Enlightened Trial and Error for Busy Managers and Their Teams

Two posts ago we talked about sense-making as “the ability to make sense of what’s going on in a changing and complex environment.” Today I want to focus on a core pillar of sense-making— trial and error.

“Our world is changing radically. The age of intuition, gut instinct, opinion, and natural creativity is on the wane. These are romantic notions and we love to believe in them, but when the data comes in they are being increasingly proven not just to be wrong, but horribly wrong.” —Gerry McGovern

Trial and error in today’s workplace takes on a new level of importance because both management processes and their effect on the end-consumer are more measurable than ever. In order to navigate marketplaces that change at lightning-speed, testing results can sometimes be the only way to know what works.

That’s right. All the training, all the consulting, and the best MBAs in the country won’t guarantee you can predict outcomes of your management decisions and product innovations.

The quote above by Gerry McGovern comes from a now infamous blog post about how top website-building experts couldn’t predict the better choice between two simple landing page signup forms for the SIMS computer game. Why couldn’t they come up with the right answer? Because even seasoned experts have to collect data before making an informed decision.

The fact is that it doesn’t matter what you think the best option is when facing innovative decisions— it only matters what actually works. Data is truth. Luckily, we live in a world where every single workplace action and effect can be measured and analyzed.

“Incremental success is better than grandiose failure.” —Winston Churchill

COACHING TIP: How can you apply this to your team? When looking to innovate, you need to pilot new projects on the market— quickly. Implement an imperfect but well-formed idea, and then rapidly gauge results. Did the customers respond how you thought they would? If not, how did they respond? What worked? What failed? Make changes based on the data, and test it again.

“Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the long genius.” -Peter Skillman, President, IDEO

Next Steps: Everything here is all good and well, but applying innovation practices can be tricky. Oftentimes teams are pressured to be entrepreneurial while still hitting performance metrics -the incentive to try new things dissipates. Here’s a fix: try to implement a new idea in a highly segmented situation. Take one small task for one client and try the change there, even communicate with the client about the decision. They might welcome the fresh approach, and you can implement a new practice in a low-stress environment.

Example— A sales manager and her team were committed to differentiating themselves from their competitors by bringing high value to each sales call, and measuring the impact on the customer. For six weeks each sales rep initiated every sales call with a current, and targeted, piece of marketplace or business data, followed by an insightful question that generated a much deeper conversation about the customer’s business. After six weeks the team initiated a simple customer satisfaction survey that bumped up their overall satisfaction scores from 84 percent to 96 percent! Crafting a discreet, well designed, trial of a new product or service is a low investment way of innovating business practices.

“We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.” —Eric Reis

Taking this approach of enlightened trial and error, of targeted experimentation, will help your team validate or invalidate the assumptions made when trying new things. The X factor then is speed. How quickly can you measure results and react accordingly?

I hope that this post inspires you to take a scientific experimental approach to innovative decisions. Remember— keep it simple, keep it focused, and definitely keep it inspiring!

Connect with me on Linkedin more management best practices and ideas!


The Hero-Manager Complex, and 4 Tips on How to Avoid it

The townspeople are in trouble, the enemy is at the gates. There is only one who can stop the threat, it’s superman…ager.

The drive for accomplishment, to be the champion for your team, and win the day for your organization are traits of excellence. However, when these traits are coupled with frenetic leadership, crisis addiction, and overstretching, you end up working against yourself.

The impact on the organization can feel like you are pushing the accelerator with one foot while simultaneously braking with the other.

“In addition to having a commitment to a mission or a desire to establish a meaningful legacy, heroic stature is just one of several hallmarks of transformational leaders. But this particular quality is most often distorted and poorly managed.”  —Forbes

-If you chase every shiny object, your people will burn-out.
-When you create a constant state of crisis, your team will lack development.
-If you manage based on individual personalities, your best people won’t get the recognition they need… and underperformers get by on a smile.

If anything above looks like you, you might be suffering from hero-manager complexgreat for your own ego but bad for developing your people’s capacity.

4 Tips for Overcoming the Hero-Manager Complex

  • Tip # 1 – Lighten up on yourself. If you are guilty of being a hero manager, ease up on yourself. Really. The rewards for being the go-to gal or guy, whether internal (self-esteem, confidence, pride) or external (compensation, promotion, recognition), are powerful forces. Giving some control away by empowering others can be scary. But do it, and have patience with yourself as you learn to delegate and collaborate. The rewards of growing your people outweigh the risks of feeling a little bit out of control!
  • Tip # 2Don’t be afraid to fail. You can’t plan failure out, nor should you. Dare to assign novel, challenging projects that invite failure. The athlete or musician who never fails is most likely not pushing his or her limits. Be tolerant of “tolerable mistakes.” Follow Gore Tex founder Bill Gore’s principle of action – “Never make mistakes below the waterline.”
  • Tip # 3 Coach up, coach into a position of strength, or coach out. High performers hate being on a team with laggards. Laggards, however, love playing with high performers, and why not? All the benefits, none of the sweat. Great managers aren’t fooled. Or look at it another way, effective talent managers, like dedicated gardeners, are always weeding out low performers and toxic attitudes to create more room for their top talent flowers to bloom. By tolerating low performance, you risk sending signals to high performers that perhaps they should jump the fence to more fertile ground.
  • Tip # 4Delegate. Strategic delegators match individual strengths to project demands, thereby enhancing the whole team. Weak delegators can actually handicap an organization’s future performance. Effective delegation, on the other hand, is an insurance policy against tomorrow’s marketplace uncertainties.

By now you probably see the trend:

The key to overcoming the hero-manager complex is to trust and invest in your people, and to lift them up to face the challenges of your business.

It’s delegate or die.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused, and Keep it Inspiring.

–Steve Rudolph

Taming Stallions -3-C Pathway to Coaching High Performers

In his book, The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin describes two ways of breaking a stallion. One is to tie the horse up, sit on it, spur it, you know, show the horse who’s the boss.

The other way is to patiently build a relationship with it by daily petting, feeding, grooming, and speaking softly and gently until the horse gets used to you and begins to trust your intentions.

If you’ve led and managed people long enough you understand that coaching some high performers can feel like taming a fiercely independent stallion.

 A True and Current Story

 (An inspiring manager I work with, and her equally awesome sales rep (not real names), graciously shared the following work story with me. Their inspiring journey provides the backdrop for the 3-C Pathway.)

Sam’s natural managerial instincts follows the path of a horse whisperer – get close to your people, build professional respect and trust, while establishing clear expectations and direction.

Tara is a tenured and accomplished professional sales rep, having proudly won several top company sales awards. Tara’s previous manager did provide sporadic coaching, but as long as her numbers were good he left her alone to run her territory.

There are few tougher job assignments for managers than inheriting a tenured team whose previous managerial style was in contrast to yours. Managers who wade into these cultural waters often encounter a wild stallion who actively resists your sincere coaching efforts.

How do effective managers develop a strategy for winning over high-performers? It says easy, does hard! Below is a rough map to help you and your high performer forge a working partnership.

 The 3 C-Pathway for Coaching High Performers

#1 Concern and Consistency – Effective managers are able to manage the tension of these two dimensions. Concern says, help me understand what’s going on for you; I care about you and your perspective. Consistency says, this is my management style and I’m not going away. Developing a strong partnership with high performers requires managers to be comfortable in their own skin.

Consistency also declares – you can count on me to be highly engaged with your business and professional development. The effective manager, in dialogue with her high performer, will make clear distinctions between what constitutes a good manager from a micromanager.

Because Tara’s previous manager allowed her high levels of autonomy, she naturally resisted Sam’s more forward, coaching and collaboration approach.

Lacking emotional fortitude less effective managers will back pedal and second-guess themselves when a high performer bristles and pushes back. Not Sam. Taming the stallion requires resolve, patience and persistence.

In Tara’s words, “I had to trust her that she had my best interests at heart.” I asked Tara, did you believe Sam? She replied, “no, not at first.”

Newer Managers Take Notice – Sam didn’t wait to “build trust” first with Tara in order to have candid conversations about performance, expectations, and the path they will travel together. Trust gets built incrementally through consistent deeds and actions; it’s not a magical moment somewhere in the future.

 “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Daniel Pink, Drive


#2 Clarity and Conviction – If you want the stallion to voluntarily go where you want to go, especially when the relationship is fragile, you must provide a compelling business case and meaningful strategy.

Sam’s performance history and deep understanding of her industry gives her some credibility with Tara, which she firmly leverages. Sam presses Tara with the need to change, to sharpen her sales skills, and to examine areas where she is disengaged at work. The stallion kicks back.

It’s difficult to argue with success. Tara’s perspective is legitimate. She’s been a solid performer, and while currently going through some difficult personal and professional times (e.g. passed over for a promotion), her numbers are holding.

Sam’s clarity about business direction and conviction of strategy remains steadfast. Sam continues to provide Tara with specific feedback in areas that must be improved. Sam lays out her non-negotiables. Tara is presented with crystal clear choices, neither presenting an easy path.

 “Autonomy Comes With a High Price Tag.”


#3 Courage and Collaboration – Applying carrots and sticks as a way to motivate and punish people has well known limitations. However, they are management tools that when appropriately leveraged can achieve better outcomes, or at the minimum disrupt a person’s view of reality.

Despite Sam’s efforts, Tara chose to resist Sam’s coaching and stick to her well-known work routines and habits. Not an acceptable choice. Sam put Tara on an action plan. Action plans, when implemented fairly, provide an employee an opportunity to make course corrections to succeed while holding them accountable for past performance.

Tara reflected, “This was a significant professional blow.” As she put it, “As humiliated as I was, it forced me to look at myself.”

A good manager – coach understands that what people want, and what they need, are two different things. Tara, by her own admission, needed to be jolted out of the professional rut she was in.

 “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.” –James Hollingworth

Sam’s managerial courage to follow through was driven by her sincere intention of helping Tara be successful. Tara didn’t believe her, asking Sam, “Do you want me to leave?” Tara made the difficult choice to give Sam the benefit of the doubt, and “do my part.”

Create Upward, Virtuous Cycles

Sam gave credence to her words by collaborating with Tara on how best to move forward. Tara agreed on her weak areas and became receptive to Sam’s training and coaching.

Tara summed up her own version of courage by implementing her newly developed sales skills and behaviors with her customers. Her customers were clearly more engaged during Tara’s sales visits, causing immediate and newfound excitement for Tara. In turn, Tara’s motivation for receiving more training and coaching from Sam increased. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

 “Sometimes we have to act our ways into new ways to thinking.”

Trust levels are proportionate to the rigor of the journey together. Sam and Tara are currently working extraordinarily well together and business is strong. Their arduous journey produced deep professional respect and trust for one another. Tara further credits Sam’s endless positivity in influencing her new attitude and engagement at work, claiming, “I was trying to be more like her, and that helped.” Take note managers!

Experienced managers know that there are no silver bullets for managing and coaching high-performers; however, following the 3 C-Pathway might influence the stallions to take the journey with you.

 Keep it focused, keep it simple, and keep it inspiring!




Treat Your People Like Really Smart Rats, and, 3 Other Manager Tips

HiResDo you wonder why a few of your handpicked team members can’t seem to escape the gravitational pull of sub-par performance? Do you unconsciously use human attribution theory to explain and judge your people’s lackluster performance or failings?

Perhaps the problem is not with your people but with your own belief systems, and possibly, your training and coaching skills. Your skill sets regarding human potential and motivation may need a software upgrade.

High performing managers are keenly aware that their expectations of their people often become self-fulfilling. When others fall short of achievable performance results the emotionally intelligent manager first looks in the mirror to reflect on potential flaws in their thinking and competencies.

These Rats Are Really Smart!

A lab experiment was conducted to measure experimenter expectancy on rats maze running abilities. Two groups of unsuspecting students (the rat handlers) were informed that one group of rats were bred to be “maze bright” and the other group “maze dull,” when in fact the entire group were standard lab rats divided randomly.

The rats labeled “bright,” well, made the podium. The expectation of the rat handlers influenced the rats’ performance. Nuts, right? Apparently the “bright” rats were handled differently and thought to them selves “I’m smart, people like me, and I’m going to crush this maze course today.”

Management Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

 Effective managers and elite coaches embrace the Pygmalion Effect (see HBR article – Pygmalion in Management) – believing that most employees’ performance will rise or fall to their leader’s level of expectations. Believe it. In medicine, this phenomenon of human expectancy and results is accepted as the placebo effect.

However, do not confuse genuine belief in people’s innate abilities with Pollyanna thinking. The effective manager deals in reality on the ground, not naivety, or unfiltered positive bias.

Believing that people are capable of producing great results puts the manager squarely on the hook for three heavy-lifting accountabilities:

  1. Recruiting and Retaining Top Talent. Effective managers do stay up at night worrying appropriately that they have the right team on the bus, knowing that their organizations are only as strong as their weakest employee. As undeniably brilliant Steve Jobs was, his real mastery was in selecting really smart and capable people (it’s reported that Steve personally conducted over 5,000 interviews). Impetuous in his early years, Steve evolved into a great manager.
  2. Embodying High Performance Expectations for Producing Excellent Products and Services. Great managers are tough on principles and standards but gentle on their people. People have an innate desire to be successful, however, many have never been called upon to be great. Wholeheartedly believing in the potential of others is the greatest service a manager can perform.
  1. Becoming a Master Teacher and Coach. The loss of an individual’s hidden talent was named the 8th Deadly Waste in Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing system. Being skilled at selecting top talent only brings the manager and his or her team part way up the performance mountain. “Sweeney’s Miracle,” drives home the mandatory requirement that managers believe in the ability to train and motivate others to high achievement. Simple belief in people’s potential, minus capable training and teaching, falls into the categories of hopes and dreams.

Manage Around High Standards, Never Personality or Tenure

 Davie was a rising star in my restaurant. He possessed natural talent, had a positive attitude, and was a rare 15-year-old workhorse. He was rapidly promoted; along with commensurate pay increases to the very demanding sauté cook position by the time he was 17 years old.

Unfortunately, Davie’s maturity didn’t keep pace with his talent. He became cocky, became undisciplined in following strict menu standards, and became less open to feedback. Under my radar, he quietly built a power base with the younger kitchen crew who, not surprisingly, adapted his cavalier attitude (I’ll write soon about to prevent these workplace snake pits).

Managing Love Wolves Puts Your Credibility On The Line

 After giving Davie several sincere course-correcting opportunities he chose the lone ranger path – not an option in our team-oriented kitchen culture. A Top Gun will always test your principles, values, and management fortitude.

Davie was an exceptional kid and, like most of us, was full of insecurities. My unshakable belief in his abilities to take on more responsibilities never wavered, even when he made mistakes, and he made plenty.

His achievements might not have fully manifested had I simply expected greatness out of him. However, my resolute believe combined with his steady progress in our Kitchen Professional training program, Davie’s capabilities blossomed.

Belief + High Expectations + Training = Sustained Performance

 Start speaking and caring for your people as if they were really smart rats, while establishing and enforcing clear performance expectations. Commit to becoming an effective and inspiring teacher and coach. Your people will start winning the maze course called work and you’ll establish yourself as a credible leader worth following.