Posts Tagged ‘teams’

The Soul of a Project #16: Stand Your Ground

by Gary Monti on May 22, 2012

That phrase, “Stand your ground,” has been big in the news lately. Let’s take a look at it from a professional position. A little background first will help. Consulting can create a love-hate relationship with clients – both management and employees. In fact, that is the norm and it should be unless working with an abbey of Zen Buddhists.

One scenario goes something like this:

  • At first the employees are hesitant, wondering how long the engagement will last and if it will have any effect. They are skeptical, believing senior management comprises “breathe-holders” who will wait until I leave and then go back to their old ways;
  • As progress is being made delineating what is going well and what is going poorly the tone of the conversation in the gossip mill changes. Employees are seeing more clearly what their situation is and appreciate being able to succinctly state such. A hope beings to rise;
  • After a while, though, a skepticism surfaces (the roots of which we’ll look shortly) and the challenges begin, “When are you going to get senior management to change?” Increased pressure is placed on me, the consultant, to get THEM, senior managers, to conform to what is right in the situation. In other words, the employees want a short cut. What is going on is they want the change but are afraid to put skin in the game. Instead of the consultant being a conduit for their voice in the situation, they want the consultant to lead the charge in their battle for sanity.

“This is when confronting the employees is critical. They need to be pushed on an uncomfortable truth – they have to stand their ground regarding the reality of the situation.”

I will eventually be gone. They need to decide what they will do as a unit to help improve the situation in a sustainable manner.

So, what does this “stand your ground” mean? First, let me say, it is anything but aggressive. That goes nowhere. (Well, actually it does – downhill.) It is about standards and ethics. It is about what it takes to get the job done right the first time and respectfully serve the client and one’s company. What does that mean?

We all work to some set of principles with some choosing the light side and others choosing the dark side. Sticking with the “light side” approach, standing your ground means stating the real limits of the situation without emotionality. Each profession on a project has guidelines by which it works. These are anything but arbitrary. The guidelines were created because they work.

Let’s move away from the theory and look at an example, a very common example. As a question it can be stated as, “What does ‘done’ mean?” This can get very dicey. If a manager sees a quarterly bonus looming on the horizon how much will he push the team to declare the project “done” knowing that the team’s future is being mortgaged and the client will not be happy when they find out work performed is less than what the spirit of the situation (or the contract) call for?

When a project manager or team member stands their ground they bring up the shortsightedness of the approach in a business-like manner. In other words, stick with behaviors and consequences.

When the project starts working outside the principle sets important for success; disaster is sitting there licking its chops just waiting to munch on the project.

This confrontation process is anything but easy. It is essential, though. Employees are hired for some form of expertise. It has real limits since an employee is not a CEO.  So, my advice is speak your truth clearly, taking it to the point of putting it in writing, and do it respectfully rather than with your jaw sticking out daring the boss to take a swing. Leave out references to the senior manager’s bonus. That is speculation and gets to attacking character. Just state the truth of the situation. Answer the question:

If everything were okay I’d see _______________ .”

Do a variance analysis between what is and what should be based on the principles involved and run it up the chain of command.

Now, before you go off thinking organizational difficulties are only the responsibility of the employees and they should be falling on their swords every time a paper clip is misplaced, keep in mind next week we’ll look at this from senior management’s position and the real limits of what can be accomplished

The Soul of a Project #4: Project and Poetry

by Gary Monti on February 16, 2012

How do you “grab” team members’ attention? What gets them going to the point they maintain a positive, aggressive sense of completing the project even when there are difficulties that seem insurmountable. Simple, use poetry.

For technical fields dominated by men this may seem counter-intuitive, almost strange. There is a legitimate magic (for want of a better word) to being poetic. Now, before you go off thinking this is about picnics in the spring, puppies, and flowers spend a minute here and see if what follows makes sense.

More and more about less and less

Prose says more and more about less and less. Think of how many pounds of paper reports could be printed or the number of hard drive gigabytes used tracking project information. Is this the soul of the project? No more than pathology reports are the soul of the patient. Yes, it is good information but, no, it fails to grasp the essence of the person.

Prose and detailed reports are outside facing. To grab team members’ attention communications need to be inward facing. Now that sure sounds like a paradox! It isn’t. And this is where poetry comes in.

Less and less about more and more

When we strike a cord with someone the musical metaphor is very apt. The listener resonates with what is being said! There is a harmonizing with what excites, angers, scares, etc., the listener. This inward response leads to listener to feel they are being seen. What is on the inside connects with the outside.

The poetic aspect is the ability to choose a sentence, phrase, or word that nails the situation. Think of someone saying “Beuller” repeatedly with a deadpan tone. If that doesn’t bring a grin to your face I don’t know what would. It ties in to the entire angst of trying to make it through high school while keeping your sanity…something that happens to be quite similar to making it through some projects. That one word is poetic. There are other such examples such as Quisling for someone who flatters those with power so they can get a piece for themselves and abusively dominate those under them.

In the book, Mythical Man Month, by Fred Brooks, there is the classic poetic admonition regarding crashing schedules, “Avoid thinking that if one woman can have a baby in 9 months that 9 women can have a baby in one month.” There is nothing to add to that! It defines the possible insanity of crashing exquisitely.

So where does this leave the reader? If you need to connect with the team find your poetry and share it. Think of what you resonate with and see if it can be distilled to a common experience, a word or phrase, some visual, etc. and put it out there for the team. With that at the core you can then spin all the necessary prose. With everyone getting a good read on the patient…er…project, the reports find their place and add to the teams’ ability to gauge what the next best move should be.

The Soul of a Project #3: Truth vs. Propaganda

by Gary Monti on February 8, 2012

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” is attributed to Senator Hiram Johnson, R-California, 1918. This can occur on projects as well.  What can really muddy the waters is the confusion between facts and truth. Think of all the political hacks on cable news shows.

Facts vs. Truth

Facts stand alone. If it is 75° F outside that reality is what it is. It is free of dependence on anyone’s frame-of-mind.

Truth on the other hand is different because it is, to some extent, dependent upon one’s frame of mind. In fact, the definitions for “truth” range from “consistency with facts,” to “being true to a set of beliefs.” That latter definition is what muddies the waters. In other words, it gets personal.

Frankly, I’ll support someone who conforms to the facts and has a personal belief system that is disciplined, humble, and compassionate. When that person speaks from the gut I resonate like a tuning fork. I might lead, I might follow. Frankly I don’t care because that person seems trustworthy so I’ll risk they’ll negotiate in good faith.

On the flip side, when propaganda is being used, “run!” is the word that comes to mind. That person’s truth is scary! This is especially true when beliefs I hold to be true are being hijacked and parroted to promote the other person’s agenda potentially at the expense of others, the team, and myself. I can get so caught up in hearing what I want to hear that the ability to see the propagandist is lost.

Truth vs. Propaganda

What makes propaganda so dangerous is its seductiveness. It goes something like this. If we just go along with a bending of the truth we can get something in return. Usually it is relief from a fear or getting something we’ve been after, some possession, recognition, money, sex, the list goes on-and-on. “Tow the company line” sums the situation well. Here’s an example.

Employees can invest highly in consultants brought in to bring about change. The employee believes something like this, “After they listen to me they’ll just HAVE get management to shape up and then my life will be okay.” Those employees will champion the consultant.

This is a form of self-propaganda. How do I know that? By watching employees being left flat when I tell them that for the change to take place they will have to individually, one-by-one, commit to the needed change. The propaganda was this, I would be both the shield and sword that will take on senior managers and get them to follow sound project management principles. Believing this to be true, the employee feels safe.

Now there is truth in this.  Consultants have an obligation to challenge variances from the principles appropriate for a situation regardless of the employee’s position – from Board member to janitor. However, this simply sets the stage by spooling up one frame-of-mind through the organization that fits the project’s needs. There is a second part to this, though. During the one-on-one’s each person must hold their ground in sticking with the planned improvements. THIS can be a very challenging task when the resistant person in the conversation is higher up in the food chain.

Propaganda can set in and emotionally dishonest arguments and judgments surface. Sticking with the example, the employee says, “The truth is, the consultant has failed.”  The unconscious reality (self-serving agenda) is the employee might be afraid for their job and doesn’t want to risk taking a leadership position in the conversation by disagreeing legitimately. Granted, this fear can be very real. However, the bending to the propaganda, whether one’s own or someone else’s, can leave lasting damage.

Socrates said it well. As he was quoted in Plato’s Phaedo:

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

Unfortunately, in the end Socrates was asked to drink the hemlock since he wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid. It can be hard leading a project. Tread carefully.

Have you noticed that the actions of some people often cause you stress and frustration? Does interacting with certain colleagues, bosses and/or direct-reports in the workplace cause your blood pressure to sky rocket?  Have you ever wished you could do something about it?  Well, you can!  You can get those behaviors changed.

(Note that in this series we’ll be talking about changing a behavior, not a person. Understanding that a person’s behavior is separate from the person himself [or herself, we use the masculine form to represent both or either] is fundamental to changing our or anyone else’s behavior.  Later posts will explain this in more detail.)

We have identified at least five distinct types of stress-producing behavior:  Day Dreaming, Comparing, Time Traveling, Gut Reacting and Grade Schooling.  Let’s look at examples of each.  (Warning: you will think of people you know when you read these descriptions and you may see yourself here!)

  1. Day Dreaming:  We sometimes say a person must be day dreaming when they seem unaware of their surroundings.  Such people can cause serious stress in others without realizing it.  If confronted they may be genuinely surprised. One glaring example is the order-taker at the restaurant drive-through speaker who mumbles or stringsallthewordstogether.  He causes stress for customers who must repeatedly ask “what?”, for the kitchen staff who keeps getting incorrect orders returned and for the manager who must apologize to frustrated customers. Another common example is the person talking very loudly into a cell phone, disrupting the peace and quiet for everyone within hearing distance – – –  usually the person is completely unaware that there ARE people around, not to mention the effect his loud voice is having on them.  At work, this can be the boss who provides poor direction and blames others for the resulting confusion (expects employees to read her mind) or routinely and cavalierly says hurtful things about others in public. It can also be the colleague who embarrasses himself and others with inappropriate jokes or sexual innuendos, totally unaware of the pained looks on the faces of onlookers. People who are Day Dreaming are often oblivious to the stress they cause in the lives of others.
  2. Comparing:  This is the often-subconscious act of looking at the happiness of another person and comparing it to your own mental state.  Some people are only happy when they come out on top in such a comparison.  They are happiest when others are miserable.  When they act on these comparisons they can cause lots of stress in others.  People who think this way will disrupt a pleasant conversation by interjecting a piece of bad news that instantly changes the feel of the gathering from happy to sad.  Or they will use a “yes, but” maneuver:  “Yes, winning the office’s sales contest would be great for our team but we are short two people and we have never been able to do it before.”
  3. Time Traveling:  This behavior is generation-driven; the Baby Boomer who cannot stop herself from asking everyone who gets to a meeting even a minute late “What time does the 9:30 meeting start?”; or the Gen Yer who cannot resist asking the Baby Boomer having cell phone problems “That advanced technology giving you problems there, Grandpa?”  The result is always more stress.
  4. Gut Reacting: People who routinely use this behavior are seen as the quick-draws at work, the people who always have a fast come-back to any comment.  But they also often omit the think step that should always occur before the speak step.  Their fast, knee-jerk response leaves no time for thoughts of “should I say this?” OR “will it hurt someone’s feelings?” OR “how could this comment be taken?” The result is often wounded pride and stress in others.
  5. Grade Schooling: This behavior is usually motivated by revenge, jealousy, power-trips or other markers of immaturity.  Examples include sabotaging an initiative at work so the originator fails; calling attention to yourself (even negatively) because you need the constant reinforcement of being noticed (poor self- image); or doing something just because you can even if it causes stress in others, for example driving continuously in the left lane of a superhighway so you can keep other people from driving 56 mph in a 55 mph zone.  People who do these things seem to be stuck with only the emotional maturity they had in grade school – – – they just never grew up.

In upcoming posts we’ll show you how to deal with each of these behaviors.  You’ll see how to first decide whether to intervene, then how to get the person’s attention, and establish some rapport (if possible), and lastly how to request a change in the person’s stress-inducing behavior.  We’ll show you how to do these things in the workplace but the techniques will also work well when shopping, in restaurants, with the family at home and in lots of other situations.

And if you think there are other categories of stress-inducing behavior, beyond the five we mentioned above, we’d like to hear from you.  Email me at Mack@SolidThinking.org

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Chaos and Complexity #12: Terrorism

by Gary Monti on November 30, 2010

Meeting General Colin Powell (ret.) and speaking on building bonds among team members at a project management conference were two opportunities I was fortunate to have earlier this month. His keynote speech on change and the need to be humble when dealing with power (and the loss of it) was a perfect lead in for my talk on trust building. It also got me thinking about another topic I follow – Terrorism.

The Benefits of Giving Recognition

General Powell never mentioned politics or terrorism. He talked about working with people and stressed the need to connect with those who provide support. He gave several reasons:

  1. Whatever gets accomplished will be done through these team members;
  2. The team members are the ones putting themselves on the line and taking the heat;
  3. As a human being it feels better treating people with respect;
  4. When treated with respect the odds go up the team will help avoid mistakes and identify and recover from those that are made;
  5. Performance improves in the presence of trust.

His words were strikingly appropriate and apply to a project manager as much as any leader.

Humility and Home Life

Another topic about which he spoke was how his shift from public life to private had its own challenges. He spoke of going from having a 767 at his disposal and always having the path in front of him cleared to finding himself retired and sitting at the kitchen with his wife asking him, “You don’t plan on staying home do you?” The crowd roared with laughter. The situation was very real, though. His terrain was dancing.

Those connections built over the years and based on respect helped him move on to another phase of life and a new direction. Treating people well along the way paid off. There is a quote that is very fitting.

Only I can take my journey, but I can’t do it alone.”

In complex and chaotic situations this is especially true. The situation is fueled by trust.

Terrorists

A mash-up of ideas occurred while thinking about Powell, connection, kitchen tables, and respect which pushed to the forefront another concept that fit the principles: dealing with terrorism. As examples for chaos and complexity go, the situation surrounding terrorism is one of the best.

Terrorism thumbs its nose at best-practice, top-down approaches. And terrorists are good at it. They create large force multipliers extending beyond the battlefield. They are always looking for tipping points. Look at the dust-up that has been occurring with enhanced pat downs and invasive scanners. Not only are millions, if not billions, of dollars being spent, society gets thrown off balance. All this because of someone who had explosives in his underpants! Terrorists’ goals are to create chaos and, hopefully (from their perspective) random behavior leading to anarchy. The stir caused by their tiny, planned efforts would make any commander proud.

And how is this dealt with? Where does success occur? Simply being the big dog does not make that much difference in situations such as this. Success is measured at the small, detail level. People holding together and sticking to what works one passenger at a time. What a challenge! Yes, commanders are needed but, yes, their job is to get the right equipment in the right person’s hands at the right time. This brings us back to complexity where the team’s bond and ability to perform is what makes all the difference.

So terrorists work to make things chaotic (if not random) and committed security team members work to build the bonds needed to trap the terrorist and keep things safe. That is complex behavior.

Security teams strive to move to best practice but the enemy adapts and changes their plans in an attempt to re-introduce chaos. At times the best that can be done is reduce the chaos to complexity. This means trade-offs are inevitable.

While going through the new scanners to go outside the United States on business this past weekend I thought about Powell and his wife sitting at the kitchen table like any other couple and also about how the devil is in the details when it comes to complexity and chaos and catching terrorists. The terrain just keeps on dancing.

A diverse workforce: The smart thing to do

by Robert Driscoll on August 20, 2010

Business is no longer about what product or service you can provide in a local or regional marketplace.  Today it’s about competing in a global one.  The internet has allowed companies that once were only able to support a local or regional area to now make offers on a global basis.  Competing in the global marketplace not only means diversifying your products and/or services, but your most important asset as well: your workforce.

Some people still believe companies hire diverse workforces because it’s the politically correct thing to do.  What companies are finding out though is that hiring a diverse workforce allows companies to expand easier in to new markets with a diverse client base as they are in a better position to understand the demographics of the customers they serve.  At a high level, this is true, but just because you hire a diverse workforce will not guarantee you success in the marketplace.  Like with any group of employees, it’s what you do with them and how you use their diversities to your advantage in the marketplace.

Diversity in the workplace at your company should not only be limited to race, gender and age, but differences of views and personalities as well.  As a leader, you need to recognize these differences and align your people accordingly as it relates to their job function, whether it’s in sales, marketing, human resources, etc…  You wouldn’t have someone like Donald Trump head up your HR department unless you wanted everyone fired, right?  Understand your employees’ strengths and put them in positions where they will have the greatest impact.

At the same time, you need to get your diverse workforce to work together.  Simply putting them in a group setting and hoping they come up with unique and uncommon ideas will not happen on its own.  Without the proper guidance in a group setting they will talk about what they have in common rather than their differences.  All you will get is group-think and nothing innovative will come from them.  It is important to let the group know everyone’s background and who has knowledge in certain areas and to encourage them to share their unique knowledge.  But take it one step further.  Instead of just having the group share their unique knowledge, encourage an environment where they can debate so as to challenge the ideas of other members.  Yes, some disagreements and hard feelings might come of this, but it could lead to coming up with new and innovative ideas.  Ideas that could possibly change the marketplace you are in.

The landscape of the marketplace is diverse and constantly changing.  You must embrace it or you will miss out on new opportunities.  The same goes for your workforce.  Diversity in your workforce isn’t just the “right” thing to do.  It’s the smart thing to do.

Quality #8: Best Practices are Contextual

by Tanmay Vora on November 18, 2009

Welcome to the eighth post in this 12-part series on QUALITY, titled #QUALITYtweet – 12 Ideas to Build a Quality Culture.

Here are the first seven posts, in case you would like to go back and take a look:

  1. Quality #1: Quality is a long term differentiator
  2. Quality #2: Cure Precedes Prevention
  3. Quality #3: Great People + Good Processes = Great Quality
  4. Quality #4: Simplifying Processes
  5. Quality #5: Customers are your “Quality Partners”
  6. Quality #6: Knowing what needs improvement
  7. Quality #7: Productivity and Quality

#QUALITYtweet The best practices are contextual – they

worked well for someone in a given context. Are you

applying them in the right context?

Imagine a doctor prescribing a standard medicine based on common symptoms without carefully analyzing other ailments and patient history. A doctor knows the best medicine to cure a particular ailment, but he would look at a patient’s context and then decide if the “best medicine” is really best for a particular patient.

Process managers play a role of doctors for the organizations. They have to identify all possible problems (symptoms) and then suggest a solution (medicine). Best medicines for different types of ailments are termed as “best practices” in business.

Best practices are a set of processes that, in a given context, have the best likelihood of delivering quality products or services. In equation of context identification, some of the variables are:

  • Your goals as an organization
  • Market segment you operate in
  • Your target customers
  • Nature of your product / services
  • Types of customer you already serve
  • Team capabilities and internal alignment
  • Management commitment and sponsorship to improvement initiatives
  • External market pressures (e.g. recession)

The list can go on. Best practices often tend to ignore these variables because they worked in past for someone in a particular context. Their context may be different, but never a static one. Implementing best practice without considering organization’s context is like prescribing a standard medicine without looking into symptoms. Both can be equally dangerous!

So how are best practices useful? Studying best practices can give you some very useful insights on possible solutions for your business challenge. They offer alternative perspectives on ideas that can minimize your risks.

For process improvement experts, having access to best practices can be their biggest asset. But their ability to apply those best practices in an organization’s context is absolutely mandatory for success. As a professional, there is no fun in having a best practice for everything and a solution for nothing!

As an organization, you can leverage best practices by carefully studying them and mapping with your unique business challenges. For this, improvement managers need to understand nuts and bolts of business. Once the context is understood, best practices can become your best guide so that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Depending on context, you can either implement a best practice as it is or select portions of a best practice that can be most useful for your context.

Simply believing that a best practice will work for you just because it worked for someone else in the past and applying them in vacuum can harm you more than it can help.

There are no silver-bullets in business and things like context and innovation does play a huge role. As one of the Dilbert comic says – “If everyone is doing it, best practices is the same thing as mediocre”.

Check your ego at the door!

by guest on August 12, 2009

check my ego at the doorWhen I look back over all the important lessons that I have learned during and related to my career, some of the most important came before my career even started.

First, some background:

I had the distinct advantage of being an engineering intern at a large aerospace firm while I was a sophomore in college. It allowed me a unique viewpoint in that I was surrounded by exciting technology and incredibly accomplished people (and I knew I couldn’t be laid off, which was a plus). I viewed this time as an opportunity to learn about careers in advance of starting my own. The world was bright and full of possibilities. I soaked up as much as I could about the profession, about corporate America, and about careers in general.

It was during this time that I experienced one of the most important lessons that I have ever learned – to check one’s ego at the door.

One afternoon I was asked to join an engineering review meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to review the progress and share ideas for improvement of the 8 major components that comprised the device we were making. Each component was represented by the lead engineer. In addition, there was a project manager and myself. The 10 of us entered a conference room at 2:00PM for a 2 hour meeting.

What ensued was a lesson that I still reference today.

The engineer of component #1 stood up, gave his progress report, and stated some of the challenges he was experiencing and how he planned to solve them. The other 7 engineering leads then suggested alternative solutions and constructive criticism (and the suggestions were quite good). Upon each suggestion, however, the lead engineer of component #1 immediately shook his head and responded that his solution was superior and that there was no need to consider alternatives. The other 7 engineers became agitated that their views were not being fully considered. But the engineer of component #1 concluded his presentation and sat down. Following his presentation, the lead engineer of component #2 stood up, gave his progress report, and stated the challenges that he was experiencing. Again, the other 7 engineering leads gave suggestions and alternative solutions, but they were similarly dismissed by the lead engineer of component #2. Again, the other 7 engineering leads became agitated that their solutions were not being considered. The lead engineers of remaining 6 components, in turn, gave their presentations, listened to the suggestions and criticisms, and dismissed them. And in each case, the 7 other engineers were agitated that their views were not being considered.

In all, the “2 hour” meeting took 6 hours to complete, primarily due to the length of time that each engineer took to refute the proposed suggestions. In each case, the lead engineer expended immense effort to prove that his ideas were superior to all the others. And in each case, the other 7 engineers expended immense effort to prove that their alternative solutions were worth merit. But in each case, the engineers were willing to provide criticism but not receive it… or one could also assess that each engineer was capable of talking, but none was capable of listening!

As an intern, I found myself amused and chuckling quietly to myself. If this had been a graded exercise for one of my engineering laboratory classes, we all would have failed because while we would have succeeded in communicating ideas, we would have failed in sharing and accepting ideas for improvement. What I didn’t immediately understand was that if I, a sophomore in college, could perceive the problem, why couldn’t the lead engineers? What was the specific problem that was preventing them from learning from one another?

What was the source of the problem?

And then it struck me!

It was not about the problem or the best solution anymore… it had become all about the egos! Each engineer had committed the same mistake of allowing their ego to interfere with the exploration of a better solution. Their egos were preventing the learning process from occurring.

It became clear to me, at that point, that the key to a successful meeting (and career) is checking your ego at the door so that your mind is open to other possibilities. Leave your ego outside the conference room (or office building).

I am so glad that I learned that lesson during that day. At each stage of my career following that meeting, I have allowed for the possibility that – “for every solution I have conceived, there may be a better one.”

The biggest takeaway for me:

I have recalled this lesson time and again and it has helped me to NOT avoid criticism. In fact, I have learned to seek criticism and feedback, whether it be good or bad, at all times. For if I reach the point where I think my solutions are the best to the exclusion of all other possibilities, then I have reached the point where I can no longer learn. And if I cannot learn, then I cannot progress as a person.

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mike markey outside cropped Michael Markey has 16 years of engineering and software experience in various areas including aerospace, military, and commercial sectors. He currently leads a team of consultants that specialize in access control and commercialization of online content.