Continuous Improvement

Handling Setbacks

Setbacks are the direct result of trying to make a difference. The bumper sticker “Well-behaved women seldom make history” is equally true for well-behaved men. The bigger your goals, the bigger the game that you’re playing, the bigger the setbacks you’ll experience.

So what do you do when your idea gets shot down?

How do you get the inner strength to pick up the pieces and keep on keeping on?

Simplistic answer: by taking the long view, and realizing that you’re not going to win every contest of wills.

Deeper answer: by re-grounding yourself in your “why”. Why, at the deepest level, are you trying to reach your goal? Your answer to that question is your call – the fundamental reason you get up in the morning and keep on trying. Frederick Buechner said, “Your call is where your deepest gladness meets the world’s greatest need.” And since the world has so many great needs, I suggest that your call comes from your deepest gladness. What is it that you can’t stop doing? What do you keep on doing, no matter what? Have you ever asked yourself why you do it? That’s your call, your “why”.

I create puns (a few of which are actually pretty decent!) and interject humor frequently. Why? Because I want the world to be a joyful place, where people laugh and get creative. My call is for everybody to have a rich, full, rewarding life, and to treat each other with respect.

So, what’s your call? And how are you living that out day to day? (Because that’s the only place you’ll get to make it real – in your day-to-day life.) I’d truly enjoy hearing from you. Please e-mail me your call, and how you live it, at gary. I promise to respect your privacy, and if you’d like to engage in a dialogue, I’ll be glad to respond.

May your holiday season be joyous.

Gary Langenwalter

Gary Langenwalter

Portland Consulting Group

Coaching . Wisdom . Results


Ask Dumb Questions

Why ask dumb questions? For the same reason that Dillinger robbed banks – “That’s where the money (results) is!”

We’re accustomed to “telling” our employees what to do. But does that give us the results we want? What would happen if you started thinking of dumb questions that you could ask your employees?

A customer-facing team was not acting like a team – various team members were complaining to the manager that other team members were not doing their job, etc. So the manager led the team in defining their values, which were the typical values: trust, communication, etc. The next week was more same-old, same-old. While the team believed in, and wanted, the values, they didn’t see how their current way of operating prevented them from achieving their desired state.

So we decided to have the team focus on strengths. Each team member wrote the name of every other team member on individual note cards, then wrote a strength for that person. Example, Maria would write “Pat is joyful”, or “Kim is the go-to person for technical issues”. Then the manager collected the cards and gave them to the named person. The manager asked people how they felt about the praise.

The following week, the manager asked the “dumb question” – “Does anyone on the team have all the strengths of each person?” (Obviously not) Then the manager asked the follow-up question, “Since nobody here has all these strengths, is it realistic to try to expect each person excel in all areas?” (No) “So what do should we do about it?”

Have you tried something like this before? What do you think happened next? (And yes, that qualifies as a “dumb question”) J

Gary Langenwalter

#1 Job of a Leader

The #1 job of a leader was clearly illustrated at a high school choir concert last night. Actually, there are two intertwined #1 jobs that every effective leader must do consistently.

1. Inspire – inspire the rest of the organization to bring everything they’ve got, every day, to do their absolute best. The young men and young women on stage were inspired – they were doing their best, in spite of their nerves. They watched their director (and I’ve been in too many choirs that DIDN’T watch the director!), because they trusted their director to lead them successfully.

2. Encourage – the root of the word encourage is Old French “couer”, meaning heart. So an effective leader “heartens” the people. For one song, the choir did not come in properly. The director stopped the beat (and the singers stopped, because they were watching her). The director smiled at them, gave the downbeat again, and this time it worked. What could have been a VERY embarrassing situation for high school students was treated as inconsequential by the director. No wonder the students follow the director – she gives them courage to keep on keeping on, even when things go wrong publicly.

So, kudos to the various choirs of McMinnville High School, and the two directors. They demonstrated leadership – and they got wonderful results.

I welcome comments and feedback.

Gary Langenwalter

Nobody’s Perfect!

Nobody’s perfect. While that should not be a big surprise, the real question is this: how does your organization deal with mistakes?

The typical reaction, prevalent in most organizations, is to expect perfection, and then to blame a person when they make a mistake. “Next time you do something that stupid will be your last day at our company.” The underlying assumption is that the person made the mistake on purpose, or through intentional negligence.

However, our experience in the workplace is that most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can under the circumstances – incomplete information, lots of pressure, changing and confusing priorities, insufficient resources, frustrating systems, etc. That environment guarantees that mistakes will be made. So why, then, do we blame the person?

A second possible reaction to a mistake is to apply Dr. Deming’s approach (W. Edwards Deming is the father of the quality movement). Study the system to determine the root cause of the mistake, fix the cause, and the mistake will not happen again. That works fine for non-human systems. But human systems are much more complex, because humans carry emotions about past events with us such that they affect our future decisions and interactions. Thus, we might not be willing to trust a person after a major mess-up, even though we have “fixed” the communication gap that caused the problem.

A healthy organization will have a culture of forgiveness, of letting go of the past and encouraging people to move forward. The person who made the mistake will apologize, and the people who were hurt will accept the person’s apology. They will use this experience to strengthen their bonds, to become a tighter team.

Taking this idea one more step: the most successful organizations ENCOURAGE mistakes, because that is how people and teams learn. They understand that being a learning organization is a major competitive advantage. But to get there, they have to create a culture which handles mistakes in a healthy way. In so doing, they are showing us a path forward which other organizations can adopt.

What has been your experience in how organizations handle mistakes?

Gary Langenwalter

Ducks, Football, and Business

What does the college bowl championship game have to do with business, or any organization? Here are two ideas:

1. There was a lot of hype leading up to the college bowl championship game. Almost as bad as the Super Bowl, where I joke that the media have interviewed the refrigerator repairman of the 3rd string tackle’s great-uncle.

Hype, as we’re all aware, is merely forecast, opinion, posturing. It’s not real. What is real is that 2 of Oregon’s players were prevented from playing because they failed their drug tests – they tested positive for marijuana. No hype in the world can alter the results of a drug test.

An AP College Football writer predicted an Oregon win by 5 points. And another writer crowed that Oregon wins in the 4th quarter by wearing its opponents down. Again, forecast and speculation. But not reality. In the 4th quarter, Ohio State outscored Oregon 14-0. Ohio State won, 42-20.

So much for hype and forecasts.

The same is true for business – all the promises in the world, all the forecasts, all the speculation, all the hype, is just that. Empty air. Yes, we require a vision to have us work together to achieve a common goal. But when all is said and done, what really matters is what’s been done. What has been accomplished.

2. In the final analysis, how much does it matter whether Oregon is #1 or #2? Either way, they’ve been to the first national college championship game. Even as #2, they’ll have excellent recruiting position, and excellent financial support, for years to come.

In business, being #2 has its advantages. Avis used the line, “We’re #2; we try harder,” for 50 years! #2 means there is still room to improve. #2 tends to be a little less arrogant, a little less sure of themselves, a little hungrier. And that’s much better for the long term survival of an organization. The business world is littered with #1s who died because they started believing that they were invincible. Bill Gates says that he has learned more from his failures than his successes. So maybe, in the long run, #2 is actually a better place to be than #1.

What has been your experience? Is #2 a better position than #1?

Gary Langenwalter

Looking Backward and Forward

The first month of the year is named after the two-headed Roman god Janus, shown here in an ancient Roman coin. One head looked back, the other looked forward.

One way to look back and look forward is with a Plus/Delta reflection, which can be done individually or in a group. Divide a flipchart or piece of paper into 2 columns. Above the left column write “Plus”; above the right column write “Delta”. Ask what went well in 2014, and write those bullets into the Plus column. And think of what you would like to change next time – write those bullets into the Delta column.

Notice – and this is important – you’re not making things “wrong”. You’re asking, “What would I like to change?” That’s why the column is called “delta”, not “minus”. This allows you to learn from all of your experiences. We coach clients to never use the word “fail.” When they try something, they get a result. If they don’t like the result, they can change something and try again. And if they get the result they want, they can still change something and try for a different result the next time! That’s how people, and organizations, learn. Learning organizations consistently outperform traditional organizations. And they’re a lot more fun to work in!

All of us at PCG wish you and yours a rewarding and “learning” new year.

Gary Langenwalter

We’re Built to Learn

My granddaughter loves to learn – how to climb up stairs, how to pet a cat, etc. I like to learn as well (except for the more abstruse features of my smart phone). Humans are naturally curious – that makes us learning machines. So what can you learn today?

I invested in learning for 2 hours yesterday at a Fundamentals of Organization Development course, jointly created by Cascade Employers’ Association and Oregon Organization Development Network. This was the 2nd of 6 sessions. I’d invite you to join us, but the room is full. (I hope you’ll sign up next year.) Yesterday’s topic was strategic planning. Now, I’ve led strategic planning with clients and taught it at the graduate level, so one might suggest I don’t need to sit in on a 2 hour workshop on strategic planning. If I knew everything there is to know, I would agree with that statement. But I attended for 2 reasons:

1. To refresh myself on the concepts that I already know (even great sports stars use coaches to continue to improve), and

2. To learn concepts that I didn’t know.

I did learn a couple nuggets. I also reinforced a couple key concepts, including “letting go”, which will be the topic of another blog.

I have recently learned that learning is easiest for the very young, because they don’t have any preconceived ideas about what is. They are a blank slate. As we learn, we create our mental map of how society and our organizations and our families operate. This is invaluable – we could not function without it! However, once we have that map in place, learning something new requires letting go of something we have already learned, something we think is “true”. Thus, the longer we continue through life, the more difficult learning becomes, because we have more to unlearn.

So what can you learn today? And what are you willing to unlearn, so you can learn something new?

Gary Langenwalter