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.

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Art of Managing-6 Ideas to Help Management Groups Develop as Teams

ArtofManagingFrom long experience and ample client CEO and Board input, the typical state of a management team looks less like a team and more like a group of functional experts who occasionally gather to talk uncomfortably (and shallowly) about the hard issues confronting their organization. The behaviors and integration you might anticipate from a “team” of smart, senior people are often absent from the equation.

Many CEOs agonize over the issue of how to “gain more” from this group of senior managers, and the managers are often equally perplexed, suspecting they should be doing more of something with their functional counterparts.

Team development in any environment is challenging and requires deliberate, focused effort. While there are no silver bullets for turning groups of senior managers into a productive or high-performance team, a bit of expectation adjustment and some focused actions can help you and the group move in the right direction.

6 Ideas to Strengthen Team Development at the Senior Management Level:

1. Don’t expect team performance to be on display at the operations review. The most common forum for senior managers to gather is in the operational review. In reality, this is the one environment where teamwork and collaboration approach irrelevant. Budgets, forecasts and scorecard results dominate the dialog, and they should. However,  a good operations review will uncover issues that merit more detailed group scrutiny. Capture those items under the label of “Team Topics” and pursue them in the forum(s) described below.

2. Adjust your expectations for the senior management team’s role in key decisions. Bob Frisch in his excellent book, “Who’s in the Room-How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them,” helps us understand the realities of senior level decision making, and in Bob’s ample experience, it happens between the CEO and a fluid “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, and not via a group of functional managers who suddenly check their hats at the door and agree to operate for the greater good. Use the team as an input source and adjust your expectations to reflect the reality that senior management teams are better used implementing decisions than making them.

3. Create the forums and format to harness the talents and knowledge of your senior managers. Leave the operating topics for the operations review and create a series of narrowly focused sessions around important topics such as the external world (e.g. How are market forces impacting us and how should we respond?), strategy (generating ideas on how we can create value, better serve customers and beat competitors) and talent (Who are the high potentials? How are we managing succession?)  Identify follow-on homework and group-work to further the discussion and help move topics from ideas to actions. Ensure accountability on homework activities from session to session.

4. Use frequency to reinforce working together-meet just often enough to make the teamwork in #3 real. While most groups are good about connecting on a periodic basis to review operating activities and metrics, many struggle to carve out the time for the discussions suggested in #3. The lack of regular contact outside the world of functional operating activities is a problem and fights team creation. If you’re not spending at least half a day every six weeks and a full day or two every quarter on the big issues in front of you, it’s time to build a calendar and put some rigor and regularity into the schedule with your senior managers.

5. Don’t expect retreats and non-work related activities to substitute for the “butts in seat” focused time required for team development.  You might have a fun experience paddling a canoe with one of your counterparts, but I’ve yet to find any connection between this extra-curricular work and the improvement of team dynamics.

6. Remember and build towards Hackman’s 5 conditions for effective teams. The recently late J. Richard Hackman devoted a career to studying teams and his five conditions for high performance are minimum table stakes for team development. They are: clear and compelling purpose; clear team membership; expert coaching, enabling structures and a supportive organization. In almost every case of the frustrated CEO or perplexed management team member, one or more of those conditions are absent.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’re the CEO, it’s up to you to create the conditions for team development with your senior managers. Use the ideas above as thought-prompters and starting points. If you’re one of the senior managers seeking to support the CEO and cultivate more meaningful work with your peers, offer some ideas to the group. You might just find a grateful CEO and a group of peers hungry to do more for the firm.

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.

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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 leader’s 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.

New Leader Tuesday: Dealing with the Personal Problems of Your Team Members

newleadertuesdaygraphicBe kind, for everyone you meet is waging a great battle. -unknown

One of the occupational challenges of your role as a manager or supervisor is learning how to navigate the personal issues of your team members that seep (or rush) into the workplace.

While many of your coworkers will do a good job maintaining a separation of professional and personal issues, some people seek out sympathetic listeners anywhere they can find them, and you as boss are fair game.  That’s OK, to a point.

Displaying empathy shows that you care. Ensuring that people who are struggling have access to the right help through counseling or the firm’s private support line are all part of your responsibilities as a manager and to maintaining your membership in good standing in the human race. Providing a break for someone to see a doctor, lawyer, counselor is fine as well.

However, beware those individuals who use their personal problems as recurring excuses for chronic poor performance. While they are in the gross minority, it’s a safe bet that you will encounter people who attempt to manipulate you by using their personal issues as a lever.

Your early exceptions and acceptance of misfires and mistakes are capable of snowballing into a different standard for Bob due to his impending divorce or for Mary because of the stress of her son’s arrest, or for Alex because of his mother’s illness.

Over time, performance issues will become blurred by the personal challenges, and your continued accommodation will turn someone’s problem into one that’s now yours.  Not only will you have an employee who is in essence gaming the system, you will have everyone else watching and judging how you handle this situation. Your own credibility as a manager is at stake.

5 Ideas for Navigating the Sticky Personal Problems of Your Employees:

1. Displaying empathy is admirable and encouraged. If someone approaches you with an issue, listen and show genuine understanding and concern.

 2. Don’t practice counseling, law or medicine (or any other profession) without a license! Direct people to company resources (if available) or, encourage them to seek appropriate outside help.

 3. We all need a break once in awhile. Provide reasonable flexibility for people to gain outside help or to attend outside appointments. Encourage the use of vacation and personal days as appropriate.  Beware of this moving from exception to norm, however.

4. Warning! Don’t let personal problems become excuses for sub-par performance. If you see a pattern of poor performance or chronic tardiness developing, don’t hesitate to tackle this issue. Keep it focused on the business and don’t allow the conversation around performance to be redirected back to the personal issues.  Empathy is good. You also have a business to run.

5. Don’t become part of the problem by making excuses for the individual. Everyone is watching. Create one double-standard and your credibility is shot.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Navigating this particularly sticky obstacle requires you to apply the same balanced, fair approach consistently across all team members in all circumstances involving personal issues. Your entire team is watching and judging.

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.

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s 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.

 

 

Art of Managing: The Power of a Well-Placed “No”

ArtofManaging“Don’t tell me what you’re doing. Tell me what you’ve stopped doing.” Peter Drucker

“No” is one of the most powerful and under-utilized terms in your management vocabulary. Here are ten situations where “No” might be the absolute right call.

10 Situations Where “No”  Might Just Save the Day:

 1. In strategy when the potential vector or investment is outside your competence and core strategy, no matter how potentially lucrative. If the strategy is broken, fix it, but don’t risk diluting your efforts chasing shiny objects.

2. When saying “yes” to a project creates a too many projects chasing too few resources situation. The project/resource imbalance is epidemic in most firms. Cut it out. Either find more resources or, follow Drucker’s advice and quit doing something else!

3. When you find yourself fighting your gut instinct on hiring someone. This is one situation where the gut is almost always right. The credentials, smiles and interviewing skills might be saying “yes,” but if the gut says “no,” listen to it!

 4. When someone suggests you cut quality to satisfy cost targets. There’s always a better way.

5. When someone asks you to “take off your (insert function) hat and put on your (insert function) hat.” Sorry, but what they’re really asking you to do is to suspend your common sense, put aside your experience-based judgment, lobotomize yourself and pursue a path that is wrong. This approach reflects pure management evil!

6. When the mantra coming from the team is, “…but, with just a little bit more time and money…  .” These more time and money pleas are indicators that you are blazing a path down the sunk cost trail. Quit throwing good cash after bad. The old cash is gone. It’s sunk. Call it.

 7. When a pending decision puts you on the uncomfortable side of an ethical dilemma. If it’s gray, say “No” and seek counsel. In that order. It’s called moral courage.

 8. When everyone in the group is nodding their head “yes” too quickly and too easily. Saying “No” is the last line of defense against group-think.

9. Whenever someone suggests outsourcing a customer facing function. Outsourcing customer service should be a crime punishable by prison time. Just say “No!”

10. When restructuring is suggested as a fix to an organization’s problems without consideration of the impact it will have on customers. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose track of what counts when the turf battles begin.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It’s hard to say “no.” We often associate “yes” with right and good. Too often, “yes” is the weak response. It’s time to practice putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and emphasize the N in this powerful and value saving and creating word, “No!”

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.

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art of Managing: Beware the Pursuit of False Precision in Planning

Diagram with a question mark in the center and why, where, when, how, what, who surroundingIn preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” -Dwight Eisenhower

Chance are, you’ve seen this movie before. It’s the one where you or your team are on the hook for distilling the chaos and complexity of the market and the ambiguities and risks surrounding emerging opportunities, competitors and disruptive technologies, into a nice, neat multi-year forecast.

Sadly, for all of the effort that goes into cramming the complexities of the markets and human behavior into a few flipping cells on a spreadsheet, the output often isn’t worth a damn. 

The future has an annoying habit of ignoring our efforts to corral it in the form of plans.  Especially when it comes to financial forecasts.

My issue isn’t with the work of planning. It’s with the literal reliance on the output that so many managers and corporate bean-counters impose upon their teams.

The Positives-What the Act of Planning Does for Us:

  • It forces us to look at ourselves and our offerings and ideas in the mirror. There’s something particularly shocking about the image of a naked plan in bright fluorescent lighting in front of a full-length mirror. You’ll see flaws that demand attention!
  • It challenges us to ask and answer: “Why do we think we can succeed with this plan?” That’s a healthy discussion.
  • Good planning is an exercise in not only predicting risks, but in preparing for the risks we can’t envision. Luck will happen…good and bad. It’s what we do with it that counts.
  • Planning forces us to bring forth the assumptions and thus our biases that push us in one direction versus another.
  • Planning sets the stage for future learning.
  • Planning opens the door to innovation.

At Least 4 Reasons to Beware the False Pursuit of Precision in Planning:

1. The Crystal Ball is Notoriously Unreliable. In spite of all of the benefits of the work of planning, one of them is not a set of numbers that magically corrals the future and forces it to cooperate accordingly. The forecast output of planning serves as a guideline and a measuring stick, but not an absolute.

2. You Potentially Introduce Less Than Desirable Behaviors into Your Team’s Efforts. Unnatural reliance on the output of planning biases behaviors in pursuit of numbers or goals that weren’t predictable in the first place.  I see it in sales forecasting and multi-year business plans. I love SAS founder Jim Goodnight’s response to the issue of public firms (SAS is private) predicting quarterly earnings during an interview aired on 60 Minutes a number of years ago: “There’s no possible way I can tell you what my earnings are going to be to the penny each quarter. There’s only one way to get there to the penny. You have to cook the books.”

3. We Lose Track of the Details and Assumptions Surrounding the Numbers. Too many senior managers base success…relative success or failure and all its’ attendant implications on the numbers output of planning, forgetting the assumptions, risks, expectations for learning and uncertainties that went into the numbers. That’s a superficial way to deal with your people and your firm.

4. Competitor and Customer Behaviors and Market Forces Defy Financial Smoothing. Human and group behavior in the face of changing circumstances is difficult to corral into a cell on a spreadsheet. Sorry, we’re complex and we don’t give a damn about your forecast.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m not excusing us from the act of planning. Nor am I suggesting that we simply let the future unfold without forecasting. On the contrary, as a good manager, you must understand your costs, your revenue model and how you make money. And you’re on the hook for growing and strengthening over time.

However, instead of relying on what is most often an unnatural level of precision around an unpredictable set of numbers, build the systems and processes to incorporate learning, constantly refresh forecasts and push the planning forward.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:

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

Download a free excerpt of Leadership Caffeine (the book) at Art’s facebook page.

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s 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.

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