Monday, March 31, 2008

Fear, the stinking smell of fear!

Recently a friend showed me an article in Fast Company about the fall of a once great company. As I read through the article and think back to the rise and falls of many a company I have witnessed over the years, something from that article struck a cord,
"AOL lacked a risk-taking environment," says one exile. "It was about self-preservation."
And what might cause this "lack of risk-taking"? Why the stinking death rot of fear of course!

Fear is a paralyzing force that can render an once energetic and enterprising company down to a weeping, blubbering, shivering, simpering shell of it's former self. Fear can make the great fall, and the mediocre... well, even more miserable than they already are. In fact, my advice is that anytime any of our intrepid buccaneers starts to smell the stinking smell of fear within the halls of their corporate warship. It is time to take a page from wise rats of a sinking ship, squeak out your "Geronimo!" and head for the waters! Besides, who's ever heard of a successful buccaneer quivering in the hulls of his ship in fear?

Truth is, the fundamental bases of any modern capitalistic enterprise is a measured and calculated taking of risk in hope for greater gains. To stop taking risk is in essence to stop doing business. It is equivalent of a person just curling up and waiting to dying. The resulting effects of fear is to destroy this risk taking spirit that is core to the success of any business. Without which (much like a person) the business will eventually wither and die.

For example, take our enterprising captain of the high seas. When he spots a sail over the horizon, what does he do? He does not cower and say "Sail away!" No, he sails closer to investigate to determine if the ship is a prize to be won, or some navy warship to evade. If he is gripped with fear, he would have never decide to sail up close to see that it is indeed a prize laden down with gold and booty!

"But" you say, "what happen if it was a warship?!" Well my friend, I did say measured and calculated risk taking. Know what you are able to risk and gamble cautiously, but fully commit yourself to the gamble and course until proven unwise. Even then, you do not panic, abandon ship and leave all that you have risked. Rather you change course and salvage what you can to fight (and more importantly) and to plunder another day.

The main problem with fear is that it leads to panic, and when a person (or company) panics, they cease to act or decide rationally. They are left with only the ability to react to the situation, when they most need to plan ahead to determine the best course of action for the long term welfare of the company and themselves. Instead they can only think in the short term and make drastic decisions without consider their full consequence and cost. This is where fear does its true damage. To quote an old military adage "It is not the defeat that destroys an army, rather it's the panic stricken route that does it"

So my fellow buccaneers, think twice when you feel the cold icy grip of fear take hold of your heart. Before you make any rash decision consider the true consequences of fear.

Monday, March 24, 2008

More on Incentives

One thing that has continually bewildered me about modern management is the application, or rather failed application of incentives on a day to day bases.

Often when people talk about "incentives" they usually think of a monetary based program where you are given more money for some achieved goal etc. But really, incentives are much more and much less than that. If you really and I mean REALLY look into to what an incentive is, it is nothing more than using rewards to generate a desired outcome.

So what is incentives really? Here is a definition from one of the many online dictionaries
"Something that incites or tends to incite to action or greater effort"
That is simple right? I mean, what's so hard or complicated about that? Until you look at what those "action" you are inciting them to perform.

When a manager or leader speaks and acts, they are always promoting one form of behavior over another. When they praise someone, they are promoting that person's behavior as the "gold standard", and when they berate someone they are saying "don't do what this person does".

That is simple on the surface, until you look deep into it's implication. Does the behaviors you are promoting generate the outcomes that you want? Or does the behavior has nothing to do with the outcome you actually want, but only looks good on the surface because of how you believe people SHOULD behave?

As an example, Manager A and Manager B (real names has been hidden to protect the guilty) had very different policies when it comes to their teams. Manager A was very much about making sure there are asses in seats for specific hours of the day. Manager B's policy was, soon as you're done with your work and everything is on schedule, you can go home. At the end Manager B's team was on the average about 20% more productive than Manager A's team. You may ask, "How is that possible when B's team can just come and go at will? I bet some of them don't even put in a full 40 hours a week!"

The answer is simple, it comes down to what you are actually encouraging them to do, and what behavior you are really rewarding. What is team A's reward for doing more work in less time? NOTHING! they have to spend the same number of hours in the office regardless of how quickly they finish a task. So where is the motivation to do more? None of course!

Conversely, team B's incentive is clear. Soon as they are done, they are welcome to go home early. (of course manager B was wise enough to first understand that the team was interested in having more personal/free time to use with their family, or social life) The more inventive few are quick to come up with ways that will reduce the amount of work involved while pushing out same quality work and rest of the team quickly picked up on the techniques since they want the same rewards. Soon the entire team was using the new time saving methods, be it to write codes, filing paperwork and so on. Manager B and then take this information and formalize it as regular procedure for the team and give them a well deserved pat on the back! As well as more work because after all they are heartless managers.

In short, anytime when you say or do anything as a leader or manager. You must keep your eyes on the prize. "What is the outcome you want your people or crew to achieve?" If attendance is your goal, then reward them for being there, but if productivity is the goal, then reward them by tangible means for doing work faster and more efficiently!

Bottom line, keep your focus on the achieving real result, and not what makes you feel comfortable seeing. Because, when you go broadside to broadside, you want your crew to feel like they have a stake in the outcome!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What is loot?

So you now have come to realization of, "Oh crap! The fear of being fired can only motivate them so far, in fact they may work to undermined me while I'm not looking if they are too scared! What is an aspiring buccaneer leader to do?!"

Some may say, "Simple! Give them lots of rum and loot, that's what!" While drinking in the modern day office may not be a good idea (at least during business hours while clients and high mucky-mucks from HQ might drop by), loot should be a simple matter of just give them more bonus and raises, or is it?

The happy (or sad fact depends on how you look at it) fact is money alone are not what people want from a job. Granted more is always better, but at some point it you have diminished return when it comes to enthusiasm and new ideas. I mean, how many sports car can you actually drive at the same time?

Something I remember reading from "First, break all the rules" by Buckingham & Coffman (great book if you ever get the chance), that most people leaves their jobs because of their managers. So what you do and say has great impact to how many people decides to stay on board with you, or jump ship soon as you hit the next port.

What is a captain to do to keep the crew happy when mere money alone isn't enough? Perhaps a more apt question is what would make you decide on choosing a job if the money were equal? Then pose similar questions to each of your team members.

While certain professions tend to attract people with similar attitudes and aspirations, each person's "coin" is different and you must take time to learn them. This means you must spend time and talk to your team and understand what makes each person tick, what drives them. Because how can you manage and lead, if you do not know who you are managing and leading?

At the end of the day, it's important to remember what each person perceives as a reward are different, so you must match the person with what drives them. In addition, you need to remember exactly what outcomes/behaviors you are rewarding. Basically what are the incentives, and what are you incentivizing? And remember, you are reinforcing it through every single act that you do and say to your team and crew.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Crack Managers

One of the constant in a modern corporation is Crisis. This true for all industries and company size; be it a small start-up or a large multinational corporation. I have often pondered how much of these crisis are real crisis that are created by truly unforeseeable situations or are they “man made” crisis that was created by willful neglect or even a natural result of the manager’s management and leadership style.

I have often observed a curious connection between managers who possesses a strong personality with a “hands-on” attitude, and the number of so called crisis that his or her team encounters every day. What’s more interesting is the fact that overwhelming majority of these crisis somehow cannot be solved unless the said manager is actively involved, in effect being the “savior”.

A recent event a friend recounted to me made me think about my many personal experiences in dealing with managers/executive who excel at crisis. After asking a few probing questions about her executive’s behavior and managing style, I have drawn two interesting conclusions about the nature of managers and the crisis who loves them.
“Managers who cannot successfully delegate authority and empower their staff are more prone to experiencing crisis.”

And more interestingly,
“Crisis management/resolution can be just as addictive as crack.”

“Whoa!” You say, “What the hell are you actually trying to say here? That these people purposefully create crisis??”

What I am telling you is this simple point of fact. Managers who excels at dealing with crisis can become addicted to the emotional high associated with both the successful resolution of the crisis as well as the praises and admiration that often comes with such successes. The combined emotional high from the “Job well done!” and associated with admiration becomes what I am calling the “Crisis Crack”. In short my point is, your prized crack team of managers could actually be managers who are addicted to the crisis crack!

The irony of this situation is that, the managers who seems to always be in the “thick of it”, solving/dealing with crisis are often the “Stars” of the organization. They are the ones getting the recognitions, the awards and the ones who “Gets the job done!”. But are those crisis really crisis? Are they really solving real crisis, or are they just putting on a show for everyone to see? And in all honesty, is a crisis prone organization the kind of organization that any executive want to be proud of? Bottom line, the question any executive must ask him and herself is,
“Do I really want an organization that feeds off the highs of crisis, or do I want a smooth well run organization that anticipates and resolves things before they become a crisis?”

If the answer is a smooth running organization, perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at yourself and your “Crack Managers” and decide who are the true heros, and who are just managers that are addicted to the “Crisis Crack”.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Who should makes the decisions?

An interesting thing I witnessed today. A crisis was created that should have never happened, all because someone did not pick up a phone asked some questions and made a decision on the spot. The whole thing lead me to ask the question, "Why didn't he just make the decisions his title and role obviously empowered him to make?"

While without possessing telepathy (wouldn't that be really cool to have? especially as a professional negotiator, or poker player? wow! imagine the money! Anyway I digress) I will never know the reason for this indecision and inaction. Though, based on some past experiences I can venture a very good and probably accurate guess as to why the person experienced this decision/action paralysis.

When I encounter persistent and systemic decision/action paralysis, especially by those who are supposedly empowered. It is ALWAYS caused by a leader/manager/boss/captain who doesn't know how to let go and by extension lacks trust in the very people they spend so much time to hire. In short, an empowerment issue.

When a person doesn't feel empowered and is constantly second guessed, or worse overruled without their understanding and buy in. They will always results in an erosion of their confidence, eventually leading to inability at making even simple decisions. This whole process quickly can become a very vicious cycle. With each overruled decision they become less sure, so they act less promptly, which creates a crisis where the "leader" has to come in and rescue the situation, which makes the leader trust his/her team less, which leads to more second guessing and more paralysis by the team. This cycle are usually only halted through a change in the person's style or the person themselves.

"Why is empowerment so important?" you asks, "What would be so wrong at having to make all the decisions and just have others carry it out?" you say, "This will make sure that I know what's going on at all time, and everything is done to my satisfaction!"

Let's look at our buccaneer ship. If every time a sailor needs to check with the captain to know where to tie a line, or if the first mate needs to check with captain to decide which sail to raise or lower just to slow the ship down. The captain would quickly be bogged down with constant requests for decisions.

While this may work while the ship is just sailing along without a worry in mind, when there are extra time for you the captain to react. But soon as crisis hits, be it storm or trading broadsides with the treasure fleet; you will be quickly overwhelmed with all the little decisions you would need to make. Even if you are able to quickly make all the decisions, the extra time required to wait while you make all those decisions, will make you react ever more slowly to what the other ship is doing. Eventually you're doing everything you can just to stay afloat rather than charging and boarding the other ship to take what is rightfully yours!

By not trusting empower your people, you are losing opportunities that you would otherwise be capitalizing on. And if you encounter enough crisis (after all what is modern business world if not a series of unforeseen crisis?) soon your ship will be crashing on the rocks from a storm or sinking against your competitors. But if you learn to trust and empower your crew, learn to allow them to make mistakes and teach them during the "quiet" times. You will find your investment returned a hundred fold, with quicker decisions and ability to seize opportunities that you would have never even seen.

Bottom line, do you really want to make ALL the decisions and sink, or would you rather just make the important ones and sail to profit? Last thought before you sail off to the sunset,
"If you can't trust your team, who can you trust?"

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Control Paradox - Cont.

As we previously discussed, one of the unacknowledged irony of any organization (especially in a modern corporation) is something I call the "Control Paradox". Simply stated the Control Paradox is,
"Higher in the organization one rises, less actual control one has over the outcome."
"How can this be?" you ask, "This goes against everything I know! Doesn't a captain has more control over where the ship goes than some lowly smelly deckhand?"

Lets take our buccaneer ship as an example. While a captain may set the direction and desired destination, along with who gets to be the first mate, the purser and so on. He does not have the ability to control if the navigator will decide to plot the course, nor does he have any control over if the crews will man the sails and so on. The only way for the ship to get anywhere is if majority of the crew decides that it is where they wish to go too!

You may say, "Well if they won't do what I tell them, I'll just do it myself!"

Sure this may work when your responsibility or team is small, but this becomes impossible after a certain point. Just like a captain can't possibly sail the a frigate by himself, nor can any company leaders (be it Director, VP or CEO) no matter how talented can possibly perform all the tasks required for a company to be successful, or monitor how everyone does their job. This is why you are completely reliant upon your crew to carry out your orders, to execute, to just simply remember to show up!

"If this is the case, then what can a leader control?!" you may cry out in despair. Before you lose all hope, there are things that a manager can control and good captains/managers focus on these aspects of their job.

While you may not be able to control if your crew member or staff chooses to do perform a task, or how they perform a task. You can control how you inspire them and the rules that they are encouraged to live under.

Lets see what does a captain of our corporate buccaneer ship has control over,
  • Guidelines on how things should work
  • Reward and Punishments
  • What responsibility and authority to delegate
  • Who to sign-up for their crew (sometimes)
If you look at this list, you will quickly realize that they are all the things you do before as well as after someone actually gets down and roll up their sleeves to do their work. the "Before" items are things like who you hire, the amount of authority you give them, guidelines on how to perform the task, along with criteria for reward and punishment. The "After" is basically how you carry out your reward and punishment.

To all our current and aspiring buccaneering captains out there. Remember the lessons from the Control Paradox and focus on what you can control, and break things up into your before, during and after you give an order.

  • Make sure you hire a good team
  • Give them as much authority and responsibility as they can handle
  • Give them clear guidelines
  • Tell them what and when they would be rewarded as well as punished

  • Do NOTHING, other than go. Rah Rah Rah! or as the case maybe Huzzah!
  • Follow through and enforce your reward and punish as close to everyone's understanding and intent as possible
  • Adjust your "Before" according to the results
Just remember to let go, only judge the effort and method based on the outcome and only on the outcome. Always be aware of mental trap of the Control Paradox, and it is leadership not management that actually get your crew to jump up and go "Aye!" when you give an order.