As this is the last week of the year, many of us are understandably looking back at the past 12 months and discussing what we consider to be the significant events of 2011. In most cases, such discussions tend to focus on the numerous challenges and upheavals we’ve either watched from afar or witnessed first-hand. From natural disasters to political uprisings, there’s no question this year has placed our collective humanity within the frame of adversity and unimagined change.
Of course, adversity in and of itself is not necessarily a good or bad thing. Rather, it’s what we do and whether we’re open to learning from it that should decide whether it’s been of benefit or harm to us.
Certainly for businesses, the state of the global economy and the growing level of competition coming in from multiple fronts counts as one of the biggest challenges organizations and their leaders have had to contend with. And yet, contrary to what we might be reading in the papers, this doesn’t mean that weren’t some bright spots to be found amid all that doom and gloom.
One such example of this comes from the article, “Business Lessons Learned in 2011”, where a number of business leaders look back at the past 12 months and share their experiences of the lessons they’ve learned which will help them to improve and build on their business in the coming months.
Imagine walking into work one day and your boss decides to divide you into teams of four with the following challenge – to build the largest structure you can using 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow, which has to be placed at the top of the structure. It’s an unusual assignment, to be sure, but it’s also the basis of a sociological experiment on teamwork called “The Marshmallow Challenge”.
In his TED talk “Build a tower, build a team”, Tom Wujec shares his findings from performing this challenge with a variety of different groups – recent business school graduates, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, and even kindergarten students. As you’ll see, his observations about how the various groups approached the challenge gave rise to some surprising, and at times humorous, results:
As we slowly make our way through the remaining weeks of the year, many organizations are now shifting their focus to an exercise that is often met with disdain and apprehension – the annual performance review. Regardless of whether you’re on the receiving or giving end, most of us tend to view these feedback exercises as unconstructive or a waste of time, in large part because we approach the conversation from the wrong vantage point. Participating at a recent awards gala for one of the regional high schools helped to not only shed some light on this issue, but also on how leaders can make the act of giving feedback to others more instructive and beneficial.
I was invited by the school principal to give a speech and help present awards as part of a ceremony to recognize students who had maintained a high academic standing throughout the previous school year. Although I was honoured and delighted to take part, I have to admit that I did feel some hesitation because I wasn’t an active member of this community when these students achieved these accomplishments. As such, I felt that any recognition on my part of their efforts wouldn’t exactly carry much weight because of that lack of connection.
So I decided to take another approach to my involvement where I used my role in this ceremony to serve as a source of encouragement and support for how these students could build on and attain a similar achievement over the course of the current academic year.
Following the ceremony, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from both the parents and the students of how much they appreciated my participation, and in particular the ideas I had shared in my speech and in the brief comments made to every student as they came up on stage to accept their award.
With the month of September now underway, there’s an unmistakable feeling of renewed energy and determination in the air. As children return back to their school routines and the summer break now nothing more than a fond memory, perhaps it’s only natural that there’s this collective drive to take on the challenges before us with spirited enthusiasm.
Of course, how organizations view challenges – either as an outcome of being in competition with others or as an opportunity to push themselves further in order to move one step closer to reaching their full potential – plays a key role in how they approach not only overcoming these obstacles, but the level of creativity and innovation they foster within their workforce.
With this in mind, here are four steps leaders can use to ensure their organizations are not simply reacting to what challenges come their way, but that they have a clear understanding of what their organization needs to do to succeed:
1. Set clear goals independent of what your competition is doing
When it comes to the ability to consistently surprise, delight, and transform customers into loyal advocates, there are few companies that succeed at this as well as Zappos and Apple. Their ability to “deliver happiness” and release unexpected ‘must-have’ technologies respectively, are clearly not mere responses to the challenges they incur from their competition. Instead, these measures are a result of addressing what goals they have for their organization, of what they wanted to create or accomplish that would make them stand out and succeed in their respective fields.