Category Archives: HR

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

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

Is your talent adorning the restroom?

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

Are we missing something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard work is killing people. Literally!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working hours vs. Productivity

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

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

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

Worth thinking…

Time to throw away your Talent Pyramid

Ask any HR Manager on talent profile for their organization and you will get a ‘talent pyramid’ – an odd-looking ‘pyramid’ that is supposed to reflect the talent profile of the organization. Ask them further – what is the measure of ‘talent’ in this pyramid, and chances are 9 on 10 that the answer will be ‘experience’. This experience is typically the number of years of (supposedly relevant) experience in the workforce, and pretty much determines how roles, and consequently the compensation are derived out of it. Question is – is that the right measure of talent?

I was in an interesting industry-level peer discussion a few weeks back where we debated on the utility (or, rather futility, at least in my opinion) of talent pyramid for R&D organizations. A conventional view is that talent pyramid helps us understand the operational costs better and hence it makes sense. Unfortunately, it ends up creating linearity between experience, role and eventually the compensation. So, while we might talk a lot about being a meritocratic organization, in the end, we are just paying lip service to those tenets.

Another interesting point was that while talent pyramid makes sense for software service companies because they get billed slab-wise (and hence, there is a business case to inflate roles and titles disproportionate to the real capabilities), it is really an anti-thesis to product development where talent has no linearity with experience, at least not in the classical way it is ‘measured’. Some of the most compelling and life-altering products in recent times have come from folks who were still in college, or had no ‘talent’ when they hit upon the next big idea. By all conventional yardsticks, they would never get a second chance. What, then, should be the best, or at least better way to measure talent?

So, here is my take on new-age talent metrics that makes much better sense than the traditional ones:

Democratization of Innovation Index

In the old economy, innovation was essentially limited to the large organizations because if often needed huge capex (and opex) to build and run large R&D facilities. With the advent of globalization and Internet, the entry-level costs of innovation have irreversibly deflated, and one can pretty much source ideas from anywhere in the world. Companies that continue to take a narrow view of the ‘thoroughbred’ innovation will eventually find themselves at the short end of the stick that deprives them of the wisdom of crowdsourcing ideas from just about anywhere in the world – including their own companies. In this fiercely fast-paced and ruthlessly ultra-flat world, it is hypercritical to be able to harness the power of ideas coming from just about anywhere in the organization. If you don’t create avenues to your employees to take their ideas further, they will take it to just about anyone who is willing to listen to them. Worse, they will create their own company around it. And we have seen it happening for a long time – Xerox, KFC, FedEx, and scores of companies are prime examples of what happens when ideas are rejected but their creators continue to pursue them with dogged determination.

P&G owes a lot of its recent success to its so-called Connect+Develop program has established over 1,000 active agreements with innovation partners – worldwide! They have clearly embraced open innovation as a much more effective and viable alternative to yesteryears’s internal R&D capabilities alone. The question that you need to asking in your organization is how much (rather, how well) are we learning and borrowing from other adjoining, or even remote, areas.

How many of your new product ideas are coming from top-down PRDs created by product managers and how many are coming from bottom-up ideas from engineers and customer support folks?

Intellectual Property Creation and Adoption

What is most important for your R&D organization – managing within some arbitrary budgets or coming up with futuristic cash flow ideas? Costs must be managed, but after a point, we must remember that cost is there to serve us and not the other way round! The larger aim is to eventually create a great workplace where creative individuals and teams can fire their imagination and come out with supercool innovative ideas that create intellectual property and competitive advantage for the organization. How about measuring the IP Density as the total number of IP ideas filed per unit employee? Much like the sales productivity? This number by itself is meaningless, but a trend over a reasonable period of time will help us understand if the company as a whole is moving towards the right direction. Similarly, IP Quality is the measure of how many of these ideas get converted into public filings? To me, these two measures are a great indicator of the real R&D happening in a team, center or a company.

These are more like the entry-level metrics, but one might eventually move up to things like IP Adoption – how many of the ideas are really used as opposed to just being filed, and actually create future cash flow? Or, generate royalty by protecting the entire marketplace?

Cross-pollination of Ideas

Success in the past depended on narrow and deep specialization in a given domain. However, as we have come to learn from the brilliant ‘Medici Effect’, it is anything but true in today’s complex world where there are too many lookalikes a dime a dozen. If we continue benchmarking against today’s competition, we will only end up doing more of same. How many of your people are willing to tear-down functional and political boundaries of the organization to create better products and services that delight customers as opposed to simply complying with some silly organizational diktat? How many products are coming out of efforts that systemically break down ‘associative barriers’ that stop people from learning ideas from even more remotely unrelated areas? Long back I worked at a large company where I was surprised to find that we had three versions of basically same products competing against each other. Years later, when I worked at a small company, I was shocked to discover that we had something like 5 products essentially trying to compete with each other on product features. Why? Because not only were the ideas not cross-pollinated but the product managers were all trying to outcompete with each other – rather than the competition.

When Steve Jobs wanted to design the chassis for mac laptops, he saw how industrial designer used brushed aluminium. George de Mestrel got inspiration to design velcro from burrs of burdock. August Kekule reportedly saw a snake catch its tail in his dream and got the inspiration to design Benzene formula.

So, there you go. Are you still measuring your talent pyramid by the number of software engineers or number of people in 5-7 years experience band? Do yourself a favor – throwaway your talent pyramid.

How does manager’s proximity to team affects team dynamics and decision-making?

Congratulations! You’ve got the long-cherished promotion that will make you manager – of your own buddies! You don’t quite know what it means for your relations with the team – are you better-off as their manager or as their buddy?

One key challenge with first-line managers, especially those fairly new in their roles, is how to strike right balance between formal reporting relationship and informal personal relations with the team. Considering that most people “leave managers and not companies”, this seems to be a critical issue, but seldom discussed. In my career, I have also seen similar issues when people became a second-line manager or a group manager for the first-time – so, this is not a one-time issue.

I have often seen managers who have been promoted from within going all too out to please the team that “nothing has really changed” and they are still the good old buddy that they have known him all along. In their earnest to earn brownie points from their once-colleagues-but-now-team, they behave and act like one of the guys. Nothing could be wrong with it, except when personal proximity limits or blurs their professional judgment, especially when pulling up low performers. At times, I have seen this was the ‘bribe’ such managers were willing to pay to buy their team’s ‘respect’. The team definitely loves such managers (“I drank till 3am last weekend with my manager”, or “We plan to watch movie with our manager this evening”), and the manager also has surely found a way to make peace with his team, some of whom might be secretly jealous of his growth. Sometimes, they also overdelegate, or recommend promotions too-soon for their teams – which could be an indication of the secret guilt or discomfort they carry inside them. Surely, this is not an easy seat to occupy, and with little preparation or onboarding support given to rookie managers, it is not surprising that people find what appeals to them best. Surely, these managers are extremely popular with their teams! I call them Santa Claus – they come to office with a goodie bag, and fulfill their team member’s wishes every day.

On the other extreme end are managers who think it will dilute their no-nonsense macho image to deliver results if they start mingling with the team. They maintain a two-mile distance from the team, and as a result, are not generally very popular, sometimes feared and often ignored from the social circuit of the team. They start moving with the ‘upper crust’. Even if such behavior might help those managers in maintaining a healthy professional-personal balance, sometimes they might lose their ability to influence their teams and motivate them to do that extra bit just to make sure the job is not just done, but is done well. At times, they might not even understand the team’s motivation levels, or their collective decision-making process, or their unappointed power centres, etc. I once had an expat manager who had never written code in his life and was clearly unfit to be a software manager. He regularly ‘bought’ respect and support by ‘delegating’ most of his work to the team. Actually, abdicating his responsibilities was more like it. While he sat in (literally) a corner cabin, the team toiled in a meeting room next door, which was ok – the team members got a lot of additional responsibilities in the bargain. What became a problem was when we ran into some some design bugs during system testing – he came and started getting angry at the team. What he clearly didn’t realize that by ‘delegating’ his responsibilities, he didn’t stop owning the consequences of the decisions the team was making without him! Within next few months, most of us left him and that company. Then I had another boss who was promoted from within as a group manager. While he was some sort of a poster-boy success as a first-line manager, he was all too-new as a second-line manager and without much mentoring on how to effectively lead first-line managers, he started behaving in an autocratic manner. When he wanted us for a quick conversation, he would simply shout names of us lesser mortals from inside his cabin! Goes without saying that none of those managers exist in my LinkedIn network :).

What’s a better approach – sitting with the troops in the trenches and drinking beer till neighbors call the cops, or working from that corner office (or whatever that is called nowadays) and keep a safe distance from the ‘guys’? I guess there is no single universal answer – they come in all hues. Excess on either sides seems like something to be avoided. Also, this doesn’t seem to be a unique behavior associated with someone promoted internally or someone brought-in from outside the company. Newcomers also tend to be equally tentative in their first few weeks – they are not sure of their property rights, the holy cows in the organization, the informal power centrers, and so on. So, while they test new waters, there might be tendency to soft-pedal issues in the beginning. If they act too swiftly and aggressively, they might already make ‘enemies’. If they start weeding out the garden too early, they might not have enough ‘context’ and hence might lack the finesse to do the job well. On the other hand, if they start befriending people and build the right network, they need to invest time – something that they might not have. 

Striking the right balance

What are some of the best practices and strategies you have seen around? Are there some ideas with timeless appeal and culture-agnostic applicability? I am sure we can sensitize new managers on the nature of the beast, but one must read the terrain and decide what is the right approach at a given point in time.

In the jobmarket, everyone is a used car salesman!

While being in the jobmarket is hard for most, it also evokes romantic visions of getting a great career break at this fabulous company known for its excellent culture, cool products, bleeding edge technology and cut-above-the-rest compensation! Most of us use that as an opportunity to critically examine our strengths and weekenesses, our USP, our inner calling – and last but certainly not the least, our market value. In a freemarket economy, that’s a lot like selling your used car :).

Selling a used car is tough. I don’t know too many people who trust a used car salesman, but here’s the radical idea – we are all used car salesmen working extremely hard to outcompete other similar salesmen to eventually sell ourselves. Only we know the true strengths and hidden constraints of our ‘car’ – only we know what is our true mileage, how good is the transmission system, how strong is the engine, how good is the braking system, and so on. Still, try getting all those true facts out of a used car salesman! All you get is a deliberate attempt to gloss over the facts and present a used car that is promised to be even far better than its brand-new brethern! The buyer of a used card is almost always a value-shopper, and doesn’t want a car that becomes a black-hole very soon – however pretty much everyone in the market selling his/her used car is there for similar reasons – to dispose off the old guzzler. With the limited access to funds, that buyer is looking for an instant nirvana at a considerably lower price-point, and to a large extent, knows that a used car is, well, a used car after all! So, a mating game begins where the buyer must exhibit streetsmart commonsense and highlight the nicks, scratches, dents and flaws in the car that could be used to negotiate and bring down the asking price of the used car. The seller, in turn, will sugercoat the issues and try to sell its bugs as features (doesn’t it sound like real life even for brand new products!) so that even out of a piece of scrap metal, he can salvage some value.

Used car salesmanA jobmarket is not very different, except that no one here wants a brand-new employee! Imagine hiring a still-wet-behind-the-ears rookie when what you need is a battle-hardened veteran! As hiring managers, we all want highly experienced professionals – quite often asking for multiple years of experience in a similar job, without even bothering why will someone want to restart his/her new innings at a new job after having been in a similar job for years? So, out we go and don our gear of the quintessential salesman and start bullnosing our resume. Having gone through hundereds of resumes as hiring managers, we all realize the deliberate attempts to cover-up low grades, missing years in the career profile, and the reasons behind quick job hopping and so on. Diving deep further in the resume leads to further enlightment – the role claimed by the candidate turns out that to be nowhere near what has been claimed, the technical details or responsibilities are probably borrowed from the lead performer in that team, and professional references given, if any, are of the weekend beer buddies! In short, everyone is entering the job market with known blemishes, failures and disasters – just that others (especially in a different company, different town don’t know about them – or at least you hope so!). However, honesty is not a virtue always welcomed with a warm embrace in the job market – something that you very quickly learn from your own failures (imagine shouting in the job market from a megaphone that you are such an incompetant dud that no one wants to keep for more than a week and see how many people want to hire you) and perhaps learn a lot from others’ success, especially when they happen to be half as worthy of getting the new job as you. There was a time when people only wanted to hire consistent superstars – they were the guarantee to any future success. Obviously this can put considerable pressure on candidates who don’t have such impeccable record, and there aren’t too many people who have unblemished record. On the other hand, in the aftermath of dotcom bloodbath and the recent market lows, many companies actually want to hire the serial failures – people who have burnt a few million here and tanked a few companies there – in the anticipation that such experience is worth its weight in gold, and will hopefully help them in avoiding such costly errors. If only the formula for success was built on such simple premise!

On the other hand, seasoned hiring managers know it better than to take the resume and credentials at face value. Most of the time, a smooth-talking candidate might appear like god’s next greatest gift to mankind (or at least to that company), but there is still a sizeable gap between what you are sold and what you actually get! And in today’s world when so much depends on having the right person in the right place, there is no room for any error. Thus, the buyer must exhibit all due diligence to ensure that the ‘used’ candidate is actually what he/she claims to be. An overpromise of performance could not only be fatal for the hiring manager, it could also be a mini-disaster of sorts for the company. And hence, it is not easy to explain why companies go to great lengths to do background checks and reference check on candidates, or fund the employee referrals so that there is an element of being familiarity with the prior work. LinkedIn is a great example of how a highly transparent system of professional networks, relationships and references can be used to effectively assess a candidate’s real work – chances are very high that one can’t really inflate the resume in front of one’s own network who probably know it all :). 

Eventually, your reputation (and market value) is only as good as your last transaction. So, even if one does manage to inflate one’s resume and land with this to-die-for job, it is only a matter of time before his inadequacies will be exposed and the reporting manager is forced to bite the bullet.

I think there is an opportunity and a real need for all of us to be the honest salesman when we are in the job market and selling ourselves to prospective bidders. The stars and medals should be proudly displayed and so must be the scars and broken bones! Failures are the stepping stones to success, and the right mix of these could be a very potent and sellable combination. One needn’t feel embarassed about the failures and try to hide them, or lie about them. Every such interaction should be taken as a learning opportunity that only prepares you with the better pitch and an increased self-awareness about your own strengths and limitations. It is my strong conviction that good people eventually finish in the Top 3, so, there is no need to panic in the short-term and take short-cuts to success – all short-cuts are short-lived.

In the job market, everyone is a used car salesman – so be different and be the good salesman 🙂 

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 ?

Initiative + Continuous Improvement => Superior Performance

Disclaimer: I got this in an email. This is not written by me, and is not my intellectual property. If you know the original source to it, I will be happy to link to it, and if it is copyrighted, I will be happy to seek permission to repost on my site, or take it off, as the case might be. I am sharing it here because I think there is good value in this illustration that everyone can learn from. I enjoyed reading it, and hope you enjoy too 🙂

Every company has a performance appraisal system in place to measure the effectiveness of its employees. Employees are normally rated in most of the companies in the Good, Very Good, Excellent, Outstanding categories. Apart from the above, non performance category is also there, which is not depicted here). Needless to say everyone wants to be rated Outstanding.

What is the yard stick and how do you measure these aspects?  

  • Employee “A” in a company walked up to his manager and asked what my job is for the day?
  • The manager took “A” to the bank of a river and asked him to cross the river and reach the other side of the bank.
  • “A” completed this task successfully and reported back to the manager about the completion of the task assigned. The manager smiled and said “GOOD JOB”

Next day Employee “B” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task as above to this person also. 

  • The Employee “B’ before starting the task saw Employee “C” struggling in the river to reach the other side of the bank. He realized “C” has the same task.
  • Now “B” not only crossed the river but also helped “C” to cross the river.
  • “B” reported back to the manager and the manager smiled and said “VERY GOOD JOB

The following day Employee “Q” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

  • Employee “Q” before starting the work did some home work and realized “A”, “B” & “C” all has done this task before. He met them and understood how they performed.
  • He realized that there is a need for a guide and training for doing this task.
  • He sat first and wrote down the procedure for crossing the river, he documented the common mistakes people made, and tricks to do the task efficiently and effortlessly.
  • Using the methodology he had written down he crossed the river and reported back to the manager along with documented procedure and training material.
  • The manger said “Q” you have done an “EXCELLENT JOB”.

The following day Employee “O’ reported to the manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

“O” studied the procedure written down by “Q” and sat and thought about the whole task. He realized company is spending lot of money in getting this task completed. He decided not to cross the river, but sat and designed and implemented a bridge across the river and went back to his manager and said, “You no longer need to assign this task to any one”.
The manager smiled and said “Outstanding job ‘O’. I am very proud of you.”

What is the difference between A, B, Q & O????????
Many a times in life we get tasks to be done at home, at office, at play.
Most of us end up doing what is expected out of us. Do we feel happy? Most probably yes. We would be often disappointed when the recognition is not meeting our expectation.

Let us compare ourselves with “B”. Helping some one else the problem often improves our own skills. There is an old proverb (I do not know the author) “learn to teach and teach to learn”. From a company point of view “B” has demonstrated much better skills than “A” since one more task for the company is completed.

“Q” created knowledge base for the team. More often than not, we do the task assigned to us without checking history. Learning from other’s mistake is the best way to improve efficiency. This knowledge creation for the team is of immense help. Re-usability reduces cost there by increases productivity of the team. “Q” demonstrated good “team-player” skills,

Now to the outstanding person, “O” made the task irrelevant; he created a Permanent Asset to the team. If you notice B, Q and O all have demonstrated “team performance” over an above individual performance; also they have demonstrated a very invaluable characteristic known as “INITIATIVE”.

Initiative pays of every where whether at work or at personal life. If you put initiative you will succeed. Initiative is a continual process and it never ends. This is because this year’s achievement is next year’s task. You cannot use the same success story every year.

The story provides an instance of performance, where as measurement needs to be spread across at least 6-12 months. Consequently performance should be consistent and evenly spread.
Out-of-Box thinkers are always premium and that is what every one constantly looks out for. Initiative, Out-of-Box thinking and commitment are the stepping stone to success. Initiative should be life long. Think of out of the box.
 

This is a nice illustration that the ‘performance bar’ keeps getting higher and higher as the time goes by, and doing something the same way won’t count as equally good performance as the last time. We all must constantly look for ways to improve the way of working. People who don’t take initiative and continue the routine way of doing things will soon find themselves out of place, literally ! The best performers in any team can be spotted by the way they go about the initiative they take to approach a problem. These is a clear linkage between initiative and performance. In another blog, I will explore a model to measure initiative that was handed over to me by a senior HR professional while working at Philips, and I have used it for last ten years and found great value in using it.  

This illustration also brings out a rather unfortunate fact of life: that life as a pioneer is not always kind. Perhaps the challenges (and odds) in doing something for the first time are far greater than subsequently improving upon it (well, mostly, I think), but we tend to short memories about initial contributions. I don’t have a good answer for it, except that I feel this is little unfortunate. I guess the only thing one can takeaway from this is not to sit on one’s laurels far too long, but get going as soon as the party is over !

Art Fry shares views on Failure…

In  my previous post When are you planning to fail ?, I argued that early failures were a far more effective learning tool than early successes. Those ‘gentle failures’ could help you avoid, or at least minimize the chances of ‘grand failures’.

My colleague from PMI NPDSIG, Kimberly Johnson, shared that post with some of her ex-colleagues (Thanks Kim !), including Art Fry, inventor of perhaps most-well-known office product, Post-It Notes.  Here is what he wrote back:

“Good article, Kim. In most product development programs you must consider dealing with failure, because only one in 3000 to 5000 raw ideas become a success. So the question is, How do you check out the failures as quickly and inexpensively as possible?

One technique we have used with brainstorming sessions is to first brainstorm for the good ideas. This can be an individual or group effort. After a day of incubation, come back and brainstorm the barriers to success for those ideas. On day 3, Brainstorm the ways around those barriers. Sometimes a program that didn’t look so good at the start, turns out to have the most promising path. It is amazing how much time it can save in a program with a lot less cost than charging ahead with unchecked enthusiasm. Action without thinking is the cause of most failure.

Cheers,

Art”

He sent one more viewpoint:

“One more thought. Why would people want to work on new things, if most of their work is going to lead to failure? The good news is that when one of the individual’s ideas does find a successful path, it requires the help of a lot of people who have the satisfaction of building something successful. It is like hitting a good drive on the 18th hole. It keeps you coming back.

Cheers,

Art”

It is indeed great to have Art’s views on this highly underrecognized subject (in my view, at least). Art raises a very pertinent question: when the success rates are as low as just about 1 in 3,000 to 5,000, what is it that keep people going on and on and on ? Surely, large organizations could fund ideas in various stage of a concept-to-realization pipeline (that is, starting from thousands of raw ideas to finally the ones that will get productionized and are expected to be released on a commercial basis) even though they also need to count their R&D dollars (very carefully, I must add !), more so in these tough economic times. In the startup world, there is Darwin again at work – it is perhaps the democracy at its best that the strongest ideas stand up to various survival tests and eventually make it big. However, what is it that keeps people pushing at their ideas, day after day, week after week and year after year – just based on the strength of conviction about their ideas ? Are those ideas winners by themselves (i.e., genetically endowed), or is it the tireless efforts of those individuals that bakes those ideas to be a winner (i.e., genetically engineered) ?

Another colleague of Kim, Wayne wrote back:

“This conversation reminded me of the question Russ Ackoff posed to me when he came to town to speak for a day about 10 years ago . . .
 
Russ asked “Is it true what I hear about 3M that you give an annual award for the Biggest Failure to reinforce it is OK to fail?”  
 
Russ will always be a hero of mine for his insight into systems . . . see his wikipedia summary at this link –>
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Ackoff
 
Wayne”

Wow…wouldn’t that be splendid to be awarded the “Most Promising Failure of the Year” or some such ‘recognition’. I think it is a valuable (and rare perhaps ?) skill to be able to ‘smell’ failures from miles away. Imagine the power of an action that helps a company move out of random choas and uncertain future into a clear direction. I think Performance Management Systems are overdue for a big overhaul, for they glorify and celebrate achievement-orientation and happy endings. I would really love to hear back about an appraisal system that actually places premium on intelligent failures as opposed to run-of-the-mill non-consequential routine ‘successes’.

Failure is the new Success. Do you care ?

What is your cross-cultural quotient ?

This mail is doing its customary rounds on the net, and not for a wrong reason! Though there are obvious pitfalls of stereotyping people, it also serves as a handy learning guide, even a field manual, when the similarities are generic in nature, and far outweigh the minute differences that might make an individual unique and different from others, but not dramatically different from other fellow tribesmen. The fact is we are all different, and success at workplace is also impacted by our ability to recognize, appreciate, respect and work through such cross-cultural differences. In today’s increasingly globalized world, this serves as a good starting point to recognize that there are people different from us, and a team’s success is impacted by mutual understanding of such differences.

These icons were designed by Liu Young who was born in China and educated in Germany. She is an accomplished designer…check out her work at http://www.yangliudesign.com/. I found her usage of metaphors captured in nice little icons very interesting, and even if it is a gross generalization of human beings, it is a nice piece of creative work!

Legend: Blue –> Westerner, Red –> Asian

Opinion

 

 

 

 Way of Life

 

 

 

Punctuality

Contacts

 

 

 

Anger

 

 

 

Queue when Waiting

 

 

 

Me (I)

 

 

 

Sundays on the Road

 

 

 

Party

eastwest09.jpg

 

 

 

In the Restaurant

eastwest10.jpg

 

 

 

Perception of each other

 

 

 

Things that are new

 

 

 

The child

 

 

 

What is trendy

 

 

 

The Boss

 

 

 

Moods and Weather

 

 

 

Shower timing

 

 

 

Elderly in day to day life

 

 

 

Transportation

 

 

 

Three meals a day

 

 

 

Handling of Problems 

 

 

 

Travelling  

 

 

 

Stomach Ache 

How are Ethics and Excellence related ?

A friend sent a nice story:

A gentleman was once visiting a temple under construction. In the temple premises, he saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Suddenly he saw, just a few meters away, another identical idol was lying. Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you need two statutes of the same idol?”. “No”, said the sculptor, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage”.

The gentleman examined the sculpture. No apparent damage was visible. “Where is the damage?” asked the gentleman. “There is a scratch on the nose of the idol” replied the sculptor. “Where are you going to keep the idol?” asked the Gentleman. The sculptor replied that it will be installed on a pillar 20 feet high. “When the idol will be 20 feet away from the eyes of the beholder, who is going to know that there is scratch on the nose?”, the gentleman asked.

The sculptor looked at the gentleman, smiled and said “The God knows it and I know it !!! ”

The desire to excel should be exclusive of the fact whether someone appreciates it or not.

Most people would not set such high standards of self-approval when it comes to excellence, especially when it is very evident that their omissions and commissions won’t have any significant impact on the output and is unlikely to be ‘discovered’, and many will surely take the wrong route. However, there are many blessed souls among us who not only constantly strive for such excellence, but will also pursue it relentlessly, come what may – may their tribe prosper. So, excellence is not just an extremely advanced state of knowledge, skill and abilities – it is much more. It is about having the right attitude, a clear vision of what is required and, of course, a great sense of ethics. And that also reminds me of a great definition of ethics. This is not my definition, but if someone knows the source, please let me know so that I could credit the source with gratitude. It goes something like this:

Ethics is all about doing the right thing when you know that even if you were to do the wrong thing, no one would come to know.

How profound, and yet how simple. When I read the story that I mentioned earlier, I felt there was so much in common between Excellence and Ethics that they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Of course, excellence seems to have much wider meaning, and one could argue that ethics could be construed as one of the components of that. I believe someone who is truly passionate about excellence can’t be unethical, and vice versa. However, it appears to me that one can’t build a culture of excellence without having the strong and unshakable foundation of ethics. Excellence is the goal, but can’t be always guaranteed despite having best intentions and selfless efforts to achieve it. Failures do happen, and under pressure from stakeholders, there is always a temptation to cut corners. However, with a strong foundation of ethics, one can hope to build it all over again. Perhaps ethics is the self-regulator, speed-governor, the character-radar built in our conscience that doesn’t add anything to the knowledge, skills or abilities, par se, but acts as the mirror on the wall, the guardian angel, the lighthouse brightly shining its beacon in dark and choppy waters.

My interpretation is that ethics is the input that leads to excellence in output. It is the manure that leads to a healthy sapling which ultimately goes on to become a strong, tall tree. And unless you invest in this manure, how are you ever going to get such strong trees ?

Do you demand excellence at workplace without investing in building ethics first ? 

How Agile Practices address the Five Dysfunctions of a Team ?

Since times immemorial, ideas, objects and experiences of grand stature and lasting economic, social and emotional value have been created by men and women working together in teams. Granted that some extraordinary work in the fields of arts, philosophy and sciences was done by truly exceptional individuals, apparently working alone, I suspect that they too were ably supported by other selfless and unsung individuals (in the backoffice, perhaps) who all worked together as a team. Right from the great wars, social upheavals, political resistance, empire building, freedom struggles and forming of nations and protecting its borders to the creation of majestic wonders such as Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Sydney Harbor Bridge or the London Eye and many more, each one of them owes its creation and existence to teamwork. Of course, the scope of teamwork doesn’t exclude simple, mundane and everyday things that are extremely important even though they never make a headline: an activity as routine as tilling the fields, or planning a picnic or even a family function, all involve a team. 

With such profound impact teamwork having on our everyday lives, it is only natural to expect that output of a team is directly impacted by the quality of its teamwork. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen by having right intentions alone, or by leaving it to chance. Quite often, it doesn’t even happen ! Quality of teamwork is impacted by various factors such as motivation levels of individual team members, levels of trust among team members, clarity of purpose, uniform understanding of the goals, lack of resources, poor communication among the team members, and so on. Thus, it comes as no surprise that appropriate investments must be made to make the team click. However, most often, team dysfunctions affect a team’s performance seriously jeopardizing its ability to perform effectively, any state of art processes or tools notwithstanding. Most software managers lack the ability to detect such deeper sociological smells, thus are unable to deal with its impact. Any superficial response to such problem only makes the task harder to deal with. 

In this article, I have analyzed the team dysfunction model proposed by Patrick Lencioni in his wonderful book, written in the form of a fable in a business setting, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable. In his model, called The Model in the book, he has identified five dysfunctions of a team that affect team performance. These five dysfunctions are not really independent, but interrelated to each other, and build on top of one another…

Read the full article here.

Toyota’s Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Managers

 

I just completed first draft of this paper for business review magazine of a city college of business administration. If it gets selected for publication, you will get to read the full paper on this site :). Here is the abstract:

Toyota’s pioneering work in automobile production systems continues to be among the most profound and radical departure from conventional thinking since the times of Henry Ford, and has led to unprecedented cost efficiencies and quality improvements for them. For long, it was thought to be a Japanese expertise – one that could not be duplicated by non-Japanese people, or outside Japan. However, subsequent to Womack and Jones’ pioneering works, “The Machine that Changed the World” and “Lean Thinking”, it has not only been adopted outside Japan, its universal principles are also finding huge acceptance in other sectors and service industries throughout the world.

However, any process is only as good as the people involved in it and their thought process behind it. Toyota’s production system is not only about how the production flow is organized – it includes fundamental aspects of professional ethics and work culture that are deeply ingrained in their thinking. These so-called “Toyota Traditions” serve as the guiding light for managers and employees alike and continue to remain relevant as ever. They also are ubiquitously applicable in almost every stream of management.

It is this author’s firm belief that by merely adapting Toyota’s Lean Production System, one can’t transform a normal organization to a Lean Enterprise. Alongside the changes in process, one must pay adequate attention to adapting the mindset behind Lean culture as well. With that context, I have analyzed and interpreted some of the Toyota’s Traditions that are most relevant in context of tomorrow’s manager in this paper.

Stay tuned for updates on this.

This is the festival season, and kids have holidays. I am also off to a short holiday. Festival greetings, and enjoy the winter holidays. See you soon. 

What kind of “Managers stick with poor performers rather than hire new faces” ?

I am sure you have heard it in all versions, subversions and perversions, but one simple universal workplace truth seems to be don’t tolerate poor performance, and if not outrightly eliminate poor performers, do ease them out over a reasonable but fast period of time. The yawning gap between a bottom performer and the top performer is perhaps nowhere more so prominent as in a human-skill based knowledge industry like software. Over the years, various productivity studies still continue to point a gap of anywhere between 1:10 to 1:20 or even more between the top programmer and the bottom one. The exact number doesn’t really matter.

What is important is to understand that success of a software endeavor howsomuch is dependent on very smart people, it finally needs a great team to deliver goods – no task is trivial enough to be single-handled performed by the star performer on a sustainable basis, nor is anyone smart enough to effectively comprehend every bit of information created by mankind. This doesn’t trivialize individual human talent, nor is meant to belittle those huge efforts that make a star performer a star performer. It only highlights the nature of the beast – to deliver a non-trivial piece of software with reasonable complexity and business criticality, one must have a team comprising of team members that complement each other’s skills.

We all know a great team that works like Swiss clockwork doesn’t happen by accident. Throwing a bunch of people together, howsoever individually competent, in a blender doesn’t ensure that the result is sweet juices of creativity, teamwork and performance. Instead, all one might get is a bloody mix of team dysfunctions, bruised egos, competing team members constantly on the prowl to backstab others…and so on.

So, how does one go about building a great team. Having the right intent, high bar (higher than what people believe that are capable of achieving) and zero-tolerance for poor performance is a good start. Often, it is easier said then done. There are also fair arguments that when you build a team six people, you can find the smartest people, but when your team needs sixty people, try doing the same. I have managed three fairly large teams: two of them were over 110+ people and one of them had some 190+ engineers working on really complex softwares such as core routers and SoftSwitch, and I can tell you the mindset one needs to manage such large endeavors of human creativity are radically different from what I would need when working on a six-people teams. For one, there is no way you are ever going to get all smart people with top talent – it is just impossible to hire people of equally hire calibre in such numbers on any team, any place on earth. People often don’t admit it, but I am going to hold on to my arguments. There is always a performance curve (“Bell Curve”) in any random distribution. My favorite quote here is from Mali, our HR Manager at Philips, “There is a Bell Curve even at Bell Labs”. Wider the bell curve, bigger is the gap between the top and a bottom performer that I talked about earlier. In a six-people team, it is possible to cherry-pick team members that leads to a very narrow bell curve. In a larger team, the curve starts to flatten out and widen at the ends. This is not by intent, but because of a combination of various factors:

  • difficulty in finding large number of experienced people with required skills in the given domain
  • you can’t always start with a flat staffing (meaning, achieve 100% staffing in the initial stages of the project) – there is not enough work in the beginning, and during the peak, everyone is stressed out and later in the project, there is overstaffing. A Rayleigh’s curve works reasonably well
  • the bad economics of having an all-star team – even Manchester United can’t get all the best players in the world to play for it – they might go bankcrupt before the kick-off itself !
  • inevitable dilution in hiring standards over time as hiring responsibilities get delegated, often to new managers who might not have the same level of organizational understanding as the original team
  • many smart people might not want to join a large team for the fear of becoming just another face in the crowd !
  • a large project is more like a marathon than a hunderd meter dash, and is often late, forcing people to forgo weekends and vacations for a prolonged period of time. Many people, irrespective of their talent, might not want to get stuck in such situations – so this already limits the gene pool to work on and work with

There are many more reasons, and even if you don’t agree with all of these reasons, it is incredibly difficult to build a large team. Coming to smaller teams, it is similar challenge, and many of the reasons mentioned above might very well apply there. However, when it comes to absolute numbers, I look at it this way: what is easier – raising a loan of $50,000 or $3million ? The fact is, everything else equal, you can almost always go a far better job of building a smaller team than a larger team. But even that doesn’t guarantee scintillating performance by our small team. The fundamentals don’t really change. If any, the stakes are even higher for there no safety nets – the team can’t handle inefficiencies, and probably everyone in the team is a multi-skilled multitasker (as opposed to an individual in a larger team where there is a higher level of ‘vertical differentiation’ and ‘horizontal differentiation’). If one person leaves the team, the impact is far bigger than a similar percentage attrition in a larger team that no HR metric on attrition can capture. And the same goes for low performance – poor performance is far more lethal in a smaller team than a comparable percentage of poor performers in a large team. You would expect a lower tolerance for poor performers in any team, more so in a small team.

And it is for this very reason, that I was surprised to read Managers stick with poor performers rather than hire new faces. It is unbelievable and very shocking that a good 70% among us would rather put up with an existing poor performer than risk a new hire ! I think most reasons there don’t make sense, and I think ‘denial’ as a reason is probably a bigger contributor than is generally credited for. Irrespective, I hope like hell this data is an anomaly. For if it is not, I see more serious challenges ahead. By not getting rid of the poor performers even in these tough economic situations, a clear message is being sent that not just condones, even promotes, that level of performance. The teams are as it is not performing to their potential. Everyone in the team knows who those poor performers are, but the fact that a lower performance is being tolerated clearly send mixed signals and confuses people, especially the committed, hard-working performers. Some among them might feel insulted and likely to leave, thus leaving the team in an even bigger mess. I think managers of those teams are doing the biggest disservice to their organizations: one one hand they are tolerating poor performance and on the other hand, their condoning behavior could be disenchanting higher performers.

With this attitude, I think it surely is going to be one long slowdown. For those companies, surely.

Talk about Realistic Job Preview

One question that has always intrigued me is related to work and its associated challenges. How many of us truly believe that we (especially managers, even though generally true for all lesser mortals) are still in the jobs because it is not a perfect world ? How many of us sincerely believe that our jobs are in fact to fix the problems and not crib about their very presence ! If absence of those problems was a pre-condition to job, we might perhaps not be needed at all !

That said, it could perhaps be proved asymptomatically that when there is no challenge left in the job, that job might not be required anymore ! So, a noble objective of our job is to make our jobs redundant !

Wow !

So, why is it when we give out an ad for a job, we paint a rosy picture of the job. What we really ought to be promising is a wagonload of challenges (to be unashamedly marketed as the USP of the job) but we end up promising a cookie jar full of material rewards ! When we ought to be saying that this job promises to be more difficult than the one at the next company down the road, why is it that we say that we offer better flexi-time or health benefits than that very company. Are we not setting up wrong expectations that this company is a country club, and this job is more like flying first class, when we know that the company is more like a battalion and the job entails sapping mines, not to forget, sometimes with heavy shelling going on all around ?

How many of today’s HR Managers will be caught dead in freezing cold putting out an ad like this for recruiting their next generation of leaders ?

null

Instead, we actually see a game of one-upmanship in the recruitment fraternity. Oh, they are offering you 3x annual base for life insurance, ok, I will offer you 4x (as if we are really expecting them to use it !). They are sending you to Timbuktu for six months, we will send you to Kinshasa for twelve months. They are offering you a Project Lead role, I will give you Assistant Project Manager (whatever that means). What, they are only offering you 25.6% salary increment on what you make today, shame be on them, bunch of insensitive guys. Wait, I will offer you 29.3%.

For a change, how about a conversation like this:

Candidate: My current job keeps me busy only 20% of the time, so I am looking for a change. How do I know you will also not underutilize me ?

You: We promise at least 45 hrs of core work per week – which won’t leave you with time to chat with your buddies, notwithstanding the fact that we don’t allow an IM or webmails in the office. We don’t offer working from home option because we believe we don’t want to encroach in your personal lives, and you are not allowed to work on Sundays, come what may. That means, you will have to face more hardships since all work must be done out of office. We don’t offer external training because we believe in self-learning. We don’t believe in overnight promotions, we believe curing the foundation is the most important aspect of career development and hence can almost promise no promotion in the first 3-4 years. We also realize that despite us being a typical start-up, human beings being human beings that they are, decision cycles could take time. Sometimes, there might not be funding to get an important resource, or a software library to ensure on-time delivery of your product. We don’t expect you to break the law by using pirated software or try some other tricks, but show your real mettle by being innovative under adverse conditions. How does that sound to you ?

Candidate: Wow ! This looks like the job I could give my right arm for. What about compensation ?

You: We are in startup mode. We believe the challenges I just mentioned above actually make up for a 30% premium if it could ever be equated to money. So, you will actually come on a 15% pay cut. Plus, the last three people who were in this job, two quit before they picked up the first paycheck but the last one stayed here for last two years and has gone on to start his own company. I understand he is filing for an IPO next month.

Wow, wow, wow !!! Doesn’t this type of conversation blow you out of your socks !

I can imagine cynics sniggering on this conjured-up tale of a utopian world. After all, people have not added years of experience for nothing. If it were so simple, and effective, wouldn’t we be doing it already ? Fair point. I have no argument for it, except that:

• Until Dick Fosbury tried his now famous ‘Fosbury Flop’ in 1968 Mexico Olympics, no one questioned the ‘straddle’ style of high jump prevalent until that time.
• When no one wanted to lend money to the poorest of the poor, Mohammed Yusuf thought micro-banking was the way to alleviate the poverty-ridden farmers in his homeland and created the now famous Grameen Bank.
• If Akio Morita would have gone with the market research, the world would have never seen Sony Walkman.
• examples galore….

Sometime back, I came across a great unconventional thought. It says, listen to the ‘unreasonable man’, for all progress in this world has happened due to the him. Reasonable men, if argues, basically fall in the line and follow the norms. So, you can’t expect them to question the means and ways to do something differently, or better. But, it is the unreasonable man who defies the conventions and takes an unbeaten path. Sometimes he sinks, sometimes he sails. If he sinks, in the words of Edison, we have found one more way how things don’t work. But, if he sails, we probably have something significant on our hands !

I strongly recommend the highly readable, very simple and astonishingly commonsensical “Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite” by Paul Arden. A word of caution though – it could change you forever !

Coming back to world of hiring hiring and realistic job previews, If I were to hire a soldier, would I give out an ad about the workland that boasts of the best golf courses or a workland that is a minefield ?

And if I were a soldier, would I join an army that offers me flexi-time or allows me to develop myself by throwing me in newer challenges and raising my own potential with each passing failure ?

[PS: Originally written for li-ba.com on 5-Oct-2007]

Don’t believe in yourself if you want to succeed !

I look at life in a slightly unconventional manner. While most people might laugh at the title of this article, I am fairly comfortable with it.

Let me tell you what I mean and why.

I believe we human beings have some kind of narrowband and broadband combi-filters in our brains which work this way: the narrowband filter programs the brain to achieve lower than where it is set, while the broadband filter programs the brain to achieve more than where it is set. We don’t know where the threshold is when something moves from broadband to narrowband filter or vice versa. However, it is logical to assume it takes far more effort to move from narrowband to broadband than to slip down the other way. Further, if you train your mind to achieve less than narrowband threshold, you will be surprised to underachieve more than what you would overachieve if you set your target higher than broadband threshold.

So, when I think I can’t run a mile in less than seven minutes, it effectively prepares my body not to exceed that expectation. When I train my mind that I can run the mile in less than four minutes, I still achieve less than that. It takes much more effort to achieve more than the capability, and I believe mind plays games to trick us. Now, turn it around and start telling your mind “I don’t believe in you putting a limit to what you believe I can accomplish”

Let me take my own example. In 2004, I found myself doing things that I never done before nor was trained to do: setting up new company, handling financial, legal, IT, HR, facilities, etc, etc. A person who believes in himself would have told himself: I know what I am capable of, I have never done it before and hence I don’t think I can deliver it. He might either say no to it, or ask several specialists on the team (that might slow down the decision process and the execution, or make it too costly, or both). But, what I told myself was: hey, I have never done this before nor I have any idea what this entails, but I will not let my small mind come in way of making me believe that this is beyond my ability. To that end, I will not believe in myself (that I am only capable of doing what my minds thinks I am capable of doing) but go beyond what meets the eye and what seems logical and try to challenge myself. It’s possible I fail in that process, but I don’t have any better option. So, let me go out and do it !

Next time when opportunity knocking your door appears to be a Mission Impossible project, think unconventional, think daring. Don’t let your mind fool you to set lower targets just because you have never done it before.