Monday, September 26, 2005

Possibly a New Seminal Book

A friend recently recommended a leadership book to me: Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I'm just over fifty pages into it and I believe I will be adding it to my personal list of seminal books.

The basic premise is that leadership is a dangerous avocation. Effective leaders become the target of people threatened by change. The result can be devastating and derailing for a leader. The book describes this dynamic and provides practical suggestions for dealing with these dangers.

Here are some key take-aways from chapter 1, The Heart of Danger. First, people don't resist change, they resist loss. Understanding the potential losses to your constituents is key to leading them through changes. Second, the authors define two types of problems: Technical problems, which can be solved with the right process or knowledge; and adaptive problems, which require learning, experimentation, and cultural change. Leaders need to focus on addressing adaptive problem; helping their teams cope with their losses and understanding the value to them and/or the larger group.

I'm finding applications of these ideas almost on a daily basis. I can't recommend the book more highly. If you prefer seminars to cuddling up to a good book, the authors have set up the Cambridge Leadership Associates™ to teach leaders how to approach adaptive problem solving.

More to come as I find additional insight from this impressive book.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Who Feels the Pain

I was recently in a project review meeting and the project manager mentioned all the extra work the team was putting in to meet the upcoming deadline. One of my managers had the sense to ask, "Are you worried about burn-out?" The PM was using the staff's personal time and energy to address the problems in the project. The staff was taking on the pain of addressing the problem. It was good leaderly behavior to speak up in the meeting, especially with concern for the team members.

It is sometimes appropriate for a team to roll up their sleeves and take on the burden of bringing a project in on time. But, there are other ways to address problems in a project. The big four solutions are: Spend more money, re-plan the project (often by slipping the schedule), work extra hours, and reduce features.

Each of the big four solutions causes pain. It is important to keep in mind, though, where the pain is felt. I find that some PMs are too quick to put the pain of addressing problems onto the backs of the people doing the work. Often this turns out to be the easiest place for them to solve the problem.

When PMs add more resources, they put the pain onto the company not just the employees. Since the company reaps the main benefit, it seems like a natural place to put the pain, but companies put tremendous pressure on PMs to avoid this solution. Instead, the PM could rework the plan or slip the schedule. This puts the pain onto the PM themselves. Usually, PMs take the minor steps to rework plans, but dodge the harder work or avoid the stigma of delivering late. Finally, PMs can reduce the feature set. This puts the pain squarely on the customer's back. Clearly, this is the least attractive of the big four, but there is usually some sloppiness in the requirements process that allows room for this.

How We Fix ProblemsWho Feels the Pain
Spend More Money--The Company
Re-plan the Project--The Project Manager
Work More Hours--The Employees
Reduce Features--The Customers

There is no answer to problem solving that applies to every situation. The easy answer, though, of putting the pain on the employees shouldn't be your default answer just because it feels so easy. Staff burn-out can cost the company money in turn-over and can costs the customer in quality. I'd also be hard pressed to find many examples where working extra hours over an extended period actually delivered the project earlier.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Act Deliberately

We’ve already covered how distressing it is to go through life on autopilot. What is equally distressing is how much we act out of habit. That is, we do what we do today because it’s what we did yesterday. We get into ruts. We talk to the same people at the same time, and often about the same things. We dress the same way every day. And we respond to events with the same actions predictably and without thinking.

When you act out of habit, you throw away opportunities. You can’t leverage your actions to their greatest potential. This is not a “power of positive thinking” speech; it is a call to be “on” in your actions. Acting out of habit gives you just a random chance of getting the best value from an action. For example, if always sit in the same spot whenever you are in a particular meeting, you miss the opportunity to leverage your position to either take the lead or give it to someone else.

Acting deliberately doesn’t give perfect results, but it gives better results than random habits. Even slightly better results give your team a leadership edge toward success. That edge can be the difference between a good leader and a great leader. Those deliberate actions are each tiny manipulations of the world around you.

“Never mistake motion for action.”
– Ernest Hemingway

I’ve already given some examples of acting deliberately, such as dressing for the situation, and deciding where you should sit when you enter a room. It is difficult to notice when you are not acting deliberately, though. Those are the times you are not paying much attention to your actions. To make it worse, there is no practical way to evaluate and leverage every action. Imagine trying to think through every footstep.

So how do you recognize and evaluate actions to leverage more effectively? First off, you need to build the same habits here as you do in paying attention to everything. You need to start asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If the answer is either, “I don’t know,” or “It’s just the way I always do it,” or “For no particular reason,” then you are not acting deliberately but out of habit.

Once you recognize a non-deliberate action, you need to think about whether it is worth changing or not. For that, you need to ask yourself the question, “Can I do this differently for a better result?” Typically, acting deliberately takes no more effort than acting out of habit. The difficulty comes from the stress of being “on” all the time.

One effective way to deal with this stress is to work on one or two things at a time. Of all the areas you could act more deliberately on, pick one to focus on. Your goal is to make acting deliberately in that area a habit. A bit ironic, I know. For example, each time you walk into a meeting deliberately ask yourself, “Where can I sit to the best effect?” After a while, perhaps even months, deciding where to sit will become habit.

Integrating new habits works best in smaller doses like this. When you try to take on too much, you can easily become discouraged and give up. You should still take every opportunity to act deliberately. But focus your efforts on making one or two things at a time into new deliberate habits.

Here are a few things for you to try acting deliberately on:

  • Decide how busy you should look. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you have to look busy. When you look busy, team members don’t feel as comfortable asking you for help. To give the impression of availability, don’t act distracted when people come to talk to you. Don’t look at other work or your watch.
  • Decide how patient you act. Even if you are impatient with someone, they may need your patience to make effective progress. Some people need to see your impatience to be motivated.
  • Decide how attentive to be. While an attentive audience motivates most people, there are times where inattentiveness or even aloofness can be of value. For example, if you sit aloofly at the back of a meeting, then when you become attentive to a particular point, you can emphasize its importance.

Here’s one example of acting deliberately that I found particularly funny. I went to a pizza party in celebration of a product release for one of my groups. The party was supposed to last about an hour. I decided that I better leave the party very early, about forty minutes into it. There were three other times I could have left: a few minutes early, right on time, or a few minutes late. If I left a few minutes early, everyone else would have taken my queue and left. I didn’t want to end the event by leaving. If I left right on time, people might have seen me as holding a stopwatch on the event. That’s not a perception I wanted to convey. If I left the meeting late, I would be setting an example that was more casual to schedules that I wanted. I didn’t particularly mind if the event went longer, but I didn’t want to make it a norm by my example.

Deliberate actions allow you influence your environment for your own benefit and the benefit of your team. Instead of going through life on autopilot, be "on" and act deliberately.