by William DiPaolo
When my wife and I were in Alaska last month we jumped in a large canoe with eight others to paddle over to the Mendenhall Glacier. It happened to be a warm and sunny day which actually ended up working against us. On most days cooler temperatures and light rain create a smooth, glassy lake surface which paddlers easily traverse in about 25 minutes. On this day however, the warm air over the lake and the much colder air over the glacier created strong and steady winds. Huge white capped waves continually splashed ice cold water all over my already frozen paddle hand. It took us a full hour and forty minutes to eventually reach the tranquil waters in the glacier’s cove. My shoulder was tired, my hands were numb and I had to laugh thinking I had actually paid for this.
The contrast between the enjoyable journey that could have been, and the one we actually experienced related in many ways to the tribulations small businesses face while moving toward their goals. When employees don’t understand the company’s values and instead perform work in ways they think best, the company creates an environment that generates opposing wind and waves. Effort is diffused, ideas are misaligned and ultimately customers pay the price in poor service.
In our first ever attempt to align everyone at the company – and get us all paddling in synch so to speak, I created a 45 day long blitz designed to teach specific departmental values, while also encouraging individual ideas and contribution. Here’s how it worked.
To keep things simple, I divided the company into three groups – and then assigned a specific value to each group.
Group A: Those that interfaced daily with existing clients
Value: Cultivate loyalty. (Increase our client’s motivation to remain a customer for life.)
Group B: Those involved with marketing and selling to prospective clients
Value: Cultivate desire. (Increase the prospects desire to become a Cogent Road customer)
Group C: Those involved with management, engineering or back office work.
Value: Cultivate innovation. (Increase the ability to create better ways of doing things)
Lastly I assigned one overarching corporate value for all groups.
Value for all employees: Cultivate Excellence. (Increase our ability to become the best).
On Monday morning, June 1st we kicked off the blitz – complete with posters and a blitzed themed office decor. As employees filtered in to the office that morning they were presented with a small, newly sprouted plant in a colorful pot. Each pot was preassigned to an individual employee. On one side of the pot the label read (in the case of a customer service employee, for example) “I am cultivating loyalty”. On the other side the main corporate value, “I am cultivating excellence”. The idea for the blitz was that every employee was to “cultivate” his or her plant – the plant symbolizing their designated values. Each person had free rein to come up with any idea they wished to make the plant grow and no one would tell them what to do. The only rule was that during the week, the plants had to remain in the office. At the end of 45 days whomever had the largest, healthiest plant and also best demonstrated innovative cultivation tactics would win a very nice prize.
During the blitz employees could not avoid reading and re-reading their own departmental value and the overarching corporate value clearly labeled on their plants. As they thought about different ways to “cultivate” their plant, they would also be learning how to think and execute ideas on their own. They exercise encouraged self management because no one was telling them what to do or how to do it. I believed the blitz would strengthen our corporate innovation muscle. To further stimulate thinking and ideation, we offered weekly prizes to individuals that submitted department specific ideas in alignment with their values.
The results were beyond my expectations. New bonds formed as people interacted with others not normally in their sphere. One example was the customer service reps carrying plants into programmer’s offices in hopes of placing them by the window for the day. And we laughed uproariously at some of the wacky ideas people had to cultivate their plants. (FYI, washing a plant’s roots will not help in the least).
In the end, Linh, one of our tax product managers won a 40” flat screen TV with a plant many believed had to be on steroids. Quan (or “Q” as he is known around the office), came in second and won a night on the town for he and his girlfriend.
And Cogent Road won too.