Cynthia Owens

Senior Consultant

Recent Posts

Process Problems Aren’t Just About Process

12-14-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Process

Most process problems in organizations today are about people, not machines, assembly lines, or just-in-time inventory strategy. To succeed, companies need to reach beyond traditional process improvement methods.
In most organizations today, where processes break down is with people:

  • Teams are stuck in silos and can’t or won’t collaborate
  • Functional leaders aren’t aligned and are focused on different priorities
  • Structures and culture slow people down
  • Metrics and rewards are focused on the wrong things, so they derail objectives
  • Employees don’t know how what they do fits into the bigger picture
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Why Visual Thinking Trumps Documents and Spreadsheets

“We need this.”

“This” is visual thinking and the “we” are professors from the top MBA programs around the world at the annual meeting for the Production and Operations Management Society earlier this month.

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Three Kick-Ass Visual Icebreakers

Our  discovery sessions, in fact, our entire business, is built on visual thinking.  Still, we know that in any session, some people will exchange nervous glances as soon as they see the Post-it Notes and Sharpies and we mention that everyone will draw.  
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If There Were No PowerPoint… A Plea For Conversation and Connecting to Your Audience

Slide decks can be amazing. When used right PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, and all the other presentation tools can inspire, persuade, educate, mobilize and motivate. At XPLANE we love creating unique and compelling presentations to reach all kinds of audiences.

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Breaking Down Silos to Foster Collaboration

11-23-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Culture

Whether separated by thousands of miles and timezones, or just by two floors in the head office tower, teams are stuck in silos.

Teams don’t collaborate. They hoard information; they are focused on different priorities; and they blame each other when projects stall or fail to deliver.

This isn’t an easy fix. There isn’t a piece of technology or a software tool that organizations can buy that suddenly makes people collaborate. Managers can’t just set up a meeting or a conference call and assume they’ve covered their bases.

In part, that’s because as Ron Ashkenas wrote in Harvard Business Review last year, "There’s a Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration". Cooperating is working in parallel tracks completing a task and handing the project off to the next team in the next silo. Collaborating is putting everyone to work in the same track and changing the way they work every day; it requires them to behave and interact in a new way. That’s why breaking down silos is so hard.

To design and nurture a culture of collaboration requires a new roadmap.

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Why Your Strategy Activation Fails

11-23-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Strategy

Most companies fail at strategy activation. Why? Despite a lot of talk, most leaders never clearly articulate what people need to do and why they should care. They fail to make meaningful connections between the strategy and the people who need to implement it.

It’s not for lack of trying. Most corporations have tools like vision and mission statements, values, a North Star, purpose, principles, and ways of working.
But all of that has become such a confusing clutter of navigational tools that leave employees — and even department heads — unsure where the company is headed. Functional teams spinning away in silos, headed in different directions, and focused on different priorities, can’t execute any strategy effectively.
Employees see a new message every month or two, which is designed to lead and inspire them, but after a while it becomes white noise, and people quit paying attention.
Vision, purpose, mission, North Star, or principles — or whatever you call these navigational tools — are a vital way to unite employees so they can articulate what you are trying to accomplish, coordinate their efforts, and get moving in the same direction.
But it's a mistake to think of these tools as marketing messages. You should think of them as tools. To be useful and valuable, each navigation tool should answer a specific question.

What are the questions? 

Navigation requires answers to just five questions:
  1. What do we do that is unique?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. Why do we do what we do?
  4. How do we work together?
  5. What needs to happen, by when? 

Be clear

Companies can have one piece of navigation, or three to four, as long as they clearly answer these five questions and do not conflict with each other.
Everyone in the organization needs to see clearly what the company does that is unique, where the company is headed, why the work is important, what principles guide decisions and behaviors, and what is the timeframe. Then strategy and priorities will begin to make sense.

Be consistent

Priorities may change, but vision, purpose, and values don’t change from year to year. Shifting direction every few months is like a pilot announcing midflight that you are headed to New Delhi instead of New York.
Consistency helps people feel confident about where they are going and helps them make the right decisions to get there. Consistency helps teams align, move in the same direction, and focus on the right things.

Be authentic

Some companies spend a lot of time and money word-smithing a vision or mission statement into a work or art. But if employees know it’s just an internal marketing message, it will fail. If they don’t believe the message or don’t see executives supporting it, they will become cynical.
Make it authentic and real, and employees will invest more in making sure the company gets there.  People support what they help create. If you want your tools to be authentic, involve people in the process of creating them.

Lose the labels

It doesn’t matter what you call each navigation tool; what matters is that they help people understand, so they can activate your strategy.
In some companies, purpose has replaced vision; other companies incorporate their purpose into the vision; and some have only a mission. Those labels become confusing; it’s the answers to the five questions that matter.

Sharpen your scissors

Simply adding another message will only make things worse. Look at existing navigational tools and test them against the five questions. Figure out what question each piece answers, and then eliminate any that don’t provide the answers and contribute to clarity. Use only enough tools to be clear and no more.

Understand that strategy is the “how”

It’s appealing to try to squeeze strategy into a mission statement or confuse the navigational tools with strategy questions. Any “how” question is part of your strategy.
  • How do we get there?
  • How to we work together?
  • How do we know what to do?
  • How do we reach out goals?
  • How do we know if we succeed?
These are important questions, but only after there are clear answers to these five navigational questions.

Cynthia Owens is a Senior Consultant at XPLANE.
Drew Mattison is a Senior Vice President of Account Services at XPLANE.
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You Can’t Get People on the Same Page if You Can’t Get Them in the Same Room

11-23-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Culture

In today’s complex, global organizations, it seems impossible to get people in one place at the same time. And yet, given the pace and demands of business today, leaving big decisions to an email thread or a 70-page presentation deck seems nuts. 
What are the chances that everyone on a conference call clearly understands a new process or a marketing initiative because they're fully engaged in it rather than checking their email or playing games on their phone? 
As challenging as it is to organize everyone’s schedules, it’s more important than ever to get people in the same room to get them on the same page. 
  • Meeting face-to-face and engaging in complex conversations builds trust.
  • Co-creating solutions with the whole team helps people understand and empathize with different perspectives.
  • Bringing people together helps build alignment on decisions and solutions.
  • Getting people to design solutions together creates advocates that will accelerate change.
  • Discovery sessions are unique and captivating.  
What Kinds of Issues Are Worth the Effort? 
Invite them to do more than listen and fall asleep in presentations. Make the effort to get people in the same room; bring them together to solve problems and drive clarity. This is a chance for leaders to listen, learn, and ask: 
  • Design a better process
  • Align on a vision to guide your teams
  • Clarify your strategy
  • Create a better customer experience
  • Clarify your culture
Who Needs to be There? 
The most successful sessions include participants from different teams with different talents, experiences, and perspectives. 
Crucial to designing the right solution is assembling a group including people who
  • know and understand the content well
  • know and understand the audience well
  • will be decision makers
The Key? 
People want to feel they are genuinely part of the solution. They want to be heard, and they want to understand, so invite them with the intention of letting them find the best answer. 
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How to Get Past Just Telling People to Change Their Behavior

11-23-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Vision

Organizations spend millions designing a new vision or strategy or creating a process improvement plan. Then executives send out an email or hold a Townhall and expect to see results. 

It rarely works and often backfires. 

Stop telling them. Show them the behaviors you seek; ask them to help design the solutions; and set them up for success.

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Visual Process Innovation: Phase 5 - Embed

11-23-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Process
To remain competitive, companies need to get people to embrace change and continually look for ways to improve what they do.
What does it mean to Embed process improvement?
Once an organization goes through a process change, people want to believe “we’re done.” To keep up with competitors, companies need to set up the mechanisms for assessing, prototyping, and improving how things get done on an on-going basis.
This is the well-known business concept of continuous improvement. The goal is to make it easy for any employee to suggest ways to make a process more efficient and more effective and for the company to quickly adapt and change.
We do this by co-creating a framework, so people ask the right questions and learn to spot process roadblocks. That framework helps organizations develop a culture that encourages and rewards people for suggesting potential improvements. It also puts in place the reviews and checkpoints to give people a platform to speak up.
Importantly, we help to design a nimble structure to embrace improvements and can quickly implement changes. We do this with culture and organizational mapping, which makes their goals and values clear to everyone and helps them change faster.
Why is Embedding process improvement so important?
No matter how groundbreaking the process design was when it was initiated, organizations will fall behind if process improvement doesn’t become part of the corporate culture.
Technology, business, and the competition are shifting too quickly for any company to stand still. The companies that succeed over the years are those flexible enough to keep changing and improving.

Culture & Organizational Mapping: Mapping your organization and its current culture can be game changing. Having clarity on where your efforts will encounter passive or direct resistance–or where you could leverage positive influences–enables you to plan for or even harness these issues.
Cycle Measurement and Metrics: Once organizations put new processes in place, it is vital to develop the right metrics to know whether they are achieving their goals. We help companies design life cycle measurements and other metrics to make sure new processes are on target and help recalibrate processes when they aren’t.
Visual Kaizen Event: Kaizen is a Japanese term that means small changes for the better. We help companies design a Visual Kaizen framework, so people using the process can easily demonstrate the benefits of their Kaizen idea, and teams can quickly move from “to do” to “done.”
Champions & Feedback Loops: Building reviews and feedback into the culture and the calendar creates a regular review cycle that encourages participation. Appointing and empowering change champions help fuel those feedback loops from the outset and opens the way for some of the most important learning from the people who see the process up close.

Cynthia Owens is a Senior Consultant at XPLANE.
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Visual Process Innovation: Phase 4 - Activate

11-23-2016 | Cynthia Owens | Process
Implementing a new process is the toughest step, and it’s often where organizations undercut their plan by not focusing time and resources on how to engage, teach, and motivate people to change.
Processes don’t change by themselves; people need to change. That’s where  Visual Process Innovation can be so effective.
What is an activation plan?
Co-creating and visualizing the future state jump-starts any process change, and because the multi-disciplinary teams that create the new process become advocates for it, those same people help to develop an engagement and activation plan to scope out what the organization needs to do over weeks and months to make sure change occurs and to make sure those changes stick.
We do this in a discovery session designed to understand employees and how to engage them. We focus on every touch point in your process. Employees need to know why they need to change, how it is changing, and what they need to do differently.
This provides insights to create an implementation plan that helps people understand and accept changes and moves them to activating and defending those changes.
We design learning experiences, so they can understand and practice new processes and behaviors. And, we work with organizations to develop reinforcement tools so change sticks.
Why do you need an activation plan?
Activation isn’t a one-time launch announcement or a communications plan. Activation is a strategy for creating support and lasting change in the way people work.
Without an activation plan, organizations often see only parts of a new process successfully integrated and won’t gain the full business impact of the improvement program.
People are creatures of habit, so change can take time, and activation needs to lead your team to the new process and then reinforce change.

Empathy Mapping: This is an excellent tool for understanding what any new process is up against. It maps the larger context for different stakeholder groups, so we can look for ways to engage them. The framework asks what each group is doing, thinking, hearing, saying, seeing, and feeling to get a clear picture of the audience and begin to look for ways to engage them.

Communication & Engagement Strategy: Focusing on key engagement principles such as transparency and two-way communication, we focus on questions: How do we reach employees? How do they learn? What tools are available? How can we create opportunities for social networks to support the new process? How can we answer questions? This helps us to work with clients to design a strategy for success.

Learning Experiences Activation: Once we know how to reach stakeholders, we work to develop the right tools; from learning games to training programs and playbooks, we work with organizations to design what will be most effective in helping people understand why and how the process needs to change.

Enablement & Reinforcement Tools: It’s easy for people to slip back into old patterns; that’s human nature. Simple engagement tools can test a new process, so you know what’s working and where you might be running into roadblocks. Then, we can turn those into opportunities to reinforce and redefine the engagement strategy to set people up, so they can execute the new process.

Cynthia Owens is a Senior Consultant at XPLANE.
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