Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Management’

Two things in the past couple of days reminded me how important it is to set expectations when undertaking any kind of task. First, yesterday the heat in my condo went out. I called the furnace guy that I use (yes, I have a furnace guy…) and asked him to come take a look. He said it was probably not a big deal and I shouldn’t worry. 2 hours and $350 later I realized he was wrong.  I do not think he ripped me off, in fact, I’m sure I got a very reasonable price for the work that he did (the other estimate I got was $75 per half hour, plus parts and materials – so labor alone would have been $300).  I’m confident that he fixed the problem, he showed up quickly, worked diligently and minimized the disruption in my life. However, at the end of the whole thing I was left pretty annoyed. I’ve realized that it’s all because I was expecting minimal work and minimal cost. “Probably not a big deal”. Those 5 words set incorrect expectations and led me to be dissatisfied at the end of the transaction.Had he omitted those 5 words the entire outcome would have been different.

The second thing that made me think of the importance of setting expectations was a meeting I had with my manager today. We finally found time to go over my goals and expectations for my current project (I’ve been at this client for about 6 weeks now). My manager put together a list of expectations from me and we both discussed how to achieve my goals and have the biggest impact on the client and my career. Seeing the expectations laid out on paper ( a simple word document) really crystallized the areas on which I need to focus. My entire perception of my work weeks and how I’ll structure my time has changed because of this 30 minute meeting. It turns out that I’ve been doing everything that my manager expected of me, but his method of laying out (and the patterns he pointed out) completely changed the way I thought about (and thus the method I’ll employ to complete the required tasks). My life just got a whole lot clearer (not necessarily simpler, but the fog has been lifted). I wonder how much smoother the last 6 weeks would have gone had we had this conversation on day 1 or day 2.

Neither of these examples is particularly earth shattering. I’m sure everyone has been in situations where there was a disconnect / misunderstanding in expectations. I just found it interesting how two simple events in two days could drive home for the importance of setting reasonable expectations. Fortunately for me, I’d been meeting most, if not all, of the goals my manager expected, so there were no terrible repercussions. And fortunately for my furnace guy, I’ve known him long enough, and have a strong enough relationship with him, that I’ll still call him the next time something breaks. But this could have turned out badly for both him and me.

It’s always a good reminder that no matter what you’re doing you should set clear expectations for all stake holders. Let your employees know what is expected of them (“The path to success” as one of my bosses called it). Don’t guess at the cause of a problem – and thus the time and money required to fix it – before you have all the facts. Make sure your customers are given timely and accurate information. Let your girlfriend know that your new assignment is going to require longer hours. There’s myriad examples where clear expectations result in better outcomes and stronger, longer lasting relationships. And yet sometimes we fail to have that conversation that explains our expectations. Maybe we get to busy, maybe we forget, maybe we decide it’s too awkward, or maybe we decide that we don’t really need that conversation. But my advice, always level set. It doesn’t take long and the benefits can be substantial.

Good Talk,
Tom

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very process oriented person. I’d much prefer you tell me my objective and get out of my way while I get it done. On the projects I manage I don’t typically care if you work from home, work from the office or work from your neighbor’s fishing boat, just make sure you get your work done. However, I understand that as firms grow and organizations expand the conflicting and competing priorities of employees and customers necessitates the development of processes to govern how things are done and in what manner scarce resources get allocated.  From a management and a value point of view this makes sense. It ensures the allocation is given at least some thought and that a organization strives for efficiency in it’s operations.

Imagine living in a house with one shower and 5 roommates. It would make sense to develop a process around who gets to use the shower based upon what time each has to be to class or work.  Any conflicts are worked out among the roommates (usually by one agreeing to wake up 15 minutes earlier). This is an example of designing a process to reduce the chaos of the morning rush and make the house more efficient. I’m OK with processes like these.

But imagine a slight change in the process. Imagine now that on Sunday night you had to submit your request for shower times for the week to once person in the house designated the Quality Assurance roommate. Then imagine the quality assurance roommate compiling these requests and determining where conflicts result. (You and another roommate both want the shower at 6:30AM on Monday – let’s assume you’re unwilling to share…) The list of conflicts is sent out to all the roommates for discussion at the weekly Sunday Assignments Meeting. At this meeting any parties having requested conflicting times get 5 minutes each to make the case why they should have priority over someone else. At the end of the discussion all the roommates vote and the loser has to select a different open time. Additionally if a roommate fails to show up to the Sunday Assignments meeting he forfeits any contested time slots.  This is a much more complicated process, but in the end it probably results in an equitable solution, despite the unnecessary overhead.  I’m not a big fan of processes like this, but I’ve learned to live with them. They are often the most fair and orderly way to conduct business.

Now imagine a third scenario: This scenario is just like scenario two except for some small changes. First, everyone must make their case at the Sunday Assignments Meeting whether or not there is a conflict for their requested time slot. So if you want the shower at noon on Wednesday when everyone else is at work you’ll still have to make your case in front of the group. Additionally, we’ll add a lock to the shower that can only be removed by approval of a majority of the roommates. So now if you fail to show up to the meeting you’re not allowed to shower ALL WEEK.  When you petition the quality assurance roommate for an exemption because you have an appointment on Sunday he says, “Sorry, if you don’t present at the meeting and give everyone else a chance to ask questions or object  we won’t know if there’s a conflict. It’s just not a risk we can afford to take.” He seems to miss the fact that all time slots are submitted earlier Sunday This is an (extreme) example of a process run amok. The objective – equitable and efficient allocation of shower availability – has been completely subsumed by the process itself. We’ve lost the forest in the trees. What happens in this instance is the shower lies unnecessarily empty because someone missed a meeting and everyone suffers because one of the roommates has not bathed in a week.

When you design and implement processes, be sure to keep the objective in mind. Activity is no substitute for results and activity that impedes results is intolerable. Aim to make operations more efficient and NEVER have process that gets in the way of the goal.  Where you end up is far more important than what road you take to get there.

Read Full Post »

Every day we are faced with a multitude of decisions covering a broad spectrum of things; what tie should I wear today? Should I ask her out?  Do I have time to stop for coffee? At what price point should I launch my product? Should I kill feature X or add feature Y? Can we afford to hire another person for this project? Can we afford not to? At times these decisions can pile up and become nearly crippling (the well used cliché analysis paralysis). We spend far too much time weighing options and worry about outcomes.  Often it’s a better idea to just DO SOMETHING! Don’t spend all your time analyzing and modeling and worrying. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen and then just try something and see if it works.

I should note that this method will work for all businesses. Even if you have a business with huge product development costs, long development times and where changes are going to be really expensive you can still use this method. What’s the worst than can happen? Well, the worst can be pretty bad, so make sure you diligently analyze options and weigh costs.

But for most of us there is an innate bias toward overestimating risk and underestimating gains. It can be extremely difficult to overcome this bias, but asking what’s the worst that can happen is a good method. (Suzy Welch recommends asking what are the implications 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now and 10 years from now. I think this achieves much the same goal.)  The important thing is to realize that most decisions we make are not going to have huge implications. It’s usually better to make a decision, execute based on it, and then move onto the next thing. Because really, what’s the worst than can happen?

Good Talk,
Tom

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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).

 

Read Full Post »