It’s Not About Resolutions, It’s About Management

Between the pandemic and the holiday season, my issues of The Economist have gotten backlogged. I received the December 12th issue 3 weeks late! There was a good article in it, though, about what it takes to be more productive – exactly the ideas I needed to set up my own 2021 work structures in a way that would support a little “productivity growth”, as they called it.

More staff or better technology is not necessarily the solution. What’s important is to find better ways to make use of the resources we have – not just to “get things done” but to discover new ways of producing the results – products and services – that we want to generate.

One thing I discovered when I looked at my workplace and my “Results Wanted” list was to clear out some of the things that were pulling my attention away from what I most wanted to focus on. Who knew that having those 4 things posted on my bulletin board, for example, were cluttering up my perspective and my ability to see what was important to me? I hadn’t noticed that as a distraction before, and will likely find many more in my search for better ways to use my resources to produce the results I want.

What I learned from this article was that upgrading technology or revising workplace processes and habits can bring benefits – but only when those things are put into practice with time and experimentation. I see that I have been too impatient, looking for miraculous breakthroughs in productivity immediately upon making a change I’m sure will be beneficial. Silly me.

This time of year is always useful for a reappraisal of habitual management practices. Looking at my notes for an upcoming conference presentation, I reviewed the basic elements of good management:

  1. Clear statements of goals for the year, i.e., what to produce or deliver, by when, and for what purpose,
  2. Which people are most critical to talk or work with for the accomplishment of each of those goals, and
  3. Tracking progress on a regular schedule – preferably with those people identified above.

These aren’t just useful to a manager or team leader overseeing a group of people. Individuals can put them to use as well, stating their personal objectives and tracking progress. I’ve got a little “tracker” I will be using this first quarter of 2021 as an experiment – it’s simple and I’ll let you know what I learn:

GOAL: What, When, Why

PLAYERS: Who

TRACKING (Dates)

That last column is where I write the dates I will be checking my progress, and noting how much progress – 20%, 50%, DONE – there has been as of that date. I have this chart on my computer because it will adapt the size of each box to the amount of space needed.

Happy New Year, and I hope you’re all off to a good start. Just a few goals can give your life a boost of energy. Just remember, though: it’s an experiment, so play with it and make changes as you see the need. Bon voyage!

Want a Successful New Year’s Resolution? Try Management (Recipe Enclosed)

A friend told me he wanted to “get in shape”. Gabe said, “I’ve been getting lazy in this pandemic with gyms closed and online classes that aren’t great. Putting on weight, losing muscle tone. I’ve got to do something, sort of an advance New Year’s resolution.”

We talked about changing diet and exercise habits. Gabe said, “But it’s not like regular change management. When my company wanted to merge two divisions and realign staff responsibilities into a smoother set of processes, they had to study change management to get it done. This diet-and-exercise change is a whole other kind of problem.”

Is it really? The principles of management are the same in both cases. Management has only three primary elements: Goals, Resource agreements and Tracking (more on this below).

A 2017 Harvard Business Review article, called All Management is Change Management supports those ideas. The point of the article was to “view change not as an occasional disruptor but as the very essence of the management job”. The author was developing a perspective that would make “constant improvement become the routine” for all managers and employees. In sum, “Setting tough goals, establishing processes to reach them, carrying out those processes and carefully learning from them” is what constitutes management for any intended result.

Will this recipe work for an individual who was looking to change a personal habit rather than a corporate structure or process? I walked Gabe through my own personal “management recipe” and here’s what we came up with:

  1. Clearly Stated Goals, with Measures of Success and Schedules of Action: Gabe defined his “get in shape” goal by identifying two metrics: body weight and weight-lifts. He wanted his body weight back to below 165 and his weight-lift capacity at up to 50 pounds. He also identified two actions he would need to take daily: a low-carb diet and a 45-minute workout every day.
  1. A Network of Resources and “Performance Agreements” with Each Player: The primary resource Gabe had was his business partner, who was planning on doing a similar program. They agreed to compare their progress every Friday morning. Another resource was an online site for choosing low-carb foods to buy or make. Gabe also decided to try a new online workout program to use whenever he felt the need for variety.
  1. Regular Tracking, Reporting and Updating All Agreements: Gabe went to Staples and got a small white-board to hang in his spare room, where he planned to do his workouts. He used it to track his weight, his weight-lifting capacity and his daily workouts and calories. On Friday mornings, Gabe and Barry reported their result measures to each other and supported each other to stay with their game.

The answer to the question “Will this work?” is Yes. Gabe has been using his new management system for just over three weeks now and has lost 7 pounds. His weight-lift capacity is above 40 pounds at this point, and he is doing two 30-minute workouts every day.

When Gabe and Barry compared their statistics last Friday, Gabe said his agreements were producing good results and he didn’t need to change any of them. Barry, however, decided to add a new measure to his reporting agreement with Gabe. “I’m not as interested in weight-lift ability”, he said. “I want to take that online yoga class I found online. I’ve been sitting at a computer or a TV almost full-time and I need to get flexible.” Both men are still going strong with their programs.

As the HBR article said, “A critical part of this evolution is holding managers accountable for continuing improvements.” Gabe and Barry are going to continue their Friday “measures-matching” conversations, and both are winning their game. Gabe says that he expects to be halfway to his goal before New Year’s Eve. It looks like change management is useful for all kinds of result-producing, right?

Workers Don’t Just Work – They Also Know How to Think!

An article in the October 24, 2020 edition of The Economist* suggested that the armed forces have a few lessons useful for non-military workplaces. No, not rewarding employees with service medals or anything like that – what they recommended was having employees use a “war-game” method to talk through team member ideas for achieving a goal, discuss different scripts to implement those ideas and evaluate the effectiveness of their decisions, situations and possible outcomes. It also helps them discover what might go wrong in the process of making an organizational change or implementing a strategic plan and to prepare for surprises.

The Economist spoke with Captain Gareth Tennant of the Royal Marines, who dealt with some Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2010. His team intercepted the pirates, confiscated their weapons and then were attacked. It became chaotic, but the team did not wait for orders – they acted right away because they had war-gamed what might go wrong. Capt. Tennant, now back in civilian life believes that, “the habits learned in the Royal Marines can be useful for business life.”

Another good method from the military that can empower employees is using the Before Action Review (BAR) technique. It is a great way to help a team start a project and to learn three important things: (A) How to clarify their intentions before beginning the project, (B) How to draw on lessons learned from past experiences to identify potential challenges and risks in the project, and (C) See what knowledge they already have and what they need to learn more about.

When I Googled “Before Action Review”, I found a set of instructions for doing this exercise, which promised to deliver “Fast, real-time learning in the midst of doing your normal work”:

  • When to use BAR: Before meetings of staff, team or board of directors.
  • What to cover in the conversationget specific about answering 6 questions:
    1. What are the intended results?
    2. What will that look like?
    3. What challenges might we encounter?
    4. What have we learned from similar situations?
    5. What will make us successful this time?
    6. When will we do an After Action Review?

The After Action Review (AAR) is the “closure” or feedback conversation. The instructions look like this:

  • When to use AAR: After meetings of staff, team or board.
  • What to cover in the conversationget specific about answering 6 questions:
    1. What were our actual results?
    2. What caused both the successful and the unsuccessful results?
    3. What will we maintain?
    4. What will we improve?
    5. When is our next opportunity to test what we have learned?
    6. When is our next Before-Action Review?
  • Special notes: Who should we copy this to? What other action items do we have?

All three of these tools – war-gaming, BAR and AAR – support team members in becoming more able to adapt quickly to surprise events and more proactive in planning and taking effective action.

But perhaps the best aspect of this method is that it has the employees doing the planning and testing of their own ideas to accomplish something, instead of having to wait to be told what the boss wants done. An image offered by Mr. Tennant is that “the ideal command structure is not a rigid hierarchy, but a sphere, where the core sets the culture and the parts of the organization at the edge are free to react to events outside them.” Using this image, we can see that command is centralized, and execution is decentralized.

We tend to expect the hierarchy to direct people in taking actions or producing results. It is surely better to develop people so they can see for themselves what will be successful and how to overcome barriers and resolve problems. As the closing line of this Economist article said, “In business, as in conflict, it isn’t the generals who carry the burden of the war; it’s the troops.”

* This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Fighting spirit”

The Future of Work – It’s Not All Bad News

I love seeing ideas about how to make the workplace a better place to spend our 40 hours a week. Lately, there has been much hand-wringing about how automation is taking away jobs and creating a two-sided workforce: one side a technology-skilled elite and the other a bunch of low-skill unsecure jobs. So I was happy to see a recent article titled “Free the Workers” – good title, good idea – in the Oct 10th 2020 edition of The Economist.

The article summarized the premise of a new book, “Humanocracy”, by Gary Hamel (a favorite author of mine) and Michele Zanini. They are both management consultants, which means that they test their ideas before they offer them to the public.

Best idea? “All employees should be encouraged to think like businesspeople, be organized into small teams with their own profit-and-loss accounts (and appropriate incentives) and be allowed to experiment.” That’s a good blend of “team focus” and “autonomy” that’s worth implementing, if only to see how it works and what needs to be tweaked for better results.

It is part of a wave of new thinking about work, but two companies – Toyota and Netflix – are already using those ideas in different ways. As a result, their managers have shifted from the usual corporate structure of “layers and centralization” to a model more like a network of teams and business units. Gotta love the network model!

These smaller groups have been given more power to organize their work and make changes in the way they operate, which will improve what are usually seen as low-level jobs. People in those jobs will be able to get out of the rut of routine and use their own initiative for taking on new tasks and problems. That, in turn will allow them to expand their capabilities and develop themselves both personally and professionally, plus being more satisfied and energized in their jobs. So maybe the world of work is not doomed after all.

These ideas also relate to an earlier perspective on improving the workplace: a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review on the role of trust in organizations. That research showed giving people more power over the ways they do their work, and allowing them to choose the projects they work on, fostered trust and learning for everyone.

The two strongest trust-builders were “recognizing excellence”, i.e., letting people know when they were doing a good job, and keeping workers informed on the company’s goals, strategies and tactics. These practices promoted worker “engagement”, which they defined as “having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor and enjoying ample chances to learn.”

Both articles point to the benefits of paying attention to all levels of workers by giving them more opportunities to use their judgment. And both approaches increase the motivation and satisfaction of workers – as well as productivity, quality products and profitability. Finally, both articles agree that having people be accountable – without micromanagement – is important.

The HBR article spoke for both, concluding with the statement that we can: “treat people like responsible adults”. What a radical thought! Automation may create a technological elite but treating people like responsible adults will develop workers in new directions and new ideas.

The Economist article ended with the good news of my week: “The future of work needn’t be gloomy after all. Let’s give it a try, shall we? Trust all levels of workers, let them organize their work and use their own judgment more often. Maybe in a very few years we could celebrate the end of micromanagement?

Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step Three

Accomplishment means, literally, “to fulfill together”. That is a good way to describe a group of people who are aligned on working toward well-specified goals, engaging with a performance network of other Key Players by making and keeping agreements to send and receive well-defined goal-relevant products, services and communications (also known as “deliverables”). The combination of the Team and other Key Players in the network is the “together” part of accomplishment. Regard for keeping the agreements in that network to honor the goals, the Team member responsibilities, and the promises to send and receive goal-relevant deliverables in the performance network – that is the “fulfillment” part of accomplishment.

But accomplishment is not real for anyone until it is declared, with evidence that is visible to Team Members (and others as appropriate). To validate the progress and fulfillment of project goals, timelines and other measures of success requires three elements: (a) tracking the status and progress on all the project’s success measures, (b) reporting status updates to the Team and (c) updating the project itself, i.e., determining what, if any, updates or changes in the project’s agreements would be useful going forward.

Step Three is the heart of management – providing regular feedback to the people who are at work on Project X so they can see the effects and impacts of their work, and offering an opportunity to discuss those impacts and make decisions for improvements in the next phase of their work. Step 1 aligns people on goals, measures and schedules. Step 2 establishes the network of agreements that will produce the accomplishment. But without this final step of regular tracking, reporting and updating, there may be no actual accomplishment present for the Team Members.

To ensure that Step Three – Management for Accomplishment – makes any accomplishment real, the Team Members must be involved in this step too. Having a “manager” do all the tracking, reporting and updating misses the point: it is the Team’s role “to fulfill together”, so the tracking, reporting and updating become part of their work.

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Regular tracking of project status: What measures will be tracked and reported: Team Members collaborate to identify the most valuable indicators showing whether the project is moving ahead as desired or has encountered barriers or mistakes, including whether agreements for deliverables are being properly honored.  When will the tracking and reporting occur: The data capture schedule for tracking is likely to vary with the different measures but should be frequent and regularly scheduled. Regular Team meetings are best for reporting the tracking results, whether in person or online. Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly meetings to share tracking results, i.e., project status updates, may depend on the pace of the project. Why is tracking the status of these measures over the course of the project worthwhile: it enables Team Members to stay close to progress and problems, and to address them as needed.

WHO-WHERE – Regular reporting of status updates: Who will be tracking and reporting of of the project’s success measures? Reporting project status updates for any success measure(s) is best done by the individual(s) who are responsible for the project’s performance in the area being measured. Progress reporting is ideally done with the entire Team participating.  Where will this reporting session be held? Again, this is a Team decision: in a meeting, online, in a visual display or somewhere else?

HOW: Regular reviews for updating project agreements: How will the updating be accomplished: Team meetings to review project status updates from the tracking process on each goal measure provides an opportunity for discussion, perhaps with some outside expertise weighing in as well.

  • Are all projections of goal progress being met?
  • Do any assignments or agreements need to be revised or more effectively enforced?
  • Is there any change in the goal statements or measures that may be appropriate for any aspect of the project – such as quality, schedules and costs of deliverables, or key functions such as Budget, Operations, IT, Marketing, and Public communication?
  • Where is more attention needed? What actions are suitable, and who will be best able to perform them?

RECAP:

Step 1 – 9/15/2020 blogpost: Management for Alignment. When you bring a group of people together to do a task or a project, job #1 is creating the group’s “alignment” – on (a) project goal(s), (b) responsibilities of participants and (c) what the group will need to recognize and respect in their project’s environment. Alignment on these 3 elements can create a ‘team’.

  • Spell out the Goal/Intention for the project: What our end goals are. When we want it to be complete. Why it is important to do.
  • Identify the “Responsibility Structure” for the task: Who will lead the team and fill other necessary roles, and Where these people are.
  • Clarify the relevant rules and regulations for working together: How will all aspects of the work to be done comply with corporate rules and guidance, and with other external requirements including relevant federal, state and local laws and policies.

Step 2 – 9/29/2020 blogpost: Management for Production. The team prepares for project production by inventing its own structures for performance:

(a) Spell out the details for each key goal: What are the success metrics, When are the timelines and due dates for goal-relevant products, services and communications – and Why those metrics are important.

(b) Identify the project’s performance network of Key Players and establish agreements for sending and receiving goal-relevant products, services and communications: Who and Where are the project’s Senders & Receivers of necessary and goal-relevant products, services and communications, bolstered by agreements and a system for coordination within the Team and beyond into its performance network.

(c) Spell out the production and delivery systems, standards and practices for the project: How will the work and all the movement of products, services and communications be coordinated and delivered to and from Team members and in the performance network – so that goal-relevant requirements such as quality, schedules and costs will meet all of the goals including Budget, Operations, Product and Service quality and delivery, IT, Marketing, and Public communication.

Step 3 – 10/13/2020 blogpost: Management for Accomplishment. The team creates project accomplishment by tracking the progress of success measures over time, reporting them to the Team, and considering updates to the projects structures and processes where they would be valuable:

(a) Track the project’s status: What the project “success metrics” are that indicate project success are the ones that should be tracked over the course of the project, so Team Members can spot places where the probability of success could be improved. When the tracking happens will vary with the nature of the measure and the agreements associated with its fulfillment. Why those metrics are important to track is so that assignments and other agreements – or the measures themselves – can be revised to repair mistakes, solve problems and/or improve the chances of success.

(b) Report status updates for each of the project’s success measures to the whole Team. Who and Where – in this meeting/discussion, Team Members identify where they are winning and where they are not, i.e., which elements of the project need repair or improvement: resources, communications, agreements with other Key Players, etc. Find the places where the Team is accomplishing what was intended, and where there are barriers, difficulties or outright failures.

(c) Update project agreements: How can the project either get back on track, or go faster on the track to success? A Team discussion will identify which agreements, processes, and/or responsibilities need to be updated to meet the challenges observed in the reporting of project success measures. When all goals need to be accomplished, attention is given to the visible places that can be addressed.

Bottom line: Management for accomplishment is about alignment of people, production by people and feedback for people. Where many managers fail is in that third piece, if they forget to give people feedback on their performance, or provide only generalities instead of goal-relevant measures, or deliver feedback too infrequently. It is possible for managers to be more effective if these steps are part of their regular practice of management for accomplishment.

Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step Two

Two weeks ago (https://usingthefourconversations.com/blog, Sept. 15, 2020) I mentioned three examples of projects I consulted on where managers wanted to implement a change in their organization. For the most part, they did not know how to set the project up in a way that everybody could win and accomplish the goal. One of those projects will serve as an example for Step Two in Managing for Accomplishment.

A city government’s Department of Electricity had five Units related to their project: Electricity Distribution, the Meter Shop, Engineering, Customer Service, and Purchasing & Stores. These groups worked well together – except for the Engineering and the Distribution Units, who rarely interacted except to argue about equipment and supply requirements.

The diagram below has 6 circles, representing the 5 Units in the project + the electricity Customer. It also has 11 arrows, representing the primary “communication relationship” between the groups, i.e., the most important products, services and/or communications that moved between each pair of circles and what they talked about most.

Notice in the diagram that installation equipment and supplies were determined by the relationship between the Engineering Unit and Purchasing & Stores. The Distribution Unit, which was made up of teams that handled construction, installation and repairs of electrical wires and stations, were the primary users of that equipment, yet were left out of the decisions on what equipment was outdated or needed to be changed for new kinds of projects.

One member of the Distribution team told me, “We aren’t able to satisfy our Department’s mission to ‘provide energy, street lighting and related services reliably with competitive pricing’. We can’t always pay for the city’s need for streetlights.” He was discouraged that they had no voice in improving construction and installation for electricity distribution.

The administrator of the Electricity Department wanted the Engineering and Distribution Units to find a way that they could both have a say in the selection and purchase of electricity installation equipment and supplies, to ensure that Distribution teams would have the equipment they needed to solve the engineering and maintenance problems in the field. He told them to work together and come up with a solution, but the Engineers had little respect for the Installers – and vice versa – so they made no progress.

This administrator did not know that “management for accomplishment” begins with creating a “team”, i.e., getting people aligned on the basics of working well together. Management for Alignment is Step One, and once Team members are clear on the intention of the project, have identified a responsibility structure for the Team, and agree to recognize the relevant rules and regulations for working together, they are ready for Step Two: “Management for Production”.

Getting people ready lay the foundation for productivity requires Team collaboration to define three Step Two elements: (a) the metrics of success; (b) the Team’s performance network of agreements for goal-relevant communications etc. (that’s where their diagram came into existence, even though this version does not spell out all the deliverables); and (c) the production and delivery systems, and standards and practices, to coordinate work and agreements within the Team and with others, including for processes, quality, schedules and costs.

The idea of a “performance network” of deliverables and receivables is sometimes hard to grasp for people who haven’t thought of projects in terms of “deliverables”. We tend to think of “doing” a project and we look forward to when it’s “done”. But we don’t often think of what needs to be “delivered” between Team members and others in order to get the project completed successfully. There’s a big difference in what happens when you focus your attention on Doing vs. Done vs. Delivered.  Tip: Go with “delivered” – get the results (products, services and/or communications) produced into the hands of the people who will put them to work. And get the resources you need delivered to you.

Ultimately, this city Electricity project involved discussions with Purchasing & Stores and the Meter Shop, which produced changes in the way installation equipment and supplies were ordered. Meter equipment was then ordered using the same computer system that Distribution and Engineering would use, which included updated reporting formats that would go to Customer Service from all of the groups.

Production is not a matter of “doing”, nor of getting something “done”. Production requires looking at what needs to be produced and by whom, and to whom it is delivered. All 11 arrows in this performance network diagram were altered – with many added specifics and new agreements – as the Engineering and Distribution Units invented out a way to make more effective purchasing decisions. Note: The Engineering Unit also collaborated with the IT Unit for this project.

As with Step One, the elements of Step Two require the ability to ask 6 questions and to work together to develop the answers. And again, none of these elements involve managing the people (we manage agreements here).

Step Two: Management for Production

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Spell out the metrics for each key goal: What are the success metrics for budget and cost goals; What are the key performance indicators for production processes, product quality, and service quality. When are the key due dates and milestones. Why these metrics and timelines are important for fulfilling the overall purpose of the work.

WHO-WHERE – Identify the project’s performance network and establish agreements for sending and receiving goal-relevant products, services and communications: Who & Where are the non-Team players who are important for the Team to send and receive goal-relevant products, services and communications (e.g., funding, HR, maintenance, operations, product and service delivery, legal obligations, etc.). Assign responsibilities to the Team members to “own” one or more of these relationships and establish and honor agreements with external non-Team players for goal-relevant delivery content, quality, timing and costs between the Team and external players.

HOW – Spell out production and delivery systems, standards and practices for the project: How all aspects of the work and its deliverable products, services and communications will be produced, coordinated and delivered among Team members, and with players in the performance network, to satisfy goal-relevant requirements, e.g., content quality, schedules and costs, for key functions including: Budget, Operations, Product and Service quality and delivery, IT, Marketing, and Public communication.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But managing for production requires structures to accommodate the velocity of production and the partnerships in the Team’s external environment. Especially: (a) The metrics that will let everyone see progress and success (or failure) in meeting targets; (b) The relationships with other individuals and groups outside the Team who have resources and ideas that can support success and integrate the project’s results into the larger work environment; and (c) The Team’s organization and coordination of its work and its products, services and communications within its performance network and with other key functions.

A team of people aligned on working productively with goal-relevant partners, using its own custom-designed goal-relevant structures of (a) success metrics, (b) a functional performance network and (c) agreements for coordination and communication, will be ready to manage itself – for accomplishment. I’ll tell you that story in 2 weeks!

Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step One 

We talk about it a lot, but mostly we see management as a concept rather than a set of steps or tools. One way out of that conceptual view is to say what we are managing FOR: What do we intend to accomplish? Here are a few ideas of results I’ve seen managers choose to accomplish:

  1. Bring together two groups that have interrelated activities to draft a plan that will improve the interactions, efficiency and/or productivity of one or more of the processes they both participate in. Example: People from the Engineering section and people from the Maintenance team get together to redesign the way they select, purchase and use the equipment needed to solve engineering and maintenance problems in the field.
  2. Have a group of people design and perform a specific change in their organization, such as implementing a new IT process and operating it properly for both users and customers. Example: A restaurant decides to implement a new Point of Sale (POS) system to improve staff productivity and customer satisfaction.
  3. Finish a long-term project that is persistently postponed due to staff shortages, poor scheduling and/or deadline changes on other projects (or maybe just simple procrastination). Example: A cleanup project in a corporate library to clear out old books and files, many of which would be re-categorized for other purposes, given to other programs, or recycled.

Management for Accomplishment is a three-step process. To prepare for managing any of these projects, Step One is alignment, which itself has three elements: develop team alignment for focus on the task at hand; plan the set-up for the production and performance of the task; and plan for accomplishment of the task, taking into account the environment it will be operating in. There are three interesting points about these elements:

  • All three are effective for preparing to manage a short-term or one-time project as well as a larger one,
  • None of them involve managing the people (we manage agreements here, and
  • They all require the ability to ask 6 questions, then work together to develop the answers. The questions are: What? When? Why? Who? Where? and How?

Step One: Management for Alignment

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Spell out the Intention for the task: What we want to make happen, and what will tell us when it is complete. When we will want it done, including goals for interim timelines. Why it matters for those performing the task and for others including customers, co-workers, or executives.

WHO-WHERE – Identify the “authority” structure for the task: Who will lead the team to ensure the intention is fulfilled, who will fill the necessary roles for task accomplishment, whether inside the team or outside it, e.g., people the team will report to, work with or get materials, information and/or support from, and who the beneficiaries of the end results will be. Where these people are operating from – their “base” – and where else people will need to go to fulfill their responsibilities.

HOW – Clarify the relevant rules and regulations for working together: How all aspects of the work to be done will comply with corporate rules and guidance as well as the needs and requirements of others within the organization and externally, and how all relevant federal, state and local laws and policies might pertain to the work at hand.

Seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? But these three sets of questions are often overlooked, especially for defining (a) the foundation of a team so that everyone is aligned on what the team is out to accomplish; (b) the relationships among team members and with external associates, senders and receivers; and (c) how the team will operate with respect to its surrounding infrastructure.

Creating team alignment is Step One in ‘Management for Accomplishment’ and is especially important for a group that has not worked together on a task or project like this before. The way such a project is launched begins with these 6 questions and their discussions to build direction, clarify responsibilities and respect the new environment they will be operating in for the duration of the task.

I’ll be back with Step Two in 2 weeks.

What to Manage: Workers? Or the Links Between Them?

I’ve been reading an article (HBR, Competent Management) which mentioned “obstacles that often prevent executives from devoting sufficient resources to improving management skills and practices”. The research they reported made it clear that better management skills lead to higher competitiveness and better performance all around. So, understanding obstacles to good management is a good idea.

What are the “obstacles”? First, overconfidence: managers think they’re already doing a good job. Another obstacle is that many managers can’t make an objective judgment about how well things are really going. The article included several other obstacles, but the whole list made me recall the most frequent problem I encountered in my career as a management consultant: managing the people and their activities. That’s not what needs to be managed.

I learned about that obstacle very early in my career, from the CEO of a non-profit firm. I saw a need for better management practices – aligning people on goals, measures, tracking and reporting. Two of his groups were making mistakes in the products and communications they were sending out to the firm’s members, prospects and customers and the reason was they were not collaborating with one another at all. When I suggested to the CEO that it would be useful if his Marketing team and his Communications Office got together at least once a month to clarify what each of them needed or wanted from the other, he banged his fist on his desk and shouted at me, “They should already know their jobs!”

Omigosh – he was watching what his people DO instead of what they DELIVER to others! Wow.

I was startled that he shouted at me, of course. But it was difficult to believe he did not have a process for ensuring that different units in his organization had an opportunity to talk with each other to stay updated on the products, services and communications they produced, sent out, and/or exchanged with one another. That would have given the Marketing team an opportunity to find out what the Communications Office was sending out to the firm’s prospective members, which would have helped Marketing do a better job of recruiting new members.

The CEO couldn’t see that the Marketing team needed information from the Communications Office and vice versa. Instead of supporting effective and goal-oriented communications between groups, he was watching what goes on inside those groups, as if they were stand-alone entities. As I went through my whole career, that was something I came to see as a frequent cause of misunderstandings in organizations. It was also a source of blaming “those people” for not knowing what they’re doing.

The mistake was the focus on what people were “Doing”, which isn’t what I was watching for at all. I focused on what moved from one group to another or went out to a customer: the products, services and communications that go out of Group 1 and into Group 9, then on to a user/customer. This allowed me to start at the end of the line, getting ideas from the Receiver of a delivery about how they evaluate or measure the quality and effectiveness of what they received. Then I could work with the Sender to obtain and use that feedback from the Receiver on a regular basis. I admit, it was sometimes touchy, especially if the Receiver was unhappy with what they got from the Sender. But I was the “ambassador”, carrying feedback to the Sender and assisting them in finding ways to put it to work. Ultimately, though, the two groups would establish a productive relationship and better products, services and communications were then available to all.

I was surprised to find that almost no manager watches the links between Senders and Receivers. They’re watching the “job”, the “work”, the people and their activities – but that’s not where the leverage is. Just sending something from one place to another doesn’t mean you’re getting the job done. You need to get the Receiver’s feedback on how well it worked. Was it the right quantity or size? Was the quality what they wanted or needed? Did it arrive on time? Does it perform properly, producing the effects the Receiver desired?

Getting feedback requires establishing a reliable communication link between Sender and Receiver, an easy management practice to implement. And, according to the article, good management practices will pay off in a big way, delivering better overall organization performance. That non-profit CEO actually learned how to improve the whole network of teams in his firm.

Even though that article I read didn’t focus on the links between groups, it had a lot of smart things to say about competent management. One valuable point was that companies think strategy is more important than management. I haven’t seen this discussed for over a decade, and the research reported in this article clarified that management competence is more important than strategy. It’s a good read, even if it is over 3 years old. Check it out: (HBR, Competent Management).

One Management Trainer’s Advice – and Why I Think He’s Wrong

I’ve been clearing out – very slowly – the client files from my career as a management consultant. I found some notes on what one workshop leader – I’ll call him Alex – said about “how to be a good manager”, and as you’ll see below, I didn’t agree with him on several of his ideas.

Thoughts on a Workshop about “How to Be a Good Manager”

HE SAID

SHE SAID

1.  Have one-on-one meetings with each of your staff members to establish performance expectations. 1.   Have weekly group meetings with your whole team to review goals, clarify assignments and identify obstacles or problems. Don’t use the “expectations” thing.
2.  Rely on relationships and personal connections to get things done. 2.   In any conversation for getting something done, (a) state the objective and the value in succeeding, (b) establish agreements on who will do what by when, then (c) take responsibility for the follow-through with everyone. Build productive relationships, not “connections”.
3.  Influence and motivate your people rather than using your “power position” or your title. 3.   Rely on productive communication – dialogue to clarify goals and measures, clear requests and promises to establish agreements, and follow-up to review progress on agreements – to generate engagement and momentum.
4.  Encourage planning all schedules and activities based on priorities. 4.   It is important to be clear about priorities but recognize they may change quickly and often. “Planning” is a process of (a) identifying intended results and outcomes, (b) formulating the processes and actions that will produce those results, and (c) establishing timelines and assignments for accomplishing them. “Priority” can be fleeting and is not always a reliable management tool.
5.  Resolve conflicts and deal with emotional behavior promptly. 5.   Dealing with conflicts and emotional behavior is best based in policy rather than playing therapist to resolve them. Your people should understand that they will participate in resolving conflicts, including problems with emotional behavior. A manager is not a den-mother.

Mary Parker Folet, a 1920’s management guru, said, “Management is getting things done through other people.” She did not say, however, that management needs to focus on the people, but that is where management theory has taken us. This people-focus, visible in each of Alex’s pieces of advice, has given us a people-oriented vocabulary that has taken over management thinking. Here it is:

One-on-one meetings” focus on an individual rather than promoting coordinated teamwork. They are often seen as making someone feel “special”, or an opportunity for “development” of some kind. Sometimes it develops teacher’s pets, though, which can cause ill feelings among team members.

Expectations”? They are subjective – they live in your head and can change in a flash. Further, it can sound a little demeaning to tell people, “Here’s what I expect from you.” Simply state the goal, then discuss it until you are you are confident there is a shared understanding of what success looks like.

And “performance”? The word literally means “provide thoroughly”, but we have turned it into a code for evaluating people. If it’s not quantitative or visible, it may not be performance at all.

“Connections” are personal relationships, not necessarily productive ones. For a manager, it is more useful to learn how to make agreements to produce specific results and support staff people in committing to do or produce a certain result by a specific due date. Using a personal relationship to get a performance promise from someone may be seen as manipulating them into doing you a favor. Why not keep things a more professional?

And how about “influence”? This is another interpersonal game, like “expectations” and “connections”, and it relies on personalities. First, “influence” is a vague concept: how do I know whether you are influencing me or I am influencing you? But influence can also be very short-lived (ending when the Influencer leaves the room), and may not produce any genuine engagement or commitment. Maybe people don’t like being “influenced”, experiencing the process as a form of bossiness.

“Motivation” – we talk about it like it’s a thing, as if it can be passed from one person to another. But your motivation is for you to generate, not mine to give to you. I can’t motivate anybody but myself. I’ve seen managers work to “motivate” their people, expecting some response that seldom arrives. I’ve also talked with the people who have been the object of those attempts and are often not inspired. One person said, crossly, “I don’t want her to try to motivate me. She should just talk straight.”

“Priorities” are individual interpretations that are unlikely to communicate anything specific about the desired due date, the product quality or quantity. “Priority” is just a code for saying something is important and/or urgent and a priority can change quickly if something else happens. Stick with performance agreements and follow-through, including the details of what is wanted and needed by when.

“Resolve conflicts and deal with emotional behavior promptly” – this last one is the icing on the cake of management’s “people-talk”. It fails to draw the line between the rigor of clarifying agreements and holding a psychotherapy session. Both conflicts and emotional behavior should be rare phenomena in the workplace, and this suggestion from Alex takes us back to the beginning: hold group meetings, encourage people to work together in pairs or sub-groups to get things done, and deal with the whole picture of what all team members are doing and where people need help or resources. The team can solve problems, including some personal ones. Create transparency wherever possible, without releasing confidential material, and people will support one another.

Management is often misunderstood to be all about people – getting people to do things and having them behave “properly” to support a productive environment. But you can make management about getting things done with group discussion on the specifics of what, when, and who, which gets an actionable message across. Then, if you add respect, good manners and some friendliness or humor, you’ll also make room for everyone to be more responsible for their commitments to “provide thoroughly”. Do we have an agreement?

A Close-Up Look at Micro-Management

When I was a management consultant, clients sometimes complained about “micro-management” in their organizations. I had to look it up, because I thought it just meant someone was paying too much attention to details. I learned that it’s much worse than that, but now I have been educated in real life, because I have now been micro-managed.

I am working, post-retirement, as a volunteer in a small organization. I support three Committees, each of which has a Chairman, so I take my job to be assisting those Chairmen in setting and attaining goals as well as supporting the Committee members in working as a team and being productive and effective. All was going smoothly until one Chairman resigned and was replaced by Captain Micro.

The Captain watched every action I took, heard every idea I offered and saw every communication I delivered to Members. He then criticized each of those things, saying this email to members was “too complicated”, and that idea was “inappropriate”. His instructions to me were specific but piecemeal, and I wasn’t always able to assemble them into a meaningful whole. I confess to having lost my sense of humor at one point, telling him that his latest instruction was “another piece of our communication problem”, which was the first time I had let him know how I saw the situation.

Another annoyance was that he wanted me to check with him about every little thing before I took any action, as if I couldn’t see for myself what would work. He gave me miniature assignments – send out this email to the members, forward him a copy of Aaron’s article from last week, etc. And he often messed up my schedule by giving me several different due-dates and times for each request. Multiple emails and phone calls showered down in the first week of working with him, which became annoying. I suspect he could hear the impatience in my voice by that Friday afternoon.

Week Two didn’t gain any momentum. Fewer calls and emails, but he was still stalling on taking any substantive action for the Committee and was not allowing me to make any decisions (or he corrected the ones I had already made). What had been an unfolding project for the Committee was now a mute folder lying on my desk waiting for attention, and I couldn’t get him to move ahead. He didn’t seem to know or care what I had done for the prior Chairman nor to have any sense of urgency about moving the members’ teamwork forward to meet the goal everyone had aligned on before his arrival.

It’s over now. Captain Micro won’t work with me – he’s going to do it all himself. Perhaps I’m too headstrong, pushing to finish the Committee’s current project so we could move on to future aspirations. It appears he has decided to take over the facilitation tasks I had been doing – sending out what he chooses to the members, and perhaps also taking notes on their monthly calls and creating an agenda for the next call (though he may not think such tasks are necessary).

Now I’m supporting only two Committees. I initially feared that Captain Micro’s lack of support would undermine the group’s sense of purpose and cohesion, but several members have now been in touch with me, looking for more productive pathways to get what they wanted to accomplish. Captain Micro will go his own way with his new Committee – and I wish them all the best. I’ll continue my accountability for supporting the two remaining Committees as best I can, and be grateful for the trust and respect of their leaders.