Excellence.
Always.
All You Need to Know.
(More or Less.)

My recent Shanghai seminar went from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or so), three days running. In fact, as best I can recall, this was the first time I've ever done three straight days, all day, by myself!

(Yes, I slept on the flight home from Shanghai to Boston; at least, I think I did—I don't remember.)

As the last half of day three began, I wanted to summarize—very succinctly—what had gone before. I pulled together 25 slides (attached), making just six points:

Point #1/Aspiration.

I recalled a seminar in Siberia in April 2006. Given the unusual setting, I dug deep into my often neglected packet of Basic Beliefs about Organizations. So I issued a challenge, and have issued it a hundred times since.

At its best (alas, hardly the norm), an organization, any organization can be/should be:

... an emotional, vital, innovative, joyful, creative, entrepreneurial endeavor that elicits maximum concerted human potential in the wholehearted service of others—e.g., Employees, Customers, Suppliers, Communities, Owners, Temporary partners.

My question, as I said, repeated now a hundred times: What else—literally—could the point be of any collective human endeavor, grand or mundane? No, I can't imagine this as the norm on any given day, but I can imagine this as a very real, very pragmatic aspiration. I've discovered that, upon serious reflection, most people agree that this is indeed a pragmatic aspiration—an aspiration worthy of measuring oneself and one's mates against.

This is the point of organization.
This is the point of organizing per se.
Period.

(Right?)

Point #2/Listen.

I have become obsessed with "listening." (About time, some of my friends might add ...) I think it was Dr. Jerome Groopman's book, How Doctors Think, that tipped the balance. Groopman observes that the patient is unequivocally the best source of information about the patient's perceived problem. But to extract useful info the doc must listen to lots of noise along with some signal. Alas, research that the average doc interrupts the patient after 18 seconds! I'd say the average [know-it-all?] boss is in the same sorry boat.

Everything (!!—big word) proceeds from listening—to our spouse, our kids, our friends, strangers along the way (my forte), our students, our employees, our customers, etc. And yet, while we study accounting or history or piano for years and years, we seldom if ever study listening.

Study.
Really study.
Pursue Mastery.
Pursue Excellence.
Become a "professional."

When "six-sigma" quality became the rage, one of the accoutrements was a rash of training programs that allowed one to become a "six-sigma blackbelt." Companies of all sorts and sizes made a big fuss over this. Though it's a little much for me, I nonetheless want to steal shamelessly: I want organizations of every size and shape to start programs aimed at having participants work assiduously to achieve and then maintain "listening blackbelt" status.

Listening, to one and all, intently and constantly, even obsessively, may be/is the greatest of strategic strengths—the greatest of "sustainable competitive advantages."

100% "Listening Blackbelts"!
Or bust!

Point #3/Ask.

Dave Wheeler commented at tompeters.com that the "four most important words" in an organization are:

"What do you think?"

I agree.
Wholeheartedly and unabashedly.

Shouldn't "listening" and "asking" be combined? Perhaps, by some narrow logic. But remember my situation—trying to extract for my Chinese colleagues the most significant points in a 3-day seminar. It's my subjective judgment that The Big Four Words—"What do you think?"—must be singled out, put on their own separate and tall pedestal.

There is no greater honor (!!) that can be bestowed upon a person, peasant or prince, than "What do you think?" "What do you think?" automatically makes me a person of value, whose observations and opinions are of the greatest importance to the functioning of the organization.

Benefits are piled upon benefits! The person routinely asked "What do you think?" starts thinking about what to say when asked "What do you think?"!! This Virtuous Circle of Engagement literally ensures that the quality (breadth and depth) of engagement increases markedly over time.

The idea here—obviously, I assume—stretches beyond the borders of our formal organization. E.g.: "What do you think?" is also World's Best Customer Loyalty Program! The Web is, in fact, teaching us the limitless value of The 3Cs—Continuous Customer Conversations.

Get "Ask" & "Listen" right and you've taken a giant step toward Excellence—the Holy Grail!

Point #4/Fail.

Ask.
Listen.

Act.

"It" is all about attention-recognition-engagement. And action. None of the above, to state the obvious, matters unless something happens. Twenty-seven years ago Bob Waterman and I put "bias for action" at the top of our list of the Eight Basics of Excellence. As the speed of change accelerates exponentially, that notion increases in importance—also exponentially. I've often said that I've learned but one thing in my 40-year professional career: "He/She who tries the most stuff wins."

Well, I mean it.

But it is the corollary to "bias for action" that I singled out to my Shanghai colleagues, the more difficult-to-swallow Fast Failure Imperative that necessarily accompanies rapid learning, adaptation, and improvement. "Fail. Forward. Fast."—that was the advice from a high-tech CEO who attended a seminar of mine years ago. David Kelley, IDEO design: "Fail faster, succeed sooner." And the word/s according to Nobel Laureate (Literature) Samuel Beckett: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."

My point to my colleagues: "IT IS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH TO 'TOLERATE' FAILURE—ONE MUST CELEBRATE FAILURE."

To move fast, adjust fast, take advantage of the constant dialogue-conversation discussed above ("ask"-"listen"), one must be "trying new stuff"—all the time and at a ferocious pace. Tryin' new stuff means screwing up constantly—then adjusting fast with a new try ("Fail. Fail again. Fail better."). At the heart of the matter—yes, the heart—is the wholesale celebration (CEL-E-BRA-TION!!) of failure. As NYC Mayor/entrepreneur Mike Bloomberg aptly put it: "In business, you reward people for taking risks. When it doesn't work out you promote them—because they were willing to try new things. If people ... tell me they skied all day and never fell down, I tell them to try a different mountain."

Ask.
Listen.
Fail.

And: Succeed.

Point #5/Life Success.

Dave Liniger founded the real estate colossus RE/MAX. He says that putting the customer (home purchaser) first is not the way he looks at things. To have sustaining success with customers his field team must be learning, growing—succeeding. Making that field team a passel of superstars on the march is the principal point of the exercise. Hence he delightfully states of RE/MAX:

"We are a life success company."

Remember my initial challenge to make the organization: ... an emotional, vital, innovative, joyful, creative, entrepreneurial endeavor that elicits maximum concerted human potential in the wholehearted service of others—e.g., Employees, Customers, Suppliers, Communities, Owners, Temporary partners.

That comes, in the end, from a team hellbent for vigor-enthusiasm-growth-learning-service-life success. I'll go further and insist that over the long haul, Service Excellence (and every organization exists only to serve!) cannot be sustained unless those who are called upon to provide it day in and day out are fully engaged in a Quest for Excellence—my words for "life success." (I think, from my contact with him, that Dave L. would gladly sign off on that.)

I'll end this section by repeating an earlier message: Creating "life successes," like listening and asking, goes way beyond our borders. Our goal is an encompassing team striving for collective Excellence—staff, customers, vendors, etc. A great company aims not just to "satisfy" its customers—but to contribute to their individual and collective growth and success—to help its customers achieve Excellence. A great company aims to stretch its vendors in their quest for growth-success-Excellence. Creating "life success" sagas, then, is an inclusive adventure.

Point #6/Excellence.

Anonymous, from tompeters.com:

"Excellence can be obtained if you:

... care more than others think is wise;
... risk more than others think is safe;
... dream more than others think is practical;
... expect more than others think is possible."

Excellence.
Always.
If Not Excellence, What?
If Not Excellence Now, When?

So there you have it, or, rather, there they (my Chinese colleagues) had it/have it. Tom's "Six-step Program, Circa 2009."