Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Meeting About a Meeting

When I was a co-op student I heard about a manager who held a meeting to prepare for a meeting.  It was an infinite source of amusement for myself, the other co-ops working at the same oil company, and my friends.  A meeting about a meeting seemed to be the penultimate bureaucratic time-waster.  Hah!  We would all be much smater and more efficient when we became managers.

Today, I do the same thing.  I cringe every time I do it, but sometimes it's just necessary.  Getting the right folks on board, getting commitment before meeetings, and getting agreement on key issues before a public discussion is crucial to the success of managing complex problems.  You don't want to argue publicly in front of the wrong folks.  You don't want the meeting to become an opportunity for grandstanding.  You do want to get something done with the minimum fuss and bother.

To ease your agenda into play, management becomes an act of diplomacy.  Educate folks on the issues before asking them to make a decision.  Socialize new concepts among the affected parties before asking for commitment of resources.  We need to work with colleauges prior to a decision-making event like a meeting to ensure there is common understanding and shared enthusiasm.  Spending time managing the politics of an issue is just as important as managing the content of the issue.

So if you do it right, sometimes a meeting about a meeting can be penultimate anti-bureaucratic time-saver.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Delegate, Don't Abdicate

I get concerned when folks arbitrarily say micro-management is a bad thing.  I agree that on a regular basis micro-management is a sign of a bad manager.  But on the other hand, a manager who doesn't know when to micro-manage is a probably a worse manager.

A manager is supposed to set the direction, clear the path, and then let staff get the job done.  Sounds great in theory.  Sometimes it's called empowerment, other times it's called delegation.  But delegation without control is abdication.

A manager who delegates and walks away is rolling the dice.  Sometimes the empowered team does a great job, other times they need a light to guide them.  Sometimes even the best and the brightest teams need ongoing managerial support.  Without a feedback and monitoring process they can easily lose their way.

There is nothing wrong with a manager getting involved in the details of the work when needed by the team.  The problem starts when the team needs help and doesn't know it.  A manager who sees the problem and blindly dives in to solve it will be accused of micro-managing, even if she or he is doing the right thing.  Staff will resent the manager's involvement and see it as interference.

The best managers set expectations early and clearly and monitor progress.  Before embarking on the journey, the manager sets thresholds and measures.  If the team veers off the planned path, predetermined triggers agreed to by the team engage the manager in the details.  That's not micro-managing - that's just common sense and good practice.

Good managers delegate work, but they don't abdicate accountability for getting the job done.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Vast Array of Interwoven Matrices

To get work done in a planned fashion we create formal organization structures.  From bureaucracies to ad-hocracies, we develop structures to address the specific unique needs of the environment we serve.  The environment dictates competitive pressures, quality expectations, capacity needs, investment returns, and agility demands.

With apologies to organizational theorists, such a variety of demands renders any single organization structure incapable of meeting all needs.  In other words, one size fits none.

So we build a basic formal structure that meets the core, high priority needs of the environment we are trying to serve.  If you look carefully at any industry, you will find most of the players use fairly similar formal organizations.  Because of pragmatic external pressures, if you examine any two large companies in the insurance industry, they will likely be divided into group and individual insurance divisions.  Hardly rocket science and hardly a competitive advantage.  Simply a realistic necessity.

To meet unique demands and to be competitive, organizations must relentlessly find ways to distinguish themselves.  We create cross-functional links that span the formal structure creating short-cuts.  We design dynamic teams using subject matter expertise from across different knowledge realms to develop unique value-building entities.  Hopefully these combinations create efficiencies and innovations that cannot be copied by other organizations in the same market space.

These cross-functional webs superimpose a wide variety of structures over the traditional organization chart.  Now, add in the informal organizations that humans invariably create.  Regardless of the formal structure or any cross-functional team, humans seem to find ingenious ways of connecting and re-combining into completely unexpected groups as a result of interpersonal relationships and informal hierarchies of expertise and respect.

These informal groups add yet another layer onto the organization.  Suddenly the nice neat organization chart becomes a "vast array of interwoven matrices."  (Thanks to Alan Harrison for that quote).  Is this complexity such a bad thing?  Certainly it doesn't fit into an easy to categorize organization architecture.  But the trade-off is a dynamic living organism that can respond to external pressures in an infinite number of ways.  It may seem confusing, but I wouldn't want it any other way.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Snowflake Theory of Management

I heard myself saying every business relationship is a like snowflake yesterday.  I thought it sounded a little corny at the time and I wondered if I could just rewind time and take it back.

In retrospect, I'm glad I couldn't.  Every relationship is different and every relationship is ephemeral.  Our organization supports over a hundred different departments and thousands of individuals across the institution.  It would be impossible to create a separate process for every relationship.

So our processes become frameworks for enabling individuality to thrive.  The framework sets the boundaries around how far we can go, how much we're willing to spend, and who we can support.  But within those guidelines, the individual needs the freedom to do their job.

A good example is our project management process.  It is quite rigorous about specific activities.  We demand a project charter document to explain the business case justifying the project.  A project plan is expected to define how the project is to be executed.  Regular status reports are produced to track progress to plan.  The project is wrapped up through a project closure report.  That's all.

The process doesn't get any more prescriptive.  There is lots of room to maneuver within the framework.  Project managers are free to apply their personal creativity to get the job done within a small set of very specific checkpoints.  

This approach gives the management team the appropriate level of control over the process without stifling the individuality of the project managers.  The freedom to make a broad range of decisions within a small set of clearly defined rules allows control that supports the flexibility required to adapt to the unique set of circumstances inherent in every project.

The same is true of any process we build.  Because each relationship between the organization and its clients is independent, we need to build processes that simultaneously enable flexibility and control.  The trick is to ensure the appropriate degree of flexibility and while ensuring we can still control the quality and efficiency of our process.

Hmmm ... it looks like it's snowing outside ...


Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Job

My job is simple.  I go to meetings and drink coffee.  Lots of meetings and probably too much coffee.  The day becomes an endless stream of conversations woven into a fibre.  A fibre used to bind ideas and people into actions.

Sometimes the conversations are quick snippets in a hallway to touch base.  Other times it's the full two hour marathon group meeting with a sea of brilliant minds contributing to the idea pot.  There are happy congratulatory chats and darkly serious budget banter.  The detailed projected benefits email, the text message from the coffee line-up, and the surreptitious tweet during a meeting are all part of the fibre.

Lots of variety - different people different topics different issues.  Finding consistency in the constant exchange is hard.  A manager can't just treat each chat as a random separate event.  Even if you considered each conversation an independent transaction, the volume makes adding value in a disciplined way impossible.  You could try structuring your day around key projects, but there are too many other folks outside your sphere of influence to make it feasible.

But what if you developed a set of basic principles or core competencies?  You could apply some rules like "treat everyone with respect" to each conversation.  That's a good start, but not enough. Principles don't establish schedules.  In a day of constant conversational transactions, how do figure out what to do next?  How do you set guidance for your staff?

Start with principles to create consistency and then set your priorities.  Go through the day with few precedence rules.  The fewer priorities, the better.  I go through the day with just one priority: how is our organization going to be the best?  So each conversation goes through that single filter.  How can each transaction help make us the best?

My priority is to move my agenda forward.  Sounds selfish?  It isn't because all our clients benefit from us being the best.

Now ... its time for another coffee.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


There are many different criteria for assessing the various types of managers in an organization. An interesting challenge is how you consistently compare different types of managers in the same organization. In other words, is there one criteria that can be used to assess everyone? The question is important because the answer affects how we view organization structure.

For example, what makes a vice president different from a director, or what makes a director different from a manager? Is it because one level is more skilled than another? Skill assessment can be subjective, thus making it difficult to create consistency. Moreover, different levels require incomparable skills. For example, customer responsiveness skills are required for a call center representative; personnel management skills are needed for the call center manager.

Could we assess management types by determining whether one level is more politically savvy than the other? Does the vice president need to be a better diplomat than the sales manager? Yes, but does the sales manager need to have better selling skills than the VP? Neither of these skills provide a consistent way of assessing talent across all layers of management.

The problem lies in the idea that management has layers. Layers imply a two dimensional view of organizations: breadth and depth. That hardly represents the real world of human interactions. Any hierarchical view is static and successful organizations never stand still. Layers don't get work done because they don't capture the inexorable forward movement needed to sustain the life of the organization.

Looking forward to the future creates a common dimension. Every management role requires a time perspective. Each type of manager is differentiated by how far forward they need to think to get their job done. Time is the only dimension of management shared by everyone.

Think about a software company that produces tax reporting tools. A programmer in that organization is trying to complete a module by Monday. The project leader is trying to complete phase one of the project by month-end. The product manager is trying to get the annual release to customers before tax season starts at the end of the quarter. The director is planning the upgrades for next year's version of the product, and the vice president is planning a new business to spin off when the government revamps taxation legislation in three years.

Each job in this example is very different. Specific skills are quite different in each role, but each member in the organization is consistently differentiated by their time perspective. The layers may exist, but they are irrelevant to the dimension of time.

Time transcends layers. To understand and compare various managers in an organization, think about management differences based on their time-frame accountability. Each management role looks at the same company from differing time lines. Ultimately, managers' ability can only be consistently assessed by the time horizon in which they plan and execute their work.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Appraising Performance Appraisals

I've always been a big believer in giving positive feedback and encouraging enthusiasm.  Performance appraisals can be a wonderful motivational opportunity.  The challenge is to provide adequate criticism while continuing to nurture and improve staff.

I learned a little bit more about appraisals after receiving an evaluation of a presentation I gave recently.  The evaluation results were generally good.  I was feeling satisfied with the statistics and most of the written comments.  There were a couple of some solid criticisms about things that I knew did not go right.  But there was also one scathing comment about something I did not expect.

Clearly one person disagreed with one of my points in a big way.  There were over 100 folks in the room and I only really upset one person. Should I ignore it and focus on the positive?  Statistically speaking I should not worry about it.  However, the individual took and effort time to write their comment - obviously the issue was important to them and they felt obliged to make their point to me.

I kept thinking about the comment, so I pulled out my speaking notes and reviewed the point again.  I may have been right, but I also may have stated my case too strongly.  If I give the same talk in the future, I am going to re-write that particular point.  Although the powerfully worded feedback was painful, it was probably the most useful feedback I received.

From a management perspective, this experience provides an interesting lesson about performance feedback.  The conference comment certainly surprised me and it made me think more deeply about feedback in general.  When we do staff performance appraisals are doing anyone any favors by watering down criticisms?  Are staff really going to improve if you are not specific about issues?  On the other hand, such feedback can be highly de-motivating.  How do you resolve this inherent conflict?

The answer lies in the surprise.  For me, the negative presentation feedback came as a surprise.  I had no early warning that it was coming.  The same is true of staff performance appraisals.  If a formal appraisal is written once a year, none of the issues should be a surprise.  Managers must provide feedback to staff at every opportunity and cannot wait for the once-a-year appraisal meeting.

As managers we are obliged to inform, coach, and guide staff members throughout the year about any problems.  By the time the performance appraisal meeting arrives, the issue should be a familiar one with a history of suggestions and (hopefully) improvements.  Instead of crushing someone's enthusiasm in a surprise one-time event, you need to gently guide it in the right direction over time.

Ultimately, successful performance appraisals are not just about the employee's skills.  Successful appraisals reflect the manager's skills as a mentor.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Management = Learning + Teaching

I always look up to my boss or quickly find somewhere else to work.  You don't grow if you don't learn and I've always found my boss to be a wonderful learning resource.  That perspective is simply common sense.  Convention wisdom says you learn from someone who has more experience and more breadth of responsibility.

In the same vein, I want my direct reports to learn from me.  They can learn by example (sometimes what to do ... sometimes what not to do), or by mentoring, or by coaching.  This flow of knowledge and skill in theory helps the organization to grow its intellectual capital.  Intellectual capital is an asset whose real value typically exceeds any physical asset in knowledge-based organization.

But the real joy is when the knowledge flow goes both ways.  I have a leadership team where I think I learn more from them than I learn from anyone else. Management is about teaching to staff and learning from staff.  The traditional, conventional view of managers having all the experience and knowledge just doesn't make sense.

Most managerial skills are ephemeral.  Our work environment changes continuously, whether we are aware of it or not.  You have to learn from every possible source.  Why not your own staff?


Friday, December 10, 2010

Management Secrets of Napoleon

The collective business wisdom over the past few decades attempts to distinguish between leadership and management.  We seem to be at a point where leadership is considered "good" and management is "bad."  Culturally, we are trying to inspire folks to be great leaders at the expense of classifying management as a discipline of bureaucratic administration.

I think leadership is important.  However, would you prefer great leadership as a substitute for strong managerial skills?  Think about Napoleon.  Historically he is viewed as a great leader.  But the most substantial element of his success was his logistics ability.  He focused on the details of supply and coordination to get his army to the right place on time and on budget.  Remember, he was the guy who said an army marches on its stomach.

For Napoleon, leadership on the battlefield was a key skill.  He did win almost every battle he fought for many years.  But he viewed leadership as a tactical skill to be deployed in specific circumstances such as battle.  His strategic skill needed to win wars was his administrative ability.

I worked at an insurance company several years ago that called everyone in management "leaders."  We believed that nomenclature change was a great innovation reflecting new age business thinking.  It acted as a cultural change to galvanize corporate thinking in a new direction.  The company went from the verge of bankruptcy to becoming the most profitable general insurance carrier in Canada in five years.

We could not have transformed the company without inspired leadership.  But beneath the layer of leadership was an extraordinary focus on rigorous process improvement, metrics, and organizational re-design.  These changes were all driven by fundamental administrative management disciplines.  Leadership was part of the solution, but comprehensive management skill was the complete solution.

For organizational managers, leadership is an absolutely key skill.  But it is not the only one.  Leadership is simply one of many tools used by the truly skilled manager.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Data is Free

I'm probably not the first person to say this, but electronic data has no boundaries.  Whether you agree or disagree with what happened with WikiLeaks, the incident illustrates the difficulty in preventing the electronic flow of any information.  I wonder how long it will take a similar site to be established in a jurisdiction where the owner cannot be prosecuted.

It was a similar issue with LimeWire.  It took a very long time to shut it down.  During the years it operated, the volume of illegal copies of intellectual property made was staggering.  Despite the rampant viruses on LimeWire, it was still cheaper than buying it.  I don't advocate piracy or theft, but the forces that closed LimeWire cannot reach every potential file sharing host on the internet.

Like it or not, there are no sustainable boundaries to data.  Just like water flowing along the path of least resistance, data will eventually flow to whoever wants it.  So how do organizations get value from data they produce if they accept the inevitability that proprietary data is impossible to corral?

Maybe we should borrow a page from the open source software play book.  When software is free, the economic model is based on the value derived from understanding how the software works and how it can be applied for functional use.  Maybe we simply accept the reality that any data we create is of no standalone economic value, no matter how much effort is required to derive or collect it. Perhaps the real value of our data is in the intellectual capital we apply to interpreting the data for pragmatic applications.

Once we accept the inevitability of the economic forces at work, we can look for new models to build a new value chain.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Research Entrepreneurs

Smart people solving complex problems.  That`s how we typically view University researchers.  But that description does not really do them justice.  I would suggest that there is lot more to the work they do than simply research.

I watch a number of researchers at our institution manage incredibly challenging research projects.  The complex problems they solve are not just related to the research issues.  For example, they have to raise money to fund their work, much like a business entrepreneur raises venture capital.  The process of acquiring the funding requires diplomacy and a solid rationale for why they need the money.  Ultimately, they have to navigate a complex labyrinth of funding agencies to source the capital.

Once they get their funding they have to hire staff, develop infrastructure, and create functional processes to operate the research.  Just like managers of any start-up company, they have to manage their research organization.  Because their work is highly innovative, they must lead an entity with a high risk profile - another example of leadership talent.

On top of all this entrepreneurial skill, they perform leading edge research.  So researchers are not just smart people solving complex problems.  They are also smart entrepreneurs managing complex organizations.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Shadows of the Future

I read about scenario planning as a grad student.  The idea sounded great.  It was started in the 1970's by Shell Oil to analyse multiple potential futures.  The result was a strategic plan with built-in flexibility to compensate for unpredictable risk.  According to all the literature, it was wildly successful for Shell.

What baffled me was that in my entire management career, nobody ever practiced it.  Moreover, I've never met anyone who had.  But today we tried a scenario planning exercise for research libraries.  A group of library and systems managers worked together to analyse four potential scenarios.  Each scenario was set 20 years in the future, and each represented wildly different final states.

Are we to become an institution whose research community was made up of global followers, research entrepreneurs, discipline driven specialists, or scrounging re-cyclists?  We divided into four teams and spent the morning analyzing how our institution might be driven into these possible situations.  I really looked forward to the debate that would ensue as each group presented its vision for the future and how we would get there.

I certainly didn't get what I expected.  Although the future worlds all looked different, there were similar forces at work in each scenario.  A shifting economy, changing demographics, and growing international competition, amongst several other changes, are shaping our next two decades.  We discovered the difference is not in what forces are pressuring us, but in how we react to those forces.  Each reaction is a decision.

Twenty years may seem like a long time.  But our scenario planning exercise made it clear that the choices we make today can have dramatic consequences.  The future casts a long shadow on the present.


Friday, December 3, 2010

The Sign of a Real Team

There are probably more books about leading and managing teams than there are teams in the world.  There are new theories daily about how to build a super team.  There are self-help books about how to be a great team player.  There even books about how to spell team.

I haven't seen too many good books about how to measure the quality of a team.  Do they win more awards?  Are they more productive?  Do they give each other more high fives?  Most of the measures seem contrived and derivative.

I think the best teams are the ones that surprise you.  Not because they're underdogs.  No, the best teams are the ones that get better even after you thought they were already really darn good.  We are facing budget cuts at our institution.   Never a pleasant process, but sometimes necessary.  Normally this activity brings out the worst in people.

In planning for these cuts, I asked my leadership team to come back with budget reduction suggestions for each of their own departments.  The surprise: they each did the best they could without regard for whether they were absorbing a disproportionate amount of the change.  Instead of being territorial or turf-protecting they worked together.  No one bickered and everyone supported each other despite the difficult nature of the process.

That's the sign of a real team.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Service Level Agony

I've always approached information systems Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with caution. In theory, if we provide great service that a customer loves, then why would we need a contract?  If we don't provide great service then we shouldn't provide that service.  Simple black and white choice, right?  Unfortunately, reality introduces some shades of gray.  What happens if customer expectations of great service are not aligned with our perception of great service?  Or, what happens, when staff change on both sides?  They bring new attitudes to the relationship.

The real value of a service level agreement forces both parties to come to consensus about what we both define as great service.  As people change over time, this definition remains constant because of the agreement. Attitudes may change but the contract ensures consistency.  It allows both sides to plan for the future with some certainty.

But what happens when motivations for entering into the agreement are skewed?  For example, getting consensus when one or both parties have ulterior motives can certainly be difficult.  Do you voluntarily sign a deal you don't believe in, for the sake of maintaining organizational harmony?  Or, what happens when you don't have the necessary resources to provide a mandatory service?  Finally, does the customer realize they have as many obligations in a well written SLA as you do?

I don't have good answers to any of these questions.  However, I do have one simple success measure.  The best service level agreements are the ones that are never used.  A good relationship transcends any contractual obligation.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dreaded Conversation

I checked my agenda this morning and saw a particularly sensitive meeting was scheduled.  With some trepidation I opened the agenda and saw the topic that had caused an infinite amount of grief in the organization. I was not looking forward to the conversation all day, so I resolved to go into the meeting without bias and without scar tissue.

By the time the meeting rolled around, I hadn't paid anymore attention to the issue.  The day had been too busy to allow time to think more about it.  I knew the topic was touchy and I suspect everyone else had the same queasy trepidation.  The meeting proceeding innocuously through the non-contentious topics.  Then we started talking about the big issue.

Everyone spoke in reasoned sequence.  No one allowed their biases in the room.  Preconceived notions were left at the door.  We looked each other in the eye and saw smart intelligent peers who deserved mutual respect.  Sensible conclusions were reached.  Nobody's feeling were hurt.

Wow - I wonder if we could bottle that magic and use it everywhere!


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Appreciating Finance Committees(!)

Sometimes we don't really appreciate how well run an established organization can be until we work with a newly formed one.  For example, I sit on the Finance Committee of BCNet, and have been part of the committee for several years.  Over the years there have been several opportunities to improve the process and the reporting.  Although I would characterize these changes as minor tweaks to a well oiled machine, I always thought we had lots of room for improvement.

In contrast, the Canadian University Council of CIOs (CUCCIO) is a developing organization.  I'm on the Finance Committee for this organization too.  Although CUCCIO's finances are in good shape, I've discovered we have a long way to go before it is running anywhere nearly as smooth as BCNet.  The irony is that I don't think I ever really appreciated the BCNet committee until I started working on the CUCCIO finances.  Trying to model a new organization on an existing one certainly makes one appreciate the effort and complexity of the existing model.

I'm happy to be able to apply a number of lessons from BCNet to CUCCIO, and just as importantly, I'm humbled by the success of the BCNet process.  A double win!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Online Publishing

I published a short book last year using blurb.com.  The service was easy to use and helped a publishing neophyte like myself produce a relatively professional looking book.  To accompany the book I allowed a 15 page preview to be available.  There was a lot of interest in the book but nobody bought a copy.  So I figured I might as well put the whole book online for free.  That's when folks started buying copies!

I think it's interesting that completely free content lead to my first real sales, and now I've received my first royalty cheque.  Of course, after tax, that cheque is barely enough to buy myself & a friend a couple of coffees at Starbucks.  But I'm proud of it!

P.S. Here's the free link:  http://www.blurb.com/books/960910