Category Archives: Change Management

A key leadership challenge is to initiate and lead systemic changes that will set the organization up for success in future. Indeed, nothing else perhaps sums up why we need a leader in the first place. However, the odds are brutal – the pace of change is already furious and it only seems to be accelerating with each passing day, and that pace brings an ever-increasing amount of complexity and uncertainty. There are no guarantees that the chosen direction and pace will lead to a better situation, for the changes are too complex for any one to understand and discern, let alone predict and assure.

In this context, any change can basically be boiled down to individuals in the organization, for every other non-human change is simply a matter of updating processes, or bringing up new policies or introducing new technologies, etc. For example, a company might decide to replace manned customer care by introducing the latest chatbots, or might decide to introduce robotic manufacturing. The reasons behind this might go beyond the direct economic advantages – they could introduce consistency in quality, flexibility in deployment, and scalability in operations that might introduce new opportunities that are simply not possible today.

This leaves a leader to essentially lead the change among people. I consider all change to be ultimately human at the fundamental level, with very high social context. If a leader can’t excite and motivate her team members to embrace the change and play their part in making it happen, there is no way the leader can succeed by herself. In a 2015 article in Forbes, the author Mark Murphy shared the #1 reason why CEOs get fired is for “mismanaging change”. The #4 and #5 reasons were “denying reality” and “too much talk and not enough action” respectively, and they also seem very close to the #1 reason.

 

Surely, a leader might have power and thus control over the team members to make them accept the changes, but in today’s employee-centric market, there can’t be any such guarantees. The days of a CEO or a leader doing a town hall in a trendy city hotel or sending a nice email and hoping that the change would happen are over. With change, there is no such thing as autopilot. A leader must walk on the floor and get down into the trenches, and work with the rank and file to make the change happen.

However, how does an individual contribute to change? While everyone expects them to simply participate in the organizational change, we mostly fail to recognize why they would be motivated to participate and how can we influence them appropriately to see the change as something that helps their own careers? Should leaders simply insist on individuals delivering the results, or their charter should go beyond the mechanics and instead play the central role in enabling conditions where individuals rise to the occasion and proactively lead the change instead of simply participating in it?

In my experience, I have seen these five key behaviors that can set any individual into what I call as “individuals leading the change”. These are simple behavioral changes that any individual in the organization, irrespective of their role, can adopt without needing anyone’s permission or support, and not just improve his participation in the game but also eventually raise the game itself. They kind of build on top of each other, so I don’t recommend skipping any of these – you might benefit best by starting from the first and building the rest of those behaviors on top of it. So, here we go:

1. Growth Mindset

Why is it that some people remain content with what they know, and even developing an arrogance that whatever they know is the best and they don’t need to learn anything new or put in any further efforts to hone their skills? On the other hand, some people seem to be undaunted by their seeming lack of knowledge about a given area – they simply dedicate themselves to learning new things, never mind how many times they fail in that process?

The work by Carol Dweck on “Mindset” is perhaps the best explanation of these two types of mindsets – Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. People with fixed mindset almost deny any opportunity to improve themselves or get involved in exploring newer ideas, and eventually become a deadwood. However, people with growth mindset are constantly seeking new challenges that stretch their physical or cognitive skills, and even if they fail in their efforts in the short-term, they don’t seem to give up and ultimately develop a mindset of continuously reequipping themselves. Needless to say, those with growth mindset will find a great opportunity to participate in a change.

2. T-shaped skills

In a traditional team, each team member brings his or her strengths, which could be key knowledge, skills and capabilities about a given area. In a functional team, it might end up being a “birds of a feather” team thus creating a high-density of experts with similar skills, while in a cross-functional team, it might bring people with complementary skills that help accomplish a given project task better. However, a functional team might have limited effectiveness, as they must collaborate with other similar functional teams in other areas to complete a task, thus bloating up the overall team needed to own and execute a project task.

However a cross-functional team might be more effective in bringing together a small team of experts who can truly own a project task much more economically. Unfortunately, a cross-functional team composed of individual islands of excellence is simply a very weak and low-energy container with passive players. However, when individuals move away from their comfort zone and acquire capabilities in adjoining areas, they create shared competencies that allow them to operate with much higher shared empathy about other team members, and also improve their own problem-solving because they are thinking of additional aspects other than their own, and eventually allows the team members to collaborate much better. Acquiring growth mindset enables an individual to become a more well-rounded T-shaped individual who understand a much bigger picture, which allows them to help others.

3. Help others

Most organizations mimic the arena where the gladiators fight each other, and the only way for one to survive is to kill others! While this might seem like a very gory analogy of what seems like a nice innocuous workplace, our outdated performance management systems actually make us do just that. A bell curve for a team engaged in knowledge discovery will only end up destroying the team spirit. While an individual might not (yet!) have the clout to change the performance systems, the least they can do is to challenge the myth of competition by choosing to collaborate. Helping others would be a great way to get started.

Helping others also creates an obligation to reciprocate, which is a key weapon of influence per Robert Cialdini, the leading expert on this subject. When we help others, especially when that help is offered without being asked for, it builds an expectation on part of the receiving party to reciprocate the gesture in future. This sets a system of gifts and reciprocation, which is the essence of social relationships, and helps foster trust, respect and collaboration. This sets the foundation for winning teams.

4. Make the team win

Imagine you are part of a football team. Each player has been hired due to his skills – striker, defender, goalkeeper, etc. Based on the opponent team’s strengths and potential game plan, the coach might come up with field formation at the time of kick-off. However, as the game progresses, new facts will emerge that might invalidate some of the assumptions that the coach had about the best possible team formation. He might rotate players; he might even redeploy them in a different way. If the team members continue to play per their fixed role or position, can the team win?

While the team might be formed based on individual strengths and configured in a fixed formation, in the real world, a winning team would adapt itself by those very individuals playing in a fluid formation, i.e., play where the game is. Their T-shaped skills allow them to be useful to the team in more ways than one, and their trust and respect among each other enabled them to leave their fixed position and help play a winning game.

5. Take initiative

Each one of us is sitting on a treasure of strengths. Even we don’t know what we are capable of! We come up with hundreds of ideas everyday about making things better. However, most of these ideas die a silent death because we don’t take any initiative in making or validating them, or simply lack the courage to bring our ideas to life. In my experience, more people fail (and ultimately get fired) because of not taking initiative than because of making mistakes. When you have a great team that wins, it also builds the right environment where people are not afraid of taking initiative. They know that if they fail, their team members have their back. However, a big question invariably comes up – how do I know if I am taking enough initiative or not, and how can I improve it?

A few years back, I had blogged about a scale of initiative that was introduced to me in the 90s, and has served me well. Those interested could refer to the blog post “How do you measure Initiative” available at http://managewell.net/?p=1100.

Conclusions

In today’s world, a leader can’t simply demand change from her team. She must build the right conditions where team members are constantly encouraged to participate in changes in a non-intimidating environment, and build relationships that allow them to harness the social energy that is needed to make any change successful.

Also, a leader must change the mindset that individual are there simply to follow the change. If the leader recognizes that each individual has immense power to lead the change at their respective levels, the leader can not only lead to more successful change, but create a long-lasting and self-sustaining culture of participation, ownership and engagement.

(A shorter version of this article was originally published as an invited article in PMI’s Manage India magazine, and is available online at http://pmi.org.in/manageindia/volume6/issue12/invitation.html)

How fast you can change?

In my talks, I often ask a trick question – what is the most important part in a bicycle and a formula one racing car?

I get all kinds of answers – wheels, engine, chasis, tyres, steering, even the driver…. No doubt, they are all right answers.

However, my favorite right answer is the brakes! Why? Because they make us go faster! 

Let me explain.

Imagine you are riding a bicycle without brakes. You won’t be able to go faster because you have an in-built fear in your mind that if you pick up pace beyond some ‘reasonable limit’, you won’t be able to control it lest it becomes important for some reason. Now imagine riding the same bicycle with the best brakes that your money can buy (or, even better, that you can build!). You not only can ride the same bicycle with much more confidence, you can actually imagine going much faster than before. Of course, you can take the analogy much further and argue that you could go even faster if there was a better helmet, a better kneecap, jacket, leather gloves, even the insurance to make the rider free themselves up from the worries of a possible accident…then you might zoom even faster and potentially reach closer to the Peltzman Effect, but we will stop at just having the right brakes in this blog post.

Now the mental model about brakes is that they keep a stationary object at rest (at least on a downslope), or slow down or stop an object in motion, but never make anything go faster. And yet, that’s what they do – they give the courage and confidence to the rider to go faster than without those brakes. In that sense, the brakes are the feedback and the control mechanism rolled into one. Without a brake, you still have access to the same power (or the engine power in case of a formula one car) as before, but your decision to use it judiciously as opposed to using it as unbridled raw power is based on your ability to get that feedback and adapt to it. In general, the sharper the ability to get the feedback, make a decision and execute it, the faster one could go.

Of course, one can (rightly) extend the argument that it eventually depends on the rider/driver of the vehicle – for the real ability to handle a machine lies not in the machine but in the mind (and the hands) that operates it. We will get to that in a moment.

A lot of people think agile is all about faster deliveries, and then they set unreal expectations which often sound something like this – let’s do agile so we can ship the product in 3 months which today takes 9 months. Like they say, you can’t put ten pounds in a five pounds sack, I have a bit of a bad news for them – the quantum of work that takes 9 months to ship can’t be shipped in 3 months without seriously undercutting either the breadth (i.e., the scope or quantity of work) or the depth (i.e. the quality, performance, usability, reliability, etc.) of the deliverables. Agile isn’t quackery (even though it has been oversold as one by some overenthusiastic souls!). 

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

For me, brakes are the metaphor of agile. They provide the feedback and enhance the ability to manoeuvre, even more so at high speeds. The more real-time and actionable (i.e., more “byte-sized” than “brick-sized” to clearly understand and identify the cause-and-effect relationships that allow the feedback to be “meaningfully actionable”) a feedback is, coupled with the internal ability of the machine to rapidly absorb and assimilate it, the sooner it can respond and adapt to a potential event. Remember – making a third-stage spacecraft change its position even by a few micro-degrees is much more difficult and perhaps valuable than a car changing its lane on a highway. Just like any serious competitor who will adapt the brakes based on weather and other operating conditions, there is no one-size-fit-all brake here. The term “agile process” is a fairly useless one, for it creates a mental model of a laminated process that will enable people to operate with (guaranteed?) agility out-of-the-box, and yet, it is hardly ever going to be that! If you have already nailed down every single nook and cranny so that the resultant process is a certified “agile” one, than one must only be smoking pot. Neither the creator of that uber-agile process could have anticipated every possible future condition (the last time I checked, I was told that job description was reserved for God!) nor anyone knows enough to prescribe a single templated solution to all kinds of problems. Net-net, everyone must create their own “agile process”. Of course, they can start with what we know today, but remember – what is know today can only be a (better) starting point and not the limiting rate factor for what you must eventually accomplish. In that sense, an “agile process” is like “best practices” – you can’t simply copy someone else’s best practices and expect them to 10x your results. Rather, you must painstakingly solve the hard problems, and evolve your own best practices – to that end, best practices are things that are created as an outcome of a problem-solving activity by smart people, and not really something that others can use as a shortcut. Sure, some of these might be very universal, but I guess most all have been already discovered long back, and we are mostly rebottling and recycling them these days.

So, there you have it. There is no such thing as a universal agile process that will solve all maladies. Like Edison said we are able to see further by standing on the shoulder of giants, we simply take what exists today as a starting point and create our own agile process. Nothing more, nothing less.

And just like the picture in this blog, agility is not something that takes you faster, but it enables taking you to new, unknown and exciting places when you think there might be something interesting there. If you don’t find the cheese interesting, you can always come back to the last stable state, and start another journey, till you find something better!

Speed is not how fast you can drive and deliver. It is how fast you can change and adapt. And life and product development have more hairpin bends than you think… 

How do design and build an organization for success?

In-flight magazines and management bestsellers are all full of ideas and opinions on how to build an organization for long-lasting success. Best-selling authors and management gurus have made a handsome career talking and coaching about things that seem like universal panacea for just about any kind of organization. Unfortunately, in modern times, it is dangerous, even suicidal, to put your professional reputation at stake by calling out such fantastic organizations that achieve (or are preordained to achieve) such long-lasting success – whatever that means! What was once a hopeless laggard might unexpectedly hit a jackpot and become a smashing success tomorrow, and what is flying high today might suddenly get birdstruck and be biting the dust tomorrow. There are no one-size-fit-all prescription that fit all kinds of organizations, what we have don’t come with a good user manual, and most certainly none of them come with a thirty-day no-questions-asked full-refund policy! So, how does one go about doing exactly that – design and build and organization for long-lasting success?

In my experience, there are three critical elements that need to be present in ‘interlocking proportions’ for any organization to truly achieve a sustainable long-term success. When I say ‘interlocking proportions’ I am implying two key things – one that there must be a natural and mutually complementary fit among all the components, and secondly these components are in such measure that they complement, ideally amplify, each other, rather than canceling out one component at the cost of other component.

For example, we might have a developed a great car that delivers 100 MPG fuel efficiency, but then it compromises on the road safety aspects, or if the safety standards are left uncompromised, than the passenger comfort leaves much to be desired. iPhone5 might be a great mobile device (a highly subjective statement, based on what camp you come from!) but its battery life sucks. In a way, this is similar to “integrative thinking” – Roger Martin’s term for human brain’s ability “to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension“. However, it might be (reasonably) easy to visualize integrative thinking in the context of steady-state, but how does one keep constantly rebalancing them as the system goes from one change to another, never perhaps settling on a transient steady-state long enough?

 

Success doesn't follow a straight line

Success doesn’t follow a straight line

In the context of organizations, what is means is that as the team grows from a startup into its next phase of growth and eventually into a larger organization, these components also need to commensurately grow in tandem. I have seen this being the biggest bane of many growth-phase companies – they forget what once made them successful might be impeding their further growth because those policies, procedures or practices might not make the same sense anymore. Today’s solutions are indeed tomorrow’s problems.  Unfortunately, success is blinding and the one that comes along with light flashes and glossy pictures is even more so! So, the approach and methods that led to the initial success become so sacrosanct that under no circumstances are we willing to question them, let alone adapt them. They become holy cows, and often after  few repetitions, get set in stone. As a result, while the body has grown up, the mind is still taking the low aim. The result is friction in the system, leading to turf wars among otherwise well-meaning peers, eventually leading to poor performance in the system. This might manifest in lack of rapid innovation, or bloated organizations, delays in decision making, poor customer service – just about anything.

What is the solution? Assuming that if someone has come this far, then they probably have the fundamentals in place – stuff like right talent, leadership, and strategy. However over and above these hygiene factors, I believe these three core factors that must be present in interlocking proportions at any stage of the organization:

Efficiency

An organization thrives on its ability to make optimum usage of its shared, and usually scarce, resources. In a typical startup, the demand far outstrips supply of any kind of resources – be it real estate, computing resources, marketing dollars or even the people, and hence preserving the burn rate is a critical measure of efficiency, at least till the revenues have started kicking in. But the startup team often has a vision far more compelling than those ‘large-company perks’ that are nowhere to be seen and can only be read about in those glossy magazines – business class travel, corner offices, club memberships, reserved parking lots and exec admins for senior folks, and cool stuff like free gourmet food, free office transport, generous health benefits, corporate iPhone, office gym and TGIF parties for the lesser mortals. 

So, these startups figure out a hungry, lean and mean organization structure where pretty much everyone operates as a multi-skilled expert, and wisdom of crowds is often the best way to find smart solutions to nasty problems quickly. Founders are often the decision-makers, partly because they are the subject matter experts and partly because that’s the way they want it to be. The process works very well for the initial ten- or even twenty-people startup.

Over time, unfortunately(!), success happens and it brings growth as a bye-product. Anyone who had driven a car knows that you need to keep changing gears as you get on a gradient and as you pick up speed. However, our startup team often doesn’t want to give up control, and hence continues to stay involved in all those day-to-day discussions and decisions. Over time, it creates self-inflicted inefficiencies of scale – new players don’t know their  property rights, and whether they are empowered to make those decisions, and hence they push it up for decisions, but since the guys at top are getting totally backlogged with so many things that they should have ideally delegated, they create avoidable delays, not to mention an organization that feels disempowered to act without adult supervision.

Clearly, as the company grows to a growth stage, there is need to redraw the boxes and arrows and constantly keep looking for opportunities to delegate and create leadership and accountability at each of these levels rather than keeping them all centralized. By decentralizing, I don’t mean abdicating the responsibilities but making sure everyone on the team has a fair opportunity to be a ‘part of it’ rather than simply being a bystander.

One more important but invisible and hence ill-understood connotation of efficiency is culture. If people are doing the right thing as per the organizational policies and procedures, then it is a good culture of ownership and compliance (some might agree if ‘compliance’ is still a good idea, but let’s suspend that judgment for now). However, if people are not doing the right thing because their organizational policies and procedures don’t explicitly let them take such initiatives even if they are on a burning platform, then such culture is fundamentally inefficient, even dysfunctional. So, the notion of efficiency shouldn’t be seen only in the context of how well a process uses time and resources to product its intended output, but should holistically factor-in people aspects as well.

Innovation

The lure of the geese that lays golden eggs is so tempting, it clouds our ability to think next and take any amount of risks to find if the geese could do any better? No one wants to mess with products that are performing well in the field – sales doesn’t want disruptive changes that customers might not like, and in the age of quarterly guidance and micro-scrutiny, no one wants to stick their neck out and signup for a mission impossible project. As a result, new initiatives are never bold big bets, but end up being mostly cosmetic and ‘wall-street-safe’ initiatives that won’t kill the company (and the execs behind it!) if something were to backfire. Business books are littered with real-life case studies of such thinking that killed long-term disruptive innovation in favor of preserving short-term revenue thinking. Sony was so successful with its Trinitron technology that it never felt a threat from the newer flat TV technology, and as a result, lost out to newer and more nimble players (even though it managed to catch up with its Bravia series later). Similarly, Nokia’s success in a largely monopolistic and virtually unchallenged market led to it saying no to micro-trends in some of its ‘non-sexy’ markets, like China and India.

Many people confuse efficiency with speed or a maniacal focus on cost-optimization. Speed at any cost is an indicator of extremely myopic thinking that might lead to some nice results in the short-term, but is almost always guaranteed to misfire in the long run. Similarly, cost optimization (more crudely, cost cutting) is often used by organizations to hide or cover up years of neglect and mismanagement and please investors by firing innocent people who are more often than not, hapless victims of the very same policies themselves. I was recently reading that Infosys’ new (old?) chairman says it will take 36 months to stabilize or rejuvenate Infosys. How did a company built on such strong ethos and management, and which had strong of co-funders providing stable leadership suddenly find itself needing such a long lifeline? The rot that needs 36 months to clean-up couldn’t have happened overnight, could it? Perhaps playing it too safe turned out to be risky after all! Had Gerstner believed in playing safe, he perhaps would have never got the elephant to dance.

Key is to believe that innovation is not just a great thing to do in these modern times – it is already downgraded to being a bare necessity. What was great yesterday is not great enough today and most certainly won’t even be good by tomorrow. Your competition is outsprinting you, your investors are expecting that you can deliver better returns on their investments than the competition, and your employees expect to have a rewarding career with you and not do some derivative work.

Did you say innovation was all gas?

Scale

In today’s world, scaling up is not an available option. If you are successful by any means, your investors, employees and customers (and you too!) will want to scale up – be it the little florist round the corner serving its neighborhood and known for excellent customer service,  or the software company that is able to offer innovative solutions to its customers twelve time zones away. In fact, refusal to scale up might eventually bring about your downfall.

However, the same agility and frugality that led to the initial success now stands firmly in the way to scaling up. If you are the supertechie founder-CEO who designed and developed the award-winning product, you probably were there at each step of the product development and your diligent involvement and ownership ensured such phenomenal success. Now imagine you have a team in another part of the world who owns another part of the complex software. How do you expect them to make technical decisions – should they keep calling you all the time (in the middle of your night?) or wait for you to get to office and reply to each of your mails? If you are the customer-facing founder-CEO who insists on being involved in all deals, how will your sales team make any serious progress if your presence starts becoming the rate-limiting step to their process?

I think scaling up is perhaps the most complex of these three pillars because it requires the founders and early-stage managers to accept an inevitable fact of life – that they alone can’t take the company to the next logical stage of its growth, and now must hire and depend on professional managers to help them achieve that. It also forces some of the tech-happy founders to become managers, thus making it extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, to write code or do some other technical stuff they enjoy doing (and was perhaps the reason in the first place they left their cushy corporate job to start a tech company). One of the reasons companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds and Pizza Hut have been so successful is because they figured out a model to scale up globally – despite having a heavy dependence on virtually all perishable raw materials to be sourced locally (and hence creating a wide variance in assuring quality). When Toyota developed Lean Production System, it was widely felt that Lean could not be replicated outside Japan. However, the success at NUMMI changed it all – and established beyond doubt that Lean was, after all, scaleable outside Japan.

A few years back, an independent portrait photographer from Pune came to Bangalore to set up his studio. He was a reasonably big name in Pune but struggled to establish himself in Bangalore. He wasn’t able to establish connections with the market of Bangalore, and as a result, packed up and headed back home after suffering losses after three months. I know this because we got a lovely family portrait done from him, before he moved back. Clearly, he did not have a process to scale up his operations to another city. So, what applied to large companies also applied very well to solopreuners too.

Conclusion

So, where does it all lead to? While there are probably hundreds of variable that need to be tuned properly for an organization to smoothly and successfully grow on a sustainable basis, obviously not all are critically important and  hence one needs to focus on only a few key ones. In my experience, Execution, Innovation and Scaling up top the list. And more important than which factors does one consider, it is more important to recognize that these factors are needed in ‘interlocking proportions’ and lest we create a lop-sided organization that falls apart sooner than later because even though its engines made it run at 2x, its wheels were not strong enough to support traveling at such high speeds, or its braking system was not advanced enough to control such high power. In the end, people don’t buy cars because one of the experiences is better than others – they buy it for holistic experience. Such holistic experience is not an accidental outcome – it happens when the company’s foundations are created holistically.

How do design and build an organization for success?

Are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we see the problem? Most of us immediately jump in to start solving it. While this might appear to be a natural instinct and a logical choice for some simple problems, reality could often be otherwise, especially for complex problems. If we don’t know enough about genesis of that problem, we might spend countless hours ‘fixing’ it, and yet hardly make any meaningful headway. Or, we might fix it in the short-term, but might not solve it in the long-run, i.e. address the root-cause behind it. For all we know, the first thing we do might actually be the worst!

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions” – Einstein

There is an interesting story about the famous Jefferson Memorial. A few years back, for no apparent reason, the monument was found decaying significantly more than other monuments. At the initial inspection, it seemed like it was acid rain or some such thing, but on detailed inspection, and after asking a series of ‘why’ questions, the root-cause was found to be completely unrelated to the original problem. Here’s roughly how the chain of thoughts proceeded:

Problem: Jefferson Memorial was found crumbling more rapidly then other similar monuments.

Question:Why was Jefferson Memorial crumbling faster than other monuments? Was it due to acid rain?

Answer: It was not acid rain. The monument was being cleaned both inside and outside twice a week with strong cleaning soaps. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that erosion was being caused by soap solution reacting with exhaust from jet fuel from the airport across the river.

Question: Why was the monument being cleaned twice with such strong cleaning agents?

Answer: Because there were lots of bird droppings, which were spoiling the monument, and to keep the monument clean, they had to wash it frequently.

Question: Why there were such high numbers of birds at this memorial compared to other memorials?

Answer: Because there were very high numbers of spiders at the memorial which birds like to eat!

Question: Why there were such high numbers of spiders at this monument?

Answer: Because there were a large number of midges (tiny aquatic inspects) that these spiders love to feast on.

Question: Why were there so many midges at this memorial?

Answer: Because midges were coming out for sex (yes, literally!) at dusk and were being attracted by light which was caused by the floodlights that were being put on just before the dusk – to make the memorial beautiful for the tourists! They would promptly die thus triggering the whole food chain.

So, that was the key. This was a long-lead food chain that had eventually turned into a problem. While the initial possible solutions included building a huge glass cover around the memorial, or even moving the airport far away (both of which seemed like very costly and complex solutions), eventually National Park Service delayed putting on the floodlights by one hour which led to midges population going down by 90% and the food chain was broken, and the problem was solved.

You can watch a nice short video on this from Juran Institute here: 

 

 

This is of course a great application of the Five Whys that was originally developed as a problem-solving tool by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of Japanese industrial revolution, at Toyota and became part of the Toyota Product System. Over the last several decades, several of the principles, tools and practices of TPS have found its way beyond automobile manufacturing, and are now generally considered as a vital problem-solving process for pretty much anything.

So, why this blog post?

Because the subsequent process of initiating required change is not as easy or straight-line as it appears to be.

Surprisingly, we still continue to see knee-jerk response to ill-understood problems that end up paying just a lip service to the real issues. Invariably, the 4th or the 5th why lands us into an unfamiliar territory – another function in an organization that we don’t have control over. In case of Jefferson Memorial problem, the solution involved getting in pigeon expert and then spider expert, and so on. Solving the problem effectively requires people to muster up all their courage and go over the fence and work with stakeholders to change something in their way of working – something easier said than done! There is a nice story of how a mousetrap, meant to be problem just for the mouse ends up being being a problem for everyone else but the mouse himself! It is a nice and simple illustration of how smaller causes cascade into bigger effects, and how trivializing them in the initial stages only ends up growing them into a monster problem that one is simply not able to handle. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and if only we could rewind the problem and get another chance to start it all over.

In my experience, apart from the ignorance about the power of a simple problem-solving tool such as five whys, when it still fails to find an effective solution, it is generally because it requires two different set of skills –

  1. the first is about doing a series of deductive reasoning steps to keep double-clicking on what is being presented as a cause till everyone agrees on the root-cause behind the problem. This needs smart thinking, ability to go beyond the obvious and build and test hypothesis that uncover more deeper issues.
  2. the second part is all about actually influencing people in another part of the organization to go and fix it. Invariably, the reaction is – “that’s not my problem”. In a way, this is like the Butterfly Effect – the flap of a butterfly wing sets off changes in a system causing a chain of events that eventually manifest in something very big in a completely different time and place. Solving this problem, then, is significantly difficult because it requires establishing the entire chain of events that led to the current problem. Given that these events are likely to be spread out in time (e.g., decisions made over time) and space (e.g., different functions in a organization), no one is likely to own them individually.

So, how do you go across organizational silos and ask people to take some preventive action that really solves the problem they have probably not even heard of! In general, making someone agree that they need to change something is hard enough.

I have found the following approach that works in many situations –

  1. First, get all the data. In the absence of data, we are all only conjecturing, and as creative that might be, we need to back it up with objective data to eventually make meaningful and better decisions.
  2. Whenever possible, involve other affected groups or individuals in the process at the earliest. No point second-guessing on their behalf.
  3. If they haven’t been part of the original root-cause analysis, instead of shooting off an email to them asking them ‘what’ is to be done, walk them through the entire process and ask them for validation. At this point, get an agreement on the problem without telling them your view of the solution.
  4. Once there is an agreement on the problem, half the battle is already won. Now start asking them how would they solve it.
  5. An ideal situation is when their solution is same as yours. But that might not always happen. If their solution is different than yours, first understand what is it that they are telling you, and why do they think that will solve the problem.
  6. At this stage, if you are not convinced of their approach, let them know so, and share what your original root-cause analysis exercise has come up with. The idea is not to confront them, but rather present another perspective and to compare and contrast what is better way to address the issue.
  7. If there is a toss-up between these two approaches, it might make sense to go with their solution rather than yours for two primary reasons – they are the primary function owners and hence expected to have better subject-matter expertise and professional judgment than you, and secondly if you go with their perspective, you are likely to get a better buy-in in the long run.
  8. However, if there is a deadlock, and quite often that is the case, one has to be accommodating. A very natural response is to go up the reporting chain and push for our solution, but I haven’t seen that is very productive in the long run. I would give benefit of doubt to the concerned group or the function and ask them to try for a reasonable and mutually agreed upon period of time till we see if the problem is resolved effectively. If it is not getting resolved, it’s time to once again get back to the drawing board.
  9. Hopefully you have an agreement by now on a solution that actually addresses the core issue and solves it. God bless you.
  10. Always remember – today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. While you might have solved the problem, in the bargain you might have inadvertently triggered-off another problem that is waiting to be manifest somewhere else in the organization in due course of time. So, keep your eyes and ears open if any new issues are reported – it is quite likely that they are regression effect of the current solution!

In today’s world, solving a problem effectively is as much a hard process as it is an individual and sociological change – affected people need to understand not only the required changes, but also the reasons behind it and adapt accordingly, which is more often than not, very discomforting. In a way, one can even argue that this is not even ‘change management’ – it is ‘change initiation’ which requires chartering unknown waters. Initiating the change requires even higher level of individual courage, leadership and persuasion skills to bring all affected parties on the same page. In a large and complex organization, it means hopping over silos and other political boundaries and tribal cultures and getting them agree to something else. Apart from a very strong understanding of systems thinking, it also needs very high amount of political capital and people suaveness to get it done. It also takes a lot of time to get this done, and most of us are simply not prepared to initiate such transformational change for a variety of additional reasons (e.g., if my performance system rewards result-orientation at the cost of long-haul systemic improvement, how can I demonstrate results by the time next review is due, and so on). So, we settle down for what appears to be second-best – just fix it. In reality, that is just postponing what eventually needs to be done anyhow – and perhaps at an even greater cost!

So, think again – are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

Seek new assignments for things you have not done before & develop deep expertise in one area…

Samir interviewed me for his wonderful blog Future of Project Management. It is all about my perspectives on how one can seek new assignments for things that one has never done before and develop deep expertise in one area to create an enriching and satisfying career. For the audio and the full interview, click here.

Seek new assignments...

How to establish credibility in a democratic workplace?

Flattening of organizations is an oft-repeated phrase that means different things to different people. My favorite connotation is what I call as ‘democratization of management’, which essentially means a more symmetric power distribution between erstwhile ‘management’ and the erstwhile ‘worker’- if at all such words make sense anymore. While there are serious advantages of such an organization structure, it obviously doesn’t come free of cost. For example, a key byproduct of such change is moving away from ‘leading with authority’ to ‘leading with influence’ where leaders can’t rely on their positional power or the organizational title to basically get things done. Instead, they need to establish their ‘credibility’ to be accepted as a ‘leader’ and the harbinger of change, and get things done. Sounds simple? Well, it may not be so easy…

In the old world where management unilaterally made rules, managers were empowered with making all key decisions and the workers were simply expected to follow them. Henry Ford created the moving assembly line where basically the supervisors made all decisions and the shop-floor workers were fungible to work on any of the low-level tasks. Naturally, it didn’t require much for a supervisor to demonstrate his ‘power’ – all he literally had to do was show up and shout orders. People knew who was the boss, and given the roles they were hired into, either they were not of adequate intellectual level to be able to see the big picture, or were not allowed to think of the big picture. And even though last few decades were prime examples of worsening industrial relations, the workplace conflict between management and workers essentially got managed because of ‘clear’ division of labor – management made the rules to govern the work and output of workers, and the workers made the goods by obeying orders from management.

Enter the new world, the flat hierarchy, the knowledge economy, the informal Gen X and the indomitable Gen Y, and the old system comes down crumbling fast. Gone is the bad old world that essentially ‘exploited’ the workers. The good new world is all about collaboration, shared leadership, joint decision-making and other similar 21st century values and norms. There is simply no place for three-piece suits and bombastic titles in such a workplace. There is no corner office – at best, there is a corner cubicle! Everyone gets their own coffee, and everyone picks up their own printouts (from a common printer, did I say?). The notion of ‘experience’ gets blurred in such a context. I blogged about it earlier on inexperience is the new competency.

Such workplace sounds so romantic! Gone are the high walls that separated managers from real people. There is much freer flow of ideas and feedback, and makes the perfect setting for some real work. Right? Well…maybe…

But it also comes with one BIG caveat – how does someone, anyone, establish their ‘position’ in such a flat world? There is no title anymore to rely upon or hide back behind. Decision-making is often a teamwork and though it might have some real dangers of groupthink, it still has more advantages to be taken up seriously. If you are new to the team, or have the onerous task to bring in new ideas, how do you do that? What are the chances that the team will give you any hearing, let alone adopt your ideas? In short, what is your credibility to bring in new ideas? In the absence of any demonstrated credibility, why should anyone listen to you and waste their time?

Sounds very humbling and outrightly brutal, isn’t it? But, I believe that is the idea workplace of today – and one has to be lucky to be in such a workplace (and I will come to that later). Such workplaces don’t accept the ideas just because they come from someone sitting on a better chair, or drawing more salary, or wearing expensive designer suits, or is seen hobnobbing with the power that be. Such workplaces are ‘democratized’ and believe in bringing out and bringing up the best ideas just on its sheer merit. Let the game begin and let the best idea win.

While this could be real fun to participate in a workplace with such unbelievable energy, it could be equally frustrating for someone trying to bring a new idea, e.g. trying to convince for a new product, or rallying for entering new markets, or pitching for some process change, etc. Actually, if you think of it, most of us would be doing one such activity at any time (and those who are not doing are anyway getting closer to extinction, but that’s for another blog post). So, how do convince your peers, your team members (yes – even they need to be convinced, you can’t simply shove a decision down their throats anymore!), your boss and other key stakeholders? Why should they believe in your story? Do you have some proofpoints? What if they listened to you and the whole thing bombed? After all, you don’t come with the credibility that IT managers in 60s and 70s often believed in – “No one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. This simple ‘feeling of safety’ made them buy IBM with literally their eyes closed. Do your ideas come with such ironclad 30-day money-back guarantee?

A lot of these questions are because you haven’t yet paid your dues yet. You are too new to the system, or your ideas haven’t been fructified yet. Or maybe they have in the past, but this is a new manager. Or the rules of the marketplace have changed and you have a much shorter runway than in the past. The hard truth is that you don’t have credibility, and the absence of credibility means you don’t have enough ‘political capital’ for others to support your ideas. It’s not that they don’t like you or your ideas – just that you haven’t been able to register yourself in their minds as someone who is innovative, trustworthy and reliable enough to not only bring up sexy ideas that matter to them, but also willing to endure a long and hard fight to set those ideas to fruition. Question is, how do you earn such impeccable credibility?

I have been lucky to learn some valuable lessons in building credibility. Here are seven of them:

Learn from history…but don’t be enslaved to it

When you are new to a democratic workplace, you often find a combination of multiple factors – you are chartered to initiate and execute a change but the organizational history is against that change (and hence you) because of bitter experiences in the past. While it is very important to study the history and learn from it, it is even more important to not let history dictate the future! Quite often, false starts and fire drills desensitize people from jumping headlong into future change initiatives…they become sceptic of motives and impact of such failed change attempts on their own careers, and hence prefer to stay away till there is more clarity. You, as the change agent need to learn all you can learn from all those failed endeavors – without falling in the trap of sympathizing with the status quo. If despite all failed attempts in the past, you have still been given another chance, it is only because someone up there still believes that this change is needed. Don’t shortchange them – and yourself!

Identify passionate practitioners…and let their voice matter

While new ideas often have the power and potential to create disruption and hence create resistance among rank and file, there are always some people who are extremely loyal to some of those ideas – how so much minority they might be, and some of them are often quite good at it. Instead of appointing experts from outside, the better way is to identify those internal subject matter experts, and elevate them to play more important role in change management. Instead of ignoring them, turn them into your biggest allies. They carry invaluable institutional knowledge with them, and understand how and why some of the previous attempts failed. Since their heart bleeds for the given change, they will be willing to risk their own personal credibility to support you in your endeavor. They should be your A team.

Learn the “real world” first…don’t simply forcefit process to it

My favorite pet peeve against the snake-oil salesman (a.k.a. “process gurus”) is how cleverly they use the principles of FUD to scare the hell out of you, and forcefit their version of process to your version of problem. They almost make you believe that your problem is wrong because it doesn’t confirm with their solution. Stay away from those ‘experts’. Rather, look at the real world and understand the issues – whether or not the solution addresses it or not. My favorite is from the Swiss Army manual – if there is a difference between map and the terrain, trust the terrain! If people see you as an internal spokesman for an external paid consultant, then you can safely kiss your chance of being accepted as the neutral and well-balanced voice. Till you have properly understood the problem, don’t rush into a solution. It not only insults people’s intelligence (which is bad for you, and hence the organization too), it also significantly reduces chances of finding a better solution (which is bad for the organization, and hence you too).

Don’t preach from the top…demonstrate proofpoints

It is a human tendency to rush into ‘showing’ expertise by taking a position and adopt a condescending stance in an anxiety to establish oneself in a new team or a new organization. Sometimes, being negative or just showing a casual aloofness is considered as a proven way to create an aura of expert. I think all this is nonsense. People are smart, and they can spot fake from miles. Preaching without any proofpoints is meaningless. Preaching creates the impression that all people are naives or idiots, and hence need such prescriptions. However, I think people are basically smart. Anyone in any position of responsibility and accountability must be trusted to have some common sense – they need you to solve some specific problem, but they haven’t allowed you to change their lives. Instead of selling panacea, you would be much better off taking up specific problems that create objective and repeatable experiences, and allow people to form their own views about it. Don’t put words in their mouth that they might not like, instead leave them with experiences that they can relate to and form their own opinion, even if that goes against you – as long as that is good for the business and people.

Validate ideas externally…but don’t hardsell them internally

What do you when people won’t listen to your ideas internally? You have tried all tricks of trade – got external experts to come and talk about it, or shared world wisdom internally, but people are still sceptic. Sometimes, such sustained rejection of your ideas could set you back in your endeavor, and in extreme cases, kill your spirit enough to drop the change agenda. What do you do next? Perhaps the best move it not to pursue it aggressively but first go out and validate your ideas from external world – the professional network, the practitioner community and so on. Listen to their challenges and adventures and share your own with them. Learn from each other and improve upon your ideas. A few things will happen when you do it: your ideas will improve when you listen to feedback, and your own ability to articulate your ideas and your conviction in them will shoot up tremendously when you talk about your ideas a few times. Finally, when the world starts talking about your ideas, even your peers will sit up and take notice of them. That’ just the way we humans behave – we just need someone to initially endorse the ideas for us to support them.

Don’t try to boil the ocean…rather, establish beachheads

Very often, when we are chartered with a change agenda, we immediately start daydreaming of world domination. We start fantasizing how we will change the world with our romantic ideas, how we will become the next big thing that mankind has never known! Armed with such ‘dangerous’ ideas, we run like possessed spirits looking to infect everyone with our newfound ideas, energy and enthusiasm. However, depending on how the world sees us, they either ignore us, or shun or simply reject our ideas! Even if our ideas somehow get decreed by law, people in democratic workplace simply choose to ignore them and keep doing things their own way. So, what do you do? If you force yourself further upon people, their resistance only hardens. You need to back off. In short – don’t try to boil the ocean. That is simply not the 21st century way of doing things. Ideas, take a subset of the problem that is more tangible, and has higher chances of accepting your ideas. Take that up and establish the beachhead, and create a rocksolid success story around it. That will earn you much better support than aiming for land grab.

Socialize with key stakeholders…multiple times

No idea can survive in isolation. Being a lone ranger is of no help in pushing any significant idea in any meaningful manner. It takes a village to raise a child. If your idea is what I like to call ‘laminated’, meaning it can’t be modified or soiled, then it is meaningless. First of all, to make people take any level of meaningful interest in it, the idea can’t be positioned as being immune to modifications or enhancements. If it appears so much change-resistant, people might reject it because they might think of it as a mandate much against their own views about it. Secondly, if they have not had chance to put their fingerprints on it, even the idea might remain immature and not grow up to become strong enough to deal with all complexities. So, the key is to socialize the idea with key stakeholders as many times are it makes sense. Each interaction might make the idea one baby step better and the eventual result might exceed all your initial expectations.

So, there you go. These are my seven learnings on how one can establish credibility in a democratic workplace. What are your learnings?

Our methodology is 100% pure, our result is another thing!

What is worse then an anarchy ? You might say that is the absolute abyss, but I think blind allegiance is even more dangerous (and that includes following the letter but tweaking the spirit – things like ‘creative accounting‘ or its parallels in every field). Anarchy at least allows for things to become ‘better’ in order to survive – whether it is the idealogy, resistance, or even musclepower, or any other ills (and hopefully at some point, social forces of constructive destruction take over). But in a land where unquestionable compliance and blind allegiance rule the roost, IMNSHO, is like a terminal patient off the ventilator support. When people are on their deathbed, they don’t regret things that they did but much rather the things they did not do!

In project management, life is no less colorful. We have process pundits (read “prescription police”) shouting from the rooftop with a megaphone on how heavens will strike them bone dead with lighting if they ever as much as strayed from the ‘standards’. When projects are being postmortemed, we don’t often ask what or why the project did something that they did, but why they did not do things that they did not do. And quite often, you find answer in the map itself – because the map did not factor-in those conditions that were actually encountered on the terrain, the blind followers just followed the Pied Piper and danced their way into the river of death. What a terrible waste of human talent.

Why do we get stuck with methods so much that our result-orientation takes a back seat ? I think there might be many answers, but some that deserve merit:

We fall in love with ‘our’ methods

Let’s face it – introducing a new methodology in an organization, or a team, is not easy. People have their favorites, and it already is a fairly serious political game to get such groups to a decision (whether or not there is a consensus). After you have sold the executive sponsor to go for a particular methodology, you have to now somehow sell to middle-managers and the teams – without their support, you are toast. Sometimes you might have legitimate power (“position power”) to thrust the decision down their unwilling throats, but most often that doesn’t work anymore (even in jails!). So, you have to use your charm offensive to somehow make the other stakeholders believe that this methodology is the god’s greatest gift to mankind, and how it will take their next project to unprecendented glories. If only that were half-true! What follows next is a qunitessentially Bollywood storyline – the project is in tatters and the project manager and teams are exhausted and some even ready to bail-out. You go and put some more pressure on them, ask for weekly reports to be given on daily basis and take away even more productive hours into endless meetings to discuss yesterday’s weather. In short, we do everything but realize that our methods might be wrong…perhaps…for a change? Most people don’t get it, but sometimes, the smarter ones do get it. But by then, they are so much neck-deep in love with their methods that they can’t afford to take most obvious and the only correct decision – take a U turn, and admit their mistakes. Our professional ego checkmates us. Falling in a bad relation is bad, staying in it even after realizing one’s folly is worse.

We believe blindly in marketing claims

These days, there are dozens of marketing gurus, each extolling the virtues of their methods. In a way, it is like entering a village market – each vendor selling the same portfolio of vegetables, but each has to ‘differentiate’ from his neighboring vendor, and hence some make wild performance claims, quite often unbacked by any reliable data, and almost always trusted by gullible buyers at face value. So, some of us just go by the tall claims in glossy marketing brochures. You don’t believe me – tell me, how else you can explain those knowledgeable investors getting duped by Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme in this age and day! Tell me how most banks fell for easy money in the subprime market. And if we were to assume, for a moment, that everything these marketing brochures said was indeed true, how come rest of the world had not quite figured it out already ? I think intelligence is not the elite preserve of a learned few – the rest of us lesser mortals also deserve to be treated with some professional respect that we can figure out what works and what doesn’t. In a previous blog, I once did an interesting analysis of one such marketing claim Blame your flaccid developers and your flaccid customers for your poor quality products !.

We are are too scared to experiment and take sensible risks

This is a real classic. Many organizations, certainly many more than we think there are, are so stuck in ‘command and control’ that they create a system where compliance is rewarded and creativity is shunned. This might work well in some industries or companies, but certainly doesn’t work for most of us. A beauty about such companies is that such outright disdain to new ideas might not just start and end at the top – depending on how deep-rooted the indoctrination is, it might be running in every employee at all levels. In the zest to display unflinching loyalty and to project oneself as a corporate citizen second to none, many employees (and many managers) simply abort new ideas because that might threaten the ‘status quo’ and makes them look very bad in front of the powers that be.

Because everyone else is doing it

This is groupthink at its best. Just because every Tom, Dick and Harry about town is doing it, I must also adopt (simply continue following mindlessly) the latest management fad. For example, we have all heard of (often unverified) stories how investors in the bay area during the dotcom boom era would only look at business plans that had an India component. Just because everyone is doing offshoring might not be good enough why I should also do it. Similarly, just because everyone I know is into Agile, does that make a strong case for my business also ? I think we should stop and think before succumbing to trade journals that routinely publish such forecasts and doomsday prophecies.

We are looking for easy cookbook solutions

Let’s accept it – some people are just plain lazy, or just too risk averse to do any meaningful research on what works for them. Instead of investing in figuring out what’s best for them, they are looking for some quick wins, some jumpstart, some fast food, some room service, some instant karma. They believe they can learn from other’s mistakes (which is definitely a great way to learn – definitely a lot better than not learning from anyone else’s mistakes!) and sometimes they might be successful, if they have copied the right recipe, but very often, that only results in wrong meal to wrong people at wrong time. What people don’t realize is that every problem is cast in a different mold, and whatever one says, there simply is no way one could airlift a solution and drop on the face of a second problem – in its totality – and expect the solution to work. Similarly, there is no way a cookboo solution might work. For example, Agile was designed around small collocated teams that have so high communication among itself that trust replaces formal contracts and communication replaces documentation – I mean they thrive on such a high-energy environment. But, sadly, simply to prove that Agile can fix any problem in the world, management consultants have stretched (should I say ‘diluted’) those very Agile princinples and they now try to forcefit those methods on a distributed, large team, that often has a heterogeneous ‘salad bowl’ culture than a homogeneous ‘melting pot’. So, you land in the situation that just because it worked for some random cases, some among us just naively believe it could work for our random case too. Does it get any more smarter than this 🙂

We believe compliance leads to repeatable success

Standards are often treated like insurance against catastrophes – both the termites and the tornadoes types (think of tornadoes as something that just comes out of the left field and kills a project overnight – like a meteor hits a neighborhood, and think of termites as slow and steady erosion that goes on and on and goes undetected until the time the damage is complete, comprehensive and beyong damage control). They ensure that no one deviates from the beaten track and tries something adventerous (without getting rapped on the knuckles), because that could lead to unpredictable results. And we all look for standards and certifications – ISO-this and ISO-that, CMM and CMMI (and the sunsequent obsession with all other 5-level models), Scrum, PMP, PRINCE2, MBA, PhD, IEEE, …so much so that even in the field of creative arts, there are schools that specify what creativity is allowed and what is out! There are success formulas for Bollywood movies – rich girl meets poor boy and the anti-social forces strike boy’s family. Eventually, our hero saves the day. Similarly, in Hollywood movies, it has to be the hero saving the nation from external threat (very often, coming from the space). In software development, ISO championed the cause of non-negotiable compliance and blind CMM practitioners only perfected it. Agilists were born out of the promise to create a world free of compliance, but it seems they have also ended up growing their tribes with their own mini-rules that give an instant gratification by useless things like Scrum Test to massage one’s ego that my Scrum is more Agile than your Scrum! Do, if you score a certain score in the Scrum Test, you are almost ‘guaranteed’ to get some x level of productivity improvement! Does that remind you of yesteryears, or does it make the future look more scarier?

Conclusion

Human behavior never ceases to amaze. For every one rational thinker, the world has to produce thousands of blind followers. Our schools and colleges teach us to learn the knowledge but they don’t always teach us how to convert it into wisdom. So, when we reach workplace, we are deeply apprehensive of trying out new stuff. We are excellent followers, but simply shudder at the mere thought of questioning status quo. We often behave like the monkey whose hand is stuck in the cookie-jar but refuses to release the cookies even when it knows that the only way he can extricate his hand out of the jar is without cookies. When those workplaces ignore result-orientation and only worship the compliance, the story only gets murkier. Think of a state where compliance is handsomely rewarded and questioning it seen as full and frontal attack, and its timid citizens are only too happy to oblige. They think a lifetime of blind obedience to methodology is far more superior than a moment of experimentation, even if leads to bad results.

After all…our methodology is 100% pure, our result is another thing!

(Inspired by a slogan on a tee: Our vodka is 90% pure, our reputation is another thing. very inspiring, indeed :))

Does your project management methodology lets you free think?

Its not about the project management methodology anymore. Frankly, it never was, even though it has triggered off some of the most senseless wars in the history of project management. Starting with Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s Scientific Management to Henry Ford‘s assembly-line based mass production system and eventually landing in a flavor-of-the-day methodology (CMM, ISO, Agile, XP, Scrum, Lean, Kanban…and add your favorite one here), project management community, especially in software field, has seen it all…and still counting! All these project management methodologies have been eulogized as silver bullets in their heydays (and some still continue to be worshipped as we speak), and have subsequently been improved upon by the next wave of innovation driven by ever-evolving business needs, state of technology and the sociological changes at the workplace. However, each predecessor has been uncharitably rejected and unceremoniously relegated to trash by every successive methodology champs. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped project woes, certainly not – going by the claims made in their marketing brochures :). So, whom are we to trust – the overzealous champs or their ever-evolving methodologies ?

For most practitioners, novices and experienced folks alike, project management methodology became this one large target to shoot at, the advertisement to get the project deal, the crutches to hold the project on to, the lame excuse against change in project specs, the insurance against failures, perhaps the raison d’tre for project managers ? “Sorry, the manual says do it this way, we can’t change that”.The process handbook says we can’t take any changes anymore – tell customers to wait until the next release which is just six months away”. “You are not approved to prototype, so stop that effort”. “Our company’s org structure doesn’t allow an engineer to manage the project – the risks are too high”. “Our metrics are within the control limits, so I don’t understand why engineers fear a project delay”. Goes without saying, they come in all hues.

Little did we realize that the “problem” was a moving target. We continued to evolve our solution blissfully unaware that the problem was also upgrading itself. Every new fix has led to a newer generation of problem that seems to have outpaced the development of solutions so far, and I see no good reason why we will ever have a perfect solution for every type of problem. So, it doesn’t amuse me when people on Agile / Scrum discussion boards try to indiscriminately apply those principles to just about every type of problem under the sun, and then when, predictably, things don’t work, they blame that Agile / Scrum is not being applied in its spirit. Have you ever seen a project manager so baptized that he won’t think beyond the book ? I think those blind preachers are just living like a frog in a well.

Try to imagine this scene pictorially in your mind: You are walking down the road with a map in hand. You see a puddle of water that’s not on the map. What do you do ? Agilists will have you believe that waterfallists will merrily walk through (or drown through, depending on depth of the puddle) whereas Agilists will “inspect and adapt” a sophisticated term for “trial and error” (which is, by no means, a bad term). So, they will step into the puddle a little every time, and based on the results of that, determine if they want to go ahead or change the course. I will ask you something: forget the books (its actually much better if you burn them literally), what will you do if no one told you anything. You will simply avoid it. I think humans are infinitely more capable of acting on their own, especially in matters of their own interest, that they don’t require anyone to tell them what to do. So, let’s not try to be their parents. Right? Or wrong?

In my small world, we are all grown-ups who have a right to view the problem with our own private lenses without owing anyone an iota of apology about the unique problems we alone face and struggle with, whether we understand or not. And we are free to blend any major or minor, known or unknown, new or old, and right or wrong methdologies to solve our own problems. As real-life practitioners solving non-glamorous, project management template-agnostic problems, we don’t need to display our camarederie and unflinching loyalty to some obscure methodology whatever anyone says. After all, they don’t sign your paychecks, but your customers do! Your solutions should only be aligned to what your customer wants – and not what a methodology wants!

So, it is simply not about methodology. If anything, its all about:

  • Refusing to get ringfenced by a process document, howsoever great that might be
  • Outrightly rejecting the idea that things can’t be improved any further
  • Optimizing things that can be done better than in the past when a given process was written
  • Eliminating deadwood from a process simply becuase something makes no sense
  • Embracing change because your problems were not designed keeping your process in mindIn fact, it is not even about a project anymore. If anything, it is about your fundamental right to free thinking. But then, my view should not come in your way of your free thinking :).

So, think again….does your project management methodology lets you free think?

How Mentoring can help Leaders too?

Last month, I sat through an interesting talk by two very senior business professionals, Ajit Chakravarti and Govind Mirchandani. The talk was organized by the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC), and you can read speaker profiles here. I found their talk particularly interesting because they did not talk any theory, and did not use any complex jargon or bulky models to explain their ideas.

They talked about how and why leadership also requires to be mentored, and how a mentor makes the difference. They used the analogy of Krishna as a mentor to Arjun in the Kurushetra battlefield. Arjun is torn by the value conflict – should he fight and kill his own kith and kin for the sake of getting his kingdom back? He doesn’t require training for the war, nor does he require any coaching for the battle – the fact that he is out there in the battlefield, all decked up means he is fully trained and ready to fight the war. What he needs is someone whom he trusts for his knowledge and his unflinching trust and support for him who can listen to him, clarify the value conflict (which, more often than not, is not between right vs wrong, but between ‘right’ and ‘right’  two equally competing options that are both the right thing to do individually, but when tested against each other, put one’s value system to extreme test), ask questions, show him the mirror – so that Arjun can take the correct decision. In their view, Krishna fills that role as a mentor, and they extrapolate the following traits of a mentor from how Krishna goes on to help Arjun:

  • Respected leader, inspires, and Role model
  • Willing to share
  • Is trustworthy
  • Prime importance: mentee’s development & growth
  • Guides, supports, counsels
  • Helps create value and realise vision

I think it sums up what makes a mentor quite well. It is not important for a mentor to be knowledgeable alone – he needs to have a legitimate interest in mentee’s development and growth. I especially like the reminder that a mentor should be willing to share – many ‘experts’ out there take pride in their knowledge but are unwilling (insecure ?) to share that knowledge. In today’s flat world, power is indeed with the one who has the knowledge and is willing to share with others for everyone’s good.

So, how does a mentor do all these things? In their view, a mentor hones intrinsic qualities, thinking, emotional intelligence, attitudes, behaviors, habits and mentee’s personality and character. He does this by holding a mirror for the mentees to check their values and alter the behavior, as deemded fit by the mentees themselves.

One question eventually comes to mind is whether a mentor is a coach, or someone else? They make a distinction between a coach and a mentor:

 



Coach

Mentor

Domain expertise/skill

Holistic development

Akin to teaching

Unearthing potential

One to many

One on One

Open

Confidential

Across organisational levels

Senior leadership only

It is not difficult to see that mentoring (at least the way these two speakers define) is quite different from coaching. The aspect of confidentiality and one-on-one is quite different from coaching, and mentoring is all about opening up layers of potential that perhaps the mentee (or even the mentor) might simply not be aware of. They limit the mentoring to senior leadership, though I am not sure I agree with it. I think everyone needs a mentor.

They talked about their mentoring process and I found one interesting step in it – immersion:

  

 Mentoring Landscape 

 

 

They define immersion as the state where there is complete experential bliss in the process of learning – and metaphorically compare it with an ace swimmer really ‘immersed’ under water, blissfully enjoying the depths of his ‘environment’ and learning in the process. In their view, immersion is not really a mentee’s submission to the mentor but a necessary step towards building the complete trust where a mentee is able to explore inner depths of his character, mind or potential under complete trust for the mentor. I think this ability to ‘immerse’ a mentee might be the finesse that makes great mentors stand apart from the crowd of hundreds of so-called mentors. Of course, such two-way trust might never develop overnight, and can’t happen without having a mentor of impeccable credentials and a mentee’s complete and unconditional belief in his mentor’s abilities and intent. However, I am interested in ‘immersion’ as an idea whether that happens under supervision or not. I think the whole idea of someone soaking it up, being immersed in the experience, taking own sweet time to internalize the learning is a great idea as opposed to a canned presentation that expects cookie-cutter solutions.

It was a good exchange of ideas, and something that gave me new ideas, especially the concept of immersion, to think more about.

Situational Leadership in Software teams

In a previous post, What is the leadership style in your software teams ?, I discussed about four key types of leadership and their evoluation, and how it could possibly relate to software teams. In this blog post, let’s dwell on this topic further, and explore how to decide what leadership style suits a given situation. The assumption here is that there is no such thing as an “all-weather” or a personal favorite leadership style – each tool and method has pros and cons depending on why, how, when, what and where they are applied. The value one derives depends on how well a given style ‘fits’ the context – to that end, it it highly imperative to identify the ground conditions and only then decide what could work here more effectively.

Our industry has a difficulty articulating with what type of leadership we want to have. We surely don’t like the ‘Great Leader’ or the ‘Command and Control’ leaderships (discussed in my previous post). We believe this leads to a highly autocratic or centralized organizations which is the not the best way to manage highly educated, unapologetically assertive and fiercely independent knowledge professionals. We feel empowerment is the way to go, and eventually want to be able to manage own destiny by ourselves. There is a fair amount of consistency in these thoughts among young professionals cutting across countries and cultures. This should make the task for managers easier, because they kind of know what is expected of them, and all they need to do is to just do it! However, like every management advise, it is easier said than done. For one, most managers from the shop-floor era of management might not be skilled or ready for the new-age management mantras. They might feel insecure letting go of almost all their authority, or might feel underconfident about younger professional’s competence, or some other reasons. So, that’s one part of the issue.

Second part of the issue is how young professionals want their leaders to support them. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, everyone does want someone ‘above’ them to support them when they are need help, give them some directions when they are doing something for the first time, give them feedback when they have done something, shower them with praise and recognition when they accomplish something, and (surprise ! surprise !) even pull them up when they mess things up (of course, not in a way that kills them, but in a way that lifts them).

Most managers understand these intuitively or learn them from the school of hard knocks. First-time managers often have the tendency to either overcontrol the team (by using management tools such as “death by process” or “death by compliance”) or the other extreme end to overappease the team. We have seen them in all shapes and sizes. What I found is that people generally tend to overcontrol because they don’t want to fail, and want to do everything possible to ensure that projects stay on tracks. It is not so much about them not trusting their teams, but more about whether the project will be completed successfully if they are not involved. They want to look good to their seniors that by making them the manager of this project, they did not make a bad decision. Some managers share their solidatiry by following every process to the hilt, some will overstuff their plate full of every possible requirement because they don’t want to be seen as the project manager who says ‘No’ to a customer, some might make the team work extraordinaliy hard over weekends so that upper management sees their ‘commitment’ to the project and the organization. They probably believe that overcontrol and being a tough manager can solve all people issues on a project.

Other type of extreme behavior is about turning the team environment into an Osho commune. The idea is to ‘buy’ motivation to the task, commitment to the organization and loyalty to themselves by ’empowering’ the teams. Most people will never admit that they are ‘buying’ motivation, commitment and loyalty from the team but that’s what it is more often than not. After all, the are not ’empowering’ their newly assigned teams on the basis of their merit and performance just yet, so that else could explain their motives? I have seen managers who were technically or managerially weak buying their team’s respect by trading their authority. I have seen managers who do not want to spoil their relationship with team members (especially low performers) using this strategy. They are trying to ‘please’ everyone on the team. Obviously they haven’t heard “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure: which is: Try to please everybody” by Herbert Swope.

Surely, this is a continuum with these two being its extreme ends, and the right way is somewhere in between. However, what might be the ‘right way’ for some might not be seen as the ‘right way’ by another. To illustrate what I mean, look at the same behavior but which could mean entirely different things to different people:

  • Behaviour 1: A manager is heavily involved working with the team in discussing and resolving every single issue, looks into the details of every single decision, participates in all estimations and commitments, sits and writes code and reviews it, etc.
    • Interpretation 1: She is a great leader. Supports us in all our problems, gets involved, and an eye for details. By getting involved in the commitment-making process, I feel more secure that I won’t be blamed for any issues, and that my manager is in it with me. She still knows the entire code by heart!
    • Interpretation 2: She doesn’t trust us, and gets involved in every single issue. There is no freedom to do what we want to do. I would say she micro-manages us. If she also contributes as an individual performer, she should be one of the engineers and not a manager

We have a manager here who might have felt her involvement with the team will be welcomed. She might have had her own reasons to get involved (maybe new project for the company, very critical, high expectations, her own views about team being capable of executing it, etc.) but different team members are likely to view it differently. Similarly, let’s take another case on the end of the spectrum:

  • Behavior 2: The manager is not involved in day to day team inolvement, allow the team to manage its own issue
    • Interpretation 1: he is a great leader, he has delegated every decision-making and empowered us like we have never known. he trust us with our ability to do things
    • Interpretation 2: he is totally aloof from the team and takes no responsibility for the team. has no feeling for what pressures we go through in the trenches. I wonder why the company pays him. He doesn’t come and help even when we are knee-deep in hot water. A simple illustration like this can bring out the fact that we are all different and likely to interpret same observed behavior differently. As you rightly point out, 99% depends on context – we should know all possible permutations and combinations and what are the specific issues in each of those, and what would be the best way to address those issues.

Again, the behavior of this manager is likely to be interpreted differently by different people in his team, irrespective of what and why he thinks about it.

Clearly, these trivial and overexaggerated examples do highlight the fact that a singular style won’t serve all needs well. The need is to identify an approach that individual people could relate to personally, and feel that their concerns and needs are addressed individually by the leader rather than being met with collectively by the leader (which essentially means that no one’s needs are being met, because an ‘average’ by definition is at best a numerical compromise what falls short of numbers higher than it and scores higher than number below it, thus matching none of the numbers).

Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership model serves as a great example to address this dilemma:

Situational Leadership modelEssentially, this recognizes the fact that ‘followers’ undergo development in stages when following a leader, and based on where a follower is in the stage of development, a leader must modify his leadership style. As we see in the Situational Leadership model, a leader adjusts his style (from quadrants S1->S2->S3->S4) from ‘Directing / Telling’ style when his followers need very high direction but not so much of support. This is pretty much a one-way, centralized leadership that realizes the fact that followers are not skilled enough to decide for themselves, and hence must be clearly guided on their tasks.

As the team matures and is able to understand much of task requirements, they require lesser direction and are able to contribute to tasks in terms fo ideas,knowledge and skills. This turns the communication into two-way and requires the leader to get into a ‘Coaching / Selling’ mode.

As the team matures and requires lesser of directions, the leader changes gears again and gets into ‘Supporting / Participating’ mode where more responsibility has been handed down to the teams but the overall control still remains with the leader.

Finally, when the teams have grown to the stage where they are self-directed, they assume decision-making from the leader, who is only involved when the teams want him to get involved. At this point, the leader is in ‘Delegating’ mode and has delegated responsibility as well as authority with his followers or the team.

As we can see here, the ‘power’ of a leader is gradually shared with the team as they develop. This model is cognizant of the fact that no one behavior could suit every situation – it all really depends on where the team is at this point of time. Of course, the leader is also responsible for developing the team from R1 through R4 and in that process, he must be prepared to ‘lose’ his traditional power and authority to the teams. In a way, he must work towards making himself redundant! But that is what transformational leadership is all about.

Some interesting and important observation from this model:

  • However seasoned a leader might be, she can’t always start operating in a particular quadrant in which she is currently operating, or is proficient in. When being part of another team, she must analyze the follower preparedness and readiness before directly getting into the empowering mode lest that be midsunderstood and create a chaos.
  • There is nothing good or bad about a given leadership style. Like a right tool in the right hands, it must be seen as the right response to a given problem. So, if some manager comes across as a ‘Telling’ manager, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
  • Leadership style mismatch typically happens when the leader opens the floodgates a little too early for the team to handle. This could result in a chaos, as the team has not yet had the opportunity to transform itself into a high-performing self-organizing team. On the other hand, other leadership dysfunction is about not letting it go even when the team has demonstrated its ability to manage its own fortunes. We took those examples earlier in this blog.
  • There might be individuals with high competence in their functions, but what matters in our context is the preparedness and readiness as a team. There will always be individuals in any team in any stage who will either be very self-directed (and hence, not very open to being directed) or highly dependent for directions. A leader’s job becomes difficult because she must not only maintain a particular leadership style to suit the team development stage, but also make adjustments as per the individual differences.
  • To be a good leader, one doesn’t always have to be in S4 quadrant. One could be in S1 quadrant and still serve the team with excellent results. Similarly, a bad leader doesn’t always have to be always the one who is seen as wielding control over the team, say, in S1 quadrant. A leader operating in S4 quadrant could come across as an incompetant leader.
  • Finally, (a) organizational culture for decision-making (centralized vs/ shared), (b) risk apetite and (c) the task under question will also determine how much ‘allowance’ a manager has in developing his team and sharing decision-making with them. This model dosen’t factor-in those external environment factors that will often have an overriding influence on the development of leadership, often even when the team has (or has not) matured to a given level of readiness.

We have barely scratched the surface with this discussion. Surely, there are many more critical factors that will eventually determine (a) which leadership style an organization will let a manager decide, and (b) how successful would that be. Some of these might help us understand better why Agile adoptions don’t always work in some organizations, or why some organizations prefer a formal project management method. At a team level, this model could also help us understand what type of team members are likely to be motivated and productive and what type of team members are likely to become disenchanted and eventually leave the team or the organization.

How do you go about determining leadership style on your software teams ?

Ten Commandments for Revolutionary Change Agents

Revolutionaries are a restless lot. In a way, they are like the ‘shooting stars’ in an organization – they are seriously outnumbered by the hundreds of twinkle-twinkle little stars, they enter an organization with tails-on-fire hurry, and (try to) change everyone and everything around them within the short time span that they are there, and then they burn out (or just lose interest when the work they set out for is either accomplished, or get bored when it doesn’t get accomplished) and just move on. They don’t have a lot of time, patience or socialistic motives making small changes here and there, or to make elaborate plans and do surveys, investigations and pilots, and so on. They would rather be out there in the middle of heat, dust and all the adrenalin-pumping and chest-thumping action than be found napping in a death-by-powerpoint meeting full of naysayers who believe it is their fundamental right to protect the status quo.

While some are born revolutionaries, some people don that role for some phase of their professional life. Irrespective of whether you are one or not, chances are that you might be reporting to one, or working with one, or managing one such person sometime in your life. I would even bet that sometime in your career, you might find the need to shift gears and play that role. These ideas have helped me over the years, and I hope they help you as well:

 

  1. Don’t ever give up. Conviction of ideas and persistence of efforts are as much a key to success as the merit of proposal. The easiest thing is to give up – and perhaps everyone before you just did that (that’s why no change ever happened before there). So, you have the choice to either join the ranks of people who just couldn’t handle the heat, or stay right there and befriend the heat. 
  2. Don’t scale down what you believe is right for the organization just because some people don’t feel that way. Again, it is very easy to offer a ten-percent solution that pleases the mighty bosses but misses out on the remaining ninety-percent hard part that will either optimize the way of working, or help it self-sustain for years to come, or make the operations more efficient, etc. By scaling down and showing only the best oranges, you might gain some immediate curreny for your ideas (and it might even be a perfectly safe ploy just to get out of a deadlock) but you run the danger of setting a precedent for your ideas: low cost, high returns. Like a ponzi scheme, you might be expected to routinely dish out such ideas that offer insane amount of returns on bargain prices, and that might kill the potential of other, far better ideas that might not offer the low-hanging fruits but are required for the organization.
  3. Don’t constantly remind people whenever things fail, even when they fail due to reasons being highlighted by you and ignored by them. Many a times, people will simply ignore your ideas and opinions for various reasons and will simply go ahead with their ideas. In some such situations, their ideas could also fail. The last thing you can do to help the organization (and yourself) is to “I-told-you-so”. We human beings need to save our face. When people are down on their knees, reminding them of the obvious risks (definitely obvious to you, but perhaps not so obvious to them) will not only make your relations strained with people, it will also not help the organization. Further, you stand to lose their support, especially when some of your ideas go wrong (as they will), you can imagine being paid in same currency.
  4. Use objective, industry-respected, hard data to support your proposals, especially if people doubt the merit of proposals (as the eventually will !). Nothing works like a fully-baked data to counter opinions of people, especially when those opinions are based purely on personal whims and fancies. However, also remember – it is not your job to respond to every possible objection. Let your work do the talking, but use as much external help as will be required to give wings to your ideas. After that, they must fly by themselves.
  5. If need be, run skunkworks. After all, the programming language Java was developed as a skunkworks at Sun. Sometimes the opposition to your ideas might be so much and strong that you must backtrack. What options do you have? Try running the project secretly. Only two outcomes are possible: either your ideas will emerge stronger, or you will discover limitations of your ideas. Either way, it is your progress. However, make sure you have some allies in the organization lest your efforts be seen as another one of the hobby projects by your already unhappy boss. 
  6. Build allies by sharing success stories from other organizations, making presentations. Most managers are extremely incompetent in the fine art of building allies. We think these are some dirty tricks of an old politician to save his government. Well, guess what, it applies as much to the workplace. The old command and control structure is gone, and in today’s world, we can’t force people to follow what we like. Even the owner of a firm might not always be able to impose his opinions upon the free will of his employees. Largely, that will be resisted tooth and nail, or offered a cold shoulder. You can avoid a lot of heartburn by building allies to support your ideas. (I will write another blog on this very important topic).
  7. Build your personal and professional credibility. If there is a possibility the reason you are not being heard within the organization is because you are not considered competant in that subject, build that credibility by writing articles, presenting papers outside the organization, get involved in your technical community networks, etc. However, this is a long-term effort. In the short-term, your ideas might get you branded as anti-establishment just because you are seeking a major shake-up and that could upset a lot of people who are not only used to doing things a certain way, they have also built their careers doing things that way. By insisting on your ideas, you might only start losing everyone’s support and your own credibility. Learn to feel the pulse of people around you when that begins to happen, and use alternate means to first restore your personal and professional credibility. Be seen as the guy who knows organizational stuff, has a feel for issues facing the company, is seen being a problem-solver, etc. Once that is done, you will be once again seen as ‘one among us’ and your ideas and opinions might then be viewed little more openly then before.
  8. Solve real problems with your change proposals. That will win allies faster than any attempt to woo them by any other legal means. Let the results speak for themselves. No organization can (and needs to) solve all its problems rightaway. Some of your ideas might be little too idealistic for the organization and some might be little too futuristic. On an apple to apple comparison, you might be right in proposing to take up your ideas, but you might be missing the big picture. Instead of taking the situation holistically, you might be able to command better respect (and support) by offering solutions for today’s problems that allow the organzation to move forward. Hopefully, today’s survival will propel the organization to tomorrow where rest of your ideas will be required. If the company doesn’t survive till tomorrow, of what possible use would those holistic ideas be ?
  9. Socialize ideas with engineers in the trenches – the people who will use them. If they understand and embrace the ideas, there would be a better buy-in as compared to the senior management asking everyone to follow. Through the history, we see one consistent pattern: the lower the level at which a revolution started, the more it endured the passage of time. Military coups have not stayed that long compared to people’s marches to democracy. So, don’t ignore the people power. They might not be the decision-makers but together they constitute a huge force that can alter the future.
  10. Don’t give up on the philosophy of the proposal. Don’t take your proposal as a prestige issue. If you can get something done today without losing out on sanctity of your proposal, it might be much better than insisting on a full support that might never happen. Further, the results from what you can do today might pave the way for future proposals. There is never a single best way to anything – if there were, everyone would already be doing it. Give credit to your colleagues, for their resistance to your ideas might be there for a reason. Be open to altering your course without diluting the vision. Just like in human relations, it is not always the content of communication that destroys the relationship – it is often the way it is conveyed. Same way, your ideas might still be palatable if served in the right china.

These have helped me over years, and still continue to help. How about you ?