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Are Face-to-Face Meetings Obsolete? April 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, International management, Management & leadership.
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I’ll get right to it: no, they’re not. Yes, we have the technology to communicate instantly with people all over the world, whether by voice or text or even video. We can share files and review the same presentation in real-time. If a project has been parsed into reasonable chunks, we can multiply our productivity by “following the sun.”

And yet, the technology does not guarantee effective communication. Faster worldwide access to co-workers or customers or suppliers will not necessarily overcome distrust, misalignment, ambiguity, and confusion. Communication requires not just a channel, but also a sender and a receiver where the signal is processed into usable information. It’s that signal processing step that we overlook when we focus only on speed and accessibility.

I believe it’s important to establish a professional relationship with distant partners before relying on electronic communication. This is going to sound bad, but it’s easier for me to ignore someone’s e-mail or voice mail if I’ve never met them face-to-face and spent time with them, ideally over a meal. This is especially important if I live in a different country than the other person. Differences in language and culture can be very hard to overcome without a foundation of trust.

I understand that business travel costs money, and this is yet another situation where we try to balance real costs in the present against hoped-for benefits in the future. Travel budgets are always an easy target during times of expense reductions. I don’t have the numbers to build a financial justification, but I still believe it’s worth it, at least at the start of a new relationship with remote co-workers or a supplier. Periodic travel after that helps to maintain the relationship and head off any sources of confusion or deviation.

Expanded wireless access and faster speeds will enable better video conferencing, but I doubt it will ever provide a substitute for the informal and spontaneous communication that happens when people are in the same place at the same time. I love the new technology, but in the end it’s people who do the work.

 

 

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Thanks, But Your Leadership Isn’t Helping March 31, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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It’s become a standard and recurring theme in modern, enlightened human resource management: we want to identify and encourage leadership throughout the organization. There are a limited number of management positions in any business, and although may we expect some measure of leadership from managers, you certainly don’t have to be a manager to be a leader.

Sounds great, but what happens when a person assumes leadership and then turns out to be a lousy leader? When we encourage everyone to be leaders, expecting that the organization will be transformed into a powerful new high-performance engine, we shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out that not everyone is good at it. What do we do with people who are trying to be leaders, but aren’t really helping?

I can imagine two possibilities here: (1) this person is fundamentally a good leader, but they’re leading in the wrong direction (based on strategic priorities), or (2) despite their enthusiasm for the role, they’re just not a good leader. The former is relatively easy to fix, assuming this person can be re-aligned and re-oriented in the right direction. Perhaps they were well-meaning and simply misunderstood the strategy or priorities. If there’s a true disagreement about the strategy, then that will have to be a separate conversation about whether the strategy itself should change, or whether the leader can support the strategy (in which case this may turn into a performance management situation).

If this person is fundamentally a lousy leader, that’s a bit harder. After encouraging people to step up and touting the benefits of leadership up-and-down the org chart, you can’t exactly tell the ineffective leaders to sit down and be quiet. This reminds me of one of the axioms in political campaigns: you never turn away a volunteer. They’ve answered the call, now you have to find a way to channel that energy to productive ends.

I’m sure there are hundreds of training programs out there promising to help anyone become a strong and effective leader, and I’m sure some of those work for some people, but who has the time (or, possibly, money) for that? If you encourage people to lead, then you’d better be committed to ongoing feedback and coaching at the individual level. Some people may ultimately decide on their own that they’re not cut out for leadership, but the organization really will be better off with more leaders. Just don’t under-invest in their development.

A Humble Appeal For Better Staff Meetings March 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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See if this sound familiar. Your manager requires the staff to attend a weekly meeting. Every meeting is the same: after a few announcements and “pass-downs” from senior leadership your manager goes around the table for what is essentially a series of 1-on-1 conversations with each member of the staff. Everyone waits their turn, perhaps mildly interested in what’s happening elsewhere in the group, but usually checking their own e-mail and messages and counting the minutes until the ordeal is over.

This may be a great meeting for the manager, but a terrible use of time for everyone else. Staff meetings are no different than any other meeting. There’s an opportunity cost when you drag people away from their desks or workstations and expect them sit still and pay attention. There must be sufficient value in the meeting to make it worth that cost.

To me, the value of any meeting comes from the real-time interactions and collaboration between the participants. Otherwise, just send an e-mail. If there’s a topic that needs to be discussed, but it’s not of general interest, or amenable to collaboration, then everyone else should be excused. A staff meeting agenda should be constructed to maximize the opportunity to engage the brains of everyone present. The person leading the meeting should actively solicit everyone’s ideas. If no one else can reasonably add value to the discussion, then it’s probably not a good topic for a staff meeting.

Meeting participants have a responsibility here, too. “Decisions are made by those who show up,” and that doesn’t mean sitting quietly and depriving the team of your inputs.

We’ve all got work to do. If we’re going to have a meeting, let’s make it worth our time.

What Happened to HR? February 19, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In 1996 I started a new job at Hewlett-Packard’s facility in Vancouver, Washington. The site at that time was supported by a large HR organization that had about 10-15 full-time staff. In 2001 I transferred to a different HP location with slightly fewer employees, but only about 4 HR professionals. In the years that followed the HR function was transformed from a locally-based, hands-on organization to a self-help model with a handful of regional support staff.

I suspect that most large corporations went through a similar transition in the first decade of the century. Today’s HR organizations seem to be focused on recruiting, hiring and on-boarding; benefits administration; supporting downsizing and other termination events; and generally keeping the company out of legal trouble. It’s becoming hard to remember, but HR used to be a lot more than that, at least at those companies who considered their human resources to be a source of strategic advantage.

Obviously a lot of money was saved by reducing the size of the HR organization, and I’m sure it was assumed that line managers and web-based training could meet the needs of the business, and some things were given  up because they weren’t considered to be all that important. I understand that it’s unlikely that we will ever return to the old days of large HR organizations, but if we expect managers and leaders to pick up the slack, then we should remember what HR used to do and ask whether those things still have value.

I’ve been thinking about all this after finding my notes and readings from a class that I took in HR during my MBA program in the late 1990s. In those days HR was described as a key partner, working side by side with other functional leaders to ensure that policies matched the strategic needs of the business. HR professionals led programs in organizational design and improvement, change management, and competitive benchmarking. They worked with line managers to identify future leaders, and design career development opportunities and succession plans. New managers were provided extra training and support for their transition. Staffing plans were based on a long-term view that considered the specific skills and intellectual capital that the company needed, and the company-wide perspective of HR helped ensure that new initiatives were not starved for resources.

I realize that few companies can afford to keep full-time HR personnel to do all those things. My point is that if we don’t, then either we’re saying that we don’t care about those things, or we expect somebody else to do them. If human resources are important to the company, then line managers and other leaders will have to step up and assume the responsibilities of a virtual HR organization.

The Personality Needed to Influence Quality January 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Quality.
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I’m not convinced there’s an ideal personality type for any specific job. I’ve seen many different kinds of people make strong contributions and achieve results. That being said, I don’t think you can effectively influence people if you’re a bully. You might be able to compel people to do what you want through the force of your personality, or because they fear the consequences of doing something else, but I don’t believe that’s a long-term motivator. Good leaders understand that you can be assertive and persistent and persuasive without crossing the line.

I think this is a particular problem in the world of quality. It’s usually easy to get people to fix quality problems after they’ve occurred, but a lot harder to prioritize quality before the event (the exception being anything that’s required to satisfy regulatory or other “must” requirements). In all other cases, quality is something that will be balanced against cost, or schedule, or other important business considerations.

Given that environment, I don’t see how being a jerk is going to help. Preventive quality requires the cooperation of everyone in the delivery chain, and should be backed-up with a clear-headed and objective analysis of risks. Past failures can be used to remind people of the implications of under-valuing quality, and of course the causes of those failures should be identified and (ideally) eliminated. However, putting people on the defensive or assigning blame is not the way to improve quality.

What Does Almost Done Really Mean? November 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Project management.
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About a year ago I earned a Project Management Professional certificate after learning the methodologies and structured processes formalized by the Project Management Institute. Almost all of my experience in project management has been in product development, and the PMP training provided a broader perspective on other types of projects. I was particularly intrigued and somewhat amused by the use of quantitative measures of project status based on Earned Value Management (EVM).

I can see why EVM would appeal to a lot of project managers and their sponsors and stakeholders. Everybody wants to know how the project is going and whether it’s on-track, both in terms of schedule and budget. They want a simple, unambiguous answer, without having to look at all the details. The EVM metrics provide project status and a projection of the future, in terms of the value and expenses of the project’s tasks that are already completed and still remaining.

The problem for many projects is that it requires a lot of planning and discipline to use EVM. Not only do you have to generate a full Gannt chart showing all tasks and dependencies, but you also have to estimate the cost and incremental value-added for each of those tasks. That’s going to be just a guess for projects with little historical reference or leverage. Quantitative metrics are generally less valuable when they’re based on a lot of qualitative assumptions, despite the appearance of analytical precision.

Whether or not you use EVM, everybody wants to express project status in terms of a percentage. “We’re about 90% done, just a little bit more to go, and we’re looking good to meet the deadline.” This kind of oversimplification often fails to recognize that the pace of progress in the past is not necessarily the pace of the future, especially when sub-projects and their deliverables are integrated together and tested against the requirements.  There’s an old saying in software development that the last 10% of any software project takes 90% of the time, which is one of the reasons why agile development techniques have become popular.

While I applaud the attempts to quantify project status, I would assess a project in terms of tasks and deliverables actually either fully-completed or not, not “90% complete.” For large projects it’s useful to report deliverable completion status at checkpoint reviews where stakeholders can confirm that previously-agreed-upon milestone criteria have been met. This binary approach (done or not-done) may seem less quantitative, but it’s also less squishy. The overall status of the project is defined by the phase you’re currently in and the most-recent milestone completed, which means that all of those tasks leading up to the milestone have been completed.

That still leaves the problem of assessing the likelihood of future success: will the project finish on-time and on-budget? At some point you’re going to have to use your best judgment as a project manager, but instead of trying to distill your status to a single number isn’t it more useful to talk about the remaining tasks, risks, and alternatives? Sometimes more information really is better.

Why Can’t You Figure Out What I Want? July 29, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Earlier this year I started working at a new company where, except for the brief job interviews, I was entirely unfamiliar and unknown to everyone. I’ve been through this many times in my career, changing jobs and relocating more often than most, I suspect. It takes a little while for your new co-workers and subordinates to figure out who you are, what you care about, and what you expect. Your style and preferences will not be immediately obvious, and it’s unlikely that others will be able to read your mind. You’re bound to have some miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed deliverables until you get on the same wavelength, and until then you have to spend a lot of time explaining what you really want.

You can make this easier for everyone by being explicit, being consistent, and giving feedback.

It starts by determining your priorities as a manager. What are the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the team relative to the larger business? What does success look like? How will you measure the performance of each team member? The answers to those questions should enable you to figure out what decisions you need to make, what decisions require your input, and what decisions can be made by your subordinates independently. That will help your team understand what information you need and when you need it.

You can also help your team by consistently communicating strategic messages that are simple, unambiguous, and (ideally) quantifiable. Cost reduction, revenue growth, on-time production ramp, fewer defects, greater efficiency, and improved customer satisfaction are all examples of strategic messages that are easy to grasp, but if the priorities are always changing you can’t expect people to know what’s important on any given day.

Finally, each person on the team should have individual performance objectives that can guide their decisions and their choices about how they spend their day. The feedback and reinforcement you provide during your routine encounters should reinforce those objectives. You shouldn’t make it hard for folks to figure out what you expect from them.

 

How Much Information Should a Manager Give To Their Team? February 4, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, 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.

Professionals and Workers August 22, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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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

Also:

  • 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 Teaching Manager August 1, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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I think one of the most overlooked elements of a manager’s job description is the responsibility to teach. Managers should be measured on their ability to use the resources assigned to them, and anything a manager can do to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their team is obviously a good thing for the business. Certainly all employees are expected to have acquired the minimum skills and training required to achieve their individual and team objectives. A manager coaches to their team on how to apply those skills and training in the unique ecosystem of the business, consistent with strategic priorities and complementary to the roles of internal partners, suppliers, and customers. This coaching is based in-part on the insights that come from the manager’s experience with success and failure — what works, and what doesn’t work– but managers should also recognize and promote best practices that are outside their personal experience.

Three other teaching opportunities for a manager:

1. Identifying skill gaps and recommending plans to close those gaps. The manager may have the knowledge and ability to provide training themselves, but what’s more important is the recognition of the gap and prioritizing the whatever training may be necessary.

2. Developing and encouraging good judgment so their team can act independently without the need for close supervision. This increases team productivity and enables the manager to spend more of their time on higher value-added activities.

3. Identifying and developing the next generation of leaders. As I wrote in an earlier post: “Those who actively participate in helping new leaders are valued employees who understand their role in helping the business continue and grow.”

Companies who invest in their human resources realize concrete and sometimes unexpected benefits. Managers at all levels in the organization are critical to that investment through their daily opportunity to teach.

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