How Much Information Should a Manager Give To Their Team? February 4, 2013Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
Tags: communication, leadership, management, manager, power, project management
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I’ve been pretty busy over the last few weeks focusing on my job search, interviewing for a couple of positions, and preparing for a possible teaching assignment at a local university. The evaluation process at the university included a 15-minute audition that was intended to provide some insight to each candidate’s presentation and facilitation skills in a classroom environment. Fifteen minutes is not much time, and during my lesson planning I decided to deliver a small packet of information, repeated and reviewed. I know from experience that there’s a tendency to overestimate the ability of an audience to listen and absorb.
This reminded me of something I read during my preparation for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam last year. One of the topics on the exam was Project Communications Management, which included identifying stakeholders, and planning the communication processes necessary to keep them informed, according to their expectations. Project managers were encouraged to strive for efficient communication, providing only the information that each stakeholder requires.
I suppose the intention is to keep it simple and avoid the confusion and doubt that can accompany information overload, but I don’t think this is necessarily a good strategy. There are potential problems when the project manager is the only person who has all the information about the project:
1. You run the risk of creating a dependency bottleneck, where one person must always be available to communicate status, resolve issues, and answer questions. This can be mitigated somewhat with easily-accessible project documents, assuming people know where to find them and are willing to use them.
2. Team members may be constrained by a narrow perspective that limits their ability to respond quickly or deal with ambiguity because they aren’t permitted to see the big picture. Surely the project benefits when the brainpower of all team members is fully-engaged. even at the risk of sharing “too much” information.
Look, I don’t think everyone needs to know everything all the time. I just think we shouldn’t be too quick to withhold information in the name of communication efficiency.
Tags: leadership, management, power, process
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I’ve been puzzling over this one for some time: Why is it so hard for companies to leverage best practices developed internally? At HP we used to think the problem was poor knowledge sharing mechanisms within the corporation, especially across geographically-dispersed and independent business units, but I think it goes deeper than that. You can tell people to document and archive their processes on SharePoint, and you can host internal conferences to provide a forum for learning, but unless people are open to the possibility that there’s a better way you’re going to waste money reinventing the wheel.
The “not invented here” syndrome leads to bias against ideas that come from the outside. “They don’t understand our unique environment,” and, “Just because it works there doesn’t mean it will work here.” Even when compelled to use the new process there’s often passive-aggressive undermining or outright sabotage. Unfortunately these internal antibodies are often more antagonistic towards ideas from within the same company. If we use someone else’s ideas, doesn’t that imply that they’re smarter than we are? We don’t want them to get the credit, do we?
Sorry, but the smarter one (and the more valuable one to the organization) is the person who focuses their attention on the unsolved problems instead of those that were already solved. We all build on the foundations of engineering and process development that came before. Of course the local environment may indeed be different, and that may require a tweaking of the imported process. However, senior leadership should encourage leveraging of internal processes as another example of maximizing return-on-assets, and both the exporter and importer should be recognized as efficient collaborators. Also, when teams insist on using their own process they should bear the burden of proof to explain why the company should incur the additional expense to maintain more than one means to accomplish the same goal.
Leaders and the Illusion of Control December 20, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: change management, job satisfaction, leadership, management, power
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I’ve just finished Anne Applebaum’s excellent book Iron Curtain about the systematic efforts by Soviet-sponsored communist governments in the post-WWII period in Germany, Poland, and Hungary to eliminate opposition, collectivize the economy, and generally create a new society. The local leaders of these countries were guided by their interpretation of Marxist-Leninist principles and the contemporary model provided by the USSR, with guidance and direct orders from Moscow, often approved personally by Stalin (at least up until his death in 1953).
Despite each government’s aggressive efforts to stamp out all institutions and businesses that were not approved by the state, the people of these countries retained a strong desire to assert themselves economically, spiritually, and socially. The communist party leadership believed they could raise the awareness of the working class and mold the young minds of the next generation, but ultimately all of these regimes collapsed in the late 1980s.
I think there’s a lesson here for business managers and leaders. Certainly few modern managers think of themselves as totalitarian dictators, but to some degree we all try to exert some kind of control over our teams. On a group level we guide the team toward a business objective, and on an individual level we try to modify or influence the behavior of subordinates. But, how much control do we really have? Can we really move people to a place where they don’t want to go?
Leaders need to take the time to understand the motives and interests of the individuals they’re trying to lead, and use those as an energy source to keep things moving in the desired direction. People are much more likely to support change and achieve organizational objectives when they perceive some alignment with their own personal values and goals. If that alignment is missing, then your ability to control outcomes is limited and illusory, regardless of your positional power.
The Work Team That Fights Over Who Gets Credit October 31, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: career growth, job satisfaction, management, manager, power, retention
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Apparently there are companies that have structured their salary administration systems to emphasize and reward overall team performance instead of individual performance. I admire the effort. Collaboration and teamwork are obviously things we should encourage. I can’t imagine a business environment where some degree of cooperation isn’t necessary.
However, it’s been my experience that people are inherently competitive. Regardless of how well or how willingly they cooperate, people compare their performance to others in the team, and they hope (and expect?) to receive recognition and rewards consistent with their perceived performance. When those rewards come from a pool that’s fixed in size, that leads to in-fighting: de-valuing the work of others, claiming credit for the team’s successes, and finding scapegoats for the problems and failures.
What can managers do to minimize the toxicity of competitiveness within the organization?
1. Performance appraisal systems typically require managers to differentiate and value the specific contributions of each person. That means each person’s objectives should be written in a way that enables both the manager and the employee to evaluate the employee’s performance independently from the rest of the team.
2. Managers have to be actively engaged with the team to know what’s really going on, who’s doing what work, and who’s enabling team success. You can’t expect everyone in the team to be a reliable reporter of events, and you can’t wait until the annual appraisal to figure out what happened.
3. Managers need to reinforce the message that a mix of individual and collaborative work is required for team success, and therefore teamwork will be one of the performance characteristics that will be evaluated for each person. If it’s possible within the constraints of the organization’s compensation system, each person’s salary increase and/or annual bonus should be partially contingent on the team’s performance (i.e., achieving some goal).
Note that it’s still possible that a team will fail despite the selfless efforts of some or all of the individuals in the team. The seriousness of the team failure and impact to the business will determine whether rewards based on the collaborative effort still make sense.
Expecting More from Performance Appraisals October 29, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
Tags: career growth, job satisfaction, leadership, management, manager, performance measures, power
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I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t trust a performance appraisal written by another manager. Appraisals are inherently objective and I have no idea how “well-calibrated” that manager is. In the world of metrology we would say that this process for measuring performance has serious issues with bias, stability, repeatability, and reproducibility. Yet the impact — positive or negative — on an employee’s salary, job security, and career growth within a company is huge. This is a lousy system that needs improvement. What can be done?
I think we have to start by asking: what are we trying to accomplish with a performance appraisal? On the surface this is a formal, written record of feedback given to the employee that ends up in their HR file. At minimum it includes the manager’s judgment about whether or not the employee achieved their assigned objectives, and usually some commentary about how those objectives were achieved. Note that despite encouragement to managers to provide informal performance feedback throughout the review period, the formal review may be the only time they’ve done so.
It’s not enough to report that the employee completed this task or failed to complete that one. Here are the questions I’d like to ask when I read about what an employee did during the review period:
- How challenging were those assigned objectives?
- Did the employee only meet expectations when they had an opportunity to exceed expectations?
- Did the employee have enough authority and positional power to personally influence the outcome?
- Were the performance measures granulated enough to enable the manager to judge individual accountability?
- Were there mitigating factors beyond the employee’s control that prevented them from achieving the objectives?
However, I think we’re trying to do something more than just provide a summary of the employee’s accomplishments. Organizations value certain behaviors and want to encourage employees to exhibit those behaviors. Unfortunately these are often not stated explicitly, and it may be left to individual managers to apply their own values and preferences. In my teams I value creativity, teamwork, persistence, adaptability, proactive “fire prevention,” eagerness-to-learn, and independent judgment. When I write performance reviews I look for examples of these behaviors that I can cite. When that information is missing from a review someone else has written, it’s a huge gap in my understanding of that employee.
Writing annual performance reviews is one of the most dreaded responsibilities for any manager, and we owe it to the employee to provide an assessment based on consistent and job-appropriate expectations. The process may be subjective and imprecise, but the long-term implications are significant.
Professionals and Workers August 22, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: career growth, communication, job satisfaction, management, power, retention, software quality
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I’ve been going through some old files now that I have some (unwelcome) time on my hands, and I found a Powerpoint presentation from 1997. I had just taken a new position, managing a software test team that was suffering from low morale. There was a widespread feeling that the work was unimportant and unappreciated by the rest of the organization. That could have been the beginning of a downward spiral, especially if higher-performers were able to find more rewarding jobs elsewhere.
I can’t remember where I first saw this contrast between those who are workers and those who are professionals, but it inspired the team and instilled a new sense of pride when I turned it into a presentation for an all-hands meeting:
|A worker:||A professional:|
|… is a robot, operated by a manager under remote control||… is an independent human being|
|… is focused on boss, activity, and task||… is focused on customer, result, and process|
|… performs tasks and follows instructions||… is responsible for performing work and assuring its successful completion|
|… is characterized by obedience and predictability||… is characterized by intelligence and autonomy|
|… is trained||… learns|
|… has a job||… has a career|
|… inhabits a precisely defined job and operates under close supervision||… is constrained by neither|
- A professional sees themselves as responsible to the customer. Solve the problem and create value. If the problem is not solved or value is not created, the professional has not done their job.
- Once provided with knowledge and a clear understanding of the goal, a professional can be expected to get there on their own.
- A professional must be a problem solver able to cope with unanticipated and unusual situations without running to management for guidance.
- Professionals ignore petty differences and distinctions within an organization. When we are all focused on results, the distinction between my work and your work becomes insignificant.
- A professional career does not concentrate on position and power, but on knowledge, capability, and influence.
- The professional’s career goal is to become a better professional and thereby reap the rewards of better performance.
The New Person’s Opportunity June 18, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, change management, leadership, management, power
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When you take a position with a new group or a new company there’s a honeymoon period that provides a one-time-only opportunity to make your mark and exert influence. Everyone is curious to hear what you have to say and how you spend your time, looking for clues about your future expected contributions. People will want to know how you will fit in with the existing team, and what your special skills and talents are that led to your hiring (or internal transfer).
How will you use that opportunity? Will you be a go-along follower, becoming part of the established status quo; will you be a revolutionary, pushing for change; or will you be a complainer, comparing your new job with your previous positions? There may never be another time when you have this much power, regardless of where you are in the new organization chart. You may have a fresh perspective to the existing problems that have been troubling the team. Yes, it’s important to ask questions and listen, and go up the learning curve to contribute at a level consistent with your skills, but for those who get satisfaction from process improvement, this is the time to lead.
Team Building Activities: Not For Everyone June 3, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: communication, leadership, management, power, training
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I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I used to force people to engage in team building activities; specifically those structured exercises that are intended to teach something about working together more effectively. I originally joined in as a willing-but-skeptical participant when facilitators asked everyone to get out of our chairs and stand in a circle to throw a ball back and forth, or pair up with someone else who was blindfolded, or work with a team to figure out how to drop an egg off the top of the building without breaking it (the egg, not the building). It seemed to be something that progressive, forward-thinking managers were supposed to organize on behalf of their teams in order to uncover revelations and breakthrough thinking that would inspire teamwork, innovation, and productivity. That’s what I hoped for, but I see now that I was putting a lot of faith in a process that relies on accidental discoveries.
I’m sure these games must have worked for some teams otherwise surely the concept would have died early on. I don’t think I ever experienced a revelation when I was a participant, but I saw other people who seemingly got caught up in the excitement, or at least had something to say when the facilitator asked for “lessons learned.” At the time I concluded that I was trying too hard, and that I shouldn’t deny the teams I would later manage the opportunity to learn their own lessons just because I didn’t get it.
This may work for others, maybe as a way of getting people to think differently, but I know now that it’s not for me. It doesn’t fit my management style and I feel pretty silly doing it. I do want to inspire the team to work together collaboratively, to be innovative, and to develop their own ideas for higher productivity, but I’m not comfortable with using symbolic games that reveal hidden truths indirectly. I’d rather go directly to the team and tell them what we need instead of hoping to get there through a side door.
The Missing Generation of Leaders May 15, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
Tags: career growth, job satisfaction, leadership, management, power, strategy
For the past twenty years or so my wife has been very active in a nationwide philanthropic organization that is literally dying out. The core leadership at both the national and the local level was dominated by people who had been with the organization for many years but were becoming less-active due to age and declining health. Some of these leaders were aware of the growing problem and encouraged younger volunteers to take on more responsibility, however many of these younger people were frustrated by resistance when they tried to introduce new ideas for communication and fund-raising that were more appropriate for their generation. Membership started to decline, and while there were still donors who were willing to write a check, there were fewer and fewer people willing to host events, lead local chapters, and help the organization compete for charitable giving.
There are some elements of this story that are unique to volunteer non-profit organizations, however the vitality and even the existence of some businesses can also be threatened by a failure to identify and develop the next generation of leaders. The ideas of new hires and younger employees may sound ridiculous to more seasoned leaders, but it’s important to recognize their outspokenness as a desire to contribute to the business’s success, and to channel that energy into opportunities to learn and develop.
Of course this is easier when the emerging leaders agree with the current business strategy and are willing to maintain the same course. You just have to hand over the reins and supervise. It’s a lot harder to give ideas a chance when they’re radical and disruptive, yet that’s exactly the kind of new thinking that companies should be encouraging. From Bob Dylan: “Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand. For the times they are a-changin’.”
Resistance can also come from a fear that the new leaders will take your job, or go elsewhere to exercise their newfound skills. As to the first point, the next generation will surely replace the current one, it’s only a question of when and how. I’d rather be part of that process than apart from it. No job is meant to last forever, and if you start thinking about protecting your job then your value to the organization is declining. Some new leaders will leave the company, but people inevitably leave for a variety of reasons, and all of the new leaders will defintely leave if they don’t see a future for themselves.
Leadership development may include informal mentoring, job shadowing, pilot programs, skill-building classes, and degree or certificate programs sponsored by the company. Regardless, an investment in developing future leaders is as strategic and important as an investment in developing products, markets or suppliers. Those who actively participate in helping new leaders are valued employees who understand their role in helping the business continue and grow.
What’s Your Point? March 16, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: communication, leadership, power
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American writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz said: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” In business we take turns talking and waiting, and occasionally listening. Talking, communicating verbally, is obviously necessary even in this era of email and instant messaging. But it’s not always clear why we’re talking in the first place. I often wonder about this, especially when I’m listening to someone extend a meeting. “What’s your point?”
I don’t want to over-analyze this, but I think it’s often worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of opening your mouth. Are you trying to add something constructive to the conversation? Correct someone who’s said something you disagree with? Show how much you know about this topic, thereby leaving a positive impression on the audience? Convince or persuade? Move the conversation in a different direction? Give a command? Teach? Or, just shoot the breeze?
Ultimately, shouldn’t our communications, not just our actions, add value?
On a related note, this made me laugh: http://holykaw.alltop.com/when-to-raise-your-hand-flowchart?tu2=1