Tuesday 15 February 2011

Talent dilution

Talent. It's not too easy to define, but we all know when we see it.  The problem is, do we know when we lose it and do we know how to nurture it?

Let's begin with a young startup. Just a handful of people, sitting in a room creating something new. A company like this is rich with talent; entrepreneurial, technical, creative, imaginative. The repetitive tasks are minimal, and nearly every conversation is a rich cordial of talent that can create innovation and generate competitive advantage. For want of a better term, let's call them the 'talent group'.

Let's jump forward a few years. The startup has blossomed but that has increased the volume of repetitive tasks and so now they've had to employ new people. Because these are repetitive tasks, the new people are treated differently and don't  get invited to join the talent group. Where before we had a talent group making up 100% of the company it is now down to 50%. The cordial is watered down, but because the company is small it still appears innovative.

Let's stop for a moment and clarify. I have not said these new people are lacking talent. They have just been implicitly excluded from contributing talent because of the role they were employed to perform.

Now, jump forward a few more years. The company is even more successful and has new external investment.  The investors want measurable results, and as we all know, quantitative measures of success tend to focus on the repetitive tasks. Now our ever increasing underclass, already excluded from the talent group, are further disenfranchised by reducing their role to a list of instructions. Any that might have asked to be included in the talent group feel it's impossible and direct their creative energies to things outside the company.

The company is now made up of a large underclass of potential talent suppressed into automation, and our talent group is now even smaller, say just 5% of the company. Our cordial is decidedly watery.

So far, our increasing dilution has been gradual. So much so that it has gone unnoticed and been largely obscured by the increasing scale of activities. If nobody notices, it's not a problem, right? Wrong. We've scaled our operation on an ever decreasing asset and now it looks like an upside down pyramid. In this position we find it almost impossible to innovate our way out of the situation, worse still, when members of the talent group leave, the effect is disproportionate and significant.

At this point, the company culture has embedded the idea that one small group contribute ideas, a thin layer scrabble around the fringes and the majority sit in miserable servitude. This is an irreversible position in my opinion. A company in such a position will seek partnerships and mergers in place of innovation, and will ultimately be consumed into a larger group where similar problems exist, but where economies of scale allow profits to continue.

So is there an alternative? I believe the answer is yes. Here's how I'd do it:

  1. Explicitly look for talent in new employment candidates as well as skills.
  2. Create a culture and structures that actively promote ideas from all people about all things. This includes setting aside time.
  3. Train all people in skills for giving, receiving and considering suggestions (no, we aren't all very good at it)
  4. Reward people for contributing and participating.
  5. Create and stick to a manifesto that gives employees autonomy and responsibility.  

Companies begin by talent but gradually dilute to automation by treating people like machines. What's great about talent is it's unconstrained by class, role or salary. Great ideas can come from anywhere and all we have to do to find it is open our eyes and our meeting rooms.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Your office is your theatre

"OK so, we’re getting ready for a launch… we have all the data flowing. All colour coded: 

Every issue.

Every launch.

Up comes the launch, everything about it, red, Red, RED.

The room goes silent. I started to clap...



All the eyes turn to me. 

That’s the sign,

Mark’s gone,
he’s gone,
he’s red.

I said, Mark…. That’s fantastic visibility."

These words are taken from a radio interview with Alan Mulally, Chief Executive of Ford on the BBC World Service. I've put a link at the end of this post.

When I listen to this interview, I'm captivated. It's pure theatre. Alan tells his story with so much drama that you can't tear yourself away. And yet, his story is just one of management efficiency and communication.

When things are exciting, it's much easier to stay motivated. When we're motivated, we're at our best. We try hard as leaders to create motivation, and yet how hard do most leaders try to create excitement from the drama that exists all around them every day in the office? In fact, quite the opposite, how many meetings have you sat through with someone saying 'it doesn't look like we'll make the deadline', but delivering the line slumped back in their chair, fiddling with a pen, and avoiding eye contact. I'm not sure Bruce Willis would have got very far taking that approach.

I'm not suggesting that we all turn into Shakespearean actors overnight. No, that would be weird. But I am suggesting we all buck up a bit, relish in the highs and lows, the dramas of our work, and the shared experiences with our teams. We do great things every day.

Here's the link for as long as the BBC keep it active. Listen all the way through. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00b5qjq

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Can you remember the stress of doing?

This is about how managers can get separated from the art of doing, and that makes them less effective at the art of managing.

I'm working in a start-up at the moment, and that means you have to get your hands dirty.  One of the things I've noticed today is that actually doing stuff with real clients and real data can be quite a stressful thing.

It can be easy as a manager to spend your life hidden away in reports and statistics. If you get a report wrong you'll get some kind of pay-back, but it's unlikely a customer will see it.

What I remembered today was that if you're working on the front line, actually working with clients and their data, and you really care how it turns out, then life is pretty stressful. Everything you do has to be checked and double checked, and the less reliable the systems are that you use, the more stressful that activity becomes.

As managers we expect levels of quality from our staff, but it can be easy to forget just how stressful and difficult it is to achieve it. Today was a good reminder for me, but I know that I didn't get my hands involved very often in my last position.  As a result I don't think I really knew anymore how difficult it was to achieve the standards I set, and I think that was a mistake.

So, if you're a manager reading this, then maybe you could benefit from spending time on the front line and seeing how realistic your standards are. If you do, then don't play at it, care as much as you expect your staff to care, get as busy as your staff get, and then see what level of stress they are really under.

You may find that your systems are quite as reliable or useful as you'd thought, and understanding the normal levels of stress in your team can only help you to make better choices for them in the future.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Sweet spot

This is about sweet spots and why we shouldn't ignore them

At 7:30pm yesterday, I met my best friend for a drink.  I'd just left work and felt tired, but in a happy way; that tiredness you feel after a long walk in the country, or after a game of football you just won.  As I sat waiting with my pint of Guinness, I started to think about why I felt this way.  I knew pretty quickly, it was because I'd been great that day, I'd hit a sweet spot.  I wish I was great every day, but I'm not. This time, I thought, I would try to work out why today had been so good, and see if I could recreate it.

If you're interested in what my day consisted of, I've put it below*, but knowing what made me hit my sweet spot is only going to help me.  What might help managers and workers alike is to think about when they last had a great day.  When did your team last hit a sweet spot? What did you do when it happened?

After a great holiday we have photographs and we reminisce about the great times we had.  Maybe at work we should do something similar.  Take time to reminisce about those sweet spots just after they've happened, and maybe the process of thinking about them will make them a little more likely to happen again.

p.s. if you haven't had any sweet spots... it's time to make a change.

* My "great" day had: a well prepared meeting, a quickly minuted and documented plan for change under time pressure, a creative idea outside of work that I didn't ignore, some consultancy that reminded me where I'd been, a productive creative process that had beautiful logic to it, and finally a slightly late finish so that I had documented that creative process and shared it.  My day didn't include any doubt over what work I should do next.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Burst management (versus steady push)

The Orion Project*
This is recognising why bursts of management may be better than a steady approach

A start-up company is a little like a control experiment when it comes to management.  It's rare in management careers that you can so quickly devise, implement and review changes to a company as a whole, if ever. So whilst we've been working at our start-up I've noticed a few interesting management effects, and want to talk about one of them here: Bursts.

It seems natural as a manager that you should be steady and consistent. You should be the ground upon which your teams can settle and then grow. I wouldn't dispute that.  The question is, how much should you do as a manager to achieve that, and when should you do it?

During the last couple of weeks, I've noticed that we are able to function without very much management for several days, but then efficiency begins to drop.  We need intervention at these times to re-establish priorities and clear issues, and the net effect of these interventions is positive. Conversely, when we know our priorities and have no major issues, we're better being left alone to beaver away, and any interventions here can become interruptions and reduce effectiveness.

Although this might seem straight forward, it isn't a practice I've seen well implemented.  In general, I see managers scheduling fixed amounts of time, irrespective of the condition of their teams. Following the burst approach, the manager would withdraw as much as possible until they see the efficiency beginning to tail. Only at that point, would they intervene, but do so in a comprehensive way so that all members have clearly defined objectives and tasks, and feel confident to proceed again.

As a management technique, this would put the burden on managers to know the right amount of intervention and the right time for it, but for managers, shouldn't that be a goal anyway?

* The Orion Project from the 50's was a rocket program based on propelling a rocket through a series of small nuclear explosions. Get the right amount of bang at the right time, and you can launch a rocket with less energy.