Célébrez La Différence

Dr. Egon Spengler: I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the polarity flow through the gate.
Dr. Peter Venkman: How?
Dr. Egon Spengler: [hesitates] We’ll cross the streams.
Dr. Peter Venkman: ‘Scuse me Egon? You said crossing the streams was bad!
Dr Ray Stantz: Cross the streams…
Dr. Peter Venkman: You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client – the nice lady, *who paid us in advance*, before she became a dog…
Dr. Egon Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a *very slim* chance we’ll survive.
[pause while they consider this]
Dr. Peter Venkman: [slaps Ray] I love this plan! I’m excited it could work! LET’S DO IT! – Ghostbusters (1984)

You have an idea.


You have a great idea!  It is revolutionary.  It will change the way things are done.  It will stand your existing processes on their heads, make them do one of those super complicated yoga poses, and bring enlightenment.

You present your idea to your team, coworkers, friends and their response is…meh.  But you know in your heart that this is a great idea.  What is going on?

Something to remember when talking with others is that, just like I mentioned in a previous post, no two people think the same way.  No two people will do things the exact same way.   And the ability to harness these differences in thoughts and actions is a tremendous skill for a project leader or team leader to have.  But just like any other thing in life, there is a potential downside, which is that that if you explain something in a way that makes sense to you, there is only a certain probability that’ll make sense to others.  Depending on background and the concept being discussed, this could be very high or a could be very low.

We all remember teachers in school who were very good at explaining concepts and others who sometimes spoke or taught at a level that was the students were not ready for.  You probably think back on the first group with more fondness.

It is the same thing that you need to be as a project or team leader.  You need to break down concepts into pieces that are easy to understand and look at them from the point of view of your audience.  It is great to have a computer infrastructure solution that saves hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if you cannot explain to your front line users how this actually helps them, they are going to be lukewarm on the idea at best.

On thing that I find, along with making sure you introduce relevance for your audience, is that using analogies is a great way to impart understanding.  Your analogy is don’t have to be perfect but a close analogy can really help.  I used the the flow of customers in a bank lobby to describe why users are getting slow response times from their computers.  I have compared triage nursing to database indexing.  You can probably guess is that I was trying to explain technical concepts to a nontechnical audience.  And it worked!

The second challenge you have with people thinking differently is that the members of your team all think differently.  And you as a project manager are responsible for making sure people understand each other.  This is more people management.  You need to be scanning the roomm, asking questions, making sure people are involved and responding, and generally making sure that the level of communications is as high as it can be.  This is much easier if you are all together in one place than if you are on a conference call.  But even then, there are tricks to make sure that communication is good.

So, remember, differences in how people think about things are a huge, huge asset to your team.  But it is very easy for that to become a problem as well.  Stay alert to make sure that understanding is happening and watch your team crush it.

Project Management Means People Management

When you are managing a project, your responsibility is not to find a solution and meet all the goals of the project.  Surprising, right?

Your problem is making sure that the project team meets all the goals and finds solutions.

Yes, you have to put together schedules and keep documentation and do the myriad of tasks that a project manager is responsible for.  But your huge, secret, overarching task is to make sure your project team is exactly that, a team.  And that means always paying attention to team a group dynamics.

For instance, in a meeting you are going to have a different types of people with different ideas about how to do things.  That can lead to friction.  And that is OK.  In fact, that is great.  You need to keep those ideas flowing and make sure people are discussing things openly and honestly.  But this can be trickier than it seems.  You have to watch for several things that can either derail your project or limit the effectiveness of your team.

  • Lack of open and honest communication – This can stem from many issues and is probably the root of all of the issues you might have.  You may have a loud group, or you may have a quiet group, but you need to make sure that everyone is participating, contributing, and respecting each other.  I am not going to go into all the potential causes is in this post,  but there has to be an air of respect and openness in your team.
  • Group think – It seems like it would be good enough for everyone agreed on everything.  Because then you can make great progress getting things done.  If you find your team is being too agreeable, that is a big warning sign.  There should be a lot of discussion of alternatives and potential issues.  You may have to push people by asking probing questions.
  • Endless discussion/ Inaction – You want open and honest discussion but you don’t want it to go on forever.  At some point you need to tell people to end the talk and make decisions.  Ideally, at the beginning of a project you will have set up ground rules around how you will make decisions, break ties, will determine when it is time to move on to a new topic or a new task.  If you set those expectations at the beginning of the project, this becomes much easier to avoid.
  • Bad team members – Let’s be honest, sometimes you have someone on your team who does not work well with others, even if they are good people.  Maybe they don’t share or they don’t do anything.  I believe that efforts should be made to work with this person, talking to them about what you need and expect from them, but don’t be afraid to talk with your project sponsor about replacing them, if it comes to that.

In comprehensive data analysis at Google, among other places, it has been demonstrated that the biggest key to a successful project is not who is on your team but how that team works together.

So, think of teams like the A-Team.  They might bicker occasionally, but they make their plan and (with a lot of help from special effects) work together to get things done.

Living On The Edge

Yesterday I alluded to the fact that people in structural holes, according to Dr. Bert, are the people most likely to have ideas.  Instead of hole, I like to use the term Edge, which is widely used to describe a place in nature where two different ecosystems meet.  For instance the boundary between a forest and a field or anywhere water meets land.  In and near that boundary area, there will be a huge diversity of species and a riot of growth.  There will be small trees, shrubs, ferns, tall grass, and a disproportionate amount of animal life.  Food, cover, and nesting materials are all very close by.  Animals have access to the resources of the field and forest right nearby.

This edgy area between the forest infield is analogous to and edge between departments.  All of those small trees, shrubs, grass, vines, birds, animals, those can all be considered a new ideas.  And that is a very fertile place for them to grow.

You can create these edges on your project team or in your business very simply.

Find ways for people to interact and share ideas.  Obviously, meetings are one way to do this, but make sure that meetings are set up to discuss ideas and encourage the free exchange of thoughts and experiences.  If you do that correctly, you’ll have amazing ideas and solutions to problems.

Try to create as many edges as you can.  If people and departments don’t normally interact, give them a reason to work together.  Often, it is helpful to include someone on a project that is not impacted that project.  This person creates a value by contributing from a point of view completely different from anyone else involved.  In terms of edges, just including this outside person will create a significant number, because of the new, unexpected interactions with the other members of the team.

Edges are not just important, edges are critical.  This is where most ideas and all of your solutions will come from.  And how people work together at the edges is where you find out if you have a team or a bunch of individuals.

So cultivate the fact is create more edges and be ready.  The hardest part will be trying to figure out which things to do first.


So You Want To Be An Innovator

Watch and listen.

Of the things you need to do in order to become an innovator, those are number one and two on the list.

Number three is to I think about how you can apply knowledge from one area of your life or ideas from a department or group to another department or group.  If you are observant of the different situations in your life, then this will naturally occur.

Number four is to start making changes, start talking with people about them, and start seeing how well they will apply.

Congratulations, you have just become an innovator.  You will now have the reputation end of “thinking outside the box” and “bringing something new to the table”.

Sociologist Ronald Burt, from the The University of Chicago Booth School of Business argues just this.  Creative ideas are not usually new ideas, but ideas that are cross applied.  He states that, “People who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas.”  This is true in my life.  I have cross applied ideas from gardening to my work at a bank and from software development to customer service.

And one of the best things about this is that these ideas do not even have to be yours.  The application of the idea will be yours, but the idea can come from someone else or somewhere else.  And the great thing about that is that there are roughly seven billion other people out there to provide these ideas.  And each and every single one of them thinks differently.  Not just differently from you, but differently from each other.

When you combine that broad array of knowledge with all of the interactions that people have with each other, whether listening to them, watching them, reading an article, watching a video, or even reading a blog, you have the opportunity to take that idea, give it a twist and put it back out as something brand new.  Because it really is.  No one else in your group, or department came up with that idea and applied it in the way you doing at.  So even though the germ of the idea what they have come from anywhere, you own it and you should be proud of it.

So, the next time you think, “Hey, that is a good idea”, write it down or have some other way to remember it because chances are you’ll be able to apply it somewhere else.

And always, always credit your source.

Feedback – Enjoy The Noise

I am sure you have experienced the kind of feedback you get when someone holds a microphone too close to an amp.  It can be very annoying and occasionally even painful.

That is not the kind of feedback I’m talking to go up about though.  This kind of feedback is one of the sweetest sounds you have ever heard. I am talking about all of the opinions and ideas and criticisms that people have about your project.  You want to hear all of them.

In fact, you want to go out of your way to make it easier for people to get feedback to you.  You want to encourage it, you want to solicit it, you want to work with them so that they feel as if that if they don’t give you feedback they are doing something wrong.

You want to start this from day one of your project, even before you know all of your project goal.

This seems like a lot of extra work.  It might be.  But if it is, that is because you have some holes in your project.  And the more work you do up front in the beginning to fix them and anticipate what problems you might have down the road, the less work you’re going to have overall.  It is also a great way become an innovator, working with people to apply their ideas to your project.

No matter how long you have been an a position, or doing a job, or whatever kind of experience you have, you are one of tens or hundreds or thousands or millions in that field.  And you don’t do everything, even if you own your own company.  Everybody else that works with you and for you is getting a full year of experience with every year they work.  And they are seeing things that you don’t see, hearing things that you don’t hear, and vice versa.  So if you are encouraging feedback and constructive criticism, then relationships with those people (read: everyone) are going to be extremely valuable.

So set up multiple ways for people to get that feed back to you.  It does not have to come directly to you but it needs to rise to a level where it will be taken into account.  If all of the members of your project team are doing the same thing, you will have an awesome project.

Encourage it, build it, reward it.

You’ve Got The Power, Use It Wisely

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” – Ebeneezer Scrooge, speaking about his boss, Fezziwig, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

You’ve made it. You’ve climbed the hill. It might just be a little hell, but now you’re in charge. You now have some power and somehow this power includes the ability to
coerce or compel other people.

“Power tends to corrupt”  Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887.

There is a tendency for this to happen to even well meaning people. You have more responsibility and are accountable to higher level people. Your natural response can be to try a little too hard to make sure everything goes well. And that includes all the work of your subordinates. This might also include your peers who depend on your department.  In the quest to ensure that you get good results, it is easy to look upon everyone else on as a potential problem.

Good managers and team leaders don’t do this. They look at the strengths and skills of the people working for them and coordinate them so their team, not themselves, has the best possible chance of success.  As I discussed in the post about culture, if you do not develop and foster that teamwork then no matter how highly skilled you are or how hard you can drive people through sheer coercion, you will never do as well as having a fully functioning integrated team.  How that team does is the ultimate indicator of how you are doing.

Find out how well you are doing.  Getting honest feedback from a team is a good way to judge. If your team is not afraid to offer honest criticism or ideas, that is a good indicator that you are treating them well.

As I’ve talked about in a previous post if you are not giving more power to your subordinates that you’re comfortable if, I think you need to rethink your strategy.  If you have a good manager above you, that manager is giving you extra. In that case you have even more power to spread around.  That puts you in the best of all worlds.

Be a manager.  Get good people.  Build your team.  Watch them thrive.  Someone above you will be seeing you thrive.

Know When To Bend ‘Em, Know When To Break

I hope to inject a bit of fun while still making a point about adhering to the rules today, so with apologies to Kenny Rogers, this can be sung to the tune of The Gambler.

On a typical Tuesday at a job bound for nowhere
I met up with a guru. We were both too bored to care.
We took turns complaining about the rules that confined us
Inspiration overtook him and he began to speak

He said, “Son, I’ve made a living working at soulless corporations
Knowing how to get a paycheck with barely any work.
If you don’t mind me sayin’ you’re a frustrated go getter.
For a cup of your coffee I’ll give you some advice.”

So I handed him a new mug with the last of the java
The way he held his eyes told me to brew a new pot
The room got spooky quiet his face became more human
He looked me dead in the eye and he began to speak

He said, “If you’re gonna’ make a difference, boy,
you better learn to do it right.

You gotta know when to bend ’em, know when to break ’em
Know when to follow ’em because they did ’em right
You never accept rules lightly when you work for the man
Make him explain them that they’re just and right

Every winner knows that the secret to thrivin’
Is knowin’ which to ignore and knowin’ which to keep
Cause every job’s a winner and every job’s a loser
The best that you can hope for is making’ your team soar.”

When he finished speaking he drained the rest of his coffee
Turn off his laptop and walked tall out the door

Somewhere at a business that guru, he’s still speaking
In his words of wisdom is a gem you need to keep

You gotta know when to bend ’em, know when to break ’em
Know when to follow ’em because they did ’em right
You never accept rules lightly when you work for the man
Make him explain them that they’re just and right

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

Question: what is the difference between yogurt and many corporations?

Answer: if you leave yogurt alone long enough, it will eventually develop a culture.

The title is a quote apocryphally attributed to Peter Drucker.  Think of all the great places where you have worked. Remember all of the great strategies?  Remember all of the great people and environments?  I honestly have to answer no to the first question and definitely to the second. When I have been part of a talented, hardworking group of people who are willing and even anxious to help each other, amazing things have happened. I don’t know if everything that was done was directly part of the strategy, but it made for happy customers, patients, clients, etc.

Strategy is important. But not as important as culture. Here are the two sentences on strategy.  Every company, every person, every group needs a strategy.  Otherwise you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish and therefore you’ll probably not accomplish your goals.

Now culture.

There are basically combinations you can have:

  • good strategy / good culture
  • good strategy / bad culture
  • bad strategy / good culture
  • bad strategy / bad culture.

What will happen with the first and last items on the list is self-evident.  Let’s look at the other two.

If you have a first rate strategy and a poor culture, you are not going to have the resources to pull off your strategy.   People are just not going to do the little extras that make things go, that solve all of the small problems that come up.  They are not going to take extra steps.  They are going to be looking for other jobs.

On the other hand, it is very hard to have a bad strategy and a good culture.  In that situation, the culture is going to revamp that strategy until it is a good strategy and then great.  People make the necessary changes and put in all of the extras at work to either revamped the strategy or come up with a new strategy that is going to succeed.  In fact it will be very hard to develop a bad strategy if you have a good culture because people in a culture will work together to ensure that the strategy is a good one.

What constitutes a good culture is going to be different from place to place, but in the end that culture is made up of the group of individuals with shared values, a shared goals, and an unselfish attitude.  Then magic just happens.

Treat Your Coworkers Well

Who brings the treats in your office?  Small things like candies or the occasional baked goodies.  What position does that person hold?  Your treat person has come up with a small thing to do to make their coworkers a little happier.  I think there is a lesson to be learned from this.

These are not perks that are given out because they are trying to reward anybody.  They’re not giving out cookies to try to make friends.  They are just making them available as a small token of kindness or good will.  They don’t expect anything back, although it is nice if people reciprocate in some manner.

I will be honest and say that I am guilty of having taken advantage of these perks in the past.  I have eaten a lot of candy at work and not brought in nearly as much.  Now I try to compensate that by bringing in more and consuming less.  It works for both my coworkers and my waistline.

As the manager or eight team leader, pay attention to who these people are.  Pay attention to what they are distributing to the team.  Look for ways you can help out, not by replacing that generosity but perhaps by subsidizing it.  Definitely by recognizing them.

And learn from them.

I don’t remember the names of most of the people I worked with all my first job, but I remember Ann and Gloria very clearly.  Gloria always had little chocolate bars outside her office.  Anne always brought doughnuts on Fridays, including jellies.  Each of them probably spends less than $10.00 a week but their names are indelibly written in my mind forever.  (And Mary, with her amazing baked goods!)

As a manager you not going to give out big things randomly, but here and there you can cough up some treats, be they food, tee shirts, pens, anything that is useful.  If you can make it consumable, in my opinion, that is even better.   Those things will get eaten and used.  It doesn’t have to be much, it shouldn’t be made a big deal over, but it shows people that you appreciate them.

And for goodness sake, if you’re not a person who is bringing in treats or providing some fun and small service at least chip in a few dollars once in awhile.  Quid pro quo is appreciated in this cicumstance!

The Voices – Not Just In YOUR Head

Every idea that someone in your organization has is valuable.  But those ideas will never reach you unless you actively solicit and respond to them.  I am not talking about multi million dollar projects.  Or even 2 hour process improvements.  These are within the scope of project management.  But so are the small ideas, the ones that make people’s days a little better, make them a little happier, make them feel like the ratio of rewarding work to tedium goes up a little.

At every company I have worked at, there has been an undercurrent of voices.  These are what is heard during breaks, when people stop to talk in a hallway, or when work is a little slow between customers or patients.  These conversations tell you a lot about the company and the work environment.  And these conversations are worth listening to.  I have been at places where these were angry, frustrated, or scared conversations.  I have been at places where this was a mix of minor frustrations and discussions of the good things that we’re going on.  It is much better to work at one of the second places.

Anyone managing in an environment like this needs to know what those conversations are about.  The tricky thing as no one is going to tell a manager directly unless you have a great culture and work environment.  So, to get things started, you need to use some other kind of tool.  You need something like suggestion boxes, online forums, an e-mail address, or other ways to communicate, ideally with the ability to do it anonymously.  It does not really matter what the mechanism is.  Because they are all good.

But not great.

To get to great, employees have to know that they’re being listened to and responded to.  That means that if they have ideas that are good they need to be enacted enthusiastically immediately.  Some of the ideas will not be feasible or realistic.  Communication has to made as to why the suggestion is not being implemented, so those employees know they are being taken seriously.

Now the feedback look starts.

Now you start getting to great.

In this scheme of all the things that your department, business, or organization is trying to accomplish, this seems like minor stuff.  After all, these kinds of suggestions and little tweaks don’t add anything to your bottom line or improve customer service, do they?  I would argue that they do.  Again, I will use Google as an example.  They asked for employee feedback, got hundreds of ideas and thousands of votes on them.  They were little things, mostly easy to implement, and people loved them.  (Work Rules!, Lazlo Bock, p 51.)  The same thing happened at Alcoa.  In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg write about how Paul O’Neill took over as CEO in 1987 and started focusing on safety.  This is not a bottom line investment.  The short story is that safety got better and as people learned that he was taking safety suggestions seriously, other suggestions, big and small, were submitted.  People were rewarded, profits went up, and the company did fantastic through the 1990’s.  If you have a work force that is inspired and involved to make changes and do a better job than you’ll get the most of those people.

So, listen to those voices.  They are telling you what you need to hear.