Why Great Organizations Get Stuck

November 19, 2009

Thousands of management teams are in retreats, holed up in hotels with bad carpets trying to imagineer a future that doesn’t have today’s headaches. Yet those headaches hold the key to understanding why organizations aren’t performing. Industrial Psychologist Dr. Tom Tavares’ new book The Mind Field defines three psychological conditions that compromise organizations.

1. Focus. Like a camera we have a lens that can open to hold the richness of what is happening in our organization or contract to the minutiae of our ‘to do’ list. Jobs contract focus because to excel we have to give our  full attention to our work. Tavares argues this diminishes our understanding of the organization, isolates staff and causes communication breakdowns. The CEO can feel like no one gets the mission. VPs can lose touch with how their area affects others and Managers can unwittingly reduce the flow of innovative ideas or genuine market information that comes from the front line. This makes agreeing on what’s actually happening in your organization fraught. Symptoms get mistaken for ‘the problem’ so initiatives often fail, morale gets wobbly and frustration rises. Without a shared understanding of where you are you cannot strategize a workable action plan to get where you want to be.

2. Tavares says the second reason organizations get stuck is intensity. Work demands have exploded due to escalating technological change, google-itis (customers want it now) and knowledge workers who expect a positive effort to reward ratio commonly called happiness. People find themselves running to stand still and frustrated that they can’t a) use their best skills daily, b) are working longer and harder with less reward, c) are annoyed that while an organization says it has an open door policy it’s not open for everyone always and d) the same old same old problems continue.

Your solutions are in your organization. The answer is to have a systematic, disciplined way to gather input but it’s not happening because management is compromised by focus and intensity. This means that people start to inflate their importance or their department’s value to compensate for being unheard and devalued.

3. Skew: Tavares argues that as focus and intensity egg each other on skew arrives to crack things up in one of two ways.  One is to exaggerate the positive and bury issues, think Enron greed and Catholic Church scandals. An organization seeing things sunny side up will minimize risk and set unrealistic goals. They  also skew, or spin, a tale of success that makes employees feel more entitled because things are oh so peachy. When the truth comes up people end up doubly disillusioned and disengaged.

Or maybe things aren’t going well, think manufacturing, traditional media or finance. Senior management goes behind closed doors to manage the crisis. With no good news to share communication plummets and employees feel isolated then betrayed. Scramble in daily problems that never get resolved, an uncertain future and employee engagement and productivity drops faster than Nortel’s share price. Employees quit or worse they quit and stay.

For work to work, Tavares says start by acknowledging the psychological conditions at play in The Mind Field. His invaluable book offers five stages to get unstuck.


People charged with shifting an organization can get blocked because people are invested with having things seen their way. The change champion’s failure will be seen as stemming from some lack in their character not a flaw in the organization’s structure, systems or strategies. It is easier to play the blame game on a person then face the problem. The change agent will feel stuck then crazy. They’ll get fired or quit and wonder what on earth happened. Poor buttercup, it’s not about you. Sometimes, it really is a crazy, busy, nuts world.

Avoid Performance Review Nightmares

November 18, 2009

Old economy performance evaluations focus equally on areas of achievement and areas for improvement. This is daft because every bit of research on employee performance continually reports that up to 50% of staff feel disengaged at work. If we want an economic turn around it begins one manager to one employee at a time.

Gallop researchers and best selling authors Doug Clifton and Tom Raith prove over and over that companies who outperform their competition have staff who answer YES to the question “Do you use your best skills every day?” Let’s be clear, the organization with the best talent does not win. The organization that maximizes and listens to that talent does. ( )

I’m not saying avoid discussing areas of weakness in a performance evaluation, but I am saying to contextualize those weaknesses. If you have a peak performing sales rep that sucks at paperwork you have to ask yourself what matters: sales or administrivia? Hire them an assistant a day a week and streamline the paperwork so they can do more of what they do best. Sales people love to sell, let them.

Most employees feel invisible to management because management is under the crazy illusion that they are the only ones who can solve the problems before them. You hire smart people and then you close the door, work longer hours, isolate yourselves in retreats and try to solve problems without the people closest to the solution. (Industrial Psychologist Tom Taveres, PhD wrote  The Mind Field to stop this craziness.)

A performance appraisal is the time to value your talent. This means mirroring back their success stories “I really value how you did a, b and c on that project.” The pace of doing this over and over might drive you crazy with impatience, but you have to reflect back the achievements so your people feel heard, seen, and valued. Then ask them how you can involve them more in driving your organization’s success. Ask what skills they would like to be using more often. And then get really brave and ask for two suggestions on how you could improve as their manager. Trust me, you and your organization have blind spots and your  staff know them but people are too scared or fed up to tell you.  Follow up on your performance as a manager. “Last month you gave me two ideas to improve, how am I doing?” (Thank you Marshall Goldsmith for this tip from What Got You Here Won’t Get You There)

If you want the best out of your people, rethink the performance evaluation. Make this rare moment of undivided attention an opportunity to build not destroy employee engagement.

Louise Karch, M.Ed.

Branding Secrets from Battle of the Blades

November 17, 2009

Innovative ideas capture our attention. Case in point, or should I say toe pick, is the Battle of the Blades. Reality shows featuring figure skating are not new.  Europe has its own Skating with the Stars similar to Dancing with the Stars but with fewer gay men (you probably think I’m kidding but I’m not). The Battle is different. It coupled world and Olympic ladies champions in pairs and dance, who weigh on average 102 pounds with the bulky, hulky he-men of the National Hockey League who weigh slightly less than Japan’s Sumo wrestling team.

Battle of the Blades  (  is a brand mash up and mash ups are hot. They capture attention and market share. Joanna Hawley from Carnegie Mellon university designed a prosthetic leg based on the Eames Lounge Chair,  a design so inspired (the chair not the leg) that it is in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  (  Uber cool Magician Criss Angel has partnered with Cirque du Soleil in the Vegas show Believe. Ford released a Harley Truck and Reebok paired with Kool Aid for shoes with scented insoles.  A big hit in Japan, not with the wrestlers apparently.

When Sandra Bezic, Olympian, choreographer to the best skaters in the world, respected TV commentator, award winning producer and creator of Battle (note to self:  write out my to do list) came up with this concept she bridged two distinct sport cultures and two distinct fan bases surprising and enthralling both.

I was at the closing show last night and the place rocked. (Shout out to my new friends from section 220 and a special hello to Marge from New Zealand. We had a ridiculously fabulous time).  Sandra, whose middle name should be cleavage, I mean savvy, leveraged another brand trend when she created a show that gave $25,000 donations to each team’s charity of choice. The winners, which I predicted, Jamie Sale and Craig Simpson are donating $100,000 to the Spinal Cord Treatment Centre.

If you want to fire up your brand, take a lesson from the ice: mash things up and go do some good.

Fearlessly Fabulous Brands Win

November 14, 2009

Strong brands win big.  On Thursday night one of my brand creations won a Pillar Community Innovation Award. The Fairy Godmother Project won and won big. In 2003, I helped launch Diann Vail’s great initiative to give women who wanted to make a difference a way to get off their assets. The story of this win is the story of a great brand.

It all started with the lovely brrrring of my Disney Fairy Princess magic wand and Diann’s hundred dollar cheques.  Five women attending Diann’s women’s conference took the challenge  to find co-sponsors, resources and people to launch their own community projects. They came back and told their tales with tears and laughter. A tradition was born. From that point on conference attendees were invited to contribute project funds. The amount was divided into $100 increments and new Fairy Godmothers took flight. Six years, 99 Fairy Godmothers and almost  $200,000 worth of projects later we have a winner – an authentic winner, an inspiring winner in a time of despair.

I have often been the voice of the Fairy Godmother, a responsibility I took seriously with a really light heart. I saw the Fairy Godmother project as the opposite of terrorism. Each project was love in action. We have enough knowledge, food and medicine to cure all the ills of the world; what we don’t have enough of is love. What we forget is to harness joy.

Thanks to Diann and the generosity of the Women’s Conference participants, Fairy Godmother Projects have been launched here and around the world: suicide prevention projects, anti-bullying initiatives, educational materials for schools in South America, a computer for a disabled Paramedic here in London.  Thousands of can openers for the foodbank, a trip to a hockey game and the hockey hall of fame for a young boy with cancer and hundreds of backpacks stuffed with school supplies for kids who understand recession all too well. Funds were raised for Africa’s Go Go Grannies who are raising their children’s children because moms and dads were killed by AIDS (some might say killed by the west’s indifference). Every project was done with joy because that was and always will be the essence of the brand.

I am delighted that the Fairy Godmother Project was recognized. After a year and a half working on the project I mind mapped the concept on a scrap of paper to generate a better brand (a free trial software program for mindmapping is at The ridiculously smile inducing twinkly sound of optimistic fairy bells was everything. The magic wand was the brand’s DNA.  From there I mapped out ideas until the Fairy Godmother arrived.  Then the brand exploded.

Bring on the sequins, a tiara, sparkly shoes, wings and of course a huge puffy, 1980s Pepto-Bismol ball gown (Thank you Garber’s Bridal Wear. We were all surprised (not) that no one had bought the pink wedding dress with a white bow the size of a Cadillac parked on top of my very gluteus maximus ). Eight-year-old girls thought I was the prettiest lady in the world. I love eight-year old girls.  The attendees at Diann Vail’s conference laughed to the point of needing mini pads. The image of a grown woman dressed as a Fairy Godmother made for great media and print coverage. And I acted the part. My KPI (key performance indicator) goal was to generate a laugh a minute. It wasn’t hard. The project made news because joy is so rare.

We’ve taken saving the world far too seriously and no one wants to play. The Fairy Godmother Project is a playful brand, that gives an experience of joy. Joy gives people hope against despair.  Being over the top and dressed in a pink ball gown and tiny fairy wings brings on giggles and guffaws. Laughter opens hearts and wallets faster than statistics and seriousness.  Having been and coached numerous Fairy Godmothers, I know from my tiara to my pink sequined slippers how little it takes to make a big difference. Congratulations to Diann Vail and all of us who have been and continue to be Fairy Godmothers.

Senior Fairy Godmother, Louise Karch

If it is not your genius it is not your job.
Louise B. Karch