Art of Managing—How to Respond When the Experiment Goes Wrong

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Many firms incorporate something in their values statements that encourages experimentation and recognizes the reality of failure in pursuit of learning and growth. The understanding that to succeed you have to fail first is common knowledge for most of us. However, it’s not the words on the values sign that bring life to a culture of experimentation, but rather, it’s the response of senior leadership to the inevitable clunkers that determines how willing people are to take risks and pay the lessons learned forward.

I have more clunkers to my credit than most people would be comfortable admitting publicly. And while the clunkers created sleepless nights and a fair amount of internal anxiety, I take satisfaction not in having politically survived these failures, but rather, in having leveraged those failures for future gains that propelled our teams, products and firms forward. Of course, a bit less pain along the way would have been nice, but I’ve yet to find the path to innovation that doesn’t include some discomfort in the process. Thankfully, the people I worked for had fairly high pain thresholds.

In the most successful firms I’ve been around, the managers actively promote experimentation and learning as core to everyone’s job. Yet, it’s not the words on the wall or even the words that come out of their mouths about experimentation, it’s the actions they take when things go horribly wrong that fosters the effective learning environment. In a number of these firms, this support of learning is so strong it creates the gravitational pull that keeps the top performers in place long-term and not drifting towards competitors.

3 Counter-intuitive (and Effective) Responses to a Failed Initiative:

1. Throw a experimentsparty. Seriously. One of my favorite managers leveraged the occasional project gone horribly wrong scenario with this counter-intuitive tactic. It was his way of pulling the final plug…telling us how much he valued our efforts and charging us up for our next run at something new. For one particular disaster, he sponsored a day at a theme park. While I carefully checked the safety harness on my first roller coaster ride just in case, it was his way of helping us blow off steam. An important note here; the party wasn’t the end of the process, but the beginning of the next phase of learning. After the fun was over, he put us through the paces of rolling up lessons learned and identifying pieces of intellectual property that could be inventoried and used for the future.

2. Invite Some Outsiders to Help You Study Your Failure. While not as fun as the party process described above, this technique of peer review served as a powerful learning tool. We invited a group of uninvolved experts to challenge everything from our assumptions to our decision-making processes and execution approaches. The playback of the project plus the clinical, detached questioning from the outsiders created a powerful environment for reflection and learning. The results were carefully summarized and archived for review prior to our next initiative. In fact, every new project team spent at least a week as part of their forming process reviewing cases from other project teams as a means of sensitizing the members to historic success and failure factors.

3. Make a Case Out of the Failure. No, not a federal case, but an actual working case to be studied by other groups. Closely related to the “outsiders” suggestion above, the team would create their form of a thinly disguised business case and then sit by and listen and learn as other groups assessed the case and proposed different courses of actions. While this might sound onerous or even too academic, the effort that went into creating the case required a detailed review of the assumptions and processes, and everyone gained insights from the experience of watching the new groups work the case and develop their own approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Most managers and most firms work hard to eliminate the odds of misfires and miscues. While I don’t encourage managers to run towards failures, the process of moving forward requires frequent backing up. When it comes to projects or major initiatives, you cannot plan your way to success on paper and expect the plan to unfold as predicted. You have to deal with the messy, sometimes unpredictable nature of people and the inherent challenges in doing something new. Your response at the point of failure is critical to what happens next.

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Leadership Caffeine—Exploring Breakaway Leadership, Part 1

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

In a recent “Art of Managing” post, I focused on the challenges that almost all organizations face when trying to move beyond the successes of a fading past towards new markets and new ways of doing business. In the excellent book that prompted the article, Escape Velocity, by Geoffrey Moore, the author raises the idea of Breakaway Leadership, but leaves us groping in the dark a bit, wondering  just what this leadership looks like in the wild.

If you’ve lived through a successful migration of a business from a legacy market to a new world, you know that it’s a sometimes messy, often emotionally turbo-charged experience laced with a fair amount of doubt and fear. It’s also a time rich in experimentation and learning filled with a whole lot of “new” in the form of new people, new customers, new offerings, new products, new partners and so on.

I’ve personally been a part of exactly two of these that worked in a big way, and I’ve counseled clients who have ultimately pulled it off. I’ve also been around colleagues and clients who failed to execute. Earlier in my career, I was along for the ride when the train ran off the rails on a collapsing bridge over a big waterfall that emptied into a lake filled with alligators and sharks. At least that’s what it felt like.

While sensitive to stepping all over the fundamental attribution error when looking in the rear-view mirror, I can tell youGraphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms there were and are leadership behavior differences that made a difference in the outcomes in my opinion. For this post, let’s explore some of the behaviors that supported a failure to Breakaway.

8  Leadership and Management Tripping Points that Destroyed Attempts at Breaking Away:

1. Cloistered Cockpit Control. The senior management team assumed the responsibility for the change efforts (good), but failed to adequately involve anyone not seated on Mahogany Row (bad). They worked unceasingly to think through the change, but fundamentally lost track of what the people doing the work needed in the form of context, support and motivation.

2. Left the Legacy Behind. The painful reality is that what got you here won’t take you forward, but when you alienate the good people working hard to optimize outcomes outside of the spotlight, the culture shift crashes. The fact that the legacy business is paying the way for the investment in the future makes it all the more critical to both lead and manage this part of the organization with care and concern.

3. Only the Cool Kids Got to Play. Yes, it takes new people with new schools to facilitate a successful market shift, but it’s a huge mistake to not bring legacy talent along through opportunities, education and immersion.

4. A Shortage of Courage and It Wilted Under Pressure. As Moore points out, the worst of all economic outcomes is an attempt at building the future that wilts due to pressure part-way through the process. Leading major change is not for the faint of heart or the short-on-courage type individuals.

5. Taking a Lazy Approach to Strategy. When senior managers fail to hold themselves accountable to properly defining their new opportunity in the context of audience, problem/solution, competitor set, ecosystem and all those other vexing strategy issues, the lack of clarity creates a brutal case of mission drift.

6. The Royals Arrived and the Dictators Emerged. I’ve observed leaders take on an almost royal or in some cases dictatorial persona, with all of the attendant hubris, arrogance and carnage. Followers who remain take the leader’s every utterance as something between a royal decree and the law of the land, and every discussion in every meeting focuses on what people perceive the leader wants. I observed this in a Good to Great firm (Collins) that is no longer great and arguably not good. It was fascinating and horrifying to watch as good people deserted, messengers of market truths were regularly executed and the remaining shell of the organization was held hostage by one person.

7. Flailing and then Failing. Much like Jim Collins describes in his book, How the Mighty Fall, at least one of the steps on the road to ruin is an undisciplined pursuit of more. In the failed transformations I’ve observed, this malady is present in all circumstances. Frustrated over the lack of quick results, senior managers lash out in pursuit of new initiatives. Projects are started and abruptly stopped and new projects are heaped upon the existing overload of work. Eventually the organization grinds to a halt.

8. Trust Took a Holiday at the Top of the Organization Chart.  A creeping lack of trust between a firm’s senior leaders is nearly almost fatal, and nothing kills trust faster than a team that has not linked arms around a direction and a set of choices. There’s no more heated time in a senior leadership group’s lifecycle than a major change initiative and the trend is towards entropy instead of order.  Always fatal as it unfolds like a Kabuki Play on a stage that all employees can see. My least favorite senior leadership team ended up refusing to ever meet as a group in large part due to their not so secret contempt for each other.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the focus in this post is on large organizational transformation, the same issues and same behaviors emerge in attempts at team, unit or functional transformations. There’s a group of leadership behaviors that suck the critical energy out of any attempt to breakaway no matter the size or scale. And while part of the answer is to “do the opposite” of the above, life, business and organizational change are never that simple. For now, beware the tendencies described above and plan on a return visit for Part 2, where I’ll explore the behaviors that support success in Breakaway situations.

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Leadership Caffeine: Cultivating the Confidence to Act

Image of a coffee cupThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

For leaders at all levels, there’s much to gain from James D. Murphy’s excellent book, Courage to Execute: What Elite U.S. Military Units Can Teach Business About Leadership and Team Performance.

In particular, Mr. Murphy’s emphasis on helping us understand the hard, deliberate and very structured work that goes into training and cultivating a team of professionals who are committed to the mission and who trust each other with their lives, is worth the price of admission. (As a side-note, it is hard to not read this book and recognize how far we fall short of when it comes to ensuring the training and development necessary for high performance in our organizations.)

Of the many quotable and thought-provoking items in the book, one that jumps out at me is Mr. Murphy’s perspective on courage. His words: “…but remember, courage is not bravado. Courage is the confidence to act that comes from preparation.”

It’s the lack of confidence to act that I observe as a derailment factor for so many teams from senior levels to functional or project groups. From decisions on strategy (what to do/what not to do?) to approach (how?) to key talent issues (who’s on/who’s off?) to structural, and accountability issues, the lack of proper preparation results in leaders and teams flailing, floundering, bickering or, simply staring at the headlights on key issues.

Effective leaders recognize their role in preparing teams to act, to learn and ultimately to succeed.

5 Things You Can Do with Your Team to Cultivate the Confidence to Act:

1. Strive for crystal clarity for the mission. Whether you are leading the senior management team as CEO or leading a project team, the mission and parameters must be crystal clear. The fuzzy nature of most strategies and the inability of individuals and their work groups to clearly connect their priorities and deliverables to the pursuit of mission objectives is deadly. You cannot over-communicate and you cannot over invest in clarifying the mission to the point of common understanding on your team. Strive to reduce the lofty picture goals to a size that is digestible and actionable at the level of your team.

2. Distill the mission down to navigable, actionable size for your team and be certain that people can talk about it clearly. Knowing the goal is to win the war or move to a new market is one thing, but understanding your role and your team’s role in this goal is essential. In high performing organizations and on high performing teams, the conversation goes like this:

Our team is accountable for producing this portion of our new offering. This new offering is one component of how we are pursuing our strategy to move into this segment of this market for these customers. Our individual responsibilities as team members are… . Our internal customers are department x and y, and we are accountable for these measures of timing, performance and quality to those customers.

Anything short of this level of specificity is just so much baloney. People and teams perform when they can connect their efforts to specific audiences and required outcomes.

3. Teach your team to talk. The collegial talk between most group members on teams is poison for performance. It feels good because it’s non-threatening, however, it skirts the real issues of execution and accountability. Learning to trust each other enough to tackle the hard topics of mission clarity, roles, performance and accountability, is not something that comes easy for any group. It’s also essential for high performance.

Effective team leaders understand the connection between the ability of team members to conduct robust dialog and the courage to take action and they refuse to settle for the happy talk that bedevils most teams.

4. Teach and constantly strive to strengthen decision-making processes and decision quality. Decisions are the precursors to actions for individuals and organizations. Without a decision, nothing happens or nothing changes. Decisions promote movement and importantly, they promote learning and continuous improvement. Effective leaders help team members learn how to frame issues, evaluate options, assess risks and then decide. They also teach their team members to review the outcomes of their decisions in pursuit of learning and improvement.

5. Know that team development is an every day activity and pursue it vigorously. Successful teams are made through the careful and deliberate work of the team leader. From mission clarity to member selection to promoting core values for performance and accountability, team development is THE purpose of the leader. High performance teams are products of hard work, constant scrutiny, continuous coaching and training and the never-ending pursuit of improvement.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Achieving the confidence to act is an outcome of the hard work of team building. Clarity for the mission, confidence and trust between team members and the ability to talk through and evaluate different options and scenarios and then decide, are all key factors. None of these occur naturally in the workplace. How hard are you working at cultivating the courage to act on your team?

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Leadership and Management Lessons from Chris

A Horse's RearLiving in Illinois, I typically don’t throw stones at other states for the misfires of their politicians. After all, serving as Governor in Illinois is one of the most likely positions to insure some quality time behind bars. However, the Chris Christie bridge scandal offers a few too many leadership and management lessons to pass up without a few observations. (I’ve got no candidate or party in this fight…just interested in the lessons we can draw upon here. )

At Least 7 Leadership and Management Lessons from the Bridge Scandal:

1. If you’re in charge, you are responsible. End of story.

2. “I didn’t know” just sounds weak in any circumstances. Even if it’s true.

3. Taking accountability by firing your Chief of Staff and then running the bus over her repeatedly in the national press doesn’t feel like taking accountability.

4. Every team takes cues on standards of behavior from the boss. You set the values, and apparently, it was deemed acceptable behavior to use political power to punish even minor enemies while putting the interests and even lives of your customers in danger.

5. Your reputation as an effective, hardline manager is shot right in the rear as soon as you have to spend hours back-pedaling on how people you trusted lied to you and you didn’t know.

6. As a manager, if you’re too stupid to select people who won’t put your entire career at risk in the name of some misguided show of force, you deserve all the grief you get.

7. What type of an employee is deluded into thinking he/she can operate with impunity, particularly when their boss is an elected official and a potential presidential candidate? See also the points on behaviors, talent selection, management and accountability.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ll end where I started. If you are in charge, you are responsible. End of story.

From the Archives: 5 Priceless Lessons from Amundsen and Scott

Roald AmundsenNote from Art: given the polar-like weather many of us are “enjoying” this week, I thought it was fitting to revisit my earlier Amundsen and Scott post.  These lessons never grow cold!

In preparation for an upcoming presentation, I’ve become a bit obsessed with studying the 1910 expeditions and race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to 90-degrees South (the South Pole).  The lessons for leaders and managers practically leap off the pages of this classic example of coping with risk, uncertainty and volatility.

This “Heroic Era” of polar exploration was capped off (really bad pun!) by Amundsen and Scott, in what turned into an adventure where Amundsen beat Scott to the pole and safely returned, crew intact. Sadly, Scott and his crew ultimately perished during their attempted return.

I have Jim Collins to thank for this latest management segue, as he draws upon this same race and the comparison and contrast between Amundsen and Scott in his book with Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite them All. (Note: While Collins hooked me, see my suggestions at the end of the post for much deeper reading on the topic.)

The level of preparation that Amundsen and team put into their polar expedition was both monumental and commendable.  All students of project management and management and leadership in general should study this case.  The comparison and contrast between Amundsen’s approach and Scott’s is fascinating and highly relevant to leading initiatives and organizations in today’s turbulent workplace environment.

For the rest of us, here are a few lessons gleaned from my just-started study of this fascinating event.

At Least 5 Key Lessons Gained from Studying Amundsen and Scott:

1. The Conventional Wisdom Isn’t Always Right.  Amundsen’s selection of a previously uncharted path to 90-degrees South was contrary to all of the conventional wisdom of the time.  Long voiced concerns about the stability of the ice in the area kept prior expeditions from considering Amundsen’s starting point. His own painstaking review of the various logs of prior explorers suggested that the geology hadn’t changed much in decades. He decided to take this risk in return for a straighter, shorter (albeit completely unknown) line to his destination. While his choice introduced an element of risk, he viewed the payoff for success as worth it.

How often do you let the conventional wisdom dictate your approach to a complex problem?

2. Focus Means Focus. Amundsen was solely focused on reaching the South Pole. Everything he did…the months of preparation, the customization of his tools…and everything he had done earlier in his life, including, living with the Inuit, led to his preparation for success in the harsh polar environment. Scott had a mixed agenda of exploration and science, and the complexity of doing both contributed in part to his challenges.

It’s always tempting to tag on goals that seem complementary. Beware the dilution and distraction effect. Most of the time we’re best served by clarifying and then laser-focusing on the mission at hand.

 3. Luck Happens-It’s What You Do with It that Counts. In Amundsen’s words: “I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

Scott’s journal was filled with descriptions of bad luck. In reality, the two expeditions faced much of the same lousy weather luck. One succeeded while the other failed. What we do with our luck…good or bad is completely within our control.

 4. Tailor the Tools to the Mission. While Scott and his crew spent the winter months wiling away their time with lectures (to each other) and reading, Amundsen’s team maintained 8-hour days customizing every single piece of equipment to improve their odds of surviving anything. Both expeditions used the same sledges, but Amundsen’s were modified to reduce the weight considerably. Amundsen redesigned his skis and ski bindings, his crates, his critical paraffin containers and everything else with the idea of safety, security, light-weight, ease of use from set-up to stowing all the driving goal. And he took tips from the Inuit on clothing, opting for a style and material that promoted air circulation and helped managed sweating and heat retention/loss.

Too often we expect our technology tools and generic practices to yield great results. Take a page from Amundsen and tailor your tools to the mission in front of you.

 5. Nobility is Nice, but Practicality Wins. Scott and his crew viewed it as noble to man-haul their sledges and gears. Yes, man-haul. Amundsen knew from his time with the Inuit that dogs were superior haulers and that the issue of calories would eventually determine survival or death. Scott grossly miscalculated the calorie burn from man-hauling, and that combined with poor food depot planning (location, contents, fuel) contributed to his team’s demise. It is reported that Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their successful return trip.

Pride and nobility goeth before the fall. Don’t get caught up in the nobility of your tactics, when there may well be a better, less-elegant approach to save the project, your job or in Scott’s case, his life.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

All of us live and work in a world filled with chaos and turbulence. Our customers feel it, our suppliers know it and our competitors are coping with it as well.

As Collins and Hansen suggest in Great by Choice: “It’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.”

While, “Be like Amundsen” doesn’t have that commercial jingle sound to it, we will all be better off if we incorporate this explorer’s constancy of purpose and unrelenting focus into our personal and professional endeavors.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

Order one or both books for your team. Contact Art.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.