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.


Transparency – I Can See Clearly Now

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way (lyrics by Arthur Baker and Anthony McIlwain)

In today’s world communication is the key to completing projects.  I have covered that at length in earlier posts.  And a key to effective communication is transparency.  I had a high school teacher, Mrs. Joann Mullen, who would often, as one of my classmates was stammering, tell us, “say what you mean and mean what you say.”  This should be true in all of your verbal and written communications. But there is a level beyond that you should aspire to.

Your entire job should be transparent. A good example of transparency is a Kanban Board.  There are variations, but generally on that board are listed:

  • Work waiting to be started
  • Work in progress
  • Completed work

Anyone is interested in knowing what I’m doing and what my priorities can just look at the Kanban Board.  If she feels that they have something that is high priority or needs immediate attention, they are welcome to discuss it with me and have it prioritized. It also make it very easy for my boss.  But when she walks away, she has a very clear expectation of when work will be done and why it is prioritized they way it is. This sets expectations very clearly for both myself and that person.

This is important because usually that person has little idea of what other projects or tasks that I have to complete. I have little idea of her priorities.  Now we have discussed it and both have a better understanding of each others’ worlds.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating sharing confidential information that might be involved in your work.  But if your task is to determine benefits for employees for next year, that is very helpful for other people to know so that they understand that a reimbursement for $28 is not your highest priority.

Another advantage to transparency is that anyone from your team can immediately help out with any of your tasks or vice versa. With the work clearly outlined, it is no trouble at all for team members to assist one another to help customers.

Another significant benefit of transparency is accountability.  If people know what I’m working on and I know what other people are working on that makes it very easy to where the buck stops. And since you are doing one heck of a great job, it means people see all the work you do.  That only adds to appreciation for each other and the jobs you do.

As far as I am concerned, there is no downside to transparency. The more you share the more you can help and be helped by other people. The more your function as a team and the better job you will do.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Your Mission Statement, Should You Accept It

Here is the challenge for you. What is your mission statement?
Every company has a mission statement.  I think that the best ones are short, like Google’s, which is “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”   The mission statement provides guidelines on the services a company offers, the standards of that company, and the goals that company has. This is a place to keep things simple and lay out the big picture.
How does this translate into your personal life? After all, you are not a company, you don’t have customers, nor stakeholders. Or do you? After all you provide a lot of services: as a parent, an employee, a volunteer, a member of your community, and many other ways.  You have customers or clients: your kids, parents, employees, community members, and friends. And, hopefully, you are in the black financially, although most of these relationships are cannot be measured with money.
There is a short song by Alice Gerrard called Get Up And Do Right. This is not a bad mission statement for anyone’s life who is unsure right now. You may have a passion or an interest you follow that you want to include in your mission statement. You may have a service you provide either as a person, employee, or through a business. That could also be part of your mission statement.

Whenever your mission statement is, make sure it provides focus for your life.  Once you have defined your mission statement, achieving your goals is going to be a lot easier.  The mission statement can provide direction.  If you want to do something like write a novel, climb mount Everest, become a volunteer firefighter, help the homeless in your community, or run a lawn care business, you can see how those things fit with your mission statement.

I have been talking about mission statements, but what is mine? I really need to put more thought into that. For right now I am going to adopt “Get up and do right”.   But I will put more thought into it. When I get there, I will write a follow up.

I encourage anyone reading this to think about your life, think about the mission you want in your life, and write that down. Just like anything, and obviously like mine, it doesn’t have to be complicated or exact and can change over time.  Starting with an idea and then honing at is a great way to get to a final product.  Discuss it with people you know.

Then make it your mission to use that statement and enjoy the new clarity that comes to your life.

Managers Serve The Team

When you think of famous managers, who comes to mind?  Charlie Brown, right?  Do you think winner when you think of him?  Probably not.  But think about this.  He kept the same kids coming back to play on his team for 50 years, despite losing all but one game.  He had to deal with an all-girl, attitude-filled outfield, a dog playing second base, and a love/hate relationship between his catcher and center fielder.  You have to be one heck of an inspiring manager to do that.

The title of this post is a direct quote from Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.  It defines the structure at Google, where managers are responsible for clearing roadblocks and inspiring their teams.  Managers there have had a lot of their traditional role removed and handled in a different way.  For instance, they do not decide who to hire and fire and do performance ratings.  They contribute, but do not make the final decisions.  The more authority and empowerment you give your employees, the more productive and innovative they will be.

Show Me Some Data

Google, a top rated company in both working environment and financially, has documented these performance gains with a staggering amount of data, but this has also been shown in other industries.  Nike ran an experiment in two very similar factories in Mexico, where management at one plant gave workers more freedom, including helping set production targets, self organizing teams, deciding how work was broken up, and having the authority to stop production when they saw problems.   The other plant did not make any of these changes.  Production at the first plant was almost twice as much as the second plant.

A study done by 7 researchers from the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield encompassing 308 companies over 22 years reported that, “…we found performance benefits from empowerment and extensive training, with the adoption of teamwork serving to enhance both.”  The study compared the results to what was gained from implementation of processes like LEAN, TQM, JIT, etc., and found that empowerment, training, and fostering teamwork worked very well, while more focused production enhancing efforts showed no significant effect.    

This is also true in service industries like health care.  A study by Heather K. Spence Laschinger and Joan Finegan comes to the conclusion that empowerment leads to a wide range of better results for the employees, patients, and organization.


There is a big place for process improvements, otherwise I would have to change my blog title.  But, just like I have mentioned in past posts, it is the team working together and being empowered to make changes that is the key to progress.

As a manager, find not only what is holding your employees back and get rid of it, but find ways to get them to work together.  Unleash all of their power.  They are only going to make you look even better.

All of the information in this post referring to Google comes from Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, pages 12-15.  So does the reference to the Leeds/Sheffield study.

Lying With Statistics – Stay Off The Median?

There are two types of numbers.  There are numbers that are near the middle and there are numbers that are on the ends.  Being a person with a last name that starts with the letter ‘L’, I can identify with the numbers in the middle.  Whenever we lined up in alphabetical order in school, that is where I was.  Today, we are going to learn the value of that.

Median is another fancy name for average.  Usually you hear it on the new when people are talking about median income, median house price, or median household net worth.  And that is because, as we will see shortly, that gives a different result than the mean, which we discussed yesterday.

The Median is just the middle number in any group.  In the group 3,4,5,11,12, the Median is 5.  There are two values below it and two above.  The Mean, incidentally, is 7.  The Median is handy to use in groups of numbers that have extreme outliers, like incomes, home prices, or net worth.  For example, let’s say in your neighborhood, people have a median income of $51,500, their homes are worth a median price of $189,000, and the Median household net worth is $70,000.  These numbers are important because, among other uses, they are used to calculate taxes.

Then a billionaire builds a multi-million dollar house in your neighborhood.   How much does the Median price move?  Very little, if at all.  All that happened is that there is one more number at the top of the list.

But how would this affect the Mean?  Let’s look at some concrete examples.  For the state of Maine, in 2011, the top 1% of income tax filers had an income of over $800,000.   As you can see on this site, that makes the Mean income, $61,081, substantially higher than the Median, $47,849.  If your whole town is valued that way, that is going to make a big difference in tax calculations.  That is going to be the same with home prices and net worth.  Do you think all of those big, fancy houses on the coast are going to make the Mean higher or lower?  (Hint: higher)

Let’s Check In With Yesterday’s Examples

Let’s look at our examples and see where the Median makes sense and where we can use it to get some false conclusions:

  1. A ‘C’ in class is average.  The median grade still does not help a lot.  Ruling: TBA
  2. The average balance for the deposits at your bank is $5000.  Using the population of  10 customers with a balance of $40,000 and 90 customers with a balance of about $1100, the Median is going to be $1100.  Because that is how much the 50th customer in order of balance has.  If the balances follow a power-law distribution, the Median will still be below the Mean.  If you are running this branch, this is not going to look good.  Ruling: Bogus
  3. The average height of a woman in the US is about 5’4″.  Remember from yesterday that this group fits a normal distribution (or bell-curve) very nicely.  The Median will give you about the same result as the Mean.  Ruling: Winner!  But use the Mean because it is easier to explain.
  4. The average patient stay at a given hospital is 2.5 days. This one is similar to the average deposit balance.  The vast majority of your patients can be staying 2 days or less, but one 90 patient day does not wrecks all of your numbers.  Ruling: Winner! But you still have to note the outliers to be honest.

The Median is very useful in populations that do not follow a Bell Curve.  But don’t go crazy with it.  It is another tool that can be used for good or evil.  In many cases, a little more evil than the Mean because the Median is not as well understood.

The image on this post is from