Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The false comfort of attendance

There's a pattern I want to try and put my thumb on.

This pattern, as best as I can see, comes out of a deeply ingrained cultural need to show support. The task of actually being helpful takes a back seat. It doesn't seem to matter what actually happens. It's about smiling and nodding when a stakeholder is talking about their needs, not about addressing them.

The utility of this behaviour is evident. Stakeholders feel understood. You don't have to say no. When you're meeting face to face, everybody is friendly. There's no tension.

However, I have some frustrations:

1) Stakeholders are placated by activity that doesn't do what they actually need.
2) People in positions to make real things happen invest their time and energy in the superficial.

Please don't read that I'm against understanding your public. That's not it. Of course you should understand them. What I`m saying is that after you have that continual process underway, you should get on with responding.

What's happening too often is that people are absovling themselves of the real effort because they're good at relationship building. They can bounce from one warm and fuzzy meeting to the next, leaving a trail of impossible expectations in their wake.

Stakeholders are complicit too. They need to ask questions that go deeper than "Do you feel me?" How about, "What will you do? When will you do it? Are you committing the necessary resources?"

I'd like to think that by naming this behaviour, I can focus a more appropriate amount of my effort behind the scenes for real results. It may mean the meetings are a little less comfortable. I hope I can deliberately choose the long-term outcomes, even if it means a little less immediate gratification.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Two rules for innovation

1) Biggest mistake this year (as voted by your colleagues) wins a paid trip to Mexico
2) Intentional mistakes are not allowed

These rules are easy to implement. Spread over your workforce, the cost of the initiative approaches zero. The communication of the rules is simple. Within a day or two, a staff of thousands would know them by heart.

These rules are hard to say out loud if you're in a position to make this commitment. The rules feel risky. They feel like you're not being accountable... at least on the surface. You are flying in the face of a culture that values minimizing risk.

But really, what would happen? I think:
  • A signal is transmitted - leadership is committed to change
  • Individuals pursue the incentive
  • Some fail. One lucky SOB really fails
  • Some succeed. Some of the results can only be described as revolutionary.
  • Most efforts fizzle, but we learn from them
  • The organization benefits from thousands of employees choosing to apply discretionary effort

While it feels risky, the results actually seem pretty solid. I think economists would look at the incentive and the statistical probabilities for success and say it's a no-brainer. More likely, you hurt your business if you don't do it.

The challenge is to step away from the emotional reaction and go with the effort that produces results.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Wisdom of Crowds

I'm trying to be a voracious reader. More realistically, I'm a persistent reader. I stick with it, page by page, until I finish.

This dogged determination has paid off with the completion of "The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki. The concept he brought to life had considerable real-world applications and he examined some very important implications. I wish I could capture what Surowiecki so expertly describes and download it into the brains of my colleagues. In short, it has the potential to revolutionize the way we work.

TWoC does an excellent job of describing the reasons and manner in which a group of people can make consistently better judgements than individuals, even so-called experts in the field. Please think about that for a second. For most challenges, with the right conditions and framework, a collection of average minds is always more trustworthy than the one mind that is a focused expert on a particular issue. The crowd won't always be right, but they will be more often than the individual. When we're all looking at a loose set of variables and don't know what's next, statistically you should go with the crowd's wisdom, not the guy that looks confident.

The implications of this are enormous. We get caught up in status, appearances, experience or some other social signal and defer judgement to the individual we're confident will make the best choice. We're wrong. We're placing confidence in the wrong source. Surowiecki acknowledges in his afterword that, even after writing the book, he still felt anxious entrusting a crowd to make the right call. The conventional wisdom that's been burned into us has a powerful pull.

This illogical, gut feeling that makes us hesitate instead of openly inviting diverse opinion on matters of significance is a clue as to why we're stagnating. If you agree with the book, it still takes a "mind over emotion" persistence to put it into practice. That's hard work, and I'm not talking hours at your desk, I'm talking introspection.

My posts lately all seem to fall into a common pattern:
  • name an issue
  • ask if it's a problem
  • if yes, summon the courage to change behaviour.

Are you deferring significant issues to an indivdual? Do they have the information to make good decisions? Do you have greater access to diverse perspective? Are you part of the crowd that could do better? Are you the individual that's convinced you know best? What happens if you engage some diverse perspective?

I don't know about you, but I get a little nervous when I ask these questions.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Instant capitulation vs. dying on the hill

We rarely seem to find a happy medium between these extreme choices in the workplace. Traditional behaviour dictates that you capitulate to your autocratic boss the moment they've stated their desire or intention. Doing anything but their plan will label you as a problem. You're essentially raising your hand and announcing that you are not a team player... for their game, anyway.

This roll-over response is well ingrained. When you consider the career challenges of later baby-boomers and Gen-Xers, it's even understandable. To paraphrase Linda Duxbury, when you're lucky enough to have a seat on the crowded bus, you don't complain about the rip in the seat. Well, the world has changed. There's now room on the bus, and an empty one comes in another 10 minutes. The power dynamic has shifted more in your favour.

Aside from this, instantly capitulating to your boss' ill-formed idea has never been in the best interest of what you're trying to accomplish. You're not safe anymore to just let someone else define your work and your direction. You'll still feel safe, sure. The problem is, that safe stance is very similar to the one taken by people who put bolts on cars. They feel completely justified saying "you get to run this how you want, even if I disagree," until the day they no longer have a job. Please don't accept that role.

Here's the simple first step. Become a student of the Instant Capitulation vs. Dying on the Hill continuum. Objectively examine your behaviour in the context of this scale. Do you like where you're at?

Step two, try something that isn't so much instant capitulation. Don't go all the way to Dying on the Hill. Make a small shift.

Here's some behaviours to think about:
  • Don't tell anyone, just turn off your email for a morning. Re-engage at 11:45 and see if you can clear your inbox by noon.
  • Propose an amendment to the specific wording your boss gave you for a letter.
  • Push back on a deadline by saying "I've cleared Friday so that I can get my files under control," or "that task will have to wait until after my coaching session with Tom."
  • Allow all your calls to go to voicemail. Set one hour aside to deal with them all.
  • Unilaterally schedule a meeting in your boss' calendar called "Establishing Performance Expectations with (insert your name here)"

In my experience, establishing the way YOU want to work allows you to benefit from the roll-over response. No one else is spending as much time thinking about processes and what it takes to be effective. Rather than engage with you in a rational discussion about why you are doing this (which would be immensely helpful), they'll do their own capitulation.

Once again, I'm advising something that doesn't particularly feel good for the ego, but it should be just about right for your soul and your sanity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can you handle a big salary?

I've noticed a relationship between salary size and inability to speak the truth. Essentially, how it seems to work is that well-paid senior management seem to be extremely choosy about the times they point out to their boss that they think something is a bad idea. They "pick their battles" and "build relationship" by saying yes. The other, rarely used alternative would be to present thoughtful, articulate and contrary advice. This advice is not invited, nor is it appreciated until it is appreciated.

I've tried to put myself in the position of these senior individuals:
A) They were hired to show results
B) The bureaucracy can at times be fickle and has demonstrated a hair-trigger response to employment issues in the past (read: they could get canned)
C) The salary they're now at is an increase for them... quite possibly the pinnacle of their career

I have trouble coming to the same apparent conclusion, though, that you have to play the game to get the odd win. I have a salary that is nothing to scoff at. In fact, I currently make double what I thought was wildly successful when I graduated university 10 years ago. I was naive, yes, but I'm still making well above average and more than I need.

I don't think you have to play the game and incrementally present a change of course. I think playing (and validating) the game guarantees we don't create value or effective results. Read The Wisdom of Crowds to become a believer.

There's clearly a deliberation that happens here. Individuals attain a pinnacle point, or at least the best so far in their career. The choice is to play safely and receive the paycheque or to stick to your principles and try and make meaning. It appears that with such big salaries on the line, the decision to play safely is just too tempting.

In one of the richest and most comfortable countries in the world, the excuse that you've got mouths to feed no longer cuts it. Is it the status, then? The trips and toys that can be bought? The validation of appearing in control? I find it hard to believe this stuff is better than making a meaningful result.

I might be seeing this all wrong. This also begs a question: Which came first? The sycophancy or the salary?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Busy" is Diverting You

I've decided not to use the word "busy" as a response to the question "How are things going?" or "How's work?" It's surprisingly hard.

I know it's just a typical, off-the-cuff thing we say, but removing the dreaded b-word from our vernacular can be the start of a transition away from running our lives on fast-forward.

"Busy" is, of course, the standard state of being these days. Just because it's the standard, though, doesn't mean it's right. Being busy means you've got your head down and people are demanding your time. It doesn't mean you're working on the right things or being effective. There's a superficial feeling of validation when we feel like there's more to do than there are hours in the day. We're wanted. Can you imagine responding with, "I'm not busy. That's for sure." It simply feels like we're not valuable, that the world could get along without us.

Saying "busy" may make us feel wanted, but it also reinforces a culture of urgency where working up a sweat or staying late is a badge of honour. I'm tired of this culture. I want to focus on results, not the show.

I don't want to be known for being busy. In fact, I think if I say I'm busy, I'm openly acknowledging that I'm not asking the big questions. I'm just doing the work laid out before me. I'd rather be able to say I'm definitely, unequivocally not busy. Rather, I'm determining what's important and I'm giving it its proper focus. I'm doing a few things well and I'm confident they are the right things to work on. I'm not multi-tasking. I've made the bold and courageous choice of saying what's important. I'm mono-tasking.

This does leave the challenge of what to do in that small talk situation. What to do when someone politely, but without much actual interest, asks you how you're doing? I don't know. I end up saying, "I've made a conscious choice to not say I'm busy. I think saying I'm busy means..."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On Being a Cusper

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is fascinating. He lays out some very interesting and convincing arguments for how people become successful. One of the pillars of the book is an acknowledgement of being born in the right time, with the right circumstances and even with the right culture. It may not seem "right," however, until you look back and realize how helpful it was.

One of his most compelling presentations is of Jewish lawyers who, because of bigotry and a closed, traditional culture, couldn't get into the big New York firms of the day. They were stuck doing takeover law, the "grunt work" no-one wanted... until the '80s, when that's what everyone needed. Suddenly, they were perfectly positioned.

I see some of that blessing of circumstance in my own life course, though clearly the parallel fails when compared with the adversity of the Jewish lawyer's systemic exclusion. I was born in 1975. My simple set of circumstances and luck put me in a demographic trough known as a "cusper." I'm either considered the youngest of the GenXers or the oldest of the Millenials. This provides me with some very interesting perspective, and I think it defines much of how I find my roles.

As a GenXer, I'm disaffected. I'm frustrated with a conventional system that rarely offers me a helping hand and expects unquestioning loyalty and commitment to the organization. The first seven or eight years of my career, I played along to Baby Boomer rules. Arguably, I was pretty good at it. I climbed the ladder quickly and built a reputation for insightfulness, ambition and independent skill. At least to myself, I proved that I could succeed in that environment.

All that time, though, there's a piece of me that was a Millenial. I've never been much of one to conform, and I always had the unsettled feeling that everyone around me was wrong. If I've learned anything about myself over my career, it's that I never fully buy in to the system and status quo that's around me.

Millenials, by definition, are loyal to careers, not organizations. They're interested in ideas and results more than service to the boss. The laws of supply and demand make this so. There's a growing seller's market for thoughtful workers, and Millenials naturally have a stronger negotiating position to ask for work that makes sense.

I find myself now in the role of translator. I get the rationale and purpose of the status quo, though I simply don't agree. I don't see it creating results. It's all too driven by individual self interest. It's founded on a belief that jobs are scarce and the safe way is the best way.

I also get the Millenial approach. I know that it's not all entitlement and expectation. It's their birthright of a stronger negotiating position. They're ready to work, hard. But they want to do difficult, challenging and meaningful work, not the stuff that does more for show than results.

Cuspers are a rarity. Not only did I need to be born in the right time, but I also needed to straddle the two gravitational pulls on either side of me. We don't all stay in this no-man's land. I'm also amongst cohorts that are bitter GenXers and others that are uninitiated Millenials.

With rarity comes doubt. Am I really seeing and addressing a reality? Only a minority seem to see it this way. As the brilliant writer and artist Hugh MacLeod says, "Ignore Everybody." This has become a mantra for me lately. I'm sure I'm on to something. Keeping this discussion alive can and will serve a purpose.

Faith in this chance placement is scary, but I'm leaning in to it.