Monday, February 26, 2007

Recognizing that Your Vision is Foggy

I came across a great post about how to recognize if your vision is working from George Ambler at The Practice of Leadership. George quotes an analogy from The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes & Barry Posner. When they ask people what they do when they are driving and run into a thick fog bank, they always get the same answers:
  • I slow way down.
  • I turn my lights on.
  • I grab the steering wheel with both hands.
  • I tense up.
  • I sit up straight or lean forward.
  • I turn the radio off so I can hear better.

This is how people react to the fear of not being able to see far enough ahead to feel safe. This gives us good parallels to noticing if our team's vision is foggy: Our teams become more careful than usual, they search for clarifying answers more frequently, and they seem to tense up. Helping them clarify the vision helps to lift the fog.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 6

I still don't feel like we are seeing enough of the tasks to make a good judgment about what either team could have done better. This week the teams had to get people signed up for a Priceline sweepstakes in a mall. Arrow won by a 10% margin over Kinetic. The reason that came up in the board room was that Kinetic didn't properly account for the Spanish speaking demographic. This was a red herring. Neither team addressed the Spanish demographic, and even though Kinetic had two Spanish speaking team members, they still lost. I'd suggest that the real difference was how effective each team was in getting people to the kiosk.

The lessons this week were about loyalty and respect. Let's start at the end. Kinetic's project leader, Aimee, was fired. As she drove away in the limo, Aimee blamed her team for the loss. She showed her future teams just how she will treat them. She just blew her next job interview.
Lesson 1: Don't bad-mouth your old team to your new team.

Our next lesson comes from the beginning of the show. During Arrow's planning meeting, Frank drew a mocking picture of Surya and passed it around to the team. Everyone got a good laugh at Surya's expense. This is not a model of teamwork and respect. It is a wonder that Arrow won given this level of discord. I can't say that team Kinetic was much more cohesive, but at least they weren't overtly disrespectful.
Lesson 2: Show some respect, people.

Our final lesson has yet to fully play out. Frank and Nicole finally broke the tension by kissing around the pool. This was cute on Survivor with Rob and Amber, but has no place in a leadership show. It is very likely that one of these two will be the project leader for the other. Forget how hard that will be to manage and imagine the impact on the rest of the team. Even if they think they can manage their own potential awkwardness, they can't manage their team's awkwardness. This will hurt later.
Lesson 3: You can't have a relationship with a teammate.

Bureaucratic Control as an Obstacle to Reducing Process

I got the following comment to my previous post:

"There hasn't been a bureaucracy in history that has decreased the number of rules. Half of the bureaucracy derives its power from enforcing rules."

I expect this is true on both counts, but I'll put out the challenge anyway: Can anyone share a story where an organization made itself more successful by reducing its processes?

Power is a fascinating dynamic in organizations. I prefer to talk about it with the less ambiguous word "control." People have a desire to feel in control of their world. As leaders, it is critical that we understand this. With due respect to Maslow, if a person thinks their world is out of control, they will go to extraordinary lengths to put it back in control. Some people seek the power of hierarchy, others the comfort of a process, others laudably the strength of talent, and some rest in the iron-grip of bureaucracy.

You can't push down bureaucracy without filling the bureaucrat's need for control. Bureaucracy happens when people in low-control jobs feel that their world will spin out of control if they don't put process in place to stop it. If you remove the process without addressing their fear, they will quickly force it back in. As leaders, we need to build trust from our teams that we can keep the world in control without the need for controlling process. We can only do this when we exhibit the uncommon traits of listening to concerns, showing a clear vision of how we can be successful, and fixing problems quickly rather than hoping they will go away on their own.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders today are strong believers in bureaucratic control. They see it as an easy way manage their own world; certainly easier than keeping a keen eye out for problems and dealing with the conflict of fixing them. This is what puts us back in the circle of process driving down associate engagement. A big part of the cure is to build fundamental leadership skills in our teams so they can work effectively without bureaucratic control.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Process/Associate Engagement Circle

This week I met John Miller of the St Clair Consortium. He has remarkable experience and insight into the value of engaged employees to the product creation process. One of his insights was the difference between "human capital" and "intellectual capital;" two terms that are often used interchangeably. "Human capital" refers to the employees that come to the office each day and do the work of our companies. Many of them follow the processes set before them, but essentially check their brains at the door.

What we want from our employees is not just their hands but also their minds. This is our "intellectual capital." This is reflected in the motto of MIT, "Mens et manus," which translates as "mind and hand." We want our employees engaged in making our projects successful with all of their intellectual capital.

From this distinction I want to highlight a potential feedback loop in our organizations driving associate engagement down. We put rules and processes in place partly as a response to our fears that employees won't be engaged to make projects successful without them. Certainly many of our processes are necessary to run the business, but perhaps not as many as we might think.

The upside of rules and processes is that they remove the need for employees to invent an approach to every problem. They take away the need to think through everything. The other side of this same coin is that they remove the need for employees to think on their own. They make it possible for employees to check their brains at the door. Too many rules and processes tend to drive down associate engagement. Employees resent it when they perceive that the rules treat them as if they are stupid. And they resent it when they perceive that their best work is hindered by following an overly prescriptive process.

The feedback loop occurs as a result of putting more rules and processes in place than people need to do a good job. This leads to disengaged employees, who make more mistakes because they check their brains at the door each morning. Companies can be tricked into fixing this problem with even more process, but this will only make the problem worse.

You need to add one more rule in your systems: "We won't add a rule or a process if we can do better using our intellectual capital." Follow that up by giving your teams permission to propose striking processes that aren't required. Invite your teams to use their minds unless they can succeed better by thinking up a process.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 5

I liked the idea behind the task this week. The two teams had to harvest honey, design packaging, bottle the honey, and sell it. The task gave the teams a good appreciation of the life-cycle of delivering a product. It promised to be a good week for learning, but fell short. The show was so heavily edited that it was impossible to see why one team might win or lose. Instead of showing us the competition, they spent time setting up Aaron as a timid leader.

Arrow ultimately lost the task and Aaron ended up in the board room. Recall last episode that Aaron didn't say much from the other side of the board table. This week Mr. Trump commented multiple times that Aaron didn't contribute from the power side of the board table. Aaron was fired, and mostly because he wasted his opportunity to show Trump what he could do for him as an employee.
Lesson 1: Playing it safe wastes a leadership opportunity and ultimately isn't safe.

Aimee, on the other hand, was very strong on the other side of the board table. She stepped right up, almost taking over the meeting, and asked hard but incisive questions. Trump commented to Aaron, "Do you like it when Aimee is being tough?" and added, "Maybe too tough." Aimee scored points with Trump, but may have set herself up to be shot at equally hard next time she is in the hot seat.
Lesson 2: Don't be shy, but realize that you will be on the other side of the table sometimes, too.

As Trump talked in the board room, he used strong language a number of times. The editing seemed to be showing him as a strong, hard leader. Instead he came off as crude and somewhat out of control. Firm works for him; vulgar does not.
Lesson 3: There is seldom value to swearing in business.