One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Bad Customers Are Bad for Your Business

Herb Kelleher: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you.”

Herb Kelleher of Southwest AirlinesSouthwest Airlines is a paragon of superlative customer service. Southwest’s happy and engaged employees routinely go out of their way to delight their customers. In spite of such remarkable devotion to customer satisfaction, there have been times when Southwest had to decide that some customers were just wrong for their business.

In the very entertaining and enlightening Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg narrate how Southwest had to let go of a customer who couldn’t be less satisfied with her travel experience. This customer relations-story is best appreciated in light of the fun-loving and gregarious nature of Southwest’s legendary founder and ex-Chairman/CEO Herb Kelleher.

'Nuts- Southwest Airlines' by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg (ISBN 0767901843) A woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Customers are the lifeblood of any business. Customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets revenues and profits. Businesses can therefore never place too much emphasis on their customers.

However, with slogans like “the customer is always right,” many businesses fall into the trap—and the slippery slope—of trying to satisfy every customer’s every wish.

Although your business may need all its customers—even the irksome ones—the reality is that some customers can actually be bad for your business. You can’t sustainably run a business without trying to satisfy every customer—particularly those cranky, annoying, or unreasonable ones.

Be wary of customers that fall into these categories:

  • Customers who require high maintenance but cannot be charged more
  • Customers whose demand for price destroys your profitability
  • Customers who want a lot more (better product, better service, better schedule) but are tightfisted
  • Customers who require supplementary services or products (especially those that are not part of your business’s core competencies) and tailored solutions that you don’t provide and can’t profitably offer to the rest of your customer base
  • Customers who don’t subscribe into the future vision of your business or your industry, which they’ll need to strategically commit to as some point in the future
  • Customers who tend to be aggressive and hostile, and disrespectful to your employees, regardless of how well they serve the customers

Strategic Customer Management Involves Being Tough Minded with Some Customers

Strategic Customer ManagementConsidering your long-term business goals, sifting through who should and who shouldn’t be your customers is an important element of strategic leadership.

With every product or service you offer, focus on who you want your customer to be, what expectations they have of you, and what you can profitably provide to them. Once you have figured that out, customers who don’t fit well need to be managed judiciously and decisively.

Without strategic customer management, you run a risk of disrupting your ability to converge around the needs of your principal customer base.

Remember the notion of opportunity costevery ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something important.

Idea for Impact: Let Go of Some of Your Troublesome Customers

Sometimes, it may be better to lose certain customers by turning them down than to dilute your ability to serve other valuable customers profitably. Stop trying to delight every customer. Take a hard look at the past, current, and future of every customer and prioritize whom you can going to serve better and more successfully.

What it Takes to Be a Hit with Customers

  1. Be Trustworthy. One of the most important aspects of being effective at work is earning and upholding others’trust through your actions, not through your words. You earn trust slowly but can lose it in a moment—as Warren Buffett often reiterates, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Idea for Impact: Earn trust by making and honoring your commitments. Do what you commit to. Act with integrity. Do the right things for the right reasons.
  2. Responsiveness in Customer Service: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait Be Responsive. We live in a time and age of “instantaneous gratification.” People want immediate results—without delay or deferment. They don’t expect to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their resentment grows. Alas, responsiveness affects how people perceive you. If you’re slow, your customers will suppose you are indifferent or incompetent. If you respond promptly, they’ll assume you’re proficient and on top of your work. Idea for Impact: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait.
  3. Be Strong, But Flexible. Respect the rules and traditions but be adaptable to changing conditions. Be watchful and absorb from whatever you can learn—as General Electric’s celebrated ex-CEO Jack Welch once wrote, “The desire and the ability of an organization to continuously learn from any source—and to rapidly convert this learning into action—is its ultimate competitive advantage.” Idea for Impact: Flexibility with rules can be pragmatic in its own right. Learn to make rational decisions by balancing facts and emotions.
  4. Be Realistic, Not Overly Optimistic. Self-help gurus and the media have endlessly touted optimism as the “winning formula to success.” This obsession with cheerfulness has reinforced a false sense of realism and pragmatism. Optimists tend to overlook the reality—they develop a false sense of hope and become too attached to the possibility of positive outcomes. Unfortunately, realists are branded as skeptics and skeptics are quickly shunned as outcasts. Idea for Impact: Take an honest and levelheaded view, no matter what the problem. Embrace the possibility of failure. Plan for the downside. Don’t get caught up in trivial details.
  5. Be Likeable and Interested. Highly competent but unlikeable people do not succeed as well as their fairly competent but likeable counterparts. The American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou aptly said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Idea for Impact: Be pleasant, enthusiastic, and friendly—make eye contact, smile, and say ‘hello’ more. Listen. Be open and approachable. Appreciate the individuality of people. Try to be interested, not just interesting.
  6. Be a Good Salesperson - Much of success in life is really about selling yourself Be a Good Salesperson. Much of success in life—from getting a Starbucks barista to make a special no-whip, extra-foam latte with half a packet of Splenda to finding a spouse—is really about selling yourself. Every selling situation involves making a connection with an individual who likes and trusts you. An anonymous sales guru once said, “All things being equal, most people would rather buy from somebody they like… and that’s true even when all things aren’t equal.” Idea for Impact: It is useless to work hard and be creative unless you can also sell what you create. Learn to be persuasive. You can’t just talk people into things.
  7. Be Visible and Communicate Candidly. How you identify and respond to a problem or a crisis is the ultimate test of your character. If you do not communicate frequently, people will develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications. Knowing when to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during difficulties can be a powerful tool in problem solving. Idea for Impact: Keep your eyes open for customers’ inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Focus on problem solving. Be visible. Communicate and lead from the front. Learn how to handle upset customers.

Postscript: This Harvard Business Review article argues that, more than anything else, customers want just a reasonable solution to their expectations. Delighting them by “exceeding their expectations” hardly enhances customer loyalty.

How to Deal with Upset Customers

Servicing Angry Customers

From an angry customer’s perspective, the impressions left by customer-service providers are long-lasting and can heighten the impact of a service experience, for better or worse.

A failure to recognize and quickly respond to the needs of angry customers can make them feel ignored, frustrated, and powerless. Here are nine guidelines that can result in a constructive interaction with an angry customer and restore his perception of satisfaction and loyalty.

  1. Don’t adopt an angry tone. Stay calm and professional. When an upset customer starts shouting or being foul-mouthed, you’ll gain nothing by reacting in a like manner. Actually, responding to anger with anger can easily escalate the hostilities and thwart meaningful communication. Exercise self-control and regulate your feelings. Without remaining calm, you cannot break through emotional barricades or preempt the customer’s frustrations going from bad to worse.
  2. If the customer is yelling, ask him to speak slower. A louder voice often goes with a faster speech. When the customer slows down his speech, the level of his voice will also drop. Repeat this request as many times as necessary to calm him down.
  3. Declare that you intend to understand the customer’s situation and help. Say, “Could you please speak more slowly. When I understand your situation, I can help you better.”
  4. Let your angry customer vent. When a customer is upset, what you tell him matters less than what you enable him to tell you. The first thing an upset customer wants is to vent. Commonly, just the modest act of listening patiently can defuse the customer’s anger. Only after you facilitate getting the customer’s emotions off his chest can you have a constructive discussion.
  5. Recognize that the customer’s problem does exist. Restate the customer’s analysis of what the problem is. “If I understand you appropriately, you have a problem with X and you don’t like Y. This has caused Z.”
  6. How to Handle Upset CustomersDemonstrate sincere empathy for the customer’s feelings. Say, “I can understand why this situation would upset you. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Your best response to the customer’s anger is empathy.
  7. Ask what the customer would like to do to have the problem solved. Ask, “What can we do to make this right for you?” By shifting the customer’s focus from annoyance to problem solving, you can determine ways to negotiate a satisfactory solution. If the customer’s request cannot be met, provide alternative solutions that may alleviate the situation or placate the customer.
  8. Let common sense prevail over standard operating procedure. Much of current customer service initiatives (especially with outsourced call centers) has devolved into standard operating procedures, carefully formulated decision-trees, and scripted answers that customer service agents dispense mechanically. To an upset customer, these automated responses often seem hollow and inacceptable. Deviate from the canned responses and use good judgment. Exercise the autonomy you’re granted over how you can respond to help solve customer complaints. If necessary, involve your manager.
  9. Don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. If the customer asks for more than you’re able to accommodate, defer your answer by saying, “Give me a minute to consider all the options I have for you” or “let me talk to my boss and see how I can help you.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the customer doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he will still appreciate knowing that you’ve seriously considered his appeals.

Idea for Impact: Body language, phrasing, and tone can have a big impact on angry customers who are on the lookout for evidence of compassion and want to be reassured that they have chosen a good provider for their product or service.

The Cost of Leadership Incivility


Steve Jobs’ Misguided Advice for Being a Good CEO: “Throw Tantrums!”

Indra Nooyi got Advice from Steve Jobs: Throw Tantrums

When Indra Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she met with Steve Jobs, the famously driven but short-tempered and ruthless leader of Apple. One advice Jobs had for Nooyi on being a good leader: “throw tantrums.”

During this 2016 interview at the Stanford Business School (YouTube video), Nooyi acknowledged Job’s advice as “a valuable lesson.” She elaborated that Jobs advised, “don’t be too nice … when you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.”

During another 2016 interview, at the New York Times’ DealBook Conference (YouTube video), Nooyi recalled Jobs advise again. “If you really feel strongly about something—if you don’t like something people are doing—throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” Though Nooyi hasn’t gone as far as to throw things around, she disclosed, “I’m beginning to use certain words a little bit more freely and I am screaming a bit more, pounding the table … which is really not the way I was … it is effective. It shows the passion that I have for what I’m doing.”

No Need to Ape the Style of the Icon-of-The-Moment

Leadership Throw TantrumsPeople will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. Nonetheless, this advice of throwing tantrums and using “certain words a little bit more freely” to express passion is abhorrently misguided, even if it worked for Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi!

The ultimate impact of a leader hinges on his/her enthusiasm to make the organization’s endeavors personal, to engage others openly, and to draw attention to successes as they emerge. For that reason, Nooyi’s anecdote is demonstrative of Jobs’ passion for building great products.

My primary protestation relates to the reality that leaders model the behavior they want in their organizations. Admissibly, there may be a time and a place to throw temper tantrums at Apple, PepsiCo, or at your organization. However, unchecked and unhindered outbursts of passion, and cursing and incivility are certainly counterproductive.

Steve Jobs could throw temper tantrums because he could! As I have written in previous articles, brilliant men and women can get away with fanatical pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Aggressive—and successful—managers and leaders can pressurize, scream, intimidate, and even terrorize their employees. They vindicate that their offensive behavior works because they “deliver the numbers.” Others rationalize their behavior by exclaiming, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but judge his abrasiveness in the context of everything he’s achieved.”

The Leader Sets the Tone for Workplace Culture

Workplace incivility can take many subtle forms and it is often provoked by thoughtlessness more willingly than by actual malice. A leader’s behavior tells employees what counts—and what’s rewarded and what’s punished. Leaders are role models. Therefore, others pay attention to everything they say and every move they make.

The tone at the top is the foundation upon which the culture of an organization is built. A leader is the face of an organization and the figurehead to whom employees ultimately look for vision, guidance, and leadership. When leaders throw temper tantrums, swear, or engage in appalling behavior, the message they convey within their organizations is that such behavior is acceptable.

The human brain is wired to learn by imitation. For instance, a child is wired to mimic the behaviors of higher status individuals like parents and teachers. Similarly, adults emulate the behaviors of those they deem of higher status—employees look at their boss to determine how to behave in the organization and what it takes to be promoted. In competitive work environments of the modern day, when employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Postscript: Don’t blatantly imitate a hero. Those of you who worship Steve Jobs had better perceive his operative style as an anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. Simply lifting his methods from anecdotes such as Indra Nooyi’s and the Walter Isaacson biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. As I’ve written previously, the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

How Smart Companies Get Smarter: Seek and Solve Systemic Deficiencies

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors.

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If these inspectors spot a paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager.

As part of Toyota’s famed kaizen continuous improvement system, floor workers identify the systemic causes that led to the specific defect on the specific car. They then remedy the root cause of the problem so it won’t happen again.

Fostering an atmosphere of continuous improvement and learning

Most companies cherish employees who are watchful of problems and take it upon themselves to detect and solve problems without criticism or complaint. A software company, for example, may treasure a programmer who observes an unforeseen coding mistake, and swiftly develops a patch to keep her project moving forward.

In contrast, companies like Toyota who are obsessive about quality improvement, organizational learning, and developing collective intelligence don’t reward or tolerate such quiet fixers.

Taiichi Ohno - 'Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.' At companies that have adopted the kaizen philosophy, continuous improvement originates from the bottom up through suggestion systems that engage and motivate floor employees to look out for systemic problems, raise quality concerns, and help solve those problems. These companies encourage their employees to actively seek small, simple, and incremental improvements that could result in real cost savings, higher quality, or better productivity. According to Taiichi Ohno, the legendary Japanese industrial engineer identified as the father of the Toyota Production System, “Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.”

Idea for Impact: To develop collective intelligence and build smarter organizations, discourage employees from heroically patching up recurring problems. Instead, encourage them to find, report, analyze, experiment, and fix systemic problems to prevent their recurrence.

How to Give Project Updates to Top Management and Ask for Help [Two-Minute Mentor #7]

Project Updates to Top Management Top management is continually besieged with information and requests from across the organization. This makes it difficult to get their attention, especially when you need their intervention on a project.

To be effective in providing project updates to top management and seeking their help, it’s important to cut to the chase, simplify your message, and be brief.

  • Tell them where you are now in relation to the goals of your project. Don’t expect the big bosses to ferret up-to-date information about your project. Anticipate their questions and be ready with supporting data.
  • Tell them where you’re headed. Present your plans and tell them where you stand in relation to those plans.
  • Tell them how you’ll know when you’ve arrived at the goal.
  • Tell them how you plan to get where you’re going. Provide enough context to help the big bosses understand the challenges you face.
  • Tell them where you need their help and intervention. “Boss, we have conflicting customer specifications. I need your guidance about setting priorities.” Mention your recommendations and seek agreement. “Here is our recommended approach to the problem. Do you concur?”

Lessons from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works: Autonomy Can Create Innovative Workplaces

Lockheed Skunk Works

Lockheed Corporation's Skunk Works: A top-secret research and production facility In 1943, Lockheed Corporation established a top-secret research and production facility informally called Skunk Works. It was explicitly tasked with developing a high-speed fighter aircraft within 180 days. This new aircraft was to compete with aircraft produced by the German aircraft manufacturing company Messerschmitt.

Skunk Works consisted of Lockheed’s best design engineers and technicians who occupied a rented circus shelter adjacent to a foul-smelling plastic factory (hence the Skunk Works moniker.) More significantly, Skunk Works was isolated from corporate bureaucracy, granted much autonomy over decision-making, and encouraged to disregard standard procedures in the interest of expediency. In a record 143 days, Skunk Works designed, developed, and delivered the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star aircraft, the first jet fighter operated by the United States Army Air Forces.

The Skunk Works framework of innovation was so successful that Lockheed has continued to operate this division for decades. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, team leader of the first Lockheed Skunk Works project, codified 14 rules for all Skunk Works projects. Over the years, Lockheed’s Skunk Works designed and developed many aircraft, including the famous U-2 reconnaissance plane.

Disentangled from Bureaucracy and Management Constraints

Other companies borrowed this innovation idea from Lockheed to develop advanced products or discover product/service/business ideas that are entirely new to their parent organizations. Many businesses and engineering companies started their own “skunkworks” divisions consisting of self-directing teams of highly talented individuals who were seconded from their regular work environments. Unconstrained by executive interference, they operated under the radar. They were given a high degree of autonomy, access to R&D funds, and exceptional freedom from the parent organization’s bureaucracy and management constraints. Here are some examples of skunkworks projects.

  • At IBM, a skunkworks project in 1981 pioneered industry standards to adapt personal computers for business needs and released the IBM PC. This helped IBM break away from its lynchpin mainframe business and launch its celebrated personal computers division. IBM has since continued the skunkworks tradition. In the 2000s, IBM established many “emerging-business opportunities” or EBO teams and assigned its best and brightest people in charge of risky startup ideas that could germinate new business lines in five to seven years.
  • At Motorola in the mid-2000s, a team of designers and engineers defied the company’s own rules to develop the best-selling RAZR mobile phone. This skunkworks team was isolated from Motorola’s main R&D facility. Fortune magazine noted that this “tight-knit team repeatedly flouted Motorola’s own rules for developing new products. They kept the project top-secret, even from their colleagues. They used materials and techniques Motorola had never tried before. After contentious internal battles, they threw out accepted models of what a mobile telephone should look and feel like. In short, the team that created the RAZR broke the mold, and in the process rejuvenated the company.”
  • Google's Collaborative Office Spaces Encourage Innovation Google’s famous 20% rule and innovative workspaces lets employees collaborate across the company and work on their dream projects, but bring those projects to the larger collective for further funding and development. Many of Google’s innovative products and features in Gmail, Google News, Google Talk, Google Suggest, Transit Directions, etc. originated as 20% projects.
  • Microsoft’s skunkworks located in Studio B facility on its Redmond campus developed Kinect, Surface tablets and computers, and other recent products.
  • Apple has the most celebrated of skunkworks teams. Apple Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive’s design laboratory consists of a few handpicked designers who work on “very experimental material that the world is not quite ready for.” Working in an area separate from Apple’s main Cupertino campus, Ive’s team maintains a culture of incredible secrecy.

Skunkworks Innovation Model and Startup Cultures

In the 1960s and 1970s, the skunkworks concept fell out of favor, as many companies started to see skunkworks teams as distractions and as cost centers “with an attitude.” However, with a renewed emphasis on teamwork and a focus on setting up startup-like innovative workplaces where teams can flourish, the skunkworks model of innovation has been renewed and revived in the last two decades.

Inertia, internal politics, bureaucracy, layers upon layers of management questioning risk and rewards, and the fear of failure weigh heavily on many a company’s pursuit of new products and services. The skunkworks innovation model and the startup culture offer frameworks for organizations to pursue growth ideas separate from current lines of business.

In 2013, General Electric instituted a program called FastWorks to mimic Silicon Valley’s startup culture in a company-wide effort to foster innovation and develop products quickly and cost-effectively. Boeing’s Phantom Works, Nike’s Innovation Kitchen and Sports Research Lab, Amazon’s Lab126 and A9 laboratories, Google X, and Walmart Labs are some of today’s prominent skunkworks organizations.

Idea for Impact: Autonomy Fosters a Creative Environment

Employee Autonomy Can Create Innovative Workplaces For managers, the key take-away from the skunkworks concept is that giving autonomy to employees and teams not only engenders a happier and satisfied workforce, but also fosters a creative environment. Some ideas to consider:

  • Give much autonomy to those employees and teams who have demonstrated the promise of being self-directed and maintaining alignment with the larger organizational goals. Direct them, oversee their progress, and follow-up when necessary. Micromanage when you must.
  • Give employees discretion over their tasks and resources. Create a favorable environment in which people are encouraged to discover, use, and grow their unique skills.
  • Don’t second-guess employees’ and teams’ ideas and decisions unless necessary. Judging or criticizing not only undermines their confidence, but also keeps them from sharing their ideas with you in the future.
  • Allow employees and teams to experiment, iterate their ideas, gather data and develop performance metrics, and quickly discard less promising ideas in favor of stronger ones.
  • Support risk-taking and failure. Celebrate failure as it can provide valuable technical and organizational insights. Encourage employees to be confident enough to try to fail and learn lessons without being apprehensive about being rebuked.

Find out What Your Customers Want and Give it to Them

“Nobody asked the dogs what they wanted”

Dog Food Product Once upon a time, a pet-foods company struggled to sell a new dog food product they’d recently introduced to the market.

The company’s CEO called the department heads together to discuss why the new product wouldn’t sell.

The head of production said he’d done everything right; it wasn’t his department’s fault.

The heads of the sales, advertising, finance, packaging, shipping, and distribution departments had done everything right. None of them were to blame.

The CEO demanded, “Darn! What happened? Why won’t our new product sell?”

A junior staffer shouted from the back of the room, “Sir, it’s just that the dogs simply won’t eat our doggone food. You see, nobody asked the dogs what they wanted.”

Idea for Impact: Customer Focus Drives Company Success

Your research and development efforts will be successful only if they’re driven by a thorough understanding of what your customers want. Engage your customers. Pay close attention to their needs in every phase of product/service design including idea generation, product design, prototyping, production, distribution, and service. Remember Peter Drucker’s dictum that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.”

When Should a Leader Pass Blame?

When Should a Leader Pass Blame? A leader is the “captain of the ship.” He is responsible for his organization’s every outcome—good or bad. He is wholly accountable for everything that happens under his authority.

If there is a problem caused by his mistakes or errors within his organization, a leader should not shirk responsibility. He should not abandon his team if things go wrong, nor should he pass the blame or use an employee as a scapegoat.

However, a leader cannot see and touch all his people, especially if his organization is large. He cannot be personally responsible for a rogue employee who steals information, misuses funds, or engages in unethical behavior. In such circumstances, the leader may pass blame.

Although a leader cannot police every action taken by every employee, the leader should be held accountable for not instituting and overseeing a rigorous control system to prevent problems, deter unethical actions, and to identify employees that engage in such behavior.

A leader also sets the tone for all his employees—not only in terms of goals and priorities but also in terms of proper organizational behavior. A legendary case in point are the ethical rules that investor Warren Buffett set in his company after the 1991 bond-rigging scandal at Salomon Brothers: “I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper, to be read by their spouses, children, and friends, with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter. If they follow this test, they need not fear my other message to them: Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.” Even now, Buffett includes this statement in his biannual letters to his managers and displays a video of this speech at every Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.