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Archive for October, 2009

One of the most important things we can do at work is to manage the expectations of those around us. If you’re a manager, make sure that your direct reports know what to expect from you and what you expect from them. If you are individual contributor, make sure to find out what your boss expects and that it matches what you expect to contribute.  If you work in a client facing role, be sure that expectations are clear between your team and the client team – this means more than just writing and signing a contract.  Nothing will derail a project or career faster than mismatched expectations.

As IT consultants one of our standard deliverables is a demonstration of the system we are implementing.  This deliverable is the single hardest piece of the project to manage as far as expectations are concerned. Some clients expect a fully developed system with client data updated to the minute. Others are happy with nothing more than a few process flows and a discussion of the new system. Some clients want to schedule a full week of demos while others look for only a few hours. Some clients want demonstrations at every milestone, some clients want a demo before signing the contract and some want a demo just before go-live.

I have seen far too many of these demonstrations turn successfully, on-time, under-budget projects into disasters because suddenly the client loses all faith in the consultants.  The only way to ensure these demonstrations are successful is to over-communicate what you (as a consultant) are expecting to demonstrate. If the system is not 100% configured, make sure the client project team knows in advance. If the data will not be ready, make sure the client project team knows in advance.  Most clients are flexible and understand that issues arise, problems happen and schedules sometimes need to move. What most clients will not accept, however, is being surprised. Sometimes it may be necessary to lower these expectations. For example, if the system is not ready (or the environment is not stable) make sure the client only expects screen shots and a PowerPoint. Additionally be sure that the client project manager is properly communicating this to the rest of the team.

Managing expectations goes way beyond just product or system demonstrations. With every meeting and every deliverable it’s important to ensure that you are meeting or exceeding expectations.  You should constantly communicate your plans and solicit feedback on your work. All of this goes toward being an effective manager/employee/consultant.

Always ensure that you and those around you are the same page. It’s as simple as that.

Good Talk,
Tom

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Anyone who has ever studied business or management should be familiar with the concept of “The Burning Platform”.  It’s a management theory/technique based of the story of a man working on an oil platform who is suddenly awakened one night by an explosion.  He rises from his bed to find the platform engulfed in flames and amidst the chaos decides to jump from the platform to the ice-cold water 100 feet below.  Upon being rescued and questioned about the rationality of jumping, the man states, “I would rather face a probable death than a certain death”.  The story is meant to illustrate a situation where a “choice” is really no choice at all; face certain death by burning or take your chances swimming in cold water.  It very clearly highlights a crisis and leaves the character only one choice. In management burning platforms are metaphors used much the same way. The surrounding issues (cultural, economic, strategic, etc)  are the burning oil platform and a corporation or project is the oil worker. Managers will generally highlight crucial issues, heighten the sense of urgency among their staff and then lay out a plan of action to move the company forward. This can be a very effective management method, especially for organizations undergoing considerable change. Focusing on a crisis and a plan of attack, the organization can take the necessary action to survive and ultimately excel.

There is another style of management that also focuses on managing crises. This style manifests when the burning platform style goes wrong. I call it the Chicken Little style of management.  This theory is based on of the story of Chicken Little who, while eating lunch one day, gets struck on the head by a falling acorn.  Immediately Chicken Little determines that the sky is falling and sets out to alert everyone. Of course, the sky is not actually falling and the moral here is not to believe every crisis you hear.  It’s important in business to maintain a rational outlook and always look at the bigger picture. While urgency can motivate your employees, panic will surely make them less productive.

All too often I see companies incapable of looking beyond the current crisis. At every meeting and in every email, employees and managers are screaming about the end of the world if XYZ problem is not resolved today and right now! The Chicken Little management theory relies on all out panic about each and every “crisis”.  Burning Platform thinking allows a company to coerce employees into action by replacing “learning anxiety” with “survival anxiety”[1]. It focuses time, energy and resources toward resolving crucial issues. The difference is rational, big picture thinking, clearly articulated plans and a willingness to act versus blind panic and no plan of action.

Next time you are in the midst of a crisis at work and you feel like the sky is falling make sure to take a step back and evaluate the big picture. And if you are a CEO or manager be sure to create urgency in a responsible way that focuses your staff and your team on the truly critical issues.

Good Talk,
Tom

[1] (Note: I first read the terms learning anxiety and survival anxiety an interview of Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I do not know who originally coined them).

 

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I was reminded this week of the critical importance of communicating within a corporation. I’m working right now for a client who is implementing a new financial planning, forecasting and budgeting tool at a company currently in bankruptcy. The new financial system is designed to help with top down budgeting and improve cost management once the client emerges from bankruptcy protection.  As with any project of this type there are good days and bad and things that go well along with things that could go better. There are always problems and always room for improvement.

The unique challenge of this client is not the number of problems or their severity, but rather it is the absolutely unpredictability of them. After having worked on projects like this one for years you start to anticipate problems along the way and it’s possible (sometimes easy) to plan for them.  However this client has been blindsided (and blind sided the consultants) at least half a dozen times with things that should not really be problems.  After giving it lots of thought and analysis I’ve decided that the root cause of the problems is the sheer scale of change happening and the failure of upper management to communicate this change to the rest of the company.

In order for any large-scale change to be effective management needs to ensure that everyone is in the loop, on the same page, and driving toward the same goal.  Often times, you need to communicate vastly more than you think is necessary. My current client has a monthly update meeting for the staff and a weekly email that consists of an excel spreadsheet detailing milestones and complications. Think about that for a second: 1 email a week that speaks to the minutiae of the project and one meeting per month. We are talking about communicating to a group of people who just underwent a 30% reduction in staff, are currently undergoing a massive reorganization of the people who are left and are implementing completely new financials systems and processes. Departments are changing, responsibilities are being added and removed, people have new bosses and new direct reports and at the end of the day, everyone seems afraid to act. The people who work here are smart, talented and well-intentioned. Unfortunately none of them have any clear set of expectations.

The executives of this company need to be shouting from the rooftops about the importance of this project. They need to take every opportunity to engage their people in as many forums as possible. They need to explain what is happening, why it is happening, how it is happening and what each and every person can do to ensure that it happens successfully. They need to explain to middle management so that middle management can pass the information on to their staff. Middle management has taken no ownership of the project and most of this is because upper management has not explained why it’s important and how it will help.

This should be an exciting time for the employees, customers and stakeholders. I truly believe that this company can emerge successfully from bankruptcy and return to profitability. But that will only happen if the broken communication model is fixed.

Always over-communicate.

Always.

Good Talk,
Tom

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I’ve been reading blogs for quite some time now, but I’ve never really felt the need to have my own blog.  Now, however, I find myself frequently with more and more to say. I started on Twitter (a service I absolutely love) but distilling my thoughts to 140 characters is often not possible.  Thus I’m creating a new outlet. I have no expectations about how often I’ll post or what topics I’ll choose to write about.  In fact, I have no expectations for this blog whatsoever.

I can be reached at tom@tomarmstrongonline.com or leave a note in the comments.

Good Talk,
Tom

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