That Was Obvious!

The solution always seems so obvious once Holmes explains it.

I’ve been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories to my son. Even though I read the stories years ago, I find that I can rarely remember the endings. As a result, I’m puzzling them through along with my son. While it’s certainly true that sometimes Holmes is taking advantage of information not available to the reader, such as his encyclopedic knowledge of mud or cigar ash, quite often the clues are present. Even when Holmes doesn’t clue us in until the end exactly what about the cigar ash was important, we do get to see that he was interested in it. Quite often, that should be all a reader needs, except, of course for the fact that it isn’t.

At the end, Holmes finally reveals how he solved the mystery. Watson expresses his astonishment, Holmes shrugs and, despite belief to the contrary, usually does not say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Whether or not Holmes says it, what he is doing is not elementary. Putting together the apparently unrelated clues to assemble a picture of how the crime was committed is a very difficult skill: consider how many readers are unsuccessful! Yet once we know the answer, it is equally difficult to imagine the pieces fitting together any other way. Harder to imagine is putting the pieces together to anticipate the murder before it has even happened! I suspect that Holmes himself would have trouble with that: indeed, in the stories where he had to do just that, he was rarely able to do it fast enough to prevent the crime from occurring. The reader, of course, is even more in the dark than Holmes: even knowing that he’s solved the case from the information presented, we still can’t figure it out.

When reading Sherlock Holmes, the resultant feelings of frustration, amazement, admiration, and feeling like an idiot for missing the obvious clues, are all part of the enjoyment of the story. In a business setting, however, it’s not enjoyable at all.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard statements like:

“I can’t believe he made a mistake like that. He should have seen it coming!”

“If Fred was as good as he claims he is, he would have anticipated that.”

“I can’t believe she was taking the project seriously!”

I could go on, but you get the idea. When someone makes a mistake, we often confuse hindsight with foresight: while hindsight might be 20-20, foresight is not. In fact, in a great many cases it’s more like 20-2000. But, because things are so obvious in hindsight, the tendency is to assume the person who made the mistake must have been careless, or foolish, or goofing off, rather than making the best decision they could with the information they had at the time. Perhaps there was some way of looking at the information that would have suggested the problem was in the offing, but, like in a Sherlock Holmes story, putting together the disparate pieces of data in just the right way in the time available is no trivial task.

Conversely, there are times when people do correctly recognize the clues that suggest a serious problem is in the offing. At one technology company, several engineers saw the clues and put in the time necessary to analyze them and avert the impending disaster. Their thanks was being yelled at for wasting time: the problem was clearly obvious, even though no one else had seen it, and they had clearly not been working very hard if it took them “that long” to figure it out.

Lest this be viewed as a problem unique to the tech industry, I had a similar experience running a management training predictive scenario game. At the end of the exercise, one of the participants told me in no uncertain terms how the outcome of the game was clearly predetermined. He explained in great detail how the different factors in the exercise could play out only the one way, and that this was basically unfair. I gently broke the news to him that I’d run that particular exercise over a dozen times, with wildly different outcomes.

“Impossible!” he said, and stormed off.

Mixing hindsight and foresight isn’t such a good thing, but is it really anything more than what amounts to an annoyance? In fact, yes. When we fall victim to the 20-20 foresight in hindsight trap, and disparage people for not spotting the “obvious” problem, what we really are doing is telling them they are incompetent. Done often enough, they might start to believe it, reducing performance, motivation, and innovation in the company. When someone does successfully anticipate a problem and we dismiss that accomplishment, we are implicitly telling them not to bother doing that again! The results of that should be obvious.

Neither of those points, though, are the most serious problem: when we convince ourselves that problems are always obvious, we don’t spend as much effort trying to anticipate them. If it’s not obvious, it must not be there. It’s sort of like saying that if you close your eyes when crossing the street, there won’t be any cars.

That is a good way to get blindsided by some very big problems indeed.

The Less You Do…

When I started practicing jujitsu, my sensei would teach a technique and then tell us not to over-control our partners when we attempted to do it. We’d all nod and successfully fail to execute the technique. My sensei would demonstrate it again, and we’d grab our partners and attempt the throw, jerking and hauling, and adjusting position until our partners completely failed to leave the ground. Sensei would demonstrate the technique yet again, and eventually we might notice that he really didn’t do very much. There was none of this jerking and adjusting and fiddling around. Rather, he’d start the technique and then just wait while the person he was doing it to reacted. He seemed to be not exerting any control or effort at all, yet his partners just fell down.

What my sensei had learned, and the rest of us had not, was patience. We would start a technique and when we didn’t get immediate results, we would assume it wasn’t working and try to fix it. Our attempts to “fix” the technique were, in fact, the reason it wasn’t working. How rapidly a technique works depends on the specific technique and the person you are doing it to: a taller person simply takes longer to go over your shoulder than a shorter person. A lock takes longer to run through a long, flexible body than a short, tight one. By not giving those bodies time to react, we were actually negating the effects of the techniques as fast as we started them.

I find a very similar problem playing out in the work place: a manager tells his group to get something done and before they’ve really had a chance to react, he’s running around exhorting them or trying to figure out why they aren’t moving. In fact, they were moving. Now that he’s in the way, they’re not moving any more. It takes time for a group to process information and then figure out the best ways to move forward. That critical planning time is essential to the group’s success. In short, the group needs time to react.

When the leader starts running around, he is effectively negating the progress of the group just as beginning students in jujitsu negate the progress of their techniques. What is worse, though, is that the manager’s frequent interventions themselves become the focus of attention. Instead of concentrating on the work that needs to get done, everyone is paying attention to the interventions and trying to change course each time something new is said or some new instruction is given. As people become steadily more frustrated, the quality of information processing only declines.

In one company, a particular VP had some issues with the way managers in his department were working. He instructed them to make changes, even brought in coaches to help them with the changes. Each time the coaches showed up, he had a different critical problem that they had to focus on “right now!” The coaching ended up having little consistency from one day to the next. The net result was that the company spent a good deal of money and got very little to show for it.

So how do you avoid the trap of too many interventions?

Start by defining what your results should look like. In jujitsu, this is often pretty easy, usually involving a person lying on the ground. In a business environment, it may be a bit more complicated but is still eminently doable. It just takes some up front investments in time and energy.

As much as possible, define the steps you will take to get those results. What are they and how do they connect to the results? Sometimes you can’t draw a perfectly clear path, so you need to make sure you include steps to evaluate and adjust course as needed.

Then determine how you’ll know you’re making progress. What things will happen that will give you early feedback that you are on course or off course? Having some clue about both is important: if no warning signs are appearing, you don’t want to mess around. Depending on what you are doing, the first signs of success may take a while.

This brings us to our next point: how long will it take to get results? Everyone wants results Right Now, but rarely does the universe cooperate. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, the more we demand Right Now, the longer things end up taking. It’s important, therefore, to consider how long the first steps will take. Of course, if you really want to make success more likely, make sure you start with some easy steps that can be completed quickly and will build momentum. Once you start succeeding, it’s easier to keep going.

Like in jujitsu, it often really is the case that the less you do, the more you get.

Time Blindness

Imagine for moment that you are back in college. In fact, you are a divinity student. Okay, I realize that some people might find this difficult to imagine, but bear with me. You’re a divinity student and you are about to give a talk on the Good Samaritan. On your way to the chapel, you see someone lying on the ground, clearly in distress. What do you do?

Now, the fact is, most people given this scenario state that they would help the person, or at least call 911. The reality, however, is sometimes just a bit different. In this case, fully half the divinity students walked right by the person lying on the ground. What was going on here? Why did half the students stop and help and half ignore the apparently ill person?

It turns out that in this particular little experiment, all the divinity students received a phone call while they were in their dorm rooms preparing for their talks. Half of the students were told that, although they had plenty of time before their talk, the organizers would appreciate it if they came down to the chapel right away. The other half were told they were late and need to come down to the chapel immediately. Which group ignored the person on the ground? If you guessed the second group, you’d be right.

It turns out that time has some funny effects on how we process information and manage our goals. When we think we have a great deal of time, we consider new information more carefully, we make adjustments, and we revise our plans if necessary. But when we feel rushed or under a tight deadline new information is easily ignored. Those students who were suddenly feeling rushed? They were so focused on their goal of giving a talk on the importance of helping others that they were not processing the information in front of them, even though that information was directly related to the content of their speech.

Practically speaking, what does all that mean?

I worked with a client where everyone believed that their problem was that they were not communicating. They made great efforts to make sure that everyone spoke to everyone else, and that important information was communicated across the company. Despite all these efforts, nothing would change. People would still pursue goals even when those goals were no longer possible.

Well, one of the great benefits of goals is that they help us focus our attention on the things that matter. They also help us to ignore distractions. Unfortunately, one of the great drawbacks of goals is that they focus our attention and help us ignore distractions, particularly when we’re on an aggressive schedule.

The problem at that client wasn’t that they weren’t communicating. The problem was that they were not taking the time to evaluate the new information. Even worse, the very fact that they were feeling time pressure meant that they were already inclined to ignore any new information. Like that person lying on the ground, the new information was treated as a distraction from the important task ahead. Figuratively speaking, they simply walked past it.

So what can be done to prevent this from happening?

A critical part of goal planning is including time to check for new information and then consider what that new information means. Part of doing that successfully is allocating time for that one task and only that one task: what is new and what does it mean to what we are doing now? If you try to evaluate new information late in a meeting or mixed in with other material, it just doesn’t work. Rush people and they rush past the new data.

It’s only when we both create time for new information to enter the conversation and create time to process that information that we can see the man on the ground and take the appropriate actions.

A Street Called “Brid Geout”

“Beep Beep!”

  • The Roadrunner


Remember the classic Roadrunner cartoons? Each episode would feature Wile E. Coyote, rated one of the nastiest villains of all time, pursuing and attempting to eat the Roadrunner. Always imaginative, the Coyote used all manner of elaborate and complex devices to catch his prey. Sadly for the Coyote, the devices would either fail spectacularly or work perfectly but in ways that always came out badly for him. It was not unusual for the Acme speed skates, for example, to let the Coyote almost catch the Roadrunner, only to have the Roadrunner make a sharp left leaving the Coyote to go straight over the side of the cliff. Don’t worry, the Coyote was tough. He could fall thousands of feet and only injure his dignity.

Wile E. Coyote may be a villain, but he’s also someone who never, ever, gives up. He hits the bottom of that cliff, dusts himself off, and embarks on his next cunning plan to catch the Roadrunner. You have to hand it to the Coyote: no matter how many times he got blown up, fell off a cliff, run over, had boulders fall on him, or had his Acme products malfunction in countless other ways, he never hesitates, never doubts himself. Truly, the Coyote has a bias for action.

“A bias for action,” is, by an interesting coincidence, exactly how Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad described his company in a recent article titled, “Engineer asks Quora which job offer to take. CEO replies: not ours.”

According to this article, an engineer with job offers from Zenefits and Uber speculated on Quora about which company would be the best place to start his career. Apparently, the fact that the engineer wasn’t sure was just absolutely unreasonable in the mind of Parker Conrad, who rescinded the job offer. Conrad further stated that one of his company’s values is a “bias towards action,” and so when someone has doubts that’s a bad sign.

Now, let’s face it, too much doubt can be a problem. There is real truth to the saying that “he who hesitates is lost.” However, there is also something to be said for stopping to think and consider the consequences of an action. The Coyote might have benefitted from the occasional doubt; perhaps it would have helped him plan better, or at least consider buying his gadgets from someone other than Acme. Tom Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM was famous for, amongst other things, getting feedback from people. He knew everyone in the company and he listened to what they had to say. Conversely, when an emergency struck, he also knew how to jump into action: in one famous Tom Watson story, a train bringing IBMers to the World’s Fair derailed in the middle of the night. Watson got the phone call and was within an hour was out in the middle of Nowhere, New York, organizing the rescue effort.

There’s an important lesson here: in a real emergency, it’s time to act. Much of the time, though, pausing to think is not a bad idea. Even in an emergency, correct action is critical!

Another famous Watson story is that when the United States entered World War II, Watson seized the opportunity to provide high tech equipment to the government. No hesitation, not even for an instant. Of course, the reason he could act without hesitation is that he had been planning that action for a very long time. That was the moment that transformed IBM into a global powerhouse. The lesson: rapid, unhesitating, successful action is the result of extensive preparation. Of course, if you don’t mind dropping the word, “successful,” then you can also drop the extensive preparation. Wile E. Coyote is an expert at skipping the preparation step.

It may surprise Conrad, but most people do not expect that their first job will be their last job. Speculating about and exploring options is hardly a bad thing; would you rather someone accepted your offer while secretly wondering if they should have gone elsewhere, or that they satisfied their concerns and concluded you were the best choice? I suspect that most people would prefer the second. People who feel they are making the choice of their own free will are going to be much more loyal than those who are afraid to express their doubts and concerns. If your company is as good as you say it is, then they’ll stay and they’ll become your most ardent fans.

Again, there’s a lesson here: if your goal is to build loyalty, give people the space to convince themselves that you are the right choice for them. If they can’t express their doubts or if they feel pressured into making a decision, they won’t own their decision. When someone is thinking, “I only did it because…” then they already have one eye on the exit.

Beyond that, though, there is a difference between effective action and action for its own sake. Taking action is easy. Taking the right actions often requires planning and consideration. Indeed, one of the surest signs of a bad leader is someone who refuses to stop and consider alternatives or the possibility of failure. If you’re zipping down the road at high speed, it’s not such a bad idea to hesitate if the sign you just passed displayed the rather unusual street name, “Brid Geout.”

After reading countless articles that appeared in the days following the 2012 elections, we know that Mitt Romney truly believed he was going to win: he viewed it as inevitable. He even had the internal polls to prove it. Why was no one pushing back on those internal numbers and questioning their internal assumptions? And if someone was pushing back, why was no one listening? Teams work better when someone plays the role of “Devil’s Advocate,” asking the uncomfortable questions and pushing people to justify their assumptions. The Devil’s Advocate is only effective, though, if the leader is willing to be questioned and there exists sufficient trust on the team that members don’t believe they’ll be punished for bringing up unpleasant topics. A leader who appears to lash out or act impulsively, as Conrad certainly appeared to do by publically rescinding the job offer, is sending a very clear message that you cross him at your own peril. That is not exactly the best way to engender trust.

I would imagine, though, that Conrad viewed the engineer’s speculation as implicit criticism of Zenefits. Either that or he just could not stomach the idea that someone might turn down his company in favor of Uber. Better to just rescind the offer rather than face rejection. An attitude like that is bad enough in a low level manager or individual contributor, but it can be downright dangerous when it’s the CEO. Change it: fear and insecurity only lead to harmful, and avoidable, errors.

It takes confidence to make a job offer, and even more to accept the fact that you might be rejected by the candidate. A leader who is truly confident can accept the loss and move on; someone whose confidence is brittle, however, cannot. He needs to protect his ego. Say what you’d like about Wile E. Coyote, he isn’t afraid to fail. Failure is only a problem when nothing is learned from it. Properly done, the interviewing process can also be used to build the sort of excitement that will have a candidate eager to say yes. Unfortunately, it’ll be lot harder now for Zenefits to find out how they missed. That’s the real failure, not having a candidate express doubts.

In a very real sense, Parker Conrad did this unknown engineer a real favor. His actions say a great deal about his style of leadership and his company. It’s much better to find out that the CEO can’t handle criticism or lacks tolerance for questions before you’ve taken the job rather than after.

The engineer who posted the question got the best possible answer: a demonstration of what working for Zenefits would be like. It’s hard to do better than that.

Controlling the Little Things

One of the more painful experiences I had in jujitsu was when my instructor taught finger holds. We assume that because our legs are generally quite strong, it would be difficult for someone to force us to go somewhere we don’t want to go. That assumption lasted as long as it took my instructor to apply a finger hold. All he had to do was take control of the smallest joint of one finger and suddenly my legs would go exactly where he wanted them to go. By manipulating one little thing, he could convince people much larger and stronger than he was to become extremely cooperative. Controlling one small joint gave him control over their entire body, however controlling the body did not produce the same control over the arms and legs: the hands and feet still moved freely, and would regularly engage in what may be politely referred to as “nose seeking behavior.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, so what? That’s just leverage!”

Well, yes, it is leverage. And if that was the whole point, the correct reaction would indeed be “so what?”

Leverage, as we all know, enables us to move something large through control of something small. Jujitsu is merely a fairly straight-forward application of this principle. However, the principle is not limited to the physical. Our perception of control is determined not by the big things in life that we control, but by the little things. To put this another way, if we want people to tackle big, challenging projects, we have to convince them that they have at least some control over the outcome; they have to believe that their actions matter and have a reasonably good chance of producing positive results. Conversely, when we don’t have control over little things, we tend to assume that we can’t control the bigger things. Even worse, that feeling of not having control translates into a loss of initiative and creativity. Leverage cuts both ways.

In any organization, those stressors that decrease our sense of control are thus the most damaging. Organizational politics are one obvious example, but at a more direct level, the less control employees have over their immediate environment, the less initiative they take overall. Being able to, within reason, decorate your office or cubicle creates a sense of control. Conversely, when companies have elaborate rules that unduly limit personal expression, control is seriously decreased. Without that sense of control, employees become more like the person whose finger is being twisted rather than like the person doing the twisting: they might be compliant, but they are not enthusiastic or committed.

A recent article in the NY Times discussed how Google addresses exactly this issue. Google doesn’t just allow employees to decorate their work area; employees get to design their work area. Google provides them with the equivalent of high tech tinker toys that employees can use to build the work area they want. Feel like having a treadmill? No problem. Walking desk? Sure. The article pointed out that Google doesn’t even have an official policy about coming in to the office; rather, the assumption is that the employee will work out a reasonable schedule with her team. This is control in action: employees are given control over their environment, even whether to come to the office to work. This control, coupled with making the office an very enjoyable place to work, leads to employees who exercise their control to work longer and harder than anyone could ever force them to work. Indeed, one of the problems Google has is that sometimes they have to chase people out of the office! What would you do to have problems like that?

When we have to force someone to do something, either through threats or through lavish rewards, they don’t get a sense of control or commitment. They are being controlled, but they are not in control. Now, if all we want is compliance, maybe that’s just fine! Indeed, if the task is easy, that may even be sufficient. However, if we want a committed, enthusiastic work force that believes themselves capable of tackling big projects and overcoming apparently overwhelming obstacles, the secret to getting there is to give them control of the little things.

Princess Bride Problem Solving

Once upon a time there was an organization. It was a fairly good sized business, not too big and not too small. It was a business, in fact, much like your business. And it came up with a way to apply the battle of wits from the Princess Bride to dealing with some long-lasting and thorny problems. For those who may not recall this scene or, hard though it may be to imagine, have never seen the movie, it occurs relatively early in the film. Vizinni the dwarf has kidnapped Princess Buttercup and is fleeing with her to Guilder. In pursuit is the mysterious Man in Black. The Man in Black defeats the master swordsman, in a duel, and Fezzik the Giant in a wrestling match. He then confronts Vizinni in a battle of wits: two goblets, one supposedly containing deadly Iocane powder, sit before the two men. Vizinni must deduce which goblet contains the poison and then both men will drink.

What follows is a dizzying, and often hilarious, chain of logic as Vizinni attemps to solve the puzzle.

Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man In Black: You’ve made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely. Because Iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Man In Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Vizzini: Wait till I get going! Where was I?


Now, the fact is, none of the problems the business was facing were particularly unique or new problems. They were problems that the organization had had for many years: difficulties in setting priorities and making decisions; allocating resources and providing clear direction to employees. In other words, the sorts of problems that many businesses struggle with.

These problems were the topic of much discussion, but despite all that discussion nothing ever changed. Attempts to solve the problems almost resembled the classic model of two steps forward, one step back. The resemblance broke down in the second half: they usually took two steps back.

Eventually, someone suggested bringing in a consultant to help with the problems. This is where things got creative. It turns out that there are two types of consultants, at least for this particular business: those who were closely connected to the business and known to people there, and those who had no connection at all.

We now come to Vizinni and his Dizzying Intellect.

Consultants in the second group could clearly not be hired because they knew nothing about the company. How could they possibly be of assistance? Therefore we must look at consultants in the first group.

Consultants in the first group were too close to the organization. Clearly they too could not be hired. Therefore, we must go back to consultants in the second group.

But consultants in the second group would clearly not care about the results. So they could not be hired. Back to the first group.

But consultants in the first group could not be hired because they might care too much. So they too could not be hired.

And so it went, on and on, until eventually nothing was done. People continued to complain about the problems, but no one wanted to act.

In the movie, of course, Vizzini finally chooses a goblet and drinks the deadly Iocane powder. In reality, it didn’t matter which goblet he chose as the Man in Black had developed an immunity to Iocane powder and poisoned both goblets.

Similarly, in this case it wouldn’t have mattered which choice the business actually made: bring in someone totally unconnected or someone close and known to the people there. The important thing was to make a choice and actually take action to deal with the long-term problems that were interfering with their productivity. Whichever choice they made would have different benefits and different drawbacks, but either could have helped them. It’s only the choice to do nothing that has no hope of success. Let’s face it, if the problems haven’t gone away on their own after months or years, odds are pretty good that they won’t be going away on their own tomorrow or even next year.

Choose a goblet. Take action. Nothing will change until you do.

Slush in the Schedule

It’s snowing as I write this. Of course, these days that means I could be writing this article almost anytime. In the last three weeks, we’ve had some 7 feet of snow, or maybe 8, in the Boston area. That makes for a lot of snowmen! It also makes for a lot of slush in people’s schedules. It’s no wonder that the police in one New Hampshire town issued an arrest warrant for Punxsutawney Phil.

In fact, this sort of weather really makes a dramatic point about just how hard it can be to plan and schedule just about anything. A couple of blizzards and it’s amazing how disrupted everything becomes.

Schedules are a funny thing. When I was giving a workshop a few years ago on project management, one of the people in the audience became quite irate when I suggested that the point of a schedule is not to make sure that you optimize every minute, but rather that a schedule exists to prevent us from trying to do everything all at once.

This person insisted that it was possible to precisely calculate the amount of time that each step of the schedule would take and thus there was no need to waste any time. Had this actually worked for him? Well, it turns out that he was (in)famous for missing deadlines and burning out his teams trying to hit arbitrary targets. No matter how precisely he tried to calculate the schedule, something would always derail it: the flu has no respect for precision. Once a tight schedule is disrupted, it can easily become a game of falling dominos.

In the end, the goal is to beat the schedule, not create a schedule that beats you. It’s quite amazing: when we’re ahead of schedule, we are simultaneously more relaxed and more energized. We focus better and come up with more creative solutions to problems. Unexpected obstacles are fun challenges. When we are behind schedule, we feel rushed. Every delay feels like a crisis. We take shortcuts and make more mistakes, which, in turn, only further disrupts the schedule.

The secret, it turns out, to effective schedules is not to try to be extremely precise, but rather to recognize that your schedule will need some slush. Things do not always happen when they are supposed to: some things will go faster than expected, and others will go more slowly. The goal is to be able to adapt to that: when the US military started conducting war games with the Japanese, the hardest thing for the Japanese military was that US forces wouldn’t attack on time. Sometimes they were early, sometimes they were late. This was very frustrating for the Japanese, who were used to extreme precision in their war games. Eventually, they figured out the lesson: warfare doesn’t happen on a clock.

When you’re building your schedule, don’t just estimate how long something will take. Break down each task, think about the different moving pieces involved. Consider which pieces can be disrupted by someone getting the flu or by a freak storm. Where are you implementing a known and tested solution and where are you trying something new and different? Exploration will always take longer if only because you don’t know ahead of time what you’re getting into: Boston’s famous Big Dig certainly had its share of bad planning, but it also had its share of discovering that the problems being solved were much bigger and more difficult than anyone expected.

As I explained to someone very recently, always put breaks in the schedule. As every endurance athlete learns, mostly by ignoring this advice, you need to stop and rest periodically. When you decide to skip a rest or a meal break, you set yourself up for failure. Just as the silence between the notes is what makes the music, it is the breaks in the schedule that enable the team to maintain high productivity over the long term.

Take time in your schedule as well to put in checkpoints to evaluate progress. That doesn’t mean fighting about why something didn’t get done, but rather to understand what is working and what is not. Make adjustments and shift resources as necessary: part of good scheduling is the ongoing process of refining the schedule.

But what about 8 feet of snow? Surely no one can plan for weather conditions like that! Of course not, but that’s not the point. When we are used to the idea that schedules need regular tune-ups and adjustments, when we recognize that unexpected obstacles are just part of the job, then it becomes easier to role with whatever storms arise. The blizzard isn’t a crisis, it’s just a more dramatic version of business as usual.

Are you beating the schedule or is the schedule beating you?

Yahoo’s Pfizer Problem

What is Yahoo’s Pfizer problem? That may seem a bit of an odd question: Yahoo is, after all, a fallen titan of the Internet age. As companies go, Yahoo is barely old enough to drink. Pfizer, on the other hand, is, well, Pfizer: a 150 year old pharmaceutical giant quite possibly best known for giving the world Viagra. What is a “Pfizer problem” and what does it mean for Yahoo to have one? No, it has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals. Rather, it has everything to do with Hank McKinnell.

Hank McKinnell was the CEO of Pfizer from 2001-2006. This was, in retrospect, perhaps not Pfizer’s finest period: after five extremely disappointing years, Pfizer’s board forced McKinnell into retirement. This was quite the change from 2001 when they couldn’t stop shouting his praises. McKinnell, it seems, looked like a great leader in 2001. While looking like a leader may, in fact, be enough to make someone a leader, it isn’t enough to make them a good leader. That’s a bit more difficult.

Thus we come to Yahoo. From its lofty perch at the pinnacle of the Internet hierarchy in the late 1990s, Yahoo is now something of a has-been. Its search business eaten by Google, its marketplaces by eBay and, Yahoo is struggling. According to the NY Times article, “What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to be Steve Jobs,” Mayer, the current CEO, has so far failed to actually do more than make cosmetic changes. That’s not to say that she hasn’t managed to generate a great deal of sound and fury, but her actions have done little to actually turn the company around.

Like Hank McKinnell, Marissa Mayer looks like a great leader. To be clear, she’s brilliant and she was a fantastic engineer at Google. But being a CEO is not an engineering problem; it’s a people problem. A great leader does more than give lip-service to the concept that people are the company’s biggest asset; they live that ideal. Leaders build relationships, they form connections, and they act in ways that cause that web of relationships to spread throughout the company. Marissa Mayer, to much fanfare, eliminated Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, a decision which generated a great deal of smoke but only actually affected maybe 1% of the company. It was a distraction. However, since she also built her infant son a private nursery next to her office, it was a distraction that also served to sever, not build, relationships.

Exemplary leaders create commitment by enabling people to trust one another. Unfortunately, Yahoo adopted an employee rating process similar to Microsoft’s late and unlamented employee stacking method: team members who received high ratings got huge rewards, people at the bottom were fired. As the NY Times reported, top people at Yahoo did their best to never work together: it’s much easier to get a top rating when you surround yourself with weak players. The same thing happened at Microsoft. Furthermore, when the goal is to make sure someone else takes the fall, trust is hard to come by: at Microsoft, engineers sabotaged one another in a variety of subtle ways. Sometimes a leader gets lucky and manages to make an employee stacking system work for a time; that’s unfortunate, because then they often think it really is a good system, even after their luck runs out.

The leader is, rather obviously, the person at the top of the company hierarchy. That’s more than just a figure of speech: the CEO is in the position to see the furthest. The biggest difference between leaders and managers is scope: how far ahead can you look? Well, the CEO is the person whose job it is to look the furthest. Marissa Mayer likes to dive down into the depths of the code base: this may be a great activity for an engineer, but for the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company employing thousands of people? Details matter, and if you spend too much time on them, it’s easy to lose track of the big picture. However, a characteristic of human nature is that we like to do what we’re best at and when we aren’t sure what to do, we do the things we know how to do. In Marissa Mayer’s case, that appears to be focusing on code and data in the areas where she is most comfortable. She’s doing what she’s trained to do.

Hank McKinnell got booted out of the leadership role at Pfizer because he was doing immense damage and the reasons why he only looked like a leader were not particularly amenable to change. Marissa Mayer has a chance to actually become a great leader and make a difference… but only if she takes the time to learn the right skills to actually become a leader instead of merely looking like one.

It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a Hike up a Mountain!

Last summer, I had the opportunity to hike Algonquin. For those who are not familiar with Algonquin, which included me up until about two days before I climbed it, Algonquin is the second highest mountain in New York state. This translates to roughly 5100 feet, which may not be much by Sierra Nevada standards, but when actually doing the hike such subtleties swiftly become irrelevant. The trail up Algonquin starts at 2000 feet and climbs 3000 feet in 4 miles. There are a number of words for a trail like that; one of the less emotionally expressive ones is “steep.” The estimated time for the hike was 8 hours.

I have long believed the old adage that building a software project is a marathon, not a sprint. I was wrong. It’s a hike up a mountain. Consider that a marathon may be long, but it is basically predictable. You know how far you are going and exactly what the conditions will be along the way. When you get to the end, you’re done. Maybe it’s a big circle or there are busses waiting to take you home; either way, the finish line is the finish line.

Climbing a peak like Algonquin, however, is a different experience. At the base camp, the weather was sunny and warm, a typical August day. My wife directed my attention to the sign that said that the temperature at the peak was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, just a tad cooler. I hadn’t noticed that as my attention was on the sign that explained that no matter how beautiful the weather, sudden snow storms were still possible. Yes, even in August there are occasionally snow storms at and around the peak.

The trail itself started off very smooth and easy. My brother-in-law set a good pace, since we wanted to be up and down before dark. Assume one mile per hour, was what he told us. I was thinking that the trail wasn’t that hard, so why such a low estimate? Then we reached the steep part. Well, at least the part that seemed steep until we got to the really steep part. Then it got steeper from there. Suddenly, a mile an hour seemed optimistic.

See the connection to a software project yet?

Even a difficult project seems pretty manageable at the start. Sure, everyone talks about the inevitable rough patches, but no one really expects them to seriously derail the schedule. But then it gets steep; or, in other words, something turns out to be much harder or more complex than expected. Lack of planning? Not really; planning is important, but it can only take you so far. Sometimes you have to plan to not know something until you get there. Your plan needs to include how you’ll deal with that discovery.

I didn’t realize how steep the hike up Algonquin would be. But, I had a hiking stick and my wife was using poles. My stick was very useful; on one particularly wet and slippery section of rock, it nobly sacrificed itself to save my ankle. The, now much shorter, hiking stick was still useful in various creative ways on some other impressively inclined sections of the trail.

Preparation can seem pointless until you need it. If you haven’t prepared properly, your will to win won’t matter. That said, sometimes you also have to improvise and be willing to back up and try something different if your first idea doesn’t work.

Algonquin peak was beautiful. Despite the weather reports, it wasn’t nearly as cold up there as expected. No sudden snowstorms came rolling in. Of course, it was also only the halfway mark; we still had to hike back down. That didn’t stop us from having a picnic and enjoying the view; it’s important to celebrate successes along the way, even if you still have more to do. If you never stop and recharge, you’ll never maintain the focus necessary to reach the end. Hiking a wet, steep, trail, that can mean a blown knee or busted ankle; with software, it can mean endless delays, poor design decisions, and a buggy release.

In the end, our 8 hour hike took us closer to 10 hours. Fortunately, we’d started early in the day so we didn’t run out of light; if night had fallen, that would have been a serious problem. Although I did have a flashlight, I had neither a headlamp nor any desire to spend the night on the mountain. Leaving a little more time than you think you need is always a good idea; projects inevitably take longer than expected. Getting stuck on a mountain means a very long, unpleasant, and potentially serious delay; being too aggressive with your schedule can likewise trigger unexpected problems. Putting in some slush time prevents the unexpected from becoming the catastrophic.

As we finished the hike and emerged from the woods into the sunset, we were both exhausted and exhilarated. Algonquin is a tough hike; we celebrated with dinner at a very good restaurant. At the end of your projects, what are you doing to celebrate? No matter how dedicated people are and how much they enjoy the activity, there are sections that are just exhausting. Taking the time to relax and have some fun after the slog helps us appreciate our accomplishments and prepares us to tackle the next big challenge.




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,” sold out at two days after it was released. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or


The Cardinal and the Sparrow: Effective Organizational Change

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some legs. One of those legs is Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Cardinal Raymond Burke of the Roman Catholic Church was in the news recently, although perhaps not entirely in a way that he would have liked. The good Cardinal recently suffered a significant and dramatic change in status, sort of the equivalent of an admiral being demoted to swimming pool monitor: from Cardinal and head of the ecclesiastic church, he is now the patron of the Knights of Malta. This is not, to put it mildly, an upward career move. Indeed, one might well imagine that the Cardinal and the Bluebird of Happiness are not exactly on speaking terms right now.

The question, of course, is why did this happen? The ostensible cause is that the Cardinal did not agree with Pope Francis. While that may, in fact, be the proximate reason, the real reason is a bit more subtle. It has to do with the often messy and awkward process of organizational change. The world is constantly changing, whether we are looking at the religious landscape of the Church or the business landscape. Businesses rise up and achieve success within the environment in which they are founded. Many of them then go out of business or fade into the background: still important, but no longer dominant. Think Xerox, IBM, Microsoft, to name three, with Google possibly preparing to become a fourth.

Organizational change is never an easy thing. The larger the organization and the more deeply entrenched its culture and behavior, the more difficult it is to change. Few organizations are larger and have a more deeply entrenched culture than the Roman Catholic Church. Change can be a lot like trying to turn the QE II: it’s not something that happens easily or quickly. But Francis is making it happen. How?

To begin with, he is moving slowly. He is not trying to change the church all at once, but rather in small steps. He raises issues and then builds on them; he first suggests different ideas and gets people thinking about them. He then starts to act on those ideas and concepts.

Part of what makes change difficult is that an organization became successful by doing things a certain way. They have learned how to succeed, and everyone knows that nothing succeeds like success… except, of course, when it doesn’t. But trying to change those comforting habits is challenging: like throwing away that old coat that fits just right, the change simply feels wrong.

The first step, therefore, is painting a picture of the future: tell people what change will look like. This can be done through vibrant and dramatic speeches or through quiet questions. What matters is that it happens. Once people know where you are going, they are much more comfortable following you. It’s when they don’t know, or don’t want to know, that people dig in their heels. You have to make it easy for people to follow.

However, no leader can change a large organization on their own. There are simply too many people, too much psychological inertia. It is critical to get other organizational leaders on board. Show them the future and help them become comfortable with it, so that they will then share that vision with their followers. The more people who come on board, the more people will come on board: once change gets large enough, it starts to snowball.

But what about those who hear and refuse to follow? Often, they need to be removed from power: politely, calmly, and firmly. There can be no doubt, no question that the snowball will run over anyone who is refusing to move. Provided that people know which way to start moving, this approach can be remarkably effective at convincing those who have doubts that they should jump on the bandwagon. The catch, of course, is that you can’t get rid of too many or move too fast: scare people too much and they freeze or panic. If people are scared by the change process, they will swiftly become scared of the change itself.

By demoting Cardinal Burke in such a public fashion, Pope Francis is sending a very clear message. By finding a place for him, albeit a minor one, Francis is also recognizing his years of service. It is not always necessary to get rid of those who won’t change; rather, leading change involves moving them to places where they can still help the organization but can no longer impede the change process. Instead of being a focus of attention, they become boring and unimportant.

If you want to lead change effectively, you need to show people the future. Paint the picture that will get them thinking about how the world, or at least the company, can be a better place. Ask the questions that will get people to become unhappy with the status quo and start thinking about how change could be a good thing. Show them the way, recruit followers to spread the message, and strategically replace those who won’t move. Don’t be afraid to turn a few brightly colored cardinals into boring sparrows.


The Leadership Blueprint can help you with organizational change. Find out how.