Prioritizing one-on-one

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I am currently reading A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy Koop. In it, I found this paragraph:

Joe emphasizes that the critical purposes served by these management structures go well beyond improving teachers’ effectiveness. “It doesn’t sound that revolutionary to have one-on-ones with every teacher every week, but it’s absolutely critical. This is the venue for people’s voices to be heard, for problem solving, for being sure that everyone is getting what they need to do their job.” The fact that these school leaders are thinking so deliberately about management at all distinguishes them from many conventional incarnations of the principal role. In many schools one principal is technically the manager of fifty or even one hundred teachers, and there may be little, if any, interaction–not to mention effective management–happening in that relationship. “When I was teaching, I met with my principal only once. I never met with any sort of coach,” Joe recalls. “That system just cannot get us where we need to be. I do understand why that happens. There are always twenty things tugging at a school leader. The day can become very reactive, but if you want to create an exceptional school, you have to set aside time in the calendar to hear from, coach, and manage your team members.”

I am not sure I need to add a lot.  Structured process, culture and personal humane relationships go hand in hand together with the emergence of excellence. It could be a school, a for-profit company or any other organization. Creating the right norms and maintaining them by prioritizing treating the people your work with like unique individuals is a sure proof way to succeed in the long run.

Elad

Being the best average or building a different scale

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I just finished reading Change to Strange: Create a Great Organization by Building a Strange Workforce By Daniel M. Cable. While the book caught me by surprise, because it did not deal at all with what I thought it was going to, I found it to be an insightful book finally delivering a framework that connects “strategy” to “HR” or “OB”. This connection is something I was hoping all through my MBA to discuss but was disappointed again and again how our professor failed to make. Cable takes the idea of “people are our company’s most valuable asset” and connects it to actual concepts like strategy, measurement and execution, taking it out of the fluffy-pink wrapping-paper into actual deliverables and business concepts like marketing, competitive advantage, measurement and costs.

What I loved most about this book is its approach that emphasizes two main concepts that I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog as well. Averages and best practices on one hand and priorities on the other hand.

First, Cable really emphasizes that trying to be the best in same way like everybody else is insane. This is the gist of this idea:

Nowadays, most organizations claim that their people are their competitive advantage. But most organizations build workforces that really are not very different from their competitors’. Most organizations, it turns out, treat their people just about the same as most other organizations. In fact, companies deliberately benchmark their people practices to the industry average. Not surprisingly, there is nothing particularly distinctive about most organizations’ workforces and nothing the organization produces is particularly noteworthy from a customer standpoint—nothing very strange. Put these together, and what situation do you have? You have organizations hoping to achieve extraordinary results with a solidly ordinary, normal workforce.

Yesterday, I read Paul Hebert great post asking people to call BS on normal distribution:

But… what if your organization doesn’t follow a normal distribution?  Then everything following that assumption is just wrong. I’m thinking that the “normal” distribution is the wrong thing to look at when designing influence, reward and recognition programs.  I’m thinking we’ve been looking at this all wrong for 100 years.

And what he wrote in reply to a comment of mine on this post:

Averages and standard deviations are the tools of six sigma and minimizing variability. I’ve preached that those types of tools don’t apply in the human world – we are infinitely variable – and that is where our value is. It’s not in getting everyone to be the same, act the same and perform the same – it’s getting people to act, perform differently – and the power law curve is the perfect idea in that instance.

Hebert’s post connects the idea of best practices and averages. People are unique and special. Trying to make them all fit into some “average person” company plan is insane. This is why many of the most successful companies out there actually don’t take on people who already work in the industry (one great example, is southwest airlines). If you want to be different, you have to act different. And this has to happen deliberately. The same goes for companies as wholes. You have to plan to be deliberately different. Again, from Cable:

If your workforce systems are just like everyone else’s, it would be silly to expect any unique value or special sauce from your workforce. Serviceable, standard, normal systems that do not make employees say, “Wow!” result in a serviceable, standard, normal workforce that does not make customers say, “Wow!” Your methods for dealing with your workforce should be definitely out of the ordinary and unexpected; unusual or striking; slightly odd or even a bit weird. Your people systems need to be as strange as the workforce you hope to create.

This is the myth of best practices: You will probably not be able to imitate your way to greatness. Your own strange systems have to be created around the obsessions and unique abilities you need from your workforce.

It’s really unlikely that you can build a strange workforce if your organization deals with the workforce the same way as other organizations do. It is delusional to expect your employees to be extraordinary and differentiate your organization if your employee systems are basically the same as other organizations.

Second, business in general and strategy in particular is about making priorities. Your true ability as a manager, a leader, an innovator, as a winner, is best shown when you have to make difficult choices that have tough consequences. Here, again, a few quotes:

When the going gets tough and you get busy, it will be hard to be strange without discipline because strange demands a lot more energy than just being like everyone else.

All jobs are not created equal. Nothing personal, but some jobs are more important to executing your strategy than other jobs. You already know this in your heart, of course. But it is currently not in vogue to say it out loud or do anything about it. Most companies want to treat all employees as if they are somehow equally important, all unique flowers to be cultivated equally… The heretical take-away here is that leaders should prioritize jobs and invest the most time, energy, and money into the positions where a strange workforce has the most leverage to make their strategies go

Getting a competitive advantage needs to be hard, or it wouldn’t be a sustained competitive advantage. The fact that it is hard to create a distinctive system that brings together the right group of people who are strangely focused on what customers care about means that organizations succeeding in this domain will gain a competitive advantage. These organizations will rise to greatness because this is the foundation of value creation, it is hard to do, and it is hard to imitate…

And I ask you. What are the tough choices you made in the last day, week, month or year to become special? What did you give up in order to be different? What did it cost you? Are you just trying to be the best average or are you trying to create a whole new scale? These questions are equally important on the personal and professional levels. I know I am trying to answer them every day. What about you?

Elad

Just sort of happened

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Ron Ashkenas writes in HBR.org about the way trivial decisions impact people’s happiness:

… most of us don’t consider in advance how much effort, energy, and time we are willing to invest in a particular position — and what balance we want to achieve between professional and personal success. As a result … we make dozens of small, subtle and almost invisible choices about how to spend our time… if the majority of these decisions over time go one way or the other, they may create a pattern that was not consciously chosen — but just “sort of happened.”

My question to you is – does your management style just sort of happens? Are you aware of the huge number of small decisions you make every day and how they affect the way your employees or peers perceive you? Or the type of work environment you create? Every decision by itself seems trivial, but they add up.

Take the idea of psychological safety. If you want your team to engage in learning and creativity, than creative an atmosphere where people feel safe to raise ideas and cast doubt is super important. This factor however is created through numerous small decisions you make when you engage your team every day.  How do you react to when people offer ideas? How do you react to other people’s reaction to these ideas? How much time you give a person to talk about his idea. And I can go on and on.

Financial plans are detailed to the last cell in the excel file. I saw some marketing plans that discuss the way the brand name should be used in every possible color and page type. Many times, in the business world we respect the power of small decisions. But when it comes to management and human relationships (and, as Ashkenas claims, our own happiness) we just let things happen.

Isn’t it time you stopped letting the relationships in your team just happen and start to seriously consider them? Isn’t it time you started making an effort in order to make sure all your small decisions are in line with what you want to achieve as a manager of people?

I think it is. Don’t you?

Elad

Making learning a priority

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A few days ago Ron Ashkenas wrote on HBR.org a post titled: Don’t Let Your Next Crisis Go to Waste. In it, Ashkenas claims that organizations should learn to harness the spirit and energy of a crisis to “normal” times:

The reality is that despite our best intentions, most people (and organizations) can’t sustain the energy of a crisis environment. If the challenges go on for too long they start to become routine. People who stay with it either get burnt out, cynical, or disheartened; and for those not involved on a day-to-day basis, the crisis fades into the background.

Ashkenas then goes on to suggest two steps that will allow organizations to harness the power of the crisis. One of them is post-crisis learning:

Organize a post-crisis learning clinic. Include the key people who were involved — from your team, other parts of your organization, and even outside parties. Take stock of what you learned: What was done differently? What new patterns or innovations were sparked by the crisis? And most importantly, what new ways of working — individually or collectively — should be continued?

While I am all for de-briefing, learning from mistakes and constantly questioning assumptions and practices, I find the argument a bit contradictory. If, as Ashkenas claims, post crisis, energy levels go down, how organizing “a post-crisis learning clinic” is supposed to leverage the energy and spirit created by the crisis?

I an interesting study, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson or Harvard Business School, studied how medical teams in hospital adapted to a new system for conducting surgeries. One of the conclusions of this study, is that learning was much more effective in real-time than post-hoc. When the surgical team emerged themselves in a process of learning during the actual surgery, they were able to learn and improve for the next surgery more effectively than by doing a post-surgery learning clinic.

Crisis is the hardest time to focus on learning, improving and thinking about the future. But it turns out this is the best time to do it. Like all issues of strategy, becoming a learning and improving organization is about prioritizing. The hardest time to engage in learning – during the crisis – is the most effective time. It means you, as a manager, need to make some tough choices. If you ask me, improving the learning capabilities of your team or organizations is, in the long-run, much more important than the current crisis.

Elad

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Productivity, creativity and spaghetti sauce

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Another great quote from Bob Sutton’s book Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, this time, dealing with the face design firm IDEO:

I am also sometimes asked to talk to reports and executives from other firms about IDEO, and the question they ask most is, “Why are the people there so creative?” The short answer is the IDEO understands that, especially in the early stages of product development process, management oversight can drive out creativity.

In a world depending more and more on creativity, the fact that management oversight can drive out creativity puts a question mark around the idea of management oversight (or, as I like to call it, rules).

The more I think about it, the more I get convinced that the business world, generally speaking, is divided into two  distinct parts. Productivity driven – where the focus is efficiency – and creativity driven – where the focus is effectiveness. While one is focused on the short-term – making the most out of what we have now – the other is long-term focused – making sure we have more later. As the quote suggests and as I have written before, they operate under very different assumptions and thus convey very different concepts for effective management. And while you need to have elements of both no matter what your business is doing, the overall balance between them is important.

In the past, you could have succeeded with 80 percent productivity focus and 20 percent creativity focus. (or even less than that). Now, the world has changed. In many areas, the rate of creativity can’t keep up with the real world. When a cell-phone model becomes obsolete in six months, you can’t spend 80 percent of your time making it better. You have to spend 80 percent of your time coming up with the next model. So while focusing on making your products, cheaper, better, faster, is important and your business can’t survive without it, the important word here is survive. In order to really excel, to make breakthroughs, you not only need ti improve on what you have, you need to reinvent.

And if that is the case, then 80 percent of you management structure should be a structures that supports innovation and creativity. And guess what? The traditional hierarchical structures not only do not give the support for innovation, they actually, as Sutton points out, suppress it.

Two questions to ask:

  1. In my organization how much focus is given to productivity and how much to creativity?
  2. Is my management style in line with the main focus of my team/department?

The answers to this questions not only helps you better understand where you are, they will also help you understand what it is you need to do. I am not saying that efficiency is not important anymore. Organizations still need to focus on it and some departments probably should focus mostly on it. It is just that we need to stop treating it like the only answer.

Sutton’s book is called Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company. But if you think about it, the ideas he talks about in his book, are not really weird at all. They are only weird if you assume a productivity-efficiency focused business. And this is what we had for the last 100 years. But for creativity-effectiveness focused organizations, these ideas are not weird, they are just different.

In his famous TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce. The greatest insight Moskowitz produced was that there isn’t one perfect way to make spaghetti sauce like everybody else thought. There are actually a few peaks of needs for different groups of people. A lot of the discussion in the world of management is based on the assumption that there is one way to manage. I know I have sometimes made this mistake. But the more I think and read about it, I understand that just like with spaghetti sauce, management has a few good recipes. You just need to understand the needs before choosing the right sauce.

Elad

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Compromise or tradeoff?

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Two seemingly unrelated posts I read this week made me think again about an issue that I think is at the heart of business strategy and leadership. Tradeoffs and priorities.

In the first post, Hugh MacLeod describes the decision Howard Schultz of Starbucks tells about in his book, Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Build a Company One Cup at a Time. Sometime in the 1980’s it was a really bad year for coffee crops. Starbucks had to make a choice. Either raise prices or start using cheaper coffee. Research said that using poorer coffee will only be felt by 10% of customers (as a non-coffee drinker, this number surprised me a little) while raising prices would be felt by all costumers. This is how Hugh described what happened:

The accountants, predictably, recommended that they go with the cheaper coffee option. Numbers don’t lie etc, it was better to tick off 10% of their customers than 100% etc, cheaper coffee was the “obvious” thing to do etc etc.

Howard didn’t do that in the end. Instead, he raised the prices accordingly, and left a note in every store, telling people why his company was forced to regretfully raise their prices. And he also told them about the option he could’ve taken but chose not to i.e. cheapen the coffee.

And you know what? The customers understood his reasoning, and stood by the business.

Eventually wholesale coffee prices came down again, allowing Starbuck’s to lower their prices as well. The company weathered the storm and the brand ended up all the stronger for it. Life was good again.

Sorry, Bean Counters. Numbers do lie. Sometimes pathologically so…

The other post was written by Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan on HBR.org. they describe what they call “Proud to be Cheap: The “Secret Sauce” of Low-Cost Winners”. Most companies engage in cost cutting and try to reduce costs. But some companies, Katzenbacha and Khan claim, have it as part of their D.N.A:

In a nutshell, it is a culture that is “proud to be cheap” in good times and bad. Their people cut erasers in half, turn off the lights when they leave the building, bring their lunch to work, fly in the back of the bus, and stay in Day’s Inns. More important, they are always on the alert for ways do things on the job more cheaply, without compromising quality and service standards. Nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant, and nothing is overlooked when it comes to doing it on the cheap.

These seem to be two very different stories. But actually, they are the same. It is the stuff success is made of. Tradeoffs. Priorities. Consistency. Average is the most dangerous path. If you do something, go all the way. Pure you heart into it. Make everything about your concept. Build the decision around it. Sure, at times it might not seem like a good idea. At times, everybody will tell you that you need to settle. That principles are good but they don’t provide a living or they don’t satisfy the shareholders they will say. I think it is all nonsense. Ignore Everybody.

The problem with stories about companies’ strategies and CEO’s decisions is that sometimes they seem distant. How many of us are going to be CEO or make decisions that have so much impact? In this case? Every day. Every one of us makes many choices every day. And each of these choices could be comprise or could be a tradeoff. What will your next decision be?

Elad

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Re-visiting priorities

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Yesterday I was reading a blog post on HBR.org by Alexandra Samuel about the five unsolved problems of social media. Here is a quote describing one these problems:

Information overload: RSS started as a way to aggregate all the streams of content we found online, but today we’re more likely to be drowned in a river of feeds — not to mention e-mail, texts, updates, voicemail transcriptions….need I go on? We’ve got great tools for creating, finding, organizing and viewing content, but very little to help us thin out and manage the volume of information that now flows online. The challenge of information overload and attention management isn’t just a technical problem, but some better tools would sure help.

As far as I see it, there is no tool which will make priorities for you. We can have an endless amount of tools to help us organize, filter and present information, but I personally don’t see a tool that will replace human judgment and ability, but more importantly, need, to prioritize. One blog post after that, I read another HBR.org blog post, this time by Ron Ashkenas called, The Problem with Priorities:

Despite the realization that they had too much on their plates (and too many cards on the wall), this leadership team still struggled with narrowing their focus. Many felt that everything was important and nothing could be dropped without serious consequences. But if everything is called a priority, then nothing is. In fact, what’s worse is that people at lower levels, faced with the impossible task of trying to respond to everything, end up deciding what is important based on their more limited sense of the company’s strategy and their ability to get things done. By not clarifying the few key priorities, leadership teams unintentionally delegate priority-setting to their people. And then they wonder why everyone isn’t on the same page.

Here is what I wrote a while back:

Every time I gave that workshop there was a least one person who would come up to me and tell me: “Look, I am swamped. I just have too many things to do and not enough time”. I always gave those people the same response: “You don’t have a time problem, you have a priorities problem”.

Because time-management is about choosing your priorities, being consistent with them over time and accepting that this process will inherently include some tradeoffs. There will be things you will not be able to do. But until you get your priorities straight you will face problems.

Yes, we have more information than we ever had. Yes, our workloads are bigger. Yes, due to the recession we are doing a job that two people did before. It does not matter. Time is limited. We can only spend it every day on certain things.  The question is, do we want to make an impact on a few things or create mediocrity in a lot of things.

Priorities are a risk. There is a chance that our choice will be the wrong one. We think that if we do a little of everything, we will mitigate that risk. But as the risk of a making a bad choice goes down, the risk of being unfocused goes up.  Guess which one is more important?

And if you are a manager of people I ask you – where are your people in your priorities? What are you trading off in order to be a great manager for them? Because you cannot be that great manager without putting time and effort into the process. No online digital tool will ever take away that piece of judgment from you.

Elad