Recognition as social lubricant

Photo by Shandi-Lee

The title of this post is taken from a post by Paul Hebert. Here is the gist:

… recognition is the lubricant for social interaction.  Making sure your employees have ways and methods of connecting and recognizing each other within and between organizational silos lubricates the interactions that must happen in order for innovation, engagement, and collaboration to occur.  It is very difficult to refuse a meeting or a conversation with someone who just recognized your work or highlighted how great you are in the company program or on the company intranet.  You can’t refuse a meeting if the person requesting it just gave you a big thumbs up in the Peer-2-Peer recognition program.

I have spending a major part of the last year reading, studying, thinking and writing about teamwork and collaboration. The more time I spend doing this, the more I realize that long-term successful team facilitation (read: great teamwork) is a journey into the path of most resistance. Teamwork is about interaction and relationships. Interaction and relationship causes friction. We are social beings and putting us with other people affects us and causes us to react. Emotions. Feelings. Thoughts. Urges.

Some of these reactions are positive. Joy. Meaning. Sense of progress. Some of them are negative. Tensions. Discomfort. Fear. Facilitating an effective team is about dealing with all of these issues and putting them on the table. This sounds simple, but it is usually the opposite of what we tend do, which is ignore, tip-toe around and hold back.

When done properly, going against the resistance, facilitating teamwork enables negative reactions to be dealt with in a safe environment and for positive reactions to be magnified in order to improve and sustain future interaction. While the fact that issues are suppressed and unattended will be familiar to many of us (even though they might not agree on the consequences of this habit), like in many other facets of life, taking deliberate time to deal with the positive is even more scarce, even though it has the potential to transform entire systems.

And this is where the quote above comes in. One of the most effective ways to use the positive not only as a leverage to more positive habits and interactions but also as a way to discuss the negative in a safe constructive environment, is recognition. Adopting mutual recognition habits can do wonders to the level of actual interaction between team members. As Hebert says, it might prove difficult for anyone who has just been recognized by a team member not to open up and expose himself to a more intense and difficult interaction.

Of course, I am not talking about a onetime event. Recognition has to be part of the habits and culture of team for it to truly work. What will happen if we take time each day (or each week) to recognize others in our team that for their unique contributions? What will happen if we start every meeting by recognizing what and more importantly who allowed us to reach this phase? What will happen if we recognize any mutual learning that occurs in our team or a regular basis? I suggest you try this magical lubricant and see its social effects yourself.


A different approach to collaboration

Photo by D’Arcy Norman

In a post on Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer investigate the relationship between collaboration and performance. They claim that not only does collaboration allows performance, but performance allows for collaboration. When people are feeling a sense of achievement and progress, they are more open to collaborate. That is why Amabile and Kramer advocate celebrating small wins, as this is a way to keep people in the team or organization energized to collaborate:

So, not only is collaboration critical to high performance, but maintaining high performance can be important to keeping collaboration going. Previously, we have talked about the importance of small wins — modest but meaningful successes along the pathway to achieving a major goal — in maintaining high performance and subjective well-being. They can also help workers maintain effective collaboration. When organizations support and celebrate small wins, employees feel like winners; the mistrust and conflict that can accompany losing will be avoided. Without those interpersonal problems, it will be much easier to achieve consistent and effective collaboration. [Emphasis added]

While I appreciate the approach of small wins and the importance of the feeling of progress for motivation and individual performance I think a focus on the effects of performance on collaboration might prove detrimental to effective collaboration.

In most business settings today, especially in knowledge work, performance is an emerging synergistic property. That means it cannot be directly predicted. It cannot be taken apart into specific check-list steps. It is uncertain and ambiguous. Innovation for example, emerges out of the interaction between team members and does not originate from the actions of one individual.

In such an environment, focusing on performance is futile. It is a classic case of Obliquity. The goal of performance can only be achieved indirectly. While this seems like semantics, it represents a different approach to collaboration. This approach doesn’t see temporal performance as an indicator for success. Instead, this approach sees continued long-term relationships as the basis of excellence. It celebrates small wins, not because they represent performance success, but because it means the process the team is engaging with is effective. In that respect it will celebrate small losses the same way, in the celebrated mythical approach of Thomas Edison – “I did not fail—I just learned 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb”.

When this approach is implemented – and there is no attempt to claim that it is easy to do so – the focus of team leaders is the relationship between people in the team. That means that the tensions produced by failure are constantly revealed and discussed even before failure occurs. Failure is an expected result and part of the process continuing of toward excellence. It is not that good performance hides tensions and allows for collaboration while everything is working. Instead, true collaboration actively and consistently attends to the undercurrents that facilitate the emergence of performance.

Reading the comments to Amabile and Kramer post suggest that their approach is resonating with many people. What does it say about organizations’ approach to collaboration? Is the dominating approach pushing us to draw the wrong conclusions and prescriptions about how to manage collaboration? I think it does.

What do you think?


Doctrinally approved solutions

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About a week ago I finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. I did not find it particularly novel as most of the research mentioned in it was familiar to me from other readings. However, it does  contatin some compelling anecdotal examples.

One thing that did struck me as interesting are the parts where the author describes some of the changes initiated in the U.S. army due to its initial failure in Iraq. The author describes how during the cold war the army was trained to fight the Russians in a one-off huge war where the strength of each army will tested in a predictable way. This meant that the army trained in a certain way:

One of the main ways the army did this was to require soldiers to essentially memorize checklists. In army terms, these are called “doctrinally approved solutions.” Military doctrine enables the army to manage its operations across a large organization. Because fighting the Soviet Army allowed for such a small margin of error, approved solutions detailed how to solve anticipated battlefield problems with precision and efficiency.

However, when the U.S. army reached Iraq, the “doctrinally approved solutions” (I love this term!) turned out to be irrelevant due to the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of fighting an insurgency in highly populated areas. So today, it turns out that training focuses on understanding the culture, the ability to study the terrain (both physical and in terms of the population) and on adaptive strategies.

In essence, from a rule based, top-down approach, making soldiers into memorizing cogs, the army had to turn into a creative machine that provides soldiers with a foundation and trusts them to use judgment and adapt to the situation in the field by connecting with local population, understanding the difficulties the specific context demands and leveraging learning and experimentation. Since the army started implementing this strategy its success in securing cities and defeating insurgents has risen tremendously.

I think this story has important lessons for every organization. If an organization as hierarchical as the army understands that using rules and turning people into cogs is not going to work, what does it say about modern organizations competing in highly competitive highly adaptive markets?

Yes, training people to think by providing them with the right foundation is harder than just drilling them to memorize pre-approved actions. This easiness has its price. It doesn’t work.

So, does your organization have “doctrinally approved solutions”?


Are you managing like an artist?

Photo by Coolm36

I was watching the Israeli version of American Idol yesterday (roughly translated to “A Star Is Born”). I noticed a recurring theme. The main feedback the novice artists received is that they need to be more in touch with their feelings. To be truly themselves. The sing from within. To understand the lyrics they are singing and connect with it. When the feedback made one of the contestants cry, her coach told her – “Now, this is real, this is what I want to see on stage” (It sounds harsher than it actually was in reality).

I was watching all that and thinking – how many employees and managers are given (or giving) this advice? How many of us truly connect with who we are and what we are when we go about our craft? Does it really matter if you are a singer or a service provider? If you are a dancer or a carpenter? Shouldn’t we all aspire to produce Art?

I used to write a monthly column to the student newspaper during my undergrad years. I did a well enough job and the editor almost always published my columns with some alterations. One day I saw a number of student behaviors that really upset me. I sat down and wrote an entire column in an hour. I sent it to the editor. She wrote back to me after a few minutes. “Wow! I can almost feel the anger in your words! I am publishing it as is in the front page, in addition to your usual column in the back of the paper. Send me more stuff like that”. The day it was published I was terrified. How will people react? I actually wrote something against my the dominating culture. Some of my best friends were behaving in ways that were covered in my column. I got only positive reviews. I can’t really say that I changed the world, but it felt so good to truly say what I felt like!

A few days ago I finished reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. As I understand it, Brooks tried to write a book that glorifies feelings and the unconscious. Not just gut feelings (like some think Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about, which I am not sure it is) but of truly connecting with the wonderful creatures we are and making the most out the social relationships that are all around us, relationships that are based mainly on emotions. Brooks writes at the end of the book, after thanking his wife Sarah, that he may write about emotions and feelings, but that’s not because he is actually good at expressing them. It is because he is naturally bad at them.

I think there is a lesson there for all of us. Our culture tends to view emotions and feelings in a derogatory way. In the best cases, it something for artists. Not for professionals in other fields. I think this is because putting our true-selves into whatever we do is hard. Popular culture has a tendency to support the path of least resistance. The other path, which is much tougher to thread through comes with tremendous rewards. We can spot the singer who sings from the heart immediately because it resonates in our own social being. I think this is true for every profession and for every business. I am not surprised that Howard Schultz called his book: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

And for all you managers out there, my question to you: are you managing people like you manage artists – by pushing them to connect with their true feelings? Or are you producing more mindless, soulless cogs?


Are you warming or others or burning them?

Photo by andrewmalone

In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks, the author writes:

State power is like fire—warming when contained, fatal when it grows too large. In his view, government should not run people’s lives. That only weakens the responsibility and virtue of the citizens. But government could influence the setting in which lives are lived. Government could, to some extent, nurture settings that serve as nurseries for fraternal relationships. It could influence the spirit of the citizenry.

Reread it with the words “government” replaced by “management” and “citizens” replaced by “employees”:

Managerial power is like fire—warming when contained, fatal when it grows too large. In his view, management should not run people’s lives. That only weakens the responsibility and virtue of the employees. But management could influence the setting in which lives are lived. Management could, to some extent, nurture settings that serve as nurseries for fraternal relationships. It could influence the spirit of the employees.

I couldn’t have put it better. No to micro-management. Yes to creating environments that support relationships, human connection and practical wisdom. No to rules that are only mechanisms of control. Yes to boundaries that enable safe exploration and supports people where complete freedom and autonomy fails.

Simple but not simplistic. Hard to put into practice. It is much easier to try to control everything. It usually doesn’t work in the long-run.


Safety and exploration

Photo by eyeliam

I am currently reading the wonderful book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. In it, Brooks discusses the work of John Bowlby:

He theorized that what kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for them, but they also need to go out into the world and to take care of themselves. Bowlby argued that these two needs, while sometimes in conflict, are also connected. The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” [Emphases added]

When I read this paragraph it immediately made me think of management practices. The need to create a safe environment where people can re-group, reflect and improve on one side.  The need to allow people to venture into unknown territories and attempt novel approaches without fear of retaliation one the other side.

Bob Sutton emphasizes how managers should act as human shields:

The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.

At the same time he points out that great bosses believe in making it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture”.

I usually don’t like to think of managerial relationships as parental relationships as these induce an automatic bias towards hierarchy and… well, paternalism. However, as Brooks points out based on Bowlby work, the parental duty includes an important balance between creating safety, cohesion, rules, order and most importantly love and allowing the child to venture into unknown territories that enable growth. I think it might be beneficial for managers to think in these terms of safety and exploration when designing work environments.

How are you creating safety and exploration for your employees?


Next action: ask why?

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In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?