Your Help is a Hindrance

Have you ever been on a project where it feels as though someone is unwittingly playing defense against a successful outcome.  Either they are doing things that actively run counter to the group or are doing things poorly that require others to pick up their slack.  I do not mean those who are trying to tank a project, I mean those whose incompetence on the project produces a result indistinguishable from sabotage.  What do you do with this member if you are not responsible for assembling the team?

Generally in this situation there are a few basic options:

  1. Advocate for that person to be removed from the team.
    Now there there are different ways to go about this.  I don’t recommend advocating to the whole group in the middle of a meeting in the presence of this individual.  This may produce results, but it also produces the undeniable perception that you are a total douche.  Instead I recommend speaking with whoever was responsible for staffing the project.  Approach them one on one and be fair but straight forward in your words.  Above all make sure it does not come off like you simply don’t like the incompetent individual, even if that happens to be true.
  2. Assign them work of the lowest importance.
    If the above option is unavailable for whatever reason, or if you would rather not pursue it, you can always change the kind of work assigned.  Perhaps this person can schedule and build agendas for meetings.  They can take notes and follow up with people.  Perhaps there are work streams that are “nice to haves” rather than “must haves”.  This requires a bit of the benign deception and people skills that make many managers great, the ability to decrease someone’s importance to a project without them feeling slighted enough to blow up.
  3. Mentor them to bring up their performance.
    I personally feel this is the ideal state, but because of that it of course is the most difficult to bring to fruition.  It would be excellent if you could bring someone from dead weight to contributor while they are on your project.  In order for that to happen three things must be true: the participant must be willing, the mentor must have at least a little skill in teaching others, and there must be enough time.  This is the calculus that you must perform if you want to pursue this option. Is this person willing and do we have anyone able to bring them along in time for the value to be recognized in this project?  That is a tricky and situational decision, but the rewards offered if successful should make this a consideration each time.
  4. Stop assigning them work.
    I personally find this to be a bit passive aggressive, but some may see it as the only possibility in their circumstance.  This is pretty self explanatory, you simply stop assigning work to them, or have someone always paired with them who is actually responsible for the work.  This has a high risk of turning the incompetent member of your team into a disgruntled member of your team.  That can cause friction in the working environment that may spill over, so caution is required if you decide to go with this approach.

Obviously this is not some panacea, but by weighing out the options available you can drive the result that provides the best outcome for a given situation.  Always consider the risks that accompany each solution and take mitigating action at the same time you start to implement your solution.

 

The Demand of the Norm

The Demand of the Norm

In business there is an effect similar to gravity. A business’s history and culture acquires a mass of its own over time. That mass perpetuates the values and norms of the business. In large organizations the mass of its history becomes a monolith by many names “what we’ve always done,” “the right thing,” “what we learned last time,””we decided,” etc.,. Here we call it the Norm. The Norm defends compliance, it draws us in, comforts us, and offers us safety from personal responsibility.

Here are 3 styles of leading within an organization with a powerful Norm, I recommend using all three at different times:

Assimilate- Comply, acknowledge the good and live with the bad. The power of such an organization is in its consistency. The system is far less punishing for compliant members than objecting ones. Absurd duties may need to be accepted and a great deal of mental effort will be expended to avoid offending the Norm. This approach takes advantage of the strength of ongoing currents within the monolith.

Subvert- Live within the system, but do not accept the values it has established. Regularly take the time to challenge the beliefs of the organization in closed-door meetings and side conversations. Be careful, this approach more often ends up being an exercise in gossip and bitter complaints than being an effective program for change.

Break- Invest energy to sustain conscious denial of certain values and take steps to remove yourself from the inner workings of the organization. This move not only requires significant effort, it also paradoxically needs the most acceptance from the organization. The subversive and the assimilated have the luxury of not being seen, but those who break with the Norm must live in view of its judgement.

 

Clap for Me (v.2)

There’s nothing wrong about recognizing hard work and celebrating success. Teams that withhold praise are hard to work with. However, I often feel that there is something disingenuous about leader-led mandatory cheerleading.

I can think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading for coworkers:

  1.  You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and applause from their peers.
  2. You think your team is emotionally needy.
  3. You don’t know what success is, so you reward completion

First Example: A team has executed a really successful action plan and presents their findings to their leader. Their leader asks the team to clap for themselves and then get back to work.

For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but group applause doesn’t last. What’s worse, employees usually know what you are doing and act to that effect. You run the risk of reinforcing externality and fame-seeking, and diluting success with simplicity. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not meet outcomes.

For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. Reality being reality, you might have to cheer for a demoralized, needy team. While you can’t take personal responsibility for their maturity, you can craft a culture that reinforces or challenges their dependence on cheering. 

At it’s heart, the first two reasons of corporate cheerleading seem to echo belief in the inferiority of the masses. That belief might manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.

For 3: Take this example: You’ve just had a tenured employee present on a long-standing problem their unit is facing, concluding with their recommendation to solve it by keeping present course, afterwards the executive of the department stands up and asks the department to applaud the presenter.

If you’re here and you know you’re doing this. Stop it. Talk to your peers and leaders about what goals are worth celebrating if you need perspective. You might decide that the effort to present is worth celebrating, but don’t let your team confuse cheerleading for presentation skills for your recognition of successes.

The Octopus and the Man-0f-War

Looking for a solid decision-making analogy for a team embarking on highly complex work in a fluid, evolving environment?

Why not try an octopus?

Here’s what that might look like

Octopuses have significant amounts of neurons positioned within their limbs. Each leg can process complicated sensory input and begin to interpret external stimuli. With these capabilities an octopus can begin to react a few milliseconds before sensory inputs have reached the central processing center of the brain. While the limbs exhibit the ability to react to momentary changes in the environment, octopuses also have eyes to perceive more distant threats and can migrate to react to shifts in the environment.

It is best not to lean too much on biology for the analogy and suffice it to say: the Octopus model strikes a balance by splitting response to the environment between independent functional groups and a central strategic perspective.

The Man-of-War

Like all good analogies, the Octopus needs a foil to prove that it is the right choice. In this case, let us consider the Portuguese Man-of-War (interestingly, not a jellyfish). A Man-of-War  is a colony of specialized organisms working together to survive. In a world where distributed intelligence and decision-making is seen as the epitome of human evolution (DAOs, crowdsourcing, etc.,) it can be tempting to think of the Man-of-War as the paragon of a collaborative workforce. Each piece does its part in a perfect system without a power dynamic to pollute their interactions.

However, such an arrangement is only amenable in certain conditions. The Man-of-War lacks a function to perceive and respond to broader environmental changes. Without a central perspective the Man-of-War depends on the environment’s good favor to survive.

Here’s the thing, the octopus model isn’t strict in it’s hierarchy because it relies on the limbs for relative autonomy and interaction with the environment. The limb and head functions differ in relation to the perspective they afford. For example, in some cases a limb might need to be sacrificed to save the octopus. What limb could have the perspective to respond in such a way?

In business, a product line may need to be severed when larger threats are imposed on the enterprise. Product lines may not have the perspective to perceive the larger threats or respond in a sufficient capacity. Those product lines need relative autonomy like the Octopus limbs to respond and react, because a central strategic perspective will not have the timely contextual insights that a 1024px-octopus2 may have.

 

Minimum Viable Part 1

Minimum Viable Part 1

A few weeks ago I overheard a common complaint while in a meeting with technology experts.

“They don’t know what an MVP is.  Our business partners just aren’t thinking as well as we are about these things.”  The promulgator of this complaint was looking around the room ready to soak in the approval of their peers, who certainly would agree that “those other people” did not understand.  Indeed most of those centered around this table nodded and smiled knowingly.  While this situation of “us vs them” is common, the issue that arose in my mind from this comment was actually their use of MVP.

An MVP, for those who have more exciting lives than mine, is a Minimum Viable Product.  It is a phrase that became popular in the software sector around 7 years ago.  A basic definition would be “a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.”  This definition is vague for a reason.  While I am not going to get into too deep of a discussion about what qualifies as an MVP, it is important to know that there is no formula for an MVP.  The MVP in any situation will change based on what is attempting to be delivered.

Going back to the comment I heard, I felt a disconnect around what was being defined as an MVP.  The picture above, taken from here, is a general metaphor for what the goal of an MVP is.  The technology being delivered worked, but did not provide what the business needed to give to the customer.  In the diagram you can see that the MVP asked for was a skateboard.  This is because what the business needed was something that moved the customer.  In this situation, the individual was complaining about the business partner who was asking for software.  What they were getting from the technology partner was an excellent wheel, whose code ran smoothly and would be a critical component of the car to come.  But you cannot give your customer a wheel and ask them how well it moves them.  My complaining colleague was assigning blame, but not accepting that it was the technology group that had misunderstood the meaning of an MVP.

Thus far we have noticed that there is a disconnect between to business partners and the technology group.  Next we will look at what may cause this disconnect, and finally we will look at ways to overcome this disconnect.

Survivor Mindset

The goal of the CBS show Survivor is to Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. With physical, psychological, and political gamesmanship it can make for entertaining television. However, we’ve seen cases where people apply this mindset to their workplace. This introduces us to another of our installment on sicknesses; the survivor mindset.*

The survivor mindset turns wit and political savvy from helping navigate your environment into an obsession with challenging your coworkers. It is ego masquerading as bettering yourself.

Survivors are committed to winning ‘the game’ through side competitions, tricks or tasks to collect ‘immunity’, and outwitting every other person in the office. Survivor syndrome degrades organizational and personal morale through breeding mistrust. The survivor mindset directs energy to:

  • Endurance competitions like who gets the last/longest word at a meeting
  • Shows of strength like where one sees who can push responsibility the furthest from themselves
  • Immunity trials where extraneous tasks and personal favors are used to win over leadership and excuse future poor performance

Be careful that your ambition doesn’t become the kind that drives you to the survivor sickness. Not only does it degrade morale, it robs you. It robs you of the opportunity to relate with your coworkers as colleagues and friends.

Rudder Events

Rudder Events

In business, efficiency is often placed on a pedestal and revered as a demigod.  Six sigma could serve as its Franciscan order.  Agile was born of the pursuit of efficiency.  There exists, however, a vast amount of work that lives in the qualitative and communication based setting known as a meeting. It is here that the rudder event occurs.

A rudder is small, yet controls the whole course of the vessel.  In the same way there are often small actions, questions, or comments that control the whole course of a conversation.  Learning to control these events, and guide conversations without having to dominate them is an important form of efficiency.  The length of a conversation is not proportional to the value of its content (I would like to coin this as the McClain Axiom) and nothing exemplifies this more than rudder events.

Imagine if you will a conversation about implementing a new workflow.  Because this will only be of interest to a few in the room, the conversation can definitely list from its destination without much effort.  How can this be prevented?  By keeping a steady hand on the wheel, with timely and direct comments and questions that keep conversations focused.  This does require someone to be monitoring the conversation more than providing content, but in almost every meeting there are those who are there for the purpose of providing direction.  An expert application of rudder events saves time in every meeting, and keeps people engaged.  Saved time equates to efficiency.