Art of Managing—There’s No Substitute for the Right Tools

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.

My Dad often reminds me during our various build or fix projects that, “There’s no substitute for the right tool.”

While I’m comfortable with my typical selection of the Big-3 (hammer, screwdriver and adjustable wrench) for most projects, Dad travels with a well-stocked toolbox filled with all manner of shiny, unique tools designed for very specific challenges. He takes particular pride in going to just the perfect tool for a sticky project situation and then applying it skillfully to solve the problem.

He’s right of course. He can fix or build anything and the workmanship is great. My improvement projects are a bit more “triage-like” in their appearance and function.

Dad’s constant reminder of the right tool for the situation fits in management as well.

Too often, managers trot out their own variation of their “Big 3” with approaches such as S.W.O.T analysis, template-type strategy frameworks, multi-year forecasting models, cascading goal planning, a project team or 360-degree feedback and others (insert your firm’s standard issue tools here), when the situation calls for something very different.

Most of the tools of management were conceived in an era characterized by a great deal of consistency and predictability…two attributes in short supply today. We’re living and working in an era of complexity…characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity and we need new tools to help us successfully navigate through the fog and around the many unknown risks lurking just out of sight.

In addition to the tactical templates and instruments referenced above that offer little help in making sense out of complexity born by constant change, much of our larger workplace environment…our superstructure (think hierarchical, siloed organizational structure) seems and feels anachronistic in a world where speed and adaptability are much more important than top-down driven efficiency.

Zappos has been in the news recently for their attempt to eliminate all managers from their organization. Coverage of their experimentation with holacracy seems to end up more on the negative/scoffing/it’s doomed side, and while this reductionist technique doesn’t “feel quite right” to me, it’s an interesting attempt to re-think the organizational superstructure and supporting tools. This experiment bears watching. (As I’m reading McCullough’s excellent new book, The Wright Brothers, it serves us all to remember that most of the people experimenting with flight were widely lampooned in the press and in society during that era.)

Whether holacracy becomes a useful tool or not, there are less revolutionary but potentially effective approaches for structuring and teaming in our organizations. Managers are well-served to study McChrystal’s “Team of Teams” content in his recent book. Sadly, the experience gained in today’s form of combat is highly applicable to our approach to managing and structuring and leading in a complex, fast-changing world.

The article, “Strategy Under Uncertainty,” at McKinsey, does a great job of describing why various tools and management approaches work or do not apply depending upon the level of complexity you are experiencing in your industry. I see the logic suggested in this article violated regularly as executives and management teams attempt to corral complexity into their world-view…which is of course based on experience gained in a different era. The most common violation is the attempt to plot an “Escape Velocity” strategy…a move into new markets or businesses by leveraging the same multi-year planning model used for the very mature businesses. While there are few certainties in life or business, this approach is certain to fail.

My encouragement is to diversify your toolkit with new approaches and ideas for translating external noise and complexity into ideas, insights and intelligent experiments. It’s likely you will need to craft some of your own tools in the process.

Teams and firms winning in this world are creating approaches that emphasize translation of external noise into relentless focus on simple but not simplistic questions such as: what does this mean for us/our customers/our competitors? How might this disrupt our business model? How can we innovate with more than just technology? How can we move faster from experimentation to monetization?  And many others.

Effective managers are pushing the development of perceptual acuity…attempting to see around corners, with their teams. They’re inviting customers to the team…crossing boundaries within their organizations to develop a broader perspective and going outside of their firms and even their customer groups to see what’s happening in environments radically different…but where they are tackling analogous issues.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Yes, I know…these are big, lofty and abstract thoughts that seem easy to write and that don’t fit with your need to prepare that next 3-year plan …or get ready for the once per year strategy offsite (a convention that must die…strategy is an all-the-time activity). Yet, the warning signs of creative destruction are all around us with the daily changing fortunes of long-standing and new firms. Outgoing Cisco CEO, John Chambers, stared at his customers at their annual conference the other day and suggested that 40% of them wouldn’t exist in a material way in 10 years.

It’s time to rethink everything, including the tools we use to manage and plan for our very uncertain futures. There is no substitute for the right tool. Sometimes, you simply have to create that tool.

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Leadership Caffeine—Becoming Agile and Adaptable is THE Leadership Issue

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

What if everything that used to work for your business no longer did?

The business challenge of this era for long established firms is much about escaping the powerful pull of the past. Approaches that worked so well for so long are rendered impotent by shifting technologies, new forms of competition armed with different business models and disruptive offerings, and by customers whose needs are changing as they struggle with the same macro challenges you are.

Historically, we built our organizations for efficiency and our leadership and management approaches reflected this purpose. We built tall organizations with distinct silos surrounded by moats and supported by the defenses of the silo executive. While the vestiges of those castles and moats still survive in many organizations, they (and their senior leaders) are increasingly out of place…out of context with the realities of the day. They are organizational and leadership anachronisms.

Adaptability is key, yet many leaders struggle to understand what to do to create it. Their words say “speed and agility,” but their measurements and compensation systems scream “efficiency.

When cheerleading and half-baked attempts at styles that feel agile and adaptable fail, the poor outcomes are rationalized as reasons to revert to the old and “normal.” New investments in new markets that are held accountable to the same measures as the core business fail, because you cannot measure and manage new start-ups the same way as long established businesses in old markets. People and groups that operate with a well-baked set of logic about the business are leveraged to build a new set of logic. Failure is predictable. It is self-fulfilling.

Success in building the adaptable organization (e.g. McChrystal’s Team of Teams) is the obligation, responsibility and requirement of leadership. It’s not 50% a leadership challenge or 80% a leadership challenge. It’s THE leadership challenge. Yet too many in leadership sit in wide-eyed wonder as the world changes and their business decays, decrying the failure of the team to adapt. They fiddle while their businesses burn.

Success with this difficult dilemma requires senior leaders to re-think their points-of-view on everything, with emphasis on the role of the leader, the development of true teams and their viewpoint on navigating uncertainty and risk.

The nature of leadership hasn’t fundamentally changed, but the focus has and must. Today’s leader is demanding…of his/her team and of himself/herself, yet the focus is on forming and framing the environment for success. This leader exists to bring the team to life…and to allow team members to become their best…as individuals and as a group. This leader serves…more than commands.

Instead of efficiency, adaptability is the focal point. Learning to leverage new technologies…the weapons of business is essential. Enabling groups to sense and respond…to learn and refine…to experiment, fail and then succeed is the work of the leader. It’s about adaptability.

Risk and uncertainty are now invited to the party. Instead of resolving to the status quo in the face of uncertainty, there’s a need to run at the unknown and figure it out as you learn. Risk isn’t something to be avoided at all costs…it’s on your team and part of learning.

Teams offer remarkable potential, yet we all know that mostly, they fail in our organizations, not because the concept is flawed, but because we are flawed in our structure, support and leadership of these teams. Moving beyond the lipservice most leaders give about teams to enabling true team development is essential.

Once again, Walt Kelly was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While we are bombarded with facts about the obvious…that things are different today in our world, we’re stubborn in our willingness to let go of dated thinking and obsolete approaches to leading and managing. It’s time for all of us to re-think how to reapply the tools of management and leadership to a world that isn’t going to revert to what used to work. Let’s get on with it leaders!

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Art of Managing—Humility, Teamwork and Focus

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.

Note from Art: this post inspired by the excellent new book, “The Navy Seal Art of War—Leadership Lessons from the World’s Most Elite Fighting Force,” by Rob Roy with Chris Lawson.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, the late, great quality and management guru, W. Edwards Deming responded with, “I probably won’t be remembered.” After thinking about it, he added, “I would like to be remembered for trying to keep (American) businesses from committing suicide.”

While wrong on the former…although I’m finding less and less familiarity with Deming and his work with my ready-to-graduate MBA students, his emphasis on railing against and eliminating the sloppy management approaches that destroy potential and confound otherwise motivated employees (regardless of country affiliation) is still very relevant. Perhaps now more than ever, given the complexity of today’s world versus the world that rose from the ashes of World War II that Deming experienced.

In a sea of books and articles published regularly on navigating complexity in our world today, few capture the solution as succinctly as the three words: humility, teamwork and focus. (Roy uses the appropriate military appropriate term, “mission” in place of my choice of the word focus.)

One defines the attitude required for success from the top to the bottom; one defines the essential obligation of each and every individual engaged in any initiative and the other describes the need for context or common purpose. Misfire on one or more of these and the results range from poor to disastrous.

The New Ingredients for Organizational Success:

The firms and teams I’m finding that are succeeding in this world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and risk have re-thought 3 core issues tied to these terms:

1. The role of the leader. Today’s effective leader exists primarily to serve the team. The role is very little about command and control and much more about serving and supporting and importantly, working relentlessly to realize an environment that allows a true team to emerge and sustain. It’s less about authority and much more about recruiting and developing talent, establishing and reinforcing expectations and accountability and about serving and protecting the team members. And, it’s about ensuring that team members are able to step up and lead if the situation demands it. This leader…today’s effective team leader in my view is one who is good with people…not one who leads solely based on title and level in a hierarchy. I like this leader. It feels like we’re finally getting this role right for this world we live and work in.

2. The critical importance of the team. Look at the reported statistics on failure rates with the two most relevant team challenges in our organizations: strategy execution and project management (McKinsey on strategy execution failure; Standish Group Chaos Report on project failure), and it is safe to conclude that many of us haven’t cracked the code on deriving value from the sum of the parts with our teams.

In my observations of many different organizations who are winning in today’s environment, at least part of their success stems from having fundamentally rethought everything about the nature, purpose, structure, leadership and support of the team. Gone from these environments are the loose confederations of resources, replaced instead by lean groups comprised of cognitively diverse individuals focused on a single mission. Focus is key…and in my experience, it is almost always missing with groups who are flailing or who have failed. And of course, where I’m finding teams that are working…succeeding with innovation, product development, IT infrastructure deployment and strategy execution, I don’t have to look far to find a leader that fits the description above. Often they are the quietest ones in the room. Humble but fierce.

3. The attitude about risk. Risk has long been something we strive to tame, but much like the weather, we’re better off doing everything we can to anticipate changes and adverse events and then learning to quickly respond or adapt. Teams that are winning have invited risk to their parties in the form of fast-to-fail or the positive form, fast-to-learn type approaches. Instead of giving lip-service to experimentation (which demands failure on the path to success), they are living it and learning from it at a hyper pace. The focus on team; the right leadership and the focus on the mission are essential ingredients to enabling successful experimentation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m growing fatigued with firms frozen in place as they watch their world change while they grow more obsolete by the minute. This is an outcome of leadership failure at the top and chronic organizational laziness. Similarly, while the work products (books, articles) that describe the complexities of today’s and tomorrow’s worlds are fascinating… they do a great job describing the ever-changing weather, they often fail to offer much help on how to survive, adapt and succeed. At least part of the answer is simple…but not simplistic. Rethink the role of the leader; rethink and accept risk as essential to learning in your environment and strive to realize true teams versus those imposter groups that bungle so many of our initiatives. Humility, teamwork and focus are three powerful starter ingredients.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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: 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.

Art of Managing—Thriving at the Speed of Change

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.

The current theme in much of today’s management writing and speaking focuses on the unparalleled speed and volume of change present in our world.

From the work of Gary Hamel (video: Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment”) to the excellent new book, “No Ordinary Disruption,” by Dobbs, Manyika and Woetzel at McKinsey, to a variety of other new works, the literature certainly suggests it’s a fascinating and simultaneously frightening time to be responsible for guiding an organization forward into the storm. While we’re all busy learning to navigate and leverage (or understand) Big Data, the real issue is or should be navigating Big Change.

In “No Ordinary Disruption,” the authors offer a powerful, research-backed narrative describing the four primary forces behind the shifting landscape of society and business. These include the massive movement of people to urban centers in much of the under-developed world; the ever-present and unrelenting pace of technological change; the aging of the world’s population and the powerful force of globalization.

The book is fascinating…the evidence compelling and if you’re in charge of one of yesterday’s businesses, you’re to be excused if one of your thoughts is to go back to bed, pull the blankets up tighter and hope to awaken in a period of stability and predictability.

Nice thoughts, but you can kiss that dream of stability and predictability goodbye. Welcome to the rest of your career where nothing looks particularly familiar and what brought you here won’t take you or your firm there.

My one disappointment  with much of the current writing about change is that it is short on the “what to do about it,” content, in part because the notion of all this change makes for fascinating reading, and in part, because it’s not clear what exactly we should be doing in many cases.

Navigating the unknown…rethinking or discarding old strategies, offerings and approaches is uncomfortable and difficult work. Yet, it’s work we must undertake. While this is a big topic (worthy of book length), I’ll start small and keep building through the Art of Managing posts. (And yes, I know the words are easy and the actions challenging…but we have to start somewhere.)

5 Ideas to Get You Started on Navigating Big Change:

1. Learn to Look for Opportunity in Uncertainty. The operative word is “learn.” Our natural reaction to the notion of change in our business model is some combination of fear mixed with a drive to look harder for reasons to rationalize maintaining the status quo. The firms and teams I’m working with who are succeeding in rethinking their businesses are those who have embraced the idea that while change may disrupt the successful approaches of the past, it also opens the door to an almost endless set of new opportunities. They are focused on building the management tools, team talent and approaches needed to explore and test for ideas that stick.

2. Think Like an Explorer, Not a Manager. This is a great example where history is a teacher for the future. The polar adventures of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and others defined the original Great Age of Exploration and students of these adventures can apply the lessons from success and failure to our own circumstances. In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins and Martin Hansen offer a detailed description of how Amundsen prepared himself and his team to navigate all manner of unknowns and uncertainties and succeed in great form while his capable adversary, Scott perished along with his entire team. The risk taking was calculated…the mission was crystal clear, the tools and training emphasized adaptability and the risk mitigation planning was exemplary. Study the explorers and look for ideas to apply to your firm’s or team’s business explorations.

3. Recognize that Innovation is the Currency of the Future and It’s More than Product Innovation. Much of our conventional approach to navigating uncertainty in our markets is to focus on investing in our products. The natural tendency of good product managers is to look for ways to make their offerings more relevant to customers. While this will never go out of style, the reality is that the forces of change open up massive opportunities to innovate beyond product. From business models to customer engagement approaches to network/ecosystem innovation, there are a myriad of ways to reach more customers and outflank competitors by innovating beyond the product. A must read for everyone concerned about the future is Ten Types of Innovation,” where the authors offer up their periodic table of innovation elements and suggest that the most successful firm use multiple elements…beyond just product innovation.

4. Hunt for Ideas and Insights. Ram Charan calls this strengthening your perceptual acuity. Regardless of the label, it’s about teaching your team to go beyond their four walls and challenge themselves to observe and relate changing market, competitor and customer forces to one of the most powerful phrases that should be in your corporate vocabulary, “What this means for us, is… ,” or a variant, “Here’s how we can leverage this change to grow/strengthen our business.” Too many teams are inwardly focused…opining on customer issues and market trends while looking at the same view of the parking lot from the conference room window. One innovative firm sent their team out to a group of customers to observe a day in the life of data…as they tracked data flows around a particular set of processes in the business. The observations on process inefficiencies and challenges led to a significant number of insights for new offerings.

5. Pursue Intelligent Experimentation and Accept Compressed Time Horizons. Navigating uncertainty demands experimentation and experimentation embraces failure on the road to success. Traditionally, we view failure as something to be avoided…and mitigated. That worked fine during a period of time when next year in an industry looked a great deal like last year. Now, managers must learn to embrace the idea of failing forward to find innovations that might stick. Along with establishing conventions for widespread intelligent experimentation, we must shrink our view on acceptable time horizons. Experiments and subsequent strategy or offering development must resemble a series of sprints and our view to the expected marketplace life of our innovations must reduce to reflect the reality of shifting needs or tastes and the likelihood of disruption. This doesn’t preclude us from mining a lucrative vein for a long period of time, but the nature of our world is those veins will be seized upon and exhausted by fast and/or disruptive competitors and their offerings. Speed kills on the highway, but timeliness is of the essence in this new world.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While far from exhausting this expansive topic of thriving at the speed of change, we’ve defined some starting points well within your control. You own your own attitude about navigating uncertainty and as a senior manager, you have a great deal of power to create the approaches and tools and to guide your talent to become more adept at observing external forces at work and translating those observations and insights into actions. While the essence of most organizations and most teams is to preserve the status quo, this is one case where standing still practically guarantees that you’ll end up as global road kill. Steering into the fog with the right attitude and committed to finding the way forward as you go is a much better alternative.

At Least 10 Unnatural Acts of Misguided Management

TrippingNote to Readers: this column is rated “SM” for the representation of stupidity in management. Younger managers strongly cautioned.

At Least 10 Unnatural Acts of Misguided Management:

1. He only lied when his lips were moving. The CEO announcing to all of a firm’s employees, “there will be no layoffs,” over a pizza lunch in the warehouse. Ten days later, there were layoffs.

2. Coordination is over-rated. An executive team who despised each other so much, they never met. What do you think happened to this business? You’re right.

3. It turns out, people have to want to change. The manager who early on in his career believed he could change a brilliant but difficult person into a brilliant and not so difficult person. (Crap, I was that manager.)

4. Rats, I should have picked the other door! The executive of the market leading firm who defiantly announced to his team, We will not play in the low end of this market. There are no margins there. We own the high end” It turns out that when the high-end disappears due to the disruptive competitor and you have no viable response, there are no margins when there are no sales.

5. Homer Simpson said it best: “Doh!” When the team cannot answer the question, “How many customers or prospective customers were consulted in the making of this strategy?” with anything greater than zero, you’ve got a problem.

6. How many monkeys with a typewriter do we need to recreate Shakespeare’s works? When the CEO brings 45 people together for a strategy offsite and proceeds to have that entire group wordsmith vision and values for the entire offsite, you shouldn’t expect greatness. Or coherence. Or lucidity. It was like the audience of a play simultaneously feeding the actors their lines…one by one by one… and then arguing with each other over which line or which nuance of a line was right.

7. Cats and Dogs Achieving Instant Karma. Every meeting that has ever been held anywhere between two different management teams suddenly thrust together due to merger or consolidation and charged with the task in the next two days of creating a unified vision and strategy. Yes, all of them. Every one.

8. Great Moments in Corporate Motivation. There was the corporate slogan author of this global firm who provided instructions to the printer that must have said something to the effect of, use the same slogan as last year. When the tube containing the new slogan was opened and the banner unrolled for the first time at the management meeting, guess what it said? Yep. “Same Slogan as Last Year.” Seriously.

9. “With a bit more time and money, we’ll get this right.” The team who convinced themselves that every failure put them closer to success. It turns out, that’s not always the case. Sometimes with a bit more time and money, you just waste more time and money.

10. “The inventory said, what?” The GM who very seriously accused his management team of not listening closely to the inventory. It turns out, the inventory had shared with the GM that it was ready to be sold.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The pursuit of effective management is a noble calling. It’s too bad that too many managers give it a bad name.