Snowy boots: A reminder that enjoyment enhances skill

Sunburst in Snowy Mountain ForestA walk in the woods this weekend with my sons, ages 8 and 3, was initiated with the expectation that the snow on the trails would have melted enough for us to walk on the ground or, as this time of year in northern New England typically requires, in the mud. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any mud (nor the associated puddles that are so much fun to stomp in) and, instead, discovered the trails were still covered by a good foot of heavy, compacted snow.

I contemplated turning around, and heading back after a short walk, but the boys were having a blast and convinced me to just keep going.  Falling into the snow up to their knees, at times, didn’t sway them in the least.  You see, for them, the importance was in spending time outside walking with each other.  We worked hard walking on the snow-covered trails, much harder than was needed had we decided to walk on an asphalt trail in a park, but we carried on just to enjoy the day and be near each other.

The situation made me think of some comments left in response to my post on Marissa Mayer’s decision to end telework at Yahoo, a person going by the unfortunate name of “FuggleyBrew” over on reddit.com posted the following:

You don’t need to be passionate for a companies every action in order to be one of its top performers.

They’re a company, they pay you to provide a service for them, you can be dedicated to performing your job well and earning that money but not be devoted to the company.

Yes, and….

While you can do work for money and do a fine job, imagine how much greater of a job you could do for a belief in addition to a paycheck.  As my boys demonstrated, even children will work hard for something they believe is worthwhile.  If you can combine that kind of belief with a skill so well developed people are willing to pay you for it, I can only imagine the degree of success that could be attained.

As business leaders and managers, it is important to bear this in mind, and to set an environment for people that engages their passions, and doesn’t just offers them a paycheck.

Presentation tip: Don’t rely on the presentation

conference room presentationA few weeks back, Karen Martin authored a post for her blog entitled, “How to capture an audiences attention” in which she gave several good tips for remembering your audience and delivering a strong presentation.

Inspired by Karen’s post and a recent chance to address the MassBay PMI chapter (a presentation for which I give myself a B+) I’d like to add another, useful tip to all those would-be speakers out there:

Don’t rely on your presentation to capture the audience, rely on your ability to present.

By presentation, of course I mean PowerPoint decks or other visual aids.  Quite frankly, unless you have something technically complex that can only be understood with a graphical depiction, or you have something uproariously hilarious that can only project its humor when seen, then you really don’t need slides at all.

Yes, perhaps decorum necessitates that you have them, but you really shouldn’t need them.  You really ought to be so utterly devoted to your topic that you can carry the audience without relying upon the screen.  Take a look at many of the TED talks – there’s just a passionate person talking, not a smart instructor elaborating on words most of the audience can already read.

My short speaking experience is already telling me – don’t even think about opening that PowerPoint file until after you have perfected what you will say and how you will say it.  Else, the slides will guide you.  You need to develop that perfect ability to deliver your topic to the room first.  Then, if you must,  craft a few slides around it.

But only if you have to.

If passionate, failure firms resolve

Don QuixoteThere’s a lot said about the need to invoke people’s passions in the workplace.  I don’t think it happens nearly as often as it should, since for the vast majority, employment is not about passion – it’s about income.  Nonetheless, it’s at least intuitively obvious that having people who don’t just enjoy what they do, but believe in its importance, is a good thing.

Where this might have the greatest benefit is when ideas don’t gain any traction and simply fall apart.  If there is no passion – then failure simply breeds resignation and complacency.  It results in something worse than defeat – the expectation of defeat.  If defeat is expected, then the enthusiasm to try your best simply dissipates.

It is said that success will breed a greater dedication to task.  Maybe, but perhaps that’s not entirely true, or only true for those who are after the material gains success brings.  For those with other aims, however, success isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for effort.

Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, those with sincere belief will attack problems that are well beyond their ability to resolve.  In this sense, resolve is not a by-product of achieving goals, it is the unintended outcome of abject failure.

Stump the chump and the art of accountability

business relationships teams friendsThis past Thursday night I delivered a presentation on understanding the 7 Wastes of Lean and how they are manifested in project management.  It was the largest gathering I’ve spoken to yet, and presented some interesting audience dynamics that were far different from when I presented the same topic to about 50-60 people at the New Hampshire chapter.  Overall, the presentation was fairly well received, however, and I think I delivered my point.  It was good speaking experience and gives me some time to reflect on how to work a larger room.

At the end of the presentation, a question was asked of me by an audience member:  “How do you make people accountable?”

It was clear that the situation this person was in had caused a great deal of frustration and difficulty.  As I pressed for details, it appeared that the situation was one in which a project had been assigned in typical “responsibility without authority” fashion.  Supposed team mates who needed to be a part of the project simply weren’t complying and, it also seemed obvious to me, the naming, blaming and shaming had begun.

My response?  A very unsatisfying quip that the project was doomed before it began.   The truth is, it looks like this project was sponsored via edict, by someone with no ability to grasp the difficulty of the situation or, even worse, someone who had and decided to place the responsibility for it upon the shoulders of an underling.  Also, I asked why people are resisting the change?  The answer was that they were afraid to change.  So, in my estimation, they were in an environment of disrespect because, lets’ face it, if you are fearful you are being disrespected, given the way things at work tend to go.

While likely accurate, those observations don’t really help the poor project manager who must deal with such a lousy situation.  The truth is, it’s always easy to blame management (which I also stated), however, you can influence from your own level on down.  So, I am sorry to say, that while the environment this Project Manager was in was entirely toxic and the assignment was probably doomed, there was a lot more that could have been done to make the situation better.

So, upon reflection over the course of the weekend, I have come up with some other advice.  Now, I won’t bore people with the usual rhetoric:  Approach the sponsor for additional support, lay out ground rules for the project team, establish tasks and task owners.  Those things are fairly simple and rely on utilizing tools rather than getting down into core people-centered concepts.  My best advice, then, is this:

Make friends.

I am as guilty as the next person in relying too much on being right and too little on being liked.  While all those smarts turn up evidence that is undeniable, people will still tend to go the other way, preferring to be wrong with friends than right and alone.  If you spend time making friends with people, they will do more to help you and be sympathetic when you are handed that miserable dog of a project.  Having those relationships does, indeed, make things easier and, therefore, enables the participation and experimentation needed to bring about success.

Now, people will say that such things ought not to be necessary and, if you are dedicated to a task or a company, that people should put aside their personal feelings and get the job done.  True.  They should.  True, also, that they won’t.  If you establish personal ties, however, people will choose to help you, they will choose to work on things they don’t want to just to spend time with people they like, they will choose to do a good job in order to make you look good, and they will choose to hold up their end so that they do not let you down.

In short, they will choose to be accountable.

Leadership, Culture and the Situation of Marissa Mayer

marissa_new4Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, sent a shock wave across the internet and the blogosphere last weekend when she announced that Yahoo’s policy of allowing people to work remotely would be ended, and that remote-working employees would need to begin reporting to the office by June 2013.

The debate has raged over the wisdom of the move, with a heaping ton of criticism coming from culture-change advocates who point to research indicating that remote work programs are beneficial, while the other side of the coin points to lost engagement and productivity.  A short, quick summary of the debate can be found over on the Huffington Post:

What I find interesting is that, in an era when so many are advocating culture as the basis for an organization’s effectiveness, as well as the need for leadership to take charge of establishing that culture, that so much criticism is being thrown at Mayer for her decision.  All this even as some insiders report that the move was utterly necessary because the work-from-home policy had created more problems than it solved, and the abuses of the policy were significant.

All of the admonitions and warnings and tirades thrown at Mayer, or in support of her, all seem to be coming from outside the company – by folks who have a voice, but who are not, necessarily, informed.  Like them, I do not know Marissa Mayer.  Unlike them, however, I won’t assume that she’s a short-sighted crazy person or an idiot.  Her ideas do have some merit, even if we disagree with them.

What’s daunting, however, is what we are seeing is a high-profile CEO doing what everyone is demanding of high-profile CEOs – to take bold steps and to lead an organization through the establishment of a company culture.  If Mayer believes that her organization will perform best when people are interacting face-to-face, then she must act with integrity and follow her beliefs by bringing that dynamic into her organization.  It has become the stuff of many an article and business school essay at places like Facebook and Google.

Of course, that’s also exactly where the problem lies.  Mayer is attempting to benchmark against other organizations and believes that worked over there will also work at Yahoo.  That’s a bit short-sighted, however, it’s also the exact same dynamic being offered by her critics – finding the best case example of a situation just like your preferred alternative, and then using that as evidence that the alternative is the right one.  For example, the creators of ROWE responded to Yahoo’s policy decision with an Open Letter to Marissa Mayer, citing The Gap as an organization that has done well by implementing ROWE.  Unfortunately, you can’t claim the Gap’s implementation of ROWE was a success and ignore the fact that performance at Best Buy, where ROWE was created, just sucks.

Likewise, you can’t say this was the right move and not wonder why there was not a declaration of the need to identify the root cause of these behaviors.  If people are abusing the system and failing to collaborate – face time might not be the root cause.  There is likely something else going on.  Perhaps that something else can be attended to by having people co-located, or maybe not.  Fact of the matter is, none of us knows for sure, and all anyone is contributing is an opinion, if not an agenda.

There is clearly a clash of cultures occurring as well, as most of the criticism is coming from tech/software/internet company founders and their employees who have embraced remote work.  Others outside of the tech community are much more supportive of the move.  If we believe the insider’s view, then this was the right move for Yahoo at this time – and maybe it is, or maybe it is not.  What the critics themselves should be chastised for is campaigning for executives to lead and set the tone within their organizations and then criticize those same leaders for not setting the tone the critics preferred.

The truth is that no one knows if this will be the right move.  It is, quite clearly, going to be something of an experiment.  Those who believe remote work, in general, is a good thing based on their experience or beliefs and, therefore, a good thing for Yahoo are about to have that hypothesis tested.  On the other side of the debate, those who advocate face-to-face interaction as the core that fuels innovation, will also have their theory tested.  What all must do now is what everyone who has conducted an experiment must always do – establish the parameters of the experiment and observe the results.

If Yahoo’s performance improves over time then we will have evidence over which to debate this decision, and not just relentless opinion.  If, however, it turns out that the performance of the company declines, then we’ll know that the performance problem was not due to attendance, but to other, deeper flaws in the management of the company.  Either way, some years from now when the evidence is available, I suspect no measure will be given to the dynamics of the system and I’m certain Marissa Mayer will either be celebrated or blamed.