Always Reinvent the Wheel

April 30, 2014

One of the most enjoyable parts of my work is getting paid to do a hobby of mine–thinking of new ways to address old problems. Even as a child, I would happily spend two hours thinking about how to do a one hour homework project in 45 minutes. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it was something I enjoyed doing just for creativity’s sake.

Now I realize what valuable learning opportunities those moments were as a child. Through trial and error, I was learning how to think about problems from multiple perspectives. The biggest lesson I learned is that there are multiple ways to accomplish goals, and there is always a better way to do it if you spent the time to think about it.

So…ALWAYS TAKE TIME TO REINVENT THE WHEEL. In my experience, no statement kills innovation, fun, and creativity more quickly than someone in a workgroup uttering the phrase, “Well, let’s not reinvent the wheel.” There are so many reasons to reinvent the wheel. Even when you don’t come across a better solution for the time being, you have planted the seeds for a further innovation. Here are a few additional reasons why reinvention is worth the effort:

  • Today’s best practices won’t be tomorrow’s – The words “best practice” is a misnomer. The more accurate name would be “better practices, for right now.” Every current “best practice” will be replaced with something else in the future. You should probably get started on its replacement!
  • The context of your problem is always different – Details matter. Most solutions require some resource mix which includes time, energy, skills, culture, products, processes, and so on. If your resource mix differs, even slightly, from someone who has implemented a best practice successfully, your solution will also need to be different.
  • If you build it, you’ll know how to fix it – Every effective best practice makes assumptions. When you take the time to reinvent the wheel, you will list your assumptions as a matter of diagnosing the problem. If your solution doesn’t work the way you imagined it would, it will be more apparent what assumptions were incorrect.
  • Innovation is only as good as people’s desire to use it – So you have a solution, now what? You have to implement it. In service industries in particular, how you implement something requires a great deal of innovative thought itself. We are often trying to change the way staff interact with customers. It is one thing for you to tell staff you want them to greet customers with the phrase, “It is my pleasure to serve you today.” It is quite another to get them to do it with a smile, especially when there are no cameras around or a supervisor to observe!
  • The wheel itself has been reinvented many times over – There is a reason you don’t see wagon wheels much anymore.


Accountability: Either, Or

January 26, 2010

Suppose I tell an employee that I am holding him accountable for signing up 40 new people for cable TV services over the next month. I provide him the list of potential customers I want him to use and the script I want him to use as he goes door-to-door. Does he truly bear responsibility for the outcome if I gave him the process he must follow? Who can say definitively it was the employee’s fault and not my instructions or script?

You can hold people accountable for the process or the outcome, but not both.

Employee Satisfaction

April 8, 2009

Organizations often have employee satisfaction as a general goal. The specific goal is to make a number that represents employee satisfaction higher than it was the last year. To me, it’s not how you satisfy your employees, but who you satisfy.

Cookie cutter approaches to addressing employee satisfaction make some routine suggestions such as better compensation, time off, more staffing, etc. However, given the emphasis on diversity in the workplace, why would we think there is one magical type of satisfier that will meet everyone’s needs? Take compensation. Even if everyone receives a little more pay, we know that people often judge their benefits relative to other’s. So even greater compensation is not such a “no brainer” after all. If I perform better than someone else, why should they get as much of a raise as I?

The question we should be asking ourselves is who we want to be happy to work in our organization. I believe it should be a specific goal of organizations to make work as uncomfortable an experience for low performers as possible. The objective is to get such low performers to improve (to be happy) or move on (to be happy). If your low performers are relatively happy, they’ll stay. If they stay, your high performers will be unhappy and they’ll look elsewhere.

Exact practices that differentially impact the two groups of employees depends somewhat on the type of industry. High performers in service industries will desire greater flexibility. High performers in manufacturing might respond better to a more structured environment.

But one thing we should be able to agree on is that high performers aren’t scared of being held accountable for their work. They even thrive on it and desire it. For the unsuccessful, accountability is the arch enemy. You want to make your top performers happy? Find what makes your low performers unhappy.

Psychology of Managing 101

October 24, 2008

No matter how good of sense an initiative makes to you, no plan will succeed without sufficient buy-in from employees. This is where a crash course in psychology can be very important.

It is not what you say, but how you say it. The best ideas for changing work processes often come across as “just another task” when the boss tells you what you are going to do.

What follows is the backdoor way of getting your ideas into your people so that it feels like it is their idea. It may be easier to just tell employees what they should do, but if you don’t want to be looking over their shoulder all the time to see that they are complying, if you want them to internalize the changes, then take the counseling approach:

  1. Ask your employees or representatives from the group for their help.
  2. Define the objective. Ask them why “the old method” didn’t work/isn’t working as we had expected. (Note that it is very important to talk in the plural we/our/us to make it a team effort.)
  3. Work out the new solution together as a puzzle, one piece at a time, even if you think you have the solution. Be sure to follow the throughput process from beginning to end. You may be surprised what kind of effect a seemingly minor inconvenience at the beginning of a process can have by the end.
  4. Highlight the good logic and ideas they have along the way. Let them own those ideas.
  5. When you arrive at the best solution, let them tell you again why “they” think this was the best way to go about reaching that objective.

Another benefit of the process above is that you get to test the waters with your idea without incurring any penalties for demanding something that won’t work. If you are managing to improve rather than managing to control, this counseling style approach will get you there.