investments that they feel will give them the best return, but that is also diversified. The difference between an investor’s view of their portfolio and your view of your skills portfolio is likely that they are always thinking of it strategically, and you likely haven’t.
What I want to do today is to help you think of your skills in terms of a portfolio and to become more strategic about how you are thinking about them and deploying them. I’m going to give you a very concrete tool for thinking through your portfolio in a way that helps you decide what skills you should invest time in.
If you are signed up for Scale My Skills, our weekly newsletter, the tool is already in your inbox. Otherwise, if you’d like to get a copy of this tool, you can git it for free by signing up for Scale My Skills.
The tool that we are going to talk about is a matrix. On one axis is the question “what skills do I have or am I growing?” On the 2nd axis is the questions “are my skills well received in the marketplace?”
What skills do I have or am I growing?
For every skill you have, you rank it along a continuum based on your level of expertise. Skills that are your strengths go on the high end of the spectrum, and skills that are not your strengths go on the low end of the spectrum.
How well received are these skills in the marketplace?
The market sets different prices for different skills. Understanding the intersection of your skills and how the marketplace values them can give you great insight into the best way you can maximize your portfolio.
So, along the 2nd axis, you are going to rank the skills you have based on the going market rate. Skills that the market doesn’t value go on the low end of the spectrum and skills that they market highly values go on the high end of the spectrum.
Plot them in the Skills Portfolio Matrix
Ok, now that you’ve assessed your skills and what the market will pay for those skills, you are going to plot them in a matrix.
For those skills that you are not good at and the marketplace doesn’t pay well for – there is no reason for you to put effort into developing the skill. At least, not if your goal is to get paid for it.
For those skills that you are really good at but the marketplace doesn’t value highly, these can become sustaining skills. Think of them as an investor thinks of passive income. You may not put a lot of effort into it because the return is low, but the fact that you receive some benefit still has value to you.
For those skills that are a strength and are valued highly, you should consider making additional or continued investment in order to get the most out of the market’s willingness to pay. You should also make sure you are highlighting this skill on your LinkedIn profile and resume or CV. This is the skill that you want to market for yourself.
The point of the exercise is to help you identify the skills that make sense to invest in. Once you’ve identified them, it is a separate step to determine how they fit into your overall goals and priorities. What the matrix tells you about the skills that fall into the high value/ high expertise quadrant is that the investment in them will pay dividends if you decide to pursue them.
And, for those skills that fall into the quadrant for high market value but low skill, these are the more risky investments. Since you aren’t sure the skills is something that can become a strength, the amount of investment you need to make is higher. And, because you are farther away from the expertise, there is more opportunity for failure. You can get into it and find out you don’t have the aptitude. You can get into it and find out you don’t enjoy it. You can get into it and find out it is nothing like you thought it would be. So, it not only requires a bigger investment, it has a higher probability of failure. But, none of those things mean you shouldn’t do it. The payoff at the end may be big enough to be worth the risk.
Again, the point of the matrix is to help you identify the relative risk / reward and then it is up to you to take the next step.
So, I hope I’ve inspired you to take a look at your skills from a portfolio view. When you look at your skill portfolio in total, you want a good balance of skills that are highly developed and highly valued and skills that, if not so highly valued are not costing you in other ways. As you consider where to invest your time and money, you are thinking about the impact to your overall skills portfolio.
Our objective on People Move Organizations is to make you successful in your career whatever your definition of success looks like. One of the things that will make you stand out from your peers is your ability to improve your customer’s experience with your company. Even if you are in a role where you don’t interact with your customer directly, you should always have customer experience in the back of your mind.
If you’d like to get a basic introduction to the concept of customer experience, check out episode 19.
You may have heard of the problem solving technique of asking Why 5 times. This technique helps you dig deeper into a problem by ensuring that you don’t accept the first answer to a problem. The idea is that if you keep asking why five times, you’ll dig deep enough to really understand the root cause of an issue.
I took that basic concept and adjusted it to address the idea of customer experience. I was looking for a way to help all employees within a company keep customer experience in the back of their mind as they contemplated a change to their process. I originally posted this framework as a blog post on LinkedIn in 2016.
I call the framework the 5 How’s.
There are 5 How Questions that you should always consider if you are going to implement a change to your process. Alternatively, if you have a process that you suspect could be improved, you could use these 5 questions to help you assess if a change is needed.
How is this change going to impact my customer?
Many times, when we think about making a change, we spend time thinking about the impacts to us, or our team, or maybe, even other internal stakeholders. But, have you thought about the impact to your customer? Depending on your role, the impact may be obvious or it may be very indirect and not so obvious. But, either way, you should really spend some time thinking about it. Having a point of view about this, at least ensures you’ve thought about it and eliminates the risk that you just moved ahead without a second thought.
How will this change look from my customer’s standpoint?
Again, you are likely to naturally think about the change from an internal perspective, but be thoughtful about stepping outside your organization and looking at it from the customer’s perspective. Are they likely to see it as an improvement? Will they think it makes you easier to do business with? Will they see it as something you are taking away from them?
Spend some time considering this so that you can determine if you need to take any specific action as part of the change.
How will my customer respond to the change?
If you’ve thought about how the change looks from the customer’s perspective, then you can also take this next step and think about how they might respond. Of course, this can be very tricky because the same exact change can produce different responses from different customers. You may have one customer who is fairly easy-going and just naturally accepts it and another who is high maintenance that throws an all-out temper tantrum. This is where knowing your customer will come in handy because you may be able to assess pretty accurately what the different likely responses will be. But, even if you don’t know you clients well enough to make a specific assessment, you can make some educated guesses.
However, by spending the time to think through the possible responses to the change, you will be able to come up with a plan for how to deal with the different scenarios.
How will my customer find out about the change?
Your answer to the previous questions can help determine how big of a deal this one is. If you’ve determined that, for example, the change is likely to impact your client very little, then how they find out about it is not really that big of a deal. But, if they will see the change as a reduction in service and they are likely to respond very negatively, the way they find out about it becomes a lot more important. So, think about how they will find out about it and make sure it is in alignment with the rest of your assessment.
How will my customer give feedback about the change?
One of the key tenants of good change management is to ensure there is a way for people to provide feedback. A feedback loop is absolutely necessary. A feedback loop doesn’t mean only a way to complain. It also means a way to ask questions or get clarifications. So, make sure you’ve thought about the feedback loop that the customer will have. It may be as simple as providing a contact name or as complex as building out an elaborate website, but what you want to make sure you do is give the right feedback loop for the situation.
Asking How 5 times will ensure you have a solid plan to address the impacts to your customer of a change you are making or are part of.
If you are not in a customer facing role, you should still ask the questions. Better to ask them and determine the answer to all questions is ‘no impact’ than to not ask them at all and find out the hard way that you missed something.
We’ve all been involved with situations where something didn’t happen the way it was supposed to happen because of a lack of clearly defined expectations. A customer gets mad because the repair guy didn’t show up when he said he would. The repair guy is stressed out because the appointment scheduler is scheduling him into appointments with no time for driving from one place to another. The scheduler is trying to meet metrics set by the boss.
Think about your own situation. Is there an area where it seems like everything isn’t lining up? Where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Is someone making decisions or taking action without considering how it impacts others in the process?
Today, we are going to talk about a tool that can be helpful in these situations. Its called the RACI (race-eee) matrix. It is a project management tool that you can adapt to your job.
At its core, the RACI matrix is a responsibility matrix. You simply list tasks down the left side and people or departments across the top to form a matrix. Then, at each intersection of a task and person, you list the role the person plays from a responsibility perspective.
The R in RACI stands for responsible. If the person is responsible for performing the task, then you put an 'R' in the cell. Responsible for the task means they physically do it. They are the boots on the ground, the hands on the keyboard, or the person who actually shows up at the client’s home to make the repair.
The A in the RACI stands for accountable. This is the person who ultimately makes sure the task gets done. They are the ‘buck stops here’ person. They are the person who makes sure something happens – even if they don’t actually perform the task. This is the VP of Customer Support in our repair example.
The C in RACI stands for Consulted. If the person has specialized knowledge or is going to be impacted by the task, they may be consulted as part of the task. This is someone whose input adds value even if they aren’t going to be responsible or accountable for making it happen. In our example, our repair guy may make a call to the product engineering department to get an answer about a product specification in order to be able to properly resolve the issue. The product engineering department has no responsibility for customer repairs. But, they do have specific knowledge that can contribute to the process when the situation calls for it.
The I in RACI stands for Informed. This means the person would know about the task but they don’t have input into it. This is one-way communication whereas C – Consulted - is 2 way communication. The accounting department is informed that the repair has been completed so that they can bill the customer for it. They weren’t responsible for making sure the repair got done, accountable for making sure the repair guy showed up, or consulted in the process of making the repair. But, they need to know it happened so they know to send the bill.
So – RACI. Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed.
Benefits of a RACI
Any process benefits from a RACI because it helps to clearly define the roles played by each person involved in the process. It helps clarify who does what so that everyone is on the same page. It helps you think through a process more thoroughly to ensure that you have fewer unintended consequences to decisions or actions taken within a process.
Having a RACI matrix is a way of forcing you to think about the process and all of its stakeholders. It is a way of planning for different scenarios by proactively identifying who does what for each process.
Because each of us tends to get focused on our own day-to-day job, it is easy to just do what we do and lose track of the stakeholders to the process. The RACI gives you a chance to take a step back and think about the impacts you have on others within the process.
We’ve got 2 episodes that would make a great companion to this one – one about the difference between Systems and Processes, and one about Stakeholders.
Cross Functional Processes
There are very few processes in modern business that are isolated. Almost any process you can think of is cross functional – meaning it involves people from across departments. When you involve people from across departments, you are bringing together people with different objectives, different skills, and different focus to solve a specific task.
Because there are so many variables, having clearly defined roles helps take away one variable.
If I know I’m a C – Consulted – in the process, then I know my role is to give input, but I also know I don’t have to actually deliver anything. I also know that the other people involved know my role is limited to consulting, so there shouldn’t be confusion about who is doing what. When something doesn’t get done the way it should, everyone knows that the right person to go to is the person listed as 'responsible' on the matrix. And, if that person doesn’t get it done then the issue is escalated to the person listed as 'accountable.'
This about one of your processes that could use a RACI and spend some time to put one together. I think you'll find that the process helps identify potential areas of problem in the process and will help you resolve them quickly.
If you are a subscriber to Scale My Skills, our weekly newsletter, you’ve got a RACI matrix in your mailbox. If you aren’t, you can sign up here.
Having clarity of your personal purpose is a foundation to having strong self-awareness. Being clear about who you are and who you aren’t gives you the confidence you need to make hard decisions. But, unfortunately we are not all very clear about our purpose.
I don’t care how old you are, you likely have moments of “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” every once in a while. You have to reach a special level of enlightenment to not question yourself everyone once in a while.
I’m not trying to get you to Buddha under the Bodhi tree level of enlightenment, but I do what you to be confident enough in our purpose that you can make decisions – possibly life changing decisions – with confidence.
I also believe that your purpose changes over time. When you are early in your career, you are focused on establishing your career. As you start a family, your focus shifts, and as you near retirement, your focus shifts again. So, it isn’t necessarily a one-and-done situation. If you haven’t thought through your purpose recently, it may be time to take another look at it.
So, as you are thinking about your purpose, think about:
If you make decisions from a place where your purpose is the foundation, you can be certain that you will do it with confidence. And, when you operate with a sense of confidence and from a foundation of purpose, you will be more successful in your career.
Our topic today is a little bit unusual – it is definitely something you don’t learn in school. But, surprisingly, I have found it to be a very useful tool in my career.
You know what an inside joke is. It is something between you and another person that you share and only understood because you have a shared context. You can talk about It in front of other people, and although they can understand all of the words you are saying, because they don’t have the context, they don’t get the deeper meaning. Inside jokes are usually funny, and can sometimes border on mean or cruel if the joke you share is at someone else’s expense.
What I want to talk about today is like an inside joke, but not funny or mean. I’ll call it a verbal shortcut.
A verbal shortcut is something between you and another person that you use to quickly communicate a full idea using shortened words. You’ve established up-front a specific context for the short cut that means that everyone understands the underlying context when the agreed upon short cut is spoken.
You probably already have some that you use without even realizing it. But, by thinking about it as an efficiency tool, you may find that you could purposefully implement more of these shortcuts into your work and find an improvement.
Let me give you some examples that I’ve used over the years.
One of the most recent ones I’ve learned is the verbal shortcut “Left Hand Column.” If you aren’t familiar with this one – hearing those 3 words may not mean much to you. But, when I say those words to one of my coworkers who has been initiated into the use of the phrase, they know exactly what I’m getting at. The phrase “left hand column” means – “here is what I’m really thinking and I’m about to tell you something you may not want to hear.”
By giving this idea a short cut term, we’ve normalized it as part of our culture. Because we have established a protocol that has established the use of this short cut term as an acceptable way to voice our negative thoughts, we are more effective.
Another favorite example that I use all the time is the shortcut “blue car.” This is something I say when I’ve gotten way off topic. It is the same idea as the dog who gets sidetracked by the squirrel in the Movie Up. It is used to tell people – ok, we have gotten completely sidetracked by this unrelated and off-topic discussion and need to come back to the original purpose of the meeting.
These shortcuts don’t work if the others aren’t indoctrinated into the meaning. If I’m in a meeting with a group of people who don’t know what “blue car” means and I say “ok, this is a blue car and we need to move on,” then they all just think I’ve lost my mind.
But, by introducing these verbal short cuts to your department, or the people you work most closely with, you can make an impact on effectiveness.
There are a lot of factors that contribute.
Where Verbal Shortcuts Come From
How do these short cuts come about? A lot of times, they develop over time and out of a situation or context that occurred. For example, I was talking with a colleague when his daughter came into the room and asked him if she could have ice cream. He told her no, but she could have a frozen grape.
I don’t have kids, so frozen grapes may be new to me for that reason, but I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. What kind of a substitute is a frozen grape when what you really want is ice cream? To me, this sounded like bait and switch.
But, my colleague told me his kids love frozen grapes. So, for them, although it may not quite be ice cream, it was an acceptable compromise.
Now, when my colleague and I are talking about how to come up with a solution everyone can live with, we say it is a frozen grape. The client asked for us to assign a project manager to their project full time at no additional cost. That’s not going to be possible, but maybe we can give them the PM at cost as a frozen grape.
I’ve been using blue car for so long that I don’t remember how it came about, but I’ve taken it with me from company to company. It means that I sometimes have to explain it to my new team, but because I use it frequently, they eventually get used to the term.
And sometimes, the short cut gets introduced more formally. For instance, Left Hand Column came about from a training session that all of the managers in my company went through.
So, verbal shortcuts can come in many forms. Over the coming days, keep your eyes out for them. You probably have some in your life already. Look for places where you might be able to introduce a shortcut that would improve efficiency or effectiveness for your work.
It may be something small – a way to communicate to your coworker that you can’t be disturbed, or that although you’d love to catch up, you just done have time. It might be a way to communicate with your manager that you are stressed and just not at your best. Or, it might be with a team you are part of that could use a short cut to deal with a certain recurring theme.
There are a lot of different opinions about brainstorming. As with just about everything, you can find people who think it is the best thing since sliced bread and people who think it is the devil incarnate.
I believe it is an important tool to have in your toolbox, but not that it is the right solution for every scenario. What I want to do today is to give you an idea about a variety of brainstorming that I find to be a great option. It uses a combination of traditional brainstorming tactics with some aspects of agile development methodology and a good dose of individual problem solving.
I’m going to start by describing the process end-to-end and then we’ll go back and examine the steps in more detail with an example.
So, that is an overview of the process. Now, let’s go back through it using an example.
Start with a Problem You Need to Solve
Let’s say your company has been growing fast and things that used to work fine when you were small aren’t working anymore. It is starting to show up in reduced customer satisfaction. Your customer satisfaction ratings have started to decline and you recognize the need to take action, but you aren’t sure what needs to be done. So, the problem you want to solve is improving your customer satisfaction rating.
Start by finding 5-7 people who want to help solve the problem.
They are not signing up to implement the solution identified. They are signing up to participate in the process of identifying a solution to the problem. Their time commitment is something less than 8 hours. Their commitment is to the brainstorming process only.
You want to find people with different points of view. You’ll want to think about customer satisfaction for your company and identify people from different departments that could have an impact on the client. Client satisfaction issues could stem from your product or service, from the delivery process, from the ongoing support process, from the payment process, etc.
A good reference for helping you with this is our episode on System vs. Process. I suggest you go back and listen to it to help you identify the potential people to include in your team.
Educate the Team
Once you’ve identified your team, you are going to define the presentations you want to have the team exposed to. These presentations should help the team understand the problem from different perspectives.
In our example, we would want someone from customer support who could talk about the types of complaints they’ve seen lately. You’d want someone from the product group who could talk about how they take customer feedback into account when they decide on features. Ideally, you’d hear from a customer about what they’ve experienced as you’ve grown as a company. Depending on how bad this customer satisfaction issue has become, maybe you need someone from accounting to present the impact to sales or past-due accounts receivable.
Again, this is not an in-depth analysis of the problem. You want your project team to hear accounts of the problem from multiple angles that they may not have otherwise considered.
Identify Interesting Questions
As the presentations are being made, the team is writing down questions that come to mind. For example, as the person from customer support is presenting, he mentions that he’s noticed more calls are about the increased delivery time. You might write down “how can we reduce delivery time?” I might write down “how can we better set client expectations about delivery time?”
By the end of the presentations, each person might have a dozen questions. If you are doing this exercise in person, the best option is to write them on post it notes. If you are doing it virtually, you’ll need to look at the tools you have available. You could use a shared document and have everyone add their questions to it. Or you could use a virtual whiteboard app like Miro that has electronic post it note functionality.
Vote on the Question The Group will Tackle
Each person in the group gets 3 votes. Give everyone 5-10 minutes to vote on their top 3 questions. Then identify the questions with the most votes.
You may need to do some consolidation. For example, your question and my question about delivery time may have each gotten a couple of votes. Since they are both about delivery time, you may combine them into a single item. Individually, they may not have been top vote getters, but combined, they may.
The point is, a set of questions will rise to the top as the ones the group believes are important for solving the problem. From there, you will have a group discussion to identify which questions the group thinks is the right one to tackle.
One thing that is important to note – it is likely that every question asked is legitimate and could contribute to the solution. Certainly, there will be several questions that are very important and need to be solved. But, for this session, you are just landing on one. The others won’t be lost forever. They just won’t be the focus of this session. You are identifying the question that the group is going to tackle.
Once you have agreement, the groups gets their homework. Go off on your own and draw out your own personal solution to the problem. In our case, each person is going to draw out their ideas about how to improve delivery time.
The guidelines are pretty simple – don’t limit your ideas. Think of this as fantasy land. If you had no constraints on budget or headcount, org structure, or company politics, what would your solution be?
The other guideline is to stay at a high enough level that your solution isn’t tactical – its theoretical. Again, you aren’t solving the problem as a team. You are brainstorming ways to solve the problem.
The timeframe for this exercise should be pretty limited – no more than 48 hours between the 1st session – identifying the question, and the 2nd session where everyone presents their homework.
Identify Potential Solutions
When the group reconvenes, each person presents their drawing and idea. Make sure they mention the assumptions they made and any big questions they still have. This should be time boxed to about 10 minutes per person to keep everyone from getting too far into details because there will be a tendency to try and solve the problem.
After everybody has presented, you will go through another round of voting. Again, each person gets 3 votes. They can vote on a solution in total or part of the solution they find compelling.
Again, you’ll look at the top vote getters and go through a process of consolidating similar ideas.
Once you’ve identified the top vote getters, you will narrow in on which solution the group thinks is the best place to start. Again, all of the solutions may have merit, but given resource constraints at all companies, you’ve got to prioritize down to the one you feel will give you the best return for the effort.
Identify Next Steps
Once you have that, you need to figure out the next step. This team is disbanding. So, you’ll need to figure out how to take the idea forward.
What you’ve done in a very short period of time is gotten a lot of good questions that could help you solve your problem, and narrowed in on a great solutions to take forward.
This brainstorming process is really good because of the diversity of opinions that come out of the “together but apart” nature of it. You are together as a team, but writing down your questions individually. You decide on the question to solve together, but put together a solution on your own. That means your solution isn’t influenced by someone else on the team as would happen in a traditional brainstorming scenario.
I encourage you to give this a try the next time you are faced with a problem to solve that maybe seems too big or overwhelming to tackle.
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