Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Based on a Skillsoft article by G. Shawn Hunter, Executive Producer, Leadership Development ChannelTM, June 2012.

I was quite taken by the introductory story in Shawn Hunter’s article on leadership. Here is an excerpt:

“There’s a small trick—a small shift in thinking, in mindset— that can translate to immense performance gains. It’s this: connect personally with the impact of what you do. Let me give you an example. Adam Grant, a talented young professor at the Wharton School, conducted a study a few years ago in which he worked with a group of students at the University of Michigan1.

These students were earning a little extra cash by making cold calls to alumni to raise money that would go to a scholarship fund for students who were accepted at the university but couldn’t afford the tuition. Grant and his colleagues divided the students into three separate groups and had them perform activities for just 10 minutes before their shifts. With one group, the students could do whatever they wanted for 10 minutes before their calls—check out Facebook, text their friends, whatever. The second group was asked to read letters for a few minutes from people who had benefitted from the scholarship fund on which they were working and then talk about the contents of the letter with their peers for a couple minutes. The third group was also given a handful of letters to read together, but, after a few minutes in the break room, they got a surprise.

The call organizer would say, “We have a special guest on the phone,” who was a real recipient of the scholarship fund on which the students were working. For just five minutes, the students talked with the beneficiary. They could ask questions such as where the beneficiaries were from, what classes they were taking and what they intended to do after they graduated. Just for five minutes. At the conclusion of the phone call, the organizer would say, “Remember this when you’re on the phone—this is someone you’re supporting.”

That’s it—a five-minute intervention to connect the callers with the impact, the difference, the real goal of their work. The result? A 250-percent increase in revenue performance sustained over a month after that single intervention—250 percent better than their peers that had no direct contact with the beneficiaries. Take an opportunity to find and talk to the people who actually consume, touch, experience, or contact what you offer or what you create. It will remind you of why you do what you do. It will lead to higher quality, integrity, and excellence in craftsmanship and to a better relationship with your customer. It will also lead to higher performance. How does 250 percent sound?”

At the opening of my Minimalism workshop, I always ask the participants how much they know about the customers for the information they develop. Far too often, the response is “we don’t know anything about our customers.” That response makes it difficult to engage them in the principles of minimalism, because minimalism assumes that you know a lot about what your users want to accomplish and how they find and use information to complete tasks and troubleshoot problems.

Of course, I know all the reasons for the lack of customer knowledge. Some, really too many, corporate executives seem to believe that information developers are incapable of acting responsibly around customers. They look the other way when other groups put roadblocks in the way. The sales team doesn’t want non-sales people talking to customers. The service and support team, I was informed recently, “owns the customers” even when they don’t seem to know exactly how the customers need to use the products.

However, attitudes do seem to be changing. A fair number of information-development managers report that they are engaged with customers, working together with user-experience teams and gathering information about customer likes, dislikes, attitudes, issues, and everything else they can gather. As a result, their finding was, in many instances, to remove content that is not relevant, to add content that is, and to make every bit of content findable and accessible.

As Hunter’s story tells us, empathy is crucial. If we listen to customers explaining their problems, we should become more attuned to meeting their needs. If we learn that customers cannot find the information they need on poorly designed web sites, we might influence the people who control those web sites to make changes. If we record our meetings with customers through conferencing systems, we can show the recordings to the people standing in the way of change.

Several years ago, I worked with a team of mechanical engineers at a company that makes medical devices used in cancer treatments. The clinicians using the equipment complained that the controls were very difficult to use. They spent valuable time trying to align the device with a very sick patient waiting uncomfortably.

The lead engineer decided to pay a visit to the clinicians. He asked his engineers to role-play the patients strapped to the device while the clinicians tried to align the system. They experienced the frustrations and discomfort first hand. As a result, they immediately redesigned the controls to make them more usable. And they never forgot the experience.

In another case, I taught a usability-testing workshop to a group of developers. In the workshop, we invited a user to try out the new device that they were designing. He was unable to figure out how to get it installed, as the developers watched. As it happened, the two guys in the front row were responsible for the placement of the connectors. I noticed them sketching while the test was going on and talking together immediately afterward. Within 15 minutes, they had redesigned the connectors and were ready to create a mock-up to test with the same user. Again, the entire roomful of developers was energized about the user connection and usability testing.

Your challenge, then, is to find ways to bring the user into the conversation, both verbally and visually. You might try an experiment like the one run by Adam Grant from the Wharton School to test the impact of customer contact on your writers. You might also use Grant’s study directly, from a professor at the prestigious Wharton School, to show your recalcitrant management what difference customer knowledge can make to the profitability of the company’s products.

It’s about time we altered the “status quo.” Information developers, along with product developers and service personnel and the sales team, all need to have direct experience knowing the customers. With that experience, we are more likely to create content that does make a difference to the proverbial bottom line.

You can find Hunter’s article, published by Skillsoft, at http://www.skillsoft.com/online-learning-resources/default.asp?filter=whitepapers

1 “Impact and the Art of Motivation Maintenance: The Effects of Contact with Beneficiaries on Persistence Behavior” by Adam Grant, et al. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103, issue 2, 2007