Tag Archives: management

On the Importance of Articulating Change

I think I might be going slightly addled in my old age.

There’s a large, multinational I’m intimately familiar with that is currently amidst disrupting its market as it cannibalizes itself and breaks new ground.  Like most well run organizations full of intelligent people, they’ve realized that significant change will be required across the board – from R&D to Sales & Support.  Excellent story right? Right.

Except it seems like no one bothered to clearly enunciate what is driving the change (revenue recognition, etc) and what the overarching change plan is. In fact, in so far as I’m aware, there is no 3 year change plan. Or even a five year change plan. There’s likely a twelve month plan but it’s been torn up and redone so many times it’s a poor joke to call it a living document. Living dead maybe.

Look, there’s probably something along those lines. There’s a LOT of brilliant, capable people up and down the chain – this isn’t a company of slackers. But the communication is clearly lacking. Even if it’s because we have to remain nimble, we have to react to the marketplace or the changes, ok, fine, communicate it. There can be few things more exhausting to a results oriented workforce – that pushes each other more than they get pushed – than to be chasing the change ghost.

Just because Dr Christensen mentioned that 4 out of 5 companies that attempt this change fail at it the first time, doesn’t mean you set out to prove him right! Try to be the outlier, not the recidivist.

B52 Stratofortress

B52 Stratofortress

Change is hard. Personal, professional much less organizational across multiple geographies. You’re changing from a B52 to a B2 in mid-air, during a vital bombing mission, as you’re dropping bombs with flak and SAM all around you and radar locks out the ying-yang.  Ok, maybe it’s harder than that. And if the aircrew has no idea what the plan is because the airbase has forgotten there’s a radio they can use … well, you get the picture. I hope, as I’ve run out of appropriate metaphors.

The point is that even if there’s organizational recognition and acceptance that change is necessary and everyone’s on

B2 Spirit

B2 Spirit

board, consistently clear communications have to be key to success. Start with the goal. That’s where you want to go right? Perfect. We ran into a hill, we have to push harder. Perfect. We’ve hit a ravine, we’re going to have to backtrack and try a river crossing. Gotcha. Let’s go. Crap, the river is flooded. Hey, let’s build a bridge, we got any carpenters and masons? Half a caravan full, keep them wagon’s rolling. Don’t leave the rest of us wondering. Or wandering.

Oh, wait, there’s a dragon too, did I mention?

Dragon vs Bomber

Dragon vs Bomber

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On The Importance of the Competent Jerk

Years ago I remember sitting in an all IS meeting (we’re talking upwards of a couple hundred folks) where we had a presentation on the four quadrants making up Likeability and Competence. I recently looked up and found the pertinent article from Casciaro & Lobo (HBR, June 2005)

I was in the back of the room with the cools kids (my team) and my team lead and I were standing propped back against the wall, noses in our phones.  Our CIO was at the front of the room and I’m sure shaking his heads in exasperation had he noticed us.

Until this presentation started. And we were ALL ears.

Ted and I had been friends and co-workers for almost a couple of decades. I dragged him around and he fought me every step like the drogue chute equivalent of a conquering Roman general’s memento mori during the vir triumphalis. Thankfully he’s the patient sort. We did have a long running joke however about how his gravestone would read “Here lies Ted, Dead Craving Competence.”  What can I say, we have exceedingly high expectations of our species.

The crowd was sedate as per usual. And by sedate I mean non-participatory. So of course when the time came and the presenter asked if the room knew any competent jerks, Ted and my hand’s shot up instantaneously. The presenter pointed at us and said:

“Great! Point them out to us, don’t be shy, this is part of the learning experience.” Our CIO, Larry, was already starting to shake his head, but smiling.

Ted and I looked at each other and pointed at each other simultaneously. Nervous laughter in the room, except for my team which guffawed quite heartily. Our CIO was definitely shaking his head, but he was still smiling.

We had a lively debate for a few minutes about how Competent Jerks were necessary and in fact should not be reformed into

Steve Martin - The Jerk (Movie)

Steve Martin – The Jerk (Movie)

Lovable Stars as they likelihood, based on our personal experience, was that they would likely fall into the Lovable Fool category (read the article if you haven’t already). We posited that the best performing teams consisted of Competent Jerks lead by a Competent Jerk who was adaptable enough to be a Lovable Fool or Loveable Star. In fact, that adaptability we felt was necessary for delivery.  Our CIO closed off our conversations thus:

“You two jerks can finish this conversation in my office after the  meeting, I’ll have HR there.” He said, with a grin, of course, to wider laughter. And we did have a lively debate in his office later that week. He was the approachable sort, always open to having this thinking challenged.

But the point is this – and one I still maintain. Likeability is desired but not necessary as it creates the potential to completely disregard Competence. While I don’t seek out Competent Jerks, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. I’m happy to take them on the team and management as long as they display an exemplary level of competence. The rest I can lead or manage.

What’s your competent jerk story?

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On Being the Team Dad

During one of my last dot com forays (prior to the bomb era), I remember one of our business associates pulling me aside after a particularly grueling day at work. We had been in some of the same business planning and technology requirements meeting. I was the CTO and he was playing a dual role as a domain expert and business manager for our growing equities research arm. Like most professional traders I’ve come to know he was as brash and arrogant as he was exceedingly competent at his job – something I welcome and can deal with (we’ll cover that on a later post). He and I had built a rapport mostly revolving around his keen insights and my sarcasm rooted in self deprecation. I’ve fixed the latter. Mostly.

But on to the story.

He laughing pulled me into his office as I walked by and closed the door. Inviting me to sit with one of his infuriating knowing smiles. Did I mention it had been an exceedingly long day? As he beckoned me to sit, he opened up with one of his signature lines

“You know, you’re like the team’s dad.”

I was a little dumbfounded. Things started to click into place. He took my silence as an indication he could go on.

“That’s what this team needs, a dad. Not a touchy, feely mom, but a Dad. The team knows you love them and go to bat for them, but they also know there’ll be hell to pay if they fuck up. And you’ll be the one to make sure they pay.” (I did mention he was a professional trader.

“I see.” Was the best I could rally with

“No, I’m being serious. They know they can joke around and horse around with you, but they also know when it’s time to put down the nerf guns and crank out the sweat equity. And they know when you walk in there with a belt and they hop to it. I’ve seen it.”

“So …?” Yes, a man of few but mighty words.

“So I wanted to tell you you’re doing a great job something Mark (our CEO and my report-to) doesn’t tell you often enough. He’s hard on everyone and you’re hard on yourself. Cut yourself some slack, you’re doing great, the team loves and respects you. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“Gee, Shane, uh, thanks.”

“Ok, great, now get the fuck outta my office and back to work, or do you want a sandwich with that side of ass-kissing.”

Haha. Much laughter and back slapping and off to work we went.

What Shane said stuck with me. It has defined my management style and almost all of my managers have always noted something similar, regardless of what level I’ve managed at. It does fit me and I’ve been blessed to have strong teams who’ve always delivered results and taken ownership of their messes, gladly burning the midnight oil to meet commitments and deadlines, knowing I never abuse that drive.  It’s a cross between herding cats, fishing and breaking horses. Somewhere in that nexus is what it takes to be a leader of engineers. It’s where I’ve lived for over fifteen years and I look forward to getting back to that nexus.

Hello, my name is Sam Adams and I’m the team dad. What’s your style?

Dilbert - Managing the Impossible

Dilbert – Managing the Impossible

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On the Importance of Indirect Management

One of the muscles I’ve had to build recently is that of indirect management. Let me explain.

After over fifteen years as manager of managers and manager of people, I welcomed a respite in a return to an individual contributor role. My current role puts me very much in a team of one – as most everyone in the same role is. It’s a nature of the job requirements, even though the intent might be different. I depend heavily on specialists who cover more customers than I do and none of them report to me. In fact, they report up through a completely different tree, with the first common ground 3 levels above me. This calls for a different management muscle. I welcomed this challenge as it wasn’t a muscle I had to use very much over the last two decades of my professional career.

Indirect Management

Indirect Management

So how does this work? With a lot of effort and constant deposits in the First Mutual Bank of Credibility.

I have to know what scorecard metrics are important to those folks. In some cases they’ll map to mine, in other cases they won’t – and that’s ok as well. If I’m the one creating opportunities for them that meet their measure – credibility! I have to look for opportunities they can scale up and out with partners or with our services arm.  Instead of asking for product road map sessions for a customer, I’ll combine geographically close customers. For remote customers, we can broadcast to them. Have a remote datacenter in Denver? No problem, we can stream the session to them.  In one fell swoop I’ve boosted their scorecard.

This calls for consistency – which isn’t always possible unfortunately. But as long as it is the exception and not the rule, I stand a good chance of being in good stead with the folks I rely on the most to be successful at my job. Understandably, this is how most organizations function at the senior and executive levels. My current professional experience is helping lay the foundation and build the muscles I’ll need when I return to being a manager.

It’s the best idea I’ve come up with until I find the One Ring …


On the Importance of Failure

As one of my mentors is fond of reminding me – failure is the best teacher.  As he also reminds me, fail twice at the same task and you’ve got big problems starting with an erosion credibility. Credibility is the single most expensive asset you will ever own, it never appreciates unless you actively grow it and it is exceedingly easy to erode. Look up pride.

But here’s my twist on this (and I can just see you rolling your eyes at this Mr S.) Failure is GOOD for the soul. Sure, not repeated failure, but bear with me for a moment. I’ve had two instances in my professional life where I’ve run what were essentially technology R&D shops. The ‘D’ in my book as always stood for Delivery.  The ‘R’ is where the fun starts, but not everyone can be researching. I’ve always made sure to have at least one person in the research role who consistently fails. It requires vigorous interviewing to find, identify and surface that personality type, especially in technologist types, then mentor, manage and insulate them so they do their best work. I won’t give away any further specifics on how to identify them – but I’ll be happy to consult with you for a fee 🙂

These individuals will fail at the tasks you give them over and over. The tasks are not the routine or mundane ones. They’re the really strange, esoteric complete WTF concepts that no respecting researcher or developer would touch.  They’re the ones that will make this person cringe at the thought and bemoan their fate.  But you’ll feel that secret glee they have and – this is important – set them loose. They have to attack the problem their way. Keep a close eye on them, help them avoid ratholes and painted corners. That’s your job. Their job is to fail.

And learn.

When they fail, the critical important part is to focus on what they learned. And they’ll have to share this with the wider team.  While everyone is talking up accomplishments, this persons accomplishment is what they learned while failing. Without fail their insight has lent itself to the wider team. Sometimes it’s a small value add, sometimes it’s just the insight that was needed for resolving a major barrier.  This is where the patterns of problems and solutions comes into play – something much studied and widely accepted in software development.

Small cost, consistent measurable benefit.

Admittedly it is a risky proposition and it does require greater management investment and commitment.

But hey, you’re still going to learn if you fail at it.

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