Archive for the ‘Seeing Things As They Are’ Category

People, Money and Time

If you want the next job, figure out why.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the job you have.
When you don’t care about the next job it’s because you fit the one you have.

A larger salary is good, but time with family is better.
Less time with family is a downward spiral into sadness.
When you decide you have enough, you don’t need things to be different.

A sense of belonging lasts longer than a big bonus.
A cohesive team is an oasis.
Who you work with makes all the difference.

More stress leads to less sleep and that leads to more stress.
If you’re not sleeping well, something’s wrong.
How much sleep do you get? How do you feel about that?

Leaders lead people.
Helping others grow IS leadership.
Every business is in the people business.

To create trust, treat people like they matter. It’s that simple.
When you do something for someone even though it comes at your own expense, they remember.
You know you’ve earned trust when your authority trumps the org chart.

Image credit — Jimmy Baikovicius

Speed Through Better Decision Making

If you want to go faster there are three things to focus on: decisions, decisions, and decisions.

First things first – define the decision criteria before the work starts.  That’s right – before. This is unnatural and difficult because decision criteria are typically poorly defined, if not undefined, even when the work is almost complete. Don’t believe me? Try to find the agreed-upon decision criteria for an active project. If you can find them, they’ll be ambiguous and incomplete. If you can’t find them, well, there you go.

Decision criteria aren’t just categories -like sales revenue, speed, weight – they all must have a go-no-go threshold. Sales must be greater than X, speed must be greater than Y and weight must be less than Z.  A decision criterion is a category with a threshold value.

Second, before the work starts, define the actions you’ll take if the threshold values are achieved and if they are not.  If sales are greater than X, speed is greater than Y and weight is less than Z, we’ll invest A dollars a year for B years to scale the business. If one of X, Y or Z are less than their threshold value, we’ll scrap the project and distribute the team throughout the organization.

Lastly, before the work starts, define the decision-maker and how their decision will be documented and communicated.  In practice, there is usually just one decision-maker. So, strive to write down just one person’s name as the decision-maker. But that person will be reluctant to sign up as the decision-maker because they don’t want to be mapped the decision if things flop.  Instead, the real decision-maker will put together a committee to make the decision.

To tighten things down for the committee, define how the decision will be made. Will it be a simple majority vote, a supermajority, unanimous decision or the purposefully ambiguous consensus vote. My bet is on consensus, which allows the individual committee members to distance themselves from the decision if it goes badly. And, it allows the real decision-maker to influence the consensus and effectively make the decision without making it.

Formalizing the decision process creates speed.  The decision categories help the team avoid the wrong work and the threshold values eliminate the time-wasting is-it-good-enough arguments. When the follow-on actions are predefined, there’s no waiting there’s just action. And defining upfront the decision-maker and the mechanism eliminates the time-sucking ambiguity that delays decisions.

The Difficulty of Commercializing New Concepts

If you have the data that says the market for the new concept is big enough, you waited too long.

If you require the data that verifies the market is big enough before pursuing new concepts, you’ll never pursue them.

If you’re afraid to trust the judgement of your best technologists, you’ll never build the traction needed to launch new concepts.

If you will sell the new concept to the same old customers, don’t bother. You already sold them all the important new concepts. The returns have already diminished.

If you must sell the new concept to new customers, it could create a whole new business for you.

If you ask your successful business units to create and commercialize new concepts, they’ll launch what they did last time and declare it a new concept.

If you leave it to your successful business units to decide if it’s right to commercialize a new concept created by someone else, they won’t.

If a new concept is so significant that it will dwarf the most successful business unit, the most successful business unit will scuttle it.

If the new concept is so significant it warrants a whole new business unit, you won’t make the investment because the sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept are yet to be realized.

If you can’t justify the investment to commercialize a new concept because there are no sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept, you don’t understand that sales come only after you launch. But, you’re not alone.

If a new concept makes perfect sense, you would have commercialized it years ago.

If the new concept isn’t ridiculed by the Status Quo, do something else.

If the new concept hasn’t failed three times, it’s not a worthwhile concept.

If you think the new concept will be used as you intend, think again.

If you’re sure a new concept will be a flop, you shouldn’t be. Same goes for the ones you’re sure will be successful.

If you’re afraid to trust your judgement, you aren’t the right person to commercialize new concepts.

And if you’re not willing to put your reputation on the line, let someone else commercialize the new concept.

Image credit – Melissa O’Donohue

As a leader, be truthful and forthcoming.

144 Truthful, at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia

Have you ever felt like you weren’t getting the truth from your leader? You know – when they say something and you know that’s not what they really think. Or, when they share their truth but you can sense that they’re sharing only part of the truth and withholding the real nugget of the truth? We really have no control over the level of forthcoming of our leaders, but we do have control over how we respond to their incomplete disclosure.

There are times when leaders cannot, by law, disclose things. But, even then, they can make things clear without disclosing what legally cannot be disclosed. For example, they can say: “That’s a good question and it gets to the heart of the situation. But, by law, I cannot answer that question.” They did not answer the question, but they did. They let you know that you understand the situation; they let you know that there is an answer; and the let you know why they cannot share it with you.  As the recipient of that non-answer answer, I respect that leader.

There are also times when a leader withholds information or gives a strategically partial response for inappropriate reasons. When a leader withholds information to manipulate or control, that’s inappropriate. It’s also bad leadership. When a leader withholds information from their smartest team members, they lose trust.  And when leaders lose trust, the best people are crestfallen and withhold their best work. The thinking goes like this. If my leader doesn’t trust me enough to share the complete set of information with me it’s because they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust and they don’t think highly of me.  And if they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust, they don’t understand who I am and what I stand for.  And if they don’t understand me and know what I stand for, they’re not worthy of my best work.

As a leader, you must share all you can.  And when you can’t, you must tell your team there are things you can’t share and tell them the reasons why. Your team can handle the fact that there are some things you cannot share. But what your team cannot hand is when you withhold information so you can gain the upper hand on them. And your team can tell when you’re withholding with your best interest in mind. Remember, you hired them because they were smart, and their smartness doesn’t go away just because you want to control them.

If your direct reports always tell you they can get it done even when they don’t have the capacity and capability, that’s not the behavior you want. If your direct reports tell you they can’t get it done when they can’t get it done, that’s the behavior you want. But, as a leader, which behavior do you reward? Do you thank the truthful leader for being truthful about the reality of insufficient resources and do you chastise the other leader for telling you what you want to hear? Or, do you tell the truthful leader they’re not a team player because team players get it done and praise the unjustified can-do attitude of the “yes man” leader? As a leader, I suggest you think deeply about this. As a direct report of a leader, I can tell you I’ve been punished for responding in way that was in line with the reality of the resources available to do the work. And I can also tell you that I lost all respect for that leader.

As a leader, you have three types of direct reports. Type I are folks are happy where they are and will do as little as possible to keep it that way. Type II are people that are striving for the next promotion and will tell you whatever you want to hear in order to get the next job. Type III are the non-striving people who will tell you what you need to hear despite the implications to their career. Type I people are good to have on your team.  They know what they can do and will tell you when the work is beyond their capability. Type II people are dangerous because they think only of themselves. They will hang you out to dry if they think it will advance their career. And Type III people are priceless.

Type III people care enough to protect you.  When you ask them for something that can’t be done, they care enough about you to tell you the truth. It’s not that they don’t want to get it done, they know they cannot. And they’re willing to tell you to your face. Type II people don’t care about you as a leader; they only care about themselves. They say yes when they know the answer is no. And they do it in a way that absolves them of responsibility when the wheels fall off. As a leader, which type do you want on your team? And as a leader, which type do you promote and which do you chastise. And, how do you feel about that?

As a leader, you must be truthful. And when you can’t disclose the full truth, tell people. And when your Type II direct reports give you the answer they know you want to hear, call them on their bullshit.  And when your Type III folks give you the answer they know you don’t want to hear, thank them.

Image credit — Anandajoti Bhikkhu

Seeing Things as They Can’t Be

When there’s a big problem, the first step is to define what’s causing it. To do that, based on an understanding of the physics, a sequence of events is proposed and then tested to see if it replicates the problem. In that way, the team must understand the system as it is before the problem can be solved.

Seeing things as they are. The same logic applies when it’s time to improve an existing product or service. The first thing to do is to see the system as it is. But seeing things as they are is difficult. We have a tendency to see things as we want them or to see them in ways that make us look good (or smart). Or, we see them in a way that justifies the improvements we already know we want to make.

To battle our biases and see things as they are, we use tools such as block diagrams to define the system as it is. The most important element of the block diagram is clarity.  The first revision will be incorrect, but it must be clear and explicit. It must describe things in a way that creates a singular understanding of the system. The best block diagrams can be interpreted only one way.  More strongly, if there’s ambiguity or lack of clarity, the thing has not yet risen to the level of a block diagram.

The block diagram evolves as the team converges on a single understanding of things as they are. And with a diagram of things as they are, a solution is readily defined and validated. If when tested the proposed solution makes the problem go away, it’s inferred that the team sees things as they are and the solution takes advantage of that understanding to make the problem go away.

Seeing things as they may be. Even whey the solution fixes the problem, the team really doesn’t know if they see things as they are. Really, all they know is they see things as they may be. Sure, the solution makes the problem go away, but it’s impossible to really know if the solution captures the physics of failure.  When the system is large and has a lot of moving parts, the team cannot see things as they are, rather, they can only see the system as it may be. This is especially true if the system involves people, as people behave differently based on how they feel and what happened to them yesterday.

There’s inherent uncertainty when working with larger systems and systems that involve people.  It’s not insurmountable, but you’ve got to acknowledge that your understanding of the system is less than perfect. If your company is used to solving small problems within small systems, there will be little tolerance for the inherent uncertainty and associated unpredictability (in time) of a solution.  To help your company make the transition, replace the language of “seeing things as they are” with “seeing things as they may be.”  The same diagnostic process applies, but since the understanding of the system is incomplete or wrong, the proposed solutions cannot not be pre-judged as “this will work” and “that won’t work.”  You’ve got to be open to all potential solutions that don’t contradict the system as it may be. And you’ve got to be tolerant of the inherent unpredictability of the effort as a whole.

Seeing things as they could be. To create something that doesn’t yet exist, something does things like never before, something altogether new, you’ve got to stand on top of your understanding of the system and jump off.  Whether you see things as they are or as they may be, the new system will be different. It’s not about diagnosing the existing system; it’s about imagining the system as it could be. And there’s a paradox here. The better you understand the existing system, the more difficulty you’ll have imagining the new one. And, the more success the company has had with the system as it is, the more resistance you’ll feel when you try to make the system something it could be.

Seeing things as they could be takes courage – courage to obsolete your best work and courage to divest from success. The first one must be overcome first. Your body creates stress around the notion of making yourself look bad. If you can create something altogether better, why didn’t you do it last time? There’s a hit to the ego around making your best work look like it’s not all that good. But once you get over all that, you’ve earned the right to go to battle with your organization who is afraid to move away from the recipe responsible for all the profits generated over the last decade.

But don’t look at those fears as bad. Rather, look at them as indicators you’re working on something that could make a real difference.  Your ego recognizes you’re working on something better and it sends fear into your veins. The organization recognizes you’re working on something that threatens the status quo and it does what it can to make you stop. You’re onto something. Keep going.

Seeing things as they can’t be. This is rarified air. In this domain you must violate first principles. In this domain you’ve got to run experiments that everyone thinks are unreasonable, if not ill-informed. You must do the opposite. If your product is fast, your prototype must be the slowest. If the existing one is the heaviest, you must make the lightest. If your reputation is based on the highest functioning products, the new offering must do far less.  If your offering requires trained operators, the new one must prevent operator involvement.

If your most seasoned Principal Engineer thinks it’s a good idea, you’re doing it wrong. You’ve got to propose an idea that makes the most experienced people throw something at you. You’ve got to suggest something so crazy they start foaming at the mouth. Your concepts must rip out their fillings. Where “seeing things as they could be” creates some organizational stress, “seeing things as they can’t be” creates earthquakes. If you’re not prepared to be fired, this is not the domain for you.

All four of these domains are valuable and have merit. And we need them all. If there’s one message it’s be clear which domain you’re working in. And if there’s a second message it’s explain to company leadership which domain you’re working in and set expectations on the level of uncertainty and unpredictability of that domain.

Image credit – David Blackwell.

Wanting things to be different

Wanting things to be different is a good start, but it’s not enough. To create conditions for things to move in a new direction, you’ve got to change your behavior. But with systems that involve people, this is not a straightforward process.
To create conditions for the system to change, you must understand the system”s disposition – the lines along which it prefers to change.. And to do that, you’ve got to push on the system and watch its response. With people systems, the response is not knowable before the experiment.
If you expect to be able to predict how the system will respond, working with people systems can be frustrating.  I offer some guidance here. With this work, you are not responsible for the system’s response, you are only responsible for how you respond to the system’s response.
If the system responds in a way you like, turn that experiment into a project to amplify the change.  If the system responds in a way you dislike, unwind the experiment.  Here’s a simple mantra – do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. (Thanks to Dave Snowden for this.)
If you don’t like how things are going, you have only one lever to pull.  You can only change.your response to what you see and experience. You can respond by pushing on the system and responding to what you see or you can respond by changing what you think and feel about the system.
But keep in mind that you are part of the system. And maybe the system is running an experiment on you. Either way, your only choice is to choose how to respond.

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Whether it goes well or poorly, what matters is how you respond.

When was the last time you taught someone a new method or technique? What was their reaction? How did it make you feel? Will you do it again?

When was the last time you learned something new from a colleague? What was your reaction? What did you do so it would happen again?

When was the last time you woke up early because you were excited to go to work? How did you feel about that? What can change so it happens once a week?

When was the last time you had a crazy idea and your colleagues helped you make it real? How did you feel about that? How can you do it for them? What can you do to make it happen more frequently?

When was the last time you had a crazy idea and it was squelched because it violated a successful recipe? How did you feel about that? What can you do so it happens differently next time?

When was the last time you used your good judgement without asking for permission? How did you feel about that? What can you do to give others the confidence to use their best judgement?

When was the last time someone gave you credit for doing good work? And when was the last time you did the same for someone else? What can you do so the behavior blossoms into common practice?

When was the last time you openly contradicted a majority opinion with a dissenting minority opinion? Though it was received poorly, you must do it again. The majority needs to hear your dissenting opinion so they can sharpen their thinking.

When was the last time you gave good advice to a younger colleague? How can you systematize that type of behavior?

When was the last time you did work so undeniably good that others twisted it a bit and adopted it as their own? Don’t feel badly. When doing innovative work this is what success looks like. All that really matters is your customers realize the value from the work and not who gets credit. What can you do so this type of thing happens as a matter of course?

Good things happen and bad things happen.  That’s how life goes. But the important part is you pay attention to what worked and what didn’t. And the second important part is actively making the good stuff happen more frequently and the bad stuff happen less frequently.

Image credit — jacquemart

You’re probably not doing transformational work.

Continuous improvement is not transformation. With continuous improvement, products, processes and services are improved three percent year-on-year. With transformation, products are a mechanism to generate data, processes are eliminated altogether and services move from fixing what’s broken to proactive updates that deliver the surprising customer value.

A strategic initiative is not transformation. A strategic initiative improves a function or process that is – a move to consultative selling or a better new product development process. Transformation dismantles. The selling process is displaced by automatic with month-to-month renewals. And while product development is still a thing, it’s relegated to a process that creates the platform for the real money-maker – the novel customer value made possible by the data generated by the product.

Cultural change is not transformation. Cultural change uses the gaps in survey data to tweak a successful formula and adjust messaging.  Transformation creates new organizations that violate existing company culture.

If there the corporate structure is unchanged, there can be no transformation.

If the power brokers are unchanged, there can be no transformation.

If the company culture isn’t violated, there can be no transformation.

If it’s not digital, there can be no transformation.

In short, if the same rules apply, there can be no transformation.

Transformation doesn’t generate discomfort, it generates disarray.

Transformation doesn’t tweak the successful, it creates the unrecognizable.

Transformation doesn’t change the what, it creates a new how.

Transformation doesn’t make better caterpillars, it creates butterflies.

 

Image credit – Chris Sorge

 

 

As a leader, your response is your responsibility.

When you’re asked to do more work that you and your team can handle, don’t pass it onto your team.  Instead, take the heat from above but limit the team’s work to a reasonable level.

When the number of projects is larger than the budget needed to get them done, limit the projects based on the budget.

When the team knows you’re wrong, tell them they’re right. And apologize.

When everyone knows there’s a big problem and you’re the only one that can fix it, fix the big problem.

When the team’s opinion is different than yours, respect the team’s opinion.

When you make a mistake, own it.

When you’re told to do turn-the-crank work and only turn-the-crank work, sneak in a little sizzle to keep your team excited and engaged.

When it’s suggested that your team must do another project while they are fully engaged in an active project, create a big problem with the active project to delay the other project.

When the project is going poorly, be forthcoming with the team.

When you fail to do what you say, apologize.  Then, do what you said you’d do.

When you make a mistake in judgement which creates a big problem, explain your mistake to the team and ask them for help.

If you’ve got to clean up a mess, tell your team you need their help to clean up the mess.

When there’s a difficult message to deliver, deliver it face-to-face and in private.

When your team challenges your thinking, thank them.

When your team tells you the project will take longer than you want, believe them.

When the team asks for guidance, give them what you can and when you don’t know, tell them.

As leaders, we don’t always get things right.  And that’s okay because mistakes are a normal part of our work.  And projects don’t always go as planned, but that’s okay because that’s what projects do. And we don’t always have the answers, but that’s okay because we’re not supposed to. But we are responsible for our response to these situations.

When mistakes happen, good leaders own them. When there’s too much work and too little time, good leaders tell it like it is and put together a realistic plan. And when the answers aren’t known, a good leader admits they don’t know and leads the effort to figure it out.

None of us get it right 100% of the time. But what we must get right is our response to difficult situations.  As leaders, our responses should be based on honesty, integrity, respect for the reality of the situation and respect for people doing the work.

Image credit – Ludovic Tristan

Subtle Leadership

You could be a subtle leader if…

You create the causes and conditions for others to shine. And when they shine, you give them the credit they’re due.

You don’t have the title, but when the high-profile project hits a rough patch, you get called in to create the go-forward plan.

One of your best direct reports gets promoted out from under you, but she still wants to meet with you weekly.

When you see someone take initiative, you tell them you like their behavior.

You get to choose the things you work on.

You can ask most anyone for a favor and they’ll do it, just because it’s you. But, because you don’t like to put people out, you rarely ask.

When someone does a good job, you send their boss a nice email and cc: them.

When it’s time to make a big decision, even though it’s outside your formal jurisdiction, you have a seat at the table.

When people don’t want to hear the truth, they don’t invite you to the meeting.

You are given the time to think things through, even when it takes you a long time.

Your young boss trusts you enough to ask for advice, even when she knows she should know.

In a group discussion, you wait for everyone else to have input before weighing in. And, if there’s no need to weigh in, you don’t.

When you see someone make a mistake, you ignore it if you can. And if you can’t, you talk to them in private.

Subtle leaders show themselves in subtle ways but their ways are powerful. Often, you see only the results of their behaviors and those career-boosting results are mapped to someone else. But if you’ve been the recipient of subtle leadership, you know what I’m talking about. You didn’t know you needed help, but you were helped just the same. And you were helped in a way that was invisible to others. And though you didn’t know to ask for advice, you were given the right suggestion at the right time. And you didn’t realize it was the perfect piece of advice until three weeks later.

Subtle leaders are difficult to spot. But once you know how they go about their business and how the company treats them, you can see them for what they are. And once you recognize a subtle leader, figure out a way to spend time with them.  Your career will be better for it.

Image credit – rawdonfox

 

If the goal isn’t believable, it’s not achievable.

I’m all for stretch goals to help people grow.  “Hey, you did this last year but I think you can do ten percent more this year. And here’s why – [list three reasons here.]” This works. This helps people grow. This is effective. This is grounded in what happened last year. This is grounded in specific reasons why you think the stretch goal is possible. And when you do it this way, you are seen as credible.

Back in the day, when elite runners were running the mile in 4:04 their coaches said “Hey, you ran 4:04 last year but I think you can do it a little faster this year. I think you can run it in 3:59. And here’s why – your time has been decreasing steadily over the last three years, you have been working out with weights and you’re much stronger and there’s a small adjustment we can make to your stride that will help you be more efficient.

As an athlete, I believe this coach. It’s true, I did run 4:04 last year. It’s true, my time has decreased steadily over the last years. It’s true, I have been working hard in the weight room. And, because all these things are true, I believe the coach when she tells me she knows a way to help me run faster. This coach is credible and I will work hard for her.

Back in the day, when elite runners were running the mile in 4:04, their coaches did NOT say “Hey, as a stretch goal, I want you to run 2:59 next year. I know it’s a big improvement, but I want to set an arbitrary and unrealistic goal so I can get the most out of you.  And no, I don’t have any advice on how you can run 27% faster than last year. As the one doing the running, that’s your job. I’m just the coach.”

As an athlete, I don’t believe this coach. There’s no way in hell I will run 27% faster this year. It’s simply not physically possible.  The world record is 4:01 and I can’t break it by over a minute. The coach has no clue about how I can achieve the goal, nor did he build a bridge from last year’s pace to this silly target. This coach is not credible and I will not work hard for him.

As a leader you are credible when you set an improvement goal that’s grounded in the reality of how things have gone in the past. And you’re more credible when you give specific reasons why you think the improvement goal is possible. And you’re more credible when you give suggestions on how to achieve the goal. And you’re even more credible when you tell people you will actively support them in the improvement effort. When you do it this way, people think better of you and they’ll work hard for you.

Here’s a rule: if the goal isn’t believable it’s not achievable.

As a leader, when you set an improvement goal that’s out of line with reality you are NOT credible. When you declare an improvement goal that’s disrespectful of history, it’s not a stretch goal. It’s an arbitrary edict designed to trick people into working too hard. And everyone can spot these “goals” at twenty paces. Your best people will give you the courtesy of calling you on your disingenuous behavior, but most people will just smile and quietly think less of you.  And none of them will work hard for you.

When the improvement goal isn’t credible, neither are you.  Think twice before you ask your people to drink the company Kool-Aid.

Image credit – Andy

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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