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.

Well, OF COURSE no one trusts management…..


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.


Managing the complex organization

Traffic Pro

Traffic Pro by marie carrion

A great read popped up over at this week.  The author, Ilyz Pozin, is a successful entrepreneur with several successful companies under his belt.  The article, entitled, “Want Happier Employees? Get Rid of the Bosses” describes his foray into the world of innovative management practices.  Along the way, he learns something about mentoring vs. directing, allowing teams to self-manage, the elimination of hierarchies based on titles, eliminating worry over salaries and incomes, and rewarding people for performance instead of activity.Those things are, in a nutshell, at the core of every bit of innovation in management writing over the last 30-40 years or so.  Which doesn’t make any of it a bad thing – it’s just a reminder that these ideas have been around for a very long time, and maybe we’re finally starting to see some of them come into fruition.

Unfortunately, despite all the cries to the contrary (including those coming from yours truly) – management is still, and always will be, quite necessary.

For instance, Pozin tells us that his innovative approach to managing his company – where people are organized into self-directed teams, has been going on for just 3 months. That is hardly long enough to declare sustainability to the approach.  He also declares, “Individuals need to be managed, but teams manage themselves.”  That statement, I believe, is wrong.  Or, at the very least, it’s mostly wrong…and it is mostly wrong due to a chronic misunderstanding and misapplication of what management is and should be.

Teams in simple environments are more able to “manage” themselves – which means they are able to organize their own activities and determine how to go about their work, assigning tasks to each person within the team.  Disputes are resolved, ideas are discussed, actions are taken.  All of which is to say that these teams, perhaps, don’t “manage” themselves – but, rather, that they lead themselves.  Managing is, of necessity, a bureaucratic and dogmatic process.  Coordinating the activities of a group of teams, especially as an organization grows increasingly complex, requires someone to help all those teams get organized.  In other words, someone must manage the interactions.Managing becomes necessary the more complex the organization becomes. Not “leading” or “coaching” or “mentoring” –  but “managing.”  Groups  of teams need coordination – Not in the childish way we push people around and call it “management” or bastardize such things into calling them “leadership,” but management – the coordinating of activities and the people who are going to perform them.

Someone needs to ensure the free flow of work throughout the organization.  Even the highest performing teams will need to have administrative things taken care of for them – facilities to work in, team members recruited, retained and substituted, legalities administered, etc.  Which, and especially in a highly complex organization, will require someone to coordinate the effort between teams and to identify and remove the roadblocks.  This means management.

The key is to make that management valuable and prevent it from becoming the hierarchical enigma we’ve all come to know – one whose only purpose is to maintain the hierarchy for its own sake regardless of the quality of work the teams that depend upon that management produce.  Management, when viewed as something that exists only to facilitate and enable the performance of work, becomes an important, vital and valuable function within the workplace.  When it exists to provide a layer of blind enforcement, unnecessary political and procedural activity, and as a salary enhancement vehicle for the technically proficient – its value diminishes to the point of being worthless.

Perseverance, intelligence and flexibility – 3 things that will never get you past HR

The Processor

The Processor by monkehranch on

A great, and yet depressing, article appeared on last week.  Authored by David Wessel and entitled “Software Screening Rejects Job Seekers” the article references a forthcoming book from  Peter Capelli, “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.”

The focus of the article is “the now-ubiquitous use of software to screen applicants” in hiring practices and a downward spiral stemming from the use of software applications in order to handle the volume of resumes companies received.  Software made it both less necessary to employ a large number of recruiters and HR pros, as well as possible to receive a larger number of resumes, and those resumes came in droves.  The volume became impossible to handle, so more software support was needed, and the filtering of resumes has become so exact that a whole new skill – tricking the filtering software – has emerged.

All of which, in my humble opinion, is just another example of how the workplace culture inside of most companies has completely gone astray.  Although individuals are touted as “the greatest asset” by many companies, the emphasis placed on truly dealing with those individuals is becoming less and less.  Hiring is based on nothing more than technical skills, and even within that, the keywords describing those skills must match exactly to what the person who wrote the req thought of when they were writing it.

Since we all know that establishing supportive, long-term relationships are the key to enjoying work, getting the most out of people, fostering creativity and innovation – what sense does it make to put such a heavy over-emphasis on skill sets and key words?  If culture is the king that eats strategy for breakfast, shouldn’t the effort be expended on identifying people who fit within the company?  Personality, after all, is something that is innate – and doesn’t change.  Skills, however, can be learned.

The keyword – based paradigm is born from a belief that managers don’t really ever have to engage their employees.  The belief, instead, is that by finding someone who already knows how to do that job, that the person can be plugged into a role and left alone, forever.  Like buying a new gear for a machine – simply insert the right part correctly and it will run all by itself.

Unfortunately, humans don’t operate that way, and the “soft skills” that are fundamental to personality – things like perseverance, intelligence, flexibility, and other intangibles are what makes a person enjoyable to work with….or not.  Those are also things that need to be fed and cared for in order to grow – unlike skills, which can be learned through a training class, a book, a PowerPoint presentation or CBT module.

In spite of the teaching of many management thinkers from gurus such as Deming and Scholtes, to more recent works from Pink and Sinek, to the innovative discussions of “Maangement 2.0” taking place at the Mix, over the past 30 years the fundamental mindset of management has not changed.  What is needed, instead of “Managers” –  is a caste of teachers and mentors who aggressively look for raw material they can shape and inspire into becoming the workers and leaders that companies need.

Unfortunately, we may never get it, because anyone who had ever wished to rise through the ranks learned to do so not by developing and inspiring others, but by figuring out the keywords to make it look like they did.

Ownership is easy when you’re not fighting for survival

Fight In Wolf Pack

Fight In Wolf Pack II by amrodel on

Right on the heels of my recent post advocating the development of a “Shop Owner Mentality” in order to create pride and dedication within organizations, an article by Nacie Carson was published on entitled “Think Like An Entrepreneur, Act Like An Employee.”

In my article, I wrote:

People who are proud of their shop always want to have that pride.  They want it to sustain and grow.  They never want to see their pride diminished.

In your workplace, do people act like shopowners?  Do they do work extra hard to take care of the shop, own its processes, design its delivery of goods and services, and constantly seek out innovative ways to provide value?  Are they looking for ways to grow the business, since that growth leads to both stability and prosperity?

Odds are, they are not.  Most people are just trying to survive it all, in return for a paycheck and some sense of satisfaction, if it can be found at all.  Most people have jobs and not purposes.  That lack of purpose prevents the emergence of any kind of pride in the ability to do the job, grow the company, satisfy the customer or improve the quality of whatever it is they are selling.  Instead, pride gets twisted until it becomes not pride of ownership, but pride of survival.


My perspective was this:  Most people would love to be calling the shots, but fear of reprisal prevents them from experimenting with risky project that, although they might have great rewards, just aren’t worth the potential downside if the project fails.  As a result, people embrace self-protection and learn to keep their heads down.  In other words, they learn to survive.  The only way this can be systematically overcome is for leaders at the top of organizations to embrace management styles and practices that encourage, and even reward, risk taking.

The FastCompany article has a different take on the situation:

Traditionally, the roles of employee and entrepreneur represent two completely different professional archetypes, each with their own ideal skill set. For example, success for an employee is often measured by how well they take direction from superiors, act within the scope of their job responsibilities or function, and reinforce the mission, vision, or values of the organization. Success for entrepreneurs is typically determined by their ability to direct their own work and act without precedent, to expand and grow their job responsibilities and functions, and to envision and support a mission, vision, and set of values on their own. Another way to look at it is to think of the role of an employee as implementing the tactics of an organization–the individual actions that contribute to the success of the larger strategy. The role of an entrepreneur is to develop that larger strategy, and implement it themselves or oversee its implementation.

From my experience in professional development and management consulting, I can tell you that the number one complaint organizations have about their employees is their inability to act tactically but think strategically–or, as above, to act like an employee but think like an entrepreneur. This requires being a follower and a leader simultaneously, and knowing which hat to wear when.


First off, I hate when someone says “the organization” has a complaint, perspective, takes an action, or anything else.  Organizations do not act – people within organizations act.  In the above passage, “the number one complaint organizations have about their employees” really means “the number one complaint people at the head of organizations have about their employees” or, in other words, “the boss is complaining about the employees’ inability.”

Yep – that’s right – the behavior of the rank & file is all their fault.  It’s not that management styles prevent risk taking, it’s that those people at the bottom just don’t know how to get to the top.

The article goes on to depict a situation where an entrepreneurial-minded young man rewrote some of the code behind one of his company’s critical reporting processes – without asking permission – and his efforts yielded success.  Of course, he was also a year out of college and, quite very likely, had nothing to lose.  Take a seasoned professional who isn’t yet vested in the 401K plan, has children in need of braces, summer camp, daycare, and a house to live in – and the willingness to unilaterally initiate an enterprise-changing project diminishes greatly.  Why?  Because in many places the very fact that you undertook something without three levels of review and approval threatens your ability to stay at least in the middle of Maslow’s pyramid.

The article’s point is well taken, and offers some very solid advice:

After all, if you are super productive, all you’ll get is more work to do, right?

Yes, and in more than one sense. You may be assigned more responsibilities and tasks, but you will also likely be offered more opportunity in the organization…as long as you make sure someone notices the effort. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, if a man works 80 hours a week and no one sees him, does he still get a raise? (No.) This is why productivity, when combined with a great professional brand, is an awesome recipe for increasing your value within an organization. The point is to look at your job responsibilities and required skills from a place of ownership, initiative, and personal direction. Remember, it’s about strategy and tactics.


However, I’d hate to be in the organization where everyone is looking for a big project to undertake in order to make a name for themselves.  That sounds like a place without standards, where it is more likely that people will seek to make themselves look good by making others look bad, and where management, rather than leading the people within the organization to reach their potential, is content to sit by and let the wolves destroy each other just to see which one is the strongest.