Pondering the question of focus

I had a really interesting conversation today with an executive in the company we acquired last year. She was talking about how different their (old) corporate culture was, and how that has probably been the hardest part of the integration over the last year. One of the biggest differences she sees is that their culture has always been fully focused externally – working with and for their customers, usually to the exclusion of everything else. She and her colleagues hear us talk about customer focus and kind of giggle. In their eyes they don’t talk about it, they just live it.

inside outside

This discussion has been bumping around in my brain since then. I’ll acknowledge that my company does a fair bit of navel gazing, and sharing internally, and focusing on developing employees. So I’m struggling with… defending isn’t really the right word. I’m thinking about pros and cons of internal focus in an effort to help explain how having a balance of the two can in fact strengthen the moments of external focus. And what I’m writing is really me thinking out loud.

It seems to me that if you are constantly in external focus mode, you don’t have time to strategize. Without time to reflect, how do you learn? And if it is all about forging ahead, how do you spread knowledge to reduce the learning curve for those around you? Serendipitous events wouldn’t have the ability to become movements. Continuous improvement has no chance when there is no time to even glance inward. Personal growth is stunted by a lack of time and energy. And actually, looking at that shell image I inserted into this post make me think about analogies. How every person is then in their own little cell where the only window is looking outward. You can’t see what’s going on to either side of you. You are blinkered.

Obviously too much internal focus means you are spending too much time within your own four walls never looking out. While this allow things to stay neat and clean, and gives you plenty of time to spruce the place up, if you have no one to show it off to, there’s not much point. And in business, that would also mean that you’d eventually run out of customers because you’ve spent too much time talking about how to make them the focus on not enough time just doing it.

So how to explain to convince someone that taking time away from that external focus can make the time they spend externally more valuable? That internal focus can help renewing, refresh and refocus employees? That having that minute to breathe can spark the creativity needed to solve thorny problems?

I see a glimmer, and so maybe it just takes patience and some examples. A little evidence and some more time to quell the fear. And maybe, just maybe, this ties back to my earlier thoughts on trust.


“Shiny and new” isn’t always enough

shiny carWhy is it that we often forget this? Not everyone loves a new phone, new house, new restaurant. While there are positives that can come with each of those things, they also require us to change out habits. My new phone has new button placement, new sounds, different dimensions; and all of these are things that will mean I have to change. We all have areas where we are more or less resistant to change, and at some level we know that.

The thing about phones and houses is that we (usually) don’t keep the old one hanging around while we get used to the new one. We make the switch and deal with the consequences. I’m not convinced it is that we understand that life moves on and we need to adapt. Mostly, we do it because we can’t afford the consequences. Maintaining two phones or two homes is costly, both in terms of actual dollars and in terms of time.

These same rules and logic apply when thinking about processes or software. Maintaining multiple modes is costly. Sometimes it is necessary, in order to give people time to adapt and change their existing habits. It is also important to consider that the cost is largely borne by the person doing the maintenance. The people using the systems don’t always realize the same benefits, and so it is harder for them to rationalize a change.

How do you deal with this?

  1. BEFORE you change something, consider if both sides gain. Net-net works; net-zero is OK; net-loss doesn’t work.
  2. Make sure you clearly outline the new way of doing things.
  3. You might have to clearly outline it more than once. Remember – not everyone understands new things the first time.
  4. Have patience, and explain the benefits to the other person. This means you need to translate what’s in it for them (see #1).
  5. Provide a transition period, and let folks know that it is time-bound.
  6. STOP facilitating. After your transition period, if you continue to allow the old process, it is unlikely to die.
  7. Recognize your role/contribution to any frustrations or confusion that occurs.

Rarely is there a situation where everyone else is out to get you or where they are all truly lazy. Remember that “shiny and new” can be intimidating. And that we all get used to routine, and sometimes take that turn off the freeway on Saturday even when we aren’t planning to go into work.

Nothing groundbreaking in here, no citations or hat tips. Just good ole thinking out loud.

Less blogging is more; at least for me

lessAfter a stint of furious blogging (well, for me anyway), I’ve been finding it hard to do a post at all. I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’ve heard it argued that if you give yourself the goal of posting once a week, you’ll find something to say. But I’ve watched others who make it a regular habit, and I would have to say that not everything they post really needed to be said. Maybe for them it did – I guess I shouldn’t really judge their efforts. But for me, I want whatever I write to be worthwhile. I don’t want to create a post just because I promised myself I would.

Yes, there is something to be said for consistency of timing. I would prefer to be known for consistency of (or at least above average) quality. I hope to limit the number of times someone comes to read my blog and thinks, “well, that was sure a waste of time”. No, it is unlikely that all my posts will be relevant or helpful to everyone who reads them. But if I don’t personally think I have something to say, then I’ll abstain.

That is what has been on my mind for a long time now. I felt like I was ducking a responsibility. and then my great friend Trisha Liu shared a Tiny Buddha post about respecting ourselves, listening to our instincts and NOT doing things just because we “should”. And I’m voting for affirming myself on this one. Waiting till I feel I have something worthwhile to share. Respecting myself, and therefore also my audience and their time.

When the job’s too big

Appalachian Trail sign

I’m getting ready for a family visit in conjunction with my daughter’s graduation party, and the tasks in front of me seemed overwhelming. I’ve fussed over it for months, wondering how I’d have enough time to get everything done.

Now that I’m almost atop the mountain, I’m remembering that like I already knew, focusing on what’s in front of you and taking it one step at a time actually works. Pay attention to the footfalls in front of you. Tackle the stream crossing you see instead of the river you are afraid is coming. Before you know it, the summit is in sight.

And instead of agonizing over where to start, just start. Usually there really is no “right place” to start, simply action or inaction. Choose action. Make a dent. Retreat is OK. If needed, you can find a different starting place tomorrow. Don’t fear a false start, because it was a start!

Because this job is not yet over, my time to post is limited. And even with this, I needed to just post. I know my words aren’t new, but they are a reminder to me if no one else. When I think I can’t, do it anyway. When I’m paralyzed with the enormity of something, focus on one small piece – because the pieces can all be made small.

Here’s to more TOL posting after the rest of the mountain is crested!

Was there some “secret social sauce” in the way we learned in my grad class?

secret sauce

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been taking a graduate class at Northwestern that is essentially about using enterprise social networks to accomplish knowledge management. We’ve learned the theories behind both what knowledge and knowledge management are, the pros and cons for businesses and individuals, some of the psychology behind why people do or don’t readily participate, etc. Some of the readings were very dense and scholarly, and others were more lively and engaging. All in all, it has been a great experience.

Because I’m a practicing community manager, I have found that I can’t stop myself doing a lot of stepping back to assess what’s going on from that lens. In other words, I’ve been both a participant in and observer of the course. There’s been so much to reflect on behaviorally, even in myself.

Our last class meeting was this week, and one of the questions the instructor asked was how our attitudes had changed over the time period of the course. The vast majority of the students said that they were now much more likely to participate and even lead the way (model behaviors) in their company ESNs. Many of them described that before the class, they had been hesitant to participate for a variety of reasons, but had decided to step in now.

I have a few theories why that happened, but I don’t want to put them forth just yet. I’m hoping that by writing this post and pointing people to it, I’ll get some feedback. I sense there is at least a little bit of secret sauce in here – a way to better lead people to their own personal “Aha!” moment with enterprise social. It feels almost like it is on the tip of my tongue. But then I talk myself out of it because trying to talk to people at work about knowledge management seems like such an unlikely way to win.

Anyone game to help fill in some blanks here? I won’t name names, but I’m hoping a few of my classmates will help me think about this one out loud.

Social Signals – Unrealistic expectations?


This is a thinking out loud post. I haven’t worked through all of this at all, and am curious to see where writing about it will take me, and whether I’ll get some interesting feedback to carry the conversation further.

As I read about ways to encourage participation in enterprise networks, one of the things I’ve heard a lot is that it is really important to encourage people. If they post and no one responds, people can get easily discouraged and decide that posting was a failed experiment. I have no reason to doubt that is true. I know that for a lot of people, it takes significant courage to post. Writing something and posting it in public can be pretty intimidating, and if no one seems to take notice, what is the point? I’ll go so far as to say I struggled with that before buying my domain and setting up this blog, and still think about it as I write new posts and watch the stats afterward. Fortunately for me, I’ve had good counsel that I can learn simply by the act of posting, and that’s keeping me going.

Back to the topic at hand – social signals. On the other hand, I also know there are a lot of people who read posts and don’t take the time to like or comment on them. For example, I know of some people who have read my blog posts here but have not clicked like or left comments. They have remarked on them elsewhere, and thankfully I know that. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and I’m sure it goes on all the time. But it does make me wonder why we seem to have set up these false or unrealistic expectations around feedback. How did we get to a place where a lack of response is equivalent to (or possibly worse than) no feedback at all? And if we all seemingly value (crave?) feedback so much, why do so many of us shy away from offering it directly?

I suspect that for those of us that use it, Facebook sets up false expectations. We see that people who post there get all kinds of feedback, and perhaps we come to expect the same elsewhere. The fallacy of this, though, is that our work posts are rarely equivalent to what we’d post on Facebook, and the audiences we find elsewhere are of a much different composition.

Maybe it mostly comes down to the medium being new and norms not having been fully defined or accepted yet. We know that our family reunion cookout will be different from a cookout with friends, and different still from a cookout with work colleagues, and we’re OK with that; perhaps relieved for the differences. Maybe we just don’t yet have the collective experience to tell us that these same things are true in online discourse.

It all starts with trusting yourself

trust 3

When I started out on this class project, I really wasn’t sure where I was going. Having worked in community management for over five years, I knew trust was a significant part of the equation for employee participation, but I didn’t really have much external reinforcement to back up the anecdotal evidence I was seeing. I was very curious to see what I’d find when I went looking. And thankfully I took my instructor’s excellent advice to heart. I didn’t necessarily rely on only scholarly texts, but took inspiration from many places. For this post, I’m pulling from many very disparate sources, and I think perhaps viewing them from different perspectives than the authors. As we’ve all heard repeated, you often see what you are looking for.

Oddly, the first time the idea of trusting yourself really struck home with me in the context of this blog post series was during a sermon at my church. It was about having the strength to face very difficult circumstances, and trusting that you won’t be given a task so difficult that you can’t overcome it. The latter bit is so very important – if you don’t believe in yourself, trust that you can do it, you are already defeated. That was where the pastor’s first story started – with a woman who was so overwhelmed that she no longer believed in herself, instead choosing to take her own life. The story ended at the cemetery, with a picture of her children looking skyward, afraid to face their future. If we go back to my original definition of trust as a lack of fear, what I see here is a struggle with trust in oneself. Those poor kids had seen that mom wasn’t up to the task, and this might logically make them lose faith in themselves – trust themselves a little less.

I had also reached out to John Stepper, who I knew was close to publishing his book on Working Out Loud. I had no idea if it contained anything about trust, and to be honest, when I talked to him he said he didn’t think he reference it directly. None the less, he was happy to give me a pre-release version if I thought it would help. I love John’s work, so I dug right in. And I was far from disappointed! He tells a story in Part 1 – For a Better Career and Life about a woman, Mara Tolja, who was in a job she hated. Seemingly by accident, she found something that spoke to her by using the her corporate collaboration system. By focusing on that, and working hard in to also help others in that arena, she ended up carving out a niche and creating a job for herself that she loved. Again, to me this spoke of trusting in herself. Mara didn’t walk away from the challenge when she felt inexpert. In her words,

“I didn’t feel like an expert. Who am I to speak to these people? But when I talked to
more people, I realized I knew more than I gave myself credit for.”

So she trusted in herself, speaking at major conferences all over the world, including some for her firm, and now has opened up a whole host of new opportunities that would otherwise have eluded her.

Beyond this specific example, the people who John has coached trusted in themselves enough to start his coaching program. In a similar way, entrepreneurs exhibit significant belief in themselves. Thinking about all of this, I then went looking for quotes on self trust, and so many great authors and thinkers have spoken eloquently on the topic. For example, Norman Vincent Peale says,

“What the mind can conceive and believe, and the heart desire, you can achieve.”

and Jane Austen,

“We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

and Unarine Ramaru,

“If you seek happiness through someone else’s perspective, you might as well get comfortable with sorrow.”

Finally, in my program at Northwestern, Christina Pedulla’s graduate capstone (as referenced in the Jive Community), says:

“the most cited reason for sharing knowledge was to help others….”

While she states that personality traits don’t influence sharing behavior, this reasoning still presupposes that one trusts in ones own knowledge enough to feel sharing it would be helpful to others.

Unfortunately, I’m not really sure where all of this leaves me in terms of my originally stated goal of creating a roadmap to help people feel comfortable contributing to a corporate social network. It is helpful to understand that trust to participate begins with trusting oneself, but how do you go about helping others to develop trust in themselves? The only thing that comes to mind is to model it as best you can yourself, and to reinforce it when you see others exhibiting it; to appreciate the gift you’ve been given, both in the form of the knowledge as well as the act itself.

I guess as with so many things in life, I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. But I’ve uncovered some great wisdom in my pursuit, and hope that having shared that will help me trust myself a little more.

Weekends mean … Running!


I don’t spend much time thinking about it, but I’d guess weekends have a different meaning for everyone. For me, it is about meeting up with my running friends and enjoying the wonderful outdoor sights we have here in northeast Ohio. All the photos (so far) that grace my blog page have been taken on local runs. And most of the pictures I take are, now that I stop to think about it.

Running gives me time alone, or with friends. It allows me to experience the changing seasons. I appreciate where I live much more because of it. I’ve made so many friends because of it. It keeps me fit, both mentally and physically. Well, sort of physically.  🙂  I’ve had lots of inspiration while running; great ideas suddenly occur because they’ve had time and space to gel.

So without more ado, I’m going to call it a day in terms of writing, and go wrap up my chores so I can have more time to run!

Why trust is so important in employee engagement

As I struggled with deciding what article to read, what book to focus on, or where to take my next post, Simon Sinek‘s most recent TED Talk, Why good leaders make you feel safe, was posted in my company’s enterprise social network (ESN). And every bit of it speaks directly to my heart, to concepts I’ve struggled with long before I chose this topic to blog about for class. As he says,

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

He also gave a remarkable example of how this played out, in a real company. When Barry-Wehmiller was hit hard in the recession in 2008, instead of laying people off to make up the $10 million shortfall, the CEO decided on a novel approach:

Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how (the CEO) announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot, and morale went up.

They saved twice what they needed to, in part because on their own, the employees voluntarily started trading time off. Workers who could more easily afford it would take more time off so that those who could afford it less could take less time off. As Sinek predicted, remarkable things happened.

And I wonder why we all don’t instinctively know this; or if we do, why we ignore it. It is the same for us at home, in our social circles, or wherever we go. If we don’t feel safe, we don’t give our best. We might do our duty, or do what we need to in order to look good or to save face. But when we truly believe that the people around us have our back, we give it our all.

I vividly remember a situation I found myself in where I was really scared to take action. I knew many of the consequences of acting weren’t desirable; the consequences of not acting, worse by most accounts. But the decision in the end was not about weighing the consequences. It came down to trust; to knowing that if the tables were turned, the other person would have done it for me. And that gave me the courage to push past my fear and act.

So great, I now not only feel this viscerally, but can also name it. Describe what trust means, and why it matters. And I can absolutely see how and why a lack of trust detracts from engagement in an ESN.

  • If you don’t trust that your contributions will be appreciated, why bother?
  • If you don’t trust that your leaders have your best interests in mind, why put yourself on the line?
  • If you don’t trust that your co-workers also have your back, why chance that they will use what you post for personal gain?

I also have a much better appreciation for why community management is more about culture than anything else, and often involves culture change. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely have engagement in a culture that is not based on trust. Fear of consequences can and does motivate people to act. But the kind of engagement you’ll get in that kind of culture will be unlikely to bring about results that are better than they were before the ESN was implemented. And it surely isn’t going to increase overall employee engagement in the deeper sense.

Now that I’ve nailed that part of it, I’m off again to start digging into how to deal with the problem. What can be done to move away from fear and toward trust so that employees

will give us their blood and sweat and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life….

Or in this case, to feel free to contribute and participate in their company’s ESN to further the goals of their company.

Thoughts on working out loud

Any of you who follow Jeff Merrell (or me, on Twitter) by now know that last week, I participated in a WOL week as part of a graduate class I’m taking at Northwestern University. It was an interesting study in the benefits of working out loud, as well as how different platforms can serve different purposes and effect where the discussion goes. I missed part of the memo, and also started before the rest of the people in the program. So instead of doing my WOL in the program community, I took mine to Twitter. And once our class was onsite, many more from the class joined in the Twitter conversation. Jeff was posting stats, and the competitiveness of people came into play. We were trying to have more connections between us and others, and make sure our names showed up large enough that people could see. It would have been great fodder for a behavioral study! Jeff also created a Storify from most of the Tweets from days 1-2. Kind of fun to look back and remember how things unfolded.

In terms of what I’ve learned by practicing WOL, even for a short time:

  • I absolutely got some new ideas or perspectives on what I was thinking about.
  • It was also a great way to keep track of what we were discussing so that I can look back now and remember – online note taking.
  • And while I understand there is at least one study showing that old-fashioned note-taking (on paper, with a pen or pencil) is better for retention, I think there is something to be said for any activity where you actively paraphrase what you are hearing or capture an idea that is sparked by the discussions going on in a classroom.

Another takeaway – my team at work are going to try combining written and video WOL in coming weeks to see what impact that has. I’m hoping it will spark some more fraternity, as well as help me (us?) be less self-conscious about video posts. Perhaps we’ll even develop a model that we can share for use within other work teams. I’d love to make video a bigger part of what we do internally as a company, especially since I suspect it would help with building trust to facilitate more and better global collaboration.