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The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution
By MARCUS BUCKINGHAM
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 One Thing Productions, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Whistles for Everyone!"
How to Accelerate Innovation
The StandOut strengths assessment is an innovation delivery system. We designed it to reveal your edge, and then feed you practical innovations, tips, and techniques that you can use to sharpen this edge and win at work.
We all revere innovation. It is the mystical driver of progress, the secret sauce, the touchstone we reach for whenever our backs are against the wall. Our managers, our leaders, even our president cajole us to outthink, outsmart, "out-innovate" the competition. In these accelerated times, only innovation will keep us relevant, only innovation will allow us to keep thriving, only innovation can get us ahead and keep us there.
And when we say this, what do we mean by innovation? Usually we mean invention and we point back to that Golden Age of invention, the Apollo years, when anything was possible, when failure was not an option, when necessity created Teflon and freeze-dried food, the Stairmaster and digital photography, the technology inside every kidney-dialysis machine and the materials for your running shoes, solar panels and better golf balls, and, of course, ARPANet, the forerunner to the Internet. Heady times. No wonder our leaders hark back to them.
For most of us, though, innovation is a little less dramatic. We aren't looking to invent the Internet. We just want a better technique, a better way of doing things. We are tantalized by the notion that someone in our field has devised a method or figured out a shortcut, the "control-C" or "control-P," of our job, something that if we could just find and replicate, we would be able to take a giant leap forward in our performance and in our career.
And our employers are possessed by the very same notion. Every organization is on a near-constant search for "best practice." They convene conferences of top performers, pick their brains for the precious few actions, and then capture what they hear in online "knowledge centers," in videos, or in the course books of their corporate university. Though it is not always stated explicitly, the vision driving all of this activity is that innovation can be harvested and that, once harvested, it can be deployed at scale. Find a few key innovations, so the thinking goes, and we'll spread them to the many.
And occasionally, very occasionally, it does work this way. In the early twentieth century, Dr. Henry Plummer of the Mayo Clinic was experimenting with the use of X-rays for medical purposes. Although he and his team of clinicians had all the right equipment, they kept getting blurred images of their patients. Dr. Plummer and his team tried telling the patients "Don't move." But they moved anyway. Then they phrased it more positively. "Hold still," they said. But the patients couldn't hold still long enough to avoid blurring the picture, particularly when their head or torso were being X-rayed. Undaunted, Dr. Plummer worked on the problem until finally he happened upon the one phrase that magically transformed his patients into statues. This phrase proved so effective that still, today, when you are waiting in the radiology room for your X-ray, the nurse will turn to you and say: "Please hold your breath."
He had found one key innovation, and in the intervening century it has been deployed at massive scale.
Annoyingly, Dr. Plummer's experience is the exception. It is very rare to discover a best practice that is transferable person to person at such scale, with no lessening of its effectiveness. Normally what happens is this: An enterprising employee will come up with a new way of doing things. This new practice will spring from within her as an irrepressible manifestation of her personality. It will be authentic and natural, and she will use it to outperform her colleagues. This success will bring her to the attention of her superiors, who will interview her to discover her secret. Her new practice will be elevated up the corporate ladder, vetted by Operations, Human Resources, Training, Communications, and Legal, until eventually, stripped of its unique characteristics and the person who made them, it will be introduced to the rest of the "field," where it will end its life as just another corporate program, smoothed out and lifeless, inauthentic for everyone else and ineffective for the company.
A few years ago in a study of top-performing managers for Best Buy, I had the chance to interview Ralph Gonzalez. Ralph had successfully transformed one of Best Buy's lowest-performing stores into a repeat award winner. On virtually every metric, from revenues to profitability to employee engagement to "shrink," he had taken his team from the bottom 10 percent to the top. What had he done, I asked him, to effect such a dramatic transformation?
He told me that he had played on his likeness to a young Fidel Castro, that he had called his store "La Revolucion," that he had posted a "Declaracion de Revolucion" in the break room, that he had made the supervisors wear army fatigues, and then, as I was scribbling all this down, he told me about the whistle.
It was a brilliant innovation. Since initially his store was at the bottom of every district performance table, he wanted to give his people a way to celebrate that excellence was indeed happening in his store, and that it was happening all the time. So he gave everyone a whistle and told them to blow the whistle whenever they saw anyone do anything good. It didn't matter if the person they saw was their superior or was working over in another department; if they saw somebody go above and beyond, they were to blow the whistle.
"Didn't it make the store incredibly loud?" I asked.
"Sure," he replied, with a glinty Castro grin. "But it energized the store. It energized me. Heck, it even energized the customers. They loved it."
I was so taken with this innovation I wrote about it in Now, Discover Your Strengths. What I didn't describe is what happened next. Having been shared at a number of company gatherings, the "whistle story" started to take on a life of its own. All of a sudden it began cropping up in different districts and regions around the country. "Whistles for everyone!" There was even talk of devising a system to properly implement the whistle inside a store. Managers would have green whistles, supervisors white, and frontline blue-shirts regular silver whistles. Here are the twelve conditions when whistles can be blown—and here are the twenty conditions when the whistle must not be blown, no exceptions. What had begun as a vibrant expression of a particular person's personality was fast mutating into a "Standard Operating Procedure."
Fortunately, some wise Best Buy executives, realizing that this innovation was almost entirely dependent on the presence of Ralph himself, stepped in and killed the mutation before it could spread.
Ralph's whistle reveals both the problem and the power of innovation: namely that innovation is a practice, not an idea. Invention is an idea, a novel idea, and, like all ideas, a novel idea is easily transferable from person to person—introduce one person to the concept of personal liberty, he tells another, she passes it on to a third, and, like a benign infection, pretty soon the whole country is swept up in the mission to secure personal liberty for all.
Innovation is "novelty that can be applied." This means that there is a person involved, someone actually doing the doing, a Ralph. An innovation is transferable only if the person you are delivering the innovation to has the same strengths as the person who created it in the first place. What is effective and authentic in the hands of one person looks forced, fake, and foolish in the hands of another.
We see this most glaringly on the world stage. The equivalent of the "whistle" for U.S. presidents is the military photo-shoot. If a president or a presidential candidate can secure an appearance with the military, the visual image reads as powerful and authoritative. But, of course, this "best practice" depends heavily on who the practitioner is. Have President George W. Bush land on an aircraft carrier and emerge in full flight gear, and he looks authentically presidential (despite the subsequent overreach of the "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him). Have Michael Dukakis poke his head out of the turret of a tank and he looks, well, silly.
But it also applies to any best practice, in any position or endeavor. Recently my company, TMBC, undertook a best practice study of the top 10 percent of Hilton's Focused Service brands' general managers—Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites, and Home 2. Since Hampton Inn was just voted the best franchisor in the country by Entrepreneur magazine—ahead of the likes of McDonald's and Subway—and since Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites are multi-year J.D. Power award winners, we knew that, in targeting their top 10 percent, we were interviewing some truly excellent performers.
Although during the interviews it became apparent that they shared similar approaches to some things, it was their differences that were most striking. Diana runs the Hampton Inn and Suites in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Vivacious and excitable (and chatty—my forty-five minute interview was still going strong at an hour and fifteen) Diana has been a perennial award winner since she opened the hotel five years ago.
"What's your secret?" I asked her. "I mean, if there were a few things you would tell every manager they should do if they are to succeed, what would they be?"
"First, get a mascot," she replied.
"Yep. A mascot. Every hotel should have one. It gives the employees and the guests something to rally around. A personality. A purpose."
"Because, like the turtle, we won't make any progress unless we stick our necks out. The turtle is so cool. We have them everywhere here. If you could see my office, it's full of plush turtles. When you win employee of the month, you are the 'turtle of the month.' Our regular guests get little toy turtles to take back to their kids. It's an awesome thing. I've been telling every hotel manager I run into that they should get a mascot. In fact, I've just heard that another Hampton down the way are now 'the bees' because, you know, they don't get anything done unless they work together."
So I talked to Diana for an hour or so about her turtles and a part of me thought, Really, turtles? and another part thought, Well, if it works, it works, and then I hung up the phone and called Tim. Tim runs the Hilton Garden Inn in Times Square, and he's another superstar. But he's no Diana. He's quieter, more cerebral.
"A practice I would share with others?" he repeated my question. A long pause. "Well, I don't really have one. I think my people have all the answers. That's the way I run my hotel. I tell my people that they are closer to the guest than I am, that they know this hotel better than I do, and that, whether it's a guest issue or something to do with the property, they'll know the answers."
I kept probing. "That's an interesting perspective, Tim, but can you think of any ways that you put this perspective into practice? Anything, anything at all?"
"Well, there's our lending library, of course."
"We have a lending library. I decided that if my people were going to have all the answers, then we needed to be a learning hotel, and what better way to symbolize learning than to ask every employee to bring in one book per month and we would set up a lending library. It doesn't matter if it's a fiction book, nonfiction, or even a kids' book, we still want you to bring it in. All of you have something to teach us, something we can learn from. So bring in a book, borrow other people's books, and we'll all learn together."
These are but two innovations from two superstar managers. With my prodding Tim told me about many more. So did Diana. So did they all. And yet, very few of these innovations would have been transferable from one person to another, even though they all came from top performers doing the same job, at the same level, in the same organization. Tell Tim that he absolutely must have a mascot for his hotel and what would he have picked? The bookworm? The owl? Most likely he would have picked nothing and procrastinated in hopes that the new corporate "mascot" program would soon wither away. Tell Diana to start a lending library and, while she might rouse herself to put her own spin on it, most likely she would dismiss it. Not exciting enough. Not her thing.
Two engineers in one of the social media giants offer us another example. David writes code. And he's a certain kind of coder. He is a "massager." Give him ten or more hours of uninterrupted coding time and he will massage the code, working and reworking it until it is so efficient and so elegant that others will read the code just to admire it. He refuses to come to the office. He works from home, alone with his dog, Bit. His secret sauce, he said, is extended solitude.
Not so for Luke. He's another exemplary engineer at the same company, but he's not a massager. He's a "salvager." He takes one person's failed coding experiment, reconstructs what the person was trying to do, combines it with another person's experiment, and creates something neither had initially intended. His genius—although he'd be uncomfortable with that label—is asking probing questions without making the original designer defensive, a practice he calls the "Guessing Game."
During his company's once a month code-a-thons—where all engineers who want to can stay up the entire night coding, drinking, munching, and then shipping code the next morning—he can be found moving from one engineer to another, playfully guessing where they were intending to take the code, and throwing in a couple of intriguing "guesses" of his own. These guesses, in turn, prompt new ideas from the original designers, which he then pieces together into a workable program.
Tell Luke to spend ten hours of solitude a day and he'd see it as a punishment, not a best practice.
Try to teach David the mechanics of the "Guessing Game" and he'd dismiss you as a know-nothing crank.
We have studied the country's best high school principals, the best affiliate leaders of Habitat for Humanity, the best emergency room nurses, and the best pharmaceutical sales reps, and whenever we interview excellent performers in the same position, we find this same phenomenon—extraordinary results achieved in radically different ways. Yes, there may be some similar practices among those who excel in a certain position (see chapter 5, the Technical Summary, for a few examples), but no, for any position, there is no "perfect" profile; there are only perfect practices that fit your particular profile.
So, what your organization wants are not the few innovations that can be scaled to the many. Instead, what your organization wants are many practical innovations and a way to deliver these innovations to those few people who share the strengths of the person who dreamed up each one of them.
And this is what you want too. Instead of top-down initiatives that feel awkward and inauthentic, you want to be introduced to practical innovations that you might well have thought of ... but haven't yet; techniques that, when you try them out, feel as though you've done them before. You want to accelerate your creativity and yet still retain your authenticity.
This is why we built the StandOut strengths assessment. Over the last decade, we captured many hundreds of techniques, practices, and insights—for leaders, for managers, for client service positions, for sales, for individual contributors of all kinds—and we loaded them into the back end of the assessment. Once you've completed it, you will receive only those practices that fit your particular strengths. You will receive the best practical innovations, broadcast on the You channel.
Facebook, Netflix, Slacker, and StandOut
By filtering content to fit you, StandOut is mirroring in the field of best practices what we see happening in other fields.
For example, in the entertainment world content used to be gathered in one central place and then pushed out to you, no matter who you were. ESPN pushed out sports programming. CBS broadcast comforting sitcoms. The History Channel collected, edited, and distributed newsreel footage of World War II. To get what you wanted you had to sort through all five hundred channels and pinpoint the one or two shows that truly matched your tastes.
Excerpted from StandOut by MARCUS BUCKINGHAM Copyright © 2011 by One Thing Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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