Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ensuring on-time delivery with sanity intact

Let's start with a scenario: you need a certain cycle time on
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your project.  Today is X date and the deadline is Y date. You know that you have 5 steps to complete in the project during the allotted cycle time, yet in your history of doing this type of project step #5 always seems to wind up as a rush job.

You have always managed to pull it off, but at the expense of some preventable mistakes.  Worse, your sense of urgency at the end has caused you to mow over some colleagues.  This has resulted in lingering grudges and less willingness to go the extra mile for you as each successive project has had similar problems, and created similar stress-laden behaviors.

A solid set of preventative measures are in the pre-project planning:

  1. Bring the team together to communicate the scope of the project and its target date, and to identify the steps needed to complete it. 
  2. If a team leader has not already been assigned, choose one person to follow the project all the way through to completion.  The team leader is not necessarily doing all of the steps - this job is about making sure the project is on track and on time - and on budget.
  3. Be sure to assign which steps are to be completed by whom. This prevents later finger pointing from multiple parties waiting (incorrectly) for someone else to finish a step in the project.
  4. Know whether you're planning backward or forward. Some projects have a set deadline from which you have to plan backward.  You determine drop dead dates for each respective step, working from the last step to the first.  In cases where there is not a pre-defined due date you add up the component times from all of the steps from a known start date to determine your delivery date.
  5. Assign target dates for each step.  Errors and undue pressure and conflict at the end can be prevented by not allowing the early steps to consume nearly all of the available cycle time.
  6. Incorporate buffers into the time line. If one team member is only able to allocate 50% of his time to the project, determine the necessary active work time to complete his step and double it on the time line (because you have only half of his attention it will take twice as long).  Then consider adding a small additional buffer for contingencies.
  7. Hold regular team huddles to stay on top of the project status, and to solve any unanticipated problems that arise as promptly as possible.
  8. Celebrate the completion. In some instances a "thank you" and a ceremonial crossing the project off the list will serve.  In particularly challenging, important and/or lengthy projects, a pizza party or other more elaborate (or silly and creative) celebration is called for. Skip this step only if you don't care whether the team members will feel motivated to do this again with you.
  9. Do a debrief of the project.  If you want to learn from this project to make future ones better, sit down with your team and evaluate what went right and what didn't go so well. This is a great way to hone your project process and cycle time estimates if you have to use the info to quote pricing and delivery time lines on future projects.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Looking for a white charger to save the day?

A consultant is hired, and given the message that his job
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is to reverse the organization's negative momentum.  He charges in on his white horse, wielding his tools of the trade and digs in.  He works long hours, and he devotes all of his resources to this engagement.

After a few weeks and months he grows frustrated, because his educated recommendations are falling on deaf ears.  It seems that the group doesn't want to implement any idea that hasn't come from the inside, even if the ideas that have been bubbling up from the inside haven't improved results so far.  The company leadership is becoming frustrated as well, because they invested good money in this guy and aren't seeing the sweeping improvements they expected when they signed on the dotted line for the project.

No matter his skills, education, and tools, this consultant (and his clients) need to remember a few things:
  • There is no silver bullet or white charger.  No one person will single-handedly turn things around, and it won't happen overnight.  The company took all of its history to arrive at this place, and the thought that the solution is straightforward or that he is the only person who sees things clearly is simply naive (or overblown ego on the consultant's part).  
  • The workplace is a system of interrelated, interdependent processes.  When you poke one place in the system, many other processes are affected.  And sometimes the ancillary effects are not the ones you anticipate or even want.  This makes some issues harder to resolve, because there are many points of contact to manage simultaneously.  It's difficult for a consultant to come in off the street and identify all of the connections, in particular the informal ones that are supporting the current company methods and culture.
  • Start with accessible victories.  The company leadership and the consultant shouldn't take on the problem of world peace right out of the gate.  Build in some early win opportunities to build the credibility of the improvement process. Start with the equivalent of peace at the dinner table for 15 minutes tonight, and then expand from there.  Learn and refine improvement methods on relatively lower-stakes opportunities, then move on to the bigger ones.
  • Prioritize, prioritize.  Not everything can be handled at once.  Identify the Really Big Goal, and then determine the numerous obstacles standing between the company and the goal.  Another way to look at it is to do a root cause analysis - look at the problem you are experiencing and identify the variety of contributing causes to the problem.  Once you determine the major cause(s) you can structure your improvement projects around minimizing or removing them.
  • Assemble a body of knowledge by involving content experts.  The experts are not necessarily the outside folks with the biggest academic credentials.  The real experts are the ones doing the work. If the folks doing the work aren't well informed and well trained, that's a leadership issue. But as it relates to the consultant, if decisions are coming from outside the company or inside the ivory tower instead of from the field, they will 
    • likely be wrong or uninformed, and
    • meet resistance from the people responsible to implement them
  • Care for the relationships.  No result right now will be of full benefit if a project head or team leader has to burn every bridge in sight to get it done.  Tomorrow a result will also be needed, and the day after that.  Any outside resource needs to start by gaining the trust and full enrollment of the company leadership.  They in turn need to build and/or reinforce positive internal relationships to elicit employee motivation and engagement.  They may not have the tools to do so, and this might wind up being part of the consultant's scope of work. This change initiative also needs to include the assigning and building of internal champions, future content experts, and plenty of hands-on effort to create a sustainable improvement.
  • Care for the engine.  Rest, relaxation, relationship building, nutrition, continuing education - they are all creators of production capacity.  The leadership team, the workforce, and the consultant himself will become less effective if they lose their drive and mental edge, or compromise their health and stamina.  They will have to choose to allocate time for these activities, regardless of the apparent urgency of the current circumstances if they want to support sustainability.  Even if progress is attained, if the cost in human capacity is too high the organization will be likely to slip back to its prior levels.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Do you really work best under pressure?

"I work best under pressure," he replied with a sheepish grin.
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This guy is a renowned procrastinator in his business - at least that's how outside observers perceive him.  He will tell you that he summons his best energies when a deadline is looming and potential work hours are waning.

Is that what's really going on?  Here are some possible explanations:

  • The person who claims to work best under pressure is likely to be addicted (and this term is meant loosely) to the adrenaline rush that comes with handling crisis. The day to day is boring, and so it's filled with minutia that doesn't make a difference to the ultimate outcome.  Crisis, on the other hand, brings life to the day, even if it is in the form of heightened blood pressure and flowing stomach acid.
  • The person might have difficulty prioritizing among his or her tasks.  The pressure of a deadline removes some of the options from the equation as it creates forced focus on the designated task.
  • The person might be working faster, but not achieving better results.  He or she might be equating speed with quality, but although speed is desirable in most cases, it's not to be achieved at the cost of quality.
The individual who says that he works best under pressure might actually be goal-driven, which is different from working best under pressure.  Goal-driven people are focused on the result rather than on the outcome. They assign deadlines, some of which are arbitrary, just to create the opportunity to score a win.

Whether the pressure seeker is afflicted with ADD or can't prioritize well, focusing on setting and achieving goals can be a productive method for coping - and achieving results.  Setting goals creates accountability, and in some individuals the "hit it or don't hit it" potential contributes the needed focus and tension that generates action.  When an individual has developed a reputation for being slow or late, he or she begin to change perceptions by establishing target dates for action steps that beat the actual due dates for the project.

There's another potential scenario here that also responds well to goal setting and goal planning.  Sometimes the task has been defined in terms so large and/or conceptual that it's difficult for the individual to identify all of the steps involved and the appropriate sequence and timing of each.  So he or she waits until the last minute, removing some of the choices from consideration, but also limiting the success of the goal by the elimination of some potentially effective options.  If the big picture wasn't defined well there's also a possibility that the individual will have worked toward a different end than the one intended by his or her manager.

When a goal is not only set in SMART terms but planned out in detail with current and potential obstacles, potential solutions for the obstacles, and action steps with evaluation dates, the project can be broken down into manageable bites.  The bulk of the thinking comes at the beginning while the plan is being laid out.  The resulting plan creates several "mini pressures" for the adrenaline addict but doesn't place the entire project at risk.  In addition, the priority-impaired individual can more readily identify the tasks that are assigned for today, tomorrow, and the day after that.  The scorekeeper personality can rack up small wins along the way to the achievement of the overall objective.

One additional thought about pressure - do you feel motivated by pressure that comes from within you, or only from pressure that you feel from an external source?  When you plan a goal thoroughly you identify the reasons for doing it (rewards) and the implications if you don't (consequences).  These become internal motivators that drive action toward the goal.  When individuals are slow to respond or procrastinating, sometimes the issue is that they don't see the point - the reasons why - they should do it in the first place.  Help them to identify and articulate the rewards and consequences.  The most effective pressure comes from the inside.  Internal motivation is more powerful than the carrot or the stick, and it doesn't lose its effectiveness over time.

So do you work best under pressure?  It's likely that what you really mean is that you work best using deadlines, and goal planning can be an effective method for creating the structure, accountability, and score-keeping that you seek.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Four posting mistakes to avoid on Facebook

One of the most frequent questions we receive from
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start-ups and small business owners is how to use social media to its best to build market awareness - and ultimately to sell more stuff.  It's attractive because it's free, other than the time invested in posting content there.  As in the case of networking, there are rules of engagement to be learned.  Ignore them at your own risk, because otherwise you'll not make the friends or build the influence and positive image you desire from being seen and heard online.


  1. Braggadocio - "Hey world, look what I just did!"  Everybody has good things to share from time to time, but the braggart's entire content stream consists of "Look at me!" posts.  If Facebook is where your family gathers you might find more tolerance for constant posts about your son Johnny's latest handstand.  But maybe not.
  2. Too much direct sales - "Come buy my ____________(fill in the blank)!"  Social media can be an effective way to announce special events, to offer specials and to sign people up for your email list.  If your social media goal is to sell product rather than build relationships, stick with Facebook rather than Linked in or risk being flamed by someone in a discussion who doesn't want to hear it.  And even on Facebook, to quite Kim Walsh-Phillips of InsideOut Creative, "Facebook is a cocktail party." Your goal is not to sell in the party, but to motivate someone from the cocktail party to visit you at your selling space.  That's typically your company website, but it may be your physical store.
  3. No original content - It's great to share a pithy quote from time to time, but if the goal of social media is to become known online and build relationships, other people's words won't help people get to know you.  If you don't have anything of your own to say, at least choose a specific category to curate so that you can get known, for instance, as the expert on DYI wooden sheds or the tree-hugging saver of the rain forest.  Otherwise the channel turns into a boring echo chamber of Pollyana-isms.  Perhaps this isn't exactly villainous, but it won't attract people to you.
  4. Constant righteous indignation - Certain media are more tolerant than others on this one.  Every person has the right to his or her views on social issues, politics, religion - the subjects that are controversial or even socially taboo for public discourse.  Your friendly soapbox stander (certainly this isn't you!) loses connections when he or she can't have any other conversation, or when the tone becomes so strident that it becomes uncomfortable for other participants.  The good news is that social media contains enough specialized outlets that even the most extreme ranter can find a group of like-minded folks with whom to socialize, or a site where energetic argument is the stated goal.
Social media etiquette and social media marketing continue to evolve - sometimes it takes an appearance of one of these gaffes for the social infraction to be identified and remedies and preventive measures to be created.  Think about what you're posting, to whom, where and with what timing.  Be intentional about your tone - reread it before you click "Post".  You've got too much time invested to risk unintended consequences.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Favorites: Add meaning, persuasive power with symbols

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If you're reading this you have probably already decoded the message in the graphic - you see this wifi symbol every day on your smart phone or tablet and in windows at local businesses.  It's shorthand - symbolism that is used to communicate a message. Symbols can communicate simple concepts, and complex ones as well.  Your ability to recognize them in action can give you better understanding and therefore more capability to respond appropriately.

Here are some examples:
  • Sets and props - When you see an official speech by the President of the United States you'll most often see him standing beside or in front of the American flag, or behind the Presidential seal. It's the symbol of his authority. Other authority figures use their own physical props to convey the "I'm in charge" message without having to utter the words - corner offices, expansive windows, designer suits, etc. Married people wear rings to symbolize their fidelity. Athletes wear logos to convey their team affiliation (or their sponsorship contracts!)
  • Social behavior - You wave, nod your head, hug - and perhaps you have even given the single finger salute once or twice.  An example of etiquette founded in a behavioral symbol is that of seating the most honored guest to the right of the host. It's hypothesized that the origin of this custom is from the time when leaders had to worry constantly about being assassinated. If an assassin were to be able to grab the right hand of the host and thereby completely disable his sword-wielding ability the host would be - as it were - toast. So being invited to sit on the right, using this interpretation, is a sign of complete trust.
  • Buildings can become symbolic because of events that happen there (the twin towers of the World Trade Center,) or because they are the only one in the world (the Eiffel Tower.) It becomes quite a challenge for architects to create iconic structures like the symphony hall in Sydney, Australia.
  • Natural structures like Mt. Fuji, the Grand Canyon or the Giant Sequoias can be symbolic as well. They often are used to represent nature or majesty, or the importance of environmental responsibility.
  • Signs and logos - The most obvious of the symbols are the letters you are reading right now; they represent thoughts to you. But businesses count on the public being able to make associations with the golden arches, the swoosh, the international "don't" sign, the swastika and the fish. For some logos, the intention is to spread the common message far and wide. For others, the symbol serves as a method for secret communication among comrades (like the sneakers dangling from a wire above the street in a tough neighborhood.)
One of the challenges in using symbols is that they are most effective when their meaning is shared by all of the people with whom they are communicated.  You won't know whether that is the case until you see the result of the communication. Cultural diversity leads to the potential for greater variation in the interpretation of symbols.  One person might see the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. and think of the proud tradition of democracy in the United States; another might look at it as a representation of partisanship and corruption.  

Context also affects the interpretation of symbols.  A spectator's clapping is a symbol of appreciation in certain parts of the world and has a different meaning in others.  Clapping can represent the words, "Hurry up!" to a child or to an athlete on a sports team.  It can function as a metronome when delivered by a band leader.  And when done slowly accompanied by a sardonic face, it can be the ultimate in sarcastic "appreciation." 

If you find yourself in the midst of an argument with someone it might be because you (or they) are interpreting a behavior in a symbolic way. You go shopping and your spouse interprets it as a lack of caring about finances - they go golfing and you interpret it as not caring about spending time with the family. How do you and your spouse handle it when the in-laws are riding with you in the car?  Is it men in front and women in the back?  Do you keep the couples together? What do the choices mean to you?  Does the mother in law rate prime seating riding shotgun with her son while his wife "takes a back seat?"  Yes, symbolic behavioral situations like these are the ones through which you got into trouble and had no idea why at the time.

Social linguistics expert Dr. Deborah Tannen has written that women are more in tune with meta messages - the messages behind the messages - than are men.  But you can sensitize yourself to symbolic language and behavior by choosing to notice.  Start with situations - even TV shows - that you know are carefully staged, and look for the symbols in the scene that fall into the different categories above.  Keep your eyes open for symbols and you'll uncover a whole new layer of meaning in what's going on around you.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Need senior management to listen? Read this

You know as well as we do that ideas and motivation to
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implement them are not the exclusive assets of senior management.  You might be in the middle of the organization, with a problem you have identified and an idea on how to solve it.  Your potential obstacle, though, is selling your direct manager (and perhaps a layer or two above that too) on your idea. Assume that you are going to have to "lead upward" if your idea will require financial resources, or it will impact or involve other people upstream or downstream from you.

If you can't budget it or allocate time for it within your own scope of authority, this can be one of the most frustrating situations you'll encounter in your work life.  But no worries - you aren't doomed to live with it forever.  There are methods you can use to be more persuasive - to sell your idea to the folks that can allocate the cash and other resources necessary to implement it, and to other stakeholders as well.

  1. Gather data.  You need to know the facts about the size of the issue and its impact on the company.  How many incidents have you had?  How much time or money did it cost to handle it each time it arose?  Is it trending up (worsening), staying at a consistent level, or trending down (resolving itself)?
  2. Convert your data to a picture.  Graphs are quite articulate in telling the trend story - it's obvious regardless of the raw numbers involved when the line is going up or the bars are going down.
  3. Start by sharing your data privately to the lowest level that can resolve the problem.  Typically this means going to your immediate boss if you do not have the latitude to solve it on your own.  (And frankly, if you can solve it on your own, why are you sending it upstream??)  If you instead choose to unveil your work in a meeting or other public setting, you run the risk of embarrassing your boss and thereby placing him or her on the defensive.  This isn't good if the goal of all this is that you want your boss to go to work on this issue on your behalf.  
  4. Describe the action you have taken so far, and the outcomes of that action as part of your communication.  If you have already been proactive to resolve the problem within your authority level you are more likely to be heard.  Your value to the company increases when it becomes apparent that you are not just adding things to your boss's plate of work because you're too lazy to figure it out yourself or because you want to show off your problem-finding prowess. 
  5. Consider your communication channel carefully.  Verbal, in-person communication is the least formal and allows you to be in the moment to field questions, etc.  Oral communication, though, can be open to more misinterpretation, and because there is no record of it, can cause your message to be forgotten, even remembered incorrectly.  If you document in writing or supplement your oral message with some visual support, your audience literally can "get the picture" and has it to refer to later.  Written communication becomes a permanent record and can be passed all around your company, so check your grammar and spelling.  Also check your tone - no personal attacks in writing.  
  6. Think about the decision influencers and stakeholders.  Nobody likes to feel like she (or he) in the dark about what's going on in her department.  In addition, there are times when you need a bit of additional (ahem) leverage to obtain action.  Putting key people on your cc list can help to stimulate action even if the main recipient of the communication is being unresponsive.  Tread carefully here, because this could be another situation where you could cause somebody important to lose face (figuratively speaking, of course), and that won't work in your favor in the long run.
  7. Choose your battles.  You expend political capital when you point out problems, and you don't want your input to be discounted on account of volume.  Prioritize based upon customer impact, cost to the company, etc

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's all about the "Do"

The prescribed cycle for continuous improvement is "Plan, Do,
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Check, Act."  One of the challenges in complex, high risk, and/or high stress situations is knowing how much time to invest in the Plan phase before you Do something.  Analysis paralysis can slow teams down, as can lack of data, which tends to erode the discussion from an assessment of alternatives into an assessment of contributors' experience, intelligence, and political prowess.

Sometimes you don't have enough data to know for sure which is the best option to pursue.  But you won't find out whether an option works until you implement it.  That's why the "Check, Act" sections are in the continuous improvement cycle.  Only once you implement will you see whether it achieves the results you want without a lot of unintended collateral damage.

If you're going to Do and then Check you need to know what improvement in results you want to see. You need to have some measurement (data) upon which you can determine whether your solution worked or not. Is the improvement measured in sales cycle time?  In units produced per hour?  In phone wait time per customer in the queue?  When you Do you need to know what good looks like, and how you're going to determine the degree to which your Do has achieved it.

In higher stakes situations, instead of getting stuck in Plan phase, consider Doing in a limited area, with a pilot group or small process.  Refine your Do while it is in that confined and more readily controllable space, and then once you have it down, spread it into broader application.  For those risk-averse out there, no worries - you don't have to place the entire operation on the line every time you implement a change that you intend as an improvement.

There is a human element in all of this process improvement talk.  If the current process is creating inconvenience, inefficiency, stress, and/or unreliable outcomes, the people using the process need to see improvement in order to stay motivated and engaged.  At the very least they need to see action, attempts on the part of leadership to correct the situation if they are going to keep plugging away.  Team members don't know how hard or how thoroughly you're Planning before you Do (unless of course you're including them in the Plan phase.)  Most team members only see the Do phase, and the credibility of leadership is on the line while team members watch to see how promptly the issue is addressed.

While you as leader might see great value in the deliberations of the Plan phase, nothing will get better until you Do.  Seth Godin calls it Deliver.  Deliver the solution.  Implement.  Do.  Then Check, and take any further Action needed to refine the improvement and make it real (measurable).