Do other people know what you want?

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Just yesterday I asked “Will middle managers join the dinosaurs?” after reading Lynda Gratton’s Future of Work blog post. Today in John T. Landry gives a different approach:

…[W]e’re better off accepting command-and-control as the default for organizational life. A few companies or industries may be able to achieve true empowerment and collaboration for a while, mostly because their fast-changing markets leave them little choice. For every other organization, let’s lower our sights and focus on softening the edges of hierarchy.

Interesting. But I am more interested in a different part of the post where Landry describes an interview given by Bob Brennan CEO of Iron Mountain. Here is how Landry describes what Brennan says:

Brennan starts by saying that business is going through a transformation and top-down leadership no longer works well for companies. But he believes that too many of his managers still operate in a “command-and-control reflex.” They’re a lot like he was earlier in his career: good at holding subordinates accountable but bad at setting clear expectations. When subordinates aren’t sure what the boss really wants to accomplish, they don’t feel safe, and true delegation is impossible. Instead of acting autonomously, they hang around the boss and try to do whatever pleases him at the moment.

Fascinating. It reminded me of something I wrote long ago in a post called “What will your employees do when you leave for a vacation?”:

Imagine. You leave for a month of an overdue vacation. The catch is, it is on a deserted island, which has no way of communicating with the outside world. What will happen to your employees when you are gone? Will everything continue as usual? Will they be able to ask themselves, at every decision intersection they face – what does my manager would like to me to do, and answer that question? Correctly?

In one of the forums on Linkedin there is a current discussion about the difference between leaders and managers. While I have my own answer for this question, I found it interesting that a large part of the discussion was devoted to the question of vision and whether it is a necessary ingredient in the success of a company.  Well, maybe vision is a big word that frightens people and makes them think about historical figures or CEO of multi-million dollar companies. But actually it is much simpler. A manager needs to ask – will my employees be able to make decisions when I am not here. The decisions might be right or wrong in retrospect, but that is less important. What is important is whether these decisions align with your guidelines and attitude?

So, do the people around you know what you want even when you are not there?



What you don’t stand for


I was reading an article titled building Your Company’s Vision By James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (the authors of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies), when I came across this quote:

The point is that a great company decides for itself what values it holds to be core, largely independent of the current environment, competitive requirements, or management fads. Clearly, then, there is no universally right set of core values. A company need not have as its core value customer service (Sony doesn’t) or respect for the individual (Disney doesn’t) or quality (Wal-Mart stores doesn’t) or market focus (Hp Doesn’t) or teamwork (Nordstrom doesn’t). A company might have operating practices and business strategies around those qualities without having them at the essence of its being. Furthermore, great companies need not have likeable or humanistic core values, although many do. The key is not what core values an organization has but that it has core values at all.

I love this quote. Many reasons. The main reason – it exemplifies the fact that sometimes what you are not, is just as important as what you are. What isn’t there can often trump what is. The point is that it is not only about choosing some core values. It is about making the choice to begin with thus excluding other choices. Making a deliberate decision to say – this is what I am, which means I am not something else.

We have, in the westernized world, a culture built around stories of great success. Of people who did it all. And we get a sense that we can have it all. But we can’t. Nobody, be it company or individual, ever does everything well. It is those who choose, make tradeoffs and focus that become the best.

I think people easily forget this. This is why you have so many value statements about core values that are not worth the paper they are written on. It is easy to say these are the values I want to stand for. It is easy to say we will focus on customer service. It is much harder to admit that the values we stand for mean that we don’t stand for other things. That our focus on customer service has to come on the expense of something else.

So, what do you, your team or your company stand for? what don’t you stand for?


Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies<img src=”; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />

What will your employees do when you leave for a vacation?

Photo by mark(s)elliott’s

Imagine. You leave for a month of an overdue vacation. The catch is, it is on a deserted island, which has no way of communicating with the outside world. What will happen to your employees when you are gone? Will everything continue as usual? Will they be able to ask themselves, at every decision intersection they face – what does my manager would like to me to do, and answer that question? Correctly?

I believe that the most successful managers refrain from intervening in their employees’ processes, unless they are asked to by them. These great managers focus on the setting and explaining the right desired outcomes and let the people do their jobs in the best they can. But, even this outcome perspective about management does not come without limitations. The main limitation being, that people job should align with the organizational goals and strategies. So, one of the main jobs – and challenges – of great managers is to communicate these things to his/her employees.

Now, this could be done easily. You can tell your employees that every time they are in doubt or they think about a new idea, they can check with you. This is not meddling with their ideas and processes, it just a way to guide them. Right? Wrong. Even the greatest manager can’t be everywhere all the time. And as more organizations move away from simple manufacturing to jobs that require the use of judgment, specialties and  knowledge, the less a manager can be there to support his employees and answer all of these questions.

So, not only does the manager face the challenge of creating of a clear message to explain the desired outcomes, but, not less important, he needs to make sure that this message will guide the employees when he is not there.

Lao Tzu said:

The best of leaders when the job is done,
when the task is accomplished,
 the people will say we have done it ourselves.

Two thoughts:

  1. We usually don’t think about what would happen if we won’t be there. Maybe it is just too frightening. But, just think about all the time you can save if your employees will be able to make all these decisions themselves. And I am not talking about your vacation time. I am talking about everyday at the office.
  2. When we try to articulate the desired outcomes and limitation, we need to remember the curse of knowledge. Out employees don’t know what we already know. Don’t make any assumptions. Make sure they truly understand.

So, what are you doing to prepare for you next solitary vacation?



Motivation or Vision?

A few days ago I read this post on the Harvard Review Blog titled: “Don’t Live in a Half-Built House“. In it, Peter Bregman tries to make a point about leaders who need to do things now and not look at the future. Here is a little part:

David McClelland, a Harvard psychology professor, wrote the book on Human Motivation. It’s 688 pages long, but since the world might end in six months, I’ll give you the short version. Everyone is driven by three things:

1.Achievement (the desire to compete against increasingly challenging goals)

2.Affiliation (the desire to be liked/loved)


•Personalized (the desire for influence and respect for yourself)

•Socialized (the desire to empower others; to offer them influence and respect)

If people have the opportunity to achieve, affiliate and influence, they’ll be motivated and engaged. Even without a clear vision of the future. So instead of worrying about what life is going to be like tomorrow, focus on these three things today. Sit in your office for an hour and think, one by one, about each of your people (including yourself).

If I understand this correctly, Bregman tries to argue against leaders thinking about vision and concentrating on the future. Instead, he says, focus on the now. Talk to your people. ask them how they are doing. Make sure they are motivated.

Who can argue with that? After all, just a few days ago I wrote here that I don’t think there is an ultimate theory of motivation. I said I think the most important thing is to talk to people and ask them what they want.

But still. I think Bregman’s argument suffers from the trap of talking about leaders in management terms and about managers in leadership terms. Bregman is right that managers should focus on the now. On talking with their people. Because that is their role. Leaders, should focus on the future. Because they have a different role. And when manager try to implement leader’s role in dealing with their people on a day to day basis, you get these mixed results Bregman argues against.

So, are you talking to your people as a leader or as a manger? are you focusing on motivation or on vision? What should you be focusing on?


Are automation and checklists the only answer for the problem of microdecisions?


photo by myuibe

A few days ago I read an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog by Tom Davenport called: “Microdecisions for Macro Impact

Here is a short part of it:

What many companies don’t realize is that microdecisions – small decisions made many times by many workers at the customer interface – can have a major impact on the business. How they are made can be the difference between sloppy and effective execution, and between profit and loss. If you can identify a few key microdecisions that can be addressed and improved, you can often dramatically improve performance.

I really like the basic idea. The little things do matter. It reminds of the “Broken Windows Theory” which I really believe in. Davenport suggests two main practical methods to implement after identifying microdecisions in order to dramatically improve performance:

1. Automate – take the decision out of human intervaention and thus make sure it is done in the correct way. Completing Davenport’s article, James Taylor writes:

Even if you don’t want to completely automate a micro decision, you should probably think about using decision management to reduce the range of options available to a human decision maker or at least rank the available options by likely effectiveness. A decision service can automate a micro decision but it can also provide support for a micro decision in this way.

2. Introduce checklists – There is ample research that shows checklist improve performance even in cases of professions like doctors in hospitals.

3. Key metrics – If you cannot automate, establish key metrics that are consistent with the goals of the process.

 I must admit that I like the last advice better than the first two. It reminds me of the concept vital signs and of the change in the thinking about measurementI discussed just a few days ago. While I recognize the importance of automation and of checklists and realize that in certain setting they could be very effective, I think that in other settings they have a potential to hinder efficiency and create technocrats and to reduce motivation. So, they should be introduced with thought where they can really make an impact and where they fit with the environment, people and culture.

This reminds me of the basic difference between Common Law systems (like that of the US, UK, Australia and more) and Civil Law systems (like those of France, Germany and more). While in Civil Law systems the law tries to create a code, which is basically a list of possible outcomes and assign a rule to each outcome, in Common Law systems, generally speaking, the law gives a general guidance and leaves the interpretation of the law to the court.

 The problem with trying to create rules that encompasses all the situations that can happen in a business setting is very hard to do. Life is just more complicated. Mr. Murphy likes to pay a visit from time to time. I think we all sat in front of some customer service representative trying desperately to fight the computer system telling him/her that the request of the costumer is not possible.

This is why, in situations where automation is not the answer or in addition to automation, people should be empowered to make decisions. But how do we still avoid the problems of microdecisions? two thoughts:

1. Communicate your vision and goals clearly in a way that guides people’s decision making. When someone is deliberating what decision to make, he should have the company’s guiding principle in his head, guiding him to make the right decision.

2. Chose the right people. People who have the ability to make the right decisions as a matter of intuition. I would refer you to the talk about “Practical Wisdom” by Barry Schwartz and the discussion of it in my blog.


Thinking Time

In his post today, Franice Wade of The 2Time Management System blog, talks about setting aside “thinking time” every day. His post was inspired by an article about the presidential candidates’ time management, and espically that of Barak Oboma:

 Obama’s solution was to set aside time to let his brain work during his mid-August vacation. “The most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking,” he said, repeating advice he’d gotten from a Clinton administration veteran.

Setting aside scheduled “thinking time” is a tip you can see in almost any management or time-management book. Most of the biographies I read about great managers and leaders contain this tip as one of the wisdoms that helped those men reach their success. It has almost become a cliché of sorts. But the trouble is most people don’t implement it in their daily lives. Off course setting aside “thinking time” every day might prove a bit difficult but doing once a week or every other week should be easy even for the busiest of managers.

When I give workshops about personal vision building I talk about setting aside “thinking time” as one of the fundamental skills good leaders acquire for themselves and as a way to updated personal vision constantly. I always point out that I am not talking about thinking during the shower, but as an integral part of your day, preferably, in your office. At this point, people usually nod and agree. But if you ask them a few months later, how many times since the workshop did they take a break during their work day to just stop and think, they usually answer – zero.

There are some truths that people will always agree to, but are reluctant to implement. This is something I know for myself. This piece of advice is easier to preach about than practice. So what is the solution? I think the best one is to outsource the responsibility for setting “thinking time” to somebody else.

I think the Obama example is great one. I am not sure, but I guess Obama does not set his own schedule. He has assistants building it for him. This actually simplifies the task of setting aside “thinking time”. It just has to be written into the instructions the assistant gets. Can you outsource the creation of “thinking time” to somebody else? If so, do it right now. My former boss had a secretary who controlled most of his times and meetings – it would not have been a problem for him to instruct her to create “thinking time” once a day or week.

But for managers, the lesson is even more important. You should ask yourselves – if setting “thinking time” for knowledge workers is so important, what am I doing in order to give my subordinates their “thinking time”? You have the power to help you workers by actually making it mandatory to have “thinking time” in their schedule and report to you about the results. Try it. I think you will find the results you workers produce surprising.