Ideas on People and Performance, Team Building, Motivation and Innovation

Month: January 2012

Progress is not all about Training. Motivation and Processes.

For a long time, I have played with a couple of cartoons that reflect my thinking about training and improvement. And I also believe that most people know the answers to most questions if we can ask the right question at the right time. The Round Wheels are already in the wagon, in my thinking.

A zillion years ago, the performance improvement consultants I worked with used to use the old Bob Mager (I believe) determiner:

•  “If you put a gun to their head, could they do it?”
(This was also known for the non-coercive types as,
       “If you gave them a million dollars, could they do it?”) 

That gave rise to an illustration I often used about Motivation and People and tended to reflect the either-or views of people and performance that are common with most managers in most organizations:

Beliefs about how one motivates people in the workplace

Many people believe that there were two choices – Rewards or “Aversive Control.” But the former generates a need to repeat / increase to get people re-motivated (and has all kinds of other negative side effects (see the work of Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink) while the latter has all kinds of other negative side effects (look at all the examples of it in relation to population control and policing). Aversive control generates compliance, when the people feel that they are being under that direct influence; remove the perception of control and behavior shifts quickly… There is a ton of research on compliance and punishment and conditioned helplessness that supports the fact that punishing kinds of things depress performance and motivation in all kinds of negative ways.

So, we come back to the issue of performance: Can the person DO the job or NOT? The “gun” test is merely a mental exercise: Does the person have the knowledge and capability to do the job right now? CAN they do it? 

If not, then is TRAINING one of the solutions?

(If there is a capability issue, that the person will be unable to do the job, then the alternatives are different and might include role changes or job aids. I will never be able to dunk a basketball and I have tried and tried. But provide me with a mini-trampoline and the situation would change! For a while, there was a professional roller-blade basketball league — can you imagine dunking on roller blades? There was also that trampoline-based basketball league. Yeah, baby!)

So, TRAIN THEM if they can do the job post-training. Training builds up personal strengths and capabilities, as shown below:

Training builds personal strengths and capabilities

But training itself is NOT the solution to most organizational problems. Training might help make incremental improvements as shown below:

Having more personal strength will improve performance, somewhat

But it will also NOT solve workplace issues and opportunities. In fact, management sometimes takes this opportunity to make other workplace improvements to generate more results:

Well, it IS an idea. But will it actually work?

Well, it IS an idea. But will it actually work? (Note: The wheels will not turn far before they hit the other wheels. But it looked good on paper!

The key to a lot of workplace improvement is engagement, involvement, process improvement, feedback about performance results and the sense of pride and teamwork that comes from celebrating successes.

We need to take time to step back from the wagon and to also celebrate our successes as a team. Peer support and positive feedback are key factors in motivating people.

I don’t know the solutions to most workplace problems.

But I do know that most people in most organizations know most of the things that need to be done differently to make significant improvements in performance while driving motivation at the same time. Involve and Engage. 

Funny Thoughts and Ideas on “Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly”

Some thoughts of mine on how I work around some of the issues of managing and leading change.

One of my approaches is where I show a cartoon with two caterpillars sitting on the Square Wheels wagon and talking about a beautiful butterfly floating by…

The one caterpillar says to the other caterpillar:
     “You’ll never get me up in one of those things…”

Over the years, I have been playing with this theme and using the joke to set up a discussion about how to deal with resistance to change and how to involve and engage “the caterpillars” in a discussion of possibilities for improvement. But I also learned a valuable lesson when presenting one day many years ago in a workshop in Hong Kong.

People did not laugh at the joke, which proved to be a great learning lesson for me when I finally realized what had happened and what was happening. Now, I set the story up with the following slide, which I use to communicate that the participants are now about to receive a learning lesson:

I set all this up with a simple slide from one of my favorite athletes, who was quoted in Sports Illustrated in 1990. On losing to Tim Mayotte, he said:

When I told the joke, people did not laugh and I thought it might be a cultural issue (their English was excellent but they were primarily Chinese) so I asked them to talk about it at their tables for two minutes, which they did with an increasing amount of animation and laughter. Only when I asked them for the answer did I learn something VERY important:

What happened to me happens to everyone. I read the joke one day in a Reader’s Digest magazine and linked it into my presentation. The punchline to the joke HAD to be: “The caterpillars are resisting change that is inevitable.”

What I found out in Hong Kong is that my assumption was most assuredly NOT correct and that there are a wide variety of creative and innovative thoughts on pretty much any situation. People do NOT view things similarly. And that diversity of opinion generates a great deal of possibilities.

The correct answer to most performance improvement situations is to say, NO when someone asks you if you know something. That way you generate a possibility for a new idea that you had not considered.

Dr. Ted Forbes was at Darden School of Business in the 90s and he and I were chatting on the phone. He asked me if I knew about caterpillars and butterflies and I said, “NO” even though I knew a great deal about lepidoptera (moths and butterflies, the scientific name):

Ted said,

Thus, by listening to his thoughts, I got a new one liner, one that links up wonderfully to my metaphors around the Square Wheels Wagon being up to its axles in mud. Mud is that mess we all get in with the bureaucracy and overall “gooeyness” of how most organizations really operate.

Similarly in a conversation with Diane Mashia, then with PayChex:

The possibilities for improvement are limitless, but generally limited by our thinking about how things are, not about how they could be if we made different choices and had different alternatives.

In another post, I will ask for some reactions to some of the different punch lines from, “You’ll never get me up in one of those things!”

Hope you like the concept. You can read more about the whole concept in the article, “Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly.” (Click here to download)

Have FUN out there!

Some Punchlines on “Teaching The Caterpillar to Fly!”

For nearly 20 years, I have been playing with this theme of caterpillars, butterflies and change along with using a joke to set up a discussion about perceptions and thinking and limits to improvement. One of the realities is:

(That is “The” as pronounced “Duh.”)

Many managers appear to be resistant to new ideas for workplace improvement based on employee perceptions and surveys done since I was a boy. It may be that they KNOW the answer (or are expected to know the answer since that is their perception of their job and the implementation of their ego) and they thus functionally limit themselves to new information as well as limit motivation and ownership.

Let me tell you what happened to me and ask you to rate some of the comments people made. In a workshop in Hong Kong, I said:

There are two caterpillars sitting on the wagon and a beautiful butterfly floats by. The one caterpillar says to the other:

“You’ll never get ME up in one of those butterfly things.”

People did not laugh at the joke so I asked them to talk about it for two minutes and give me their reactions and thoughts. They were English-speaking Chinese and I was not sure that they understood the joke, so I simply asked them to discuss it. For two years, I had always thought my joke was about active refusal / resistance to change.

Surprisingly, they generated a lot of ideas. Which do you think was their best punch line to the story?

You may vote more than one time, if you like.

And I know the one that generally gets the most laughs as well as generates the most thinking about how things really work.

Hope you like this. And I will appreciate seeing your responses.

A Comparison Chart of PMC’s Team Building Activities

We’re supporting an ever increasing variety of impactful team building games these days and I am working on a few more to add to the mix. And it is getting complicated…

The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine uses 20 “Days” for play and Seven Seas Quest uses “Months” and the Innovate & Implement exercise uses “Minutes” and the Military Might program uses “hours,” so just getting the right word for the timing is a challenge! Play of the games, though, is pretty straightforward and the designs solid, based on a lot of feedback.

To help explain the different products, our website has a  “Team Building Games Comparison Chart” that tries to outline the basic keys such as number of players, desired outcomes and applications, benefits and similar. We have games that work for 4 people and most games can scale up for hundreds.

And we even show the actual price (it’s interesting that so few of our competitors will actually post the prices of their games; they seem to be almost embarrassed by the costs) as we feel we have the best cost to benefit ratio in the world for the kinds of products we design, sell and support. Plus, we sell “unemcumbered,” without the per-participant or annual licensing fees so common in the industry for full-blown simulations.

AND, we’ll often customize for free if we think that work will result in a better team building product that we can distribute…

You can see the full Comparison Chart on the PMC website by clicking here – a version is added below but I am guessing that it will not be readable because of its size.

Matrix of our team building and leadership development exercises

We think the current products carry forward into a lot of different kinds of organizational development initiatives and also have some new things in development.

For executive development and strategy implementation, we are rebuilding and reframing a game built around planning and executing a climb of Everest. The challenge is to carefully plan an expedition that will take at least some of the players to the top; there is also the reality that some players can simply support the others to generate a success and that not everyone can always summit. Collaboration and planning is the main focus. We will link Everest to our strategy communications and implementation materials with Square Wheels.

For a great followup to Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, we will be rebuilding our Seven Seas Quest game into different bundles and a full-day integrated program on teamwork and communications.

I am reframing the Military Might! strategy and tactics exercise into an oil exploration game, one that will involve a great deal of upfront analysis of the situation and opportunities and will have serious risk / reward consequences to impact decision-making.

The Temple Game is built around a storied search for treasures in Asia to construct a Temple. Ships will sail to different ports to acquire the treasures of those countries in order to raise funds for the Shogun to construct an elegant temple near Kyoto. It is a great story line and will result in an exercise that blends planning and adventure with coordination and collaboration among the ships and the leaders.

More fun is in store for all and I love it that we can design and offer these games that link so well to workplace issues at a low cost and as a great value.  If you have any issues that you might like to see addressed with an interactive and engaging exercise, please drop me a note. My friend Brad wants to build a game on corporate sustainability for an executive development program he conducts at Furman University. And we have also played with the design of an emergency preparedness exercise.

Comments and suggestions are always appreciated!

For the FUN of It!

Marketing, Customer Service and People

One of my friends in India emailed me this morning, asking me for my thoughts about why companies seem to spend all sorts of  money on things like sales and marketing initiatives and then not so much on anything that relates to training for the people who actually service those customers.

Yes, it is an interesting paradox: LOTS of corporate expenditures are on advertising and sales training and marketing personnel while expenditures relating to customer service and people aren’t so apparent.

My reactions are complex but straightforward. One real issue is that “investments in people” have no visible impact on anything measurable on the asset side of the financial accounting processes. People and investments in training are simply viewed as a COST of doing business! They are not seen as a benefit.

GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) are the definitive source of accounting guidelines that companies rely on when preparing financial statements, presenting the details of a company’s financial operations. The impacts can be found in such places as quarterly balance sheets and income statements, 10-Q filings, annual reports and other online investment information. People are NOT valued in these things (although many will contain the pictures of the most senior management and some mention that, “people are our most important asset.”

Since management, analysts and investors routinely use these standardized GAAP metrics to gauge a firm’s financial health, those drive executive behavior. So, if people investments are not rewarded in how the investment community views a company’s prospects, senior managers are always under pressure to improve “results” by cutting expenditures on training and staffing.

And the paradox is that the impacts of cuts will NOT impact short-term reporting results. It takes a while for the impacts of not investing in people to be felt in the financials… Those of us old enough to remember “re-engineering” will remember the huge cuts made to people that resulted in all sorts of long-term problems for corporate results. Those data were convincing — downsizing was NOT a good idea when it came to long-term company growth.

On the other hand, spending Really Big Bucks on some fancy marketing scheme can have an immediate impact on sales as well as an immediate impact on the investor and customer perceptions of that same company. After all, having a Super Bowl advertisement means that the company must be successful and growing, right?

Here is another aspect of this same situation to give one pause:  Investments in customer attraction versus investments in customer retention!

Take the total amount of expenditures for the acquisition of NEW customers. This should include all the marketing and advertising expenses, the amount spent on sales training and salaries of the staff and the allocated expenses of senior management that spend time focused on sales and marketing. Plus office space, retirement costs (yeah, right!) and similar.

Now, with that number, discover the total number of new customers actually added and divide to get The Average Cost of Acquiring ONE New Customer. (On occasion, you will find this number incomprehensible, like the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy or similar…)

And, now for an even more interesting adventure, try to find the expenditures that are made on behalf of retaining those customers you have acquired at such great costs. See if you can find an expenditure for “customer service training” or for some budget to spend to resolve customer complaints.

My point is simple: companies spend lots and lots of money (and they always have) on the acquisition of new customers. Often, they have to take them away from another company — and if the customers are dissatisfied, that is less difficult. But they spend little on retaining them with good service quality practices, investments in people and training and skills, etc.

With mediocre experiences, customers really do not have too many reactions. Meeting expectations does not generate much of a reaction. You will not get referrals, but most customers will also not complain.

For many, reactions look like this:

With mediocre experiences, people have bland reactions to service issues

On the other hand, poor customer service — even to loyal customers – will generate reactions, and often public ones.

To illustrate, read this very negative Forbes Magazine article on Best Buy and how they are being viewed (quite negatively, BTW, including my own negative personal experience years ago and my commitment to Never Again set foot in one of their stores, no matter what.):

Because of HOW they “handled” thousands of transactions and how their people were handcuffed to the back of the wagon and, thus, were completely non-responsive, they got a LOT of reactions. And it was not just me. The article has received over 2.5 million page views since it was posted and triggered over 1100 page comments (including mine), and has been tweeted more than 16,000 times. In short, this negative article hit a nerve and lots of people had complaints.

Eventually, the pin will hit the balloon and generate a strong negative reaction

My guess is that companies need to start (or restart) their focus on the development of their people and their skills. They need to involve and engage all the customer contact people (and their managers) to focus more on customer retention and employee retention. After all, an experienced customer service rep is just that: experienced.

Experienced employees have had some practice (and often some actual training) in how to deal with customers effectively and how to retain them over the long haul.  This prevents them from becoming a customer of your competitors in addition to giving your company their business.

Take a look at YOUR relative expenses on marketing and on retention and see if they are in balance.

Best Square Wheels Answers

Joan had asked me to do some writing around using Square Wheels® for some marketing videos, wanting me to show the list of 300+ different responses that I had put into a document while collecting comments over the period of a few months.

That is 300 different ideas generated from workshop participants looking at Square Wheels One and generating responses that they shared from their tabletops. I actually gave up collecting once it became so hard to see if a great comment in a session was something that I already had or not – the list became too long. (AND, I know that I still get a couple every once in a while that I know are not on that list, but I am simply too lazy to try to keep updating!)

It seems more than mind-boggling that a simple cartoon like this:

Square Wheels One – our main illustration

would be able to generate that much creativity and engagement. You have to try it to actually see it.

But this activity and the generative responses  shows the power of group processing and creative thinking. It is still amazing to me and a real reason why I love using these tools in training sessions.

Individually, the most creative people tend to come up with 5 to 10 ideas and then  stop, thinking that, “What more could there be?.” Putting together a few people at a tabletop and allowing them to think individually and then collectively might generate 20 or so responses. something that we often collect when I have them write / mindmap their ideas onto a sheet of easel pad paper.

The fact that we can collect so many ideas over time is truly mind boggling…

I thought to try to do a short poll and see what some of our readers think along these same lines. We got a few responses but I think we might do this again in the future.

I’d love to know what ones you think are the best or even get NEW ideas from you on this. Make some comments if you have one you think better! After all, the Round Wheels really ARE already in the wagon!

Square Wheels has been incredibly more impacting than I had ever envisioned when I started playing with this back in 1993. I hear people tell me all the time that they have seen the illustration in a training program or a college class or in a textbook or that they have attended a session that I have done.

My goal is to use this and our other simple tools to make a real difference in the workplace, making managers more able to involve and engage people in workplace improvements and to generate different ideas for how to get more things done better.

Have FUN out There!  And support your people in generating new ideas for getting more better faster.

Brainstorming easel pad green


Visit our website for inexpensive, easy-to-use and bombproof tools.


Muscles slide in background

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
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On Dissociation and Innovative Thinking – Stepping Back from The Wagon

On a LinkedIn group discussion on innovation and “Thinking out of the box,” I posted up some of my thoughts about the metaphor. Basically, I have never quite liked that old “Box” anchor point, and I remember the old “Joshua in the Box” McGraw Hill training video from back in the 70s —

Working with groups around organizational improvement and creativity, I prefer using the Square Wheels cartoons and related metaphors for these workshops.

Readers of my blog and visitors to my site will understand that the Square Wheels One illustration is used for a lot of things:

How things really work in most organizations - they roll on Square Wheels

The basic metaphor is a wooden wagon rolling on Square Wheels with a cargo of round ones. It is a truly effective projective inkblot-like tool to get people thinking and discussing issues and opportunities.

If I am doing some more senior manager intellectual kinds of work, it can  sometimes be beneficial to get into the “psychology” of how this works:

  • Associated Position: Most of us go through life “associated” in that we see things through our own eyes; after all, that IS how we view the world.
  • Dissociated Position: Counseling psych will tell us that it is VERY useful to view things from a dissociated position — like we are watching TV, since that is a less emotional way of looking at things.

So, I’ll talk about “Stepping back from the wagon,” and NOT seeing things from the view of the wagon puller (lovely vision of the future) or the wagon pusher (boards and hands), but from the viewpoint of the VIEWER of this situation (the participant’s view of what is happening).

The View at the Front and the related View at the Back.

That dissociated viewpoint is what allows one to see different issues and opportunities. Stepping back from the wagon allows us to see things much differently than if we are looking at “the job at hand” in most situations.

And almost always, the Round Wheels are already IN the wagon. But if we keep pulling and pushing like we always have, we will not ever see them!!

Have fun out there!


Innovation – Myths versus Continuous Continuous Improvement

James Gardner, in his book, “Sidestep and Twist,” talks about innovation and spending and the fact that over the past 10+ years, Microsoft has spent between four to five times as much on research and development as Apple.

If the conventional wisdom about innovation and R&D was correct, then surely the opposite should have been true. The myth is this: if you invest to create something genuinely new, something that’s a breakthrough, you have a better than average chance of windfall returns.

Gardner details that the reality is that there has not really been a genuine breakthrough innovation that led to big profits in the last couple of decades — that few of these ideas are profitable at all. All the “hit” products are simply incremental improvements on something else.  Competitive advantage is now less about features and more about building products that get better the more they are used over time.

Users see things that inventors often don’t, and thus they can make suggestions that others really can’t.

Sometimes, you just have to put a team together and take things apart and look at them to see new possibilities

Most organizations focus on Big New Ideas and put a lot of spending focus on those things. The reality is that a LOT more can be gained through simple continuous continuous improvement of functionality and effectiveness.

People that are closest to the product (or service) can often give you a LOT of ideas about what improvements can be made. Only very occasionally are those ideas from a single individual, however. Many more ideas can come from “The Collective,” the overall intelligence and intelligent conversations of people about the current state of how things work and the possibilities that exist for innovation and improvement.

And giving them time to consider and talk is both profitable as well as motivating. People generally respond very well to the challenge of, “Can we make this better?”

And the more we think about things, the better we actually THINK about things. The creative innovative process is a people thing.

The Paradox of Resistance to Innovation – Risk and Choice

The global recession pushes more leaders and managers to think about failure and its prevention in many organizations, and not about new possibilities. And innovation becomes more difficult throughout an organization as risk takes on more politically difficult characteristics.

The 2009 Boston Consulting Group Innovation Report observed a “hardening” of innovation difficulty for the third consecutive year. Companies had an increasingly defensive sense of “hanging on and things will be alright,” which is somewhat alarming when viewed competitively in increasingly global markets.

 “Fear is the Mind Killer.”
(from The Dune Trilogy books of Frank Herbert)

A LOT of people feel that they cannot implement workplace improvement ideas

Present innovation thinking is constrained by old histories of implementation and the successes achieved. Often, this anchor to “the good old days,” makes risk taking and innovation even more difficult. Old models of performance management are not sufficient. Given the lag in implementing new strategies in most organizations, it can be years before changes can be accomplished in many of them, if they occur at all. Research by one of my associates shows that executives feel that 90% of their strategy improvement initiatives fail to be successful.

The Boston Consulting Group Innovation 2009 report showed these results:

  • Although a majority of companies rate innovation as a key strategic priority, 21% of North American companies expect to spend less this year.
  • There is widespread dissatisfaction with the ROI in innovation processes. Only 63% of top level executives and 50% of managers / VPs expressed satisfaction with their innovation results.
  • Senior executives are not consistently providing the support that innovation needs. 79% of CEOs believe they do an excellent or above average job, while only 64% of others agree with them!
  • There is no shortage of good ideas – only 17% cited this as a barrier to innovation.
  • The main barriers to increased spending were a risk-averse culture and concern over long development times.
  • Time to Market was very seldom used as a metric to examine the success of innovation, customer satisfaction and overall revenue growth being dominant measures.

Doing nothing is quite hard to do, because of the stress of knowing that you are not yet finished nor are you making progress. Is not moving forward any easier than doing something badly? Isn’t accomplishment a motivator for continuous improvement?

Improving performance is about making choices and considering alternatives to what is presently occurring.

If not you, who? If not now, when?

Help your people make the improvements they want to make. It’s not that difficult AND it is very motivating for them.

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