Two types of employees

In my early working years I came across a manager who had a peculiar way of dealing with recruits. When a team member was on board, she allowed that person to do… nothing. After several days you could observe one of the following patterns:

Pattern 1: Passive

The employee waited for instructions, for work to be handed over. After a long enough period, when frustration levels became unbearable, the person started complaining and often quit.

Pattern 2: Active

After a short period of time, one could observe the “active” employee talking with other team members — gathering knowledge, building a network, setting up tools. It happened once or twice that the newly recruited person excelled in a given area in less than a month.

Conclusion

Two behaviors, one setting, two outcomes: one of disillusionment, second one — of confidence and strength.

Everyone has to find his or her place in this world. Still, if I were to choose a project team member, I would certainly opt for the “active” type.

Iterative work is human

Having read several great articles discussing Agile and Waterfall recently (e.g. More Agile Claims, What Killed Waterfall Could Kill Agile), I decided to share some thoughts. These days I’m involved in internal projects for “the business” (as opposed to “the ICT”). In a sense that IT components are part of a project, delivered by a an internal IT unit or an external supplier — usually with a dedicated Project Manager (obviously, every project is a “business” project, as it should lead to business benefits). Agile management hasn’t come our way yet. I wish it had (I know it aims at software development though).

Iterations are human. “Linear action” is the domain of machines, rather than people.

Take a look: 

Agile-vs-waterfall2

(If ‘A’ is the beginning of a project and ‘B’ — its end, it might be that iterations bring the team closer to the final product as expected by the client and his/her understanding of quality. The picture is a huge simplification — having in mind expectations, constraints etc.) We love to have a clear picture of where we’re headed. Describe it (business case, charter), plan it (aka make a prognosis) and then control it (or in many unfortunate cases – be managed by it). Having all constraints in place, it’s easier to put the damn thing on an invoice. Problem is:

  • Project Managers need time to grow as practitioners, as leaders. There aren’t so many experienced ones as one might think.
  • We have the tendency to reduce cognitive disonance in many ways — when things go wrong, only few have the skills and guts to let the world know “the king is naked.”
  • Not every environment leaves ample space for error and change.

Bottom line — people are not computers. They err, they fool themselves (“I don’t think this is so much of an issue yet”), they don’t always respond well to outside pressure (“By when exactly did you promise to deliver feature X?”). That’s why lean embraces errors and man’s imperfect nature calling it “continuous improvement.”

“if your #lean efforts are struggling, ask how much fear is in the org: fear of trying, fear of failing, fear of blame or punishment?” — Mark Graban from @LeanBlog

This is why I like the idea of iterations in any environment. Agile recognizes it, waterfall — not exactly.

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Additional links

How do you organize meetings?

Whenever I organize meetings I can’t help thinking something is broken.

It’s not simple enough.

Either the tools I know do not support the process well, it’s the people who make it more difficult than necessary, or both.

People (incl. availability) + time + location is all it takes. Truth is, the algorithm behind this is not that simple at all. But the problem is not a new one either.

How do you handle this?

Don’t feel intimidated

If we are so knowledgeable, why is mediocrity omnipresent? If we consider titles, certifications and fancy tools, why do we still get more project failures than successes? Take a look at your own backyard — how are things going on there? Are projects on time / on budget? Are processes continuously measured and improved? Are you innovating? Does your company know what it knows?

You don’t need much to become better than the average.

Where’s the real value in using collaborative software?

Tech-overload-300x207

I love software. I’m particularly fond of tools that aim to support teamwork, e.g. managing projects. Still, every now and then I ask myself: “Where’s the real value in using collaborative software?” — bearing in mind that geographically dispersed teams aren’t the most popular form of teamwork. Questions that come to mind:

  • Is software an excuse not to move people to a common location?
  • Are the business benefits related to buying the new tool sufficient?
  • Can my team do with a whiteboard and a good idea instead?
  • Is everyone ready to jump on the e-bandwagon?
  • What are the entry barriers for new users?
  • What if we decided to ditch the tool after some time?

Before getting too excited, it’s good to have the following in mind:

“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” (Mark Twain)

The known is more likely to improve

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When working with processes exercise transparency. Consider publishing and tracking your process inventory on your corporate Intranet. To see things as they are, to show what you are dealing with, to measure and highlight issues & improvements. Not just for the people taking part in those processes, but for all bystanders in the organizational context and… yourself.

(BTW, this applies to projects & programs too.)

Focus likes less

We use contexts or tags in task-management because we tend to become overwhelmed with the number of things to do. If one has too many visible tasks to deal with, it is likely s/he will be less productive than trying to take in one or two.

A similar issue can be observed with project portfolios. Trying to juggle several dozens of projects will significantly slow down execution. Sometimes, when I see an organization struggling to eat an especially large “frog” (big & important project), I feel like suggesting:

“Leave just this one thing. And make it happen.”

Client = Employee

The employee was first

In the beginning there was an initiator-enthusiast — the creator and employee in one person. The starting point. He or she crafted an idea into reality. Eventually, clients came.

One of the illnesses which affect big organizations is a lack of an “initiatior’s spark” — the courage to make mistakes, the ease in experimenting and improving.
‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ — Thomas Edison.
We “play safe” by managing all types of risk humanity was able to invent. Sooner or later employees become a synonym for operational cost rather than potential.

Remember, the employee made it happen first.

The employee is the ambassador of your brand

Is your employee an ambassador of your product or service? Does he or she buy it, recommend it? Did you ask?

In social media days, every good word about our brand is priceless. It always has been, but 1) we started noticing it and 2) information is transferred and stored much more efficiently/effectively than ever before. A negative opinion can be blocked from spreading, if a conscious employee takes preventive measures. Since it’s physically impossible to take part in all of the online discussions that might concern us — if we have committed employees, let them speak on our behalf. Obviously, we need passionate employees to make that happen in the first place.

Some inspiring cases were described in a recent Social Media Today article by Augie Ray — Passion: The Defining Success Factor in the 21st Century?

“Frank Eliason is a passionate guy. Eighteen months ago he had some free time during a weekend, and rather than watching football he instead checked his email and monitored Twitter for what was being said about his employer, Comcast. Eliason famously intercepted tweets from tech blogger Michael Arrington, and rather than wait until Monday or pass along the problem to someone working, Eliason instead picked up the phone, called Arrington, and resolved both an individual’s technical problem and a potentially damaging PR problem for Comcast.”

Employees and clients communicate freely

The border between the inside of the organization and its environment is thin. Relations thrive in spite of artificial restrictions. In a world of change, a former client frequently becomes an employee. On the other hand, any employee may use social media tools to spread his or her dissatisfaction with the employer. Transparency is thus no longer an option. It’s a must. We are free to write policies, introduce additional security measures or… leverage what Web 2.0 has provided us with.

Ultimately it’s about respect

I believe a traditional employee-client dichotomy hasn’t got much practical sense in modern economy. Where information flows freely (a fact), signs of consistency and respect towards the organization’s employees have even more impact on its clients. Respect, like kindness, is contagious.

Further reading

Every New Layer Is Fat

A man’s capacity to add meaning to any virtual concept is potentially limitless. I wrote about this in an earlier entrywe love to create worlds. Corporations are often flooded by committees, sounding boards, functions and matrices. In one case, I encountered more than 40 (sic) committees in one such entity. Decision-making? Try making decisions in such an environment. Or perhaps… try putting words into actions: developing products, creating value, improving processes, reducing waste (well, at least there’s plenty of material to work on).

A safe assumption — every new layer is fat. Be it horizontally (silos, communication nodes) or vertically (e.g. organizational structure). Reduce, rather than add. Embrace, confront, rather than evade. Do not water down your decision-making ability by meddling with the two key organizational components:

  • communication
  • responsibility

It should be army-simple to be transparent and trustworthy. There’s no time to make it otherwise.

In a 1975 classic, The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks discusses communication channels. Instead of using a thousand words, let me show you a picture:

Media_httpideamixnetp_farye

Every new node increases the number of communication channels exponentially. When we reach ‘C’, problems are about to begin…

The Better is the Enemy of the Good

We love comfort zones. Change looks great on paper and sounds exciting on pep talks, but if things are going reasonably well for us, we’d rather stick with the as-is. Even more! If we got used to bad conditions, a toxic relationship or… a bad process, we are very likely to defend what we know, what we got used do. Besides, what’s bad? The “traditional” or the new? The known draws a sense of security.

About 10 years ago I started working for a small company in the insurance market. The president of that company was a man of integrity, a true leader and a person I respected a lot. I still do. He wasn’t young, mind you, but still considerably open-minded. Yet, even now I remember a quote he used to repeat quite often:

“The better is the enemy of the good.”

(It’s a rough translation from Voltaire –– “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”)

Even with this standpoint, he didn’t oppose change. He did however understand its price and took responsibility for its impact on the employees — contrary to many other leaders I met on my way later on.

And so… we suck at implementing things. Do you know why?