Wednesday 28 January 2009

How to react when people aren’t working

Are you sometimes like BigBrother? It’s so easy to do. Stroll past a screen and see Facebook quickly replaced by a spreadsheet, and you could be just a few words from creating an Orwellian micro-management hell. It happened to me the other day, and I was too slow to realise why reacting was a mistake. Let me explain, so maybe you can avoid making the same mistake.

Last week I asked a couple of my developers to do some research for a new project. Ok, it wasn't like asking if they wanted to spend the day on the beach eating ice cream, but I thought it might be enjoyable for them to get involved as it was part of a project they’d be working on in the future. I hadn’t given them much in the way of instructions, but the research needed to be done by the beginning of the next week so we could chat about it in a meeting.

Later that day, I was working at my station when I looked up and saw the guys watching a YouTube video. I had seen that they’d been browsing some other sites earlier in the day too, but I hadn’t said anything. This time I thought I’d give them a nudge. Up I got, walked over with hands in pockets, and asked how they were getting on with the research. Ever noticed how some people ask a question when they’re actually giving an instruction? My mum does it… She often asks my Dad “Do you want to make a cup of tea?” but quite clearly means “Make me a cup of tea”. On this occasion I asked “How are you getting on with your research?” but really meant "Get on with your research”.

As soon as I sat back down, it hit me like a tonne o' bricks. I knew that I was acting in the old style of micro-management. Thinking about it more, I knew that I should have asked myself why they weren’t working on that research. If I had, then I’d have realised that there were plenty of reasons; one of them was on their last day of work before going on holiday for a week, I hadn’t done a very good job of explaining the research I wanted, I hadn’t explained how this research would feed into their eventual development project.
The lesson I learned is that micro-management is a habit that is easy to pick up and hard, but important to break. If you’re going to ask people to do a job, and you want it done well, then make sure you’ve put the time in to define it and explain it, to create motivation and context. Do all these things and you’ll get great work, don’t do it and you’ll spend your days watching monitors and stressing out.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

The Manage-A-Smile Manifesto

So here it is: The Manifesto. My previous blog entry explained why I decide I needed one. It isn’t something I want to do, but I’m pretty sure it’s something I need to do. Anyway, it’s done now, and there’s no turning back.

I haven’t decided how to show the manifesto yet. Since I couldn’t design my way out of a toddlers drawing class, I think I’ll leave it to our super-duper design team to pretty it up. I think it’s the words and whether they make a difference that counts, but in truth, it’s a sales pitch and it needs to look the part.

I’m going to explain the five key principles now. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect, we’ll change it if we need to. Just getting the idea started and having some debate about it is enough to make it worth while. So, here it is:

We only employ people who have the ability to do their job and ask for help if they need it. We don't tell people how to do their jobs.

If we employ people who aren't up to the task then we’re just putting an unfair pressure on everyone else. Equally, if we employ people that won’t ask for help, then they’ll never learn and that creates problems too. If we employ the right people, then we have to trust them to do their jobs. They’ll ask for help if they need it – no micro-managing!

We get the best from people by making sure they are doing things they believe in. We don't ask or bribe people to do work that they don't want to do.

Nobody does their best work if they’re doing something that they don’t agree with, even if you pay them or offer other incentives. If you can’t find anyone to believe in the work then you’ll have to do it yourself or, better still, don’t do it.

We improve by getting the people doing the work to talk to the ones affected by it. We don't set arbitrary targets to try to improve performance.

Targets are a poor approximation for real performance. They are far too simple, and they can lead to bad decisions. Get people talking to each other instead. Ok, so you can’t put it in a spreadsheet and add it up, but you’ll get better results and fewer issues. Also, don’t forget that it’s often people inside the company that are affected by work being done, don’t just focus on customers.

We care about keeping ourselves and our colleagues happy. We don't spread unhappiness around our colleagues and the office. 

You won’t get the best from people who don’t respect each other as people. Equally, people are too keen to project their bad mood or problems around the office – they like people to know how hard their jobs are. Nip this in the bud, get people to understand the value of spreading happiness instead. We all know that problems happen, but getting stressed about it and passing that stress onto the guy next to you isn’t going to help.

We invest time and money to make sure these things happen. We don't put short-term profits before our investment in people.

Even if you recruit for free, you spend a lot of money employing people, training them, and giving them experience. Get used to it… they’re your most valuable asset – they are the company. Don’t scrimp on them or they’ll scrimp on you.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Why sales people aren’t different

I’ve had to delay the manifesto post. Don’t panic, the manifesto’s alive and kicking, it’s just that we’ve given the managers a week to fully digest it and comment, before we announce it to the rest of the company. In the mean time… here’s a nice contentious post for you to get your teeth into.

Ever heard the words “yes, but sales people are different”? I don’t know if it’s just where I’ve been working, but I am frequently being told that we can’t apply the same management logic to sales people because they’re different. Imagine if you’d never seen a sales person. What do you think they’d look like?

If you believed everything you were told, then I think they’d be a cross between a drill sergeant (loud), a butter cup (sensitive), an alligator (aggressive), and a prostitute (do anything for money). Let’s just take a moment to visualise that. No wonder we run scared at trying to apply the same rules to this bunch as we do to the rest of the company. They’re different – Oh boy and how!

Hold up a second. I stopped believing in Santa many years ago. Why? [**spoiler alert**] He doesn’t exist folks. Why am I allowing myself to believe in this mythical sales creature? What’s more, I’ve seen sales people. I have friends who are sales people. I don’t think any of them fit this description.

Let’s face it, some ideas are old and tired and need to be cleared out; office uniforms, clocking in, and micro-management to name a few. What if the Salespersonosaurus is one of these and needs to be eliminated, or at least declared extinct.

If you treat sales people as different, then you probably also only measure them by their sales. You do that because it seems easy and scientific. That’s great, well done. Now ask the marketing department how the sales people affect them. Ask the customer support and accounts departments how your sales people affect them. The way sales people work, the type of customers they bring in, and their reaction to being under pressure, all affect the rest of the company. All your hard work getting people to work together, help each other and manage happiness can be undone by a stray Salespersonosaurus. Just watch the joy flood out of people as the words “but sales people are different” leave your lips. If that isn’t proof enough that the Salespersonosaurus needs to go, then there’s no helping you.

So, sales people are… well, just people. How do we deal with them? We deal with them the same way you would others. I’m not saying to remove commission; you’d probably find it way too scary. But it should be seen as a performance bonus. What’s important is to make sure that the sales performance is assessed by everyone who’s affected by it, and not to forget that it includes your other teams; it’s not enough just to sell at all costs. If you do have a Salespersonosaurus who won’t change and only cares about their sales, then [please sit down before reading this] you need to let them go, even if they were hitting sales targets.

Yes, I know that this post will have you sales managers and Salespersonosauruses shouting, crying, banging your fists, or demanding more commission. Don’t panic, there will be thousands of soulless companies around that work to preserve and protect your kind. But, if you ever want to be where everyone feels like they’re working together with smiles on their faces and relationships built on trust and respect… then maybe, just maybe, you need to leave the dinosaurs in the museum.

Friday 9 January 2009

Communicating philosophies

Imagine my surprise, three days into my new philosophy when I was confronted with this statement. Once I’d stopped thinking about the issues of working in a room filled with balloons (intolerable squeaking for example), I managed to regain enough composure to be taken aback. What the heck was he talking about? Balloons?

It turned out that he’d read the website that I’d recommended, and from the whole online book content, he’d come away with the one, slightly tongue in cheek, suggestion that you could fill a room with balloons to celebrate achieving a happy work place. What I was most shocked about, was how easy it was for a wide-ranging principle to be reduced to, and judged by, one tiny component. It’s like judging the career of a well respected Shakespearean actor by his one night of passion with a transgender lap dancer. Ok, that would be pretty big news, but you get my point.

I got to thinking how this happened, and I came to the conclusion that people like, or even need, to have something definable to latch on to. If you don’t provide them with something, then they’ll go looking for something themselves, and it’s quite possible that it’ll work against you. I decided to write a set of principles that defined the philosophy. I figured that if I put that in front of people, it’d be much harder to miss the point of what we were trying to achieve.

As with all my ideas, I roped in my trusted team mates (and even the MD) and got general approval that the list I’d created (I’m calling it our “manifesto”) was worth a go. It certainly wasn’t a “monkey chucks a stick” moment, but at least the questions everyone asked were answered, and the general mood was positive.

In my next post, I’ll publish the manifesto. We haven’t put it forward to the rest of the company yet so there’ll be more to update you with when I’ve seen the whites of their eyes. Until then, I still recommend the website for inspiration, but watch out that the balloons don’t… err… deflate you. Sorry, that’s the best I’ve got.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Measuring real performance

I’ve never been to a nudist beach, but I reckon that it’d be about as embarrassing as your mum holding up a pair of trousers in the coolest shop in town and saying “yep, plenty of room to grow in these” – Mum, I’m 35! I also reckon that if you could get past the embarrassment then the experience could be pretty liberating.

Now that I’m thinking about work and management in this new, happier way, I think I’m starting to see how my ideas, rules and policies could have looked to other people. Like nudism, it’s embarrassing but liberating. Here’s the latest example.

A few weeks before Christmas, we began the long and painful task of trying to establish targets for Gabby. The problem was that my managers and I weren’t really affected by the work that Gabby did. Only Dom and Frank saw the results, and they aren’t in my teams. How could I measure performance? I decided to work out what an average performance was, and then set targets from there. Yep, one thing you can say about us machines, if we’re wrong, we’re consistently wrong.

So there I was, setting targets I plucked out of the air and slapped down like an addicted gambler putting it all on black. Was it easy? Heck no, I had to completely disregard the reality of the roles and concentrate only on the numbers rolling through the systems we used. Were the numbers accurate? No, of course not, I had to plan to improve accuracy of the numbers and then measure them going forward before I could even attempt at a target. Still, the process helped them understand their job better though, right? No chance, we spent loads of time on software and process just so we could get the statistics.

Are you getting the point? All this work, measuring, checking and counting was for what? You know how sometimes you get upstairs and then forget why you went upstairs in the first place. We were getting so tied up in measurements that we forgot why we were doing it.

If the job Gabby was doing was important to the company, then someone in the company would be able to tell if it was getting done well or not. It would already have a measurable effect somewhere. If it had no effect then why were we even doing the work? What’s more, we didn’t employ a robot that needed programming, we employed a human being, skilled in the job, perfectly able to know how to do their job and work out how to do it better.

So, no more artificial targets plucked out of the air. We’ll get Dom, Frank and Gabby in a room to discuss what effect the work has and how the effect is measured. No discussion on how the work is done, that’s up to Gabby. We also know that things change over time, so this relationship will be kept fresh and they’ll react and respond to changes together.

Of course there are limitations. Businesses are made up of lots of complicated interactions. But hey, that’s how complex life is. Trying to define that complexity in a tiny series of statistics isn’t going to help. Our best hope is to put clever, motivated people together and trust them to do what we hired them to do. They won’t let us down.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

The real problem of blame culture

“If Bob could do his job properly, then I would be much happier”. It’s the kind of thing I hear pretty frequently. In fact, I had this conversation just a few days ago with, let’s say, Peter. If someone else could just get their act together, then the world would be a better place and Peter could finally be happy.

The way I used to deal with this was pretty predictable. I’m a machine… bleep bleep, input problem… bleep, output solution… end. I figured that by fixing Bob I could stop Peter from complaining. Simple, elegant, and entirely useless!

We’ll never stop all mistakes. In fact we should accept it as a normal part of business. So it’s time that Peter accepts it too and even plans for it. It’s normal! Once he can do that, then he can work out what stuff he actually enjoys and focus on doing more of it so he’s as happy as a kid at Christmas.

So, do I fix Bob’s problems? Yes, of course I let Bob know if there are issues, work with him to resolve them, and make sure he isn’t getting stressed about it. What we can’t do is let fixing the problem become the main priority, as if it’ll make the whole world right, it’s the priorities that are broken.

I would probably make some quip about Bob the Builder right about now, but… oh what the heck… can we fix it? Yes we can.

Monday 5 January 2009

The embarrassment of happiness

Today was day one of the new happiness agenda, and time to break the news to the teams. My plan was to get all of the teams together in one room so the sceptics had to sit further away from me – sceptics normally sit at the back. I also tried out my philosophy on my two managers to make sure that I hadn’t gone crazy over the holidays and was about to declare myself certifiably insane. Oh, I also emailed everyone so that they had a chance to read my first blog entry. I think I secretly hoped that they’d come running in waving their hands in the air clapping happy like the final scene in Grease. They didn’t.

Ok, not mental – check, team prepped – check, glass of water handy – check. The stage was set. I wanted everyone to understand the concepts and ideas I was trying to explain, so I resorted to the only management tool a non-communicative backward thinking manager can use; Powerpoint. At least I should be thankful that I didn’t use Excel. I considered it. I am a weak weak man.

There was a problem. I’d been like a management machine for the last few years. I even promoted the idea of thinking of people as machines. How was I going to stand up and tell my hard working colleagues and team mates that things were going to change? There was only one way. The first slide starts “There is a strong possibility that I was very very wrong”.

I started with the general principle that we should change from only thinking about the tasks we perform, and change to thinking about our happiness and our colleagues’ happiness. I then moved onto how we could use this when we deal with issues. I’ll explain that more in my next entry. I think it’s fair to say that there were a few blank stares looking back, but I’m convinced there were as many nods. Once I reached the stage where my voice was even annoying me, I asked for any comments.

There was a general nod of acceptance that this was a good idea. Sure there were some doubters, but they’d come on board in time. One thing we discovered was that we were so procedural; we were even trying to plan a procedure to ensure happiness. Luckily, one very bright spark pointed out that this was probably a bad idea, and we backed away slowly, closed the procedural door, locked it and swallowed the key. No, we’d be starting with small steps. Each person will think about how their actions make other people feel. We’ll talk to each other more, help each other more, and most of all, understand that we make good money and we make mistakes. If we can stop letting that stress us out, then we may even be happy.

The strangest thing I learnt today was from the uncomfortable faces whenever I used words like “happiness”. This might be hard to believe, but I think that they would actually have been less embarrassed if I’d told them all I had piles. Doesn’t that seem a little bit weird to anyone else. Is talking about emotions embarrassing? Hi, I work in IT and I’m happy. Oh, and for the record, I don’t have piles.

Sunday 4 January 2009

How I knew my management philosophy was wrong

The dashboard of the new style Volkswagen Beetle has a glass test tube attached. People like to put a flower in it. Me? I’d like to pull the silly bit of plasti-glass off that shiny, smooth, well proportioned interior, and smash it into bits. I’ll explain.

I’m mid thirties, worked in tech companies and teams since ’95 and thought I knew a thing or two about building software and managing teams. I’m organised, logical, determined, and hard working. What more could I need to lead a team to the work nirvana of on-time developments, flawless process and bug free software? Turns out, I need a test-tube shaped flower holder.

Any clearer yet? No I guess not. Ok, I’m like a machine right. I get a task, I break it into bits, I work out how it’s going to get done, allocate the work, monitor time and effort, keep track of issues, punish a bit here, praise a bit there, etc. Out the end of this I get results. Do I get the perfection I’m after? Well no, of course not. Who could? There’s always something you could do better, right? You just need to keep on fixing the problems as you find them and not make the same mistake again. Keep fixing and you’ll get fewer and fewer problems, closer and closer to perfection. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been thinking all these years.

Oh how sweet the ignorance. I could have happily carried on. Fix here, tweak there. Get some new software… yes that’d help, maybe promote someone to err… something higher. Keep going and you’ll get to the end. Everything would have been fine.

Then my mid-tech-life crisis hit and I thought I’d better keep up to date with what the “kidz” were doing on the interweb. I installed twitter, signed up to facebook, updated my status every now and again, and life was good. Well, it was, until I stupidly started reading blogs from enlightened managers like Joel Spolsky and Alexander Kjerulf. Then the walls came tumbling down.

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

What did I find? Oh, nothing much. Just that nirvana, or at least as I saw it, doesn’t exist. There is no perfect process, and aiming for it will leave me perpetually dissatisfied, and stressed. I can tweak all I like, it won’t help. I’m aiming for the wrong target. I saw efficiency and accuracy as my goals, and I was using my teams like machines to achieve them. Pushing them, measuring them, and stressing them.

What I needed to do was to set goals that I really wanted to achieve. Not cold, numeric goals, but real, tangible, human goals. Let’s make sure that all my teams are happy. Let’s resolve conflict swiftly and positively. Let’s see my teams as people, with faces, goals, pride. Ok, now it’s starting to sound like a manifesto for the green party. I’ll stop there. I haven’t turned into a hippy… I’ve turned into a happy (sorry I couldn’t resist). I truly believe that the bloggers are right. A happy team can achieve more, and I’m going to prove it in 2009, and use this blog to keep track of my progress and what I learn from the experience.

So, why the flower holder? Well it’s because it represents the type of thinking that I’ve always reacted against. Superficially it seems illogical, superfluous and, well, a bit lame. The fact that it was the first thing most buyers talked about when they described their Beetle was just something I chose to ignore. Only now, I can see that they talked about it because it made them happy, and no computer can tell me why it worked. My new way of managing has to be able to accept and actually encourage that kind of thing. Can I do it? There’s only one way to find out.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Quick reference

I've provided this page for anyone to get to answers more quickly and for new comers to the blog to get started. Your comments are encouraged, no matter how old the post.


What am I doing and why? My first post explaining how and why I decided to change how I managed people... How I Knew My Management Philosophy Was Wrong

The manifesto I've created to define the management philosophy that will be behind everything I do as a manager and a worker... The Management Philosophy Manifesto

Top Tips

What to do if everyone is blaming each other for being the cause of their unhappiness... The Real Problem of Blame Culture

Why trying to set numeric targets alone is not going to help you achieve greatness... Measuring Real Performance

Why you might not be reacting the right way when you see Facebook or YouTube appearing on people's monitors at work... How to react when people aren't working

Ever find people detaching themselves to stop getting stressed. Ever do it yourself? Read this post to see why that could be a mistake... Why you don't want robots

Overcoming barriers

Why you're not alone, if you find people focussed management philosophies make you squeemish... The Embarrasment of Happiness

Dealing with scepticism to new ideas... Communicating Philosophies

Why you'll have problems including the sales teams in your changes and how to address it... Why Sales People Aren't Different