Everything I Know About Team Dynamics, I Learned From Cooking with My Wife

While this post’s title is patently false, curiously any sample of historical evidence from my life would backtest very well. I’m fortunate that my wife and I share that sliver of a Venn diagram representing couples who enjoy cooking together (if you believe me) and who cook delicious meals together (if you believe our guests).

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Well, we do serve cheese often, but… [credit: tylervigen.com]
This is not a cooking blog, so let’s focus on the principles that make us an effective team:

Be Accountable for Outcomes, Not Tasks

It’s possible to assemble perfectly prepared ingredients into a terrible meal. Rather than assigning responsibility for strictly defined steps in a process, delegate outcomes and give flexibility in the steps to achieve them. In our kitchen, this means we each take ownership of a course in the meal or a finished product on the plate, instead of the specific steps across the meal (chop, saute, sauce, etc.). In the office, the same approach ensures focus on the deliverables with space for innovation and learning in the method.

Separate Where You Work, and How You Work Matters Less

In our kitchen, one of us leaves a trail of dirty dishes, a cluttered and dirty counter, and a splattered stove top behind us, and the other keeps it relatively clean. When we are working in our own corners of the kitchen (or in the first kitchen we shared, our own ends of the tiny counter), there’s no problem. At the office, some people like to sit, others stand or walk; some spread papers over every inch of desk and leave ink on every inch of whiteboard, others…don’t. People have similar diversity in approaching a project: some prefer an intricate Gantt chart, others work best under the pressure of a looming deadline. It’s more likely that colleagues will have a differing style than identical ones, so find space in the office to prevent friction among team members.

Escalate Early, Prioritize Often

Surprises are inevitable in our kitchen; that’s part of the fun. What helps us navigate these surprises as a cooking team is keeping each other informed as the facts change, and based on the implications, constantly evaluating the plan. Half of the peaches in the farmer’s market bag are rotten? If we don’t get more fruit, we won’t have a dessert. Ok, add cherries and change it from a torte to a cobbler. In the office, many people fear that sharing “bad news” means admitting weakness or incompetence. They worry this will distract or irritate the boss. Instead, treat unexpected events as an opportunity to practice risk assessment and prioritization skills. Even if the new information doesn’t change the plan immediately, the entire team knows the current situation, which could change the outcome of the next decision.

Never Let a Customer Be The First To Test Your Final Product

I give extra respect to pastry chefs because they have to get the dish right the first time. Once the cake comes out of the oven, there’s no going back to tweak the batter. Whenever possible, our dishes come out best when we are constantly tasting each other’s food and adjusting flavors. In the office, test your ideas with colleagues, especially those with a different point of view. Let them help you find bias in your perspectives, or weak links in your reasoning. Leave an idea on your whiteboard and practice your elevator pitch with people who stop by. Find areas of concern or resistance to change in the organization in a non-threatening way. Not only will your work product improve, but when it comes to that “big kickoff meeting,” many people in the room will be familiar with the ideas and share a sense of ownership–because they helped develop the concepts along the way.

In the end, there is only one chef

Amidst the emphasis on collaboration, let’s not underestimate the need for leadership on a team. Especially in stressful or unfamiliar situations, teams perform better under decisive leadership. So don’t forget why you get paid the medium-sized bucks, and step up to lead when required. My wife knows how to do this in our kitchen, much to the benefit of our dinner guests.

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Transferred? Four Steps To Get In Sync

The traditional “up or out” career path, where an employee’s only option is a promotion to her direct manager’s position, is a relic of the past. Companies adopting a talent strategy to develop future leaders from within can achieve higher productivity and lower talent acquisition costs. Among other juicy tidbits in Oracle’s Talent Retention white paper is the statistic that nearly 40% of all full-time positions are filled with internal transfers and promotions. If the SuccessFactors Australian benchmark study is representative of global trends, the ratio of transfers to promotions is more than 8:1 for top quartile organizations.

airport-sign

So if it’s likely that your next career move is lateral, how can you be prepared to get in sync quickly with your new team? Try these four steps:

  1. Understand each other’s personalities. It can take months to learn the communication style and motivations of a new co-worker. Take a shortcut by reviewing and discussing each other’s personality profiles as described by an external test. The best option is to see if your HR department can provide Predictive Index (PI) results, however, freemium options like CrystalKnows can provide a solid basis for a meaningful conversation.
  2. Build a current project list and backlog. Dropping into a new team means that you will have to get familiar quickly with the in-flight projects, recurring deliverables, and upcoming work. If your new team doesn’t already use a project and resource management tool, spend an hour together to create a Trello board to list out the active, ready to start, and backlog projects. Note that you can get to the same level of understanding with sticky notes or a whiteboard, so don’t let technology impede the information exchange.
  3. Load up the calendars. A boring but important step is to ensure all of the recurring team meetings, 1:1 discussions, and upcoming vacations are visible in each other’s calendars. And don’t forget to cancel that meeting series with your old boss!
  4. Build relationships through informal channels. As you climb the steep learning curve with your new team, don’t forget to get to know the person behind the co-worker: take the team out for coffee, lunch, or drinks. Find out their favorite foods and surprise them with a snack or treat. Ask about their favorite vacations. Anything that builds rapport (in a non-creepy way) will strengthen your working relationships, too.

Internal transfers are nearly unavoidable in the modern career path. It’s my intent to make your next transfer a smoother one by offering the steps above. Feel free to leave a comment with any other advice on the topic.

image: global-goose.com

What’s the difference: policy, process, procedure, standard?

As any organization grows, there’s a point where the you can no longer manage finances on a spreadsheet, no longer manage priorities on a whiteboard, and no longer manage the team by looking around the room. Usually this starts by compiling a list of principles that the team agrees to uphold while they do stuff (like at Amazon or Google). Then, the team gets big enough that there are enough smart people who can find enough grey area within the principles, that rules need to be written down. Also, “go ask Steve how to do that” doesn’t scale. Steve can’t do his own work when he gets interrupted 50 times a day to explain something, and the other 49 people aren’t getting anything done while waiting for Steve.

At this point the organization needs to formalize its Business Process Management (BPM) and governance structure. Joy!

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Transitions from informal to formal systems are hard (image: xkcd.com)

Most people resist structure of any kind when the administrative burden (the squeeze) is greater than the perceived benefit (the juice):

  • sales guy: “Ugh! Expense report? Why can’t you just give me a company credit card?”
  • product marketer: “Ugh! Creative services request? Why can’t you just give me edit permission on the company website?”
  • my kids: “Ugh! Chore chart? Why can’t you just give me cookies?”

As you get started deploying (or overhauling) the BPM system in your organization, remember to keep the system as lightweight as possible while still achieving the intended benefits. All the principles of Leading Change, such as “there is no such thing as over-communication,” still apply. Now let’s get to the definitions.

There are four essential components to a BPM system:

  1. Policy: a collection of related principles and guidelines that explain “why” an organization does stuff a certain way. Policies sit in the background and define the rules that should not be broken when following the processes and procedures built on top.
  2. Process: a sequence of actions and decisions that describe “what” happens to achieve an outcome. Processes can fit within or across organizational boundaries (functions, geographies, business units, etc.) and define the work that humans or IT systems perform.
  3. Procedure: instructions describing “how” to complete a certain step in a process. Highly detailed procedures are often called work instructions.
  4. Standard: a “definition of done” that sets the level of quality for work defined in a procedure or process. Standards can also set boundaries around the time our resources consumed when completing work.

Notice how this structure mirrors the why, what, how structure seen elsewhere, like in sales, and explained in Sinek’s classic book (check out the TED talk video, too). These components are modular, meaning that your team can make revisions to one part in response to new business goals or requirements, without necessarily changing another part. Remember, however, to check the implications of a change before implementing it, for example if a change to a standard would push the required level of quality outside the capabilities of the existing process.

Here’s an example most people have experienced:

In a restaurant kitchen, the goals are clearly defined: make consistently delicious food that customers will enjoy every time they visit. There are a number of policies in place that establish guidelines and rules to govern work in the kitchen. For example: everyone will wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, raw food will be stored in certain containers at a certain temperature, cutting boards for fish won’t be used for fruit, etc. Next, there are processes in place to achieve specific outcomes. For example the process to receive an order from the dining room and deliver the ordered dishes to the pass. For each step in that process, there are procedures that the kitchen staff to execute the work, for example the method to cook spaghetti carbonara. Lastly, the steps in the process to deliver the food that was ordered must conform to standards. These standards include the taste of the sauce, the temperature of the dish when it hits the pass, even the type of plate it’s served on.

If the restaurant is a local, family run place, maybe none of this information is every written down. Cambridge, MA legend Clover Food Lab has posted its employee training documentation publicly since opening, which includes policies, processes, procedures, and standards. Ferran Adria posted a sythesis of elBulli cuisine: great example of a policy document in the context of avant garde cuisine. Watch his team’s system of creativity and service excellence unfold in the movie el Bulli: Cooking in Progress.

With a better understanding of the difference between policy, process, procedure, and standard, you can help your organization achieve it’s goals with just enough structure, not more.

Why do so few employers check references?

This isn’t going to be a post in which I pose a deceptively simple question in the title, and then blow your mind with a concise, insightful, yet counter-intuitive answer (ha!), like I’ve attempted with interview questions, career choices, or long hours. I am genuinely stupefied, mortified, and mystified, as is Jackie Chiles.

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Personally, I have not given a job offer without calling references. I have, however, been offered a job without having my references called. And, much more often, I have been asked to stand as a reference and not received a call from the candidate’s employer–even when “my” candidate received an offer. That pattern leads me to believe that very few employers are like me and follow through with reference checks.

But a sample size of one is weak, so I did some quick research. I found a good piece from SHRM describing how to perform background and reference checks, that references a CareerBuilder survey from 2014 revealing that in many industries more than half of applicants falsify their employment history or qualifications, among other statistics about the problems unearthed during checks.

That CareerBuilder survey got a lot of mileage on other sites describing HOW and WHY to check, but even top-of-the-funnel marketing guff from recruitment automation vendors like SkillSurvey (in Fortune) and Checkster (on their blog) didn’t provide any more primary or secondary research about HOW OFTEN employers actually follow through with checking references.

So I am sticking with my original conclusion that employers are not checking references often enough, and exposing themselves to huge financial and productivity risks. While you’re at it, why pick up a pack of cigarettes and leave your seat belt unbuckled during the commute home?

The authors below have done a fantastic job explaining how to perform effective reference checks, while reinforcing why you must be either indecisive or bad at hiring if you don’t:

If you can answer or refute my original question, “why do so few employers check references?” with some convincing data, please do! Otherwise, I hope the resources above enable you to join the proud and effective minority of employers who do.

Precise and consistent use of language is a requirement of any effective organization

The contemporary social convention of expecting people to believe what you mean, not what you say, was epitomized by Peter Thiel’s fascinatingly distorted explanation how different groups take Trump seriously or literally, but not both. This has disturbed me at a visceral level since I first encountered the phenomena years ago in certain individuals’ speaking styles, then more broadly in (social) media through the recent US election cycle. Only recently, while re-reading one of my favorite books (Jacques’ Requisite Organization), was I able to articulate why.

Canadian Jazz + Politicized Snoop = Genius.

The first failure of imprecise and inconsistent language is to place the cognitive burden on the listener, rather than the speaker. In a world where discretionary leadership bandwidth is the scarcest commodity, this puts a severe constraint on the growth of any team – large or small. Whether you are speaking to a peer, a manager, or a subordinate, it benefits both parties for the listener to spend the least amount of time and mental effort deciphering your message from among your words. Furthermore, in any role where you expect the listener to convey your message to others, or support your ideas when you are present to defend them personally, any lack of clarity that leads to misinterpretation introduces an unnecessary risk. In short: don’t be lazy when you communicate.

The second failure is to undermine trust, the fundamental component of a functional team. The strength of any team starts with the strength of the one-to-one relationships between its members. Fans of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team will recognize trust as the starting point towards results. If my team member, let’s hypothetically call him Donald, expects me to “take him seriously, but not literally,” can I trust that Donald is going to be consistent in his communications (or even his reasoning) from one conversation to the next? That he is going to represent my ideas and values accurately after he walks out of the room? That he is a reliable source of information for me from elsewhere in the team? These scenarios are just a few of the myriad of examples that will inhibit trust in our relationship, and therefore prevent our team from engaging in constructive conflict, strengthening commitment and accountability, and ultimately focusing on results.

Precise and consistent use of language is a prerequisite of any effective organiation. And it starts with you. Choose your words carefully, use them consistently, and take the time to seek positive confirmation of mutual understanding in your conversations. Nudge your teammates to find a common vocabulary — even if “your” words aren’t the ones that the group ultimately favors. Be brave enough to stop a group discussion if you observe inconsistencies between what people say and what they mean. Investing a few minutes early on will pay back with enormous dividends, as clarity brings efficiency and trust brings results.

Four Components of a Market-Beating Product Machine

Whether you a bootstrapping a new app or looking for faster growth in an enterprise segment, your team wants to build a market-beating product machine. Defeating your competitors in the race to gain market share isn’t a matter of luck, or charismatic leadership, or pure technological innovation…although having a bit of any of those three wouldn’t hurt.

You need to establish four distinct yet tightly integrated disciplines that span the traditional functional boundaries of Sales, Marketing, Product Management, and Engineering. This post will define the components, and leave space for future posts to expand the descriptions and discuss how to boost proficiency in each.

Market Eating Product Machine

Build, Ship, and Test in Rapid Cycles

This component encompasses not only agile (you decide little “a” or big “A,” I’m not going there right now!) software development, but also DevOps and user experience testing.

  • software development: scope, develop, and release high-quality code that delivers meaningful value to buyers and users.
  • DevOps: test, deploy, and support the product to achieve high availability and high performance, at scale.
  • User Experience: study how users interact with and experience the product to reduce friction (the bad kind) and increase stickiness (the good kind). This information can be obtained from users who are aware (in scheduled in-person sessions) and unaware (in anonymous A/B tests) of their participation.

Launch to Increase Sales Velocity

This component encompasses not only marketing (again you choose the case of the initial consonant, while I watch from the sideline), but also training and communication.

  • Product Launch: time-bound campaigns with narrowly defined audiences, objectives, and tactics designed to increase sales velocity (opportunity count times average deal size times win rate, divided by average sales cycle length). Retrospectives from launch campaigns can inform the next product development cycle as well as advancing the launch practice across products.
  • Training: ensuring that sales, demo, and commercial staff, both within your company and your channel partners, understand how to differentiate the product in order to win and close deals bigger, faster, and more often (see sales velocity above).
  • Communication: internal recognition and awareness of the latest product version might not directly impact sales, but certainly helps to build engagement.

Inform the Roadmap with Competitive Intelligence

Feedback from the market comes in many forms. An effective competitive intelligence component can both discern broad trends and extract precise insights to help expand, refine, and prioritize the product roadmap elements.

  • Analysts: as the subject matter experts who help to arbitrate between the supply and demand sides of the market, analysts’ rankings can help you prioritize strengths and weaknesses relative to your competitors. Analysts can also help to tilt the playing field in your favor through relationships shaped by strong briefings.
  • Customers: advisory boards, implementation/installation projects, customer success ans support interactions all provide meaningful data points as to how your product lines up with their aspirations and afflictions.
  • Win/loss: understanding specifically why your product drops out at each stage of the sales cycle, and surfacing gaps in perception between your buyers and sellers, can provide clarity on your competitive position both head-to-head with named opponents and compared to market expectations in general.
  • Market mapping: segmenting and quantifying the addressable markets can answer “where to play” and inform “how to win.”

Invest to Close Gaps and Widen Moats

Collecting and coalescing all the feedback from user testing, launch retrospectives, and various sources of competitive intelligence, it’s time to prioritize and assign resources to the next set of goals for development.

  • Build: based on the velocity and capabilities of your scrum teams, assign the goals internally. Hire, train, and develop as needed to grow this branch of investment.
  • Buy: fire up the M&A machine to acquire your competitors for their technology, for their customers, or to take them out of the market.
  • Partner: secure technology or services partnerships that give you access to markets and/or capabilities that your buyers value, faster than you could achieve them organically.

Each of these components will need to follow its own path of process maturity. Regardless, the largest benefits for your business will arrive as these components work better together. So, no matter where you are on the spectrum of crawling, walking, or running, start to establish the close integration between these four components and watch your product machine eat the market.

This post appeared originally on leadertainment.com

How these two things happen speak volumes about company culture

17You can gain deep insights about an organization’s culture by understanding:

  • how decisions are made
  • how recognition, aka “kudos,” is awarded

Consider asking those two questions about a company the next time you are interviewing for a new position, in addition to the other best job interview questions.

The answers to these questions reflect the leadership style and organizational dynamic established by the leader. As a recovering consultant, I could not resist the impulse to reduce this concept to a two-by-two matrix:

Learn about a company culture by understanding how decisions are made and how recognition is awarded
Learn about a company culture by understanding how decisions are made and how recognition is awarded

 

In the lower left corner, we have a culture of lobbying and arm twisting where for decisions and recognition the forum is private and the basis is mostly on influence. This culture is often found in teams with weak leadership, where the boss is routinely peppered with closed-door “advice,” either thinly or thickly disguised as an agenda of personal advancement. Team direction changes frequently and indescribably, relying on informal channels of communication to disseminate the new direction. Expect high attrition from staff who value transparency and meritocracy.

In the upper left corner, we have a culture dominated by the “squeaky wheel” where for decisions and recognition the forum is public and the basis is mostly on influence. Tantrums, meeting hijack, and open conflict are reinforced as means to an end by the steady advance of a vocal minority in the organization. While also a product of weak leadership, the only improvement over the lower-left lobbying culture is that the rules of the game are publicly known. Anyone unwilling to compromise personal integrity for career advancement will not last long in this culture.

In the lower right corner, we have a stable, humble culture of relative introverts where for decisions and recognition the forum is private and the basis is mostly on merit. This culture likely reflects the self-image and natural personality of its leader. I’ve chosen a cupcake as the image to reflect this culture because it is a satisfying individual treat. While it might be relatively boring, this culture will also likely be more successful than those on the left side of the matrix, as individuals who cannot compete on merit alone and those who crave public recognition will exit.

In the top right corner, we have the most transparent, extroverted, results-oriented type of culture in this matrix, where for decisions and recognition the forum is public and the basis is mostly on merit. The multi-tiered party cake represents the culture in which the success of an individual greats benefits for the group. Decision making and recognition are public and merit, meaning that the “rules of the game” are clearly demonstrated and objective. While this culture requires a strong leader who is not afraid to hire “A players”, it will likely have higher performance and lower turnover than the other squares in this matrix.

In this summary, I have done my best to withhold judgement and simply provide a framework for readers to identify a company culture so that they can best chose the one that fits their own needs. If you have other “cultural diagnostic” questions to share, please leave a comment!