Doctrinally approved solutions

Photo by unc-cfc-usfk

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”?

Elad

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?

Elad

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.

Elad

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?

Elad

The categories of happiness

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Yesterday, I read an article that was sitting in my “to read” folder for a while. It is called: “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” by Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. Most of the article is highly technical but I encountered two interesting paragraphs that I want to share. Today I want to talk about this paragraph from the article:

We work under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically unwieldy term and that its serious study involves dissolving the term into at least three distinct and better-defined routes to “happiness”… : (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life). Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning… We continue to use the word happiness, but only in the atheoretical sense of labeling the overall aim of the positive psychology endeavor and referring jointly to positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

Like every other goal in life, the first step to achieving it is to break it into smaller, easier to handle, steps. In some way or another, all of us have the goal of “being happy” somewhere in or mental to-do list. However, I think that this breakdown into three distinct categories is a great way to start the long journey towards it.

In addition I like the fact that authors emphasize two important issues:

  1. People differ in the proportion of significance they put on each category.
  2. One category by itself is never enough, it is about a mix. This means that the people who are trying to sell us a silver-bullet solution to happiness are scan artists. It also means that it is not wrong to dwell in a little bit of transient pleasure now and then. Life is not only about meaning and engagement but also about simple hedonistic delight.

In particular, the breakdown into three distinct categories can help managers and leaders create better environments and workplaces. A mix and match of the three categories allows for better planning of a happy workplace. More importantly, the understanding of the preferences of each individual allows for a personalized approach that supports and sustains the individual employee’s motivation and happiness levels.

So, how do you think about happiness in your own personal life and in your work setting? Do you find the three categories to be helpful?

Elad

Full citation: Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson (2005) “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–42

Emergence of excellence

Photo by scalespeeder

Two separate sources talked about the same issue today. Designing the conditions for success.

In planet money, the weekly podcast discussed the issue of job creation. The conclusion, job creation is not about one act of leadership. It is not necessarily about raising taxes (which could work) or lowering taxes (which could also work). It is about creating the optimal conditions in which jobs emerge.

Seth Godin discusses a different issue all together but so similar: customer service. Godin explains that it is not only about the person who actually provides the service, but actually many times, about how the environment was designed:

Too often, we blame bad service on the people who actually deliver the service. Sometimes (often) it’s not their fault. Sadly, the complaints rarely make it as far as the overpaid (or possibly overworked) executive who made the bad design decision in the first place. It’s the architecture of service that makes the phone ring and that makes customers leave.

And I ask you, as a manager, what are you doing to design an environment which enables emergence of excellence? Are you focusing on the conditions that support success? Why not?

Elad

Are you always too available?

photo by Alaskan Dude

I am managing a number of students working on a moot court event. In this capacity I am coaching the students to build their own arguments and develop their legal writing skills. I am constantly there to provide them feedback and ideas and try to stay out of their way and let them do the work and learn from it.

From day one I emphasized how available I am for them. I try to be responsive and reply to every e-mail as promptly as I can. Whenever they call, I usually take a few minutes and make sure I answer their questions.

In the first few months of the project, I was struggling with how to make them use me more. Because what they are doing is so new and different from everything they have done so far, they have many questions and sometimes they did not comfortable “bothering” me all the time. It was hard to convince them that I am here to help them and that it is not only my job but I also enjoy doing it.

This week I learned the other side of this balance. I was preoccupied and was not able to answer a call from one of the students. When I returned to her a few hours later to ask if I can help, she said: “no, it is OK, I had a problem, but I found my own solution”.

It suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes, it is important not to be too available, on purpose.

In a Knowledge@Wharton article titled “The Problem with Financial Incentives — and What to Do About It”, Wharton management professors Adam Grant and Jitendra Singh discuss the importance of autonomy:

For example, in a study at a printing company, Michigan State’s Fred Morgeson and colleagues found that when teams lacked clear feedback and information systems, giving them autonomy led them to expend more effort, use more skills and spend more time solving problems. Numerous other studies have shown that allowing employees to exercise choices about goals, tasks, work schedules and work methods can increase their motivation and performance.

This was another lesson on the importance of balance in the everyday life of any manager working with people. Yes, you should have people’s back and make sure they have the knowledge and resources they need to do their work. At the same time, you need to know when the get out of the way on purpose.

Are you intentionally creating autonomy moments for your employees and team members or are you always too available?

Elad

Controlled Anarchy

Photo by Fail Blog

I have been delving into two sources of great management success stories in the last few days, trying to wrap my head around what exactly they have in common. Suddenly, I encountered the picture above and it suddenly made sense. Controlled Anarchy.

The first story was featured in a great podcast from the HBR Ideacast series. In this podcast they interviewed Jonah Keri, sports and stock market writer. Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. This is the book description from Amazon:

In The Extra 2%, financial journalist and sportswriter Jonah Keri chronicles the remarkable story of one team’s Cinderella journey from divisional doormat to World Series contender. When former Goldman Sachs colleagues Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman assumed control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2005, it looked as if they were buying the baseball equivalent of a penny stock. But the incoming regime came armed with a master plan: to leverage their skill at trading, valuation, and management to build a model twenty-first-century franchise that could compete with their bigger, stronger, richer rivals—and prevail.

In the interview Keri talks about many things that helped this amazing turnaround to happen, but a few themes emerge – trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

At the same time, I am reading A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy Koop, founder and president of Teach for America. The stories of the schools that actually work, the schools that are able to take children from underprivileged neighborhoods and propel them all the way to college, show similar characteristics: trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

In both these stories, between the lines, you read about a delicate balance:

1. A high dedication to numbers balanced with a focus on the people who drive them.

2. Focus on outcomes balanced with discipline to keep on the right process when the outcomes don’t come.

3. High accountability for results balanced with amazing trust in people to find their own best way to do what needs to be done to succeed and open-mindedness to their new approaches.

The last balance of the three, which is the most important in my eyes, is why I thought about the idea of Controlled Anarchy. These two success stories (and more I encountered in the past) seem to revolve around leaders and managers creating a very wide-set of boundaries and trusting their people to succeed in these boundaries. Instead of spending time and effort on micro-managing how people do their work, they focus their efforts on hiring the best available people, giving them the support and resources they need, and trying to learn from them while holding them accountable for the outcomes they produce. In other words, these leaders allow Anarchy in Controlled boundaries.

This Anarchy has another upside. As Steven Johnson illustrates in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, mistakes, failures and noise are an important factor in innovation:

The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments…

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

Is there Anarchy in your organization?

Elad

Interaction waste management systems

Photo by kyz

Waste is a natural part of many processes in life. Our body produces it all the time. Many chemical reactions have a main product for the reaction and waste-like by-product. Philosophies like Lean focus on eliminating non necessary waste and reducing the necessary waste to a minimum in business settings (the classical classification is to seven types of waste: Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Wait, Over-processing, Over-production, Defect).

Relationships and people interactions are also creating waste. Hurt feelings, frustrations, misunderstandings, tensions and negative affect are some waste by-products of any human interactions. Put a group of people to work together and you will no doubt have some of these to different degrees. However, while we have process in place to eliminate actual waste –in our bodies, homes and businesses (hopefully), it is not so common to have systems in place to take care of this interaction waste.

We all know what happens then – the waste accumulates until – in good cases – it blows up in one big explosion. Some people try to rationalize and claim that these things need to build up and that the big explosions are beneficial. “We had a big talk yesterday about all the tensions we had in the last few months and cleared everything up. I feel great!”.

Really?

It is like saying that instead of taking the garbage out regularly from your apartment you will hold all of it until there is no room and then take it all out at once. Yes, in the end the waste will be cleared, but what has this process done to your quality of life?

In a recent Freakonomics podcast called: “The power of poop” the emerging medical process of “fecal transplants” was discussed. Yes, you read it right. Doctors are taking feces from one person and transferring it to another person. It turns out that this process helps cure a wide range of diseases, some of which traditional medicine hasn’t been able to deal with. According to researchers, this works because the sick people waste management system is all screwed-up and by putting back a functional system (some good bacteria) you can re-create balance in the waste system that affects the whole body.

And if it works for our bodies, why wouldn’t it work for our interactions? What kind of interaction waste management system do you have for your team? how frequently is it being activated?

Elad

Why are they afraid?

Photo by Gianmaria™

I read an interesting article about teleworking in the latest edition of the Knowledge@ASB. Here is a short part of that article:

With evidence mounting for teleworking benefits, the obvious question concerns why so many managers are refusing to offer the option. “It’s fear of the unknown,” says Bevis England, director of Telework New Zealand and facilitator of the Telework Australia initiative. “Some managers are simply reluctant to change. They think ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’. But the system is effectively broken. In business, we have spent about 200 years learning how to cram people into concrete and glass mausoleums, justifying the rental expenses by claiming greater productivity. Now we are experiencing a new evolution in which we must unlearn those lessons.

Management style, for those who are not used to looking after teleworkers, must also shift from process-oriented to outcome-oriented management, Ward and England agree. Once the teleworker has the tools – the training, the information and the ability to do their job – the worker must then be trusted to get that job done and judged only by the outcomes of their efforts”.

What is it that managers fear so much? Why is it hard for them to let go?

I think in part, this is rooted in our own conceptions of management and leadership as top-down activities. The thinking goes something like this: “if I am the leader that means I need to tell everybody what to do. If they are not here, I can’t tell them how to do their work. If there are not visible, they might try to do things their own way. Because it is not my way, then it must be wrong”.

Sounds kind of dumb when it is put like that, right? Well, it is.

As the last sentence in the above quote implies, it is about trust, which is slowing becoming the glue that holds organizations (replacing fear and rules).

Lynda Gratton put it wonderfully while giving a eulogy to organizational loyalty:

But whilst loyalty is dead…long live trust. Loyalty is about the future – trust is about the present. Trust is core to the relationship between the employer and employee – without it relationships become simply transactions and work is mired and slowed through continuous checks and monitoring. CEO’s may not believe their executives to be loyal in the sense that they will be with them indefinitely – but they have to believe they are trustworthy. Trust is one of the most precious organisational assets – slow to build and quick to be destroyed. The precursor to trust is fairness, justice and dignity – demonstrated in how processes operate and how people are treated when the going gets tough

Until we come to the understanding that in many areas of business, top down just doesn’t work anymore and embrace the ideas of emergence, Equifinality and trust, we would probably keep fearing the unknown and making excuses. Are these activities you are comfortable with? I know I am not.

Elad