Category Archives: Managing Teams

Project Management: Are we Solving the Right Problems?


Wrong way

I have met many project managers who approach their roles with dedication, thoughtfulness, and considerable diligence.  The body of knowledge in the PM field is growing, aided by the efforts of such groups as the Project Management Institute.  Rigorous certification programs are offered around the world, and many motivated people have pursued learning the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

Yet, in spite of all this effort, the evidence shows that we are not getting better at managing projects in our organizations.

Depending on the study you look at, between 37% and 68% of projects (in the IT field) are judged to be “failures” in that they did not meet expected outcomes (70% or lower completion of objectives), ran seriously over budget (by 160% or more), or blew past their timeline goals by a wide margin (180% or more).   The data for ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and BI (Business Intelligence) projects is even worse.

So, what are we missing?

As you read through the analytical studies, a theme begins to emerge.  One researcher ascribes the shortcomings to our inability to analyze the business problems we choose to solve.   The IAG Consulting study referenced below explains the consequence in this way:  “Companies with poor business analysis capability will have three times as many project failures as successes.”

The PM solutions report referenced below asserts that the leading causes of project failures have to do with:

  • Resources: Lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of key resources, poor planning.
  • Schedules: Too tight, unrealistic, overly optimistic.
  • Planning: Based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, poor estimates.
  • Risks: Unidentified or assumed, not managed.

But like the IAG people  they concluded that the NUMBER ONE cause of project failures is related to:

Requirements: Unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise.

What makes matters worse is that even if the project is technically successful, too often it was just not worth the effort.   Who cares if we meet the requirements and meet our timeline and budget if the outcome did not materially impact our business?   Now if I reflect on my own personal experiences, I can recall numerous projects where we actually delivered on what our documented requirements were only to have the client (whether internal or external) say “well. . . thank you but this isn’t what I was imagining”, or “could you change it to do this or that instead”?   Who among us hasn’t been to that movie?   In fact I can recall a meeting with one of my past clients where we were discussing the question of requirements definition and the Senior VP of IT stood up and said to his people “if at the end the client is not happy, you just show them the requirements list!”   Yikes!  Really?  Let’s rub their face in it?  How did we degenerate into that kind of defensive action where the requirements list becomes little more than a “CYA” tool?

What was interesting to me about this example was that the executive I am describing was highly intelligent and worked for a well-regarded and quite sophisticated company.   But he was operating in a political climate where other operating executives were criticizing his team for their lack of responsiveness and effectiveness.  We are all a product of our organizational culture.

When you spoke to the project managers in that company, they, of course would describe how difficult it was to get clients to sit down and focus in a meaningful discussion about what they needed.

Why is this so hard?

I believe this is because we often ask the wrong questions.   When you sit down and ask someone what they want, they often can’t tell you.  If you show them some type of prototype, they can typically tell you what they like or dislike, but not everyone has a good imagination.   We are limited in our ability to articulate requirements because of our limited life experiences and our knowledge of what might be possible technologically.   It is hard for me to imagine something I have never seen or experienced.  This is why focus groups have gone out of fashion, as market researchers across the planet look for better ways to understand their customers.  The game is more about understanding what customers think and feel, instead of relying solely on what they say.

A BETTER line of questioning has nothing to do with requirements, but with what PROBLEMS I am trying to cope with as I conduct my job?  Let your customer service people express:

“I don’t have the information to answer customer phone questions about delivery status”; or “I feel if I had access to information about our products and pricing, I think I could sell the caller on different products or services.  Sometimes they order the wrong things”; or “we are way too slow in responding to requests for emergency service”.   Then, let your inventive technical people try to imagine how they might help with those things.  Once they have some ideas, they can share them with their client to test the viability.   Speak to them within the context of THEIR world, not yours.

creative problem solving frameworkThe Creative Problem Solving Process is one way I know to do a better job with the challenge of problem definition.  It uses an 8-step sequence of actions.   The orange section (steps 1-3) is all about understanding the problem(s) more deeply, and then choosing the most relevant ones to solve.   The yellow section (steps 5 and 6) is about generating solution ideas and choosing the best ones.  The green section (steps 6-8) is about execution planning. 

The main (and often surprising) insight is that the first three steps (1-3) consume as much as 50-60% of the time in the process! The discovery part of this section does not come from an interrogation of clients to solicit a list of requirements, but from the art of empathetic observation.    Here we are trying to go beneath the layer of superficial knowledge to gain a deeper insight into client emotions, biases, and motivations.

Too often we reject this notion because we allow ourselves to be trapped in a paradigm where we need to take immediate action, producing solutions – so that we are efficient.  I’m all for efficiency, but efficiently solving the wrong problem is not helping anyone.

Sometimes it pays to slow down.  Slower, often can be faster . . . and better.

Other Resources

Poor requirements definition is the number one reason for poor outcomes. (you can tell this article was written by a person with traditional PM training.) Why 37% of Projects Fail?

And another — which reinforces the issue that we aren’t solving the right problems (and are generally poor at defining requirements) Study: 68 percent of IT projects fail

And this one — argues that we haven’t improved at all in the last decade (in spite of the energy put into better PM skills) 62 percent of IT projects fail. Why?

Source Data from IAG Consulting, their Business Analysis Benchmark

Source Data from PM Solutions Study

A reasonable primer on “Why Do Projects Fail?: Learning How to Avoid Project Failure”

More details on the idea that sometimes slow is fast. Slowing Down to Move Fast, by Len Brzozowski

Innovation management vs. project management thinking, Design thinking: A new approach to fight complexity and failure

More on market and client intelligence gathering. Driving Innovative Strategy Through Empathetic Observation, by Len Brzozowski

 

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Innovation Management vs. Project Management


innovation PicProject management skills are in great demand today.  We all know the consequences of being weak at this important skill.  I can think of a number of projects where my teams came in over budget AND failed to meet expected performance requirements.   I can recall projects we completed where the end-user was largely unimpressed by the outcomes which did not meet user expectations.  I can also speak to a natural tendency in my R&D and engineering functions to over-design products, making them better in subtle ways important to our engineers – but not necessarily to any of our customers.  All these things need to be managed with some reasonable level of discipline.

OK. So we need to be more efficient, and more disciplined.  We get it.  But more and more people are recognizing the need to be more innovative as well.  As we get good at the art of project management, we also create barriers to innovation.  While it is an extreme case – just watch this NASA project management training video to see what I mean.

The idea of innovation and project management, to some seems an oxymoron.    This may be especially so if your idea of innovation is something that should be disruptive, game changing, or breakthrough in nature.  We do live in a world where we need cost cutting, efficiency, speed and focus as much as at any previous time.   We hear the rallying cries at the office: “Define the requirements precisely!”; “We need to guard against ‘scope-creep!’”; “Don’t over design this!”; “We must hit our milestone dates!”; “The user defines how much quality they are willing to pay for.”; “Time is money!” and so forth.

So how on earth are we supposed to innovate in that environment?  Innovation requires exploration, insight, divergent thinking, occasional blind alleys, and sometimes trial-and-error.  These seem incompatible with conventional Project Management thinking and training.

If one of the first steps in the project management process is to “define the requirements”, one key problem is that customers do not always know how to describe what they want.  I discussed this briefly in my article on Apple’s amazing market success with the iPOD.  The Apple device’s predecessor was the MP3 player.  At the time, these were expensive and lacked memory.   But Apple’s focus was much broader than designing a better, cheaper MP3 player.  They recognized that loading music content into MP3’s was awkward.  They saw that without an applications store (iTunes had not yet been invented – but was about to be), the MP3 movement would never win over mainstream users.   If you asked users what they wanted in their playback device, they may not have described iTunes as a need.  Why would they, they had no prior experience with such a marketplace.   We are all limited by our own life experiences and knowledge to what is possible when we set out trying to imagine anything new.   Defining requirements with an Innovation mind-set requires a different perspective.

In his intriguing article (see below), Jeff Belding argues that managing innovation projects does require a whole different approach – which is pretty similar to the Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking methodologies taught by the Sarasota Center for Innovation.   In the table below, here are differences between what Belding calls INNOVATION MANAGEMENT as compared to traditional PROJECT MANAGEMENT:

Five Key Factors of Successful Project Execution

Key PM Factors

This innovation management approach is a fundamentally different way of thinking.  The main difference is in the SEARCHING and EXPLORING phases (essentially the problem definition – and requirements definition work) is considerably longer and more expansive that we traditionally consider.  Innovation management requires looking for new perspectives, divergent thinking, and multiple levels of problem defining.

While this may seem more energy-consuming (more costly), I think I would argue that a quick mediocre solution is less advantageous to a slower one that delivers much better outcomes.

I suppose it is possible to conclude that not all projects require innovative solutions, and perhaps more traditional project management methods may work just fine.  But if your project “problems” have to do with developing products, services, improving customer experiences or creating new business models – then the Innovation Management approach may be very useful.

Two other project management thinkers, from Delft University in The Netherlands also suggest that “radical innovation” is fundamentally different and must be managed differently.   In the table below, Sergey Filippov and Herman Mooi argue that a percentage of your projects call for breakthrough R&D, even if they involve more uncertainty and broad/vague project goals. 

Innovation Strategy

The implications of their paper (to me at least) suggests that if we have a wide array of projects on our to-do list, some portion of these call for an Innovation Management approach.  This is sort of the same conclusion reached by Professor Vijay Govindarajan, from Dartmouth’s Tuck School (read more in:  Three-Box System: Balancing Break-through Innovation with the Short-term).  He argues that organizations need three distinctly different sets of projects – hence the three boxes.   Projects in box 1 are about improving what we already do today.  The 2nd box, perhaps the most difficult, is about pruning away (killing) the projects products or even business segments that are chronic under performers.  (At Apple, one of Steve Jobs favorite sayings was “you have to be willing to ‘knife the baby’”.  And Apple repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to drop or cannibalize its own products that don’t live up to expectations, choosing instead to try introducing something else they hope will be better.)   The 3rd box is about creating the future and calls for bold innovation.

The Leadership factor

In addition to using an Innovation Management process, one more thing has to be in place.   We need a suitable leadership culture.

In my article Looking for Breakthrough Innovation I tell the story of one project, led by an inexperienced summer intern.  His internal customer was our operations department which was looking for a new process for achieving rapid die changes (as was being introduced with awesome results by the Japanese).   The intern, however, saw that by changing our manufacturing process design approach he could completely eliminate the need for die changes at all!  This was an innovative idea that ultimately produced substantial increases in productivity.   The problem was, his client didn’t want any part of it (at first).  They felt engineering wouldn’t support it, customers would not approve, and so on.   But the intern persisted and wrote his own set of requirements over the objections of his sponsor.

When to controversy was brewing – and our operations leader was expressing doubts about burning precious time and resources exploring a solution that would not be viable.  I weighed in and encouraged the innovation experiment.   Now, as CEO, my vote counted more than everyone else’s but without providing my support for the experimentation of this intern, we would never have achieved the innovation results.  True, it might have failed, and in that case my vote of support for this approach absolved everyone else of the responsibility for a failure or budget overrun.  Without this, I do not believe the innovation would have occurred.

Sometimes we as leaders need to set an expectation that we need to occasionally be bold, try the untested, and see what happens.   We as leaders need to create the cultural environment where innovation can thrive.

Other Resources

Change Must Be Pulled from the Top, Pushed from Below, by Len Brzozowski

Looking for Breakthrough Innovation, by Len Brzozowski

The Project Manager’s Approach to Innovation, by Paul R. Williams

Innovation Project Management: A Research Agenda, By Sergey Filippov and Herman Mooi, Delft University of Technology, Department Of Innovation Systems (The Netherlands)

Project Management and Innovation, by Jeff Belding 

Barriers to Innovation in Project Management, from PM Student.com

 

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Building Innovative Project Teams: Question of Selection or Process?


Problem Solving LoopI was asked recently if I would consider delivering a speech at an upcoming Project Management Conference.

The question I was asked to consider is this (from an email communication), “The main challenge before organizations is identifying innovative members to serve on project teams. When the project manager builds a human resources plan, they need to establish a framework enabling team members to be flexible in their use of resources yet focused on the outcome to be achieved.”

To me, this problem statement suggests the problem is about how to identify certain categories of “innovative members” to be recruited onto a team.  The logic flows that if we recruit selected innovative people, they will likely come up with more innovative solutions.   Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

I’m not so sure. Team member selection is important.  In my view, if your goal is an innovative outcome you need a diverse and eclectic team across as many dimensions as possible.

  • We want people with the right technical skills and knowledge based on the problem we are solving.  This is of course, true, but too often, it is the MAIN criteria. While having technical “experts” can be helpful, it is often an impediment to breakthrough thinking. Experts are often self-limiting because their deep knowledge leads them to conventional solutions based on their experiences, when innovative solutions often are found on the fringes.

Experts are often closed-minded to new perspectives (which often lead to new insights and new approaches).  Let’s assume you are leading a product design project team for a company that makes DVR’s.   One might use a customer interaction to expose these technical experts to ask users about things like how much memory it should have, what buttons should be on the front, what the user interface should look like, and so forth.   Engineers will ask questions about the kinds of things they know how to fix.   It stands to reason.

But what if you asked users WHY they have a DVR?  Is it because they want to record programs, or because they want “a little more control over their already too hectic lives”?  This latter insight might lead us to consider what OTHER things in their lives they might want more control over that our firm might have the ability to provide.   This is a very different thought path than in the preceding paragraph.  This one might lead to the creation of a new electronic device that is not even a DVR.  In the previous case all we will ever end up with is a better DVR.

  • People who are not experts often bring the freshest insights.   When a firm like IDEO creates a project team, they routinely have engineers, scientists and computer programmers together with anthropologists, musicians, artists, and psychologists.   They build teams that bring both left and right brain power to bear.  Sometimes the person with the least “expertise” can bring the insight that really changes the direction of the team.  They are not encumbered with the knowledge that the engineers and scientists have, and are better divergent thinkers.  So at IDEO, they want people who are diverse not only technically, but by age, gender, race, job function, and so forth.  This brings a much deeper level of life experience to bear on the problem.

This approach works, because the PROCESS used by firms like IDEO is what produces the success. It can be learned, and with effective facilitation, most people can make a very positive contribution.   This process, however, requires certain set of team member skills.

–       Listening empathetically to the voice of the user (customer)

–       Building off the ideas of others

–       Never criticizing someone’s else’s contribution (take it and improve upon it) (see Pixar’s Plussing: creating a culture of dissent, by Len Brzozowski)

–       Suspending belief about your assumptions (at least for a time).

–       Being bold in your ideas

–       Speaking openly and honestly

This also requires project leaders to assume a very different role, that of unleashing the creative energies of the eclectic team, rather than trying to manage or control them.   They can do this by encouraging people to do the things listed above.   Underlying it all is a belief that the collective creativity of an engaged team will outperform the effort of the brilliant “lone wolf” every time.

Team Diversity by Problem Solving Skill Set

CPS Process 2We are all different in how we think and approach problems (shown on the graphic at the right).  Some of us are by nature love to gain knowledge by doing, while for others, it is more of an intellectual process – they are more the thinkers.  Some of us are brilliant creators of ideas (divergent thinkers) while others of us are better at listing the 15 reasons why an idea won’t work (convergent thinkers).

In the graphic at the left, the Creative Problem Solving Framework and Problem Solving Skills grid are overlaid upon each other.   It reminds us that we need people on our teams who are skillful in all four quadrants of the process.   The action oriented among us may be frustrated during the problem formulation phase of Creative Problem Solving while the big picture thinkers may be challenged when it comes time of execution planning.  The main point is that effective teams need both sets of skills.

You Needn’t Screen for Innovation 

So, select your teams based on knowledge, yes, but tempered with the right diversity of views and experiences.  Trust the process and facilitation to produce the innovation.  I have never seen a creative problem solving team that wasn’t collectively capable of developing powerful “game changing” ideas.  With a motivated diverse team, effective facilitation, a viable process template, an environment where people feel free to reveal their ideas, and with an environment where management is willing to tolerate a prudent level of risk taking, you may surprise yourself with how innovative you can really be.

Other Resources:

How to Design Breakthrough Innovations, interview with David Kelly, 60 minutes

Successful Strategies for Teams: Team Member Handbook, by Dr. Frances A. Kennedy, and Dr. Linda  B. Nilson, Ph.D., Clemson University

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Reassessing Resistance to Change


One of the most common misconceptions about change is that people are often unwilling.  I have worked with hundreds of middle managers and executives who express this sentiment.   There has also been a lot written about it – about how our employees fear change, are mistrusting of their bosses, unenthusiastic about having to learn new things – etc.

But there is another possibility to consider.    People aren’t stupid.  They know the world is dynamic and to avoid change can be perilous.  They ARE willing to change, and are in-fact eager for it.   If this could be true, why then do they so often act as if they are hesitant, even uncooperative and resistant?

Resistance to Change does not necessarily reflect opposition. Instead, many people are applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment.   So, what can look like resistance is often misinterpreted.

Here is a case in point.

I once served on an internal task force.  The problem was well-defined. The task force was suitably cross-functional. The members understood the task at hand.  There was a reasonable deadline.  We had followed all the requisite steps for setting up and empowering a committee.

As we talked about our problem, the majority of the group came to believe that what was needed was a new IT solution – a software application that would solve various communications issues, reduce processing time and so forth.   But one member of the team couldn’t see it and argued strongly against it.   She was from IT in this case, and as the rest of us became frustrated with her blocking actions, we came to view her as a close-minded, irrational person who was unwilling to see the obvious, and seemed to be opposed to change on principle.

A second member of our committee was drafted to participate, but he too was frustrating for the rest of us.   He never completed his interim assignments, spoke infrequently, and continually steered the discussion toward short-term “band-aid” solutions that would allow us all call it a day, and return to our normal jobs.   His unwillingness to engage was also frustrating since we all said we felt the problem we were assigned to solve was an important one, and yet he was lobbying against all solutions that would require a prolonged execution phase.  It made no sense to the rest of us.  Was he just lazy, did he not care, or was he happier with the status quo?

As both of these committee members seemed like they were “digging in their heels” I could sense the rest of us ALSO became less open-minded, less flexible, and less creative.   The committee dynamics took a dreadful turn for the worse.

After further discussions, our committee remained at an impasse, and we had to bring forward a far less than optimal proposal than the majority wanted.  I wasn’t particularly proud of our work, but it was the “best” we were able to do.

Sometime after the committee was disbanded, I had the chance to sit down one day with the IT committee member outside of work and what I learned was eye-opening to me.    It turns out that she saw the problem the same way we did all along, but before she was assigned to our task force her boss took her aside and said something like “as you sit down to review this problem, I want you to keep in mind how our [IT] staff is already so overburdened with work that we can’t keep up, and that our boss won’t allow us to add resources.   Accepting more obligations without a reasonable ability to deliver just makes us look ineffective to the rest of the organization and hurts us politically.  So no matter what your committee thinks, you MUST NOT allow the conversation to be steered toward a new software solution.”    Ah Hah, I thought.  Now it makes sense.

I had a similar conversation with the other frustrating member of our team, also outside of work.   “I’m not trying to accuse you of anything, I just want to understand.  Can you level with me,” I asked?  It turns out that he too had a story to tell.  Just before our committee assembled, he was given a performance review by his boss, and it wasn’t a positive one.  He was criticized harshly for being behind on several of his assigned projects, and was required to create a “personal improvement plan.”   “I thought he was building a case to fire me,” he told me.   Ah Ha!   Now that also began to make sense.  Every minute he sat in our committee meeting was taking him away from something else that he had to get right.

What can we do?

For the longest time in my life, when I encountered people who did not agree with me when I had been through an honest, thorough, and thoughtful analysis of a problem, I generally concluded they were either ignorant or corrupt!   It never occurred there could be a third explanation.

So this committee experience taught me that

1)       Few people are ignorant or truly corrupt.  (Our starting premise should always be that mostly we all get it, and want to do the right thing.)

2)       In our rush to get our assigned tasks addressed, we often blow right past the kind of personal interaction and understanding that we need to set the right foundation for successful interaction.   Before moving on to brainstorm our problem, we should have taken the time to get to know each other, and to ask what constraints each of us felt we were working under.  If our IT member, for example felt safe enough to have declared at the outset “I don’t think our IT department has the resources to pursue another major software initiative at this time,” we could have either gone to the executive who commissioned our committee and asked for his help, or we could have steered our brainstorming in a different direction.

3)       Investing some time and energy on the people side of the equation – while seemingly slower at first, can result is faster problem solving in the long-run.

4)       If people seem stupid and stubborn, there is often a LOGICAL explanation.  It is worth the effort to dig a little deeper.

I don’t know if you have encountered situations like this, but I still think these four points above are worth keeping in mind.

Other Resources:

The Real Reason People Won’t Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harvard Business Review

When People Don’t Understand, Listen Better, by Marianne Powers, Doing the Right Thing

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Hiring Great People – the Googley Way


Most businesses I know have some very talented people who know about the technology, products, operations and services of their businesses.  They are pretty good executing the daily tasks, and know a lot about their industry.

Attracting and keeping top talent is pretty important (and I have shared many posts on this topic in the past).   In fact, it is THE MOST important determinant of corporate success and the only thing that gives you a chance at developing a sustainable competitive advantage which – by the way – is the main goal of any corporate strategy.

If you think about it, every company has access to the same technologies, capital equipment, software products, and business services as does every other company on the planet.   If so, then these cannot be a source of differentiation.   The key is what you do with all these things that make the difference.   How do you apply them, organize them, use them to make better decisions, etc.  It comes down to the creativity, initiative and determination of your workforce that define if you will win or lose in your chosen competitive space.

So, Hiring Great People is not only important (which all of us accepts as true), but is THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU DO (and few organizations consistently ACT as if this were true).  One of them, in my view at least is the search engine giant, Google.  Laszlo Bock (chief people officer), in the recorded piece he did for the Wall Street Journal offers a simple and effective summary of how he thinks his company makes hiring a successful strategic activity.

What strikes me is that none of the ideas he describes are revolutionary in themselves (elements have been done by other companies since I was in business school – more than a few years ago.)  What’s different here is the way they put these elements together and the consistency with which they are followed.

What does Google look for in a new hire?

According to Bock, four things:

1)      General Cognitive Ability.  Can you solve problems, and are you reasonably smart?   The company developed its own screening test, the infamous GLAT (for Google Labs Aptitude Test and you can take the test yourself by clicking on the link).   Some people would hate this experience, but there is a certain category of people who actually view these kinds of questions as FUN.  I’m not one of them.  Here is an example:

“Solve this cryptic equation realizing, of course, that the values for M and E could be interchanged.  No string of leading zeros is permitted.

WWWDOT – GOOGLE = DOTCOM”

The Answer: (from the book, The Google Story) It’s simply a matter of finding the correct digits to substitute for the letters.  This can be done by trial and error, but a more Googley way would be to write a simple computer program.   (‘Sounds easy enough, right?)  Sooner or later you might end up with the correct answer:

           777589                                      WWWDOT

–          188103                                        GOOGLE

=         589486                                      DOTCOM

And if you made the M=3, and the E=6, the answer would be 58948.   Whew! How long did that take you?

2)      Emergent Leadership.  This doesn’t relate to the traditional definition – how many people can you manage?   It has to do with your willingness to step up and proactively face problems and challenges.  They want people who can engage others and help focus energy to solve any problem.  And then, when the problem is solved, you are willing to slip back into the background.  To Bock, leadership and followership are flip sides of the same coin.

3)      Culture Fit.   You need to be happy at Google, and it is surely not for everyone (in case the GLAT question didn’t already make that point).   At Google, they are looking for people who are comfortable with a large amount of ambiguity (since the company work environment is somewhat unstructured and moves at a pretty fast pace – as does the technology around which their business operates.)  You need also to be self-driven, passionate about your life and Google’s values, and excited about collaborative achievement.

4)      Role Related Expertise.   Bock says this is “the last and least important” of their criteria.   This relates to whether or not you actually know something about the specific job you are being hired to do.

It is interesting that the company places lowest emphasis on the last point.  My observation is that in many companies, the opposite is true.   In most interviews I am familiar with the conversation tends to focus more on your academic background, demonstrated job skills, where you worked and what you did.   It seems we are too often willing to sacrifice leadership, values, and culture fit for job experience.   Hmmmm . . .

If you have 5 minutes I would urge you to view the entire clip below to hear Mr. Bock describe many other aspects of Google’s HR and people philosophy.

Watch Laszlo Bock describe How Google Decides on Hires

Other Resources:

Targeting soft skills yields hard returns for employers, how Zappo’s culture and hiring practices make a difference, by Lisa V. Gillespie, Employee Benefit News

Move Over Zappos and Google – The New Role Model for an Org That Really Gets Culture Is…, by Jessica Lee, Fistful of Talent

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Making Work-Life Balance Work . . . at Work


I have written before about the changing complexion of work, and the need to adapt corporate environments to be more “millennial friendly.”   Failing to do so may put you at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent.

Among the issues we have considered is the vexing question of work-life balance.

This topic really came to the forefront with Anne-Marie Slaughters incredible piece in Atlantic Magazine (see Can Women Have it All?).  While Ms. Slaughter discusses the specific challenges related to balancing work and children this spans a much broader set of questions.

With all of us being tethered to our smart phones, and accessible 24-7  for a myriad of work issues, both males and females are impacted.  While most of us don’t mind attending to a few emails or handling a crisis call from time to time  a growing number of workers feel that in return, employers should grant flexibility when they may need to leave early to take the kids to doctor’s appointment or pick them up at school.

With so many dual income households today, and child care duties being shared, this is an issue impacting both male and female workers everywhere.

It seems that more and more progressive organizations are working to adapt their work rules to permit more flexibility.   It is not always as easy as one might think.  Hannah Seligson just published an interesting piece in the New York Times addressing the backlash from coworkers who feel they are the ones being victimized when co workers bail early, sometimes leaving them to clean up after.

One employee interviewed by Seligson put it this way — “Parents are a special class, and they get special treatment.”   She went on to complain that while she was covering for her former colleagues who were attending to child rearing duties, she sometimes sacrificed her own obligation to take care of her ailing grandparents.

This raises two interesting questions:

What does pursuing work-life balance mean to all of us?  There is an interesting equity question.   While many agree that we should make reasonable allowances to working parents with kids who feel it vital that they be a physical presence in their daily lives, what allowances should we offer empty nesters who might like to take off early to spend a weekend with their kids or sandwich generation families who have serious health issues to face with aging parents?

What happens to office productivity?  So if this is a slippery slope, and everyone gets to balance their work and personal life to according to their own preferences, do we all end up like France, where the normal work week is 35 hours with 8 weeks of vacation?  Sure, many feel that the US is a nation of workaholics (which I am not advocating either). But, what is the right balance?

Is it a zero-sum game at work? At a more tactical level this issue can be an intensely personal one.  If someone on your team takes personal time off in the midst of a crucial project, does it regularly put the remaining team members at a disadvantage?  Yes, some things can be made up later, but missing meetings, client appointments, or simply being gone when the “do-do” hits the fan some afternoon, can be a source of growing frustration and resentment for coworkers.

So there are many HR officers working overtime trying to figure out the broader policy questions. We perhaps we need a new set of standards for personal behavior  (a new way of being polite) in the world of increasingly flexible work hours.

So here are some suggestions:

Avoid Justifications.  It doesn’t really matter at work when you feel you have to justify your impending absence.  We get it, your son has a fever and needs to see the doctor.   When you feel you have to make your excuse seem more important than all the rest of ours, we can resent it.   We all have things we could be doing that are potentially important.  It only builds resentment when your reason trumps all others – especially if we suspect that your excuse is exaggerated or fabricated.   The fact that you need the time off should be enough.  If you are a professional, who respects the rest of the team, there should be no reason to explain further.   All of us face situations that we must prioritize over work.    The issue is not the worthiness of it, but the equity.

Focus on the Work.  You need to leave work for some reason.  Fair enough.   Instead of having the conversation about why, what if instead we talked about what’s happening at work right now, what will be the impact on the team if I leave, and what accommodations can be made to insure all the work gets done?  If people see you care about not leaving others in the lurch, my guess is that most people will be more than accommodating.

Resolve at the team level.  I understand the need to have some corporate guidelines and policies – I suppose. But isn’t this really a question to be solved at a work team level?  Every team is different, and so too is every situation.  There may be times when we can afford to be unusually flexible, so long as when there is a crisis and we need  “all hands on deck,” we can count on each other.  It is hard for me to imagine how one set of corporate guidelines can provide the kind of versatility needed.   At Google, they have a great team orientation.   At team meetings they can discuss all sorts of issues related to team performance and behavior norms.   Some people may want to wear their slippers and PJ’s at work, and some may want to bring their dog to work.   At Google, as long as the team agrees they can do almost anything that they collectively feel makes sense, and is consistent with their goals and mission.

Respect your team colleagues (not just your boss).   This goes along with the previous point.   In some work places, we are conditioned to ask our bosses for permission to depart the office.   In my experience, many bosses don’t want a reputation as a curmudgeon, so they may be inclined to say yes, and without consultation with others.  Here again, we need to respect the team and work out the accommodations in a way that is equitable.   If some team members need time off for attending to personal matters, we also need to consider the needs of the ones who never miss a day and are seldom tardy.  Maybe we sometimes should just let them off early some time with the rest of us covering for them once in a while.

I’m sure there are some positions where having this flexibility is very difficult to accommodate (like if you are in the customer service department, and call volumes are not likely to abate when we need time off).  However, allowing each team to define its own norms seems a reasonable approach.   We need to be capable of having an honest conversation, we need to be flexible, and we need to respect the needs of the team and its mission.  Let us use our own creativity to figure out the best ways to flex.

I’d be curious to hear how some of our reader’s organizations approach this question.   Let us know.

Related Resources

When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal, by Hannah Seligson, NY Times

Motherlode Blog: In Flexible-Work Debates, Parents Have Unique Position 

Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic

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Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership

Catch them In the Act of Doing Something Right


What is it that makes us focus more sharply on what’s wrong, than what’s right with something  . . . an idea, a business plan, an employee’s suggestion or behavior?    There is something, I think, about how we condition MBA’s to think critically about situations which is at the heart of the case study method.  You see a situation – normally one where storm clouds are brewing.   Don’t we love to analyze what they did wrong?

I think if we are not careful, this mentality carries over into our way of seeing the world (glass half empty) and can impact how we manage people, interact with our spouse, and even raise our kids.

At work, most of us feel pressure to reduce risk as we race in pursuit of the various performance metrics that were created for us and our teams.   As such, we have a bias for PREVENTING mistakes, especially when we feel there is a lot at stake.   This orientation makes it natural for us to find fault with any idea before us – looking for ways to prevent all the possible failure modes.

How sad that we must lead with such negative energy.

There is a story I recall dating back to 1999, when the US women’s soccer team won their first World Cup.  The match was as exciting as you could ever want.    On July 10, 1999, over 90,000 people (the largest ever for a women’s sporting event) filled the Rose Bowl to watch the United States play China in the Final. At the end of play the score remained tied, and it all came down to a nail-biting penalty shootout.   American goal tender Briana Scurry deflected China’s third kick, the score remained tied at 4–4 with only Brandi Chastain left to shoot.  She scored and won the game for the United States. Chastain famously dropped to her knees and whipped off her shirt, celebrating in her sports bra, which later made the cover of Sports Illustrated (see photo at left) and the front pages of newspapers around the country and world.   With this win they emerged onto the world stage and brought significant media attention to women’s soccer and athletics.

Well, the media frenzy was something.   But after the reporters got tired of interviewing the stars like Brandi and Mia Hamm, they finally got around to interrogating their coach, a guy named Tony DiCicco, a soccer star and coach in his own right.  He started with US Women’s soccer team as goaltending coach in 1991, and took over as head coach of the women’s team in 1994.

Anyway, I remember reading one interview with DiCicco where he was asked what it was like coaching women as opposed to men (a relatively new experience for him).  His response stuck with me.

In the beginning, he said, it was the same.  We all know that model either from our own youthful experiences or from countless sports movies.   Sports training was more like Marine boot camp.  When you mess up, the determined coaches yelled or made you run laps in the hope of propelling you to try harder and become better.    But, says DiCicco, it wasn’t working. He said, “The players hated me, weren’t performing up to their potential, and most importantly, we weren’t winning.   After one humiliating loss, I was sitting in a bar (thinking I was going to be fired), knowing I had to do something different.  But what? So I decided in practice next week to back off some, and it seemed to help.   Gradually, I came to see my role as catching them in the act of doing something right . . . and them making a big deal out of it!”

It seemed to help.   Once they started to win, he and the team compiled a record of 103–8–8 (while I’m not expert, that sounds pretty good).

So how about that for management advice?  Use POSITIVE reinforcement instead of constructive criticism.  The whole notion of how many of us approach performance appraisal is based on the latter.   We are trained to point out strengths AND weaknesses (sometimes called areas for improvement).    Every time we sit down for a review, we almost blow by the complements from our boss, waiting for the BUT.

Why not eliminate the weaknesses part altogether (unless your intent is to build a case for termination)?

Leading from positive energy can be a powerful force in your organization.   Check out this clip featuring Nikesh Arora, Google’s President of Global Sales Operations and Business Development as he chats with Reuters’ Chrystia Freeland about creating a positive leadership culture.

Other References

Rewarding Careers Applying Positive Psychological Science to Improve Quality of Work Life, by Steward I. Donaldson, and Michelle C. Bligh

Positive Psychological Capital: Measurement and Relationship with Performance and Satisfaction, by Fred Luthans and Bruce J. Avolio

Accentuate the Positive: Strengths-Based Approach to Performance Reviews, from HCareers

Thoughts on Performance Reviews and Positive Psychology, By Doug Turner

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Filed under Leading, Managing Teams