Move Along, Nothing to See Here

“So why was the customer release such a disaster?”

“Bob changed the code without consulting anyone.”

“So no one knew what he did?”

“Oh no, we knew. The rest of the team wasn’t willing to confront him.”

Sometimes things are not as they seem. In this case, the original question was around helping a company understand why they were having trouble shipping working software. Managers at the company had many theories. Talking to the folks who are, as it were, in the trenches, revealed the real problem: they were so conflict averse that no one was willing to say anything when one team member made arbitrary changes to the code. Even the nominal manager wouldn’t say anything because, after all, this was supposed to be a “self-directed” team. Better to blame mysterious bugs in the code than actually address the fact that the team couldn’t direct itself out of a paper bag.

In an eerily similar situation, I was speaking to a senior vice president at a mid-sized family owned business. He’d been with the company for decades, and was telling me angrily about how one of the other VPs had very rudely failed to attend an important presentation he was giving.

“When did this happen?” I asked, trying desperately to remember which presentation he was referring to.

“1987!” was the reply.

“1987?” I repeated rather stupidly, thinking I must have misheard him.

“That’s right.”

“You mean, 24 years ago?”

“Yes!”

Yes indeed. This senior executive at a respectable firm was steamed about something that happened over two decades ago. When I later had a chance to delicately ask the other person about the incident in question, he didn’t have a clue what I was referring to. The two were at very different points in their careers at that time, and, well, it should have been over with. It wasn’t, though, and this was causing tension and difficulties getting business done: the least little thing quickly became a cause for major argument. In this case, the problem appeared to be exactly the opposite of the first scenario. Where the first scenario was an almost fanatical devotion to avoiding conflict, the second scenario appeared on the surface to be an equally fanatical desire to engage in conflict.

In the end, of course, both of these scenarios are fundamentally the same:  employees at both companies are refusing to engage in productive debate and neither group has effective methods of ending an argument and coming to a decision. The first group deals with the situation by avoiding any sort of conflict altogether; the second, by hauling out old, irresolvable, issues in order to avoid dealing with anything that might actually matter. Considering that there’s no fire, both groups manage to blow an awful lot of smoke. They also manage to make every decision so unpleasant that everyone involved would rather just move along and decide that there’s nothing to see rather than address the issues.

When it comes to getting productive work done, being able to argue effectively is critical. Effective arguing, in turn, requires agreeing on what you‘re arguing about and having an agreed upon and acceptable method of decision making.

Oddly enough, one of the most common causes of ongoing arguments it that each person is actually arguing for something different. They all think they are arguing about the same thing, but, since no one ever bothered to check, they don’t realize just how different their visions are. In one case, the resulting struggle almost ripped the company apart; the fighting didn’t end until I sat both sides down and managed to get each one to state what they were actually talking about. At that point, they realized that they were not nearly so far apart as they’d thought. It was, quite literally, one of those, “Why didn’t you say so?” “Why didn’t you ask?” moments.

Of course, even if you’ve agreed roughly on the vision, if the method of decision making isn’t accepted by everyone, the argument never ends; it only takes breaks, reemerging to haunt meetings rather like Dracula emerging from the grave. Because we live in a democratic society, the natural instinct of most organizations is to call for a vote to end a discussion. Unfortunately, voting does not end discussions: voting prolongs discussions. When the vote is called before everyone is ready to commit to the outcome, all that happens is that the losers focus on winning the next vote. If that means undermining the project to prove their point, they’re willing to do it.

Before voting, therefore, it pays to check for consensus: not unanimity, but a simple verification that each person present feels that they understand the choices, they’ve had their questions answered, had their opinions heard, and can support whatever outcome the group chooses. Only then can you vote.

As much work as it may appear to be to reach consensus, it’s less than paying the price of ignoring issues or letting them return like zombies, sucking the brains out of your organization.

Enter the Manager

The story is told of the late martial arts master and movie star, Bruce Lee, that one day he came upon one of his students arriving early at the dojo.

“Why so early?” the master asked.

“I need a good hour to limber up enough to throw high kicks,” replied the student.

“And how long does it take you to prepare for low kicks?” asked Lee.

“Oh, those are easy,” said the student. “A short warm-up, at most, is all I need.”

“Practice your low kicks and forget about the high kicks,” advised Lee.

In response to the student’s shocked expression, Lee added: “Focus on your strengths and they will overcome your weaknesses.”

In making this comment, Lee contradicted a piece of common wisdom in both martial arts and business. Of course, just because something is labeled as “common wisdom” doesn’t mean that it’s wise or accurate; it may just be common. In this case, the persistent belief that the way to success is to focus on weaknesses is a both extremely attractive and subtly destructive.

The idea that if we could just take each person and “fix” each of their weaknesses we would end up with a team of super performers is highly alluring. The problem with this idea is that strengths and weaknesses are sticky: they reflect the complex facets of each individual. Bruce Lee’s student had a body that was not suited to stretching in a certain direction, and no amount of exercise was going to change that. What made Bruce Lee a skilled instructor is that he recognized that one size does not fit all. You must teach the actual person in front of you, not the theoretical person or the ideal person.

The simple reality is that each person has their own unique profile of strengths and weaknesses. A tall man with long legs may find head-high kicks relatively easy, while trying to get low enough to execute a hip throw would be extremely difficult. For the short person, however, the opposite is likely true. In a business environment, each particular profile may not be so obvious, but it exists just the same.

Now, I do get asked if there’s ever a situation in which everyone has the same profile, the same set of strengths and weaknesses. In fact, there is one group where this is true: the clone army in Star Wars. Because they are all identical, with identical profiles of strengths and weaknesses, it might not matter whether one fixes their weaknesses or builds their strengths. That said, their primary weakness, being unable to shoot straight, seems to be unfixable.

Star Wars aside, in the real world we’re dealing with individuals, not clones. No two individuals are identical, which is an important component of building successful teams: a baseball team that was comprised entirely of excellent pitchers and no outfielders would be at a serious disadvantage. Because each person is unique, not everyone will be able to do the same things: when we assume that every weakness can, and should, be fixed, we are implicitly saying that we’re dealing with clones, not individuals. In reality, each member of the team has different strengths, enabling the team to tackle a variety of different problems and develop different, innovative solutions.

You don’t get that by focusing on weakness. Rather, the secret is to build strength and figure out ways to render the weaknesses irrelevant: in other words, get away from the cookie-cutter approach to management and pay attention to the people in front of you. For example, at a certain service company, one sales team had an amazing “opener” combined with an equally amazing “closer.” The first guy was remarkably good at opening conversations with complete strangers and getting them interested, but couldn’t finalize a deal to save his life. His partner, on the other hand, was terrible at making those initial calls, but given an interested prospect, could close almost every deal. Individually, they were mediocre performers, together they were incredible! Rather than try to force to closer to become an opener or the opener to become a closer, their manager let each one develop their strengths and created a situation in which each one’s strengths overcame the weaknesses of the other. The team really was greater than the sum of its parts.

The reason this works is quite simple: people’s strengths and what gives them a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction for a job well done tend to go together. When it comes to employee engagement and effective goal setting, we know that people engage more deeply and passionately with goals that are personally meaningful and personally rewarding. Attempts to fix weakness generally fail because the person doesn’t find success in that particular area personally rewarding. Focusing on strength, on the other hand, means that you are always encouraging people to build up the things that they most enjoy, and that enjoyment motivates them to constantly work harder. When you “reward” someone by making them do tasks that they don’t find satisfying, you are destroying their motivation: instead of success being associated with a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment, it becomes associated with drudgery. Also, on a purely practical level, a ten percent gain in something that is already strong yields a much larger actual return on the time and energy invested than a ten percent gain on something that is weak.

It’s also worth noting that, as psychologists Gary Locke and Ed Latham point out, the high performance cycle of business is triggered in part by people feeling personal satisfaction and gaining increased self-efficacy from accomplishing challenging goals. This requires, however, that the goal be personally relevant as well. Building and developing strengths are almost always personally relevant goals, whereas goals focusing on weaknesses are generally imposed on someone. This latter, of course, reduces people’s sense of autonomy in the workplace, increasing stress and reducing motivation, thus short-circuiting the high-performance cycle.

Building strength also increases an employee’s feelings of competence, another key element of effective motivation. When people work hard and can see real success, they feel more competent. When you work hard at something and see little gain from that effort, a common result when focusing on weakness, your feelings of competence and self-efficacy are decreased. It’s hard to feel competent when you’re working extremely hard at something at which you simply never do well, and feel little sense of accomplishment in even when you do manage something that isn’t awful.

Another interesting side effect of focusing on strengths versus weaknesses is that people generally feel happier and more energized when they are recognized for doing well at something they are passionate about. When people are constantly being praised for working on weaknesses, the praise feels hollow or pointless. If you simply don’t value the result, doing it well doesn’t feel particularly praiseworthy. On the other hand, praise for excelling at something you love is highly energizing. Granted, it’s important to understand how each employee likes being praised: publically or privately, but that doesn’t change the basic point that praise for excelling at something you love is more valuable than for excelling at something you hate. The former builds feelings of competence, while the latter undermines them.

A team of clones may look like a great hammer, but not every problem is really a nail. A team with a variety of strong performers is capable of shifting and adjusting to meet each challenge in front of them. With practice, the team almost instinctively adjusts to put the right combination of people in the right place at the right time.

It is exactly for this reason that the best managers, like Bruce Lee and other master instructors, focus on developing strengths, not weaknesses.

 

I’m Not!

In Monty Python’s classic comedy, “The Life of Brian,” there is a scene fairly early in the movie when the people of Jerusalem have decided that Brian is the Messiah and are standing waiting on the street outside his window. Brian’s mother screams out at the crowd, “You are all individuals.”

The crowd replies: “We are all individuals.”

A pause, and then a lone voice yells out, “I’m not.”

This is typical Monty Python absurdist humor, but it makes a very serious point. What is standing outside Brian’s window is not a group of individuals, it’s a mob. A mob is a group in which individuality is lost is the urge to conform to the group. As the movie progresses, we see the mob do various ludicrous things as they follow their unwilling prophet. Brian’s followers are, of course, convinced that they are acting according to his instructions and executing his desires, no matter how much Brian screams to the contrary. This being a Python film, the sequence of events is absolutely hilarious.

In a business, not so much. Unfortunately, the tendency for a group to lose individuality in the service of a charismatic leader or a particularly enticing corporate vision is not restricted to comedy. At one large software company, the dynamic became quite extreme: employees were expected to arrive at a certain time, eat lunch at a certain time, visit a certain set of restaurants, leave at a certain time, and so forth. No deviation was tolerated. The mantra was, “We’re a team. We do everything alike!”

Sound fanciful? I wish it were.

The problem is that a team that loses its individuality is not a team, it’s a mob or a rabble. It can be a very disciplined mob or rabble, sort of like the Storm Troopers in Star Wars, but it’s still a mob. Like the Storm Troopers, it’s very good at dealing with routine situations, but isn’t very good at dealing with the unexpected: new tactics from the rebels or, if you prefer, new competitors or existing competitors adopting new strategies. The other problem is that when a group focuses on homogeneity, it loses its ability for the strengths of some to compensate for the weaknesses of others: the Storm Troopers, for example, cannot successfully shoot the broad side of a barn.

At a different high-tech company, the only engineers hired matched a very precise and very limited profile. Not only did you have to solve a certain set of puzzles, you had to solve them in just the right way. Alternate solutions were not tolerated. This created a team that was very good at creating intricate, convoluted algorithms, and a user interface that was equally intricate and convoluted.

None of these situations are as extreme as that portrayed in Life of Brian, but then again, they aren’t as funny either.

Later in the movie, we see the opposite end of the spectrum: the members of the People’s Front of Judea are so busy drawing insignificant distinctions between each of their positions that they are not functioning as a team. Rather, they are a horde. Each person is operating according to their own individual needs and goals, with no actual concern about the goals or strategy of the group. In a horde, everyone is a hero, entitled to their share of the plunder and devil take the hindmost. Cooperation is almost accidental, and the group is likely to break apart at the slightest disagreement: the People’s Front of Judea can’t even quite figure out why the Judean People’s Front broke off, but is quite happy to yell, “Splitters!”

At a certain manufacturing company, each department was totally focused on doing its own job. None of the departments considered how their actions or decisions affected the others. Within each department, much the same thing was happening at an individual level. Rather than figuring out how to work together, they spent their time blaming one another for the inevitable failures. Fixing this issue saved the company in question several hundred thousand dollars a year.

The challenge, of course, is to find the middle ground, where the individual and the team are in balance. While it’s extremely difficult to find the exact middle, anywhere in the general vicinity works pretty well. Peak performance occurs when people are committed to the goals of the company and the team, and are also free to pursue their personal goals and work the way they want to work. Is it easy? No: less than one team in five ever gets there. However, it sure beats a horde or a mob of people chanting, “We are all individuals.”

Solving Yesterday’s Problems

Once upon a time there was an employee working on a knotty biotech problem. Weeks, then months, passed with no results. The employee’s manager decided that the employee clearly wasn’t working hard enough, fired him, and hired someone else.

Weeks, then months, passed with no results. The second person was also clearly not working hard enough and was swiftly replaced.

The next two people didn’t work hard enough either.

The fifth person got lucky: someone in a different lab was working on a similar problem and figured out that the process was fatally flawed. No one had noticed. Everyone, especially the manager, assumed that it must be correct. The manager, in particular, was unwilling to even consider the possibility that the problem could be the process, not the people, until it was shoved in his face.

In a slightly different example, I was conducting a leadership and negotiation exercise with a group of would-be managers. As part of the exercise, they were each given various items and told to obtain various other items. Naturally, everyone started trading back and forth. Some items, though, simply could not be found. As a result, the people who needed those missing items started hording the items they did have: they wanted to make sure they had leverage to get other people to give them the items they needed.

At the end, there were a number of very frustrated people complaining that the exercise was unfair because items were missing.

“I needed an apple, and there were no apples,” complained one irritated individual.

When I asked him why he hadn’t just gone down to the cafeteria and bought an apple, he just stared at me.

One woman complained that no one in the room had willow leaves. I asked why she didn’t just walk outside and pick some off the tree.

Again the stare.

Because each person was visibly presented with a bag of items, everyone immediately jumped to the assumption that all the items were present and that they could be obtained through trade. Even when that failed to work for everyone, no one questioned the basic assumption. Instead, those who couldn’t find what they needed assumed that people were withholding items and responded by withholding their items. Instead of engaging in brainstorming or problem solving, they just glared at each other. Unlike the biotech manager, the option of firing one person and hiring another was not available. This was probably fortunate under the circumstances.

In both the lab and the exercise, the people involved had become so focused on the results that they weren’t thinking about how they were trying to accomplish those results. Indeed, the process had somehow achieved the status of holy writ, to the point that no one even thought of questioning it.

Results are important, make no mistake about that. However, it’s equally important to think strategically about how to accomplish those results. By mindlessly assuming that only one path exists or one way of working exists, the different groups trapped themselves in failure.

The more difficult the problem being solved, the more important it becomes to pay attention to the process. Assuming that there is only one process or blindly believing that everyone has to fit a certain image or work a certain way reduces the likelihood of success and can even lead to the results not being accepted. The lab manager could have made something of a name for himself if he’d been the one to publish the identification of the flawed process! The groups looking for the items could have all succeeded if they’d stopped to revisit their assumptions and seek out alternate means of accomplishing their goals.

If you’re trying to solve yesterday’s problems, then ignoring the process is frequently a great way to go about it. By the same token, it would be very easy to win the lottery if you could only buy based on yesterday’s paper. Unfortunately, the first option is actually available in business.

The more complex the problem, therefore, the more important it becomes to stop and look at what you’re trying to accomplish, how you’re trying to do it, and why you’ve chosen to do it that way. If you want to think strategically, it helps considerably if you don’t limit yourself to preconceived notions about how the problems must be solved. The more hidden assumptions you can overturn, the more likely you are to accomplish your goals.

Of Cats and Unwanted Prizes

I have three cats. Cats being the creatures that they are, I have only to sit down to read a book and instantly there is a cat on my lap. Regardless of which cat it is, a familiar pattern ensues: first, the cat carefully positions itself in front of my book. Once I adjust to move the book, the cat then carefully positions itself on one of my hands. This continues until I give the cat the attention it’s seeking. At that point, it first butts its head against me and then, purring loudly, turns and sticks its behind in my face.

I am sure that there are people who find this end of a cat absolutely fascinating. I’m even quite sure that there are contests in which cats win awards for having the most beautiful behind. For cat breeders and cat fanciers, it can be a big deal to win one of these cat trophies. It is a cause for great celebration.

In an office environment, however, a catastrophe is anything but a cause for celebration.

The worst thing about catastrophes is that they happen about as often as a cat sitting down on top of the book you’re reading. At least, to listen to some managers, it certainly sounds that way. Somehow, every little thing, every small problem, was magnified until it had the aura of impending doom. In short, every setback was becoming a prize for the cat with the most beautiful behind. At one company, the conversation went something like this:

“We’ve found a major bug in the software.”

“We can’t delay the ship.”

“We can’t ship with this bug.”

At that point, the manager started screaming that the product would go out on schedule, or else. When he finally calmed down and I was able to talk with him privately, he told me that he knew that if the company didn’t ship on time, the customers would abandon them and they would go out of business. He was happy to ship non-functional software to avoid that fate.

When he calmed down still further, he agreed to delay the ship.

I am sure that most readers are chuckling to themselves right now. After all, delays in software are legendary. Obviously, this manager was overreacting. True enough; the question is, why? Why would a perfectly sensible, intelligent man react so negatively to something which is, frankly, a common event in the software business?

It turns out that this particular company prided itself on holding to very aggressive schedules. The schedule was so aggressive that they were virtually always running behind. Therein lay the problem.

Time is a funny thing. We react very differently depending on how we perceive it. Being behind schedule all the time had the effect of generating a certain sense of urgency, which was the stated intent of the aggressive schedule. Unfortunately, the urgency generated in this situation was of the slightly breathless, heart-pounding sort similar to what one might experience if being chased by a very large cat of the “has a big mane” variety. A cat which, I might add, is looking to do more than just sit on your book.

The problem with aggressive schedules is that, in fact, being behind schedule can generate the same panicked response in people that they would feel in a situation which actually was dangerous. While in those situations, we’re very good at running away or fighting desperately, but we’re not good at making cool, rational decisions or developing innovative solutions to problems. Each pebble encountered along the road becomes a giant boulder. When we do finally get to the end of the project, rather than feeling a sense of accomplishment and success, there’s more of a sense of relief that at last it’s over. What’s missing is the thrill of victory that energizes people for the next project. That feeling of success is the key to getting, and keeping, people excited and motivated.

In short, instead of the team beating the schedule, the schedule was beating them.

Conversely, when a team is running slightly ahead of schedule, something very different happens. Running ahead of the game means that the team is feeling a constant sense of success. When people feel successful, they work harder, they are more creative, and they look forward to coming into work each day. Teams that are running ahead of schedule are more likely to develop innovative new solutions to problems rather than just slap on band-aids. Feeling that you have the time to stop and think is critical: just think about how easy it is to miss the obvious when you are feeling rushed.

The trick is to view your schedule as a living document. It’s something that you will constantly adjust according to the situation, especially at the beginning of a project. The less you know about potential difficulties down the road, the harder it is to plan: so don’t. Instead, plan to plan. As you move forward, you can revise and project the schedule further and further into the future.

If you find yourself running behind, that’s feedback. Pay attention to what it’s telling you. Is something more complicated than expected? Is someone overwhelmed with a task that turned out to be significantly more time-consuming than you thought? Did something go wrong? Is a vendor habitually late with parts? Is your schedule just plain too aggressive?

If you’re running ahead, that’s also feedback. It might mean that the schedule is too easy and your team isn’t being challenged. Be willing to become more aggressive. It could mean that you need to slow down: are people rushing and cutting corners? At one company, pressure on QA engineers to rush product inspections led to some very expensive and embarrassing recalls and some very irate customers. Moving way ahead of schedule could also mean that your team is working too hard too soon: success is a marathon, not a sprint. Burn out early and you won’t reach the finish line.

Leave the catastrophes to the cats.

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 McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” and “Organizational Psychology for Managers.” He is also a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” 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 steve@7stepsahead.com.

Not In Front of Me!

Legendary bank robber John Dillinger was reputedly asked why he robbed banks. His answer, at least according to the aforementioned legend, was, “Because that’s where the money is.”

When you think about it, Dillinger did have a point: it would be silly to go to all that effort and risk if there was no money there! However, Dillinger did not rob just every bank: he was actually somewhat picky. In particular, Dillinger did not rob banks that the police were actually watching. That’s not to say that he was never rudely interrupted as he went about his business, but, as a general rule, John Dillinger did try to avoid committing his crimes in front of the police.

Somehow, though, the police had no trouble figuring out that he was involved.

Recently, several employees at a particular technology company came to the CEO with concerns about the inappropriate behavior of a certain manager. After listening carefully to their concerns, the CEO then told them that they were obviously mistaken: he had never seen the behavior, so clearly it could never have happened.

We can but imagine just how much John Dillinger would have appreciated having this man in charge of the police!

“Sir, John Dillinger just robbed the bank.”

“Nonsense! I didn’t see it, so it couldn’t have happened.”

While this would have been great for Dillinger, perhaps it would not have been so great for everyone else. As a form of leadership, well, it might be considered a bit thin.

One of the less attractive parts of leadership is dealing with unpleasant situations and badly behaved employees. This often means dealing with a situation that is not well defined: some people are unhappy, and someone else is claiming that nothing at all is going on. As a leader, it’s often easier to just shrug and decide that it’s not your problem; as long as it doesn’t happen in front of you, then you can just ignore it. That, however, is not leadership.

As the leader, you are the model for how people in your department or your company will behave. What you do sets the tone: show people that it’s okay to ignore problems that you don’t want to deal with, and they’ll quickly learn to do the same: unhappy customer? Didn’t happen in front of me. Product defect? Didn’t happen in front of me.

The “didn’t happen in front of me’s” can be quite contagious. They’re easy to use and they make the difficulty go away, or at least become someone else’s problem.

So what can you do about it? After all, it can be difficult to figure out just what is really going on.

Start by asking questions. Not just any questions but particularly difficult questions, at least for a leader: genuine ones. It can be challenging to acknowledge how much we don’t know about a particular situation and ask the sorts of questions that show our ignorance. However, when we put our preconceptions aside and start asking about what people are actually experiencing, it’s amazing how much we can learn. MIT social psychologist Edgar Schein describes this process as humble inquiry. It involves taking the time to speak with people and enable them to become comfortable with you, and it involves being honestly curious about what they are doing even when it doesn’t matter. Building those connections is what enables information to flow upstream to you.

One of the most important lessons of leadership is that most things don’t happen in front of you. And, most leaders are very unhappy when they suddenly realize that things are happening in the company that they didn’t know about. Unpleasant situations are much easier to deal with when you’ve established the groundwork and shown genuine curiosity and interest. The question is not whether or not it’s happening in front of you, but what you are doing to make sure you’ll find out about it when it does happen. If you’re nervous, just remember, odds are extremely good that it won’t involve John Dillinger.

Is The Blob Eating Your Business?

(originally published in Computer World)

Indescribable…

Indestructible…

Nothing can stop it…

If those three phrases seem oddly familiar, it’s because they were used to advertise The Blob. The Blob, for those who were never eaten by it, was a 1950s campy horror movie in which a mysterious blob of protoplasm crashes to Earth in a meteor. Meteors have few amenities and are not known for their food service. In short, a meteor is not the most comfortable way to travel, so it is not big surprise that when the Blob gets out it starts absorbing everyone in sight. Despite the best efforts of Our Heroes, as the movie progresses, the Blob also progresses from a little tiny grey lump to a giant red Blob capable of engulfing small buildings in a single bound. Fortunately for the world, Our Heroes figure out that the Blob does not like the cold and are able to freeze it solid using fire extinguishers. At the end of the movie, the Blob is flown off to the Arctic where it will remain so long as the ice never melts.

All in all, the Blob is a fun movie, although it is probably considerably less enjoyable to be living in the town being eaten by the Blob. Thus, it is odd that people voluntarily choose to create blobs that then eat them. I am not talking about the giant red Blob of the movie, of course, but rather the giant mass of red tape that devours so many businesses. Although bureaucracy is not the Latin word for “giant tangled ball of red tape,” there are times when it might as well be!

All right, it’s no big shocker that bureaucracies and red tape go together. So what? Well, the interesting question is not do they go together, but how do they come about? And what can you do about it once your organization is being devoured by a giant red blob? Fire extinguishers, sadly, do not work in this situation. Fortunately, understanding how that blob gets started can help you figure out how to deal with it.

At a very basic level, red tape exists to make people feel safe. All the procedures and processes of the organization exist to prevent mistakes. Mistakes, after all, are Very Very Bad: they could lead to a lower grade and might go on your Permanent Record. More to the point, they might cost the company money or actually make you look bad in front of your boss.

But wait, this seems counter-intuitive: doesn’t a lot of red tape cause people to make more mistakes? Well, yes, a phenomenon aptly demonstrated by a company which I will refer to as ShrinkWrap. At ShrinkWrap, management was so afraid that people would make mistakes that they instituted elaborate paperwork requirements to make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. The paperwork is so complex that it inevitably leads to errors, which convinces management to add checklists, or meta-paperwork, to make sure the paperwork is done correctly. Think of it as kind of like a pearl: something irritates the oyster, so it surrounds the irritant with nacre. This, of course, make a larger irritant, so it adds more nacre, until eventually we have a pearl. Red tape works much the same way except that in the end all we have is a giant red Blob.

The issue here is that the longer a business exists, the more time there is for something to go wrong. Sometimes these mistakes represent serious problems that need to be prevented. Sometimes, they are the normal cost of doing business or of trying out new ideas. Innovation, for example, is an activity filled with mistakes: it’s that old, but true, line about a thousand ways to not make a light bulb. Unfortunately, telling the difference between different kinds of mistakes can be challenging. Understanding which types of mistakes must be prevented and which ones only help feed the Blob is not always simple. The net result is that they all feed the Blob.

However, on the bright side, dealing with the Blob really only requires recognizing that it exists. Unlike the actual Blob, bureaucracies are famously slow moving: red tape is sticky. The reason it is sticky is that provides people with a sense of security. No one can be blamed for following procedure, even if following procedure means that nothing gets done. The trick, therefore, to getting things done or getting new ideas accepted is not to rush people: rushing people only makes them dig in their heels. Instead, ask how you can make it easy for them to do what you want? How can you allay their fears and make them feel safe as they grease the wheels?

It can help considerably to take the time to hear their concerns. What are they afraid of? What’s really bothering them about your ideas? Much of the time, it’s simply that the idea is new. Help people become familiar with your idea: when it’s no longer quite so new feeling, it’s easier to accept. Take the time to ask them questions about how the status quo is getting in their way. Let them tell you what’s wrong, and then ask them for suggestions on how to improve the situation. Your goal, simply put, is to ask the questions that will let them have your way. Do it right and they’ll end up volunteering to cut through the red tape for you and then trying to convince you why your idea is good enough to run with.

In other words, you can’t defeat the Blob but you can get the Blob to defeat itself. It’s less exciting than in the movie, but a whole lot more effective.

What a Hissing Cat Teaches Us About Teamwork

One of our cats recently needed a course of antibiotics. Now, this particular cat is quite large, but also very sweet and has a purr that would put a motorboat to shame. Giving her pills is really a very simple task: pop the pill in her mouth, give her a treat, and we’re done. She never runs away, never puts up a fight, just gives me a dirty look and then gobbles up the treat. Thus it was that when we realized that we’d be out of town for a few days during the cat’s course of antibiotics, we didn’t think it would be all that big of a deal to have a friend come in and give the cat her pill.

As it turned out, the cat had a different opinion about this. The first night we were gone, we were treated to a series of text messages detailing the ongoing adventures of the friend who had come by to pill the cat. Apparently our sweet lump of a cat had transformed into Demon Kitty. She was loudly expressing her opinion, while ducking under pieces of furniture and also demonstrating her willingness to remove any human limb that happened to come in after her. At the first opportunity, she dodged past our friend and disappeared.

She did not get her pill that night. On the other hand, our friend was intact.

The next morning went somewhat better. Eventually, the cat did agree to eat the pill. The basic problem was that the cat didn’t really know the friend who came over, but once she came by the house a couple of times, the cat began to accept her. At that point, there was a relationship and the cat was willing to submit to being pilled. Cats don’t like people they don’t know sticking things down their throats or doing other unpleasant things to them. They don’t necessarily like it when someone they do know is doing it, but at least they are more likely to tolerate it.

Cats are suspicious of people they don’t know. They approach carefully, if at all. They want to take their time getting to know the person before they will tolerate much, if any, contact. Although we are less likely to hide under chairs hissing and spitting, people are surprisingly similar to cats. We are also suspicious of people we don’t know, although we do a better job of hiding it than a cat might. I’m not sure whether this says something profound about people or cats!

Like cats, we have a variety of social rituals and behaviors that we use when we meet someone new. These behaviors are the moral equivalent of cats sniffing at each other and checking each other out. These behaviors become increasingly important when a team is coming together, when a new leader is assigned to a team, or when a new person joins an existing team. In each of these cases, different members of the group need to build relationships with each other.

At first, those relationships are professional: distant, polite, and, above all, superficial. No one is quite sure of where they stand or what behavior is appropriate. What will offend someone else? What will embarrass us or another person? Which behaviors will help us gain status and acceptance, and which behaviors might get us thrown out of the group? Push people too hard at that point and the reaction can be quite strong. Think about groups you’ve been in: how often did you find yourself agreeing with an idea or a suggestion because you assumed that other people knew better or because you didn’t want to upset anyone? How often did what seemed like a simple suggestion or off-hand comment provoke an unexpectedly angry or intense response? Conversely, think about who has the right to criticize you: people whom you know well, or people whom you don’t? Superficial relationships produce lower quality work.

It takes time for those relationships to move from keeping people at a safe distance to actually engaging with the other person at a deeper, more productive level. It’s easy to say that in the office we need to focus on the issues, not the person, but it’s hard to do. The less we feel we have good relationships with our colleagues, the more we’re likely to feel that they are trying to shove something down our throat. It’s only after we’ve been working with them for a few months that we might really start to develop a sense of trust and comfort. That’s assuming, of course, that the process is handled correctly. Try to rush it, and it only takes longer. That sense of trust and comfort is vital, though, for actually doing high quality work.

As with cats, we have to take it slowly. Everyone involved has to recognize that mistakes will happen. So long as you don’t take anyone’s head off, it is the process of making mistakes and recovering from them that actually builds the relationship. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the cat runs and hides. Sometimes the relationship gets destroyed and people flee the team or the company. But the only way to achieve high quality relationships, and do high quality work as a team, is to take the risk of being scratched.

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.

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