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Managing against the tide

November 8, 2009 3 comments

A few years ago before leaving the States for Asia, which was after the dot-bomb mushroom cloud was settling down, my good friend was repeatedly telling me that Asia was nothing like what the papers was telling me. Specifically, no matter what I was reading about the advancement of India or the so-called “Tiger economies”, the people were different and different from the ones I knew in the US. So this leads to the saying attributed to a friend of a friend was my indoctrination to the world of the Asian workplace – “I expect excuses and failures”.

And he was right, in a way you simply cannot imagine until you are here. Even now, I am still taken aback at times with the full impact of this simple truth.

This, creates major issues for me due to my personality style and my management style. One of my favorite bloggers, RandinRepose, wrote about this example (of me). He told a little story about a boss/mentor that he termed “The Leaper”. I’ve no doubt that some of my team members get this treatment unintentionally. Sometimes though, I use this style purposefully because it’s a bit like my law school socratic method (check out this great story of it in practice) – an excellent teaching methodology IMO.

But anyways, readng Rand’s illustration of his Leaper boss was like looking at myself in the mirror in ways I was uncomfortable (because I don’t like being “aggressive” in this manner) with but there I am/was – “Hello there!” Hmmm. Yup, definitely a thinking moment…because it’s a point where some action or plan is just soo needed. Hmmm.

While it makes me uncomfortable with this, I’m a bit at a loss in terms of how else to move people who are content – fat, dumb, and happy. The easy answer is to replace them, but the pool of talent is from the same pond. So, fishing will only get more of the same. Thus, it seems that the answer is to breed new species.

So how do you deliver this change? Wendy Mason’s “change management blog” has some good reads and this one – DELIVER THE CHANGE – A CHECK LIST FOR BEING A GOOD CHANGE AGENT – was pretty inspired. And the man in the mirror looks back and says, “who”?

“If it is to be, it is up to me” sums up nicely then. Quoting Ralph Stayer, CEO of Johnsonville Foods and co-author of Flight of the Buffalo which goes like this:

If it is to be, it is up to me.
If it is up to me, it shall be.

On this note, theres many fantastic bloggers and writers out there that help those practicing management and leadership day-in-day-out can be better equipped. Some of them in my blogroll and RSS Feed. Here are two I’d like to share:

  • Ten Principles of Leadership from Sith Sigma Blog that I referenced HERE,
  • and

  • 5 Habits That Help Cultivate Greatness from The Daily Mind.
  • Seems the tide is getting bigger and bigger, nearly tsunami effect, threatening to wash away so much that’s been laid down. We’ll just have to prepare, hunker down, and dig just that much deeper inside. Still, the question remains in many people’s mind, when will these changes stop? As Bob Sutton says, change will never be over, but that begs the question I think which is, “Are the changes always necessary or need to be so interminably long? You can only remodel your home so much before you figure out that it’s time to just move out completely to a new home and stop with the tinkering! Change it and change it once and let the change take hold and bedded down. If you have to change so frequently, then I would say, that you probably screwed up.

    As the world turns

    Another primer on managing technical guys & gals

    October 29, 2009 Leave a comment

    An amazing opinion piece from ComputerWorld was recommended through one of my project management newslists – Newgrange: It’s titled “The unspoken truth about managing geeks“. It’s an even better piece than the one I blogged about here.

    For sure, the amount of comments on and off the site is very strong. And I totally understand the bashing because it’s self-aggrandizing to the “Amen” responses. IT folks really are quite diverse but I like to think that there are much more similarities than not based on my limited experiences in different countries, industries, and technical/management teams.

    My personal view is that the author Jeff Ello has got it totally right – not just the analysis but also where it starts: It’s all about respect. Just break down this analysis:

    Few people notice this, but for IT groups respect is the currency of the realm. IT pros do not squander this currency. Those whom they do not believe are worthy of their respect might instead be treated to professional courtesy, a friendly demeanor or the acceptance of authority. Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do with being likeable or sociable; whether you talk, eat or smell right; or any measure that isn’t directly related to the work. The amount of respect an IT pro pays someone is a measure of how tolerable that person is when it comes to getting things done, including the elegance and practicality of his solutions and suggestions. IT pros always and without fail, quietly self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart.

    1. For sure, when I was as tech grunt, that’s how I felt about the respect to others, especially managers. I also saw it, heard it from others. IT teams are pretty ruthless when it comes to people who can’t “fit in” with the rest of the team. “Fitting in” can mean many things but the social dynamics of IT teams can be pretty brutal.
    2. As a manager of technical guys, I learned first hand about “earning your stripes” because there are always more technical guys than you. The process repeats itself at each stop along the IT management journey.
    3. As part of the IT team, you always are building relationships with those who can get it done. Because the environment is so much about firefighting, it’s a totally Darwinian world. No one likes to burn during IT service outages, user problems etc and so the ones who can prevent fires and/or fight fires quickest are “the best”. These folks in my experience become the tight-knit high performing teams that makes IT a well-oiled machine we strive for.
    4. The last statement that IT-pros “quietly self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart.” is the heart of what gives life to “Shadow IT”. Check out Mike Schaffner’s excellent commentary about the Shadow IT topic.

    It’s a definite read for anyone curious about IT and get a wide spectrum of the views.

    However, one part of the article Jeff wrote which bears repeating:

    Users need to be reminded a few things, including:

    * IT wants to help me.
    * I should keep an open mind.
    * IT is not my personal tech adviser, nor is my work computer my personal computer.
    * IT people have lives and other interests.

    IT Competencies revisited

    June 5, 2009 Leave a comment

    I recently came across Mike Schaffner’s amazing blog, chock-full of Business and IT wisdom which he dispenses in a down to earth style that’s easy to read and understand. This true Pai Mei IT guy had words of wisdom in the area of IT competencies and skills which made re-think about my Building an IT Team post and (Successful) IT People’s Characteristics post.

    In Critical Skills and Competencies for IT employees, Mike breaks it down into simpler parts and much easier to follow. Definitely keep it in mind as you go about building your own IT (or Project) team that will bring you fantastic success. If you think hard about it, the qualities identified as competencies are like personal characteristics important to any high-performing team. The one I like and often not have enough of is sense of humor/positive outlook in things.

    On that front, no matter how bad things can get in the IT shop, sing or hum these two tunes (“official” IT theme songs) ;)

    …and be cheered! :)

    Jim Collins in the News

    May 24, 2009 8 comments

    The New York Times just profiled Jim Collins and his soon to be published book “How the Mighty Fall”. He is no stranger to any one who is a student of management. His ground-breaking books “Built to Last” and “Good to Great* are mandatory reads on most book lists.

    The article proved to be a nice afternoon read and a reminder of some pointed weaknesses that we in management are often prone to relax toward. Namely, “organizational empire building” and “creating management complexity”. In the former, creating armies and empires is simply ‘good’ organizational politics. And it leads to “creating management complexity” or “why I have a job” processes and work activities. The latter is more subtle and dangerous to the organization. Instead of creating efficiencies, it creates bureaucratic blackholes, “consensus” decision making, and little Dilbert worlds everywhere.

    management complexity

    It also contributes mightily to the how company’s fall down or simply fail in the long term. This is like slow corporate death by poison or asphyxiation and is something that managers and leadership simply should not tolerate – at any point. Once you’ve built up this empire, it’s hard to take it apart unless there’s an overriding external factor (like our current economic crisis) that causes the organization to finally take it’s own bitter medicine. But maybe the cancer will prove fatal.

    Hence, I really liked this blurb:

    This orientation — a willingness to say no and focus on what not to do as much as what to do — stems from a conversation that Mr. Collins had with one of his mentors, the late Peter F. Drucker, the pioneer in social and management theories.

    “Do you want to build ideas first and foremost?” he recalls Mr. Drucker asking him, trying to capture his mentor’s Austrian accent. “Zen you must not build a big organization, because zen you will end up managing zat organization.”

    Therefore, in Jim Collins’s world, small is beautiful.

    Most definitely. Business is better when you can make USD100M with 10 people than USD500M with 1500 people or USD 1B with 10,000 people. Now, perhaps size matters in the corporate world and in the capital markets and hence why I’m not in an meaningful leadership position to cause great shareholder damage…nevertheless, productivity, efficiencies, can allow for excellent corporate profits and provide cubicle monkeys everywhere an enjoyable existence making OPM (Other People’s Money). At the end of the day, management is not about managing organizational complexity – you’re not in the business of creating layers of mid-level managers to manage even more mid-level managers and more organizational chaos and complicated processes to do simple things: make profits, deliver projects, create corporate and social value, provide social growth etc.

    Let’s keep organizational bloat to a minimum. As Peter Drucker said in his classic “The Effective Executive“, the following corporate diseases:

      Overstaffing
      There is a fairly reliable symptom of overstaffing. If the senior people in the group…spend more than a small fraction of their time, maybe one tenth, on “problems of human relations,” on feuds and frictions, on jurisdictional disputes and questions of co-operation, and so on, then the work force is almost certainly too large. People get into each other’s way. People have become an impediment to performance, rather than the means thereto. In a lean organization people have room to move without colliding with one another and can do their work without having to explain it all the time.” (pp.43-44)

      Malorganization
      Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organizations. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time. In an ideally designed structure…there would be no meetings. We meet because people holding different jobs have to cooperate to get a specific task done. we meet because the knowledge and experience needed in a specific situation are not available in one head, but have to be pieced together out of the experience and knowledge of several people. (pp 44-46)

    I fear that if we don’t do this then we will be fodder for Jim Collin’s “How the Mighty Fall”. Certainly there’s no shortage of exhibits in the recently 18-24 months and counting. And would avoid the unpleasant top-to-bottom reviews of current organizational structures by so many mid-level managers to make the difficult choices before, now, and in the future.

    One would pay heed to this cartoon on survival and organizational effectiveness…or simply how complexity kills.

    Complexity Kills

    Complexity Kills

    In case all this doesn’t make sense (trust me, so many people simply do not get it, let alone do it), read Eduardo Castro-Wright’s views on this – In a Word, He Wants Simplicity. Walmart isn’t such a bad example after all.

    * See Good to Great’s critique by Business Pundit. I agree with many of his points and I too frankly was let down by the book – I read it as part of my corporate training. It’s just not that vigorous by way of clear thinking. Nevertheless, the book is/can be useful to frame a management’s thinking of common business problems when often management does not think enough. The criticism of Good to Great is a rather nice lead into his appropriately timed next book “How the Mighty Fall”.

    Good business blogs – Communications and Management

    Business & Leadership Blogs from Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog has some very excellent reads and links to other articles of the same topics. I also like to call attention to 9 tactics to effectively communicate your vision because it’s got a super suggestions for sharing one’s vision and ideas to those that are affected and need to know (it’s also great that the blogger is another IT guy, George Ambler).

    With the on-going economic and corporate environment the way it is and within the foreseeable future, we will be pushed to the limit in terms of how to manage the change, manage our teams, manage our bosses, manage people and lives. My blog roll has many great thinkers in this space and I hope they’re helpful in your daily fight to making a difference wherever you are.

    Sharing is caring!

    Touch the Fire[tm]

    That's hot!

    That's hot!

    I bet you, the cook didn’t quite plan it to be that way! It looks really hot and dangerous! There’s a learning here about one’s personal, professional and even corporate life in this picture. I’ve been quite fond of saying to my team and those who come to me for advice. I recently blogged about this point referencing the In-Out-Burger case study.

    And at the risk of sounding cliched, there’s no shortcuts in life, no free lunches, etc. You do need to eventually put in the hard time. Reap what you sow. This is where I suppose the difference between Generation Y and Generation X comes to play. In my limited experience, Gen Y’ers got the fast forward button clicking fast but (professional) life doesn’t quite work that way. Nothing against sharing one’s ideas, contributing different insights, looking at things differently (it’s not just Gen Y’ers who do out-of-the-box thinking), but there’s more in common with getting through in life regardless of one’s generation. Some things do stay the same no matter how much it seems to have changed.

    This means that “time and place” is important. Smarts is not enough. Sweat (and tears) in liberal doses is also required. Grey-haired guys are not as out of touch with the new fangled things as it appears on the surface. Experience means hopefully that you don’t have to repeat the painful lessons your predecessors did (but grey-haired guys knows that history does repeat itself). Changing and bettering the world and making a difference are great intentions and should be applauded, but intentions never accomplished much of anything.

    To this end, I’d like to quote one of my favorite historical figure, Thomas A. Edison:

    Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.

    Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

    To learn more about what he accomplished, check out the interesting Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers, State University of New Jersey as well as the Thomas A. Edison Museum Page.

    In-N-Out Burger: Professionalizing Fast-Food — Management by Touching the Fire!

    April 19, 2009 6 comments

    What follows is going to be a mental dump of disjointed thoughts about IT and various other stuffs that came from reading:In-N-Out Burger: Professionalizing Fast-Food – BusinessWeek.

    Life isn’t a drive-thru… drive-thru ATM, drive-thru king of the hill, drive-thru CLICK experience…. however, it’s appalling how seemingly so many here go through it as if it were, more so than even when I was years back. People have unfortunately gotten the idea that you can win in the game of life without paying the dues. Lunch is free!!!.

    Needless to say, with what’s happened, it did appear so, but in a correction on par with Godly retribution, we find that indeed the normal world order is re-establishing itself and the emperor really does have no clothes! So no more fast tracking unless it’s to the bottom of the black hole and no, your career and professional development means you won’t be Director before you’re age 35. And yes, you do need to put in the hard effort and learn your craft as the tale of the legendary In-N-Out Burger story reminds us. It’s not surprising that it starts from the bottom up – the unsung front line troops who are responsible for the greatness of the In-N-Out Burger and franchise – learning the ropes, bit-by-bit because greatness wasn’t built overnight.

    IT services also requires the same painstaking process and steps. Management trainees need to get on the service desk/helpdesk rotation and learn there first. You do not pass go and collect $200 without first taking the front line bullets. Graduating into IT management which so many people do without first-hand knowledge and experience of this, will doom the IT organization somewhere in its life with disastrous results.

    This is what I preach — “Management by Touching the Fire”[tm]*. It’s basic – how do you know the fire is hot? You had to touch it, doh. How do you know your IT service – works, is of good quality, satisfies the customer etc? You had to do it yourself – step by painstaking step do it yourself to know through sheer pain of failure, task difficulty, long miserable hours in the effort to succeed for the customer…. and get the feedback that you succeeded and the customer is happy. Then and only then, can you move onward and (hopefully) upwards, only to repeat the unforgiving cycle again…and again…and again…

    * Touching the Fire terminology as I mean it, seems to have first appeared in the blogosphere in Andrew Downard’s posting in iSixSigma Blog. I thought I could take credit for it… but I can’t so I agree with Andrew’s posting and message. Heed them, or be forever firefighting.

    And for those who haven’t had the chance to taste such a great burger, here’s what one of them looks like (trust me, it taste a lot better than it looks):

    Real picture of an In-Out-Burger

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