How To Compare Apples & Oranges

Use this simple comparison tool to, uhh, compare stuff.

Here’s what I woke up thinking about at 4AM this morning:

When faced with the choice between an apple and an orange—or any number of somewhat dissimilar options—what simple algorithm might be used to facilitate a rational decision?

(Weird, right? It’s just the way my brain works. Be glad you’re you.)

As an example, say you’re on a road trip. You’re the driver and it’s time for a snack. Here are your options:

Apple, orange, grapes, carrot, cookies

Assuming you only get to pick one snack, how might you consider which is best? Well, I’m happy to say, I’ve figured it out!*

Step One – Establish Criteria

We must first decide what attributes are important. In this context (driving a car) I’ve come up with the following criteria:

  • Tasty – I definitely want to eat something I like.
  • Lack of Preparation – Because I need hands on the wheel; eyes on the road.
  • Easy to Eat – Same as above. Plus, I don’t want to get yucky.
  • Tidiness – I don’t want crumbs all over or food spilling between the seat and the console.
  • Healthy – There’s no sense gaining a few more pounds before I get to my destination!

Step Two – Assign Weights

In any decision, some criteria are more important than others, so let’s rank them. To keep things simple, we’ll use a three-point scale and the following rule:

Total the number of your criteria, then distribute that number as “preference points”—zero, one or two—to each of the criteria, where

  • “2” means it’s very important
  • “1” means it’s somewhat important
  • “0” means it’s of little importance.

(You must use all the points.)

With a total of five Snack criteria, here’s how I rated mine:

  • Tasty = 2 (This is the most important attribute!)
  • Lacks Prep = 1
  • Easy to Eat = 1
  • Tidiness = 0 (This is least important; I can tidy up the car when I get there.)
  • Healthy = 1

Step Three – Score Each Option

Our goal is to assess each option’s rating across our criteria—both positively and negatively—and pick the one that rates highest overall. To do that we’ll begin with a neutral baseline of “average” and determine whether each option exceeds or falls short for the various criteria. Here’s how.

For each option:

  1. Draw a horizontal line and write your weighted criteria above it.
  2. Rate each criterion by placing an “x” above, on or below the line, where:
    • Above = Positive – The option rates above average for this criteria.
    • On = Neutral – The option rates about average.
    • Below = Negative – The option rates below average.
  3. Eliminate any “deal breakers”—options that fall “below the line” for criteria with a weight of 2. (There’s no point in considering options that fail to meet your most desired criteria.)
  4. Multiply by each criterion’s weight to score each rating:
    • If the “x” is above the line, multiply the criterion’s weight by +1.
    • If it’s on the line, multiply the criterion’s weight by 0.
    • If it’s below the line, multiply the criterion’s weight by -1.
  5. Lastly, sum the scores for the option’s Total Score.

Here’s how my snack comparison added up, starting with the apple:

Apple - Weighted Score

  • I love apples, so Tasty scores 2 points.
    (Tasty weight of 2 multiplied by positive rating of 1)
  • They need no Preparation, so 1 point here.
    (Prep weight of 1 multiplied by positive rating of 1)
  • Apples are Easy to eat, but they can get a little sticky down at the core, so I gave it a neutral rating for this criterion; 0 points.
    (Easy weight of 1 multiplied by neutral rating of 0)
  • As for Tidiness, I can throw the core out the window (into the tall grass, where bugs will eat it) and avoid messing up my car, but this criterion had a weight of 0, so no points here.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away. One more point for Healthy.

As you can see, the apple gets a Total Score of 4. Now how about the rest?

Orange - Weighted Score

Grapes - Weighted Score

Carrot - Weighted Score

Cookies - Weighted Score

Step Four – Highest Score Wins!

You can now compare the totals and determine which choice is the best match for the criteria you care about most. In the example above, Grapes win with a perfect score!
Grapes win!

In The Event Of A Tie

Use the following hierarchy if the score is tied:
  1. Whichever option presented the most “2s”
  2. Whichever option had the fewest “-1s”
  3. If you have more than one criterion with a “2” weight, determine a “super criterion” and select the option that exceeds therein.
  4. Still can’t decide? Just flip a coin; statistically speaking, it might be your best solution.

Now You Know

So, the next time somebody scoffs at the ability to compare apples and oranges, you can say with confidence: “I know how to do that!”

* Disclaimer: I’m not totally sure this is my invention (after all, algorithms have been around since1600 BC), but it’s a lot more productive than counting sheep.
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The Agenda Test

Put an end to time-wasting meetings with one, simple exercise: the Agenda Test.

People often complain about time-wasting, soul-sucking meetings (50% of meetings, according to some stats). Here’s a quick way to fix that.

Before your next meeting, imagine (or create) a Venn diagram of the following:

  • Company Agenda – the organization’s goals and objectives, clearly stated by senior management
  • Meeting Agenda – what we hope this meeting will achieve (you do have a meeting agenda, yes?)
  • Team Agenda – the group’s predispositions and the individual agendas of the attendees

Now ask yourself: How closely do the circles converge?

If they’re pretty tight, the stage is set for success (though not guaranteed); everyone is in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, in alignment with the organization’s purpose.

Company, meeting and team agendas in alignment

If they’re not tightly bound, or you can’t figure it out (because you don’t actually know), then you’re likely headed for rabbit holes, roadblocks and lost productivity.

Company, meeting and team agendas NOT in alignment

When the Agenda Test fails, when company, meeting and team agendas aren’t in alignment, you’re about to have the wrong meeting!

So don’t!

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But how many times have you suffered through the wrong meeting because nobody took the time to figure out what the right meeting should be.

The right meeting (or meetings) will address the questions raised outside the intersections in your Venn diagram.

The right meeting(s) will answer those questions—and plenty more that pop up along the way.

The right meeting(s) will point everyone in the same direction and move the company forward toward common goals.

So have that meeting instead.

Give the Agenda Test a try.

It’s simple. It’s quick. And it may save everybody some valuable time.

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Santa vs Rudy – YOU decide!

Santa vs Rudy

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Why Your Work-Life Balance is Whacked

And (potentially) what to do about it

Many people see the world this way:

Work-Life Balance

Others see things this way:


A different point of view

I invite you to consider this instead:

Life as a system

From this perspective, it’s easy to dispel the bifurcated notion of work-life balance.

It’s all life, isn’t it?

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Seven Reasons NOT to Overlook the Obvious

Obviously, I need to rethink this relationship.

How to Problem-solve Like a Kid

In the Freakonomics podcast, “Think Like a Child,” Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt extol the virtues of “doing things differently and simply and with a kind of joy and triviality that leads you to a really special place that, as an adult, you don’t get to go to very often.”

Sometimes those “really special places” are right in front of our noses. The assumptions. The obvious stuff. The facts.

Dubner appreciates that kids are really great at stating the facts, at “…describing something that’s pretty obvious.” It’s the kind of thing they do all the time, but adults miss. Adults “…tend to think it indicates that we are not thinking hard” — even though the obvious can often lead to absolute breakthroughs.

“It’s the thing that once you step back and look at it through lens of, in this case, a childlike ignorance, it opens you up to seeing what the truth is.”

In my work as a facilitator, getting to the truth is critical, so I often begin by asking clients to explain the facts to me as they know them, as they would to a child.

Here are seven reasons to start with the obvious:

  1. It may be obvious to you, but not to everyone else.
  2. It may seem obvious to you, but you may not fully understand it.
  3. You may fully understand it, but it doesn’t mean everyone else does.
  4. Everyone may understand it, but not in the same way.
  5. It may have been obvious in the past, but circumstances change.
  6. It may have appeared obvious in the past, but never really was.
  7. It may be so, totally, obviously obvious, that everyone assumes somebody else has already done it, is doing it or will do it.

In short, exploring what you think you know often shows you don’t know as much as you thought you did.

So take a cue from the kids. It’s obviously a great approach to better thinking.

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Shut Up And Listen!

In an interview with Krista Tippett, neuroscientist Adele Diamond discusses the “talking stick,” a traditional Native American tool that helps manage group dialogue.

If you’ve never heard of it, the talking stick is a device—a stick, staff, statue, stuffed animal, whatever—to keep interruptions at bay and conversation flowing. Whoever has the stick may speak. Everyone else must be silent. When the speaker is done, he/she passes the stick to another person.

Simple, right?

But just because people aren’t interrupting doesn’t mean they’re actually listening. In my experience, it’s likely they’re just mulling over what to say when it’s their turn.

So, how do we foster listening—really hearing what someone else has to say?

Dr. Diamond cites a method used in early education:

“They have all of the four-year-olds and five-year-olds in the class, everybody get into pairs, and each gets a picture book. And they’re to tell the story that goes with the pictures in their book to the other child, like “The Ugly Duckling” or something. And they’re all excited. They want to tell their stories. Nobody wants to listen … And if you ask a four-year-old or a five-year-old to wait, it’s pretty worthless. So they give one child a picture of a mouth, and they give the other child a picture of an ear. And they explain that ears don’t talk; ears listen. And with that concrete reminder the child actually listens.”

Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

So, in the spirit of “we may be adults but we often act like children,” I made something (sixteen somethings, actually)—a new addition to the Dangerous Kitchen toolset:

Listen Up! Cards

Listen Up! Cards by Dangerous KitchenListen Up! Cards by Dangerous KitchenListen Up! Cards by Dangerous KitchenListen Up! Cards by Dangerous KitchenListen Up! Cards by Dangerous KitchenListen Up! Cards by Dangerous Kitchen

Visual aids for civil conversation. A vehicle for open dialogue, so that everyone can have their say—and everyone can be heard. Here’s how they work:

  • Shuffle the cards and deal them out.
  • Whoever has the “TALKING” card gets to speak.
  • Those with “LISTENING” cards are reminded to listen.
  • When the current speaker’s done, pass the cards around to give others a turn.

Easy, yes?

If you want a pack, let me know; I’ll be doing a full print run soon.

For now, you can download a free, print-it-yourself version. Just grab some card stock and get out your scissors.

And get ready for some polite, respectful, purposeful conversation.

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Culture vs. Strategy

The biggest part of an organization lies below the waterline

An organization’s culture can drive success—or sink it.

Inspired by the article How to Effectively Merge Company Cultures by David Maxfield of VitalSmarts

David Maxfield’s recent blog post on merging cultures has a few lessons for every company, not just those dealing with M&A.

Because all organizations seek growth. And growth most often means change. And change isn’t easy.

Here’s the gist:

“Most leaders focus too exclusively on above-the-waterline strategies for change. Yet, the most typical dangers—the obstacles that sink change efforts—lie below the waterline.”

That’s certainly been my experience.

When I work with teams, it’s rarely the mechanics of strategic planning that hang anyone up. Yes, that work is hard, but with enough due diligence, good data and smart thinking, it’s relatively smooth sailing toward successful outcomes.

Exploring, identifying and accounting for the hidden, unseen drivers that make people—and the organization—tick, on the other hand … now that’s real work. Time-consuming, soul-searching, sometimes volatile work.

From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty difficult to get to the former without attending to the latter.

Question: Are you paying at least as much attention to below-the-line efforts as the above-the-line ones?

It’s worth considering. As Peter Drucker is credited with saying (and David quotes in his article):

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

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Man Plans. God Laughs.

The Big Fish Eat The Little Fish

Ten Benefits of Strategic Planning

Spoiler Alert: The plan itself may not be one of them.

It’s getting to be that time again, time to assess the past year’s agenda, identify new goals and plan how you’ll reach them. Whether or not 2014 was wildly successful (hopefully, yes), I’m betting your goal for 2015 is to make things even better!

So, how’s your plan coming? Have you started? Are you deep in the muck? Are you stuck? Or maybe you’re ready to roll out The Mother of All Strategic Plans?

Regardless how far along you are, I’d like to remind you that, statistically speaking, your plan is likely to go astray. But that’s OK, because all that hard work—and most of the benefit—is not really about the plan.

Now don’t get me wrong, a plan is a good thing!

Not having a plan is like trying to hit a target in the woods, in the dark, with a slingshot, with your eyes closed.

It’s just that the plan is not nearly as essential as the planning. Getting your top talent together. Working out the details of your current state and where you want to be. The act of planning is simply one of the healthiest exercises you can undertake, one that will prep your organization for success regardless (or maybe in spite) of the inevitable changes in The Plan.

Here’s what planning gets you:

  1. Open lines of communication
  2. Clarity on the issues
  3. Bridges between organizational silos
  4. A better sense of your market
  5. Consensus on direction
  6. Accountability
  7. A sense of ownership
  8. A base of goals and metrics
  9. Decisions
  10. A sense of accomplishment

Any team that owns these bullets almost doesn’t need a plan.

Almost. There’s still the part about coordinated effort, SMART goals, assessing effectiveness, you know… The Plan.

As you craft your plan, bear in mind: the diligence it takes to create it will also help ensure its execution.

So keep working on it. Finish it. And stick with it — as long as results meet expectations.

If you’ve planned well, you’ll be prepared to ditch it and succeed anyway.

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The Power of Margin: The Space Between Your Load and Your Limits

Margin And Its Effect On The Human Condition
Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Clock

Show of hands: Who feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day?

The two of you who didn’t raise your hands, feel free to skip this post. For the rest of us, I’ll cut to the chase…

The solution is margin — the space between your load and your limits.

We used to have more of it. These days? Maybe none.

In his excellent book “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives,” Dr. Richard A. Swenson claims society’s lack of margin has reached epidemic proportions: We have reached capacity of time, energy, health, finances, focus and just about everything else that used to be accessible to mortal beings.

At least, I think it’s an excellent book. The reviews are good. The synopsis seemed solid. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to read it.

I came upon the title today while researching the topic for this post, which I’m woefully behind my self-imposed schedule in publishing.

I’m interested in margin because it keeps bubbling up in my client work. And I agree with Dr. Swenson that its absence feels endemic to the modern world:

  • Mistakes are made.
  • One small crisis leads to another.
  • There’s little time to innovate.
  • We don’t get enough rest.
  • People are grumpier.
  • It’s harder to breath.
  • Our backs are at the wall.

But with just a little more margin…

  • Crisis would be the exception, not the rule.
  • We’d have time to plan.
  • We’d get more things done.
  • We’d think before we act.
  • New ideas would have more space to breath and grow.
  • We could all be in a happier place.

Dr. Swenson feels a primary cause of our current situation is that we used to live in a linear world, but society has morphed into an overly-complex system that we’re not physically, mentally or emotionally designed for.

In other words, with every technological evolution we get more societal convolution because the human species can’t physiologically keep up; we haven’t evolved a whole lot since we invented the wheel.

The remedy, according to Dr. Swenson, is simple (and you already know the answer):

Seek balance.

Seek balance in all things. Build it into your day. Put “balance” on your task list. Pick a few areas of heightened focus, do “good enough” with the rest and leave some margin for … whatever. You can’t do—or be—it all, so don’t aim for 110% (there’s no such thing anyway) — aim for 90% and know that the other 10% will fill up on its own.

Of course, in over 200 pages I’m sure Dr. Swenson’s prescription goes much deeper than that … I’ll fill you in on the details once I’ve read the book.

In the meantime…

Here’s my secret for adding margin back into your life:

Block out a repeating event on your calendar for “nothing” — a pre-planned injection of margin into your day. Sure, it’s bound to fill up with some pressing issue or miniature crisis, but that’s what margin is for — instead of hitting overload you’ll just hit your limit. Simple as that.

And if you find yourself with some time to spare, maybe you can read Dr. Swenson’s book. Let me know how you like it. By then I might have finished it too.

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Vienna Sausages, a Guy Named Irving and the Secret to Success

Lessons learned from Vienna Hotdogs

A  business lesson from a Chicago hot dog factory

Inspired by a short clip on This American Life

Chicago’s famous Vienna Sausage Company, like many great American companies, started out small, peddling a simple product that people loved. Sales grew, along with the factory footprint, which was added to year by year, building by building, until they invested in a new, stainless steel, state-of-the-art facility.

Then they ran into a big problem: the tasty hickory-smoked sausages that made the company so famous stopped tasting so tasty. What’s worse, they were pink!

According to company chairman, Jim Bodman, the company spent a year and a half trying to figure it out, to no avail.

It wasn’t until a bunch of the guys went out for drinks and started reminiscing about the old days — in particular, about a guy named Irving — that they pieced the puzzle together.

You see, Irving (who retired when they moved to the new facility) used to wheel the uncooked sausages through the factory on his way to the smoke house — a twisting, 30-minute ride through a maze of passageways and warm rooms where other products hung drying, aging and releasing their pungent odors … to be absorbed by Irving’s sausages.

Irving, it seems, was the lynchpin (well, his journey, anyway). So they added a special room onto the new factory to simulate his meanderings and, voila! The tasty red sausages were back!

Which begs the question: Is there an “Irving” at your company, holding the hidden keys to your success?

Here’s a way to find out:

Create narratives about your business.

I’m not talking about your corporate narrative (though that’s useful too), I’m referring to stories about what’s really going on with your business.

And not your typical “voice of the customer” stuff either (AKA: surveys) — stories. Hanging out and chewing the fat. Real people talking about real things. Narratives about the unexpected twists and turns of your company.

Ask your customers to tell you the story of doing business with you. Have your employees tell you their “day in the life of” stories. Sit your customers and employees down to tell their stories together (a few beers might help).

The result will be an epic tale, filled with many truths: the true value of your products; your true relationship to the market; the truth about your operations; the ups and downs of your service model.

Last but not least, you may learn about an “Irving,” or a “Marcia,” or some other hidden gem you’d rather know about sooner (like now) than later, so you can continue to crank out your brand of tasty sausages, no matter how big your factory gets.

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