Rise of Super Apps

Most of us could not live without our smartphones.  It helps us stay connected, find directions, remember the lengthy lists of duties and responsibilities, and entertain ourselves throughout our day. About half of the world has made the transition and more will surely follow.  According to the Mary Meeker internet trends report, 51 percent of the world or 3.8 billion people are using the internet in 2018.

For most of us, we use single apps when on our smartphone.  We select one at a time to address whatever need we might have or amusement we desire.  Over the last 20 years, the prevailing model has been to develop single purpose apps that focus on one issue and make it is easy and intuitive as possible.  This design characteristic not only made the apps small and easy to use, but also made them scalable to larger markets over time.

A counter-trend arising in China and other developing regions is the super app.  Mike Lazaridis, the founder of Blackberry, described a super app as “…representing a new class of mobile applications that make you wonder how you ever lived without them.” More specifically, it is a closed ecosystem of “many apps” that people would use everyday “…because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience.”  So, the super app combines the major functionality that one might use on a regular basis, such as logistics, local delivery, commerce, payments, and social interaction and concentrates those functions into a single application. For advertisers, it keeps users within the same app longer and for users it brings their major needs together in a streamlined, integrated, and easy-to-use package.

As human resource professionals, what can we learn from super apps?

One of the most important lessons pertains to the need for multiple skills within the same package.  While there are still some occupations that the most important worker parallels the single app by having one key strength the organization relies upon regardless of the presence or absence other capabilities, most workplaces demand employees align more with super apps by meeting a number of workplace needs.  For example, a recent ARG survey of 250 talent executives inquired to which skills are needed at your organization regardless of the level and role of employee (see Figure 1).  Willing to learn new knowledge, skills, and abilities received the most support with almost 80 percent of executives indicating that this was the number one area of need. Communication scored a close second place with 72 percent of talent executives expressing concerns over internal communication skills. It is interesting to note that technical or job-specific knowledge fell in the middle at around 55 percent and leadership potential appeared in the bottom third.   

Figure 1: Skills in Demand by Talent Executives
Figure 1: Skills in Demand

Another strong similarity pertains to importance of hard and soft skills.  Just as most jobs have multiple skill-based needs, a strong contributor will possess both, hard and soft skills. While hard skills were thought to be more important than soft skills in the past, thinking has transformed.  In most workplaces, hard and soft skills are equally important.  However, both are not in equal supply.  A 2016 LinkedIn survey of 291 hiring managers in the U.S. revealed that 59 percent believe that soft skills are difficult to find.

Finally, with the complexity of the modern workplace and challenges in the labor market, job expectations are only going to be more diverse and complex in the future.  As more automation and robotics can be used to address workplace needs, employees will have to offer broader capabilities. In some ways, possessing the skills necessary to be able to address complex and changing needs will give human employees an advantage over their machine competitors.

Dispelling Tunnel Vision

Tunnel-VisionTunnel vision is a medical condition where a person can only see part of what normal vision allows, thus diminishing peripheral vision. Without being able to see one’s surroundings, a person easily runs into things when moving from one place to another and risks injury.  Imagine what it must be like to only see the center 20 or 30 percent of your current field of vision.

In business, tunnel vision relates to leaders that see an outcome, but fail to account or plan for the perils that lay ahead. Put simply, the loss of peripheral visions disconnects one’s actions from the desired outcomes.   This leadership trap most often occurs when a business decision must be made in an environment of uncertainty, complex inter-relationships, and changing circumstances.  The leader identifies the goal and races toward it without consideration of associated costs or unintended consequences.

The affliction might be as old as humanity.  Imagine the hunter who saw a wounded animal on the ground and immediately concluded it would significantly improve tonight’s meal with less time and effort than normal.  The hunter would race over to collect the meat with nothing else in mind but his or her own hunger and pride while forgetting that some other, larger predator might be waiting nearby in the trees.  The Greeks recognized this type of shortcoming and referred to it as “hubris” or the pride that robs us of the ability to understand the consequences of our actions or circumstances. More than a few Greek heroes possessed great intentions and even admirable goals, but failed to rise above his or her limited perspective.

Although life would be easier if tunnel vision only ailed those that tried to fly to the sun, experience demonstrates it is much more common.  As leaders and professionals, what tunnels should be careful of?

Once a good idea, always a good idea

Some “fall in love” with our ideas and delude ourselves over its value.  We refuse to dilute our idea’s beauty by considering other alternatives.  In pronounced cases, the idea becomes the universal solution to every problem.  For example, how often do we decide to reduce staff as soon as our numbers go down or assume that changing the staff will automatically change the results?  Early in my career, I worked with a leader that thought every problem could be dealt with by using his favorite software package.  After several years, the staff played a game where they would pose an issue in a staff meeting and count the minutes before the leader would scratch his head, smile broadly, and recommend his favorite package.  The first time we used the software it had been a huge success.  It was the right tool for the problem.  However, this success led to blindness.  Just as challenges change, so do the best solutions.

No decision, rarely is a good decision

Sometimes the best option to deal with a challenge involves waiting and not taking action.  More time allows for greater data gathering, comprehensive analysis, and discussion.  Yet, some problems simply require immediate action.  Similar to when an idea or solution works well in certain situation, the optimal timing varies by each issue.  In other words, waiting might have made sense in the past, but that approach has little universal value in every situation.  I worked with a client last year that constantly talked about “studying” issues.  Regardless of the sophistication or complexity of the issue, considerable time was allocated to “study” the required decision.  The organization slowly and painfully lost customers, talented staff, and eventually its existence as more day-to-day decisions were studied.  The leader sat dismayed as the organization failed. After accepting the inevitable, he stated, “I waited before the recession on making major decisions and it saved the organization from what a lot of folks went through, but I don’t know why that didn’t work now.”

I can do it alone

As leaders, we invest considerable energy and effort in reaching a position of influence.  A combination of will, commitment, and opportunity lead to our success.  Even in the best environments, an individual makes many personal sacrifices to rise above his or her peers.  However, once we become leaders, the formula for success changes.  Where our own commitment and effort contributes a sizable portion of our success before being promoted, we become dependent on the abilities, commitment, and efforts of others to further our success.  A leader that assumes that he or she can get to next level alone not only does not understand leadership, but has only a marginal chance of success.

Are We Game Ready?

Most cell phone stores I have visited over the years combine the worst elements of retail planning, customer service, and general operations.  The merger of poorly trained staff, mismanaged customer flow, and redundant and time-consuming processes create a loud and tiring environment.   Please understand, I truly enjoy new electronic toys, but I dread the hour or more it takes to upgrade or acquire a new device.

This week I visited a well-known retailer to look at options for upgrading my oldest daughter’s phone.  Like many teenagers, she uses her phone constantly.  By constantly, I mean it never leaves her hand for anything: she falls asleep by it, snuggles with it, and wakes up with fingers flying on it.  If she sits the phone down, she immediately asks, “Where is my phone?” No matter how close it is to her, she treats it like a lost loved one when it returns to her hand.   I use a phone for work all of the time, but she gives me something to aspire to from a personal integration standpoint.  Yet, I digress.

As I hesitantly entered the store, one staff member came forward and asked me how he could help.  After a few basic questions, he led me over to an area that teenage girls generally select phones from when they enter the store.  How did I know? The lights and the music gave it away.  I found the one my daughter wanted and asked if I could purchase it.  The salesperson immediately launched into why it was a good choice and spent more than ten minutes describing all of the features.  Although I reassured him he had the sale, he felt I needed to understand why the phone was superior to other alternatives for some reason. Once we made it to the register, a supervisor comes out from his office and takes me through the same overview of the phone.  I must admit the training on the features of the phone exceeded by estimation. However, the speech was identical.  My stomach stared to growl since I was running the errand during my lunch break, but there was not mercy for the hungry as he continued to show me music lists, videos, and games on the phone.

After completing a sufficient level of training on a phone I would never see again once my daughter had it, we started the transaction.  My message for today comes from this part of the interaction.  Apparently, the salesperson was new and the manager felt he needed to walk the employee through all of the steps of the transaction.  When the new employee faltered, the supervisor reminded him to “trust the training” with a smile.   After the first half hour, the supervisor became edgy.  I guess he was hungry too since he moved from foot to foot and the smile was now a frown.  As he pushed the employee to move more quickly, mistakes started to happen.  The biggest mistake being that I ended up with having all of the phones on my account cut off instead of a new one added.  By this point, I really just wanted to leave to get a sandwich and tell my daughter we bought her a gift card.

What impressed me about the end of the experience was what the supervisor said to the employee.  After over an hour and I prepared to find the nearest sub sandwich place, he turned to the employee and said, “you have the training and now all we need to do is get game ready.”  He went on to give a basketball analogy about the differences between “making shots” on your own while practicing at the court compared to during the real game when things are moving fast.

As leaders and talent professionals, we seek to give our employees the knowledge they need to be effective.  What we forget sometimes is that experience coupled with training provides the greatest value and makes us most “game ready.”  So, what can we learn from the cellphone store experience?

  • Training is a precursor to success, but needs to match the environment, employee, and desired outcome.
  • Training by itself provides little value without being part of a comprehensive development plan that links the knowledge with the real world.
  • Being “game ready” takes time and we should have reasonable expectations.
  •  When measuring value, it is critical we assess not only the training experience, but the impact of the knowledge on actual “readiness” after multiple months.



Leading without Empowerment

After the last few posts, a reader asked about how young leaders can deal with managers that don’t give them the authority necessary to do their job.  We have all seen the supervisor that micromanages a new manager.  The justification might be a desire to ensure success, lack of trust, or even fear of inexperience, but the result is the same: responsibility without authority.  In other words, the new manager will be expected to meet expectations and produce results, but will be significantly constrained in ability to make decisions, allocate resources, or deal with internal issues.

The typical method of maintaining control involves vetting all decisions before they are made.  Each time a young leader needs to make a major decision, he or she has to approach the higher level supervisor and gain the approval necessary to act.  In a short period of time, the new leader begins to feel that he or she is only a messenger or extension of the higher level supervisor and not part of the leadership team.

By preventing a young leader from assuming authority, a number of negative outcomes result:

  • failure to develop confidence in own abilities to lead;
  • lack of credibility with staff;
  • increase in conflict due to staff’s impression they can circumvent the leader and go above his or her head;
  • more communication issues due to lack of consistency in messaging;
  • heightened uncertainty due to poor delineation of duties between direct and senior managers;
  • reduction in interest in leadership due to increased duties and lack of empowerment; and
  • decrease in productivity due to workplace stress.

It is frustrating for the leader as well as the employees when there is a lack of workplace authority.  Although some employees might like the idea of playing the two sides against each other, uncertainty in the workplace in role, responsibility, performance expectations, and future direction destroys engagement, teamwork, and satisfaction.

What should we do to properly empower our young leaders?  First we can empower them and then we can:

Support – Young leaders need our support.  The transition into a new position has its share of challenges in the best of circumstances.  By not empowering new leaders, we are failing to support them.  Young leaders should be encouraged to develop their own ideas and methods for improving performance, enhancing team engagement, and reaching desired outcomes.  By giving them the tools necessary to validate their ideas and act on them, we not only improve current performance, but help in the development of even stronger leaders in the future.

Trust – Although a young leader may not have a lot of experience, we have to trust their efforts.  Without organizational trust, most young leaders will fail to reach their full potential, gain the confidence necessary to lead successfully, and will leave.  Trust provides the foundation of confidence that ensures a young leader that he or she can take risks, overcome obstacles, and be successful.

Forgive – We all make mistakes.  As leaders, the error rate is very high due to the volume of decisions, imperfect information, weak causality, and complexity.  Some have estimated that 80 percent of decisions made by the average leader are less than optimal.  Regardless of the typical success rate, we have to be prepared to forgive young leaders for their mistakes and reassure them to continue their efforts.

Nature of Slopes: Building Motivation

All of us have wished that we could encourage motivation by simply waving a magic wand and transforming our workforce.  How many times have you heard an employee say that a specific task is not his or her job, I don’t know why we have to do this, or it is not on my job description?

The reason why the wand does not work is captured in the nature of slopes.  In order to illustrate the nature of slopes, a short story from last summer might help.  For those of us who have sought to hike in the mountains and reach the top of even a small, well-kept hill in national park, you have probably found that going up is much harder than going down.

I took my family to Colorado last summer and hiking to the top of a small mountain was a much anticipated part of the adventure.  Our family spent several weeks looking at maps, talking about trails, and preparing our supplies.  On the day of the long awaited hike, the kids were very excited.   However, the initial excitement quickly faded as the path lead to higher elevations and each step took a little more effort than the last.  About half way to the top, the mood changed significantly and a rotating mantra of “we are never going to make it to the top of this mountain, I can’t take another step or I will die, why are you making us do this, and this is not fair” accompanied each slow and deliberate step.  The goal changed from we will make a quick hike to the top and spend the afternoon relaxing to taking five or six steps, sit on a stump or against a tree and talk about how close we were to the top and how nice lunch is going to taste.  At each stop, I offered a few words of encouragement before resuming the climb.  The stops slowed our progress considerably, but it gave everyone just enough encouragement that we made it to the top.  After eating lunch overlooking an amazing valley, we started down the mountain and I was very concerned we would continue our “step, complain, step” approach to “enjoying” the outdoors. The moods changed dramatically after we started to descend and the discussion changed from hoping to survive the “family death march” to what would we have for dinner and what are tomorrow’s activities.  The transformation was almost miraculous and it has been long enough now that I am actually thinking about trying it again.

What are some simple lessons for your organizations based on a day of fun in the woods?

  • Motivating the workforce requires considerable energy, commitment, and time;
  • Fellow climbers (workers) need much more encouragement when ascending than we might expect;
  • Not everyone climbs at the same rate or responds to the same encouragement;
  • It is much easier and quicker to roll down a hill than to climb it; and
  • Sometimes it takes longer to reach the top than we hoped.

The important thing to keep in mind about motivation in times of crisis is that the climb will be hard and requires small and incremental steps with a lot of encouragement.  When others may not be happy about having to climb, we have to tap into what makes them want to succeed.  Although it may seem easier to go down, eventually the climb has to be made and going on from where you are is easier than starting over.