When your colleagues say “now,” what do they mean?

Here is a quick and lighthearted post that may or may not be based on actual experiences working with folks in different functional teams.

How would different people in your company answer the question, “when you say ‘we can do that now,’ what exactly do you mean?”Modern-Clock-Wall-clock-by_D0D60BD6

Product Manager (in a software business): I need another week for the fifth revision to the user story before it’s done.

Software Engineering (in a software business): There are a ton of bugs, we are still testing, and if you’re lucky it will ship in next month’s release.

Maintenance (in an industrial business): We finished the repairs last week and the open work orders are in my queue somewhere. Have you not been running that equipment?

Process Engineering (in an industrial business): I’ve reviewed the data set and it’s got a few outliers…I’d propose another 5-6 weeks of baseline study before we make any moves.

Sales: I’ve had one meeting with him/her, but I sold to his/her boss three jobs ago so we can probably push the contract through before the end of the quarter.

Finance: Once we verify those transactions, you’ll see them post to the accounts in the next 30-90 days.

Legal: You can’t do that; it hasn’t been approved.

image credit: thisnext.com

Hold on, were you just trying to delegate?

Let’s go back to the basics here folks. Whether you have 3 months or 3 decades of leadership experience, an essential skill to keep your team effective and engaged is delegation. A wise man once said “delegation is about deciding what you don’t do, and prioritization is about deciding what no one does.”

Cliche aside, the skill required in effective delegation is assigning tasks to your team members that achieve leverage and learning. Terry Pearce has a classic (i.e., VHS!) training video about leadership speaking in which he tells the story of dropping off his daughter at college: the main message about delegation is that unless it hurts, you haven’t delegated a large enough task. But what does this look like on a graph, you ask?

Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team
Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team

The ideal level of delegation gives the team member enough autonomy to achieve a task that requires a slight “stretch” of skill (i.e., learning) to complete at the required level of quality. Yes, the manager could have completed the same task at a higher quality level (per unit time), but the free time created in the organization allows the manager to take on a higher complexity task that, presumably, no one else below him or her in the team could achieve. This is what I mean by leverage.

Locating this curve for each employee/manager combination requires self-awareness and feedback on both sides. The team member needs to raise awareness of his or her skill level, and the manager needs to raise awareness of his or her level of control or autonomy with delegated tasks. From the manager’s perspective, you must be willing to sacrifice control for the sake of leverage and learning, without setting your team up for failure. Staying too far to the left is demeaning and stifling for your team. Too far to the right, and you will assign tasks that my former (rugby loving) manager would call a “hospital pass:” drop it and your team loses, catch it and you’ll get knocked out.

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the left on the curve include:

  • you ask a team member to circulate a document for feedback among a group, and then scold him or her for sending an email to that group before letting you proofread it
  • you ask a team member to facilitate a meeting, and then chime in after every one of his or her comments with a “clarification”
  • your team members have asked (directly or indirectly) for more responsibility and authority to set direction in achieving the team’s goals

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the right on the curve include:

  • many of the tasks you assign need to be reworked at the last minute
  • few team members volunteer for tasks on offer because they are intimidated by the complexity of the task or the risk of failure

So, I challenge you to use this post as a prompt to reassess your ability to delegate. Have a conversation with your team members to reach alignment on where you are on the curve. Find low-risk ways for your team members to fail constructively, and watch the benefits of learning and leverage accumulate.

Podium Finish: Top 3 Office Productivity Apps

For the millions (billions?) of us who spend our working hours in front of a computer screen, there seem to be millions of choices for plug-ins, apps, and software programs designed to make knowledge work more productive. Below are my current top 3, based on how often I use them and the total positive gain in utility I have experienced (don’t ask me for the underlying data for that metric!).

What have I missed? Which ones are better? Leave a comment and let me know.

  1. pmg-Logo-Lync-28x25-bluehangouts logoVideo-enabled Instant Messaging: Google Hangouts / Microsoft Lync. Ok, I’m taking the easy way out by not picking a clear winner in this category, but I use them both daily (on my Microsoft-obliged corporate laptop and my private LLC Googled-up laptop) and I’m equally satisfied. Both have on-demand screen sharing and group video/audio capabilities, and both are tightly integrated to their respective email and file management applications.trello-logo-b-300x175
  2. Plan, track, and organize anything: Trello. With clean, intuitive, and infinitely customizable interfaces for a browser or mobile device, Trello has been my go-to organization and collaboration tool for projects ranging from software product development to recruiting to home improvement to job searching. I could go on … or you could just go start using it yourself.
  3. logo_thinkcellFast, high-quality, complex charts for presentations: Think-cell. I really wish I could have all the hours of my life back that I spent building Gantt charts, bubble charts, marimekkos, and waterfall charts with rectangles and convoluted Excel macros before I discovered think-cell.

Capability models, performance management, and knowledge management: how they all fit together

Often the day-to-day demands of work prevent us from stepping back and seeing how the big pieces fit together. While you might not have the same ecstatic reaction of this guy discovering a rainbow in his backyard, hopefully this post will help you have an even better answer to “what does this mean” (if you can make it to 1:17 in the clip).

Capability (competency) model, performance management, knowledge management: many of these terms get interchanged, however, in my experience I have seen distinct and specific applications for the processes as businesses work to maximize their return on investment in human capital. Below the diagram is a quick definition of the terms with links for more information.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  1. Business Strategy: While Michael Porter has a longer answer, Jack Welch defines strategy (in his book Winning) as “making clear cut choices on how to compete.” In a previous post, I compiled the 9 Critical Questions on Strategy.
  2. Organizational Design: just as form follows function in art and nature (but not chickens), an organization’s structure should follow its strategy. Jaques takes a scientific yet pragmatic approach in Requisite Organization.
  3. Capability Model: while purists will prefer to use the term “competency” to emphasize demonstrated abilities (rather than future potential), in either case a model, such as SHRM’s, provides a framework for a hierarchy of skills that can be developed and applied at various levels of the organization.
  4. Role Definitions: each role (remember, each position can have multiple roles, just like a father can be a cook, landscaper and coach) needs a definition of its responsibilities and scope
  5. Role-based Capability Model: Combine 3 with 4, and you get an inventory of the capabilities (competencies) required to be successful in each role. This is an essential input to the processes below. Do not pass go, do not collect $89 (after taxes).
  6. Four related processes to improve an organization’s return on human capital
    1. Talent Intake: defining the requirements for each role will empower your recruiting organization to provide a better slate of candidates for vacancies, and help new hires get up to speed and contributing within the first phase of the talent cycle.
    2. Knowledge Management: a central repository for standards, policies, procedures, and other specific “tribal knowledge” accumulated with experience in any organization. A top-notch knowledge management system combines the “push” of compliance with the “pull” of recognition for contributors and highly accessible content (like wikipedia and TED).
    3. Performance Management: while a recent duel of data fit models has caught a lot of buzz, an effective performance management process gives employees meaningful, actionable feedback on their performance vs expectations in role, and allows the organization’s leadership to identify high-performing, high-capability players and put plans in place to address staff who are under-performing. Performance review surveys are typically more complicated than they need to be, and the best ones I’ve seen capture 360-feedback quarterly.
    4. Capability Development: programs combine training and succession planning to close development gaps identified in any of the above processes. Training can be delivered through self-study, online learning, classroom based training, and on the job coaching.

While none of these definitions go deep enough to be applicable on their own, hopefully differentiating between the terms with a few resources for further research will be a good start to helping your team go “all the way across the sky.”

What did I leave out? What other approaches have you seen work also? Leave a comment and let us know.

Re-focus your team for the new year

Team building exercises can quickly turn into embarrassing wastes of time. But the best ones can be insightful, efficient, and strengthen communication among team members.

The New Year is a great time to tune a team’s working practices and sharpen focus. Below is an exercise I developed in my consulting days that got positive reviews internally and from clients. It takes about 2 minutes to set up and typically after about 15 minutes the torrent of new ideas has reduced to a trickle. Done regularly, it can become one of the rituals and myths that define the culture of your team. Tried this? Have a better exercise? Leave a comment and let me know!

  1. [Optional] send a quick email to the team members letting them know what the exercise will cover so they can prepare ideas in advance
  2. Hang 3 flip charts on the wall. Label them: Stop, Start, More.
  3. Start the discussion by reminding the team of their shared goals and priorities. Then direct everyone’s attention to the flip charts. In order to meet our goals, what are we currently doing that we need to stop, i.e., what are the distractions and wasteful activities? What are we not doing that we need to start? And what are we already doing well that we need to do more? See my previous post on New Year’s resolutions for more on the last one.
  4. Let everyone loose with markers to add their ideas to the flip charts. Circulate to encourage people to add and clarify comments.
  5. As the scribble rate subsides, bring the group back together to review and discuss the results. Get a sense as to which ideas are broadly supported and which are pet peeves.
  6. Either during the session or afterwards, follow up with the team members with which actions to pursue as a result of the feedback. Where possible, empower the folks who provided the ideas with the accountability (and resources) to see them through to completion.

Podium Finish: Top Three Questions to Get Meaningful Feedback

Love it or hate it, getting feedback from our teams help us become better leaders and builds trust. Below are the top three questions I’ve come across to solicit meaningful feedback. Perhaps this goes without saying, but how you react to their comments will determine whether your team members take a risk to help you again in the future! Thank them sincerely, don’t be defensive or dispute their point of view. And most importantly, if you intend to change your behavior as a result, follow through!

  1. “What do you think I should know but might not want to hear?”
  2. “What do you wish I would stop doing?” – Vineet Nayar
  3. “If this were your exit interview, what would you say?”
“Feedback” is a surprisingly popular music title for bands I don’t like.

Feedback (Jurassic 5 album)

Feedback (Rush album)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)