In jujitsu, there are two ways to throw someone: you can make it hard for them to stand up or you can make it easy for them to fall down.
When you make it hard for someone to stand, something very interesting happens. The harder you make it, the more they fight back. Unless your opponent happens to be asleep or under the influence of mysterious hypnotic powers, the very act of attempting to force them off their feet triggers and instinctive and intense resistance. This happens even when training with a cooperative partner who is perfectly willing to be thrown! It is the moral equivalent of standing on someone’s foot while trying to pick them up.
Conversely, when you make it easy for someone to fall down, they naturally follow the path of least resistance. It’s not that they make a conscious effort to fall, rather it’s that if you gently let them have your way, they suddenly discover that they are enjoying an up close and personal relationship with the ground. For the practitioner, this is a much more pleasant and much less effortful experience than trying to make it hard for the other person to stand up. Oddly enough, the fall is also more devastating.
Jujitsu, in short, is about minimum effort, maximum results. In a very real sense, the best practitioners are also the most lazy. They get what they want and they work exactly as hard as they need to get it, no harder.
Now, I’ve rarely seen a manager literally stand on an employee’s foot and try to throw her, but I do frequently see the equivalent behavior over and over.
In one particularly egregious case, a manager at one large and rather well-known technology company told an employee that he wouldn’t get a raise because he made the work look too easy. In a judo match, your throw is not annulled because you made it look effortless. In fact, those judo players who can make throws appear effortless are the best regarded in the sport. Does it really make sense to dismiss the value of an employee’s results in such a cavalier fashion? Is the manager encouraging future productivity or simply future activity?
At Soak Systems, engineers actually wanted to spend time fixing bugs in the software. Management, however, developed an arcane and excessively complex method of prioritizing bugs and scheduling people’s time. By the time the process was complete, the engineers had no say in which bugs were fixed or when they should be worked on. Functionally, that meant that when engineers uncovered serious bugs in the software, they weren’t allowed to fix those bugs: instead, they had to sneak in over the weekend to do the work. After a while, many of the engineers became increasingly discouraged or burned out, and eventually started shrugging and letting management have its way. At least, that way they stayed out of trouble. Management successfully made it so hard to fix the bugs that the bugs didn’t get fixed.
Does it really make sense for the managers to, metaphorically, be standing on employees’ feet so dramatically? After all, management did want to ship a working product! The more management tried to control engineering and force them to fix the bugs in a specific way, the less work actually got done.
In a very real sense, the goal is not to impose your will on people but to make it easy for them to do their jobs, to get them to focus their time and energies to produce the maximum possible return. When you figure out what your actual goals are and then create a path of least resistance to accomplishing them, people will naturally and instinctively move along that path. So how do you do that?
Your first obstacle is the hardest one to overcome. As every martial artist learns, the toughest opponent is the one they see in the mirror. If you find yourself getting angry or falling into a “I’ll show them!” mindset, it’s time to step back and take a break. Give yourself some perspective. Getting an opponent angry is an old martial arts trick and one that never stops working, especially on beginners. Don’t make beginner mistakes.
The next step is to find out if you’re standing on their foot. Ask questions. Understand what problems or obstacles your employees may see. Involve them in brainstorming and discussion. Help them help you to build a picture of the desired outcome and invite their suggestions on how to get there. The more you get them involved, the more you educate yourself. Pay attention to how your actions or the company’s rules are being perceived. Are they pinning people in place or are they making it easy for employees to accomplish the goals of the company?
You may not always like what you hear. Jujitsu students are frequently quite frustrated when their training partner says, “Hey, you’re standing on my foot!” When someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, they’re demonstrating their respect for and trust in you. Appreciate that and build upon it. If you respond harshly or with anger, you only cut yourself off from information; you don’t change anything.
Pay attention to what behaviors you are encouraging and which ones you are discouraging. When you stand on someone’s foot, you are encouraging pointless activity and exhausting, wasteful conflict: what do you suppose that employee at that high tech firm I mentioned earlier did on future projects? When you make it easy for people to do their jobs, you are encouraging constructive argument, innovation, and productivity.
So go ahead and make it easy. What’s stopping you?
June 15th,2013 Newsletters
| tags: argument
, goal setting
As published in MeasureIT
“There is no me. I had it surgically removed.”
– Peter Sellers
At one high tech company that I worked with, I watched an interesting scenario unfold: after completing a major milestone, the engineers were high-fiving and taking some time to brag about their accomplishments. Enthusiasm and excitement were running high when a member of senior management decided to interrupt the gathering with the reminder that, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”
This utterance had an effect not dissimilar to that of a skunk wandering into a fancy dinner party. On the scale of wet blankets, this was one that had been left out in the rain for a week. Within a few seconds, all that enthusiasm was gone, vanished into the ether. Properly harnessed, that enthusiasm could have catapulted the team into its next milestone. Instead, the team approached its next milestone with a shocking lack of energy, especially given the successes they’d had to that point.
The problem is that while there may not be an “I” in team, a team is made up of individuals. There are three “I”’s in individual. What does a team do? Well, in most situations we hope the team will win. There’s an “I” right there in the middle of win. Oddly enough, you can’t win if you take out the “I.”
While it’s critical for a team to be able to work together and for members of the team not to be competing with one another, that’s only a piece of the puzzle. It’s equally important that each member of the team feel that they are an integral part of the team’s success. Without that personal connection, it’s extremely difficult to get people excited about the work.
Unfortunately, I see companies far too often treating team members as interchangeable parts, not as unique individuals. Not only does this undermine the team, it is also a tremendous waste of resources: a major advantage of having a team is that you have access to multiple eyes, ears, hands, and brains. Each person brings unique skills, knowledge, and perspective to the problems the team is facing. When a company fails to take advantage of those people, then they are spending a great deal of money for very little return.
In the Mann Gulch disaster, Wagner Dodge failed to appreciate the perspectives and opinions his team brought to the table. He relied solely on his own eyes, ears, and brains. Had he bothered to obtain information from the rest of his team, it is highly likely that most of them would not have perished under Dodge’s command. When the team has no “I,” the team cannot see.
On the flip side, some companies go too far in the other direction. One company, that shall remain nameless, spends so much time on “I” that there’s no time left for “we.” There have no team; there’s only a group of people who happen to be wandering in something vaguely approximating the same direction. Meetings are characterized by constant jockeying for position and arguments over turf. Different groups in the company see themselves as competing with one another for the favor of the CEO and for the eventual rewards. Oddly enough, the level of excitement and commitment in this situation is about the same as the one in which there is no “I.” When you have too much “I,” no one can agree on what they are seeing. In other words, too much “I” or a missing “I” produce much the same degree of blindness. That’s not good for the individuals, the team, or the company.
So how do you make sure you have the right “I?”
Start by creating something worth seeing. Paint a vivid picture of the company’s future, and show each person how they, as individuals, matter. Remind employees of the skills, knowledge, perspectives, and abilities that led to them being part of the team.
Show each person how they fit into the overall picture, and how their colleagues fit in as well. Make sure each person has a clue about what the others are doing. Ignorance breeds contempt.
Strengthen individual autonomy: find opportunities to allow people to decide how they’ll get their jobs done. Don’t regulate anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to getting the product out the door.
Always praise successes. Highlight significant contributions, remind people of their strengths.
Encourage and provide opportunities for team members to continuously develop their strengths. Improving individual skills dramatically improves team performance.
For a team to win, it needs to see where it’s going. That requires the team to have “I”’s and something to look at. How can you provide both to your team?
“There is no me. I had it surgically removed.”
– Peter Sellers
At one high tech company that I worked with, I watch
ed an interesting scenario unfold: after completing a
major milestone, the engineers were high-fivi
ng and taking some time to brag about their
accomplishments. Enthusiasm and excitement were
running high when a member of senior management
decided to interrupt the gathering with the reminder that, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”
This utterance had an effect not dissimilar to that of
a skunk wandering into a fancy dinner party. On the
scale of wet blankets, this was one t
hat had been left out in the rain for a week. Within a few seconds, all
that enthusiasm was gone, vanished into the ether
. Properly harnessed, that enthusiasm could have
catapulted the team into its next milestone. In
stead, the team approached
its next milestone with a
shocking lack of energy, especially given t
he successes they’d had to that point.
The problem is that while there may not be an “I” in
team, a team is made up of individuals. There are
three “I”’s in individual. What does a team do? Well, in
most situations we hope the team will win. There’s
an “I” right there in the middle of win. Oddly
enough, you can’t win if you take out the “I.”
While it’s critical for a team to be able to work t
ogether and for members of the team not to be competing
with one another, that’s only a piece of the puzzle.
It’s equally important that each member of the team
feel that they are an integral part
of the team’s success. Without that
personal connection, it’s extremely
difficult to get people excited about the work.
Unfortunately, I see companies far too often treati
ng team members as interchangeable parts, not as
unique individuals. Not only does this undermine the team
, it is also a tremendous waste of resources: a
major advantage of having a team is that you have
access to multiple eyes, ears, hands, and brains.
Each person brings unique skills, knowledge, and perspec
tive to the problems the team is facing. When a
company fails to take advantage of
those people, then they are spending
a great deal of money for very
In the Mann Gulch disaster, Wagner Dodge failed to
appreciate the perspectives and opinions his team
brought to the table. He relied solely on his ow
n eyes, ears, and brains. Had he bothered to obtain
information from the rest of his team, it is highly
likely that most of them would not have perished under
Dodge’s command. When the team has no “I,” the team cannot see.
On the flip side, some companies go too far in the other direction. One company, that shall remain
nameless, spends so much time on “I” that there’s no
time left for “we.” There have no team; there’s only
a group of people who happen to be wandering in some
thing vaguely approximating the same direction.
Meetings are characterized by constant jockeying fo
r position and arguments over turf. Different groups in
the company see themselves as competing with
one another for the favor of the CEO and for the
eventual rewards. Oddly enough, the level of excite
ment and commitment in this situation is about the
same as the one in which there is no “I.” When you
have too much “I,” no one can agree on what they are
seeing. In other words, too much “I” or a missing “I”
produce much the same degree of blindness. That’s
not good for the individuals, the team, or the company.
So how do you make sure you have the right “I?”
Start by creating something worth seeing. Paint a vi
vid picture of the company’s future, and show each
person how they, as individuals, matter. Remind empl
oyees of the skills, kn
owledge, perspectives, and
abilities that led to them being part of the team.
Show each person how they fit into the overall pictur
e, and how their colleagues fit in as well. Make sure
each person has a clue about what the other
s are doing. Ignorance breeds contempt.
Strengthen individual autonomy: find opportunities to
allow people to decide how they’ll get their jobs
done. Don’t regulate anything that isn’t absolutely
necessary to getting the product out the door.
Always praise successes. Highlight significant
contributions, remind people of their strengths.
Encourage and provide opportunities for team memb
ers to continuously develop their strengths.
Improving individual skills dramatically improves team performance.
For a team to win, it needs to see where it’s going.
That requires the team to have “I”’s and something to
look at. How can you provide both to your team?
May 22nd,2013 Published Articles
| tags: argument
, goal setting
The other morning, I noticed one of my cats running around with her catnip mouse. Now, this isn’t such an unusual occurrence. However, the difference this time was that the other two cats also wanted to play with the mouse. This is unusual: normally, when one cat gets the toy, the others ignore it.
It wasn’t until the cat dropped the mouse that I realized that either it wasn’t a catnip toy or the cat had been playing with a Pinocchio mouse that had picked a very unfortunate moment to become a Real Mouse.
As soon as the mouse was on the ground, it immediately tried to run from the cat. The only thing that saved the mouse was when another cat got in the way. It was a bit hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure that the cats were more interested in competing with one another over which one would get the mouse than in working together. It reminded me of an old Tweety and Sylvester cartoon.
What was particularly interesting, though, was how the mouse behaved whenever a cat did catch up to it: it would open its little tiny mouth, raise its front paws, and try to look fierce. It was pretty funny watching a mouse trying to intimidate a cat that outweighs it one hundredfold. Oddly enough, though, every time the mouse did this, the cat would hesitate, which usually gave enough time for another cat to get in the way. At that point, the mouse would run and the third cat would quickly chase and catch it, causing the whole process to repeat. Eventually, I managed to trap the mouse in a container and release it outside.
To be fair, one can hardly blame the cats for taking an “every cat for herself” attitude. After all, in this situation, we’re talking about a very fixed pie, or mouse. Only one cat will get the prize. Whether that prize is then eaten or proudly left as a gift on a bedroom pillow, there can be only one winner, and it’s not the owner of the pillow. For cats, this is quite normal. Unfortunately, it is also quite normal on far too many so-called teams. Indeed, it is quite disturbing how often teams work together almost as well as did the cats.
Like the cats, though, in a very real sense you can’t blame the team members either. When there is only one mouse, or pie, suddenly the priority becomes getting it. Put another way, whenever team members are in a position of “I win, you lose,” you don’t really have a team; you have a mob or a horde of cats out for themselves.
It doesn’t matter whether there’s a fixed amount of money being given out to the “best” members of the team, or bottom ten percent are being fired. Quite simply, when members of a “horde” are competing with one another for the rewards, performance is drastically and dramatically reduced compared to a strong team. How bad can this be, you ask? A team outperforms a horde by at least tenfold, and can sometimes outperform by a factor of a hundred or more. What is that level of performance worth to you?
Like the cats being “intimidated” by the mouse, members of a horde are also more likely to be flummoxed by relatively simple problems. By behaving in an unexpected fashion, the mouse could startle the cats, in large part because each cat was devoting the bulk of its efforts to competing with the other cats. Thus, they were less able to focus on the mouse. Similarly, when team members are devoting the bulk of their efforts to competing with their supposed colleagues, they spend less effort solving problems. After all, the reward is not for finding the best ideas, but to finding an idea that looks better than the ideas that other team members came up with. In some cases, just being good at making someone else’s ideas look bad is enough to win. Well, at least the individual wins; the team, and the company, end up with a dead mouse on their pillow.
Competition on the team also means that you, the manager, have to spend most of your time keeping your cats walking in the same direction and focused on your goals. This can be exhausting, as anyone who has ever taken their cats for a drag can attest. Team members will only care about the goals of the team when no other way of getting ahead is available. As for taking risks, forget it. Why take a risk when that means someone else gets the mouse? It’s smarter to play it safe and let another person make the mistake.
Far better to eliminate competition within the team and focus team members on competing against other teams, preferably teams at other companies. Use the competition to bring them together instead of driving them apart. If someone on the team isn’t carrying his weight, it’ll become obvious and can be dealt with simply and directly at that point. Building a strong team takes effort, but it sure beats herding cats.
May 15th,2013 Newsletters
| tags: argument
, organizational development
, problem solving
, process development
I was flying through the air. Unlike the common experiences of flying, this did not involve an airplane. Rather, I was practicing jujitsu and my partner had just executed a very well-timed throw. As I went over, I suddenly realized that my partner had turned the wrong way and was throwing me off the mat and onto the concrete floor.
Needless to say, the landing was painful. I started to say something to my partner when I suddenly realized that I was still on the mat. While I thought my partner was throwing me onto concrete, he was, in fact, throwing me exactly where he was supposed to: onto a nice, soft mat. Believing that I was about to land on concrete, however, was enough to cause me to take a hard fall.
Perception, in other words, is reality.
Now, it is easy to argue that maybe the expectation of falling on concrete was enough to make me tense up and hence take a bad fall. On a separate occasion, I really was thrown off the mat and onto the concrete floor. I didn’t realize it was happening and fully expected to land on a soft mat. Far from being a painful shock, the landing was completely comfortable, exactly how I’m used to feeling when I hit the mat. It wasn’t until I stood up that I realized that I wasn’t where I expected to be.
Perception is, once again, reality.
A certain company was experiencing explosive growth. Their hot new product enabled them to dominate the niche they had created. As their product became more and more successful, the senior management team became more and more concerned about the future. They focused on the consequences of failure and the decisions they made were based on protecting their turf, not continuing to innovate and expand. Despite their successes, they viewed themselves as fighting a doomed battle against encroaching competitors. Over time, just as they envisioned, their competitors chipped away at their market share and they saw their revenue decline.
Perception can become reality.
The company was seriously stuck. They knew they had a good product, but they couldn’t get any traction. Engineering teams were spending all their time arguing over minute details; everyone was so afraid of making a mistake that making a commitment to any course of action was seen as high risk behavior. Even when they did make a commitment they made almost no progress: every decision had to be reevaluated and rejustified at every meeting.
Rather than focusing on what could go wrong, the management team had to learn to focus on what could go right. Rather than viewing every decision in terms of avoiding failure, they had to plan for success. The only way to never fall off a bicycle is to never get on one in the first place. If you want to ride, though, you have to risk falling over. This company needed to stop being afraid of falling off the bike and simply start pedaling. They needed to perceive success around the corner.
As management started to change their attitudes, the rest of the company followed. We always assume that the person highest up the ladder can see the furthest. In this case, once the people at the top started perceiving success, everyone else could perceive it too.
The company regained its dominant position. Were their mistakes along the way? Of course there were. At one time, those mistakes would have led to heads rolling and projects being canceled. Even worse, the mistakes would have led to interminable meetings arguing over the causes and making elaborate plans to avoid any possibility of failure in the future. However, with the new mindset that success was inevitable, mistakes were merely feedback, opportunities to collect information and adjust strategies.
Change perception and you change reality.
What you perceive determines how you act. This isn’t some sort of magic, it is simple psychology. Teach people to perceive success at the end of the journey and they perceive the opportunities to get them there. Teach people to perceive failure and they avoid anything that might be risky, including the opportunities to succeed.
Hard landing or soft landing, it’s up to you. What are you doing to make sure your team perceives success?
April 15th,2013 Newsletters
| tags: business planning
, organizational development
, team building
The amazing thing about train wrecks is that they are obvious in hindsight. However, while they are happening, everyone involved is gripped by some horrid fascination that, if not forcibly interrupted, leads to the inevitable conclusion.
By the end of this particular train wreck, a member of the senior management team had resigned and the CEO had lost the trust of many of his formerly extremely loyal employees.
The newly hired VP of Sales was given responsibility for supervising a particular product manager, someone who had been with the company for years. They did not hit it off and the relationship went downhill from there.
The PM was charged by the CEO with getting a particular release of the software out the door. The VP of Sales wanted the project manager to be working on something else. The CEO kept promising to straighten things out with the VP of Sales, but never quite got around to it.
The VP of Sales became ever more frustrated with the constant “insubordination” of the PM; the PM, meanwhile, was increasingly frustrated with getting one set of instructions from the VP and one from the CEO.
The VP of Sales eventually went to the CEO and told him that he was planning to fire an employee. The CEO shrugged and didn’t think much about it. “It’s your department,” was his only response.
The VP told the project manager to leave, that she was suspended without pay pending completion of the paperwork to fire her.
At this point, the CEO noticed that the PM wasn’t in the office, found out what was going on, and “unfired” her. While she was happy to be unfired, she was also furious that he’d let it get to that point. The VP of Sales, meanwhile, was just a tad miffed. He felt he’d received carte blanche and ended up feeling much like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football as Lucy jerks it away.
The CEO’s attitude was that, “these things just happen.” He was, of course, wrong.
Teams are not a group of people operating in their own silos, independent of one another. Rather, they are an interacting system and sometimes parts of that system don’t work quite the way they should. When something goes wrong, it’s important understand the system and how different players contributed to the problem.
The Project Manager was nobly perhaps, but foolishly, focused on the assignment she’d received from the CEO. Her attempts to explain to the VP of Sales just why she wasn’t focusing on his objectives were either insufficient or simply missing. She may have assumed that the CEO would explain things to him, but didn’t force the issue when it became obvious that he hadn’t.
The VP of Sales walked into the company and made a number of assumptions about how work was done and how authority was implemented. Rather than take the time to find out how people worked in the company, how rigid or flexible the lines of control were, and what other projects might be going on, he assumed that an employee put into his department could be assigned to his projects. He didn’t listen to the PM and he never made the effort to go to the CEO and found out what was going on. He assumed the CEO was paying attention to issues in his department that were, quite simply, not where the CEO’s mind was. Even when he went to the CEO to explain that he wanted to fire someone, he didn’t bother to explain the situation.
The CEO, for his part, also contributed in a major way to the final, unsatisfying outcome. He knew he was giving an employee instructions that might contradict what her manager was telling her. He also knew the project manager was extremely frustrated with her new manager. He didn’t act on that knowledge. He was busy, and explaining things to the VP of Sales was not a high priority for him. Even once the situation had reached its climax and the project manager had been fired, the CEO didn’t really address the problem. He simply pulled the rug out from under the VP of Sales and did not consider how that might make the VP look to his other subordinates.
At every stage of the game, the CEO, the PM, and the VP of Sales each had opportunities to address issues that each of them wanted to avoid: the CEO didn’t really want to deal with the disappointment of the PM at having her project cancelled, nor did he want to upset his new VP of Sales. The PM did not want her project cancelled and really wasn’t all that interested in the project the VP of Sales wanted her to take on. The VP of Sales had his own views about power and authority and didn’t really want to find out that the company did things differently than he believed they should be done. He was angry, blamed the PM, and wanted to punish her.
Right up to the end, stopping to address the unpleasant issues and recognizing how each person was contributing to the impending train wreck could have changed the results. Instead, each person operated in a vacuum, and managed to achieve one of the worst of all possible results.
What difficult situations or awkward conversations are people in your office avoiding?
March 15th,2013 Newsletters
| tags: argument
, goal setting
, team player
If creativity were simply a matter of having a bunch of people in an office, well, IBM of the 1980s and 1990s would have been the most creative business on the planet. The company employed close to 300,000 people worldwide, all working out of offices. As we all know, IBM went on to invent Windows, the Internet, online search, social networking, and the mobile phone. Oh wait, maybe not.
Creativity is an odd beast. According to the New York Times, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo decided that the reason she had to end Yahoo’s telecommuting policy was to make the company more creative. Another article in the Times claimed that the reason was because Yahoos weren’t actually working at home: the article mentioned Yahoo employees founding startups while on Yahoo’s payroll. At least the explanations for Mayer’s actions are creative, so maybe her policy is already bearing fruit!
Unfortunately, the idea that forcing everyone into the office will somehow enable managers to “keep an eye” on employees is both pointless and counterproductive. Again, if that were all it took, we’d be seeing a lot more amazingly productive employees at all those companies that don’t allow telecommuting. Yet, the reality is the other way around, provided the organizational culture and metrics for measuring performance actually encourage the appropriate behaviors. Frequently they don’t, which certainly appears to be the case at Yahoo. Bringing people into the office isn’t going to change that. Fixing a culture trapped in a cycle of defeat is much harder than a few slogans and forcing people to all mix at the water-cooler; however, forcing everyone into the office certainly feels like Taking Action. It is an Exercise of Power. It feels good, even though the actual results are likely to be both less positive than its supporters believe, and less negative than the naysayers are predicting. In short, a few people will probably leave and the rest will get used to working in the office again. At that point, all the old problems will still be there and will still be killing Yahoo. If Yahoo wants to fix that, perhaps they should learn how to set actual effective goals, with a well-defined strategy that they can then evaluate. I’m sure that’s what they think they’ve already done; I’m also quite sure that if they had actually done it right, they wouldn’t be having the problems they claim they are trying to fix.
Let’s face it, if you have effective goal setting and measurable strategy, then an employee who founds his own startup while on the payroll should be picked up simply because he won’t be meeting his objectives. Moreover, employees with goals they believe in and who are working for an organization they value do not, as rule, start their own companies on the side. Forcing people to sit where they can be watched over may force some people to behave, but it won’t make them enthusiastic or creative. If Yahoo is looking for compliant employees, they’re on the right track. If they really want creativity, maybe not so much.
As far as creativity, again that’s a tricky problem. In the 1990s, Yahoo was so far outside the box that they created a new box. Since early 2000, however, Yahoo’s been stuck in that very same box of their own creation while other companies, notably Google, thought outside of it. As I discuss in my talk, “Organizational Culture and Innovation: A Two-Edged Sword,” creativity is largely a function of environment and culture. Individuals do matter, of course, but even the most creative people will be stifled if the culture doesn’t truly support innovation. Even in organizations that claim that their culture supports innovation, what they really mean is that they support innovating in what they already do, not coming up with something radically different: the desire to protect existing products is very powerful, although it won’t stop your competitors from eating your lunch. Thus, after a certain point organizations become better and better at making what they already do more and more effective, but become equally resistant to doing something that’s really new. In other words, you can improve your better mousetrap all you want until someone shows up with a cat. You have to know how to change your culture and build up the four elements that support creativity if you really want to see serious innovation.
Google built a creative culture from the ground up. That culture involves people working closely together. Yahoo does not have that culture. Just bringing people back into the office isn’t going to change that. Yahoo is far more likely to end up not with creativity but with compliance.
During the month of January, my wife and I were attending parent-teacher conferences for one of our children. We walked into the building and went to sign in at the desk. There, my wife pointed out the odd date on the sign in form. Instead of reading, “1/15/13,” as one might expect given that the month was January, it read, “4/15/13.” Given the freezing temperatures outside, one might be forgiven for assuming that this represented some sort of wishful thinking. In fact, though, closer examination of the sign in sheet revealed that someone earlier in the day had written the date using a stylized number “1,” such that it looked vaguely like a four. Everyone after that simply copied down the date as they saw it written, apparently without giving any thought to the fundamental lack of logic inherent in the situation. In other words, even though it was January, even though it was freezing cold and there was snow on the ground, even though we weren’t even a month past New Year’s Day, even though, in other words, all the data screamed “January,” people were writing April for the date.
Now, if this phenomenon were limited to people signing into meetings, it would be quite unremarkable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This sort of automatic pilot behavior happens all too often in businesses. In businesses, though, it’s rarely quite so benign as writing down the wrong date on a form. Rather, it can involve misreading or misunderstanding critical instructions, with results that do not become obvious until much later in the product development cycle.
At one company, engineers assembling a set of medical tools would quickly glance at the notes left by the person who worked on the previous step, and then take the appropriate actions based on those notes. Alas, the “sign of the fours” played in quite frequently: when the notes were ambiguous, people would often interpret them in ways that made no logical sense given the nature of the product or the point in the development cycle.
At another company, a senior person gave a rather bizarre presentation to a client because he was quite convinced that was what he’d been told to do, even though logic would have suggested that just maybe he was misinterpreting his instructions. In a famous example from WWII, a young pilot mistook the humming of the general sitting next to him in the cabin as instructions to raise the landing gear, even though the plane was still racing along the runway. As a result, the plane crashed. Time after time, we’ve all seen people make apparently nonsensical decisions or take actions that appear to make no logical sense simply because they are reacting to the “sign of the fours”; we may even have done it ourselves from time to time.
So what is going on here?
In virtually every one of these situations, the common element is time. “So what?” you might ask. Time, after all, is a common element in every situation. The key, though, is in how we perceive time. When we perceive themselves as being rushed or short on time, we tend to make snap decisions based on whatever is in front of us. That number looks like a four? Okay, write down a four for the month even though it’s January. The general gestured with his hand? Clearly he wants the landing gear up even though we’re still on the ground.
Ironically, this perception of time is often an illusion. We talk all the time about “saving time,” but no matter how much we save, it’s never there when we want to make a withdrawal. Time is money until we actually try to get a refund. We all get sixty minutes to the hour, 24 hours to the day. Nothing we do can change that. The only real decisions we have are how we allocate that time and how much we can get done during the time available to us. Counter-intuitively, the more we try to schedule, cram, and pack our days, the less we actually do: we become more prone to distractions and mistakes. Athletes who feel rushed moved very fast, but lose more often. Athletes who have learned the trick of feeling like they have lots of time tend to win, even in such high speed sports as fencing.
The secret, therefore, is to structure our time so that we don’t feel so rushed. It’s not that we’re changing the amount of time we have, merely how we perceive it. The master fencer perceives time in slow motion, and thus appears to always be in the right place at the right time. Since all of us have a tendency to underestimate how long projects will take, one trick is to change our perception of the deadline by creating a series of challenging, but realistic, deadlines that we can miss and still be ahead of the game. So long as we take our self-imposed deadlines reasonably seriously, we will get a great deal done, yet when we don’t make them, we still feel in control and able to focus. It’s when we feel events rushing down upon us that we become most vulnerable to the “sign of the fours.”
Of course, this whole discussion does beg the question of how many of those people who wrote “4/15/13” instead of “1/15/13” then went rushing off to deal with their income taxes.
Remember the classic kid’s TV show, the Flintstones? Fred and Wilma Flintstone are a stone age couple who live in something that looks oddly like the 1950s with rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. Despite this, the show had nothing to do with either rock music or getting stoned. It did, however, have an episode which predicted that the Beatles were a passing fad. So much for prognostication! Fortunately, that episode is not the point of this article.
In one episode, Fred complains to Wilma that he can’t understand what she does all day. How hard can it be to take care of a house? Of course, as Fred swiftly learns, after he and Wilma make a bet, the answer is very hard. Fred, of course, makes a total mess of the whole thing. Now, obviously, the cartoon was playing off of social issues of the time and was intended to make people laugh. The obvious lesson, that a “non-working mother” is a contradiction in terms, is hopefully one that most people have figured out by now. The less obvious lesson is the much more interesting one: it is often impossible to gauge from the results, or from watching someone work, just how difficult a job actually is or even how hard they are working! Conversely, how people feel about the results has little bearing on how hard you worked to get them.
At one company, a manager told an employee that he wasn’t going to get a raise because he made the work “look too easy.” Of course, one might argue that most people who develop their skill in a field eventually become good enough that they manage to make the job look easy. It’s not until we try to imitate them that we realize just how hard it is to do what they are doing.
In another situation, the Principle Investigator in a biology lab had an employee who wasn’t producing results. He first told the employee that she wasn’t working hard enough and quickly moved to haranguing her to work harder. She quit and was replaced by another scientist. He also failed to get results and the process repeated until he quit. So it went through another two employees before the PI, quite by accident, discovered that there was an error in a protocol the scientists were required to follow. Each one had tried to discuss the possibility with him, but he consistently refused to listen, taking the attitude that any problems were purely a result of their lack of dedication. They simply weren’t working hard enough and if they just buckled down and took the job seriously, they would get results! This attitude cost the lab four excellent employees and set them back over a year on one of their projects.
On several occasions, when I’ve stood in front of audiences ranging from management students to senior executives, I’ve presented the following scenario: “Someone at your company isn’t completing their work on time. Why not?”
Invariably, the responses I get back are: “He’s not dedicated,” “he doesn’t work hard enough,” “he’s goofing off,” and so forth. Eventually, I point out that they really have no information from which to draw a conclusion. Occasionally, someone beats me to the punch, but it always takes several minutes before that happens. After the point is made, the number of dumbfounded looks is amazing.
Fundamentally, when we see something not working or something not getting done as fast as we’d like, we tend to blame the person doing the work. The tendency is to assume that they aren’t working hard or that they don’t care or some other fault in the person. We often assume that the difficulty of the task is proportional to how hard someone appears to be working, not what they are actually accomplishing. We tend to ignore the situation, often to the detriment of our companies. In that bio lab, if the PI had been willing to consider other possibilities than blaming the scientists, he could have saved a year of effort and not potentially damaged people’s careers.
By extension, there is also a tendency to assume that when the result looks small or insignificant, that the effort involved in producing it must have been lacking. Large and clunky is thus appreciated more than small and elegant, particularly in software. Unfortunately, this runs afoul of the Mark Twain principle: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Transforming something clunky into something well-built and efficient is not easy! Most corporate vision statements are wordy, vague, and meaningless. It actually takes a great deal of effort to create a short vision that works and that can inspire people for years.
Now, let’s look briefly at the converse: that how people feel about the results has nothing to do with how hard you worked to attain them. At one startup company, the VP of Marketing told me that she expected everyone to work long hours because “our customers will want to know that we worked hard to produce this product!” Actually, with apologies to Charlie Tuna, what your customers want is a product that will work hard for them. They really don’t care how hard you worked to make it. They only care that it meets their needs. If it does, they’ll buy it. If it doesn’t, you’re out of luck.
The fact is, it’s very easy to underestimate both how hard the work actually is, and how much work went into producing something. In both of these situations, the key is to figure out what feedback is really important. Results are a form of feedback. However, as long as you’re on track to accomplish those results, then it doesn’t much matter how hard or how easy it looks; as Fred Flintstone discovered, you probably can’t accurately gauge that anyway. When something doesn’t work, then you need to know the process so you can figure out why.
In other words, you need to clearly define your expected results and also clearly define meaningful and useful interim steps that should yield those results. The advantage of having those interim steps is that you can recognize fairly quickly when something is going wrong and you can figure out the real cause. A failure to achieve results is not necessarily the problem: it’s the symptom. Perhaps it’s because the person didn’t work hard enough. Perhaps it’s because the situation was untenable. Treat the symptom and not the problem and before too long you’ll be right back where you started from.
January 29th,2013 Published Articles
, Thoughts on business
| tags: business planning
, Decision making
, Fred Flintstone
, goal setting
It’s a new year. That means two things: one, the world didn’t end in the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” of 21 December 2012; and two, since the world didn’t end it’s time to figure out some resolutions for the New Year. Perhaps a good one is not worrying about Mayan Apocalypses or Aztec Apocalypses or whatever the next apocryphal apocalypse might happen to be! At least that one has a chance of being kept.
Of course, as we all know the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they never last long anyway; indeed, in most cases a New Year’s resolution has about as much likelihood of coming true as the latest predicted Apocalypse. Even when we move from the realm of resolutions, which tend to be fairly vague, to the more specific area of goals, we don’t see a significantly greater success rate.
The major problem most people have with setting goals is that they don’t take the time to really think through what they want to accomplish. They fall back on the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) formula, and then wonder why it didn’t work. While the formula is a good mnemonic, the mnemonic doesn’t really tell you how to use it.
The trick is to start at the end: what are you *really* trying to accomplish? When someone says they want to “get in shape,” do they mean run 2 miles? A marathon? Bicycle? Play tennis? Lose weight? When a business says it wants to ship a product, again, what is the outcome they are seeking? Who will buy it? Why would they want it?
It’s important, therefore, to describe how the world will be different if you accomplish your goal. By fleshing out that description, you can then identify which pieces you can control and which ones you can’t. You can write a novel, but you can’t force any given publisher to accept it. However, you can engage in behaviors that will make it more likely (researching appropriate publishing houses, investigating agents, getting advice from published authors, researching the steps to get a novel published in the first place!, etc). This will develop into your strategy: a series of steps that move you toward your goal. Those strategic steps will often turn into smaller goals along the way. That’s great: it helps you manage and track your progress.
The time element comes in when you start planning how and when you will execute the steps. You can also define trigger conditions that will cue you to work on your goal: “on Monday after I finish my coffee I will…”
Don’t try to keep all your goal directed behavior in your head: calendar entries, checklists, etc, are all good tools for keeping track of what you should be doing when. Indeed, just the act of writing out your goals at the start of the year can help you focus on them. Silly as it sounds, we tend to not believe ourselves if we don’t write down the goals. The act of writing is what moves us from dreaming to doing. While the complexity and number of people involved will vary depending on whether you are writing out an individual or a business goal, the process is fundamentally the same.
It’s important, by the way, to not set too many goals. If you overload yourself with goals, you will fragment your attention, and that may well make it hard to focus on work or make you short-tempered: you’re using your brain power to manage all your goals and have nothing left to resist the urge to snap at that irritating co-worker. 3-4 large scale goals are usually as much as you want: remember that the process of designing your goal strategy means that a few big goals can generate a lot of little goals!
The challenge is thinking big and simultaneously being realistic about the commitments on your time and energy. The best goals strike a balance between the two.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or email@example.com
“What was the primary means of motivation in those days?”
– Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, The Two Thousand Year Old Man
For the 2000 year old man, fear may have been a very effective motivator: when he saw a lion, he was motivated to run the other way. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with fear. Fear doesn’t make someone move toward safety; it makes them move away from danger. Same thing? Not really. In jujitsu, pain can be used to invoke a fear of injury. Someone experiencing that pain, and that fear, will move away from it, even if moving away means running full tilt into the nearest tree.
In business, the same phenomenon occurs. Faced with an unexpected problem or setback, the most common response is to highlight the threat to the organization and all the terrible things that will happen if the threat is not immediately countered. This practice of attempting to motivate people to work harder through fear – fear of competition, loss of market share, job loss, company going out of business, and so forth – may encourage harder work, but not necessarily more effective work. In the business environment, there are a lot of trees.
While fear gets the adrenaline flowing, it also narrows focus, reduces creativity, and makes it harder for people to recognize and change a losing strategy. This would be fine, except that what is actually needed in most situations is a creative solution, the ability to accurately assess whether or not a strategy is working, and the ability to quickly discard failing strategies. Avoiding premature decision making, no easy task at the best of times, only becomes more difficult. As we all learned in grade school, in the event of a fire, don’t rush for the door: proceed slowly and avoid panic. The same is true in business: rushing to a decision is almost guaranteed to lead to a bad decision.
So given that the business needs to get employees focused and energized to meet a potential challenge, how should it go about doing that?
The key is to recognize that the glass in not half empty. It’s half full. That makes a difference: instead of focusing on what you lack, focus on what you have going for you. Instead of fear, instill an atmosphere of optimism. There are several steps to accomplishing this:
- Start by defining success. What does it look like? What will your business have accomplished in order to have been successful? Communicate that in a few brief, vibrant, sentences. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can waste a lot of time not getting there.
- Lay out a set of goals that will make the business successful. Include what you’ll be doing as well as what you expect others to do.
- Remind employees of previous challenges that they’ve successfully overcome. Emphasize the positive: how teams pulled together, how individuals stepped up to the plate, and so forth.
- Recognize that roadblocks will appear: don’t assume everything will go perfectly. The competition may do something unexpected. A critical employee may get the flu. A storm may disrupt travel or power. Make sure you’ve allowed time to deal with the unexpected so that it doesn’t derail you.
- Present energizing images to use when bad news strikes or setbacks occur: a cyclist passed by an opponent can imagine a rubber band attached to his opponent’s back. The rubber band pulls him faster and faster until he passes said opponent. Come up with the equivalent for your business. Repeat it frequently. If you can’t keep a straight face, find a different image.
- Take the time to brainstorm different solutions to the problems you are facing. Evaluate what you come up with and make sure it will get you to that success state. Rushing off down the wrong path wastes valuable time and, even more important, drains enthusiasm.
- Periodically review progress and show people how far they’ve come. Pilots may care more about the runway ahead than the runway behind them, but everyone else is motivated more by how much they’ve accomplished rather than being constantly reminded of how much more there is to do.
- Celebrate successes. Short-term reminders increase the sense of progress and make people feel appreciated.
Half empty or half full. A fearful team or an enthusiastic, creative team. It’s your choice.
Happy New Year!
January 1st,2013 Random musings
, Thoughts on business
| tags: fear
, goal setting
, New Year