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.

So what if it’s important?

office_work_by_linni_fight

office work by linni fight

I wish I had a nickel for every time some new initiative was rolled out, sometimes with mandatory attendance at grandiose presentations proclaiming the utter importance of the initiative to the future survival of the company.  If I did have a nickel for every one of those, I’m certain to have a whole lot of nickels.
Unfortunately, asserting that the reason for change is  important violates the Fat Smoker principle, as I like to call it, which was a term coined by David Maister.  Essentially, it is the awareness that although we know what the problem is, we rarely address it, no because we don’t know what the right thing to do is, but because in order to get to something good we must first go through something difficult.  Here’s a video of his thoughts on being a Fat Smoker:

 

Knowing that something is important is only necessary for change to occur.  It is not sufficient for full, genuine adoption of new behaviors.  In order for people to change their behaviors, it is necessary to demonstrate how the change from the old to the new will make life easier, even if it requires some difficulty in the near term.

When I say “make life easier” I mean at the personal level – not the organizational.  If the organization is made more profitable, that creates some amount of ease, but one that doesn’t necessarily transfer all the way down to the individual.  In fact, most initiatives have the opposite result – making the long-term workload for the individual more difficult.  Sustaining the improvement also becomes easier because, once people are able to accomplish the desired outcomes with less strain, they will always want to keep doing things in the easiest way they know how.

It must be noted that, if the people within an organization have been subjected to years of strain and strive, however, they will not easily adopt anything new.  The lack of trust is simply too pervasive.  In these cases, incentives in the form of tangible or intangible rewards are often doled out in order to reward those who adopt the new behaviors with the greatest zeal.  Unfortunately, in these circumstance, no amount of management pressure, bribery or cajoling will ever be successful in the long term because the energy required on the part of management to enact such things will eventually run out, too.

People will develop new habits based on a perceived personal benefit, and even then, old habits die hard.  Overcoming this inertia requires a bit of guidance.  When it comes to change, nothing is as important as an engaged, supportive and authoritative leadership.

The value of delayed decisions

decisions by mihaibrrr

decisions by mihaibrrr

Most conversations about improvement revolve around finding ways to speed things up.  Whether by focusing on the elimination of unnecessary activities, doing less more often, reducing clutter, training the mind to avoid multitasking, or any other approach to speeding up decision making the prevailing message is clear:  do things faster.

The desire to do things faster necessitates making decisions faster, of course.  Process improvement schools of thought are, essentially, designed to speed up decision making to one degree or another.  Last year, I came across Frank Partnoy’s Wait, however, which advocated something different – slowing things down.

Partnoy investigates the cognitive science of decision making across multiple situations, from athletes making decisions in milliseconds to investors like Warren Buffet who delay decisions for weeks, months or years.  In his investigations, he discovers a seemingly simply truth:  That the longer you can delay a decision, the better decision you will make.

Partnoy’s take seems to be out of synch with improvement methods that look to speed up our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, I think there’s more in common than might meet the eye.  What I see in Partnoy’s book  is that decision making needs to be slowed down in order for genuine improvement to occur.  Adopting continuous improvement methods allows  for as much information gathering as possible prior to making the final decision.

The iterations surrounding any approach that looks to fail fast and learn constantly are all doing 1 thing – allowing for as much learning as possible prior to making a decision that can’t be undone.  Partnoy’s work reinforces the wisdom of this approach and makes it clear:  slowing down your thought processes, rather than speeding them up, results in the best possible outcomes.

 

Give yourself a thinking day – it’s best for productivity

thinking_hard_by_misty_dawn-d535r8j

Thinking Hard by misty dawn

I’m probably not going to wow anyone with this insightful statement:  Life is busy.

That business has a tendency to feed upon itself, resulting in ever-busier times when there’s just too much to do and too little time to do it.  If you’re like me, there are times when you lose sense of priorities and get caught up in the hustle and bustle and the momentum swells until you’re in a tizzy of activity that you don’t always need to do – it just feels like it.

Personal kanban

 offers a strong remedy to this terrible habit of mine by creating a list of items to be done and allowing me to focus on getting things done.  Unfortunately, what is good for me isn’t always what’s best for me, either.

Very often, it’s when I am overloaded, but seem to be unmotivated, that my mind tends to wander or I spend much too much time investigating something that has struck my curiosity rather than doing what started off as the #1 thing I had to do thay day. Sometimes, though, when I feel as if I am day dreaming when I need to get work done I  come out of it with a new sense of priorites and a re-focused effort on just what needs to get done and what is just a nagging worry based on something that needed to get done a while ago (and is now completely overcome by events anyway).

These times feel entirely unproductive since there’s nothing tangible that comes out of it.  By letting my curiosity free, however, I tend to downplay the urgent but not important in favor of some learning that actually prevents a future problem, or that reminds me that the worries of today are just that – worries – and I need not be taking up my precious time with such things I can do nothing about anyway.

I call these days my Thinking Days.  I feel pretty guilty when someone asks what I did that day and I don’t seem to have anything to show for it, hwoever, I also hate to give them up for anything.  It’s at the end of those days when I feel the most focused and certain of the next day’s activities.