Innovating Today, Imaging Tomorrow: Insights from PENworks 2021 – Sept 2021

What is excellence?  Seriously, what does it mean to be excellent at anything – at a sport; at an artistic endeavor; in business?  Excellence is a tough thing to define – kind of “I’ll know it when I see it” type thing.

Merriam Webster says excellence “is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good,” which then, of course, begs the question: what does outstanding or extremely good mean?! defines it slightly differently: “possessing outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good; extraordinary; superior.”  I guess that definition is more descriptive, but then I’m left to wonder why do different dictionaries have different definitions for the same word? – further evidence that excellence is a bit abstract, nebulous.

And if excellence is difficult to define as a basic concept, try applying it to a complex system like an organization or a community: what does an excellent organization or community look like??  The Baldrige Excellence Framework has a definition that might be useful here: excellence is “an integrated approach to organizational performance management that results in 1) delivery of ever-improving value to customers and stakeholders, contributing to ongoing organizational success; 2) improvement of your organization’s overall effectiveness and capabilities; and 3) learning for the organization and for people in the workforce.

The Baldrige definition of excellence goes on to say that excellence is represented in the Baldrige Framework, which includes the Organizational Profile (which captures the environmental context), the Baldrige core values, the seven Baldrige Categories (Leadership, Planning, Customer, Measurement, Workforce, Operations, and Results), and the Baldrige scoring guidelines (which prescribes a maturity rubric).  That certainly helps in creating a comprehensive definition of excellence.  But realize, then, that the Baldrige definition of performance excellence takes a 60-page book to describe!

Having said all of that, excellence might best be described through stories – through case studies, examples, and insights from leaders who are creating better outcomes.

Last Friday, PEN hosted our annual conference – PENworks 2021, BACK TO THE FUTURE – featuring over 30 speakers from around the region and across the country, each sharing insights, methods, tools, best practices that produce excellent results.  Small organizations; big organizations.  All sectors and industries, ranging from manufacturers to service businesses to a variety of nonprofits (healthcare, education, public sector, social service).  They all had different insights to share.  And they all followed different pathways to better performance: indeed, no two journeys to excellence look the same, given the differences in variables (different markets, core competencies, strategies, strategic challenges, and so forth).

But they all had several things in common, particularly the Baldrige national award winning organizations: they had visionary, authentic leadership; they focused intensely on customer needs; they had an appetite for improvement and innovation; they valued their people; they made decisions based on data; and they were agile and resilient, able to navigate today’s challenges in a way that helped them recover and bounce back stronger.

Here are some of the insights delivered by the conference keynotes – at least the insights that resonated with me the most.  There are many dozen quotes, so maybe take one a day, reflect on it – use it as your “tip of the day” to help your organization or team become just a little more excellent!

And for those interested in obtaining an on demand recording of any of the sessions (or the full conference), visit here.  Individual sessions are $20 ($10 for PEN members); the full conference is $200.  I think you’ll find the conference absolutely full of insights that help define – and move us all toward – performance excellence.

Insights from Ross Bernstein, opening keynote of PENworks 2021

“You’ll be tempted to take shortcuts along the way.  But success is about winning with integrity: being a champion is about doing the little things the right way.”

“The number one predictor of success in any line of business?  The quality of your relationships.”

“There are four ways to generate success and momentum: 1) focus on your mental toughness; 2) lead with respect; 3) be willing to adapt and change in order to keep raising the bar; 4) think hard about your legacy.”

“The essence of mental toughness is focusing on the things you can control.”

“Reputation is not what you say about you, but what everyone else says about you.”

“Every time you hit a goal, raise the bar.”

“Success is about finding your purpose.”

“The wider you build the base of a pyramid, the higher you can go.”

“Success is all about hard work, commitment, and taking care of people.”

“We all like to do business with – be led by – fun, positive, passionate people.”

“Being a champion is a choice.”

“You get to decide what your attitude is going to be every morning – smiling, fun, and amazing or negative and toxic.”

“Winning just for the sake of winning is fleeting, it’s hollow, it’s not sustainable.”

“There’s a fine line between cheating and gamesmanship – in sports, in business, in life.  Follow your moral compass, your true north.  You’re going to be tempted to take short cuts along the way, but don’t.”

“Individuals win games, but it takes a team to win a championship – in sports and in business.”

Insights from Deb Reuben, plenary keynote of PENworks 2021

“Change is accelerating.  And crazy as it is right now, it’ll never be slower than it is today.”

“Examples of disruptive innovations are all around us, and they drive customer expectations higher and higher.”

“Technology is changing our behaviors, our preferences, and even our expectations.  It’s almost as if instant isn’t even fast enough anymore.”

“When you see technology disruption continuing to happen, you have a choice: you can be the disruptor or the disrupted.”

“Monitoring trends and understanding possibilities opens your eyes to new ways of doing business – and helps you and your business remain relevant in the midst of so much change.”

“You must stay on top of technology and trends to stay ahead of tomorrow.”

“We have to stretch our imagination about what could be, but the challenge is we can get so caught up in the day-to-day issues that we don’t make time to consider long-term possibilities.”

“There is a four-step process to envisioning possibilities of tomorrow: 1) understand the pace of change; 2) recognize the forces of change; 3) select technologies to watch; and 4) imagine the future and reflect.”

“We tend to think in terms of linear progress, but technology is progressing exponentially.  By trying to see where things are going, we will avoid being surprised by disruptive technology.”

“Metcalf’s Law: a network’s value increases exponentially with its size. In other words, the more people using a network, the more their participation enhances that network.”

“Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns: when you have a system that improves through iterative learning, the more advanced it becomes, the faster it can progress.”

“To recognize the forces of change, monitor societal, technological, environmental, economic, and political trends. Consider how certain you are that the trend will continue, and if it continues, what level of impact and opportunity will be on your organization.”

“Innovation usually occurs at the intersection of different types of technologies.”

“To imagine future scenarios, pick a timeframe 5-10 years out and ask what challenges people will face, what will they need, what role will technology play?”

“Don’t just let the future happen to you – you can shape it by the decisions you make, the actions you take.”

Insights from the Baldrige recipient plenary keynotes of PENworks 2021

“The things that make you successful in the past are not necessarily the things that will make you successful in the future.” – Scott Frisch, COO, AARP

“We have created a culture of innovation, which allows us to take bold, thoughtful, calculated risks and to make informed decisions throughout the organization.” – Frisch

“For every great plan, there must be great execution.” – Frisch

“It is essential to focus on outcomes, not outputs.” – Frisch

“Excellence is achieved when leaders create a culture that focuses on action.” – Frisch

“Creating and balancing value for stakeholders is how organizations win.” – Frisch

“Constantly monitor risks so that you spend more time preparing rather than reacting.” – Frisch

“It is necessary to highlight your vision, but that alone is insufficient to drive outstanding performance. Formalizing a leadership system gives an organization a gameplan to achieve excellence.” – Dr. John Chessare, President/CEO, GBMC HealthCare System

“People do not hate change; they hate to be changed.” – Chessare

“Our mission, vision, and values are not just words – they give our work purpose every day.” – John Kueven, SVP & President, Wellstar Paulding Hospital

“When organizations integrate strategic and operating systems into a seamless, integrated system, you get the best of both.” – Kueven

“In our planning process, executing the plan is much more important than creating it.” – Kelsey May, CEO, MESA Products

“An organization’s mission, vision, values – or what we call Purpose, Principles, and Path – should shape behavior.” – May

“Diversity is crucial for innovation and creativity within organizations. We are weaving those principles into our processes, so that the commitment to diversity and inclusion is embedded in our work systems.” – May

“The pursuit of excellence is not a game with an end – it’s an evolution of constant improvement.” – May

“Leaders need to create a safe environment where organizations can have those brutally honest conversations about salient matters that impact employees, customers, and the community.  In doing so, we can solve important problems.” – Gerry Agnes, president & CEO, Elevations Credit Union

“It may never seem like the perfect time to start your organization’s journey to excellence.  But the perfect to do it is now.” – Agnes

“Employees need to be seen, heard, and valued.” – Agnes

“Most organizations aren’t as good as they think they are.  Benchmarking is critical.” – Agnes

“Most organizations have a leadership system.  But what was critical for us was to establish an operational rhythm: getting the right people in the room at the right time with the right information so they can make the right decisions, and then deploy those decision elegantly throughout the organization.” – Agnes

“Never underestimate the capabilities of a stellar team.” – Agnes

Insights from Joe Nayquonabe, closing keynote of PENworks 2021

“To be open to change, you have to be receptive to ideas everywhere.”

“To be successful, learn to walk in their shoes – learn to walk in your customers’ shoes to understand what they’re experiencing, what they need.”

“To succeed, try and try again.  Don’t be afraid to fail – fail fast and fail forward.  Try new things, experiment.”

“To innovate, hire weird people.  Anyone can be normal.  The only way to create abnormal results is through abnormal talent. Great teams are filled with weird people.”

“Our job as leaders is to provide freedom and autonomy for our people – to put them on stage and let them perform.”

“To build the best relationships, create a genuine connection.  Even the small investments in the relationship over time add up.”


I’ll finish with one final quote, and it is – shamelessly – my own used to close the conference: “thriving – sometimes just surviving – requires resilience, discipline, and a strong will to succeed.  Excellence requires constancy of purpose.”

Again, if you’re interested in PENworks 2021 on demand, visit here. And mark your calendars: PENworks 2022 is May 12-13!

What other insights/tips do you have regarding achieving excellence during these times – innovating today, imagining a better tomorrow?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

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