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.

In the age of engagement, you can’t thwart ambition

ambition_by_tja88

ambition by tja88

There are more articles, books and posting out there on engagement, creating engagement, the benefits of creating engagement, and so on than I can count.  So, of course, I’m going to write a post about engagement (Once in a while, I do like to suppress my contrarian urges and go along with the crowd).  Instead of yet another voice telling you how to generate engagement, however, here’s a tale of how to make sure it gets utterly destroyed:

A friend recently told me that, at the employer she has been with for years, and after having recently completed a graduate degree that the company funded, during her Annual Review (a practice that, all by itself, tends to smother engagement anyway.  Click here for good reading on the subject) she was penalized….yes, actually penalized, for seeking other opportunities within the company.  “Clearly, you’re not happy here,” she was told.  “Everyone else is doing good work because they are committed to their position.”  and, with that, she received a less-than-stellar review that impacted her income, of course.  During the course of the year other people had transitioned to new roles both into and out of that department, leaving her flabbergasted at the comments in the appraisal.

My poor friend’s predicament left me wondering how, in an era where engagement is so widely and openly discussed, any employer can seek to crush its people’s ambitions?  Clearly, this person was not disloyal – after receiving advanced education she was looking to return that value to the company by applying it internally (something she had limited opportunities to do in her current role).  Nonetheless, she was chastised and punished for trying to bring greater value to the company and create her own sense of engagement by taking on a more challenging position (because, obviously, no one was much interested in creating that sort of engagement for her).

I heard this story right on the heels of a great Fast Company article describing how many employees are now forced into faking enthusiasm.  Clearly, as both the article and my friend’s experience demonstrate, the situation with regard to engagement is getting worse instead of better.   Also, if you want people to be dedicated, celebrate their ambitions.  Chris Seper recently placed a very popular article on LinkedIn speaking to the situation directly: “Why I celebrate when my employees leave”

Here’s a tip for those who are still struggling with the concept:  Engagement….or passion…or loyalty…or whatever word you want …. is not about appearances.   Nor is it something that you should rely on people creating for themselves, because such things are not brought about through the perserverance, discipline and dedication of employees.  Perserverance, discipline and dedication are the results of employee engagement, not the inputs.

Dad tells a story of inefficient communication, and truly wasteful meeting management

steelwork_by_roodpa-d4xunzm

steelwork by roodpa-d4xunzm

On a recent trip home for the Holidays, I was railing about such-and-wuch workplace goings on, when my father shared a story from his days managing projects in the construction industry.

His experience was in steel fabrication – the guys who take standard bpieces of milled steel beams, bars and plates and cut it into the pieces necessary to erect buildings and bridges.  As such, he worked closely with the erectors who took those custom-fabricated bits of steel and turned them into the skeletons around which the rest of the structure was put together.

Often times, he told me, he would have to report to the job site for a project status meeting.  The general contractor, or whatever entity was in charge, would require all the leads of the various teams to report out and hear what was happening and where the project was, and establish any hand-ins and hand-outs that had occurred, or needed to occur.  None of which sounds too terrible, of course.

That is, until Dad also let me know that, as the “steel guy,” most of his work was done fairly early in the life cycle.  The steel was cut, fabricated, delivered, erected, corrected, charged back, and his end of the project entirely signed off.  Nonetheless, he was bound to attend these hours-long meetings at times, just to hear how the electrical inspection and finished carpentry was progressing.  His activity on the overall project was long since done and over with, nonetheless, in the name of communication, he was required to attend.  The fact that the meeting would never include any information he needed to hear was entirely lost on the meeting’s organizer.

So it goes with most meetings.  Well-intentioned people will often, in the name of completeness or the feel-good sensation of having shared information with the entire group, call large all-hands meetings and blurt out every bit of info under the sun, just so everyone is “on the same page” and can understand the “project environemtn” and “paths to success.”  Unfortunately, what gets lost is that the project is made up of many, many mini-projects and, just as the PM does not want to waste time and cost by speding effort on anything not relevant to his or her project, so it is with the leaders of all the mini-projects, too.

Communciation for the sake of driving a necessary decsion, from the necessary decision makers, is valuable.  Communication for the sake of team building and understanding is valuable, too.  Communication for the sake of adhering to formal or informal protocols or because “this is what we’ve always done,” or because of a single-sided belief that people want to hear what you have to say is misguided.  People like to know what’s going on if it helps them to get a job done.  Otherwise, all that communication is just a hindrance to some actual accomplishment.

Follow up: Why Lunch & Learn is not for everyone

lonely_lady_loves_lunch_by_emohoc
lonely_lady_loves_lunch_by_emohoc

lonely lady loves lunch by emohoc

Last time out, my post on why I dislike the practice of Lunch & Learns drew quite a few visitors to the site, and a small handful of comments on reddit.

One comment, in particular, stuck out in my mind.  Reddit user: “CivilDiscussions” wrote:

You sound like quite the slacker. In the real world, we have lunch meetings all the time. Lunch isn’t guaranteed to be “your time”

Now THAT is a fascinating take – that wanting to have a break with which to recharge, or to avoid yet another mindless, unproductive meeting, is associated with slacking.  The only thing this makes me believe is that people with this mindset have not yet adopted the principles of productivity or efficiency.  Instead, they value activity over accomplishment and, therefore, believe attendance at lunchtime working sessions is useful, which is just plain silly.

After reading the comments on reddit, however, i recalled Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, and her Ted talk on The Power of Introverts.  The assumption that people are “slackers” simply for their preference to be alone for awhile, especially mid-day after 4-5 hours of listening to other people’s incessant yammering, chatter, shifting, shuffling and noise, is certainly ignorant.  For those like me who crave that 30 or 60 minutes of isolation to block out the world and spend a little time doing something that either interests us intently, and/or relaxes us significantly – being chastised for doing what helps us to work seems like something that would cause a loss productivity.

Given that such a significant portion of the population is, in fact, introverted – that only makes the practice of Lunch & Learns that much more difficult to understand.  Consider what we know:

  • Trying to divide a person’s attention is counter-productive.  Eating and working at the same time guarantees a loss of efficiency in both activities and, since time is limited, makes both less effective, too.
  • The majority of people out there don’t like their jobs.  Throwing more information and activity at them in the same amount of time & space is mind numbing.  This either breeds resentment, fatigue resulting in a loss of creativity, or both.
  • A very large percentage of people function poorly when they don’t have a chance to “switch off” and re-charge.  Once they can do that, however, they are remarkably productive and creative.

Lunch & learn sessions fill what seems like non-productive time with something that feels more useful.  What gets missed, however, is the longer-term affects of allowing people to relax, unwind or to even have some time to think about the issues of the day without interruption.  Eliminating this time in favor of the vain belief that if people are doing something that feels like work, they must be doing something productive, is simply ignorant and condescending.

 

Well, OF COURSE no one trusts management…..

Backstabber_by_bat_bat
Backstabber_by_bat_bat

Backstabber by bat bat

In a conversation with a seasoned manager who asked me why I believed morale was so poor in his organization, I stated that the thing most often heard wafting through the cubicles was that people simply don’t trust the management here. “Well, that’s universal.” he stated, and quickly dismissed the concerns people were uttering as just usual, typical, workplace angst. 

And so, improving the situation quickly became impossible or, at the very least, set back for quite a while. 

Now, it would be easy to point out the ignorance of this approach, or how such thinking leads to long-term disengagement, to how the failure to put aside personal perceptions and attempt to understand a situation before launching into a solution is a far more optimal approach, etc, etc, etc.  Certainly, all of these things were my first, immediate, and emotional reactions. Upon reflection, however, I realized that this problem  was born from different perspectives on management’s role among the age groups in the organization.

Those who felt that the staff was – for lack of a better term – whining, were all north of 55 years of age, and most of those were north of 60.  Their expectation was that managers were tough, not very understanding, at that the entire management rank of the organization was something for everyone else to contend with and develop mechanisms around. 

The folks on the other end of the spectrum were all 30-40 years old, and had an expectation that, while management needed to be stood up to at times, its primary function was to enable workers as much as possible.  Managers, from their point of view, needed to make adjustments in their own behavior when confronted so that the organization as a whole, as well as the people within it, could thrive. 

Younger still, and with a very different perspective, were those who were 20-30 years old, who believed they shouldn’t even have to confront management and let them know where the problems were.  They expected management to be involved, engaged, and have a deep understanding o the work such that problems were prevented, not simply addressed when they arose. 

 Some of this difference in perspective has to do with simple matters of maturity.  s you get older, you get a little more grizzled, tougher, and less likely to expect that someone else is going to take care of you.  Some of it, however, is also generational – my belief is that those folks who are in their 20s now will be more likely to look for collaborative and trustworthy management styles when they are in their 60s, as well as be more likely to create a sense of trust in the organization as they rise through the ranks. 

They will not achieve it 100%, of course, since having to bend the young whelps into shape is a part of maturing and becoming a leader.  There are clear differences in the expectations that generations have of the role of management, however, and not all of those expectations will erode over time. 

For the highest ranks of management, this is an important element of team dynamics to understand.  There are going to be conflicts arising from role expectations, management styles, personality types and even just work habits.  But what is driving those attributes?  The root cause may be something so simple as understanding when a person was born.

My best advice to anyone, regardless of age group, is simple:  Seek understanding and reflect before speaking.  Every opinion is a valid one, and you will understand it better if you first learn to understand the premise with which it was made.  This will provide you with an opportunity to examine your own opinions and behaviors and then decide if you are the one who needs to grow up a little, or regain a little of your lost youthful optimism.