Posts filed under ‘Leaders’

The Victims of Change

The Question:
“How do you suggest we deal with the victims of the changes we embrace?”

The Details:
“We produce a magazine. A new application offers too many advantages for us to ignore.  With decreased markets, we must be very  cost conscious if we’re to survive. This new solution will almost totally eliminate the need for our current Grpahic Designer

The downside to this new way of doing business is the loss of significant annual income for this designer.

I am looking at transitional solutions, but all so far are only temporary, and seem to delay the inevitable loss of income for this person.

Do you have any suggestions or broader perspectives that might help me find transitional strategies  that are more acceptable to both parties? (Us and the Designer).”

That you even feel the need to ask the question means that you’re doing more in this area than most. Whether you can take comfort in that or not is up to you. The question is a real one, New technologies often displace workers – as you point out in your description, there is an inevitable loss of income for the individual(s) being displaced. You also recognize that it’s the transition that’s most painful. The bad news is that unless we, both employers and employees, plan in advance for these types of transitions, then there is little we can do to mitigate the pain unless the organization is willing to assume the bulk of the burden and carry the employee through the transition. MOst organizations don’t choose this course.

The organization, for the reasons you offered, must more forward with any process that legitimately reduces costs without compromising quality of products & services. An organization can, either through incompetence or deliberate intent (or a combination of both), delay the deployment of an advantageous advance, but to do so for too long places the organization at risk.

To seize upon a displacing technology without considering the impact on the employees is not uncommon. As to whether or not it is ‘moral’ is another matter entirely, one I’ll leave for ethicists to debate. Regardless of whether or not such practices are moral or not, they do have inevitable consequences.

The survivors of any one particular round of technological displacement will inevitably ask themselves, “Is this how the organization will treat me when something comes along to replace what I do?”. The amount of loyalty & dedication they afford the organization in the future is in proportion to the amount of caring and compassion the organization displayed to them in the past. It’s not a complicated equation – and it’s one that the organization creates, and they control all the variables.

Putting aside the contentious questions of what an organization is obligated to do for their employees, there’s the legitimate question of what they’re capable of doing.

Helping an employee transition via re-training is one option. Another is to reposition the employee in some other capacity within the organization. This is one of those situations where the employee’s ability and willingness to learn new things is crucial. If the employee fundamentally does not want to learn a new skill, then they are deciding that obsolescence is preferable to change. An irrational, though common, response to this type of change.

The other side of the coin is that the employee can, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘must’, take responsibility for their own future. Unlike ‘Diamonds’, there is no guarantee that any skill is “forever”… A flint knapper has no place in a modern knife factory – a pen & paper draughtsman has no place in a modern architect’s office. The list is endless, and endlessly growing. Almost all the skills we have today WILL be obsolete before we retire. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to be stunned and surprised by each transition.

It might sound like a cliché, but if an organization wishes to assist their employees through this type of change, then glorifying our ability to learn new things is a good first step. This means, that training budgets must increase beyond today’s paltry pittance, and such budgets must acquire a certain robustness that allows them to survive at consistent levels through downturns in business.

If the desire is to increase an organization’s ability to Change, then it must increase its ablity to learn.

September 30, 2008 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

An all too typical Change problem

“Hi Peter

Just wondered if you had any quick tips on approaching Change with someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing? (I am always hearing the line ‘when we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’) They always find something to complain about with the new way.  Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots – a bad fall from grace.   It feels like you can never do anything right for them. Aarrgghh!!!“

There’s nothing in the above question, not even the growl of frustration at the end, that’s unique. The described situation is present in the office environment of every reader, as are the beliefs that a) the employee is in the wrong and b) implementing Change should be easier than it is.

Life would be so much easier for Management if people just did what they were told and didn’t complain so much. Of course… if we take that thinking to the extreme, then it leaves open the door for the nastiest of societies – where everyone must submit to the whims of whoever is currently above us in the pecking order. The ‘right’ to complain, the personal need to know and agree with the reasons for doing something differently – are things we all hold dear. In a sense, this ability to resist a new ideas is the difference between freedom and slavery.

Connecting someone’s reluctance to accept a Change at work, to the difference between freedom and slavery, might seem a bit hyperbolic – but accepting a Change we don’t agree with, without pushing back, does mean that we have to swallow our independent thought on the matter – give up our ability to choose what we do – and to the vast majority of us, that’s never done with a smile.

None of this solves the problem at hand – so how can we mitigate the conflict in this specific situation?  The description contains its own answers.

1)    “Someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing”

Here… management (or anyone attempting to bring about a Change) has their work well defined for them. Explain why the old system is no longer sufficient. Better yet? Figure out how you can help the person in question decide for themselves that the old system is now past its prime.

2)    “When we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’

Again, the answer is readily available, how is your environment different from their old environment? There is no harm in agreeing full heartedly that, Yes! In that environment the old system was the best solution… but in this environment other factors are at play. And yes, the old ‘cop out’, “we do it differently here” is allowed, if and only if, ‘doing it differently here’ is demonstrably better.

3)    “They always find something to complain about with the new way”

Yes. People do that. This goes away once people see the reason for doing it the way they’re doing it. A child being taught to ride a bicycle who doesn’t want to ride a bicycle will make the same statement when they fall off… I told you this wouldn’t work!…

Contrast that response to that of another child, one who wants to learn, when they fall off, they just take the problem in their stride and get back up on the bike – to try again and again, until they master the beast.

4)    “Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots.”

Yes, once again… people do that. People don’t like not being a part of the decision making process – especially if they were once an integral part of that process. Sooo… a possible solution? What can you do to include them in the decision making process? Understanding that if THEY had been the one to suggest the new system… ALL of your problems would never have arisen in the first place.

We all resist change we don’t understand, resisting change only becomes a problem when we’re the ones… trying to implement a change… on others.

Peter de Jager
Toronto, Ont
September 2008

September 29, 2008 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

Problem Solving Webinar – Today – August 14th 2008

Tricks, Traps and Tips for better Problem Solving

Cost: Nada!
Although you’re more than welcome to send me a note of appreciation and/or order some books as a way to support the costs of providing this service.

Where? Head here for all the details.

Summary:
If you work for a living, then you solve problems of all types.This session will explore some simple PS concepts and explain how we can use formal, and informal, PS techniques in every day Life.

Prerequisites:
Peter believes very much in the idea that we learn by doing, more precisely? That we learn by failing at doing.

So??? This presentation WILL be interactive.
1) Make sure you have a deck of playing cards handy.
2) Peter will take ‘questions’ via e-mail as he presents.

Feedback from a similar live session:
Peter … We reviewed the feedback forms this week – of the 90 collected for the Problem Solving sessions, overwhelmingly the ratings were 5s (highest) We summarized the feedback as follows, included member quotes:

‘Over the top’ successful. Very dynamic, excellent speaker.
Members wanted more from Peter; many felt his sessions were too short.
“..energizing & interesting. Very helpful.”
“..too short – was enjoyable & thought provoking!”
“Fabulous, awesome presentation. Great interaction & exercises.
Could have spent the whole afternoon in his session.”
“Excellent session, extremely dynamic presenter! Useful for any level of team member.”
“Peter was the “BEST” part of the day.”
“Please bring Peter back to talk to us.”

August 14, 2008 at 9:10 am 1 comment

Baseballs, Mars and Strategic Planning

My interest is in the Future, because
I am going to spend the rest of my life there.
Charles F. Kettering
1876-1958 American Inventor

At the foundation of most Strategic Plans there rests a simple question, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years, and what must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?”

That question looks like a good one. The answer will have all the attributes of a sound objective. Asking, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years?” entices us to paint a picture of what we want to achieve. We can call this picture our “Vision” or “Vision Statement”, in either case it creates a target worthy of our attention.

Since these things don’t happen by accident, “What must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?”, outlines our footsteps towards a rudimentary project plan. Since we know what we want to achieve, we now define the “what” and the “when” of our “To Do” list for the next few years.

Most strategic planners would agree that this question lies at the core of the strategic planning process. It is certainly the most common approach, and while sometimes the objectives we choose are overly simplistic, perhaps even ambiguous i.e., “We want to be the world leader in ‘X'”, they provide something to work towards.

And that’s the issue. Unless the next problem is addressed by some hidden assumption, this type of planning cannot succeed other than by luck, no matter much effort is put into that project plan.

Here’s the problematic snag, we cannot answer the question, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years?”, unless we first answer a bigger and more complex question, “Where will the World be in five years?”

Crafting a Strategic Plan is sort of like trying to get to Mars, or running to catch a baseball, you don’t go to where it is now, but to where it will be, when you finally get there.

Obvious? Of course it is. Yet most Strategic Plans make no attempt to determine where the World will be, they plan as if the World stands still in time, when in reality it is rocketing off in some unknown direction under the influence of Moore’s Law, politics, demographic trends, diminishing resources, new opportunities, aging populations, shifting alliances and a thousand other trivial and humungous forces.

If we do try to target the future, we plan for it based upon our understanding of the past. ie. Transactions have been growing at a rate of 10% per year, so we will plan for similar growth in the coming years.

New developments, “wild cards” if you wish, can erase all credibility from this type of reasoning. The rise of digital music and the ease, with which it is shared over the Internet, eroded the relevance of all historical sales figures for the music industry.

Of course, our real problem is that answering the question, “Where will the World be in five years?” is a challenge… as Yogi Berra, the great Philosopher King and sometime baseball player said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Tough? Yes, definitely. Impossible? No. Even if we choose to ignore them, there are developments we know will affect us in the future. Here are a few worthy of consideration;

The Collapse of Constraints: (The result of Moore’s Law)
Computer and telecommunication technology is going to get more powerful, faster, cheaper, more reliable, more accessible, smaller, cooler (in more ways than one), better and more convenient.

The Implications?
What technologies would you like to implement in your organization today, but can’t because of some limitation? Chances are that within the next five years, the natural advance of technology will collapse those constraints. Then what? Here are some reminders from our recent past, imminent future, their impact and possible implications;

Digital Music => Copyright => Music Industry Sales?
Telecommunications => Offshore Outsourcing => Local White Collar Work?
Voice over IP => Personal Communications => Phone Companies?
RFID => Inventory Costs => Privacy & Security?
Flat Screen TVs => Redesign of living space => Furniture Sales?

(An off topic question we might ask ourselves, “Which solutions implemented a decade ago, are the wrong solutions considering current technology?”)

The Passage of Time: (Demographics)
We’re getting older… all of us, soon the elderly will outnumber the young whippersnappers.

The Implications?
No secret here, as we get older we change in predictable ways. How do you differ from your parents? Imagine their buying habits and lifestyle rolled out as the norm. Imagine the bulk of marketing targeted at something other than teenage tastes, how does that affect your business… more importantly, the business of your clients.

Not to mention of course, the financial impact on poorly designed, naïve and idealistic Social Security programmes.

New Markets & New Competitors: (The Third World is no longer Third)
One word: China. Okay… two words: India.

The Implications?
According to some statistics, America makes up 5% of the world population and consumes 30% of the world resources. Imagine a new nation (or two), with the buying power, consumption, resources and production capability of 5-10 USAs.

Now… Can you imagine a Future where these new juggernaut nations do NOT affect your business?

These are just three of the many developments you might choose to incorporate into your strategic plan. Which ones do you factor into your planning? That depends on how far you choose to cast your attention. What could provide a threat or opportunity to your business? Or are you convinced that tomorrow is just today, plus another day?

How exactly do you factor in these future forces? There are no easy answers, yet there are lots of different approaches, tools and methodologies; from generic Scenario Planning, to Joel Barker’s Implication Wheel; from simple ‘What If’ sessions to more involved Brainstorming. The goal is not to do the impossible, we cannot predict with great accuracy what tomorrow will bring, but we can get a sense of what tomorrow might have in store for us and put together a Strategic Plan which will perform well against a handful of likely future possibilities.

No matter how we factor them in, the sooner we do it the better. As the quote at the start suggested, we’re going to live in the Future; we might as well look forward to it.

July 17, 2008 at 10:35 am 1 comment

Out! Out! Damn Pebble!

It requires no great skill to opine on what’s wrong with the world. All we need do is go about our lives, and pay attention to all that annoys and peeves us. Like a sharp pebble caught in a sandal, wrongness is self evident at every step. Flaws aren’t silent; they whisper their presence at every turn and plead for our attention.

Only one thing takes less skill than noticing errors and that’s whining and moaning about them, that and looking to someone else, anyone else but ourselves, to make things right. It’s a habit picked we up in childhood when we lived under the protection of loving parents. It was best forgotten as we aged.

Nor is there any great intelligence necessary to imagine we know what needs doing. Even the naïve child we once were, suspected that sandals, free of pebbles, tread softer.

There are great gaps though, between seeing what’s wrong, knowing what’s right, and stepping from certain pain to possible relief. If the worried world around us is any evidence of our ability to cross them, these are insurmountable gaps. Huge gaps only ancient heroes and leaders can bridge. That is, if we believe that heroes and leaders are a thing of the past. Or worse, that no heroes or leaders lie sleeping within us.

These gaps are kept alive through no base lack of knowledge about either the problems or possible solutions. Nor is there, if our whining is any meaningful measure, a lack of desire for a world free from stony pebbles.

Yet the pebbles persist, despite our earnest wishes. Perhaps they exist because all we do is wish and pray for better times?

Removing even a pathetic pebble from a sandal requires us to do a lot more than wishing it away… we have to care enough, even for a tiny pebble, to bend down and act.

There are no guarantees here. No parents to ensure we won’t stick our hands in too fierce a fire. No warranty on the correctness of our solutions. No protection that we won’t make things worse through our actions. Never the less, action is all we have, without it, even that teeny pebble will eventually wear us down. The pebbles exist, that we have no control over. What we decide to do once the pebble gets our attention is entirely under our control.

Admittedly the real world is more complicated than mere a pebble in a sandal, but problems are still like pebbles in that they make their presence known by annoying us. And because of this, real world problems are at a distinct disadvantage… the bigger they are, the more people they annoy. And even problems the size of mountains can be shifted, one person, one pebble at a time.

The eyes that see a wrong, can see the hands to fix it.

July 4, 2008 at 2:37 pm Leave a comment

Simple Wisdoms… Difficult Lessons?

We call them many things, from adages and aphorisms, to maxims, proverbs, old sayings and memorable quotations, but regardless of how we’ve labeled these sage old saws, they all deliver exactly the same thing. They are all, snippets of wisdom, lessons learnt, sometimes at great expense through hard won life experience. Together they provide a large library of life lessons, all neatly encapsulated into pithy phrases. Sometimes they’re repeated so often, they lose meaning through excessive exposure.

Somewhere along the line we arrived at a point where we shun the simple in favour of the complex.

We’d rather take a long, expensive University course on Ethics, than adhere to the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

We’d rather invest in extensive quality programmes, than follow the advice of an old carpenter, “Measure twice, cut once.” And we need to be beaten into submission before taking regular backups, rather than remembering, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.”

Despite our proven reluctance to follow these inherently simple bits of advice, all of them demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive in our global consciousness. Every country, every culture has a variation on, “Look before you leap!”, “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” They persist from one generation to another because, even though we don’t always pay them any heed, we offer them as our best possible advice. We practice a bizarre contradiction, we know these sayings contain deep truths, but we choose to ignore both our own knowledge and the wisdom of the past.

While there are many management (and personal) challenges, the most important of them all, and perhaps the most intractable, is the answer to the question, “Why don’t we do, what we know we should do?

While I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question as to why we ignore what we know, I do believe there’s a proven strategy to overcome this human flaw. Pay conscious attention to what we’re doing, and compare what we’re doing, to what we know we should be doing.

That’s so obviously true that it’s almost one of the maxims we’re discussing. In a sense it’s nothing more than a verbose variation of “Look before you leap!” or even “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.” Is it any less true because of that similarity?

One could examine our organizations and identify problems solvable and avoidable if only we consistently followed a set of simple maxims, but that could get awfully complicated faster than we could blink. Imagine having a “Department of Aphorism Audits & Accounting”, or an “Administration of Adept Adages”? The mind boggles and things just get silly.

A simpler approach, (and that’s the goal… right?) is to adopt a personal motto and measure all our actions against its succinct guidance. No, my personal motto isn’t, “Keep it Simple Stupid” (although it could be as evidenced by this article), mine is a little more suited to the world’s laziest man, “Never do today, what you can put off until tomorrow!” (Consider this advice carefully, it doesn’t necessarily mean what most people take it to mean. As an exercise for the reader, think of it in terms of Pareto’s 80/20 Principle and a rationally prioritized to-do list.)

The obstacle to all of this sage advice (the traditional proverbs and maxims, not my ramblings) is still the point identified in the second paragraph; we shun the simple, and insist on elevating the importance of the complicated, and costly. The phrase, “This can’t work, it’s too simple” is heard frequently in most organizations, along with another thought, “If it costs more, it must be better.” (The retailers of the world salute this thought process.)

So? If all the accumulated wisdom of the world is to have any value, we have to pay attention to at least one small snippet of it. What truth will you make your own? What one bit of advice will you measure all your actions against?

If you get comfortable enough with that concept, what one truth would you select as the foundation of how your team, department or organization operates? Start with just one, and if that becomes second nature, then add another one, move slow and steady and win the race. Remember big trees fall under small strokes. Aw heck… you get the idea.

July 2, 2008 at 10:48 am 1 comment

Making a Date with a Crisis

Regardless of our circumstances we often share the same thoughts. The notion “It can’t happen here”, is such a common way of looking at disaster, that even Kissinger got into the act with his famous “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Humor aside, disasters happen regardless of what you had planned for the week. How badly they affect us, is determined by our ability to respond without warning to crisis situations.

The traditional approach to disaster planning is to create a methodology, install contingency plans, ensure that proper backups of crucial data are made, and place all this documentation in yellow binders on a shelf. If we’re diligent, we take it out once a year for some exercise.

This way of planning for disaster, while it provides many benefits, also contains a serious flaw. It’s not so much the cost – insurance of any type always costs money. The flaw is more subtle, but it is potentially serious enough to scuttle the best laid plan.

It is this, Disasters by their very nature, happen unexpectedly. Our success on the day is based upon how we react when we’re confused and don’t know what’s going on. Planning allows us to think through the process of what to do if (when?) something happens, before it actually occurs. That thought process alone is the central core of any contingency plan, but just thinking about it, isn’t enough. We have to go into the water before we know how to swim. We have to live it, to learn from it. Planning for the experience is not the same as experiencing the plan.

How to improve a disaster recovery plan? Given the stated nature of disasters, ‘unexpectedly and without warning’ seems like the right approach.

At 9:00am on a Monday morning, inform 50% (or a mere dozen if that would be too disruptive) of your management team, individually and personally, that they’re leaving immediately for an off site location for an emergency meeting. No prior warning. No details provided. No excuses accepted. All meetings regardless of importance are ignored. No notification to secretaries/assistants or clients allowed. All cell phones and blackberries collected. In other words, just like a real life crisis.

When they arrive via the waiting bus, they’re told of the ‘disaster’ that has taken place. They are to respond to this ‘disaster’ over the next day or two. What is the ‘disaster’? That depends on how severe you want it to be and what you think would provide the best information.

There’s a certain beauty to this exercise – NO PREPARATION IS REQUIRED. (except possibly for the bus) The Exercise starts at 9:00am when your employees are informed. NO hotel is booked – no coffee pre-ordered, no Flip Charts on site.

I already hear the objections… we need to book the hotel in advance otherwise…

Question… on the day our building is on fire, bombed, flooded, the senior exec team all killed in an air crash, captured by ninjas etc. etc. will we already have a room booked? If we cannot manage this minuscule exercise in crisis – then we are fundamentally incapable of handling a real emergency.

Back at the office the remainder of the management team can take the exercise one step further and pretend the entire off site team are victims of a disaster. This secondary exercise might be more than your organization can handle without severely impacting day-to-day operations. The alternative is to merely explain what is going on and cope with their unexpected absence for two days (week?). There is learning even this minimalist approach.

The exercise provides two benefits. First? An immediate and relatively inexpensive evaluation of how well your management team responds to an unexpected crisis.

Secondly? In a very short period of time, with minimal impact to your organization, you highlight those areas most vulnerable to the ‘disaster’ you selected. With that in hand you can now move forward to a ‘real’ contingency plan with specific objectives in mind.

The objections to this exercise are many and obvious. You can’t afford the time. The board would object. You can’t afford the negative impact to the business. Your schedule is full next week.

June 19, 2008 at 7:42 am 2 comments

On the Mechanics of one Election

Asimov’s classic “Foundation” is the purest form of SF. It takes a fundamental desire – our need to predict the future – then presents a “What if?” scenario and pushes it to the boundaries of belief. Whenever I’ve read “Foundation”, I’ve always spent more time wrestling with the central idea than actually enjoying the story line.

Is it possible, will it ever be possible, to predict how people will react to a specific event, to any useful degree of accuracy? Are there rules, perhaps waiting for a Seldon to discover and formalize for human behaviour? Will it be possible to use an understanding of those rules to shape the future? Could our tomorrows become manufactured products of calculated action?

I first read “Foundation” during my second last year of high school. I was, by any reasonable definition, a ‘geek’… not quite of the pocket protector crowd, but I owned a slide rule and knew how to use it. My buddies at the time were also addicted to SF and we spent many hours arguing over the possibilities presented by the science of Psychohistory.

We were then presented with an opportunity to use our high school as a grand experiment.

Like most high schools we had a Student council, elected by the students, and responsible for school activities such as parties, fund raising, proms and concerts. We also, like many other schools, had a raging case of student body apathy. Nobody attended school functions, sports events or concerts. School spirit was non-existent.

We, a cadre of invisible students, devoid of popularity, suffering from a dearth of cool, decided to fix this problem.

While the formal tools of Asimov’s Psychohistory were beyond our reach, there were some basic rules of human behaviour we could use in our social re-engineering project. The rule which best fit our situation, was the concept of the swinging pendulum. The notion that popular opinion/behaviour swings from one extreme to the other. The ‘trick’ is to identify the extreme ‘states’ and then apply just enough ‘force’ to nudge the system into one of these ‘states’.

We ran for student council on the platform that student councils were a tool of the administration to distract our attention from the real problems of poor education, over-crowding etc. etc. If WE were elected we would abdicate our responsibility, we would shut down the council, we would do nothing for the following year, and we would ban all future student councils… Anarchy would Rule!

The administration hated us… therefore the students loved us. We geeks won by a landslide. We abandoned the student council. Phase I of our project was complete. Now we waited.

Winning this election was an accomplishment of sorts. We had no prior status or influence within the student body, yet we beat much more popular and influential jocks, cheerleaders and divas. Rule #1? It’s easy to get elected if that is your ONLY goal… Just promise the people whatever they want. Some of our politicians are very good at this.

Throughout our elected year, we threw not a single party, flew no banners, we raised no funds. The first 2-3 months everything was ‘fine’. Then slowly but surely, discontent festered in the land. The value of a student council grew conspicuous by its absence. It grew in importance, because it didn’t exist. Phase II of our project was well on the way to completion.

That was our final year before we scattered to our universities, but we kept an eye on our little experiment to see if it would develop as we expected.

It did.

At the end of our last year, the students demanded a student council election. We knew someone, would step into the breach at the appropriate time. A full council was elected. The next year our school experienced a huge increase in student involvement. Parties, event attendance, fund raising all reached historical highs. The Pendulum had swung from abject apathy to total commitment. Phase III complete. Mission accomplished. Apathy defeated. Hari Seldom would have been proud.

Were there unintended consequences to our little experiment? Two of them come to mind.

Fact: The individual who became student council president… went on to become a Member of the Canadian Parliament.

Fact: I now speak for a living. My topic? Change Management.

May 26, 2008 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

As Others See Us.

If you don’t recognize the tail end of this quote from Robert Burn’s ‘To a Louse’ then here it is in its entirety, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us!”. Why am I waxing poetic this month? Mainly because a sad incident a few months ago that has stuck in my mind.

I’d just given a presentation on Change Management and was afterwards approached by a contingent of a half dozen dejected looking employees from a company which shall remain nameless in this article. They wanted to have a private and confidential discussion about some changes going on in their organization. They wanted advice on two things; how to cope with the changes and how to communicate to management that they were on a path to destruction because of how the changes were being implemented.

None of this is unusual, I get asked these types of questions all the time. What was different this time was some of the language used in their responses to my standard information gathering questions. I could easily comment on their queries on coping with Change, as the techniques are the same regardless of the Change, company, person etc. etc. Change is Change is Change.

To offer advice on how to communicate with management isn’t as easy. To offer advice without knowing the culture first hand, is presumptuous. To dispense communication strategies without knowing the details of the existing Status Quo and the Change being implemented isn’t only naïve, it’s dangerous.

So when I asked if could come into the organization to gather this information their responses were as follows;

No – management isn’t listening to anyone who takes issue with their policies
No – the powers that be, won’t listen to anything that might change their actions.
No – that’s pointless – they only hire those who agree with them.
No – they shoot the messenger on a regular basis – I can’t risk my job.
No – upper management is convinced there isn’t a problem.
No – the dark overlords know best. (Their words… not mine)
No – management has no interest in people issues.

Now, we all know that ‘gaps of disagreement’ between staff and management are not unusual, but their choice of words, combined with the deer in the headlights look of desperation on their faces in front of me – suggested that this was more than the normal amount of disagreement. Other comments described management as a ‘not very nice people’, ‘bullies’ and ‘interested only in themselves and not the organization’.

Here’s the question, and the purpose of this particular article, are we certain we know how we’re perceived by others in our organization? Do employees really know how they’re perceived by management? And even more importantly (in my opinion) does management really know how they’re perceived by the rank and file?

Regardless of the accuracy of the above statements by this post-presentation contingent of employees, is management aware that they are not seen as leaders? Do they care? Should they?

That that question is even asked is a symptom of something wrong. We all know people who literally do not care what employees think of them. Why is that wrong? If we can’t answer that question, then we’ve lost touch with what it even means to be a leader. I can’t imagine how an organization can excel if employees don’t respect, and even admire, their managers.

I’m not a great fan of most Human Resource management instruments, many of them seem more like Astrology and tea leaf readings than anything I’d use to manage either myself or others. That personal quirk aside, there is one I’m willing to treat with great respect, primarily because it’s nothing more than a process by which the feedback loops between ourselves and everyone around us – which should take place on a regular basis – do take place, at least from time to time. I’m referring to the class of HR tools known collectively as “360-degree feedback”.

The 360 concept is simple. Your peers, subordinates, managers and even your clients provide feedback on a variety of your attributes – anonymously of course. Robbie Burns would love it.

All of us, regardless of where we sit on the organization hierarchy, need to know how others see us. Regardless of whether the impressions of management, such as the ones listed above, are accurate or not – it’s information we can use to our advantage.

There’s a risk of course. Ask for feedback and, guess what? You’re going to get feedback… can you handle the truth? What about the lies?

Not all the truth will be ‘pleasant’. Under the guarantee of anonymity (need I stress how important that is?) people are willing to provide both the good, the bad and the ugly.

And, under that same guarantee, there are those who will seize the opportunity to inflict some petty revenge. Luckily, these are usually exceptions and stand out as anomalies amongst the rest of the feedback. Good 360 instruments are designed to identify these aberrations.

Regardless of the feedback, it’s all information we can put to good use, unless we don’t care.
Frankly, even after a lifetime of experience with organizations of every stripe, I don’t know of more than a handful of managers who would pride themselves on a reputation as bleak as the one painted by the contingent that prompted this discussion. And even in those rare situations, would a competent board of directors support a management style worthy of the ‘Dark Lord’ comparison? Assuming they wanted the organization to prosper?

Putting the extreme end of the perception spectrum aside, are we seen as; fair; reasonable; competent; hard working; pleasant to work work with? If that’s what we believe, how do we know it to be true? Most people have trouble telling us we have something stuck in our teeth, never-mind anything really important such as our pet project is doomed to failure. Especially if we’re sending out unconscious signals that negative feedback is unwelcome.

The advantage of the 360-degree feedback process is the enforced anonymity of the feedback. We all enjoy both giving and receiving positive feedback – it’s the negative stuff that presents us with the largest difficult and the largest benefit. The amount about benefit depends entirely on our willingness to give more than a little credence to the negative comments we’re sure to receive.

So? Was Robbie Burns on the mark? Do we really want the power to see how others see us? Or is ignorance truly bliss? (ps. You do have something stuck in your teeth.)

May 23, 2008 at 11:31 am 2 comments

Forget the Turtles, its PEOPLE all the way down, and up.

I’m baffled… If I go to the Tim Hortons corporate site I read the following…

“The Tim Horton Children’s Foundation was established in 1974 by Ron Joyce, Co-Founder of the Tim Hortons chain, to honour Tim Horton’s love for children and his desire to help those less fortunate.”

And then I’m forced to contrast THAT worthy value statement with the article in today’s Toronto Star, where one of their employees in London, Ont is FIRED for handing a toddler a single Timbit…

Has Tim Hortons lost its mind?

Folks? From a marketing perspective alone this has to be one of the most incompetent management moves I’ve read about in a long long time. I don’t CARE if they have a corporate ‘policy’ against ‘theft’ – this isn’t THEFT, it’s called ‘Customer service’ and it’s the type of action that management should encourage in their employees. Instead she gets fired? For giving a customer a $0.16 Timbit? They put a person’s livelihood at risk for a Timbit???? Good grief.

It’s possible to try and condone, and even support the manager’s actions by pointing to the ‘policy’ and stating “The employee took a Timbit. She didn’t pay for it. It’s theft.” But when it comes to the negative PR? This is an unmitigated and totally unnecessary, disaster.

I sometimes wonder if the corporate world has forgotten what the term ‘customer service’ means anymore. It means treating customers as if you valued them. Handing a child a Timbit will likely result in the parent feeling grateful and spending a few extra dollars in the store. It’ll certainly prompt them to return to the store from time to time.

Be prepared for a backlash on this one. The best thing Tim Hortons could possibly do, is immediately re-instate the employee with a public apology and hold a ‘free Timbit’ for toddlers policy. If anyone should be fired, it should be the three managers involved in this PR fiasco.

Updated: 3:22pm May 8th 2008 same day the story broke:

Well, I tip my hat to Tim Hortons – common sense has won the day. The employee was rehired and is now working at another store. Full story here.

May 8, 2008 at 10:04 am 1 comment

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