As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Bruno Pešec.
Bruno Pešec helps business leaders innovate profitably, leveraging his broad experience from different industries — including defense, manufacturing, education, and financial services.
He is an active member in the global startup community, and has cofounded Norwegian Lean Startup Circle and Founder Institute Norway.
Bruno is co-creator of Playing Lean, an award winning board game for teaching entrepreneurship and innovation.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Yes, I’d be happy to. My name is Bruno Pešec, and I help business leaders innovate profitably. I have over a decade of experience succeeding and failing with innovation in different industries like defense, manufacturing, financial services and education.
I began my career as an engineer. As I was working in different industries, I came to realize that I’m really attracted to solving systems issues. What does that mean? It means that the problem isn’t as obvious, and that a solution involves multiple actors, like employees, communities where these companies are operating, employees at different levels, from front line workers, to management, to leadership, to executives, to boards, etc. As I realized that, I set off to be an independent expert specializing at helping business leaders navigate uncertainty and tough challenges.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Perhaps not as funny, but definitely silly. I remember when I was starting out, I spent a full week working on my website, before anything else. And I remember very vividly that I spent three days in a row selecting a perfect theme for my website. I laugh at it now, but back then, I remember how much I was sweating, how much work I put in, how I was comparing all these different themes, and toiling over how my website was going to look.
Finally, I selected a theme, and I asked myself, “What’s going to be on there? What’s actually going to be on the website?” I haven’t written a single thing. I haven’t written who I am, what I will actually do, what kind of value am I going to provide. Yes, that was quite silly to invest all that work before I had even set on the content, and what I wanted to write and share about.
The lesson I took away from that is the one that helped me shed the fear of putting out imperfect things. Today, I’m much more focused on putting it out there as soon as possible so I can see how people react. So I can see how my clients react, as well as the communities I’m involved in. Then I can learn from that, and adapt and improve. Looking back to it, that silly mistake did save me time in the long run. But I do hope that in the future, I will have to spend less than five full days to learn some simple lessons like that one.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In my life I have had the good fortune of learning from the people who have walked the paths I wish to walk, who were willing to share their experience, their knowledge, and to offer mentorship in the moment. Some have stuck with me for longer time, some haven’t, and that’s perfectly fine, because everybody’s on their own journey, and sometimes it happens that we walk a part of the path together.
I strongly believe that all of that would be for naught, if I hadn’t had the good fortune of having parents that were quite supportive of all my curiosities and always allowed me to explore whatever I was interested in.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The benefit of being an independent expert is that my personal purpose is equal to the business purpose. To me, it’s quite simple. When it comes to innovation, I genuinely believe that innovation is one of the most humane activities because it allows everybody to express their creativity, imagination, and put it to life. It enables everybody to become almost immortal just by the act of bringing something to life that has a part of themselves in that.
As innovation becomes more attractive to various businesses, there is more risk of innovation becoming overly protected. What would the right words be? There are more and more so-called “gatekeepers” that are preventing or trying to prevent others from innovating unless they’re following a specific process or model. And to me, that’s just flat-out silly. Hence my purpose is very simple: bring out the humanity of innovation that happens in all the organizations.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Once I was brought in to help a team, or more accurately, to help see what was wrong with the product. As I arrived, met the team and spent some time with them, it didn’t really take me long to see the real situation. What I had to do immediately is to stop everything that was going on.
The team was fighting for their life. Fires were burning everywhere. The phone was ringing all the time and it was not ringing because customers had something nice to say. Quite the contrary. They had a very specific selection of words to express their dissatisfaction. What was going on, was that every team member, every individual, was fighting for their own life. The situation was strained, it was difficult, but what we had to fix in the moment was, “Stop and fight for our life as a team.” So that was what we began with.
Then, the next step was visualizing a lot of hidden work. One of the benefits when you are in the manufacturing world is that you can see work in progress building up. You can see all the half-finished goods, all the unfinished parts, all the defects, all the scraps. You can physically see them. But in the service industry, that isn’t as visible.
What we really had to do was to visualize all the work that was happening, because we couldn’t prioritize what we do not see. That’s a really fancy way of saying that we started writing down everything that needed to be done on Post-It Notes and index cards. Once we had visualized all the work and regrouped, we had basically taken agency, and regained the ownership of the problem.
The problem did not go away, but suddenly it was emotionally and psychologically much easier to handle, because we had an understanding of where the fire is actually burning, and how big the fire is. Now with that in place, we could finally do triage and we could address the critical issues that were causing the most grief.
It took us some months, but after a few months, we brought everything under control, and then finally we could continue with what they had actually brought me in for: to help them improve their product and service. What was important was keeping a cool head and going from week to week, literally.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Well it feels a bit silly to answer that question, because the moment you ask me, there is only one answer from me, and that is, “No, not really!” That’s most likely due to a life-time of practicing martial arts. The mind-set is simple: you win some, you lose some.
There is never a guarantee of the outcome. You can only guarantee that you put everything you had in. You can guarantee the quality of work that you put in, and the quality of effort, but no one can guarantee outcome.
To me, it’s a pretty simple matter of affairs. It’s kind of, “If it doesn’t go my way, or I don’t get the outcome that I was desiring, just do it again!” Not exactly the same — you need to reflect, you need to think, “Okay, what was the difference between what happened, and what I thought would happen? Was it just randomness or was it something else that I can try differently, and try to get a different result?”
That’s pretty much it. I’d say I’m probably one of the lucky ones in that regard. I don’t really overthink failure. I think it’s important to reflect on it. But other than that? What is there to gain from crying over spilled milk too much? Nothing much.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
If a leader buckles under the pressure, and gives in to his or her worst habits, that’ll do much more damage than in regular times. Really, almost all leadership practices are applicable to both challenging and usual times. The difference is that when times are good we have higher tolerance for bad behaviour and less-than-ideal performance.
Tough times bring more scrutiny, more attention to detail. They also often invoke war-time metaphors and jargon. That does make sense, given that war is something most consider unpredictable and chaotic, but I’d caution against using too much of business-as-war talk. Your employees are not soldiers to be sent to some glorious battle and die for a spectacular cause. There is no glory in sinking economies.
What does change in this context are the expectations of the leader on the speed and courageousness of decision making. Now it’s important to accept that it’s impossible to clarify all the uncertainties, and that there’s more risk than usual. In other words, spending few more weeks to analyse or “see how it goes” might not be the most prudent decision. Are you learning the right things? Reaching out to your customers and supplier to learn more about their needs is something you don’t need to wait for.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Remember the example I just shared? When there is massive uncertainty, the first thing that a leader needs to do is ensure that everybody is facing that uncertainty together. Rallying call can be as simple as “We are in this together, in whatever form, and we are facing either odds, or uncertainty, ambiguity, etc., but we are facing it together. We don’t know what’s going to come, but we will handle and tackle it together.”
That helps a lot, because people go into panic mode, since some handle uncertainty poorer than others. It’s important to provide a frame and to provide some safe harbor. The world might be uncertain, but why would it be uncertain if we are going to handle it together? That is between us as a group of people to agree upon, and say, “Okay, difficult times are coming, but we dedicate, or we swear…” or whatever word you want to use, “…that we are going to face it together.” We might not overcome it. Remember what I said: there is no guarantee of outcome. But we dedicate and we decide and we will guarantee that we will give our best and give our all.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
What I usually like to talk about is that sometimes people say that words don’t matter. That it’s just being nit-picky or overly pedantic. I disagree with that.
Let’s take a look at two words: “ambiguous” and “uncertain.” I say that ambiguity is something that should be absolutely obliterated, while uncertainty is something that should be embraced.
Ambiguity means that there are multiple interpretations of one word or context or happening or whatever. So in your organization, there is no good reason for ambiguity to exist. Let’s take innovation as an example. Usually, if I walk into a meeting room and there are ten people, and if I ask them to define “innovation,” I will get twenty definitions back. There is no good reason for that.
If you’re dealing with innovation, if you’re dealing with research and development, if you’re dealing with whatever you might be dealing with, define the core terms, define your core values. If you tell me in your organization you have three values, everybody in your organization should agree on what is the interpretation of these three values.
What do they mean? If you’re telling me you’re the most innovative company or that you care deeply about innovation, okay, great, it doesn’t matter how I define innovation but I would love to hear that almost all employees, almost every person in your company has the same view and definition of innovation.
Because if you don’t, then you have ambiguity. And ambiguity is something that you can fix. That is something that is your ownership.
Uncertainty, you can try to reduce. You can try to learn more. You can try to imagine and understand the future better. You can try to do all of the things, but you can never reduce it to zero. That’s just impossible. We can never have a guarantee of what’s going to happen next.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
There is this great saying: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Here planning refers to the acts of critical thinking, thinking deeply and reflectively, about what can happen.
Especially in times of extreme uncertainty, leaders ought to think deeper, richer, and more in “options,” or scenarios, if you wish. For example, they need to think, “Okay, what are the different things that could now happen? How could this situation evolve? What other things might be happening at the same time?”
And yes, you might then think, “Okay, let’s look at the most probable way that the situation will evolve. Let’s look at the worst way the situation might evolve. Let’s look at the best way the situation might evolve.” All these exercises are possible.
What’s most important for a leader is actually this process of how they come to think and how they come to plan, than really creating the ultimate plan that everybody will stick to. In some regards, as I shared in the example before, the process was much more important than necessarily the desired outcome. And the same is here.
When there is such a mess of unpredictability, what’s most important is the vision, the passion, the purpose, the things that your organization exists for, and then what’s next in importance is not an exact plan for how to enact all of that, but rather, how do you come to think of going in that direction.
If you learn to think then it’s easy to change and adjust. But, if you only learn to stick to the plan, then the moment the plan is different from reality, everything comes crashing down, and that’s not really helpful when the world is as uncertain as it currently is.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle, I would say, is “Don’t lose your head. Don’t lose your cool.” If you go into full panic, if you hunker down, if you just retreat into your hole and start ignoring the reality, then that’s very dangerous. Then you’re dependent on either being fat and having enough resources to just weather the storm, or on someone else coming in and saving you. Like government. That might or might not happen.
If you want to have your destiny, your future in your own hands, then it’s very, very important not to lose your head. Don’t give into panic. Don’t give into the overwhelming uncertainty that might be at your doorstep. Instead, just try to keep your composure as much as possible. So yes, there might be a massive fire burning, but if you’re frozen in your footsteps, well, that’s not good news for you.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One of the top mistakes I’ve seen, are businesses that are trying to ignore everything, reacting like besieged kingdoms in the middle ages, just raising the walls and drawbridge, retreating into the castles, and locking themselves, hoping that they have enough supplies to last over the siege — or whatever bad is happening around them.
As I said, that might work, but it also might not work. We’re not in the Middle Ages any more, so there are other things happening as well. Business-wise, just trying to weather the storm, ignoring everything and going into your rabbit hole is quite detrimental.
The world is still changing. There are other businesses that are also changing, and might be adapting over you, and finding new niches and new needs to fulfil, and that is something that you might or might not be able to catch up, once everything is over.
Another thing that I’ve seen is actually not providing any context or help to their employees in these times. Almost overnight, everybody went to working from home. And in the process, I haven’t seen their employees get the support they need. Since it went to working from home overnight, means that the cost has been pushed from the organization to employees themselves, but at the same time, I haven’t seen an uptake in approved expenses for increased utility bills or equipment for working from home. That is something companies should take responsibility for.
New research coming out is showing that the amount of time people now spend working has skyrocketed. On average, people are working three hours longer every day. Here again, it is the responsibility of businesses and leaders to set in the rules and follow them and lead by example.
It’s easy to think, “Hey, I can just send this email after work hours. I mean, I don’t expect an answer to that.” Yes, you might think that, but as a leader, it’s your responsibility to think a little bit better and two steps ahead. If you send your email to someone who is reporting to you or someone who is reporting to someone who is reporting to you, they’re extremely incentivized and they feel the pressure even if you don’t expect them — but they think you expect it of them. Because they’re receiving an email outside of their working hours, and then they think there is an expectation that they should work too.
Coping might be another reason for people working longer hours. In that case, the organizations have the responsibility for their people to put in the understanding and set the expectations straight. For example, you might say “Okay, now many more people are working from home, and that has some additional risks, that has some additional pitfalls, and we must be aware of them.”
These kinds of working habits are not sustainable in the long run. And who knows how the world is going to look? No one. But, that also means that you, and the leaders in your organization, are responsible for shaping the future of your work. You have a unique opportunity to co-create your own future. And isn’t that amazing?
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Consider following facts:
- In dynamic environments — e.g. COVID-19 pandemic — companies that are able to meet changing customer demands can increase their market share and strengthen their competitive advantage.
- In high-earning companies, improvement and incremental innovation account for 26% of business outcomes (sales growth, market share, profit levels and return on investment) and 35% of product (customer satisfaction with the products, and the perceived quality of the products) outcomes.
- Organization’s internal business politics and processes are one of the main causes of losing market share. Competitors simply benefit from that.
In other words, now is a good time to invest in innovation. You shouldn’t fear competition, but your inability to meet the customer demand. Actually, Matthew Fenton and I are currently writing a book on profitable growth that revolves around addressing critical strategic gaps. Keep an eye on it!
What has worked for me, and many other businesses that are not going belly-up, is obsessing on providing value to the customer or client, understanding how did their world change in the light of the current global situation, and then reacting to that. If that sounds simple, that’s because it is.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, given that we’ve already discussed these questions a fair bit. Allow me to focus on the following five points.
First thing is, as I’ve discussed earlier, when uncertainty or disaster strikes, there needs to be alignment. It’s the leader’s job to seize control. This is not control over the future — because as I say, we cannot truly foretell the future — but seizing control of the current situation, in the present, aligning everybody behind a common cause.
It’s important to move from everybody fighting for their own life, to where it’s everybody working together to overcome whatever the obstacle and uncertainty might be. When everything changes overnight, it’s important that everybody knows, “We are still in the same boat. We are still working on the same things. And together, we will overcome it.” That follows into the next point.
The second point, a very important thing, is visualizing work, priorities, and objectives. If you aren’t doing it, then use the opportunity to introduce it. If you are doing it, stick and maybe even double-down on it. You want to have a visual management system that makes it clear to everybody in the organization: What is the actual work going on? What are the actual priorities right now? What are the actual targets and objectives right now, from day to day?
When there is such uncertainty as there is right now, some things might be just out of the window. That project that you have been working on, maybe expansion in certain territories or expansion of a certain product line, maybe it’s not as relevant any more, as it was, because everything changed. Right now, everything that includes a lot of in-person, a lot of physical presence, is rightfully doubtful. We need to rethink that. Maybe that is scrapped. But, do not assume that everybody in the organization knows that. That is why it is very important to visualize all the work, all the objectives.
Which ties into the third point, which is, as a leader, you should communicate with your employees in these circumstances regularly. Regularly is not bimonthly or quarterly or annually or anything like that. We are talking, if necessary, daily. That’s what we are talking about. And here, the communication should be straightforward.
It’s not about PR messages. It’s not about pep talks. It’s about acknowledging the situation you are in and clearly saying, “This is the situation. This is what we know. This is what we’re focusing on right now, and this is what we believe will happen next.” That’s it. You are acknowledging that, showing that you are also human. We are all human and acknowledging the situation, working on it together.
Just like you’re communicating regularly and plainly with employees, it’s paramount not to forget the customers. Just like your world has changed, so has changed the world of your customers. And it is a mistake that might cost you, your whole business and your whole future if you ignore that. Work those phones. Get in touch with your customers. Be in touch with them daily if it’s necessary. Really, really deeply understand: how did their life change? How did their work habits change? How did their context change? Because the better you understand that, the better you will be able to adapt your own products and services to meet the changes in your customers’ demands and their own needs. That is critical for your own success.
Just like you’re doing that with customers, you can do the same with your vendors and suppliers. Understand how their life changed, so you reduce risk in your own supply chain by understanding what’s happening to them. If you keep a cool head and you’re able to control yourself, calm yourself down, and prepare and meet the uncertainty that’s coming, then you can start helping others as well.
The final point is on decision making. In difficult times such as COVID-19 pandemic, when there’s massive uncertainty, it is extremely important to avoid over-postponing difficult decisions. There are always difficult decisions to be made. Some can be deferred. Some can’t. What’s now more important than ever is to be swift. If there is a high likelihood that something is a poor decision or that you’re not in favour of that right now, don’t postpone difficult decisions. Make a decision, act on it, and don’t overthink it. If something was a great opportunity and you said, “No,” it will come back. But time won’t.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a saying by Eiji Toyoda, that is quite well known in the Lean and continuous improvement world. It roughly goes as “To squeeze water out of a dry rag,” or a dry towel, depending on what translation you are going for.
We can think of this statement as a reminder that even when we think there is nothing else we can do — nothing else we can improve or make better, or whatever — we are wrong. This quite vividly illustrates that it’s always possible to make another improvement. It’s always possible to find one, no matter how small a thing, to make something a little bit better. The key message here is that, a lot of changes like that ultimately are what leads to a better future.
When there is so much uncertainty, then taking agency, control and ownership over our situation, especially over seemingly small and insignificant matters can have a disproportionally large positive effect. A simple “Okay, everything is so uncertain, but hey, let’s at least agree that we are working on this together” can be enough to get us unstuck.
And then we continue with small things, keeping the momentum. “Hey, let’s write down all the things, right now, that are still true and things that aren’t as true anymore.” “Hey, let’s write down all the assumptions that we have right now, and let’s work through them.” “Hey, let’s call our customers and write down what’s troubling them right now.”
All these small things, almost trivial, can lead to something great, can lead to something new, can help us get unstuck and unfreeze us, allowing us to face the overwhelming uncertainty in everything that’s happening.
And that’s why I decided to share this expression. Because I think that people sometimes underestimate themselves. On the opposite, people sometimes think that everything is so great, that nothing else could be improved. So this serves as a perfect reminder that we are wrong in both of these cases. It’s much better to think this way: at any given moment in time, there are at least a hundred things that can be improved. So which one are we going to improve today?
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