121s – Common Objections

When I am talking with managers about the benefits of doing 121s they usually resist the idea and offer a range of objections:

  1. I don’t need 121s – I speak with my staff ALL the time!
  2. I would never have enough time to meet with each member of staff for half an hour every week.
  3. What would we talk about if we met every week?
  4. My staff would feel that I was micro-managing them – they just want to get on with the job
  5. My staff aren’t interested in strategy or otherwise engaging – they just want to do a good job

I don’t need 121s – I speak with my staff ALL the time!

It is true that a lot of managers spend a lot of time talking with staff.  The conversations are spontaneous, unplanned, unstructured, unfocused and often unproductive.  They promote a conversation culture rather that is characterised by high levels of interruptions – ‘Sorry to disturb you but can an I just have a quick word with about….’ Managerial time is freely available and therefore barely valued.  Prioritisation by staff is poor and managers are often diverted from more important tasks as they feel obliged to respond to staff requests for help.  Such managers usually have gaping holes in their performance when it comes to areas such as innovation, creativity, strategy and planning as they are too busy ‘mole-whacking’.

I would never have enough time to meet with each member of staff for half an hour every week

This translates direclty to ‘I have more important things to do than work in planned structured way with staff on a 121 basis’.   It also translates to ‘People are not our most important asset and therefore I can afford to neglect them’.

Company costs per full-time employee in the UK now stand at £97,122.  Such costs typically include:

  • pay and bonuses,
  • employers’ national insurance payments and pension contributions,
  • office accommodation costs, and
  • central costs, which incorporate elements such as HR and finance departments.

What other assets do you manage that cost this much to keep in the game – that, if they feel disgruntled, devalued or otherwise fed up can literally just get up and walk out the door?  You really think that investing 30 minutes a week in them to keep them engaged, challenged, informed, recognised and valued won’t give you a great return on your investment.  NB See above – structured 121 time is very different to ‘talking with them all of the time’.

What would we talk about if we met every week?

This one comes from managers where the culture is about delivering this year what we delivered last year but incrementally better.  No-one is thinking or exploring, looking for better ways to skin the cat/butter the parsnips etc .  No one is learning stuff every week that is relevant to improving the product, service or processes of work.  Expect people to make things better every week and ask them what they have done every week to contribute to making things better.  It also comes from managers that have ‘values on the website’ but don’t see their role in reinforcing them in practice on a weekly basis.

My staff would feel that I was micro-managing them

This comes from managers who don’t understand that most people want to have a connection to work.  They want to be engaged and to matter.  They want to have a chance to give their best.  They don’t want to be alienated and cynical. Although if you don’t work with them frequently on a 121 basis they will be!

They also don’t understand the difference between dabbling in the detail (micro-managing) and unleashing potential (the number 1 priority of the high performance manager).

My staff aren’t interested in strategy or otherwise engaging

This comes from managers who have tried to engage staff but failed.  Therefore in order to maintain their own self – image (I am a good manager) they have to believe that staff are not interested.  Do you REALLY have staff who aren’t interested in the future of their employer and how they can help to make it better?

So what is your excuse?

Connecting with a Vision

This post first appeared on my other blog ‘Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in the Community‘ but I have reproduced it here because it contains some insights on working with ‘Vision’ that are relevant to the progressive manager.  Apologies to those of you who have got it for the second time!

Our Vision for Leeds is an internationally competitive European city at the heart of a prosperous region where everyone can enjoy a high quality of life.

Leeds Initiative Vision for Leeds – 2004 2020

That must seem like a pretty distant vision for many Leeds residents.  For the tens of thousands that are living on incapacity benefits.  For those who have no job.  For those who work in the third sector and are more interested in social justice than international competitiveness.  For parents who are struggling to raise and educate their children.  For pensioners. For migrants and refugees.

But the problem is not with the vision per se.  The problem lies with the capacity available to help a very wide range of people and communities to connect with it.  To understand why it is relevant to them and how it can help them to make progress on their agenda.  How it can help them find a sense of belonging in a Leeds community that is striving to make ‘progress’.

For a vision to be effective a wide range of stakeholders have to be able to connect with it and make sense of it in their own context, and then to use it to leverage action – to make things happen.  Otherwise it is just words.  I suspect it is no accident that this ‘Vision for Leeds’ appeals so directly to the white collar community, to the developers and the investors.  To those that have power shall be given more.

Visions can help to pull us towards a more attractive future, but only if they are relevant to us and are dripping with possibilities for action.

In the world of organisational and business development the ‘Vision backlash’ has started.  Instead of dreaming of distant possibilities those leading the backlash ask:

  • ‘What is it that we are on the verge of becoming?’,
  • ‘How, at this time, is it possible that we could change?’

This ‘emergence’ based on a process of ‘presencing’ (understanding the ‘here and now’ and then acting to tip the balance in favour of progress) honours the past as much as the future. It ensures that the future is rooted in the strengths and cultures of the past.  It encourages placemaking based on history as much as on the future.  And this matters because it is the history that has shaped us all.  Our cultures, our psyches our potentials and our preferences.  Development that honours who we are, what we have become and what we believe it is possible for us to be.

Perhaps we should compliment the Vision with a real understanding of what we have the potential to become – not by 2020 – but right now.

More Returns on Investment from 121s

Tom Peters encourages managers to obsess on R.O.I.R – the Return on Investment in Relationships.

ROIR through 121s comes in many forms:

  1. increased staff retention
  2. improved productivity
  3. recognition and acknowledgement of progress
  4. appreciation of those who are performing well
  5. identification of under performance and early resolution
  6. promotion of behaviours that reinforce strategic goals and values
  7. increased tempo of coaching to develop potential and performance
  8. deeper professional relationships
  9. increased trust
  10. increased influence
  11. increased responsiveness
  12. better support of team members in their work
  13. conduit for ideas from the front line to be heard and acted upon
  14. management support for every member of the team – every week
  15. improved communication and focus on what matters
  16. progress made and recognised on a weekly basis
  17. increased sense of urgency in the team
  18. encourage individuals to think through their contribution to team or organisational objectives
  19. increased initiative and enterprise
  20. planning remains flexible and dynamic
  21. documentation makes performance reviews simpler and less contentious
  22. barriers to high performance are removed
  23. factors contributing to poor performance are identified and resolved
  24. formal opportunities for delegation
  25. feedback – both given and received
  26. increased employee engagement
  27. improved knowledge management and knowledge sharing
  28. better talent management and development
  29. increased creativity
  30. more responsibility taken voluntarily by more people
  31. reduced absenteeism
  32. more diversity as 121s recognise that ‘one size fits one’

Managing the Moon Walking Bear

It is true that we don’t see with our eyes as much as with our brain. Sure the eyes capture the photons – but it is in the brain that we actually do the seeing – largely based on what we are looking for.

If you need proof, try this.  NB you will need to hear the soundtrack!

Our ‘findings really do follow our seekings’, and our brain only lets us see what makes sense in the context.

This is especially important when we start to form opinions about people or projects. If we believe that they are good – then all we will see is the good stuff (as our subconscious filters about what does not fit in with our pre-conceived ideas). If on the other hand we think that people are bad or lazy then all we will tend to see is the behaviour that serves to confirm our beliefs.

Learning to observe and feedback on a range of work behaviours in a non judgemental, non-evaluative way is a key skill for the effective manager.  BTW there is some evidence that women in general tend to be more open to ‘peripheral’ stuff, to pick up on the background and make more sense of it than men.  I wonder if there are gender differences in spotting the dancing bear!

Understanding Your Organisation – Part 1

Most of the managers that I work with have an incredibly detailed knowledge of the organisations that they work in – or at least of the parts of it that they come into regular contact with. Far fewer have a good understanding of what their own organisation looks like from a more strategic or higher level perspective. This imbalance in perspective can cause too much focus on the here and now and not enough consideration of the medium and longer term. This deceptively simple, yet powerful model can help to restore a bit of balance.

It starts of with a recognition that every organisation does something (operations) for someone (customers). Whether the operation is about providing a service or a product – understanding what you provide to your customers – and their level of satisfaction is clearly important.

Customers and Operations

Just considering these two parts of the organisation can raise a host of powerful questions:

  • Who are our customers?
  • Why do they choose us?
  • What do they love about we do?
  • What do they hate?
  • What do they pay for? What else might they pay for?
  • What do they use? What else might they use?
  • How are our customers changing?
  • How efficient are our operations?
  • How effective are they?
  • Where is there most scope for improvement?
  • Who is responsible for managing operations?
  • Who is responsible for managing customers?
  • How effective is the working relationship between them?

Now let’s add a third component to the organisation that will help us to thrive into the future – a cunning plan – a strategy.

Customers, Operations and Strategy

The strategy loop invests time and money in thinking about what the organisation should be doing today if it is to continue to thrive in the future. In simple terms the operational loop is about earning today’s bottom line. The strategy loop is about ensuring tomorrow’s. In many organisations the strategy loop is almost vanishingly small. Only a few people ever think about it – and acting on it is even rarer! Sometimes ‘strategy’ is done on an annual basis usually tied up with the planning process and budgeting. Often it is done in a top down way – strategy is conceived in the board room or the chief execs office and handed down for implementation. Frequently it does not exist at all!

This strategy loop opens up some further challenging and potentially very valuable questions:

  • What is our strategy?
  • How is it developed?
  • Who is responsible for developing it?
  • How is it communicated?
  • Who is able to shape it?

This gives us a fuller picture of the organisation – but it is still not complete. A final component is required to link strategy and operations together. A component to ensure that operations inform strategy and that strategy is put into practice in operations. This component is management.

Customers, Operations, Strategy and Management

This is just about the simplest complete model of an organisation that I can imagine. A manager who is able to develop well founded knowledge of customers, operations, strategy and management is well placed to succeed.

A management team that is able to ensure balanced development of operations, management and strategy – driven by a thorough understanding of customers and their changing needs should be unstoppable.

  • Is management equally effective at developing both operations and strategy?
  • Does management make sure that what happens (operations) takes full account of strategy?
  • Who is responsible for management in your organisation?
  • How could management be improved?

This simple model of the organisation can provide a powerful catalyst for diagnosis and improvement.

The single most costly and common error a manager can make?

Anger - disposition or context?

The ‘fundamental attribution error’ is, in my experience, the single most common and expensive mistake a manager can make.

The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to over-emphasize ‘dispositional’, or ‘personality-based’, explanations for behaviours observed in others while, simultaneously under-emphasizing ‘situational’ explanations. In other words, we tend to assume that someones actions depend on what “kind” of person they are rather than on the contextual forces influencing the person.

So when someone loses their rag in a meeting it is because they are an angry person who can’t control their behaviour and is unprofessional.  When someone cuts us up on the motorway it is because they are a bad driver.  If someone pushes in front of us at Tesco’s it is because they are rude.

This error frequently creeps into our management.  Especially when people are not performing as we would like.  It is convenient to tell ourselves that their behaviour is because of who they are as a person – rather than because of the context in which they are behaving.  This is because we are powerless to change ‘who they are as a person’ so as a manger we need do nothing – we just accept it.  If we start to consider how the context in which they are operating drives the behaviour then we might have to take a bit more responsibility in making changes.  And quite often we find out that the behaviour that we are getting is at its very root caused by the very context that we are paid to manage!

It requires us to resist the temptation to resort to the quick label (they are just lazy/bad/angry/bossy/arrogant/unprofessional).  These labels let us off the hook but leaves the situation unchanged and the behaviour likely to recur.

Instead we should ask ourselves why a rational, sensible and good person would behave that way.  We need to learn to think ‘How Fascinating!’.  We are then forced to consider how context may have driven the behaviour, and what we might be able to do as a manager to change the context.

So for example perhaps the colleague who lost their rag in the meeting is not just Mr Angry – but is really frustrated at being talked over all the time.   In this case we might be able to facilitate the meeting a little more robustly, ensure that everyone gets their voice heard and the angry behaviour is likely to disappear.

By considering these contextual factors we do create ourselves more work (this IS the work of management and should not be shied away from) but we also give ourselves a genuine chance of making things better.  The kinds of contextual factors that cause ‘bad’ behaviours include:

  • lack of skills, judgement or experience (bad driving for example)
  • the behaviours of others (angry outbursts from someone who feels they are continually being interrupted)
  • lack of incentive/disincentive (the bad behaviour is unrecognised and therefore repeated)
  • unchallenged group norms (our meetings always start late)

So learn to recognise and challenge the fundamental attribution error at work.  I guarantee it will make you a much better manager.

Thinking strategically; flies, bees, pike and shoulder blades

Most strategy training talks about the importance of developing a strategic plan and then aligning employees with the strategy.   This is an outmoded view of strategy.  I prefer to see strategy as a thinking and doing process – with the focus on achieving success tomorrow – rather than today.  Many managers struggle to find the time to do this strategic thinking and find it even harder to act strategically.

Learning from Mr Pike

The pike is one of the most efficient, lean predating machines in freshwater.  If you put a small pike in an aquarium with a bunch of minnows it will demonstrate its predatory skills with frightening efficiency.  If you separate the pike from the minnows using a sheet of perspex the pike will continue to launch its attacks for a little while.  And then it will just give up.  You can then remove the sheet of perspex and the pike will still believe that it can no longer catch its prey – and will simply starve to death.

Flies and Bees

Imagine putting half a dozen house flies and half a dozen bumble bees in  glass bottle.  The bottle is placed with its base towards a window and the open end towards the middle of the room.  The bees are strategically aligned to fly towards the sunlight.  The presence of the glass is a mystery to them.  They buzz and buzz away at the bottom of the glass driving towards the sunshine – until they too die.  The flies on the other hand are much less ‘strategically aligned’.  They fly in far more random patterns and within a few minutes most of them will have found their way to freedom.

Native Americans and Cracked Shoulder Blades

Some native American tribes used to use shoulder blades to help them plan their hunt.  The night before the hunt would leave they would throw a shoulder blade from a buffalo or deer on the camp fire.  In the morning the bone would have a pattern of cracks caused by the heat of the fire.  The pattern of these cracks – which was essentially random would be used to indicate to the hunting party in which direction they should seek their quarry.  So why would they rely on such a random way of choosing their hunting grounds?  Because without using a randomiser like this they would tend to over work the most productive hunting grounds and threaten the sustainability of the tribe and its environment.

These three stories illustrate something about the nature of strategy and strategic thinking – the perils of over specialisation, the risks of alignment, the problems of holding on to outdated learning and the importance of diversity and randomisation.  I am sure that analysis and planning have their place – but it is thinking and acting strategically that creates real value.

121s and the Return on Investment in Relationships

Tom Peters encourages managers to obsess on R.O.I.R – the Return on Investment in Relationships.

Usually what has to be invested is not cash – but time. And the challenge is to invest that time effectively.

For me, without doubt, the most effective tool for ROIR with employees is the 121. These are structured, documented 30 minute meetings held with each member of staff, every week. They provide the most effective ROIR with employees that I have ever seen.

ROIR through 121s comes in many forms:

  1. increased staff retention
  2. improved productivity
  3. recognition and acknowledgement of progress
  4. appreciation of those who are performing well
  5. identification of under performance and early resolution
  6. promotion of behaviours that reinforce strategic goals and values
  7. increased tempo of coaching to develop potential and performance
  8. deeper professional relationships
  9. increased trust
  10. increased influence
  11. increased responsiveness
  12. better support of team members in their work
  13. conduit for ideas from the front line to be heard and acted upon
  14. management support for every member of the team – every week
  15. improved communication and focus on what matters
  16. progress made and recognised on a weekly basis
  17. increased sense of urgency in the team
  18. encourage individuals to think through their contribution to team or organisational objectives
  19. increased initiative and enterprise
  20. planning remains flexible and dynamic
  21. documentation makes performance reviews simpler and less contentious
  22. barriers to high performance are removed
  23. factors contributing to poor performance are identified and resolved
  24. formal opportunities for delegation
  25. feedback – both given and received
  26. increased employee engagement
  27. improved knowledge management and knowledge sharing
  28. better talent management and development
  29. increased creativity
  30. more responsibility taken voluntarily by more people
  31. reduced absenteeism
  32. more diversity as 121s recognise that ‘one size fits one’

Perhaps some of these are things that you as a manager need to work on. If you are already using 121s then think how you can use them more effectively for the things that matter most to you and your business.

If you are not already using 121s then you have a tremendous opportunity to improve your management practice.

By the way – additions to the list are very welcome!

The Limits of Lean?

Lean

Earlier this week I went to ‘An Evening with Simon Hill’. Drawing on his experience of manufacturing industry and Yorkshire Forward, Simon Hill, Executive Director of Business at Yorkshire Forward talked about strategic business improvement using ‘Lean Principles’. Simon chose not to offer a quick reminder of what these Lean Principles are – leaving a proportion of the audience in the dark. As a reminder they are:

  1. Specify what creates value from the customers’ perspective
  2. Identify all the steps along the process chain
  3. Make those processes flow
  4. Make only what is pulled by the customer
  5. Strive for perfection by continually removing waste

With its origins in the world of total quality management Lean Principles provide a wonderful way to ensure efficient product or service delivery by allowing the whole business process to be analysed and made efficient. It emphasises systems, compliance, analysis and objectivity in pursuit of the perfect process. It really is scientific management for the late 20th Century. It is one of several business improvement tools that can help an organisation with one of its purposes – that of the efficient delivery of a product or service.

However increasingly efficiency is not the only game in town. Indeed it is not even the main game for most organisations. Renewal, re-invention and transformation are increasingly the key drivers of sustainable value creation in modern knowledge based economies. If I heard Simen rightly then after a considerable investment of money and time in implementing Lean his business had just about managed to stand still. Now this is an great achievement for a manufacturer of automotive components in South Yorkshire – but I doubt if it carries the seeds for a major economic re-birth.

My concern is the ‘story’ that Lean tells about the nature of business and enterprise. That it is about analysis, rationality, incremental improvement and mediocrity – giving the customer just what they ask for – when they ask for it. It is that the expectations of the customer should drive the production of the organisation. And Lean is not just a set of tools – it is a management philosophy – a culture. It becomes the way we think and act.

Andrew Mawson – one of the UKs most outstanding social entrepreneurs tells of the first time he asked some members of his community what they would really like to do. It turned out that they aspired to go on a day trip to the coast. Fair enough thought Andrew and worked with them to make it happen. After the trip had been undertaken he asked them what they would like to do next? And the reply came – ‘Let’s go on another trip to the (same) coast’! Let’s do it again! Andrew recognised that the aspirations of his customers were narrow. That he could provide experiences far more powerful and effective in driving community development. He understood that they had no real idea of what was possible. So he proposed that their next project was to be a journey across the Sinai desert. As their supplier he transformed their ideas of what could be achieved based on his on his knowledge, experience and expertise. This would never had happened had been trained in Lean principles.

And now Lean Simon tells us Lean consultants are being engaged by Yorkshire Forward to increase organisational efficiency. No doubt pieces of paper will soon be travelling less far on their journey through the offices, being touched by fewer people and processes generally more efficiently. And many of the employees perceptions will be reinforced that their role is not to facilitate the entrepreneurial re-birth of the region – but to design and administer effective bureaucratic processes.

For me business is about emotion, aspiration, imagination, passion, energy and risk. I am not making an argument for waste (although I do often find myself encouraging clients to ‘create slack’) but I am arguing for cultures that favour action and re-invention over perfection. If the price of Lean is a culture that favours analysis and incrementalism over imagination, re-invention and risk taking then I for one find it a price I am not prepared to pay.

At the end of the presentation I asked Simon whether he really felt that Lean held the answers to sustainable competitiveness in knowledge based business – whether it could drive the creativity and innovation necessary to compete in the future. And he answered ‘ No!’.

Better Time Management in an Instant!

Time Management

Time management has been on my mind for a while now. Early last year I re-read Druckers’ Effective Executive – the second chapter of which, ‘Know they Time’, is devoted to time management. I recommend it highly!

For the vast majority of managers that I work with making significant improvements in their time management is quick and easy. It simply requires them to:

  • Work out their top priority for the coming week/month
  • Block out at least 2 x 90 minute slots each week when they are going to work – without interruption – on moving that priority forward.

It takes no more than that – get time for your priorities on your schedule!

This is important because so many managers just hope to fit progress on key priorities around a morass of standing meetings, e-mail and fire-fighting. Weeks slip by without any focus on progressing the priority. Yet once it is scheduled – and the time protected – BINGO! – the priority gets time and progress is made.

And while I am at it – unless work is really THE most important thing in your life – take great care about giving up week-ends and evenings to do it. Working longer hours is rarely the key to getting more done. It usually results in getting less done and only serves to slow down the rate of work; why have a sense of urgency to get the job done if you can always stay just another half an hour?

If you find that you must work evenings or week-ends then always make sure that you have a firm end-time for the work fixed – and stick to it. Make an appointment with what you love outside of work (family, hobby whatever) immediately after your work commitment and keep it. This will force you to use your time effectively.