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HBR Resources

Don’t Mistake Execution for Strategy

By Graham Kenny hbr.org

A business involved in conducting clinical trials for medical and pharmaceutical companies recently sent me a copy of their strategic plan for review in preparation for a forthcoming strategic planning workshop. I studied the nine pages carefully. But despite its promise to outline the company’s “Mission, Vision, Strategies, and Actions,” the document contained no real strategy.

This is not an unfamiliar experience for me. I come across it all the time because a company’s managers often confuse a strategy’s design with its execution. Recognizing the difference between these two will have a major and positive impact on your organization’s performance.

Strategy design involves detailing positions to take on what I call strategic factors. These are the decision criteria used by key stakeholders, i.e., the criteria used by customers in deciding to buy from a business, or by employees in deciding to work for an organization, or by suppliers in deciding to supply to a company. Strategy design concerns the position that, for instance, Ford or Toyota as a company takes to woo customers on factors such as product range, price, retail locations, product quality and image.

Positioning can be quite subtle and can equate to the different brands of a business. Take, for example, the Accor hotels group. Accor carries a range of brands each catering for a different set of target customers with varying positions on customer service, price, and quality. It has a luxury end (RafflesFairmontSofitel), a premium space (MGalleryPullmanSwissôtel), midscale (NovotelMercureAdagio) and economy (ibishotelF1).

Strategy design must take place at the organization level because each business faces its competitors in the marketplace. They compete, company against company.

The reason executive teams struggle with strategy design is that they don’t adopt organization-level thinking at the start. They rush to execution at a strategy retreat, because they invariably arrive ready to address what they need to do. Unless the doing impulse is switched off, until design is ready, the cart gets put before the horse. This has clients leaving their retreat with a hodgepodge of actions but still no clear idea of where their organization is heading or how it differs from competitors in the marketplace.

I could see this in the clinical trial company’s strategic plan. It had pages of actions and they were fine – up to a point. The problem, as my pre-workshop interviews with members of the executive team exposed, was that the organization is “drowning in things to do” – the words of the CEO. Another executive suggested that the company needed “clarity about where we’re heading.” Yet another proposed that “we need a bigger picture around the strategic stuff” adding that “we get sucked into micro measurement.” Another executive described this abundance of activity as “leaving staff feeling quite lost.”

What the planned workshop had to achieve was clarity on the company’s positioning on the strategic factors for its key stakeholders and a stripping away of non-essential actions leaving only those which clearly drove these positions. To do that I needed to shift the executive team’s thinking away from individual action and up to organizational positioning.

What we concluded at the workshop was that there were two fundamentals that would drive the business’s success over its rivals – lower prices and superior client service. The CEO described the company’s larger competitors as “very expensive.” As work was won from clients on a tender basis, price would be positioned case by case. Where the company stood on service could be stated overall.

To lift the executive team’s thinking to the strategy design level I employed a technique which I’d used in the past to yield dividends. I asked, “As an organization what is your position on client service?” The wording and emphasis are deliberately chosen to shift thinking away from individual action.

The team crafted the following response: “A service tailored to each client’s specific needs involving a unique combination of pre-clinical planning with the avoidance of regulatory hurdles to streamline the product approval process.” Reduced lead times through the approval process allowed clients to commercialize their products sooner, giving them a first-mover advantage in their markets and delivering income flows from their products much earlier.

Lower prices and better service can be a killer combination, and this has proven to be the case. It has given the company a significant competitive edge over its rivals. From a base relatively small compared to its larger competitors, the CEO reports a “28 per cent year-on-year sales growth for the last three years.”

In preparation for your next strategy retreat recognize that underpinning the essential difference between strategy design and execution is level of analysis. While most participants may be unaware of it, it is one of the most important and useful concepts in social science. Strategy design operates at the organization level.Strategy execution operates at the individual level. If you don’t make this distinction, you’ll be committing the error I’ve seen in many clients. You’ll mistake individual action for strategy. And that can be disastrous.

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HBR Resources

Make Sure Everyone on Your Team Sees Learning as Part of Their Job

From HBR

Make Sure Everyone on Your Team Sees Learning as Part of Their Job

 

by Kristi Hedges

As an executive coach, Kristi Hedges speaks regularly at corporate leadership development programs. During discussions, participants often confess the real reason they’re in the room, and it’s rarely “to grow and learn.” Time and again, the reasons include: they are checking a box on their development plan, their manager told them to come, or they’ve been told that their participation will increase the chance of a promotion.

The reality is that most people are not set up to take advantage of development opportunities. Many organizations view learning as something extra, something to fit in on top of the regular work. But to create a culture that encourages employee growth, managers need to make learning an expectation — not an option.

Learning helps people keep a broad perspective. When we feel expert at something, sociologists have shown, the earned dogmatism effect sets in, causing us to be more close-minded and to disregard new ideas and perspectives. For managers, suggesting that team members go to a training or take an online course isn’t enough; for many professionals, that’s just more work on their plates. Instead, managers need to encourage continual learning with supportive behaviors that, in turn, will shape their company culture.

Be a vocal role model. Managers should frame learning as a growth opportunity, not as a quid pro quo for promotion.

A good starting point is simply to talk about your own development. When managers open up about their personal areas for improvement, it becomes more acceptable for everyone else to do the same. Ask yourself: What skills are you most excited to develop? What areas do you need to grow the most in? What insights have you found helpful in accomplishing these goals? Then share your answers with the rest of your team.

You should come back from every workshop or training with a story about what you learned. Rather than the typical, “It was interesting,” be specific. For example, you might say, “I thought I was a good listener, but I can see that this is a growth area for me. The day showed me new ways to interact with others, and though they aren’t necessarily comfortable for me, I’m going to try them out.”

If you talk about learning as being enjoyable, you set a playful tone that encourages people to be adaptively authentic — and open to trying new behaviors.

Celebrate growth and lean into failure. Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University recently published research showing that people don’t simply have passions, they develop them. The best way to determine what you enjoy is to try new things, even when those things are challenging or uncomfortable. If you want your team to be excited about and find purpose in their work, encourage them to be curious and experiment.

A successful learning environment celebrates growth for growth’s sake. One way to develop this kind of culture is to recognize employees when they make progress on a new initiative — even if it doesn’t hit the goal — because they have proactively created a learning opportunity for themselves and the company at large. In addition, when you promote team members, do it for their professional development, even if it means you lose them to another division.

You can also support learning by not hiding failures. One technology company I advise began instituting mandatory post-mortems for all of its product releases and major programs, no matter the results. Team members were able to both celebrate successes and illuminate failures as a matter of regular business, creating an environment that encouraged transparency and continuous learning. People felt free to discuss issues without blame, and interdepartmental communication improved.

Make it easy for people. People usually take on development opportunities on top of their regular workload, so the easier you can make it for them to find the right program, the better. A Google search for “management training” will undoubtedly lead you down a rabbit hole for hours. Instead, try asking HR for recommendations. If that doesn’t give you the results you’re looking for, crowdsource what you need. Ask colleagues inside and outside your office what they’ve recommended to their teams. You might end up with a repository of vetted ideas.

When someone is attending a program, lighten their workload to reduce stress and allow them to be present. I’ve heard many employees complain that their boss recommended them for a development program only to email them constantly throughout the session, forcing them to step out to address work issues.

And make it easy for participants to apply the learning. In an attempt to show “value,” managers often require team members to present their takeaways or train others after completing a program. But doing so just creates more work for the participant. It’s more valuable to let people apply what they’ve learned to their own projects first. This gives them the opportunity to determine what lessons are relevant before sharing them with the rest of the team.

Foster new experiences. Research shows that to be inspired, we need to transcend current thought and become aware of new or better possibilities. As the adage goes, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

Cross-functional projects, role rotations, and geographic relocations are just a few ways to expose people to new learning experiences. Special assignments that last at least a year will help give your team a chance to “eat their own cooking,” or witness the impact of their decisions. People benefit most and feel empowered when you allow them to weigh in on what learning opportunities are of the greatest interest to them.

New experiences can feel daunting, especially when someone is accomplished in their current role — but that’s exactly why you should foster them. Only by tackling unfamiliar challenges will people get the feedback they need to learn. Your team may not always succeed when faced with challenging situations, and that’s OK. The goal is for them to learn from the task, not necessarily to knock it out of the park.

Companies are investing considerable money and time into developing talent, but without doing the up-front work to ensure that leaders are building a learning culture. Frontline managers have the largest and most immediate influence. If you’re a manager who wants to grow your team, demonstrate that you’re committed to growth yourself.

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HBR Resources

How to Get Your Team to Follow Through After a Meeting

Paul Axtell
March 30, 2017

ny team leader knows that it’s what happens between project meetings that makes or breaks a project. And yet it’s often challenging to keep a team motivated and focused on getting agreed upon tasks done. Ideally you’ve checked that everyone is aligned and agreed on next steps but assigning tasks and deadlines is usually not enough.

After all, once you’ve left the meeting, things come up. Circumstances change. Priorities shift. Most people are working more hours than they want to work and still taking work home. And in many places, it’s generally accepted that people won’t do everything they’ve agreed to in a meeting. People don’t use “my dog ate it” as an excuse, but close to it. Just in the last week, I’ve heard, “My morning got away from me” and “Something else came up.” It’s hard to buck against this kind of culture but it’s possible.

Start by ending the meeting with clear agreements on specific actions and completion dates for each item. I love the phrase: Do thing X by time Y or call. Don’t automatically default to your next meeting date as the completion date for each action item. Choose a date that makes sense to the project and creates a sense of urgency. Remind people that they can negotiate on dates until they feel comfortable being able to deliver as promised.

Then ask people to communicate if one of their action items becomes at risk of non-delivery. This is not about perfection in delivery, it is about perfection in communication. It’s important to deliberately cultivate and coordinate commitmentsif you expect people to follow through.

Get a one-page summary of the meeting out within an hour if possible so the discussion and next steps stay on everyone’s radar. Then assign someone to track and follow up on action items between the meetings. This is not about micromanaging or not trusting — this is simply good project management.

Keep a running tally of which items get done. How many of the agreed-upon action items are completed by the dates agreed upon? This record of your action item completion rate — your say/do ratio — will tell you how you are doing. Set a target. In my experience, a 60% completion rate is about average. Getting to 85% will give your team an incredible sense of accomplishment. But don’t expect perfection — it’s the overall pattern than matters.

Don’t let the tracking turn you into a task master. Be compassionate. Each person on your team has a complex life — much of which is unknown to you. You are not the only person asking for their time. People are usually on multiple teams and often have more than one person to whom they report. By being interested in each of your colleagues, finding time to chat, and working to understand their current reality, you can gain their respect and permission to ask them to do what they say they will do, reliably — almost every time.

Of course, when someone does drop the ball, don’t let non-performance go unchallenged but make it a gentle conversation when you discuss it. You shouldn’t think less of the person because they didn’t keep their word — it’s usually a cultural thing not an individual flaw. Remember that you are establishing a new norm. Role model the desired behavior and continually remind people of what is expected.

If all of the above isn’t working and you’re not hitting a completion rate that you’re comfortable with, you may want to address the issues head-on with your team. An open and honest conversation about keeping the agreed-upon commitments is constructive.

Here are the questions to ask of yourself and your team:

  • Is each action item essential to completion of the project?

  • At the time we commit, do we fully intend to do whatever it takes to deliver?

  • Are we clear about what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it will be done?

  • Do we have the ability to say no or negotiate when we can’t fully commit?

  • Is it OK if someone follows up to check on our progress?

  • Do we have a system to keep track of action items and their completion?

  • Do we have an agreement to communicate if something comes up that might interfere with our completion of the task?

This problem-solving discussion will increase everyone’s level of awareness for making and keeping commitments as well as surface problems that keep them from doing so.

Getting to a higher level of completion on action items leads not only to exponential progress toward goals, but also to a tremendous sense of accomplishment — both personally and for the group.

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HBR

Let’s Not Kill Performance Reviews Yet

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HBR

Calculating the ROI of Customer Engagement

From HBR:   https://hbr.org/2016/08/calculating-the-roi-of-customer-engagement

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HBR Training

How to Write Email with Military Precision

From HBR: https://hbr.org/2016/11/how-to-write-email-with-military-precision

In the military, a poorly formatted email may be the difference between mission accomplished and mission failure. During my active duty service, I learned how to structure emails to maximize a mission’s chances for success. Since returning from duty, I have applied these lessons to emails that I write for my corporate job, and my missives have consequently become crisper and cleaner, eliciting quicker and higher-quality responses from colleagues and clients. Here are three of the main tips I learned on how to format your emails with military precision:

1. Subjects with keywords. The first thing that your email recipient sees is your name and subject line, so it’s critical that the subject clearly states the purpose of the email, and specifically, what you want them to do with your note. Military personnel use keywords that characterize the nature of the email in the subject. Some of these keywords include:

  • ACTION – Compulsory for the recipient to take some action
  • SIGN – Requires the signature of the recipient
  • INFO – For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required
  • DECISION – Requires a decision by the recipient
  • REQUEST – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
  • COORD – Coordination by or with the recipient is needed

The next time you email your direct reports a status update, try using the subject line: INFO – Status Update. And if you need your manager to approve your vacation request, you could write REQUEST – Vacation. If you’re a project manager who requires responses to your weekly implementation report from several people, type ACTION – Weekly Implementation Report. These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized. But your emails will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox, and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails. (It also forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you contribute to their inbox clutter.)

2. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). Military professionals lead their emails with a short, staccato statement known as the BLUF. (Yes, being the military, there is an acronym for everything.) It declares the purpose of the email and action required. The BLUF should quickly answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader. Here’s an example BLUF from the Air Force Handbook:

BLUF: Effective 29 Oct 13, all Air Force Doctrine Documents (AFDDs) have been rescinded and replaced by core doctrine volumes and doctrine annexes.

The BLUF helps readers quickly digest the announcement, decision, and when the new procedures go into effect. The reader doesn’t necessarily want to know all the background information that led to the decision. He or she likely wants to know “how does this email affect me?” and the BLUF should answer this question every time.

For my corporate job, I don’t use the acronym “BLUF” because it would be unclear to recipients, but I have started leading with “Bottom Line” in bold at the start of my notes. Sometimes, I even highlight the bottom line in yellow so that my point is abundantly clear. Here is an example of a BLUF adapted for corporate use:

Subject: INFO – Working from home

Shannon,

Bottom Line: We will reduce the number of days that employees can work from home from three to one day per week effective December 1st.

Background:

  • This is an effort to encourage team morale and foster team collaboration
  • All members of the management committee supported this decision

Shannon knows that no response is required because it was marked INFO. She also quickly grasps the information in the email because of the Bottom Line. Because this is a big change in corporate policy, background details are provided to show that the decision is final, supported by management, and intended to result in positive effects for the company.

3. Be economical. Military personnel know that short emails are more effective than long ones, so they try to fit all content in one pane, so the recipient doesn’t have to scroll. They also eschew the passive voice because it tends to make sentences longer, or as the Air Force manual puts it, “Besides lengthening and twisting sentences, passive verbs often muddy them.” Instead, use active voice, which puts nouns ahead of verbs, so it’s clear who is doing the action. By using active voice, you are making the “verbs do the work for you.” Instead of, “The factory was bombed by an F18,” military professionals would say, “An F18 bombed the factory.”

Even though short emails are usually more effective, long emails abound, even in the military. If an email requires more explanation, you should list background information after the BLUF as bullet points so that recipients can quickly grasp your message, like in the above example.

Lastly, to prevent clogging inboxes, military professionals link to attachments rather than attaching files. This will force the recipient to check the website that has the attachment, which will likely provide the most recent version of a file. Also, the site will verify that the recipient has the right security credentials to see the file, and you don’t inadvertently send a file to someone who isn’t permitted to view it.

Here is an email example for corporate use that uses keywords in the subject, bottom line, background bullets, and active voice:

Subject: INFO – Meeting Change

Shannon,

Bottom Line: We scheduled the weekly update meeting for Thursday at 2 PM CST to accommodate the CFO’s schedule.

Background:

  • We searched for other available times, but this is the only time that works, and it’s important that you are on the call, so that you can address your P&L.
  • CFO will be in Boston on Thursday meeting at an offsite with the management committee.
  • He wants to review the financial report that can be found here (insert link) before the call.

By adopting military email etiquette, you will introduce a kernel of clarity to your correspondence and that of your colleagues and clients.


Kabir Sehgal is the author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. He is a US Navy veteran, Lieutenant in the US Navy Reserve, and a recipient of the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. He was a vice president at J.P. Morgan as well as Grammy and Latin Grammy award winning producer. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.


This article is about BUSINESS WRITING
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HBR Resources

Polite Ways to Decline a Meeting Invitation

by Liane Davey

There it is in your inbox: a meeting invite to a meeting you really don’t want to attend. Maybe because it’s shoe-horned into one of the few remaining white spaces in your calendar. Or it’s for a time that’s already booked, and now you’re left to decide whom to turn down. Whatever the reason, sometimes you need to decline a meeting invite.

Your first challenge is deciding which meetings to decline. A little discipline goes a long way here. Establish a set of criteria for participation and stick with it.

Start by assessing the value of the meeting. Is the meeting about something important, timely, and worthwhile? Is it set up for success by having a clear purpose and agenda? Is there background information available to inform participants in advance? Are the appropriate people invited so that meaningful progress can be made? If the value of the meeting isn’t clear from the invitation, reply back with a few open-ended questions before making your decision:

  • “Could you please provide some additional information on the agenda?”
  • “What stage of decision making are we at on this topic?”
  • “How should I prepare for the discussion?”

If it’s clear that the meeting is worthwhile, your next question is whether or not you’re the right person to attend. Are the issues within the purview of your role? Do you have the expertise to contribute to the conversation? Are you underqualified or overqualified for the level of decisions on the table? If you’re questioning why you were invited, reach out to the meeting organizer before responding:

  • “What are you looking for me to contribute at this meeting?”
  • “Who else will be there from my department?”
  • “Who will I be representing?”

Finally, if you believe the meeting will be valuable and that you would make a contribution to the discussions, you need to decide whether or not the meeting is a priority for you right now. How central is the meeting topic to your role? Where does the issue fit relative to your other immediate demands? How unique is your contribution and could your seat be better filled by someone else?

If you can’t say yes to any of the three criteria above, then it’s appropriate to decline the meeting, but tread carefully. You want to leave your co-worker feeling that you’re a good team player and a positive contributor, even if you don’t attend her meeting. Consider a few different options:

Can I stop the meeting altogether? If the meeting failed criteria #1 because you don’t believe it’s set up for success, take a moment to talk with the organizer about your concerns. It’s possible the person will dismiss your comments, but it’s possible that you trigger one of two positive outcomes: either the meeting gets better positioned for success or it gets cancelled. Try one of the following approaches:

  • “This is an interesting topic. Based on our current year priorities, I’m not sure we’re ready for a productive conversation yet. Would it be possible to push this meeting back and let the working group make a little more progress before we meet?”
  • “I’m looking forward to making some decisions on this issue. From the meeting invite, it doesn’t look like Production is involved. I would like to wait until someone from Production is willing to join. Otherwise, we won’t be able to make any decisions.”
  • “Based on the information in the invitation, it looks like this meeting is for informational purposes. Would it be possible to get a summary sent out rather than convening a meeting?”

Can I recommend someone else? If the meeting is important, but it failed criteria #2 because you’re not the right person for the job, try recommending someone else. Be sure to invest some effort in finding the right person so you don’t appear to be shirking the responsibility. Try floating these options:

  • “I’m flattered that you are interested in my input. I don’t believe I’m the best qualified on this topic. I did a little digging and it looks like Pat would have the necessary context. Would you be comfortable inviting Pat rather than me?”
  • “Given that this is a decision-making meeting, I think it’s more appropriate to have my manager represent our team.”
  • “Thanks for the invite to this meeting. I don’t think I’m required at this point. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to send Jose as my delegate.”

Can I contribute in advance? If the meeting failed criterion #3 (you determined that it was an important topic on which you could add unique value, but attending the meeting doesn’t fit with your schedule or priorities), you have the opportunity to add value in advance. Take a few minutes to pull together some notes and to brief the chair or a suitable participant. That will be much more efficient than attending the entire meeting. You can respond to the organizer by saying:

  • “This is going to be an important discussion. I’m not able to attend, but I will find some time to share my thoughts so you can include them in the discussion.”
  • “I’m sorry that I can’t attend the meeting. If I prepare you in advance, could I ask that you represent my ideas at the meeting?”

Can I attend for part of the meeting? If one or more agenda items did meet all three of your criteria, whereas others didn’t, you might have the option of attending for part of the meeting. You can respond with one of the following:

  • “Thanks for the invite. I think it’s really important for me to be part of the discussion on rebranding. Given a few other priorities at the moment, I’m going to excuse myself once that item is complete.”
  • “Would it be possible to cover the rebranding discussion as the first agenda item? I can’t stay for the entire meeting but I’d really like to contribute on that one.”

Regardless of which option you choose, you’re trying to do three things. First, model deliberateness about the use of time. Second, share your rationale so that the meeting organizer has some context for why you’re not participating. Third, make an effort to meet the organizer’s needs, even if it’s not in the way they had originally envisioned.

It might be a bit of a culture shock at first, but all the overwhelmed people with 35 hours a week of meetings will quickly admire your discipline. Just remember, you need to afford the same courtesy to the people who decline the invites you send!

 

Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.

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HBR

5 Reasons Good Deals Get Rejected

By Deepak Malhotra

It’s one thing to lose a deal because you were playing hardball. It’s an entirely different — and more frustrating — situation when the other side is rejecting even your reasonable offers. When genuine attempts at negotiating in good faith are failing, you need a new approach — but it doesn’t mean you have to get aggressive. The key to success is understanding why people will sometimes reject even fair or generous offers.

You didn’t justify it

It’s not enough that you tell them what you want; you have to explain to them why it is a legitimate request. No matter how reasonable your proposal may seem to you, if you fail to justify it, there is a good chance it will be ignored or rejected. I always remind my students and clients: Don’t let your offer speak for itself; tell the story that goes with it. If you want an exclusive negotiating period, why is that appropriate in this case? If you need more time to consider an offer, why should they agree to change the deadline?

You didn’t help them sell it internally

The person on the other side of the table might agree that your offer is reasonable, but they will still reject it if they can’t sell it to others in their organization. You might deserve a higher salary, but how will they explain this exception to others who are not getting one? Your job is not simply to convince the person you’re negotiating with, but to help them be an effective ambassador for you when they are speaking to their boss, their board, their partners, or others who have a say in what happens. Keep an eye on all of the people who can influence the negotiation on their side, and help craft a narrative that will allow them to get the buy-in they need.

You didn’t respect their constraints

They agree that your demands are reasonable. They can convince everyone on their side that you deserve it.  But the answer is still no. Why? Sometimes the problem is that their hands are truly tied on key issues. They would be willing to give you more time to make a decision, but they are facing their own hard deadline. They would be willing to give you more money up front to seal the deal, but they have budget constraints. The key is flexibility: If you give the other side more than one way of improving the offer, it is possible that they will be able to find a way to do it. This is why I remind my students and clients: the more currencies you allow someone to pay you in, the more likely you are to get paid.

You didn’t help them save face

People will often reject even fair and generous offers if accepting them will make them look bad. If the other side has promised their audience (e.g., a boss, the media, their constituents) that they will be able to get a great outcome, and now the best they can deliver is considerably less, they might walk away from the deal even though doing so is costly. The key is to never force people to choose between making smart decisions and saving face. For example, even a symbolic concession on your part that gives them something they would not have otherwise expected can help them declare victory to their side — or at least help them show that all sides had to give in.

You didn’t offer closure

Why should they agree to one of your requests if this will just embolden you to make more? Why improve their offer if you will just shop it around to get other competitive offers? One concern people can have is that even agreeing to your demands will not seal the deal — and this can make them unwilling to expend the time and political capital to make the changes or improvements you are proposing. If it is genuinely the case, it can help you to let them know that “this gets the deal done.” Or, if you still need time, you might be able to at least assuage some concerns by letting them know that “we would accept that as your final offer.” The thing to remember is that you don’t always need to make a substantive concession in exchange for the concession you are asking. If they are worried that you are still shopping around, or that you will continue to pick apart the deal, even an assurance of closure can be traded for substantive concessions.

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HBR Resources

Performing a Project Premortem

Premortem by Gary Klein

Projects fail at a spectacular rate. One reason is that too many people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phase. By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, you can improve a project’s chances of success.

Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. We have used prospective hindsight to devise a method called a premortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset.

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic. For example, in a session held at one Fortune 50–size company, an executive suggested that a billion-dollar environmental sustainability project had “failed” because interest waned when the CEO retired. Another pinned the failure on a dilution of the business case after a government agency revised its policies.

Next the leader asks each team member, starting with the project manager, to read one reason from his or her list; everyone states a different reason until all have been recorded. After the session is over, the project manager reviews the list, looking for ways to strengthen the plan.

In a session regarding a project to make state-of-the-art computer algorithms available to military air-campaign planners, a team member who had been silent during the previous lengthy kickoff meeting volunteered that one of the algorithms wouldn’t easily fit on certain laptop computers being used in the field. Accordingly, the software would take hours to run when users needed quick results. Unless the team could find a workaround, he argued, the project was impractical. It turned out that the algorithm developers had already created a powerful shortcut, which they had been reluctant to mention. Their shortcut was substituted, and the project went on to be highly successful.

In a session assessing a research project in a different organization, a senior executive suggested that the project’s “failure” occurred because there had been insufficient time to prepare a business case prior to an upcoming corporate review of product initiatives. During the entire 90-minute kickoff meeting, no one had even mentioned any time constraints. The project manager quickly revised the plan to take the corporate decision cycle into account.

Although many project teams engage in prelaunch risk analysis, the premortem’s prospective hindsight approach offers benefits that other methods don’t. Indeed, the premortem doesn’t just help teams to identify potential problems early on. It also reduces the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project. Moreover, in describing weaknesses that no one else has mentioned, team members feel valued for their intelligence and experience, and others learn from them. The exercise also sensitizes the team to pick up early signs of trouble once the project gets under way. In the end, a premortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful postmortem.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Gary Klein (gary@decisionmaking.com) is the chief scientist of Klein Associates, a division of Applied Research Associates, in Fairborn, Ohio. He is the author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (MIT Press, 1998) and The Power of Intuition (Doubleday, 2004).

https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem

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HBR Resources

Giving Up Is the Enemy of Creativity

by Brian J. Lucas / HBR.org

What determines whether the ideas we generate are truly creative? Recent research of ours finds that one common factor often gets in the way: we tend to undervalue the benefits of persistence.

In a series of experiments we observed that people consistently underestimated the number of ideas they could generate while solving a creative challenge. In one, we brought 24 university students into the laboratory during the week leading up to Thanksgiving and asked them to spend ten minutes coming up with as many ideas of dishes to serve at Thanksgiving dinner as they could. Then we had them predict how many more ideas they could generate if they persisted on the task for an additional ten minutes. After that, they actually persisted for ten minutes.

On average, the students predicted they would be able to generate around 10 new ideas if they persisted. But we found that they were actually able to generate around 15 new ideas.

Several similar follow-up studies we conducted produced the same result. We asked professional comedians to generate punch lines for a sketch comedy scene; adults to generate advertisement slogans for a product; and people to come up with tactics a charity organization could use to increase donations. In each of these experiments, participants significantly underestimated how many ideas they could generate while persisting with the challenge.

mportantly, after each study we asked a separate group of people to rate the creativity of the participants’ ideas. Across the majority of our studies we found that ideas generated while persisting were, on average, rated to be more creative than ideas generated initially. Not only did participants underestimate their ability to generate ideas while persisting, they underestimated their ability to generate their most creative ideas.

Why do we underestimate the benefits of persistence? It’s because creative challenges feel difficult. People often have the experience of feeling “stuck,” being unsure of how to find a solution, or hitting a wall with one idea and having to start over again.

Trying hard and failing to make progress on a non-creative task, like an advanced physics problem, may appropriately signal that it’s time to stop working. But creative ideas take time. They are often generated after an initial period of thinking deeply about the problem, considering different ways to frame the problem, and exploring different possible solution paths. Consider that Sir James Dyson developed over 5,000 prototypes before he patented his best-selling Dyson vacuum cleaner. Or that Walt Disney animated cartoons for nearly two decades before his first big hit, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

But our work shows that when creative challenges start to feel difficult, most people lower their expectations about the performance benefits of perseverance, and consequently, underestimate their own ability to generate ideas.

It’s important to accurately value persistence because our beliefs powerfully regulate our behavior. If you do not recognize that persistence is valuable for creativity, you will be less likely to persist when you face your own creative challenges.

In another study, we asked participants to work on a creative challenge, and we paid them a small sum of money for each idea they generated. Then we told them they could continue generating ideas (and make more money) if they first paid a small fee to go on. We included the fee to simulate how the decision to persist always has an opportunity cost: persisting on one task means having fewer resources to invest in other tasks. Even though nearly all participants were expected to profit from persisting (based on the results of pretesting), only 54% of participants chose to continue, and as we expected, those who chose not to generated fewer creative ideas and made less money.

Our research suggests that workers typically underestimate the benefits of persistence when it comes to being creative. In other words, some workers may have creative potential that goes untapped when they decide not to persevere with a challenge. Based on our research, we offer two recommendations to avoid this:

  1. Ignore your first instinct to stop. When working on a tough creative challenge, you will likely face a moment when you feel stuck and can’t come up with any more ideas. You’ll first want to quit and spend your time doing something else. Temporarily ignore this instinct, especially if you’re still in the early stages of the work. Try to generate just a few more ideas, or consider just a few more alternatives. You may find that your next creative idea was closer than you imagined.
  1. Remember that creative problems are supposed to feel difficult. Most involve setbacks, failures, and that “stuck” feeling. It’s part of the process. Suppress your instinct to interpret these feelings as a signal that you just aren’t creative or that you’ve run out of good ideas. Reaching your creative potential often takes time, and persistence is critical for seeing a challenge through to the end.
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HBR

Your Company Culture Shouldn’t Just Be Great—It Should Be Distinctive

by Denise Lee Yohn, hbr.org

Just as brand differentiation helps attract customers, culture differentiation helps attract the right employees. But while it’s popular to focus on corporate culture, not many companies have a truly distinctive culture. This is the equivalent to a marketing department saying, “We need to have a strong brand”—without articulating what that strength will rest on.

So many corporate values statements include the same words: respect, trust, fun, integrity. Maybe also diversity, work-life balance, and community service. Free snacks and pick-up games are expected at every technology company; nursing mother’s rooms and on-site gyms are increasingly common perks on corporate campuses. This is all great, but if every company seems the same, how are prospective employees to know which companies are really the best fit for them?

Leaders and HR managers can borrow the principles of good marketing to create a culture that’s more distinctive—one that will attract and retain the right people. Leaders should start by identifying the specific cultural dynamics that will produce the results they desire, and then clearly articulate and actively cultivate them. By doing so, they create a powerful edge in the war for talent—one that’s often more powerful than pay, and one that directly drives performance. People thrive in a culture that fits them, creating a self-reinforcing upward cycle.

Companies with clearly defined cultures are also good for customers, because they allow employees to create distinctive customer experiences. For instance, the number one “Family Core Value” at Zappos is “Deliver WOW Through Service.” The company says “We seek to WOW our customers, our co-workers, our vendors, our partners, and in the long run, our investors.” In pursuit of this goal, Zappos recognizes the need to be “a little unconventional and innovative.” Its unique internal practices, including publishing an annual culture book that employees write and allowing employees to decorate their offices however they like, produce a differentiated culture. This culture has, in turn, informed its unique customer experience design—examples include providing surprise shipping upgrades and not tracking the call times of its customer service reps so they can spend as much as needed with customers.

Vanguard has taken a very different approach. The company was able to produce consistent results for its clients through the Internet bubble and the Great Recession because its culture preaches caution. Vanguard operates from a belief and loyalty to the small investor and trains its advisors to forsake short-term gains if they sacrifice long-term stability.

Or consider Amazon, whose culture has been raked over the coals in the media in recent weeks. The culture at Amazon may be ruthless and exacting—even “callous,” despite CEO Jeff Bezos’s denial. But the company’s hard-driving performance culture may be one reasonit has consistently produced breakthrough innovations and consistent growth and continues to attract brilliant, mission-oriented employees.

The disciplines that inform brand differentiation in marketing can apply to culture differentiation as well:

  • Conduct competitive analysis to determine potential advantages and differentiating attributes—or better yet, identify white space where no one is playing.
  • Use segmentation to identify the types of people who share the company’s values and their distinguishing characteristics that can be used to target them.
  • Clearly articulate the value proposition—explain not just what the company does, but why it matters.
  • Don’t be afraid to use personality and take risks to stand out.

An unusual culture—even one that outsiders might criticize— is nothing to apologize for. In fact, it’s an advantage in attracting the right people.

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HBR

How to Get the Most Out of a Conference

How to Get the Most Out of a Conference
By Rebecca Knight, hbr.org

“The fact that technology has made it easier to interact with people across great distances and time zones actually makes face-to-face interaction even more valuable.”

Conferences are an overwhelming rush of presentations, conversations, and potential meet-ups, and it can be tough to know where to focus your time. How do you figure out which sessions to attend? Should you skip the keynote to meet an important contact? How many coffee dates are too many? And what should you do if you’re an introvert who hates small talk?

What the Experts Say

Professional conferences are an unavoidable fact of working life. And even if you’re an introvert who dreads the multi-day extravaganza of breakout talks and cocktail-infused networking sessions, you must resist your impulse to stay home, says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School. “Skipping conferences is problematic because you’re missing out on the benefits of networking,” she says. “Today, probably even more than ever before, networks are a key form of social capital for achieving goals in both your professional and personal lives.” And meeting people at conferences “who likely have the same interests as you and are highly relevant to your work” is a good way to nurture and expand your network, says Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking. “The fact that technology has made it easier to interact with people across great distances and time zones actually makes face-to-face interaction even more valuable.” Here’s how to get the most from the conferences you attend.

Change your mindset

Despite the known benefits of having an extensive and diverse network, many people “shy away from the opportunity to create new connections because networking makes them feel inauthentic and physically dirty,” says Gino. To reduce these feelings, she suggests changing your mindset and motives. You’re not just networking because you should; you’re doing it because it’s good for your career. She says that people who focus on their professional aspirations “network more frequently and experience decreased feelings of dirtiness” compared to those who are focused on merely meeting professional duties and responsibilities. As you’re getting ready for a conference, “try to stay motivated to network professionally for the growth, advancement, and accomplishment” that it will bring.

Pre-introduce yourself

Weeks before the conference starts, “think about the people you would really like to get to know and then carve out time to accomplish that goal,” says Gino. Clark recommends creating a “priority wish list” of people you’d like to meet. Send those people an email introducing yourself; if possible, get an introduction from a mutual friend or colleague. If the person is presenting, tell her that “you’re going to make it a point to come to her session,” says Clark. “There’s a lot of fear when presenting that no one will come to your session so the fact that you’re making the effort will be appreciated.” If the person is not presenting, invite him for coffee. Or inquire “if there’s any session he’s excited about going to, then ask: Can we sit together?”

Be strategic with your time

Consider two things when choosing which sessions to attend. “A session should fulfill either a content goal, meaning the talk will be educational, or it should fulfill an interpersonal goal, meaning you want to meet or support the person who is presenting,” Clark says. The keynote speech is usually skip-able, but because someone famous often delivers it, “it’s fun to go,” she adds. “It’s likely to be entertaining and will give you bragging rights as in: ‘Hey, I heard Elon Musk speak.’” That said, “The keynote doesn’t have much networking value beyond being a conversation starter.”

Network on your terms

If plunging into a crowd makes you uneasy, you’ve got to “take initiative to create a situation where you feel comfortable,” says Clark. Perhaps one-on-one meetings are better for you or small group settings. If so, Clark suggests making a reservation at a local restaurant for about eight people before the conference. Then invite people from your wish list. “You want it to be a mix of people you know and people you would like to get to know better,” says Clark. “Tell them you’re bringing together a group of interesting people and you’d like them to join.” And be sure to tell them why the dinner is of interest. “If she’s a tech entrepreneur, tell her that you’re also inviting venture capitalists,” for example.

Listen more; talk less

When you’re attending a semi-professional, semi-social networking situation — such as a group dinner or conference cocktail reception — your goal is to “allow enough space for others to shine,” says Clark. Harness quiet power by asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully to how others respond. Having conversation starters at the ready can make small talk more palatable. For example, you might ask: “Which work project are you most excited about right now?” or “Which session are you most excited to attend?” If you’ve invited people together, it’s also important that you “exert sufficient control” of the situation. “Make sure people are interacting with and getting to know each other,” she says. Ask people to introduce themselves. Think of commonalities among group members and highlight those when you’re making introductions. “Try to bolster group cohesion rather than letting it be a fragmented experience,” says Clark.

Manage your existing connections

Conferences can be useful venues to solidify your current professional relationships. After all, says Gino, “good networking not only means creating new connections. It also means maintaining and strengthening existing ones.” But don’t spend all of your time with people you already know. That defeats the purpose of going to the conference in the first place. “If you know beforehand that certain colleagues are likely to glom on to you, draw clear boundaries — for both of your sakes,” says Clark. Having existing dinner or lunch plans can be handy. “Say to your colleague: ‘I need to meet new people tonight, but tomorrow I’m going to a session that I think we’ll both find interesting. Would you like to go together?’”

Make time for yourself

Conferences are exhausting, and can be especially so if you’re not an extrovert. “The fundamental truth about being an introvert is that you need to manage your energy differently from other people,” says Clark. “You need to know when you’re on the brink.” And so if you spend five days pushing yourself to attend every luncheon, cocktail party, and networking reception, “you’re going to be worn out and frayed, and you will not be at your best.” Put simply: Skip happy hour. In its place, do something restful or restorative. This is sound advice for both introverts and extroverts. “It’s easy for any professional to lose sight of self-care” because he or she is busy, adds Clark. Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep are important to our health. Don’t neglect your own wellbeing. One of the most important ways to do this, says Gino, is to try not to be someone else when you’re in social situations. “Focus on being yourself,” she says. “This will help ensure that you don’t stress out too much or get too tired.”

Principles to Remember
Do:
Shift your mindset by focusing on how networking is good for your career
When choosing which sessions to attend, consider whether you’ll learn something or meet someone new
Take the initiative to create networking situations where you feel comfortable
Don’t:
Spend all of your time with coworkers you see every day — draw clear boundaries
Burn out — give yourself time to rest and rejuvenate during the conference
Try to be someone you’re not — putting on a false persona is stressful and tiring
Case Study #1: Organize small group gatherings and take time to recharge
Parisa Parsa, the Executive Director of the Public Conversations Project — a Boston-based group that helps workers and organizations create constructive dialog in their professional, civic, and personal lives — attends several conferences a year. “I don’t know if I will ever figure out how to make conferences not exhausting,” says Parisa, a natural introvert, “but I know what I need to do to make them productive.”

Earlier this year, Parisa, who is also a minister, attended the annual Unitarian Universalist Association conference in Portland, Oregon. Before she arrived, Parisa reached out to several people with whom she wanted to connect at the conference and invited them for coffee or a meal. “I do terribly when it comes to chatting with people on the spot, so I tried to set up one-on-one meetings so I could focus my attention and not have to fight for airtime,” she says. “Reaching out to people in advance made sure I was on their radar. They knew they were a priority to me.”

In the past, she has also arranged small group dinners around specific topics. Since most people know her but don’t necessarily know each other, Parisa gets the conversation flowing by asking everyone to introduce themselves and to provide an initial take on the topic at hand. “I like bringing people together for a smaller, structured gathering. Big groups can be overwhelming.”

Parisa also makes sure to not wear herself out by giving herself time to rest and recharge. “I used to feel that I had to be at each and every session, but now I’m more strategic about choosing sessions based on the content.”

During her most recent conference, she went for frequent walks around Portland and nipped into coffee shops to reflect on and write about the presentations she’d seen. “I tried to see little bit of the city,” says Parisa. “It’s really sad when the only part of the city you remember is the inside of convention centers.”

Case Study #2: Offer your assistance in order to be seen as a potential resource
Ron D’Vari, CEO of New York-based advisory firm NewOak Capital, is a self-described “conference junkie” who attends dozens of conferences each year. Conferences, he says, “expose me to new ideas and perspectives and give me a sense of the marketplace and where things are going.”

Earlier this year, after he learned about the upcoming Professional Risk Managers’ International Association (PRMIA) conference in New York, the first thing he did — and what he always does — was call the conference organizer. “I asked if I could help with content — I volunteered to speak or to moderate a panel, and I let them know I could help introduce them to other speakers,” says Ron. “Offering to be a part of the conference provides many more networking opportunities than merely attending the conference.”

Ron won a spot on a panel. Before the conference started, he examined the agenda and looked at the list of speakers and presenters. Whenever he came across a person he wanted to meet, he sent them an introductory email and a request to connect on LinkedIn. “That way, they know who you are,” he says.

Ron attended the conference with several colleagues but he made sure to go to different sessions and networking events. “You can’t stay in a clique with colleagues,” he says. “It’s time to get to know other people.” After all, “conferences are expensive. You’ve got to be able to get your two grand’s worth of connectivity.”

When networking, Ron also makes an effort to do more listening than talking. “My objective is be seen as a resource for people. I want to engage them in a way so that when they have a technical question down the road, they think to pick up the phone and call me.”

At the PRMIA conference Ron made many connections, including a Fed official with whom he is currently writing a paper.

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A List of Goals Is Not a Strategy (HBR) by Graham Kenny

Let’s say you’re getting together with other managers and employees to develop your organization’s or unit’s strategy. No matter how much discussion and enthusiasm you bring to the task, you’re likely to emerge with a list that looks like this:
  • Growth
  • Superior operational outcomes through efficient work practices
  • Becoming competitive in an existing market
  • Increasing product sales to take market leadership
  • Expanding into other regions
  • Optimizing ROI
  • Developing a service delivery model that incorporates tactical projects

When you’re done, you might scratch your head and reflect: I think this looks OK. It doesn’t. It contains what might be called goals, objectives, actions, and vague statements of intent — but alas, no strategies.

So how do you really create strategy, rather than end up with a hodgepodge list like this? By following these steps:

Identify which stakeholders you depend on for success. It might seem obvious that you’d need to start here. But most managers, even at the world’s largest companies, don’t take this basic step. Instead, they focus on a narrow set of key performance indicators and wade right into developing solutions that feed those metrics, burrowing deeper and deeper into the details. Very quickly they lose their “helicopter view” and get stuck in fix-it mode. Suggestions come one after another: Engage sales outlets. Devise an advertising program. Attract, retain, and develop capable people. Good stuff, perhaps, but how would you know if you haven’t defined a context for success?

Your organization or unit is completely dependent on others outside it for its good fortune. Without the support of stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, employees, and shareholders, for example, you have no organization. But you have to identify those who are key to the long-term survival and prosperity of your organization — and then satisfy them.

Here, we should take a lesson from John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. His company has annual sales of $9 billion and more than 300 stores. It dominates U.S. natural-foods retailing and has become an iconic brand.  In a Harvard Business Review interview, Mackey describes what has brought success to Whole Foods. “Customers, employees, investors, suppliers, larger communities, and the environment are all interdependent,” he explains. “Management’s job at Whole Foods is to make sure that we hire good people, that they are well trained, and that they flourish in the workplace, because we found that when people are really happy in their jobs, they provide much higher degrees of service to the customers.  Happy team members result in happy customers.  Happy customers do more business with you.  They become advocates for your enterprise, which results in happy investors.  That is a win, win, win, win strategy.”

Recognize what you want from your stakeholders. Because most management teams don’t identify key stakeholders, they don’t even get to this point. And those that do often launch right into what they need to do for customers, for employees, and so on, without thinking first about what they want from them.

Why is sorting out the from so important? What an organization wants from each group of key stakeholders translates neatly into its objectives. For instance, sales and revenue growth will come from customers, productivity and innovation from employees, and quality goods and services at the right price from suppliers. What’s more, company law requires that boards, CEOs, and senior executives act in the best interests of the company. All decision making should stem from that mandate.  Of course, this doesn’t preclude looking after customers’ and other stakeholders’ interests en route.

Although objectives and clear targets aren’t a substitute for strategy, you do need to design them, stakeholder group by stakeholder group, before you can develop a smart strategy for each group. Otherwise, any old strategy will do. Unfortunately, strategies are often created in a vacuum. They won’t be meaningful if you haven’t decided what you want them to achieve.

Recognize what your stakeholders want from you. When management teams delve too quickly into problem-solving, they make assumptions. They think they already know what’s good for their stakeholders. As a result, their companies end up with products and services that don’t sell.

When you articulate what key stakeholders want, you’re defining what I call “strategic factors.” (They’re not the same as “critical success factors” — a term you might already use. Those are generated by your management team, whereas strategic factors come from your stakeholders.) Strategic factors bring an external perspective. They are those few things that you must excel at if you are to achieve a competitive advantage and, simultaneously, meet your corporate objectives.

Here’s a list of strategic factors from a company that manages a port and aims to attract as many ship operators as possible:
  • Port capability (suitability for a ship’s size and freight)
  • Freight availability (to pick up on the return leg)
  • Congestion (speed of unloading and turnaround time in the port)
  • Location (which affects “steaming time,” or time between destinations)
  • Price (port charges for docking and remaining moored)

Note how these are defined from a stakeholder’s point of view, not from management’s. If you’re not sure of them (that’s the norm), interview your stakeholders to better understand their stories and needs.

If you’ve been struggling to develop strategy and write your strategic plan, what you may have been missing up till now is a method. These steps will help. Toyota doesn’t produce defect-free cars day after day without a system. Surgeons don’t operate on hearts and brains without clear procedures. You shouldn’t expect to design effective strategy without a process, either.

Original article

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HBR

HBR: How to Improve Your Business Writing

You probably write on the job all the time: proposals to clients, memos to senior executives, a constant flow of emails to colleagues. But how can you ensure that your writing is as clear and effective as possible? How do you make your communications stand out?

What the Experts Say
Overworked managers with little time might think that improving their writing is a tedious or even frivolous exercise. But knowing how to fashion an interesting and intelligent sentence is essential to communicating effectively, winning business, and setting yourself apart. “As Marvin Swift memorably said, clear writing means clear thinking,” said Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” Luckily, everyone has the capacity to improve, says Bryan Garner, author of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Effective writing “is not a gift that you’re born with,” he says. “It’s a skill that you cultivate.” Here’s how to write simply, clearly, and precisely.

Think before you write
Before you put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, consider what you want to say. “The mistake that many people make is they start writing prematurely,” says Garner. “They work out the thoughts as they’re writing, which makes their writing less structured, meandering, and repetitive.” Ask yourself: What should my audience know or think after reading this email, proposal, or report? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, you’re moving too quickly. “Step back and spend more time collecting your thoughts,” Blackburn advises.

Be direct
Make your point right up front. Many people find that the writing style and structure they developed in school doesn’t work as well in the business world. “One of the great diseases of business writing is postponing the message to the middle part of the writing,” says Garner. By succinctly presenting your main idea first, you save your reader time and sharpen your argument before diving into the bulk of your writing. When writing longer memos and proposals, Garner suggests stating the issue and proposed solution in “no more than 150 words” at the top of the first page. “Acquire a knack for summarizing,” he says. “If your opener is no good, then the whole piece of writing will be no good.”

Cut the fat
Don’t “use three words when one would do,” says Blackburn. Read your writing through critical eyes, and make sure that each word works toward your larger point. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence. There’s no need to say “general consensus of opinion,” for instance, when “consensus” will do. “The minute readers feel that a piece of writing is verbose they start tuning out,” says Garner. He suggests deleting prepositions (point of view becomes viewpoint); replacing –ion words with action verbs (provided protection to becomes protected); using contractions (don’t instead of do not and we’re instead of we are); and swapping is, are, was and were with stronger verbs (indicates rather than is indicative of).

Avoid jargon and $10 words
Business writing is full of industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms. And while these terms are sometimes unavoidable and can occasionally be helpful as shorthand, they often indicate lazy or cluttered thinking. Throw in too many, and your reader will assume you are on autopilot — or worse, not understand what you’re saying. “Jargon doesn’t add any value,” says Blackburn, but “clarity and conciseness never go out of style.” Garner suggests creating a “buzzword blacklist” of words to avoid, including terms like “actionable,” “core competency,” “impactful,” and “incentivize.” You should also avoid using grandiose language. Writers often mistakenly believe using a big word when a simple one will do is a sign of intelligence. It’s not.

Read what you write
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is your point clear and well structured? Are the sentences straightforward and concise? Blackburn suggests reading passages out loud. “That’s where those flaws reveal themselves: the gaps in your arguments, the clunky sentence, the section that’s two paragraphs too long,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or friend — or better yet, several colleagues and friends — to edit your work. Welcome their feedback; don’t resent it. “Editing is an act of friendship,” says Garner. “It is not an act of aggression.”

Practice every day
“Writing is a skill,” says Blackburn, “and skills improve with practice.” Garner suggests reading well-written material every day, and being attentive to word choice, sentence structure, and flow. “Start paying attention to the style of The Wall Street Journal,” he says. Invest in a guide to style and grammar for reference — Garner recommends Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Most importantly, build time into your schedule for editing and revising. “Writing and reworking your own writing is where the change happens, and it’s not quick,” says Blackburn. “The time is well spent because good writers distinguish themselves on the job.”

Principles to Remember:

Do:

  • Plan out what you will say to make your writing more direct and effective.
  • Use words sparingly and keep sentences short and to the point.
  • Avoid jargon and “fancy” words. Strive for clarity instead.

Don’t:

  • Argue that you simply can’t write. Anyone can become a better writer with practice.
  • Pretend that your first draft is perfect, or even passable. Every document can be improved.
  • Bury your argument. Present your main idea as soon as possible.

Case study #1: Don’t be afraid to share
When David McCombie began working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, he immediately realized that the writing style he’d honed at Harvard Law School wasn’t well suited for executive-level communications. “It was the structure of my arguments,” David says. “I was getting feedback that I needed to get to the point more quickly.”

With legal or academic writing, “you’re going to generally start with building up the case, and put the main point all the way at the end,” he says. “But in business communications, it’s best to start with your conclusion first.”

To make his writing more direct and effective, David asked several senior colleagues for all of their past presentations and reports so that he could mimic key elements of their format and style. He also copied trusted colleagues who were particularly skilled communicators on important emails and asked for their feedback.

David has carried these practices to the private equity firm he founded in Miami, the McCombie Group. “I send anything that’s important to my partner and he reads it over,” David says, adding that he knows better than to take the edits personally. “We talk about whether there is a better way to convey an idea, how we can be more succinct.”

Improving his writing has had a direct effect on David’s ability to become an influential voice in his field. He’s currently writing a book on his private equity firm’s niche market, The Family Office Practitioner’s Guide to Direct Investments.

“Even if I knew good business writing from the get-go, I think continually improving your writing and taking it to the next level is absolutely key to success,” David says. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”

Case study #2: Study good writing
Tim Glowa had already built a successful career as a strategic marketing consultant when he decided to set his ambitions a little higher. “I wanted to be perceived as a thought leader,” Tim says, “and to do that, I needed to have a point of view and I needed to put that point of view out in public.”

He knew that crafting smart, digestible op-eds and research papers was key to improving his professional reputation. His writing was already well received by colleagues and peers but much of his experience was rooted in academic writing. So he began reading business publications, like McKinsey Quarterly, for style. “I studied how they communicate,” Tim says, “and made an effort to make my own writing more direct and concise.”

He also incorporated an outlining ritual into his writing. Before writing reports and memos, he now begins with a short outline of the three main objectives. “You can’t just start typing and expect to go somewhere,” he says. “That’s like going for a walk and not knowing where the destination is.”

Tim, now the cofounder of a marketing analytics firm called Bug Insights, believes the efforts have made him a more effective communicator, improving not just his longer writings, but his emails and even his voicemails. “It filters down into virtually all my communication,” he says. And his work is finding an audience. Several of his papers have been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and a Fortune 50 company recently used one of his papers in an internal training and development program.

Tim is gratified at his progress, but says he’s not going to stop putting in the extra effort. “You have to work at it,” he says. “Anytime you develop a new skill, you have to study it.”