Sunday, November 28, 2010

Running Productive Meetings

We used to complain about all the useless back-to-back meetings and being copied on hundreds of unnecessary emails. Who knew it could get so much worse. We used to say there’s no such thing as over-communication. Now we’d do anything to make it stop.

Communication is out of control and it’s taking all the fun - and productivity - out of work.

Don’t get me wrong, communication is as important to business success and organizational effectiveness as it used to be. There’s just too much of it. For whatever reason, the old problem of protecting domains by limiting the flow of information has morphed into a new problem of hyper-collaboration where everybody’s included in everything.

If you ask me, the communication pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, although I’m not really sure why:

Is it simply the umpteenth fad, an overemphasis on communication, collaboration, and teamwork because that’s the way we’re supposed to do things now?

Is it an overreaction to the virtualization of the workforce, an attempt to control and reel in all those remote teams, telecommuters and flextime users?

Is it just because we can, now that we’ve all got smartphones, a million ways to message and chat, social media, virtual meeting and collaboration tools?

Whatever the reason, communication overload has reached epidemic proportions and it’s killing precious productivity and effectiveness at a time of economic strife and global competition, when our already overwhelmed and under-resourced management teams and workforces can least afford it.

Here are 10 Ways to Stop Communication Overload:

1.Every meeting - physical or virtual - must have an objective, an agenda, a start time and an end time; everybody who attends every meeting must have a specific and definitive purpose for being there.

2.Stop adding people to processes and groups. Every person you add to every process, group, communication, team, whatever, adds complexity and reduces productivity because people tend to say and do things, then others tend to respond, and so-forth. It’s always easier to herd fewer cats.

3.Question the broad use of predefined email distribution lists, reconsider every individual you cc on an email, and most importantly, don’t automatically hit “Reply to All.”

4.Reconsider internal meetings to prepare for other internal meetings, layers and layers of review meetings, the wisdom of “all hands” meetings, and panicked, kneejerk reactions to involve the whole damn world in a crisis.

5.Encourage and reward employee accountability, risk-taking, and initiative for resolving problems on their own.

6.If anybody out there is still trying to make matrix management work, stop. It’s a brilliant organizational concept that’s nearly impossible to execute without creating mass confusion and, ultimately, way more problems than it solves.

7.Be leery of noncritical management fads that are sure to create tons of meetings with amorphous results. Remember OD - Organization Development?

8.Question the ubiquitous “I want to be involved” and “keep me in the loop” micromanaging / controlling mentality.

9.Don’t use collaboration or communication tools for the sake of using them. If the net ROI isn’t clear, don’t do it.

10.Never forget that, now more than ever, time is everyone’s most precious asset.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Culture of Successful Organizations

Why do people cling to weak ideas even when they have such destructive effects? Because they often don’t recognize how ill-conceived the ideas really are. Below are ten of the most common, bad ideas I’ve seen at work.

1. Everyone should live by our values (except for a few prima donnas who bring in most of the revenue). There are two problems with this thinking. First, the assumption that people need to be challenged to live in accordance with their values is just wrong. The company values should be the values of the people you actually have, and so challenging people to live in accord with them is like challenging people to remain true to the color of their eyes. (It is true that people need to be reminded of their values, especially during times of extreme change.) Of course, in most companies, the values (which look like every list of values you’ve ever seen) were set on–high, and brought down from the mountain at the same time Moses brought the ten commandments. And so they aren’t “our” values; they are “your values.” Challenging someone to live by someone else’s values is both insulting and untenable.

The second problem here is that one set of people–you know the group, the ones that are rude, mean-tempered and get to do anything they want–get a free pass on being challenged. They are the ones who bring in the revenue, or are so high up, that like the monarchs of old, they get to do whatever they want and they are above criticism. They should meet a similar end to their monarch-ancestors: get their (career) heads chopped because we’re not series about values at all if anyone is exempt.

2. Great companies are built to last. I have enormous respect for Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, the authors of Built to Last. That said, our own studies didn’t find companies that were set on the “great” path and then were great forever. Instead, we found that greatness today predicts nothing about tomorrow.

Companies are composed of groups of people talking–in person, over email, in meetings, and in formal documents. This chatter isn’t something the company has, it’s what the company is. The discussion in a company can change in a very short period of time, and often does when tyrants take over, the market hands the firm a shellacking, or any mediocre ideas take hold.

A better analogy for companies is that of body builder. Ripped today? Eat donuts (the equivalent of embracing mediocre ideas for a few weeks) and you’ll be falling toward average. Out of shape today? Work out, eat right, and it will change. But no one checks off “worked out” and then is done with it–except for future candidates of the lap-band.

3. When times are tough, the company should temporarily suspend training and development. This one is tough. As an entrepreneur, I (and my partners) have floated company payroll on our credit cards when clients were slow to pay. We’ve had times of feasting and times of famine. I say this so the following won’t be dismissed as coming from an academic egghead who isn’t in the real world: you are judged by what you do during the hard times, not during the easy times. A company that’s flush with cash doesn’t prove its commitment to the employee by investing a little on training and development. But that same company does prove its commitment to shredding the culture and setting its principles on fire when it sacrifices these activities when times are tough.

During tough times, employees (and managers and executives) often don’t know what to do. This is exactly when training and development (done well, not the ultra-lame stuff that’s pre-packaged and devolves into simple and useless steps) can make the difference. Even more important, this is when company leaders are judged.

4. The main purpose of the company is to earn a profit, or conversely, the purpose of the company is to do good in the world. Zealots of all sorts are running companies these days. Some focus purely on financial performance, and some argue that a greater purpose must be served or the organization has no right to exist.

The problem with such single focused answers is that, well, they are single focused answers. A corporation has many of the same legal rights as a person. It can own property, it can hire employees, and it can enter into contracts. So let’s extend the metaphor further.

A person who says his sole purpose in life is to make a lot of money is a lot like the greed-is-good character, Gordon Gekko. And often the person that just wants to make the world a better place does so at the expense of ignoring his family, not working, and is wanted by the IRS.

The point is that we are citizens, and we have lots of responsibilities: To raise families, to keep up our health, to help our community, and to help run companies that make money. It’s the same for companies. (What if your family had a recycling manager take up permanent residence in your house?)

When we finally get this point through our heads, we won’t need groups like corporate social responsibility in companies, because companies will be socially responsible. As they also seek to make money, and make a positive contribution to the global community.

5. Management is the key to high performance. This one isn’t that hard to refute. Management is about systems, processes, checklists, and formulas. It produces, as John Kotter noted, predictability and order. If you want more predictability and order, then don’t let a leader around your company.

Leadership is about alignment, vision, setting direction (again, thanks to John Kotter here), and it produces change, often to a dramatic degree.

High performance requires reinventing what the company does (leadership, and change) and great management (steps, milestones, deliverables). Management alone produces wastelands of despair where people chase the numbers and try to make plan, and burn themselves and everyone else out. Management without leadership never produces high performance, at least not for long.

6. Just follow the recommendations of the latest management books. The problem here is that most management books provide simplistic solutions that are not up the complex challenges of running a company. What’s needed is thought, debate, and reflection, leading to a collective understanding of what to focus on, and then relentless execution. Replace the first part of that with what’s in the latest management book, and you might as well post your resume on now, to avoid the rush.

Photo courtesy Olando7, CC 2.0.7. Incentivize people to boost performance. “Do x and I’ll give you y” doesn’t make people do “x,” as least not for long. Adding more “y” only gives people a bigger badge of honor for not doing it. Some groups (like most salespeople) will respond to the “x” and then “y” formula, but that’s because the system plays to their values.

And that’s the point. Instead of approaching employees like hamsters who want more and more food, you have to get to know the people you work with as individuals, and discover what they value. Build jobs around their core commitments, and pay them so that its fair, and you’ll get good performance. Ask them to work against their values for lots of extra cash, and you’ll make them feel like prostitutes.

8. Streamline operations to make the company more competitive. Streamlining is great, and most companies can do much more of it than they are doing. But streamlining alone is not likely to make a company more competitive.

Greater competitive advantage requires knowing the market, the changing tastes of customers, the price points of products and services, and then finding a value proposition that’s good for customers and for the company. This is a tough process, and it gives some people a headache to try to figure out. So pop a Tylenol, get back to work, and find an offering your company can make that will make everyone happy. (And a little streamlining is a nice thing to do, sort of like a stocking-stuffer for investors.)

Photo courtesy Intersection Consulting, CC 2.0.9. Just create a new strategy, and employees will feel empowered to implement it. The fundamental problem here is that these two things–a plan for change and employee empowerment–are at odds with each other. Planned change relies on a command: Do this because I said so. Empowering employees means enabling workers to find their passion and act on it. So this whole notion of empowering employees to implement management’s strategy is just double talk. (Thanks to Chris Argyris for pointing out this disconnect.)

What’s the better idea? Anne Mulchahy got it right in the dark days of Xerox. Start by listening to what everyone wants–customers, employees, suppliers, and partners. Then put it all together so that when you announce the new strategy, people say “that’s right!” Of course they say it’s right–it’s their idea, packaged with other ideas and weighted against what makes sense for the business. Then you don’t have to ask people to be empowered, because empowerment is baked into the strategy. For people who say “that takes too long,” the response is: It takes less time than launching a strategy that has no chance of success. And for people who say “but people don’t understand the marketplace,” either you’ve done a rotten job of hiring, or maybe your view of the market is a tad limited.

10. Companies need to focus on doing what made them successful in the first place. This is the death wail of a company just before it stops breathing: We’re not succeeding, so we’re going to return to what made us successful a decade ago (or more), only we’re going to redouble our efforts to get it right this time. One of the more famous examples of this mediocre idea at work is when People Express executives believed what made the company great was training and passion, and so they trained and trained and trained–while the industry adopted a new pricing model that put them out of business.

What a company should never change is its core identity. Apple shows what happens when a company gets this right, and the years before Jobs’ returns shows how bad it can be when we get it wrong. Its operations, strategy, and everything else needs to not just change but radically reinvent itself every few years, or else the competition will put it out of business.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Confessing Your Mistakes As A Boss

Suppose you thought to send a letter to your old team of colleagues after you have been promoted to become a boss, what would you say?
Lately I’ve been thinking about everyone who used to work for me, in particular those of you who were my first direct reports. I’ve spent the last year writing a book for new managers, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what it must have been like to work for me early in my career. I realize that at the ripe old age of 24 (can you believe they made me HR director?), I may not have been as strong a leader as I thought. I owe you all an apology. In making amends, I hope that others will learn from my past mistakes and limit the damage that so often occurs when we think we know it all simply because we’ve been given a title.
A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about our time together as a team. My intentions were good, but my nerves, ego and lack of experience got in the way of becoming the type of boss you deserved. Please accept my apologies for:
Being a know-it-all. I should have listened to you when you were trying to prevent me from making a huge blunder, but I thought I knew more than you because I had the corner office and you didn’t. I recall how you warned me about certain people in the organization — specifically the way they tried to take my predecessor down. I was naïve, and these people were nice to me — at least in the beginning. In the end, you were right. You were the ones I should have trusted, not them.
Rolling my eyes when you called in sick to care for your child who was ill. I’m writing this while home with my sick child. Who knew kids really got sick so often? I remembered thinking, “What’s wrong with these people? Can’t they make other arrangements?” Meanwhile, many of you were thinking, “How am I going to pay my bills? I don’t have any sick pay left.” In retrospect, I could have and should have been more sympathetic.
Failing to manage up. I was so focused on learning how to manage you that I forgot to manage those above me: the people who controlled the resources for our department. I realize now that had I done a better job of managing those relationships, I would have been able to provide you with the rewards you so deserved. Instead, that money went to the very same department heads you warned me about, which explains why their administrative staff were sporting nice cars while you were driving clunkers.
Thinking that just because I didn’t have a life, you shouldn’t have one either. I was a young single manager who couldn’t possibly understand the challenges of balancing work and family. I never thought twice about asking you to work late or come in on the weekends. That’s what people do to get ahead. But I never bothered to ask you if getting ahead was even something you wanted to do.
Trying to be a friend rather than being the boss. I should have provided you with the feedback you needed to improve your performance, but instead I avoided addressing performance issues because I feared you would take this feedback personally, which might mess up our friendship. I now know that relationships are built on honest feedback, something I really didn’t give you. If I had the chance to do it again, I would have been a coach rather than a friend.
Being a micromanager. You were right: I really didn’t trust that you would get the work done to my specifications, so I hovered over you, ready to land the moment you moved off course. In retrospect, I should have placed more trust in you. When you’re young and inexperienced, you think you’re the only person who can do things right. I now know that you have to give people the freedom to fail in order for them to succeed.
Being more concerned about my image than your paycheck. In my efforts to be a team player, I may have dimmed your light more than I should have. After all, how could I have more than one person on my team who exceeded expectations? In retrospect, I should have done everything in my power to make sure that your light shown brightly for all to see. My political aspirations took me to a place where my need to succeed trumped your needs. I know now that leadership is about making others look good. In turn, you’ll get what you deserve, and so will your team.
They say time heals all wounds. I certainly hope so. The lessons you have taught me have stayed with me for life. And for that I am grateful.
Sincerelyh Yours,

Reaching Our Managerial Maturity?

Everyone goes through the same stages of human development on the road to adulthood and maturity. Unfortunately, lots of us get stuck in one stage or another, stunting our growth and rendering us dysfunctional. We look just like ordinary adults, but we actually behave a lot more like children, acting out, throwing tantrums, and generally making life miserable for everyone around us.
Well, believe it or not, it’s pretty much the same thing with managers, executives, and business leaders. The rub is that, instead of just screwing up their own lives and maybe a spouse and some kids, dysfunctional managers have a far broader impact by influencing the lives of hundreds or even thousands of employees, coworkers, customers, and investors.
What percentage of managers are dysfunctional? Well, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four adult Americans “suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.” I don’t know about you, but judging by the people I’ve worked with, myself included, that percentage seems low to me.
Just think about that for a minute. You’re sitting in an executive staff or a board meeting. Look around the room. One fourth of the people there have a diagnosable mental disorder. Not only that, but you’ve got a 25 percent chance of being one of them. Sobering thought, isn’t it?
In all seriousness, I’ve identified 5 Stages of Management Development to help each and every one of you determine if you’re stuck in one stage or another. Yes, I know, you’re reluctant to upset the applecart. Well, that’s entirely up to you, but don’t come crying to me when you self-destruct.
1.Sponge. You listen and learn from everyone and every situation as you try to figure out how things work in the real world. Although you’re prone to saying dumb things and making stupid mistakes, you’re not in a position to cause any real damage. So, every time you fall you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try it again until you get it right.
2.Proof-of-concept. Believing you’re actually capable of accomplishing something besides making a complete idiot of yourself by promising the world and delivering squat, you set out to prove yourself worthy of the management title that, in all too many cases, you’ve already been granted. It’s sort of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool before you can swim. Cruel, but effective.
3.Delivery. Congratulations, you’ve somehow managed to deliver the goods and succeed in doing something that can credibly be viewed as a business success. In other words, you made money for somebody and, for that, got a pat on the head and a gold star. You’ve arrived.
4.Reset. A little full of yourself, you try a repeat performance using the same tricks that worked the first time and realize, too late, that you’re going to need a bigger playbook to consistently make it in the big leagues. Failure doesn’t sit well with you. In fact, it sucks. So you set out to make sure it never happens again.
5.Maturity. After a few iterations of the third and fourth stages, you finally get reality and realize that you’re just like everybody else. You succeed at some things, fail at others, and learn from everything. In fact, it’s not that much different from the first stage, except that experience has given you confidence and stability, for all that’s worth.
So, think it over. Are you stuck in one of the stages? Just in case you haven’t figured it out, success as a manager or leader - reaching maturity - means having the perspective and humility to look at yourself and actually see what everyone else sees, the genuine you. If you can do that, you’ll make it, guaranteed.