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.

 

Project problems can’t be solved with an operational focus

loves_distance__by_peggyopal-d41wf2f

loves distance by peggyopal

Straight from the Project Management Institute’s web site (and the PMBoK) is this definition of a Project

It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies. 

 Unfortunately, very often, projects are assessed by using metrics that are not about identifying unique & temproary activities.  Rather, persistent, on-going measures such as average weekly costs or hours worked or material dollars spent are used to determine if a project is running as it should.

Unfortunately, these sort of measurements are more attuned to understanding operations because they establish linear costs over time.  Project have peaks and valleys, spikes and low points, periods of tremendous activity and periods when they have very little at all.  Whether or not they should is a different question – there’s certainly plenty of room for levelling out the workload in projects and avoiding these ups and downs on the individual person, however, there are still times in the life of a project when you  may have multiple people working simultaneously on different sub-projects, and times when only 1 or 2 activities need to be going on.

As such, run rates for a project are erratic, as they should be.  Attempting to smooth costs on the entire project is dangerous.  It leads to people lingering on the project with little to do, just to keep the expenses constant.  Individuals or the departments they report to in a matrix need to keep spending flat.  Projects, however, are characterized by their temporary nature, and the ramping up and down of expenses can be considered an indication of efficency, not inefficiency.

There is, of course, much merit to the argument that bouncing people on and off a team leads to a loss of learning, mometum and flow – so it is better to have folks on the team continue to add cost, even if there is little for them to do.  I agree – right up until they begin producing work just for the sake of producing it.  If there is nothing of value for them to contribute, but disassembling the team creates a long-term problem, then look for learning opportunies within the project.  Have people sit in on working sessions outside of their functional area.  You might find people are adaptable to lots of different tasks, and this type of cross-training is invaluable when you need a pinch-hitter for an unexpected crisis.

Nonetheless, even when analyzing the cost reports for these activities, be very aware of who is doing what, such that you can distinguish between time spent adding genuine value through the transformation of work products and time spent in learning & watching.  Doing so will prevent assessing projects as the outcome on-going costs and, instead, allow you to determine the specific costs that create specific results which, in turn, allows for investigations into better methods for producing the same results.

 

 

What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.

Think small, even when you’re big

Nearly all of my career has been spent in large organizations.  Whether publicly traded or wholly-owned subsidiaries, most of these companies have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of employees in nearly every corner of the globe.

Recently, however, thanks to nothing more than a lot of dumb luck and maybe a smidgen of effort, I’ve gained a little bit of exposure to some tiny companies – from 3-person startups to proven ventures with a dozen or so employees looking to make the leap into the growth stage.

The biggest difference, I’ve realized, is the amount of information that gets shared.  When you are part of something small, especially if you have an equity stake, the information is much, much more open and flowing freely.  Even if things aren’t directly in your area of responsibility, you’re still aware of what people are doing, why they’re doing it, the tradeoffs that were evaluated in order to decide upon that course of action, and the overall performance and health of the company.

In a large organization, information is often tightly controlled, provided on a need-to-know basis, and when it is shared, it is usually edited for content and to run in the time allowed.  Why must this be so?

Whether a large organization or a small one, the people who rely upon the business deserve to know what’s going on.  Those same people, however, also have an obligation to stay abreast of the decisions being made and to understand why they were made.  Many a company has to deal with rumors and speculation born of cafeteria conversation among the rank and file, which are every bit as bad as executives who keep information to themselves in a paternalistic attempt to tell people “only what the need to hear.”

All people have a stake in the performance of the organization.  Even without equity and stock options, people still look to their company for stable income, which enables them to lead their lives.  When information is withheld or doctored to depict a situation for the sake of not causing a panic, or raising undue concern, it portrays an attitude that states the rank  and file simply aren’t able to understand the complexities and must be prevented from learning the truth – as a parent withholds details of an R-rated move from a child.

The better path, both for esprits-de-corps, as well as for simple efficiency, is to share information with all stakeholders.  Make people feel like they have a genuine impact on the success of the organization, and you’ll find a much more engaged workforce than anything you’ve seen before.

Product Innovation vs Operational Excellence (or, Magic vs. Might?)

 

Warrior vs Sorcerer

Warrior vs Sorcerer by Pydracor on deviantart.com

There is so much written about innovation these days, it’s mind numbing.  Most of what you read, however, is all about product innovation – and there is very, very little written about process innovation.

Product innovation is something that is discussed as almost ethereal.  It is something that comes about through a little bit of magic & wizardry.  It’s romantic, intellectual, and fun.  It is the thing that enables companies like Apple & Google to push to the forefront of their industries and become the giga-bucks companies other people write books about.  It is the Holy Grail of major corporations and startups alike – both are encouraged to go on a quest for the magical, mystical powers of innovation.

Product innovation appears to be the realm of the unexplainable – that the way to go about that business is to assume a muse, or some divine spark is, ultimately, going to descend upon the workers bees and imbue them with the powers of insight and creativity.  You have to create innovation space, and adopt managerial styles and practices, that allow creativity to flourish.

Process innovation, on the other hand, is seen as something a little more grungy and foul-smelling.  It is the world of brute force and awkwardness, no matter how elegant it tries to become.  Process innovation tends to be something that people feel can be learned.  All you need to do is study Toyota, or Southwest Airlines, or General Electric and Motorola – and you will soon understand the simplicity of process innovation and be able to apply it easily, right?

Wrong.

The world is littered with great product ideas that could not be produced, as well as with companies that couldn’t sustain their operations long enough to even see the next wave of competitors, much less contend with them.    It doesn’t really matter if you have a great idea, but can’t operate the company, and especially not in the long run.

Even Google, which would seem to be a company based on Magic over Might, understands the need for a strong Operational focus in order to achieve the much-sought-after essence of Innovation.  Consider this passage from their recruitment site (emphasis added by me):

How we hire

We’re looking for our next Noogler – someone who’s good for the role, good for Google and good at lots of things.

Things move quickly around here. At Internet speed. That means we have to be nimble, both in how we work and how we hire. We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. We’re looking for people who are good for Google—and not just for right now, but for the long term.

This is the core of how we hire. Our process is pretty basic; the path to getting hired usually involves a first conversation with a recruiter, a phone interview and an onsite interview at one of our offices. But there are a few things we’ve baked in along the way that make getting hired at Google a little different.

How we interview

We’re looking for smart, team-oriented people who can get things done. When you interview at Google, you’ll likely interview with four or five Googlers. They’re looking for four things:

Leadership

We’ll want to know how you’ve flexed different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team. This might be by asserting a leadership role at work or with an organization, or by helping a team succeed when you weren’t officially appointed as the leader.

Role-Related Knowledge

We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. We also want to make sure that you have the experience and the background that will set you up for success in your role. For engineering candidates in particular, we’ll be looking to check out your coding skills and technical areas of expertise.

How You Think

We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think. We’re likely to ask you some role-related questions that provide insight into how you solve problems. Show us how you would tackle the problem presented–don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.

Googleyness

We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.

How we decide

There are also a few other things we do to make sure we’re always hiring the right candidate for the right role and for Google.

We collect feedback from multiple Googlers

At Google, you work on tons of projects with different groups of Googlers, across many teams and time zones. To give you a sense of what working here is really like, some of your interviewers could be potential teammates, but some interviewers will be with other teams. This helps us see how you might collaborate and fit in at Google overall.

Independent committees of Googlers help us ensure we’re hiring for the long term

An independent committee of Googlers review feedback from all of the interviewers. This committee is responsible for ensuring our hiring process is fair and that we’re holding true to our “good for Google” standards as we grow.

We believe that if you hire great people and involve them intensively in the hiring process, you’ll get more great people. Over the past couple of years, we’ve spent a lot of time making our hiring process as efficient as possible – reducing time-to-hire and increasing our communications to candidates. While involving Googlers in our process does take longer, we believe it’s worth it. Our early Googlers identified these principles more than ten years ago, and it’s what allows us to hold true to who we are as we grow.

These core principles are true across Google, but when it comes to specifics, there are some pieces of our process that look a little different across teams. Our recruiters can help you navigate through these as the time comes.

At Google, we don’t just accept difference – we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.

 

So……these wizards of innovation have a clearly operational focus – collaboration, trust, responsibility, a focus on the long-term, and all of those things emphasized right from the beginning – in the hiring process – to make sure the company is populated with people who allow the organization to sustain its operational focus.

That is the strength of the organization – not it’s magical ability to develop innovative products & solutions, but it’s powerful, day-to-day, operational focus and wherewithal to sustain it.  No matter the industry, any organization without a sense of its self and dedication to the every day operational activities of the company, will fail in its quest.  Others will out-innovate and pass you by, talent will leave the organization and, at best, you will find yourself an also-ran in the market desperately clinging to a plummeting reputation as you pursue weaker and weaker opportunities until, eventually, the light goes out.