Archive for the ‘management’ Category

David Brent (”The Office”) on training

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Well, after his much-commented-on stint hosting the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, Ricky Gervais perhaps is not the best role model I could have chosen for today’s post. Yet, let us hearken back to a time when Ricky, in addition to being a “slightly chubby but very kind comedian,” made fun of himself at least as much as the people around him.

I fell in love with the original version of “The Office” years ago. Gervais’ character, David Brent, was all our bad management practices and insecurities in one package, which made for hilarious yet uncomfortable viewing by any manager.

One episode that made me cringe out of self-recognition was “Training.” In this one, David hires a trainer to teach the company about customer service but undermines him by jumping up at every opportunity to (try to) demonstrate that he knows more about customer service than anyone at the company–more, even, than the trainer. While watching this, I had flashbacks to all the times I had jumped up to interrupt a trainer during a class or to demonstrate how much I knew about the subject at hand.

This is a smart-person problem. It was important to me to show I knew a lot. Or, perhaps, a “I think I’m smart but not sure I’m smart enough, so I have to demonstrate my smartness” problem. Or, if you’re David Brent, it’s a “I think I’m brilliant but I’m actually quite dumb,” in which case you have a comedy show.

The lesson I took from this was to see how this behavior looked to others. While I was trying to impress people, they were more interested in learning about the topic at hand. (Some folks probably wished they could have told me to sit down and shut up.) Jumping up to show how much you know is a manifestation of the Hermione Granger syndrome, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

For now, check out David Brent (Ricky) and make sure you don’t do what he does:

Stop picking on the mailroom guy: the empty strategy of squeezing the bottom of the ladder

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

A guy I used to work with left an all-hands meeting one day. The company had just announced a layoff (it was long enough ago that this was still stunning, not an everyday occurrence like it is now). He turned to me and said, “They always get rid of the mailroom guy.”

What he meant was that the burden of whatever circumstances caused the company to cut back fell on the lowest-paid employees. And whatever mistakes the mailroom guy had made, they hadn’t caused the company’s distress.

Lots has changed since that meeting, but the “mailroom guy” syndrome hasn’t. Companies still press down on the lowest-level employees to try to make themselves more competitive. This has led to reduced benefits, reengineering, offshoring, etc., etc. Generations of management consultants made partner by cutting costs at the bottom level. (It didn’t help consultants’ relationships to recommend cost cuts at the executive levels, did it?)

Finally, there is a dissenting view emerging in the business literature. Jody Heymann’s recent book “Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder: Creating Value by Investing in Your Workforce” discusses case studies of companies on three continents that have been successful while providing superior benefits and wages to their ground-floor staff. A recent New York Times article profiles a Dominican garment factory that pays a living wage to their employees and advertises that fact on the goods they sell.

Finally, Harvard Business School professor Zeynep Ton has just published a case study of the Spanish retailer Mercadona. According to Ton,

Mercadona offers the lowest prices in Spain, and its operational performance exceeds that of comparable Spanish and foreign chains. In 2008, Mercadona’s sales per square foot was 60 percent higher than that of France’s giant Carrefour, and more than twice that of an average U.S. supermarket. Sales per employee were 18 percent higher than that of other Spanish supermarkets that disclosed financial information that year and more than 50 percent higher than U.S. supermarkets. By all measures, its inventory productivity is much higher than that of its competitors….

For Mercadona, investment in employees is part and parcel of process and product improvement. In 2008, the chain invested four weeks of training time and €5,000 for each new store employee. “In the United States,” Ton points out, “the norm is only seven hours, and the difference shows.”

For example, Mercadona cross-trains employees so their productivity is not tied to store traffic. Cleaners can work the cash registers during busy periods, and cashiers can shelve products during downtime. Departmental specialists can assist customers during busy periods and order merchandise and arrange their sections during slack hours.

Much of the value proposition around investing more in ground-level employees is the benefit of lower turnover that results from better pay, benefits and working conditions. But better trained employees that have more flexible work roles improve efficiency as well.

The strategy of squeezing every last cent out of the workforce has reached the end of the road. Perhaps it’s time to explore a different approach. Stop picking on the mailroom guy.

Related posts:
A New/Old Idea: Pay People for Producing More
To Motivate Front-Line Employees, Use Their Insights

A new/old idea: pay people more for producing more

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Michael Schrage has another great post up on this week. Titled, “Why Keeping Score is the Best Way to Get Ahead,” the post discusses how publicizing results can help workers perform better and achieve more (not only for the company, but for themselves).

This subject has come up in a couple of books I’ve read recently. “Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete” by Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Reid shows how players of MMORPGs are motivated by their very public stature and standing in the game. The authors state that using this kind of scorekeeping in the corporate environment can help motivate better performance among all workers.

Which sounds pretty idealistic, except that another recent book, “Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder: Improving Conditions for Your Workforce and Boosting Your Bottom Line,” by Jody Heymann and Magda Barrera, reveals in a number of case studies how certain companies use team goals and bonuses to both increase the earning power of floor workers and their value to the company.

Contrast these views with a conventional wisdom that people are motivated by mission and something greater than themselves. And “piece work” has gotten a very bad rap.

But there’s more and more evidence out there that developing and rewarding compelling, specific goals for individuals, and communicating not only the goals but how people are doing against them, is a key to enhanced performance. And perhaps now, when there’s so much pressure on plain old workers, this may be a way to navigate a channel between the pressure for constant cost reduction and the need for people to increase their wages and improve their standard of living.

Common sense isn’t common

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

“It’s just common sense,” people say, as if this is a resource that we all possess in ample quantities. Yet if that’s the case, we don’t tap this resource very effectively.

The very impressive Wikipedia entry on common sense helps illuminate why this is so: “The common sense is an actual power of inner sensation (as opposed to the external five senses) whereby the various objects of the external senses (color for sight, sound for hearing, etc) are united and judged, such that what one senses by this sense is the substance (or existing thing) in which the various attributes inhere…”

commonsenseSo, common sense is not a pool of basic information that everybody has at hand; instead, it’s a way of putting information together to gain a deeper understanding, in a multidimensional fashion. In this, it has some similarity with Roger Martin’s term “integrative thinking,” or the way of finding creative approaches to reconciling two seemingly contradictory notions (such as, from fifty years ago, the thought that high quality and reduced costs could go hand in hand.

“It’s just common sense” doesn’t mean that an answer to a problem is easy – it means that in order to solve it, you have to find the common “inherence” between what you observe with all your senses. It doesn’t mean nod in agreement when the beautifully-formatted spreadsheet is presented; it means to probe the numbers, try to find flaws, vulnerabilities; it means, in the words of my son’s Kindergarten teacher, “Using your resources,” instead of blurting out the first thought that comes to mind.

Top 5 HBR Breakthrough Ideas 2010

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Each year we’ve narrowed down the Harvard Business Review list of 20 Breakthrough Ideas to a manageable five. For 2010, the magazine has done half our work for us; in the Jan-Feb issue, they present only 10 ideas. Here are the best of them:

1. “What Really Motivates Workers,” Theresa Amabile & Steven Kramer. Amabile & Kramer continue their fascinating diary study (see this earlier post discussing Amabile & Kramer’s work on creativity) & discover a key hidden link to worker motiyvation: the desire to see & understand their own progress toward a goal. Perhaps feedback (see this related post, and be sure to read the comments) is important after all? (There’s a similar sentiment behind one of last year’s breakthrough ideas, “The Gamer Disposition” – gamers need to know where they stand in relation to their goal.)

2. “The Technology That Can Revolutionize Heath Care,” Ronald Dixon. Electronic Medical Records are fine, but how about enabling more virtual contact between doctor & patient? Increasing such contacts can reduce expensive office visits & nip potentially-serious problems in the bud.

3. “What The Financial Sector Should Borrow,” Lawrence Candell. The government employs nonprofit research centers like Lincoln Labs & MITRE to provide guidance on military innovations. A parallel effort focused on the financial market would yield better insight & decisionmaking when it comes to regulating markets & financial instruments.

4. “A Market Solution For Achieving ‘Green,’” Jack Hidary. Municipalities can tap the power of the bond markets to finance environmental building retrofits. Borrowers are assessed increased property taxes to pay off their loans. Developers & municipalities win: property values rise & reduced utility costs exceed the tax increases immediately.

5. “Hacking Work,” Bill Jensen & Josh Klein. Seek out the “benevolent” rule-breakers in your company, & instead of crucifying them, study what they do & determine whether their workarounds can improve your business. [I haven't worked with a company yet that is ready to take this one on.]

(Disclosure: Jack Hidary invested in a customer of my former employer and I met him once. I’d be stunned if he had any recollection of that meeting.)

The myth of the “SuperCorp”

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

I had lunch with a friend and fellow consultant last week. I was mentioning some impressive recent reading on innovation that I thought his clients might be interested in. He said this:

That Harvard Business Review stuff is great. I used to read it a lot. But you need a certain corporate culture to be able to do these types of things. You need to have basic management stuff nailed down, you need a clear mission and vision and have that communicated and understood across the company. You have to be good at collaborating.

The places I work with don’t have that. They couldn’t do these innovation processes even if they wanted to.

My friend works with medium-sized local businesses. But I remember my big company days, and the picture wasn’t much different. They couldn’t pull off big management initiatives either (I remember failed attempts at creating a Learning Organization and embedding Value-Based Selling).

I have to admit, I love to read stuff like Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s writings around her book SuperCorp. Kanter writes that companies like Procter & Gamble, IBM, etc., are implementing “management 2.0″ – doing well by doing good, adopting socially-conscious principles and through them are gaining profits and positioning themselves for the future. But in my heart, I’m skeptical.

Here’s some recent writing of hers:

…keeping people employed in good jobs – is a goal of the vanguard companies I describe in my new book, SuperCorp. Companies such as Procter & Gamble, IBM, and others are trying to create innovation and profits through values and principles that enable them to have a positive social impact. They are thinking their way out of twentieth-century assumptions (e.g., that a job must be performed in a facility at specific times and assigned by a boss who observes performance) to create twenty-first century dynamic workplaces.

The Super-corporations want to be employers of choice. Their leaders prefer not to talk about insecurity but instead invoke flexibility. That semantic distinction might be scorned by the uneasily employed, but it conveys a new reality that can have positive as well as negative consequences.

Flexibility shows up in family-friendly policies. Vanguard companies are likely to offer family leave for care-taking, reassign husbands and wives so they can work from the same city, and provide lounges for breast-feeding new babies. They also give employees opportunities for community service, to help them express their values and make a difference to causes they care about, as part of their employment, which is an effort make work meaningful even for those in jobs with a high drudgery quotient.

These companies’ leaders say that the challenges of global change require a shift of responsibility from employer to employee. Employers must give people opportunities and tools to succeed, but individuals must keep themselves ready for the future.

It’s possible that big companies have changed since the years I spent working for them. But to me it’s likely that Kanter’s thesis is valid when you talk to the CEO, but completely invalid at ground level. A big company I used to work for was recently acquired by an even bigger one. And the people I still know there are scared to death, worried about when the ax is coming down next. They’re working hard, but working scared, and that’s not a good environment to get important work done. IBM and Procter & Gamble live in the same world as this other big company. I would be surprised if down deep their employees don’t share the same insecurities and fears (and compensating unproductive behaviors) as my former colleagues.

If the CEO lives in one reality, and the customer-service reps live in another, what difference does it make? It comes down to where the value is added in a business. At large companies, the vast majority of value creation happens at the ground level – the hundred thousand people on the ground floor, or the five thousand first-line managers who support them. Not at the executive level.

And at ground level, I’d bet that many employees of Procter & Gamble and IBM don’t view their company as a SuperCorp. They probably see it much like the clients of my consultant friend – a company with plusses and minuses and a lot of basic things that aren’t fixed yet. No matter what the CEO thinks.


The tyranny of the dashboard

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

722346_speedingI frankly am beginning to feel that I’m shouting into a void here. Companies are spending more time and money equipping the CEO and team with information, while starving the thousands of ground-level employees who, frankly, can have more impact on the company’s success simply through their day-to-day actions.

One ray of hope: an article in the December Harvard Business Review (co-authored by Fred Reichheld, the creator of the Net Promoter Score – a simple metric that somehow captures the complexity of customer perception) entitled, “Closing The Customer Feedback Loop.”

As opposed to the conventional wisdom of gathering masses of data and trying to detect high-level patterns in them, Reichheld and his coauthors talk about getting more granular – gathering information at the customer transaction level, creating small rollups of the data, and sharing them where they can do the most good – with the front-line employees and first-level management who directly impact the customer experience.

I agree with their prescriptions, but it still leaves the problem of what to tell upper management. Is there anything wrong with high-level management dashboards? Well, yes. Something of the danger in this is described in today’s WSJ article on Simpson’s Paradox (”When Combined Data Reveal the Flaw of Averages“). The first example cited: while today’s overall unemployment rate is lower than the 1982 level, unemployment at each educational level is higher. (The overall rate is lower because there are more people at higher educational levels, which have lower unemployment, than there were in 1982.) The article states: “Compared with a similarly educated worker in 1983, ‘the worker today has higher unemployment at every educational level.’”

There’s always something lost in summarization. In the case of Simpson’s Paradox, the result of the loss is a flawed conclusion, or at minimum missing a greater point of the story. Overall unemployment today is lower than 1982, but people today have been hit harder than their 1982 counterparts.

Dashboards distort reality as well. Executives rely on machines crunching millions or billions of numbers to present them an easily readable story of what is happening in their businesses. Yet the farther the statistics are distanced from the on-the-ground reality, the more likely they are to lie.

What can be done? Let’s get back to “Closing the Customer Feedback Loop.” On-the-ground data gathering and interpretation by those close to it makes all the sense in the world. But in communicating with upper management, there needs to be less sharing of numbers, and more sharing of individual stories. You can’t get any more granular than that. You can read a vibrant story in a minute or two. And stories fall into patterns–something more subtle and nuanced than statistics–that help senior management understand what’s going on. And human experiences are more understandable than the simplest dashboard.

There are tools to do help you gather and use stories. Rakontu, an open-source story-sharing platform, is one. Enterprise 2.0 tools such as blogs would also work for this purpose. So what’s stopping us? Or am I still shouting into the void?

(Photo by awegedebe via stock.xchng)

Related posts:
GE uses “net promoter score” – one of my earliest posts!
On Rakontu
Time to listen to front-line employees
How B2B customers talk
“Enterprise 2.0″ review
Technology is great, and so is avoiding the acorns

Is everyday management a social threat to employees?

Friday, November 6th, 2009

Management RewiredThere’s a neat article by Reuters discussing how workers’ brains and management practices often work at cross-purposes. They cite, among others, Charles Jacobs, author of the book “Management Rewired,” recently reviewed here. An excerpt of the Reuters piece:

“One of the things organizations need to do is respect the deeply social nature of the brain. People are not rational, they are social,” David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” (HarperBusiness), told Reuters in an interview. “The social brain is such that we are really driven to increase social rewards, and we are really driven to minimize social threats.”

your brain at workRock, the founder of a company that applies the insights of brain science to leadership coaching, lists five areas in which our brain’s threat mechanisms are easily triggered at work: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

When we feel threatened in any of these spheres — a superior displays power over us, rumors circulate about the future of our job, our work is micro-managed, we are excluded from colleagues’ conversations, or our work is unjustly overlooked — our brains focus our attention on the threat.

Jacobs, in his book, writes about the deeply illogical outcomes of giving and receiving feedback: oftentimes, rewards often undermine continuing what we are doing well, while negative feedback reinforces the undesirable behavior. Writes Jacobs: “A landmark study at General Electric found that the company’s performance appraisal system not only didn’t work, it produced results that were virtually the opposite of what was intended…. GE found that a manager’s praise had no effect on performance one way or the other, while the areas that a manager criticized showed the least improvement.”

What are your experiences with performance reviews, management encounters, etc.? Have they felt like threats to you?

(Hat tip to Felix Salmon)

Related post:
Considering the mind: mini-reviews of “Buyology,” “Management Rewired,” and “Free Market Madness”

My reading journal: Morten Hansen’s “Collaboration”

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

I’ve finished a few books recently but am a bit behind on reviewing them. My kids have started documenting their books in reading journals that help them with reading comprehension. To add a bit of variety (and to make sure I’m not getting lazy), I’m going to use the reading journal format for this week’s reviews.

collaborationCollaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results,” by Morten Hansen. 2009: Harvard Business Press, 231pp.

When did you read it? September-October 2009.

Subject: A study of collaboration in business; when it is and when it is not appropriate, and best practices for successful collaboration.

Did you like it? How many stars would you give it (1-5)? 4 (thankfully I don’t have assigned reading… I won’t be writing about any 1-star books here!)

Summary: Hansen has spent his academic career studying how corporate groups collaborate, effectively and ineffectively. This book sums up a number of studies he has worked on with various companies over the past 15 years. First, Hansen discusses obstacles to collaboration – including the warning that not all collaboration is good collaboration. In other words, when the costs of collaboration (communication, coordination, negotiation, etc.) outweigh the benefits. This frequently happens when businesses lacking key synergies are combined via merger.

The bulk of the book is devoted to discussing what Hansen calls “disciplined collaboration.” He discusses four collaboration barriers – not invented here, hoarding, search (inability to find the insight you need), and transfer (inability to put others’ knowledge to use), and three “levers” to promote collaboration: “unify people, practice T-shaped management, and build nimble networks.”

These are practical suggestions and, on their own, not revolutionary. But to me seeing these three levers together as requirements for successful collaboration was distinctive and valuable.

Favorite quote: “Paradoxically, the emphasis on performance management over the past decade has created what Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow calls a ‘time famine’ at work. As people are pressured to perform, they feel that they don’t have the time to help others; reasonable requests for help are seen as burdens that put them behind in their own work. So people are faced with a trade-off – to do their own work (but not help others), or to help others (but get less work done).” p.55

Was it similar to anything you have read before? There are echoes of the recent book “Senior Leadership Teams” which takes up the question of how to get groups of senior executives, who naturally work to drive results from their own groups, to collaborate – another application of the “T-shaped management” approach.

Will this book end up on your bookshelf or in the library donation pile? The bookshelf. Collaboration is an important subject and I don’t have any books that deal with that as a main topic. Plus it’s good.

Related posts:
On “Senior Leadership Teams”

A company’s online, sharable, living window to the outside world

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

I interned for IBM in the summer of 1983. It was the best summer job imaginable–fun work, smart people, good pay, and of course better resume fodder than my prior work experience (the hardware store).

My first month, though, I didn’t have much to do. Everyone was busy, and it was hard to ask busy people to find me an assignment (this problem got solved, but that’s another story). So I read a lot. In particular, every week or so a packet of information came through the interoffice mail, consisting of pages and pages of photocopied newspaper and magazine articles relating to IBM and its business.

I looked forward to each packet and read every article. I may have been the only one in the office to do so. But I was really curious about the business and it was great to have all that information in one place. I kept that curiosity, about the company I worked for, its markets and the macro environment, after that, and that may be why I later gravitated to outward-facing roles like marketing, sales and strategy.

At any rate, it’s 25 years later, and there’s more information about a company, its markets, and the outside world than in 1,000,000 article packs available at the click of a mouse. Yet companies continue to act as if they have no idea what’s going on outside their walls.

Harvard Business School’s John Kotter, in his great 2008 book “A Sense of Urgency,” blames an insulated culture for companies’ inability to sustain their change initiatives–he urges companies to “bring the outside in.”

Here’s how Kotter describes the importance of sharing information that allows employees to experience a broad view of the company and its prospects:

I can still remember a visit I made to a company ten years ago as if it happened last week. The firm had been exceptionally successful in the middle part of the twentieth century. But by the time of my visit, market share had been steadily eroding for twenty years. The company was in a war, badly wounded, some would say bleeding to death. Yet when I opened the door to corporate headquarters, I entered a visual fantasy world.

Nowhere was there a single sign that the company was struggling, had been struggling for two decades, and was continuing to be beaten again and again in the marketplace. Nowhere was there a sign that the technology affecting its products was changing faster, offering it wonderful opportunities to leap ahead of competitors. The huge waiting room was pin-drop quiet and had the air of an antechamber outside the king’s throne room.

In total contrast, I once visited a successful firm that seemed to have its entire outside world hung on the walls of its waiting room. There were pictures of customers, of its own products, of its manufacturing plants, office buildings, competitor products, recent articles from industry publications, and comments (mostly good and some bad) from customers. There were a few prototype sketches of products to come. There were two big charts, one showing margins over the previous two years (which made the firm look good) and one that showed stock price (which made the firm look not so good). The entire effect was somewhat like a teenager’s room, especially the picture of a competing CEO with a mustache drawn on it!

The second company’s waiting room walls provided employees and visitors with a multimedia picture of the outside world every day. It reminds me of the article packs I read during my tenure at IBM.

Imagine the wall, virtualized, visible on every employees computer desktop via the intranet. Imagine that any employee can post items: news articles, blog posts, Tweets, rumors, video clips, etc. Other employees could vote on the items, comment on them, point out patterns.

In other words, a living, breathing, interactive, multimedia, ubiquitous version of those waiting room walls.

The technology to do this is ubiquitous and fairly cheap. Most companies have the basic plumbing to do it already. All they need is the framework, the processes, and, perhaps most challenging of all, the will and courage to do it.

Companies have to decide whether they want to be more like Kotter’s first example–the fantasy world, or the second–immersed in the real world, in all its messiness, complexity and contradiction.

(Photo by stevendamron via Flickr Creative Commons)