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.

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.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Understanding and building relationships with peers

This is about why it's important to openly discuss the relationships with your peers

Our start-up is just three guys. I've worked with Roger for seven years in a previous start-up, and I've been friends with Mike for over ten years.  No matter how long you've worked with people or known them, when you move to being equal partners in a new business, the relationship is going to change, and how you manage that change is going to be a major factor in your success.

Mike and I had an exchange last week to discuss the marketing site.  I had my opinion and he had his.  They weren't the same, but it wasn't an argument.  It reached a kind of stalemate, with me saying Mike should go with what he thinks, and Mike feeling uncomfortable that I didn't agree with his approach.

Mike quickly saw that this was a key point in our new forming work relationship.  He opened up a conversation about how we each have our own, well established ways of doing things, and we'll need to work all the time to establish new "ways" that work for us as a pair.  Just the act of having that conversation has helped improve our recent work together, and I think returning to that principle of building this new relationship will keep us on track.

It was a great chat, and one I'm thankful we had this early in the company.  I wondered afterwards, how many other work relationships could improve if they had a similar conversation.  My hunch is that peer relationships in all types of companies could do with a little open conversation and mutual admiration.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Can our choice of recreation affect our performance at work?

This is a speculation into our choice of recreation affecting our brains and making us better at work.

I'm currently reading a sci-fi novel.  I alternate between sci-fi and non-fiction and that's pretty much it. I've known for a long time that the books I'm reading affect how I am. When I'm reading clever non-fiction I feel clever. When I read old novels I use longer words. Until now I hadn't given it too much thought, but then it struck me; sci-fi is making me a better programmer.

When I read sci-fi novels, I find my mind switches into a more futuristic mode, and it seems to stay there even after I put the book down.  Similarly, whilst I'm reading, I find that my thoughts flicker into programming, much more than when I'm doing other things, and it makes me want to be in front of my screen tapping out beautiful new code. It occurred to me that if I feel like this, do other people?  I googled it.

My brief research showed a lot of sites explaining the benefits of reading fiction; relaxation, escapism, stimulation of the right side of the brain, role-playing your own reactions through simulation etc.  I don't think any of these are what I experience.

I think that what I experience could be this: I love programming because it is a blend of creativity, expert knowledge and problem solving. I think that when I'm in a development cycle, the parts of my brain that manage these skills are more active. I think it's possible that sci-fi novels excite similar parts of my brain, and kind of keep them revved up. So when I read sci-fi I think about programming, and because I've kept that part of my brain revved up, it's easier to motivate myself to get back in front of the computer.

OK. So I'm clearly no neurologist and I have absolutely no foundation other than what I think I'm thinking. But imagine the implications if this were even half way true.  If we were able to identify the parts of our brain that are firing when we are performing well at work, and we were able to match it with an enjoyable past time that did a similar thing. We could help ourselves, and our teams, perform better and with more ease by getting them into recreational activities that kept them revved up.  Of course, I'm not advocating telling people what to do in their spare time, but I wonder how many people would find it useful to know how their recreation affected their performance and enjoyment of their work.  For my part, I'm going to stick with sci-fi until our software is written and see how it goes.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Face up to video calling

This is why I think video calling/conferencing is a must for all internal comms.

Collaboration between individuals is what makes companies more than just the sum of their parts. By working together we elevate ourselves above our individual limitations and can create great things.  Despite the importance of collaboration, larger companies still use telephone to communicate within teams and across them. For me, it’s the equivalent of putting together a crack team and then asking them to perform with one hand behind their backs; no body language, no visual cues, no group collaboration. There is a better way.

When we started the new company, I wanted to create clear communication right from the outset.  Since we were all in different homes, separated by about a ten minute walk, I felt it would waste time if we had to meet up in person every day.  On the flip-side, I also felt that not having daily face to face group conversations would also slow us down and weaken the sense of being a team.  The solution: video conferencing.  We installed web cams, a bit of software called oovoo, and we were away; three-way video conferencing for $9.95 per month.

I don’t make any phone calls to my colleagues anymore; I only video call, and it’s as easy to speak to two people as one. What’s more, I get those missing visual cues and seeing everyone’s face at the same time enhances the feeling of ‘team’. Sure, I still value true face time, but we’re using that to think freely and bond over lunch rather than for rattling through task lists or issue resolution.

I’d love to know how many companies implement this technology.  I can’t believe that it can be much longer before internal company telephone calls are a thing of the past, and internal communications use video.  The software is cheap, the technology is sound, and the money invested in basic telephony systems has to be questioned at some point.  Maybe now the iPhone 4 has video calling as standard, there will be a renewed wave of interest and some decision makers will try it out.  Whatever and whenever it comes, I’m certain that once video communication is installed in the work place we’ll all wonder why we waited so long.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

One year on: a new start

It is exactly one year from the day that I stopped updating this blog. I was a technical director and line manager to around a dozen people or so in a 50 man company that I helped to start. As I write this post, I’m sitting in my kitchen at the beginning of a new venture with two friends hoping to repeat the success of my last seven years.

This time, to make sure that nothing is lost or forgotten along the way, I have decided to keep a blog to record the trials and tribulations of a new start-up second time around. Pop over to and join Mike, Roger and me to see what happens.

So, why update this blog? Well, everything I learnt in creating the manifesto is going to shape what I do in this company. Can I form this company in the image of the manifesto? What would such a company look like? Does the manifesto end up getting changed as a result?

I don’t know whether our new company will succeed. I feel it will and I feel we have the ability to make it happen. So if ever there is an opportunity to see what works with the manifesto and what doesn’t, it’s this. I’ll update this blog with the management specific stuff and hopefully you’ll join me in seeing what happens to me, the company and the manifesto.

My fingers are firmly crossed.