So what if it’s important?


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.

Beware the surge

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

I have witnessed or been a part of multiple process improvement efforts – whether they are small in nature and affect only a few people, or large, transformational endeavors designed to reshape the culture of an organization, if not its entire business model.  Some of them succeed, some of them fail, all of them go through a period of a quick, immediate up-tick in performance that looks and feels like success.  A while later, however, there is a let-down.

Some organizations commit to the new direction, usually only when there is a large investment into something tangible – like a major software implementation, office redesign or relocation, or acquisition or merger.  When the intended change is not tangible, however, and the desire is simply to make things go better or to reduce cost, the immediate surge feels good but then tends to end sliding backwards until old, ingrained habits settle in.

The pattern is well documented and observable, of course.  The dynamic is very similar to the classic marketing problem of “Crossing the Chasm” that takes an idea from the early adopters to the mainstream.  Sure, there are always people who want ot have something new just for the sake of having something new (watch the lines form around the corner at the next iPhone release), however, most people will wait a while before making a decision to try it out, and even longer before committing to the idea entirely.

There are plenty of discussion on how to bridge the gap, too.  Most will focus on the role of leadership in driving the organization and, more importantly, the people within the organization to adopt the new reality, whatever it may be.  This is done with coaching, hand holding, engagement, and so on, each of which is intended to match people’s habits with the expected behavior.

I suspect, however, that the problem when it comes to facilitating adoption isn’t so much one of driving people to the intended outcome, but in allowing people to change the outcome.  Consider the marketing analogy – if a product fails outright, would it have succeeded if the consumers themselves could have changed it into what they desired, rather than what the producer wanted to produce?  This is, in many ways, the essence of the Lean Startup movement – introduce something minimal and iterate as quickly as possible with measurable data as input.

Perhaps, when it comes to change initiatives, a similar approach should be adopted?  Rather than rolling out major process and culture-changing implementations all at once and driving people to the expected behavior, change can be conducted as a sort of crowd-sourced endeavor?  Leadership at the top is usually concerned with industry trends and overall company performance, and (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily interact day-to-day with the the rank and file.  This places them in a poor position to determine what’s best for  the rank and file (not to mention what’s best for customers), how they’ll react to change and, therefore, how they will react.

Nonetheless, Leadership does have the authority to decide when change is necessary.  Rather than deciding the course, speed and direction unilaterally, however, I have to wonder if the better approach is to initiate the change and then step out of the way.  Let the crowd determine when course corrections are needed in order to align Leadership’s perceived need for change with people’s need to feel empowered and lasting, sustainable changes just might occur.

Wiggle room – The no-panic guide to staff development

tight spot
tight spot

Tight Spots... by Gatsusword on

You need to give your people opportunities to flounder.  Challenge them with the impossible.  Get them in over their heads.

You’re a senior person.  You’re supposed to know what can really hurt your business and what can’t.  If you don’t – then hurry up and figure it out.

If you do know what can hurt and what can’t, then you know you can give your people interesting projects that will help to benefit the business, but not destroy it as they struggle.

It’s as simple as having extra capacity on a bottle neck or schedule slack in your project – you have wiggle room…always.

This is where the cost containers get themselves in trouble – in the effort to contain cost they squeeze the life out of their organizations, suffocating it until it can’t breathe because there’s no room to catch a breath.  There has to be room to accommodate the unexpected.  Life happens.  Shit happens.  You will never predict it all – yes, you should try, because being prepared is better than reacting like a caffeinated cat all the time, but even the hyperactive feline needs room to hop around when necessary.

If you run every resource to its breaking point, the instant anything unpredictable happens – it breaks.

What if what’s in their best interest……doesn’t interest them?


Salad by digitalminds on

A very good post appeared on the FastCompany site yesterday, in which author Ginny Whitelaw declared, “Empathy is the most powerful leadership tool.”

There’s not a lot to disagree with in the article.  It is, essentially, about Covey’s “seek first to understand” and represents both a practical, and I would say moralistic, way to approach your interactions with others.  Seeing things from their point of view is a good thing, of course.  It helps you to understand the other person better, so that you can align your message with their concerns.  It’s a practical exercise for influencing others in any walks of life where negotiation, compromise, and change are necessary.  It also indicates that you have a measure of respect for the other person’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs and opinions.

Unfortunately, there are times when people simply don’t act in a way that is consistent with what is in their best interests.  Especially not in the long term.  It’s as simple as David Meister’s Fat Smoker principle – you have to go through something difficult to get to something good, so change is hard and rarely happens.

Short-term thinking has a psychological basis.  Ronald Riggio wrote a post on his blog last year, linking the economic crisis to “short-termism:”

There is considerable evidence that short-term thinking in business, and in regard to the economy, is disastrous. It is our search for immediate gratification that fuels short-term thinking. Much of the economic meltdown was related to the pursuit of immediate rewards – whether it was the lenders trying to reap profits from questionable loans, or the homeowners who were buying property that was beyond their means.

Here are the danger signs that you are falling prey to short-term thinking.

1. No plan. Companies that don’t engage in long-term planning are prone to failure.

2. Trying for the quick score. Fads and trends come and go, and many businesses and investors that cashed in on the quick score are often gone because they don’t plan for what to do when the fad is gone.

3. Lack of analysis. All too often, what seemed like a good idea at the time, will only turn out to be a bad idea through careful analysis. A lot of terrific business ideas and inventions aren’t successful because the originator didn’t analyze how to get the product made, marketed, and/or delivered.


Having done the planning, analyzing and monitoring of budgets for initiatives at one level or another in my career, I have seen each of those three things occur all too often.

Analytics necessitate patience – they require that you take a little longer and examine a feel-good situation to make sure it’s not a long-term disaster in the making.  Unfortunately, we tend to be fat smokers when it comes to planning.  We want the rush of the good stuff first, only to (and often quite intentionally) push the messy, difficult stuff to some later point in time.  Essentially, we want dessert first and we push the broccoli and cauliflower to the end of the meal.  Of course, that just leaves a bad taste in our mouths when we’re done.

So, what can we do to overcome the problem?  I think it’s simple – just as a person who needs to eat better and exercise more will find a way to mix in a little bit of the things they don’t like with the things that they do, so must a business.  Both must learn a simply, but not easy, habit:  saying no.

Saying no to the slice of apple crisp and walking away from the table is much like saying no to what seems like a great investment, but hasn’t been analyzed.  Give yourself time to contemplate and reflect upon the consequences of what you are about to do.  If you are bad at doing that for yourself, put people in place around you who are specifically selected for their ability to disagree with you and make sure you make healthy choices and focus on the longer-term.

Unlimited vacation, unlimited responsibility….for management

working outdoors
working outdoors

Studying outdoors by ubul on

There’s been a lot written recently about companies that have adopted a very ROWE-like approach to vacation time:  It’s unlimited.  Simply get your work done, or make sure someone can do it in your stead so that work processes can continue, and go ahead and do whatever you need to do.  This article on demonstrates how the unlimited vacation ideal has been implemented at Red Frog Events.

The policies are certainly enticing and might be a useful countermeasure to a long understood problem – that people are not treated like adults and, if left alone in an environment of enthusiasm and trust, will not abuse the privilege.  Not abusing the privilege, however, somehow implies that the individual contributor has full knowledge of the entire flow of work within the office and their role in it.

That is an ideal – a completely engaged workforce with a 100% clear understanding of the value stream and its day-to-day operations.  If that occurs, and you believe in people’s intrinsic motivations to always do the “right thing,” then unfettered vacation policies make sense and seem to be a good idea.

Unfortunately, there are some fatal flaws in the concept, which a good dose of Lean thinking addresses.  As I mentioned in response to some comments left on the ROWE: An attempt at achieving the Lean Ideal? post, if you have 2 employees working on the same task, and one takes all week while another is finished on Tuesday – that’s not necessarily an indication that you have one super-capable person and on slacker.  It could simply mean you have 1 innovator and 1 very hard worker who gets results even with the most inefficient methods – and they are not talking to each other.  While traditional management would say this is a fine way to go about work, enlightened thinking realizes the hard-working person is going to burn out and the other person has simply developed a better method, for which he or she gets to leave the office rather than share the wisdom.

The true burden for making unlimited vacation work rests not on the workers for knowing what’s coming down the pipe and, therefore, which days they can take off.  The burden rests on low-level managers who are aware of not just the workflow – but also have an emotional connection to the individuals placed within their area of control.  If you have a person showing signs of burnout, it’s not enough to just tell him or her to take the day off.  Someone needs to assess the costs of having that person out of the office vs. the decrease in productivity or creativity (or anything else that is valued deeply).  Any action must be judged by someone able to see the entire system.  Most normal, healthy individuals are going to look for more time away from the office.  A more wizened professional, however, should have more visibility into how losing a resource has far greater impacts across the organization.

The role of management in an environment that supports unlimited vacation is a crucial one.  It necessitates that managers have a handle on the value stream and the ability to establish multiple workaround paths and redundancies to ensure work continues no matter who is in the office or on the shop floor.

Which, when you stop to think of it, isn’t just  a necessary component of good culture – it’s a fundamental for good business management practices.