Category Archives: People

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

On my recent visit to a wonderful new luxury hotel in town, I found it very interesting that an artist’s work was commissioned right outside the restroom (pic below).

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

It seemed, at least to me, that the only reason that painter, or rather her talent, was of any particular importance to the hotel designers was if she could paint something that fitted the small wall that welcomed people to the restroom. They obviously couldn’t find anything ‘standard’ like a piece of Italian marble or some nice tiles to go on that wall. This being a top-end hotel, they must have selected the very best talent they could get (or their money could buy). And then they took her work and put it next to the restroom. Along with her name right next to it. And now, everyone who has been to these restrooms will remember her name – “Oh yes. Of course, I have seen your work. It was right next to the loo…!“.

Are we missing something?

I think there is no waste as criminal as the waste of human talent. And they come on all shades, shapes and sizes:

  • Making people not just work, but slog over the long evenings and weekends on products or features that no one wants.
  • Hiring top-notch people and then making them work on low-end problems, like finding meeting rooms or fixing a meeting with 43 people in half a dozen time zones. Many many years back, a friend of mine joined a top software company only to leave after 6 months because all he was doing was fixing bugs on a ten year old OS.
  • Hiring professionals at high salaries and then depriving them of tools or resources that might cost less than their day’s salary, thereby making them struggle with their tasks manually. I used to have a colleague in Holland who was headed to make his career in sending documents by fax (surely, this was in 90s).
  • Hiring smart engineers and then micromanaging them. I remember seeing a recent tweet that said – “Office is the place where adults are treated like children”. Ouch…that hurt!
  • Hiring smart engineers but then surrounding them with incompetent people around them. A facilities team that will not allow them to buy a whiteboard for the team. A procurement team that will frustrate all your efforts to get a $20 tool on time. A travel team that will route you through Afghanistan just so the company could save a few dollars. A finance team that will insist on missing receipt for airport cab when everyone knows there is no way you have reached there without a cab.
  • Making engineers sit on ‘bench’, keeping them underengaged, or making them work on mindless projects that no one wants.
  • Making people attend jumbo meetings and late-night calls. No, not just any meeting but one that has like 73 people on the call, all equally clueless. (And reprimanding them when they don’t attend them!)
  • Asking people for feedback on what ails the workplace for the 36% attrition and then ruthlessly defending every single feedback (and haunt the most outspoken ones till they leave on their own).
  • Enforcing work-from-office because basically the management has no trust or capability in ‘managing’ people if they are out of sight. All in the name of ensuring face-time needed for collaboration and innovation.
  • Constantly changing strategy so the products under development get canned. I once worked at a company where about two dozen engineers freshly graduated had ‘worked’ on two back-to-back projects that got canned in rapid succession. Needless to say, they all came from top colleges and were raring to go.
  • Forcing people to do what the organization thinks they should do vs letting them choose what they want to do. I once left a company within a few weeks because of exactly this reason.
  • Creating a standard process that the ‘smart’ individuals must then follow – no matter what. Also, adding a layer of process police to report any non-compliance!
  • Hiring people but not empowering them, so they have nowhere to go but ‘respect’ the hierarchy of 27 layers of management above them for every small thing
  • Making people fill up useless time sheets and meaningless status reports (and don’t even get me started on the “TPS report”…yes, that TPS report ūüôā
  • …and so on!!!

However, in all my experience, I never realized that someone might want your talent so badly that it could be used to adorn their restroom. Imagine you are a highly qualified musician, and you get a call. “Yeah…we want you to come down and perform for the next Muzak!”. So, you will tell your friends..”Yay! I got the career break I was looking for…I am going to change people’s lives by producing the next gen elevator music!“. Really?

I think this is the single-biggest hidden source of employe disengagement – making people do dumb stuff, or showing low respect to them, their talent or their work. I think as more and more work gets de-industralized, there is growing desire among each one among us to do more and more creative work. Work that stretches our learning. Work that we want to show to our friends and families. We all dream of putting our tiny signature on that one masterpiece that we one day will be proud of. That one product that will save millions of lives. That one app that half the world uses. That one service that everyone swears by. The legacy that we will leave for future generations. Not that one painting that adorns the restroom!

By no means I am suggesting that decorating restroom or creating Muzak are below dignity. I am only asking to look at the world from the pair of eyes of that talent who has just been asked to do that mind-numbing stuff.

But seriously, if you were Leonardo da Vinci, and you got a call to paint your next famous painting so that it could adorn the restroom, you will know exactly what I mean.

And who, in their private dreams, doesn’t think of themselves as one…

(Originally published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-talent-adorning-restroom-tathagat-varma)

Hard work is killing people. Literally!

Recently, I was reading an article on how Japanese-style manufacturing isn’t working out quite so well in India (despite having been successfully around since 80s), and that there have been several strifes¬†lately. There was an interesting reference to what the Japanese call as Karoshi and Karojisatsu. Now, unlike many other Japanese words, these are really gross¬†words because they mean

  • Karoshi = Death from Overwork
  • Karojisatsu = Suicide from Overwork (and stressful working conditions)

Curious to know more about it, I chanced upon this graphic from ILO page on workplace safety:

Karoshi and Karojisatsu cases in Japan, 1997-2011, ILO This data comes from Japan, and while the numbers might not (yet!) look staggering to many a folks, the trend is unquestionably disturbing, and our own deniability might only be getting compounded by lack of data from our own respective countries or industries, not to mention the social stigma that might be associated with someone refusing to ‘work hard’ on medical grounds lest they suffer an injury, suffer a burnout or commit suicide!

In the last few years, I have heard of small but increasing number of such sudden deaths among senior IT professionals – not just in Bangalore, but also globally. You can read about them here, here, here, and here.

Burnout is a serious issue for several countries, industries and people, even if we don’t acknowledge in as many words. In our industry, where heroism, cowboy programming and all-nighters are considered cool and an integral part of the software subculture, there has been a (really) small effort to address work-life balance by identifying that software¬†development should be ably to proceed “indefinitely” on “sustainable pace” with XP explicitly advocating 40hrs a week (though some might disagree with this interpretation of “sustainable pace“). However, anyone who has ever done any non-trivial piece of software development will point out how hollow this expectation is in reality. When it is the release time, families learn to deal with their family members coming late or staying back office overnight, or working through the night even if home. Those in startup phase don’t have the luxury of ‘closing the day’, and those who are entrepreneurs actually thrive in such environment. So, is the thrill-seeking behavior at work here? Could it even be the case that we are only unknowingly aggravating the problem by hiring more people who think, talk and work like us – thereby creating a tarpit-kind of environment where there is no escaping it?

It is well-known in manufacturing that we never utilize¬†machines more than 80-90% of their rated capacity (global stats on utilization are more like 80%). And yet, we don’t think twice before ‘loading’ human beings to much beyond their 100% capacity! Unfortunately, the data suggests that working more reduces productivity, as below:

Working hours vs. Productivity

Or, our ‘professionalism’ stops us from admitting that if I put out my case for a better work-life balance, I might be considered a loser and be considered unfavorably in appraisals, promotions and salary raises? ¬†

So, how do you deal with it, or rather, ensure that you don’t get burnt out? Or, if you are a people manager or a leader, how do you ensure those supporting you are not getting burnt out?

Important to call out here that the old harmless joke “Hard work never killed anyone. But, why take chances?” suddenly doesn’t look so innocuous anymore.¬†

Worth thinking…

What’s the People factor in your Innovation equation?

Innovation is the hot new buzzword of our time. Everyone seems to be badly smitten by it. Going by the popular literature, those who don‚Äôt innovate are assured to perish sooner than later. Given that previous silver bullets Total Quality Management of 80s,¬†Business Process Reengineering of 90s, and the most recent of them all ‚Äď Outsourcing in early 21st century ‚Äď have still left a LOT to be desired, there is clearly enough interest and expectation if Innovation can finally deliver! Coupled with a world still edgy after major Global Financial Crisis and an uncertain Euro zone, and we have perfect conditions to embrace Innovation in all shapes and forms ‚Äď right from black magic to a holistic way of doing business ‚Äď even if it still turns out to be a whimper.

Wait! Of course, it would be blasphemy to even as much as suggest that innovation could turn out to be a whimper! Like all of you good people, I too believe innovation is the key to sustainable competitive advantage in the increasingly uncertain and hyper-dynamic world. But, let‚Äôs just rollback to 80s for a moment ‚Äď didn‚Äôt they say the same about TQM in those good old days? Or about BPR in 90s? Or about outsourcing until the last decade? Each generation came up with its own silver bullet fervently believing in its potent powers to slay the demons of poor corporate performance (in whatever metrics what you measure ‚Äď be it topline revenue, or bottomline profits, or marketshare, or employee engagement and so on). And yet, history ‚Äď the roughest of them all teachers ‚Äď has reminded us time and again how na√Įve and wrong we were all along! All these management systems ‚Äď well thought out and backed by years of irrefutable research and solid data ‚Äď were heralded as the ultimate panacea in their heydays. However, they lasted only till the next crisis! The next sets of crises were much more powerful, much bigger and more ‚Äėnew‚Äô than the previous ones, and like the stains of bacteria that grow resistant with each new antibiotics, they were invincible with the then start of art methods. Clearly something was amiss.

Here‚Äôs my take ‚Äď all these systems were exactly that ‚Äď just systems! They sought to fix the processes without really putting people in the middle of the equation ‚Äď even though all the work was carried out by humans. I think we took Frederick Winslow Taylor a tad too seriously when he said, ‚Äúin the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first‚ÄĚ in The Principles of Scientific Management back in 1911. Of course, we forgot to read the next two lines right after this sentence, ‚ÄúThis in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed. On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men; and under systemic management the best man rises to the top more certainly and more rapidly than ever before‚ÄĚ. We simply delinked people from process and attacked the process performance problem without acknowledging that if people are not motivated enough, the performance improvement payoffs might either be short-lived and might not sustain at the same levels in the long run.

So, is Innovation is also going to meet similar fate and become another exhibit at the Museum of Management Systems? Maybe, or maybe not! Depends on how we change our strategy this time. If we continue to pay lip service to innovation as yet another management mantra, I am sure we will see another new management system in next few years. But if done right, we could certainly create better results that could last much longer than previous generations of management systems. Actually, there is just one thing that needs to be done right ‚Äď get the people factor back into the equation.

Somewhere in mid-90s and beyond, we started throwing around the words ‚Äėknowledge economy‚Äô to represent the shift towards an economy that primarily dealt with ‚Äėknowledge‚Äô as opposed to, say, manufactured products. It signaled the Negraponte Switch from ‚Äėatoms‚Äô to ‚Äėbits‚Äô. The term ‚Äėknowledge‚Äô worker‚Äô came to be known as the move from blue-collar worker to white-collar worker¬† to pink-collar worker¬†and finally to what I call as the ‚Äėround-collar worker‚Äô ‚Äď someone who makes money from their ‚Äėbrain‚Äô more than their predecessor cohorts of workers, and often have slightest regard for a formal workplace power structure and thrive in informal and empowered environment. They are on the top of their game, and don‚Äôt require any hierarchy to support them. Of course, the ’round-collar’ in their moniker comes from the quintessential round-collar tees that not just signify a more relaxed taste in dressing-down, but also brings a sense of confidence and swagger that typically comes from someone who knows their stuff.

Another less visible but far more important thing to note here is that in last couple of management systems, this is perhaps the first time that the worker has sprinted ahead of the system, and has become much more important – so much so that they has made the system redundant. And needless to say, the existing top crop has no clue how to deal with it!

Now let’s get back to the innovation story.

Imagine going back into a modern workplace, full of knowledge workers and telling that from tomorrow we have a new management system, and it is known as innovation. I will leave you to visualize rest of the conversation in your minds :).

So, how do we get it right? Unlike the previous generations of workers, where each of the management systems was imposed top-down, I don‚Äôt think this approach can work anymore in flat and egalitarian workplaces of today. Innovation process must be driven bottoms-up that unleashes individual human potential for creativity and challenging the status quo. So far, we hired and groomed professionals who ‚Äėcomplied‚Äô with our laid-down processes ‚Äď we hired those who ‚Äėfitted‚Äô in our culture, we promoted those who furthered our existing thought process. Power hierarchy in those organizations was perfectly designed to promote compliance. There was hardly any place for non-believers, doubters, questioners, diagreers, dissenters or harbingers of change.

The current and upcoming generation is anything but that!

How are you going to channelize their talent and energy into something that works for you? How are going to enter the short-term vs. long-term battle? How are you going to embrace a higher risk/reward equation? How are you going to deal with the brash and young workforce that might give you maximum a few months as an employer before going out across the street and creating a new startup that might eventually buy you out a few years down the line?

By writing a new management system that once again puts checks and balances and builds a system of mistrust which saps their energies and stifles their creativity, or by trusting in their abilities and further liberating them? Depending on what approach you take, you will be deciding whether innovation is going to work for you, or will just end up becoming yet another exercise in futility. Eric Douglas has some thoughts on how leaders can make or break the people factor by how they comes across to people. Richard Branson places much higher premium on getting the right people for entrepreneurial success, which is perhaps strongest form of innovation, for nothing could be as audacious and risky as taking an idea and creating a business ground-up. I had blogged about some of the reasons why people don’t innovate in organisations (but rather end up leaving them and do it on their own!).

Goran Ekvall has identified ten innovation climate dimensions that could serve as a great starting point for organizations to self-assess how ready they are to embrace innovation:

  1. Challenge How challenged, emotionally involved,and committed are employees to the work?
  2. Freedom How free is the staff to decide how to do their job?
  3. Idea time Do employees have time to think things through before having to act?
  4. Dynamism the eventfulness of life in the organisation
  5. Idea support Are there resources to give new ideas a try?
  6. Trust and openness Do people feel safe speaking their minds and offering different points of view?
  7. Playfulness and humor How relaxed is the workplace-is it okay to have fun?
  8. Conflicts¬†To what degree do people engage in interpersonal conflict or ‘warfare?”
  9. Debates¬†To what degree do people engage in lively debates about the issues’
  10. Risk-taking Is it okay to fail?

There is enough literature, theory and evidence to suggest the people factor is core to the culture of innovation. Yet, I continue to be amazed that smart organizations tend to create an elaborate management system to ‘support’ and ‘control’ the innovation process. When I meet folks form industry and listen to presentations and papers, I am repeatedly shocked to discover how much focus is on process part of yet compared to how to really enable people and democratize the process of innovation! I hope that understand this can’t be yet another checklist item on their marketing brochure that can win them next contract – it is much deeper and bigger than that. It’s their future that they can’t afford to shortchange!

So, what’s the people factor in your innovation equation?

Bridging the Cultural Divide in Global Projects

This is a guest post by Michelle Symonds. Michelle has many years’ experience in IT and IT Project Management in the oil industry¬†and investment banking working on complex global projects involving the management of overseas¬†project teams. She is now a freelance consultant specialising in article writing for businesses such¬†as www.parallelprojecttraining.com and is also editor of the Project Management News website¬†www.projectaccelerator.co.uk.

With most major corporations doing business on a global scale, projects are naturally part of that global business and, as such, project management is increasingly about leading projects and teams from different countries and cultures. This introduces potential risks related to language, time-zone and cultural differences, above and beyond the usual project risks.

The project management of geographically diverse projects requires a different approach¬†to leading and communicating with teams if it is to address the cultural divides that often¬†exist so that effective multi-cultural teams may be developed to deliver successful projects.¬†It is important to recognise that cultural barriers are not simply between “East” and “West”¬†but that they can potentially exist between any two different countries from any part of¬†the globe. A cultural divide can exist between closely located countries and even between¬†countries with the same language so recognising this at the outset of a global project, and¬†introducing strategies to deal with it, is essential for a successful project outcome.

But, whilst location, language and time-zone differences will have an effect on a project,¬†these aspects are relatively straightforward to manage for an experienced global project¬†manager. Less easy to manage effectively are the cultural differences, which, by their very¬†nature, are not often explicitly stated or well-understood. Indeed, because of reticence¬†to mention a problem in some cultures, a project manager may not even be aware that a¬†problem exists until it is too late to rectify. Cultural differences may necessitate adapting¬†standard project processes and procedures to take account of certain factors. No culture can¬†claim to know the “right” way to run a project, and every culture has been successful in its¬†own right, but maybe by addressing cultural issues we can all learn something from other¬†cultures that will add value to global projects.

So just what are the most typical culture-dependant areas that might require a “non-standard” project approach?

 

  • Communication ‚Äď Understanding and Interpreting¬†

Face-to-face communication will always minimise misunderstandings, but it will¬†not eliminate them altogether when cultural differences are significant. Wherever¬†possible, all stakeholders should meet in person prior to the start of the project.¬†Indeed when dealing with some countries, such as China, face-to-face meetings¬†are an essential part of building an all-important trusting working relationship.¬†Understanding other cultures helps a project manager anticipate and respond¬†appropriately to issues during the project and ensures that the project manager’s behavior does not offend or insult the other parties involved. ¬†

Face-to-face meetings help both sides of the cultural divide to gain an understanding¬†of each other’s expectations and aid the interpretation of unspoken signals. In many¬†Asian cultures modesty, patience and politeness are expected behaviors that are not¬†necessarily expected in Western countries (although they would be nice).

Once a project is underway, much of the communication is likely to be by email, which in a western culture is used by the sender of the email to clarify all issues beyond any doubt for the recipient of the email. However, in many Asian cultures detailed clarification of every point can be seen as an insult to the intelligence of the recipient so the onus is on the recipient to infer what is meant by the sender. This factor alone can unintentionally cause problems so, for example, an English PM should emphasise that detailed clarification is simply a part of how projects are done in the U.K. when dealing with Indian or Chinese stakeholders or project teams to avoid causing personal offence.

  • Cultural Viewpoints – Seeing Things from the Other Side:¬†

Understanding the viewpoint of others involved in a project is a two-way process (or more) to ensure all stakeholders and teams understand the expectations and attitudes of each other. This is not just the case with eastern and western cultures, there can, for example be issues between Indian and Chinese teams involved on the same project where the hierarchical culture of India and the Chinese culture based on personal relationships can cause conflicts in determining the best approach to deal with risks and problems encountered throughout a project.

The success of a project will require an understanding of the underlying values of a different culture and how they affect the working practices of those involved in the project so a professional project manager should take the time to research these different cultures. There are a number of organisations, such as the China-Britain Business Council and the UK-India Business Council that offer useful advice in this area.

But be aware that China and India, in particular, are vast and diverse nations with different underlying sub-cultures and languages so there are no quick and simple tips to understanding all aspects of their cultures. Different attitudes to areas such as project quality, cost and time can exist within different individuals in the same culture. So be cautious about making general assumptions and try to get to know and understand each stakeholder and local project manager as an individual and develop good working relationships that go beyond standard project procedures.

  • Reporting – Obtaining Accurate Progress Information¬†

Western cultures tend to value openness and frankness when it comes to project¬†progress and reporting. They believe that project issues can be prevented from¬†becoming serious problems if they are raised as soon as they are detected and that¬†serious problems can be better solved by discussing possible solutions with the group.¬†But how issues and problems are handled is a culturally sensitive issue. Admitting to a¬†problem can be seen, in some Eastern cultures, as an admission of failure so a project¬†team leader would not openly report schedule overruns or the inability to complete¬†a task in the same way as his Western counterpart. Instead the information might be¬†gradually brought to the global project manager’s attention bit-by-bit.

Similarly, the way in which changes to the schedule are requested may not always be¬†in the most obvious way. Even on projects where there are defined and documented¬†procedures for updates these procedures may simply not fit with the working¬†mentality of all those involved in the project. For a PM to assume the procedures will¬†be followed by multi-cultural teams simply because they have been defined is a na√Įve¬†view. Some teams may approve procedures only because it is culturally unacceptable¬†for them to openly disagree with the global PM.

  • The People ‚Äď The individuals behind the Names¬†

It is a vital skill for a global project manager to understand what motivates the diverse teams and individuals working on a project and to take the time to provide constructive feedback on completed tasks in order to clearly define ongoing expectations. But, clearly, on a large, complex project being run in various locations around the world it would be impossible for a global PM to know all team members well, let alone understand their personalities and motivations.

This is where building common understanding and trust between the global and local project managers will be of benefit. Working with the local project manager, who can better understand individual motivating factors and who can present feedback in a culturally-sensitive way, can aid the development of multi-cultural project teams which can work efficiently and co-operatively together.

Rivalries and different agendas may exist between culturally different project teams (just as they may between co-located teams) so the network of relationships must be managed sensitively to minimise their impact on the overall success of the global project. It is essential for a successful project outcome that the global PM facilitates co-operation and support between all teams and attempts to minimise conflict.

Whilst it might be possible, in an ideal world, that we all follow some “international”¬†standard of project management, in practise, adapting standard procedures depending¬†on the different cultures involved in a project is likely to lead to more successful project¬†outcomes. Managing global projects presents a particular set of challenges that require¬†specific experience and PM training to overcome the inherent difficulties of cultural divides¬†but the advantages of doing so can lead to a project that achieves cost-effective technical¬†excellence.