Art of Managing—Helping Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Situation

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.

“85-percent of organizational problems are system related and only 15-percent are related to people.” –W. Edwards Deming

As managers, it’s our sacred responsibility to create and continuously improve an environment and system that allows our people to do their best work.

This system that Deming speaks of is an amalgam of the values, behaviors, processes and approaches in pursuit of the firm’s core mission that define the personality of an organization. The approaches and processes around decision-making, planning, developing talent and executing on projects and core operations are all part of the system. Innovation, creativity, employee and customer engagement and financial performance are critical outcomes of an effective system.

Few managers would disagree with their responsibility and accountability for creating this effective environment. Like breathing, it’s a good idea to invest time and energy in practices that promote a healthy, efficient and effective system. In reality, many firms do a good job of this in stable markets…the operative word being “stable.”

I’ve worked in and around many organizations where the firm’s leaders point proudly to a long string of successful years and effectively suggest that they’ve cracked the code of sustaining performance. Their organizations are well-tuned for the current state, the numbers are just good enough to keep stakeholders happy and employees have that swagger of consistent champions.

And Then “It” Happens:

“It” is most often some form of disruption…an unanticipated competitor move, a new market entrant, a disruptive technology innovation or some unexpected shock to society. Regardless of the source, change becomes the order of the day and the long-successful senior leaders react to the situation in a logical fashion and begin to talk about the firm moving down a new path with new strategies or approaches.

New initiatives and projects are born and the latest books consumed in search of answers or approaches that lead to answers. And when results aren’t immediately visible, energy and enthusiasm for experimentation and innovation wane and the pursuit of new consistently loses out to the gravitational pull of the old. From investment dollars and attention, the pursuit of new is often suffocated…for what seems like perfectly rational reasons chasing today’s problems. After a period of time, the wheels on the vehicle that is the effort to pursue new begin to wobble and parts start to fly off as the firm races towards an uncertain destination via an unknown path through uncharted terrain.

With apologies for mixed metaphors, the ride begins to resemble Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing and horrifying post-presidential journey deep into uncharted portions of the Amazon, as he and his colleagues navigated all manner of disasters and dangers as they followed the aptly named River of Doubt.

Once the dangers become visible and the wobble of the wheels sensed by everyone, the fun begins. That is if you find journeying through organizational and career hell some form of perverse fun.

The Level-Up Opportunity:

This moment in time when a firm faces the critical need to change is what I describe as a Level-Up opportunity.  Level-Up opportunities typically involve individuals, teams or entire firms learning to navigate situations of extreme ambiguity and potential peril. We face them as individuals in our careers as we take on new challenges and climb the ladder of responsibility. Organizations face Level-Up opportunities as they strive to do something new…develop and implement a new strategy, move to a new market, capture a new group of customers or pursue an innovation they perceive will leverage their strengths and enhance their fortunes.

It’s somewhere during the flailing phase at the front-end of of a Level-Up situation that people recognize that the old system doesn’t work for new needs. Sure, business the old way continues just fine, after all the system is optimized for the old. However, when it comes to new, the gears grind, the engine smokes, rpms rise and speed slows to a crawl.

It’s time to change the system.

The old ways don’t work for new markets, customers, technologies or business models. It’s also at this time where too many senior leaders choose the wrong paths and tactics. Like Roosevelt’s team attempting to descend a seemingly never-ending number of treacherous rapids and falls during their journey down the River of Doubt, what worked for us at the last rapid or fall results in us smashing our canoes to bits on the rocks in this new environment, endangering lives and squandering precious time and resources.

Beware the Siren Song of Two Powerful Actions:

There are two reflexive actions by senior managers that often exacerbate the wobble. The first is a creeping belief that the people that brought them this far aren’t the right people for the journey ahead. They begin to doubt the abilities of their people to learn, adapt and succeed.

The second mistake is to assume that the organization’s structure is at fault. It’s not. It’s the strategy and system.

While there are nuggets of truth in both of these reflexive thoughts, the actions must be filtered against a clear strategy and tempered appropriately or you risk making a difficult situation impossible.

Change is difficult. Ambiguity and complexity are powerful adversaries in the fight for successful change, and while no simple list of ideas offer the absolute right answers, these seven are intended to help you strive for clarity and simplicity while learning to deal step by step with ambiguity.

Seven Ideas to Help Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Opportunity:

1. Senior Executives Must Link Arms on the New Strategy Direction. Easy words…damned difficult to achieve in practice. Most senior leaders struggle to show up in the same zip code on strategy much less end up on the same page in the same book in the same house. CEO leadership is essential here…with clarity as an absolute and once the direction is set, senior manager compliance essential. Fight it out with vigor and honor, but link arms and go forward aligned and resolute.

2. It’s Not a Strategy If No One in the Firm Understands It. The hard work of strategy begins after the boardroom brawling ends on this topic. Your job is to simplify the strategy and ensure that everyone not only gets it, but sees how they play a role in supporting it.

3. Remember, It’s Not Important to People Just Because You Said it Is. Don’t assume awareness equals either understanding or support. Your approach to strategy development and then execution task definition and implementation must get everyone involved in offering input and backing words with actions..

4. Bet on Your People First and then Acquire to Fill Key Gaps. There’s no doubt that anything new requires education, training and yes, some fresh perspectives from people immune to the firm’s dominant logic. Strive to objectively assess the skills needed for the new strategy and then focus on whether those skills can be learned, trained or whether they must be acquired. We’re too quick to assume acquisition is the answer…when the reality is that your good people are typically hungry for something big and new to do and willing to pour their hearts and souls into it. (For people who resist new learning and new directions, drop them off politely and professionally at the next rest stop. You’ve got no time to waste.)

5. Tune the Organization to Align Superpowers with Key Opportunities. Instead of assuming that a new structure is the solution….something that often emerges from these challenging and frequently political battles over change, use as your emphasis aligning the absolute best resources with the biggest opportunities. Strategy should highlight the best opportunities…now, plug in the people with the right superpowers to succeed for each key opportunity. More often than not, wholesale restructuring squanders precious time and creates confusion. The Superpower-to-Opportunity approach reduces resistance and accelerates the time to implementation so critical in this situation.

6. Use Formal Project Management Practices to Execute the Key Strategy Initiatives. Most strategies breakdown in the execution phase…not the idea phase. For your key initiatives, establish formal project teams complete with an executive sponsor, a clear charter and scope and a well define project team with priorities and targets. Then use this project-focus to provide visibility into progress and to capture lessons learned along the way.

7. Use Process Mapping Relentlessly to Support Building the New System. The work of mapping out key processes around selling, marketing, supporting, deciding, measuring etc. is priceless. Remember that the gravitational pull of “we’ve done it this way” is extremely powerful. Process Mapping helps identify opportunities for new approaches and of course, it highlights flaws, blind spots, inefficiencies and in general it supports cross-functional collaboration and learning.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deming was once asked what he hoped his legacy would be. In the interview (I paraphrase), he responded quickly with, “I’ll doubt I’ll be remembered at all.” Then after thinking about it, he offered, “I would like to be remembered for trying to help (American) companies from committing suicide.”

The seven suggestions above are not foreign to most senior leaders. They reflect some good commonsense. However, their use in synchronization is way too rare. When striving to navigate a Level-Up opportunity and adapt your system to changing circumstances, using these ideas is like breathing…a really good idea. Anything else has a bad outcome. Now, breathe…

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Introducing The Saturday Serial—An Ongoing Management & Leadership Case

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeA note from Art:

I’ve long believed serials are great ways to share stories. Dickens published many of his works in serial format and the dockworkers were reputed to shout from the shore as ships arrived with the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, “Did little Nell live?” The Golden Age of Science Fiction was filled with stories told one chapter at a time from issue-to-issue and today’s Game of Thrones novels from George R.R. Martin are an excellent example of the serial on steroids, with fans (myself included) waiting impatiently to learn the fate of our favorite characters and hoping that Mr. Martin finishes the story. Who lives? Who dies? Who conquers?

Serials provide readers an opportunity to become invested in a story and the characters, and I believe the approach provides authors an opportunity to think and then create new twists and new approaches to challenge the characters and further engage the readers. As a child and teen I was addicted to the Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries because I appreciated the characters and I loved the ability to try and solve the cases. I’ve added that twist here in the form of discussion questions and I look forward to sharing my ideas and learning how readers might solve these business cases.

Welcome to my intent and attempt to share and cultivate management and leadership lessons beyond the format of a stale blog post and endless lists of “10 ideas to… .” While I love writing the Management Excellence blog and the first 1,025 posts are testament to my commitment, I’ve wanted to experiment with the serial and management fable format here for a long time. I’m emboldened by the reader appreciation for the short, fictional cases around my mythical APEX Corporation, inserted in front of the chapters in my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership. Those mini-cases and their discussion questions and the author’s take on the cases have been a staple of this book and something many managers have leveraged to stimulate thinking around the issues we all face in growing as leaders. I’m grateful for the appreciation many of you have expressed for those cases.

Lencioni and Goldratt popularized the novelized or fable form of business lessons in their various writings and I understand that some of you love those and others don’t. For those who prefer their business and leadership lessons and questions with a taste of drama, The Saturday Serial is ideal for you.

Beginning with my first episode, “Welcome to ACME John Anderson,” you will meet a growing cast of characters facing a series of very real management, leadership and career challenges in this fictional high-tech, global conglomerate and its various units and divisions.

Yes, the issues are real. I see them every day and I’ve experienced and observed these dilemmas around strategy and execution and learning to lead and learning to manage in many flavors  for 30-years. And while the characters and firms are all fictional, I will wager a fair amount, you will recognize these issues and challenges…and many of you will be dealing with them in real time. Now, you get to see and hear them unfold here in this on-going series of stories and cases, and hopefully, we’ll all engage in sharing some ideas on how to navigate the challenges. After all, the intent of my work and this entire blog is to help those striving to grow their firms and grow in their careers find useful and creative ideas and answers to the vexing challenges we all face during our journeys.

Welcome to The Saturday Serial at Management Excellence I hope you’ll tune in and chime in as the story develops. After all, the beauty of this format is that you can help determine the outcomes. -Art

Check out Episode Number 1.

 All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

I’m convinced one of the key limiting factors of management team effectiveness is the discomfort these high-powered functional experts have in talking with each other.

While there are few quiet senior management team meetings, the words exchanged tend to be more about functional updates and carefully worded ideas or collegial debate over direction or investments than they are about the real issues confronting the firm.

Some suggest the CEO remind these individuals to leave their functional hats at the door, but this seemingly sound guidance is simply impossible. It’s the functional expertise and perspective that forms and frames senior managers and there’s no leaving the well-patterned thinking and experience anywhere. It’s foolish advice as well. The wisdom gained by experience is why you hired these people in the first place. Better to harness it than banish it from the scene.

Another reality of the communication dynamic between groups of senior managers is an exercise in political sensitivity. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t step over an invisible but very real line in challenging other senior managers, lest you embarrass someone in front of the CEO and/or invite an angry response and eventual reprisal.

Instead of tackling the tough issues, topics are politely floated with carefully selected words intended to soften the risk of a perceived slight, and less than complete answers serve as periods that punctuate the end-points of the topic.

The real challenge for CEOs and senior managers is to transcend the forces that keep these groups from talking openly and comfortably with each other about the tough issues or decisions standing in the way of progress. Depending upon the state of the management team, one or more of the following ideas might help take the dialog to a new level of effectiveness.

5 Blocking and Tackling Ideas for Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice:

1. Bring in outside help. Most CEOs aren’t able to overcome the issues that impede senior management team communication effectiveness, try as they might…either by moral suasion or sheer force of personality. I’ve sat on both sides of this table…as the coach/facilitator and as one of the challenged senior executives, and in environments where the right help and coaching is present for the team, discussions flourish and real progress is built one topic at a time. A good facilitator will cut through double-speak, call out people who aren’t participating and cry foul when the topic steers off course. A small investment for a priceless return.

2. Create Nominal Group Opportunities. This under-utilized technique for eliciting ideas is no more complicated than framing up a single, focused question or approach and allowing senior executives to contribute in writing, anonymously. Yes, I know that sounds weak…senior executives forced to share ideas cloaked behind the veil of anonymity, however, the technique depersonalizes the discussion and allows people to focus on the issues…safely away from the real-time filters that suppress face to face communication. While there’s always some guessing on who submitted what ideas or critiques, the depersonalization of the input changes the communication dynamic for the better. The focus stays more on the issues and ideas and is less about perceived agendas. Appoint someone to organize and share the feedback and key points.

3. Keep it visible, but use a written discussion board format. I never cease to be amazed at how well my MBA students open up and share in discussion board forums and I’ve observed the same with management teams. This technique offers an opportunity for individuals to review and share ideas on their own time and at their own pace. Instead of fleeting words in a meeting, the opinions of others are captured and visible to read and reflect upon, while forming their own thoughts. The results are often rich, thoughtful perspectives that compare/contrast and build upon the opinions of others. One bonus…the perspectives are archived for easy reference or reminder.

4. Ensure that discussions have a way to turn into action. Again, odd sounding, but these talented professionals who often manage big budgets and big teams aren’t accustomed to taking on work as part of a team. That’s a muscle that for many at the senior level has long atrophied. Use project management techniques and a project approach for executive team assignments. Always appoint a sponsor…create a charter and write a good quality scope document that frames the expected outcomes/time-frames for the work. As needed, add in a professional project manager to guide the execs and politely but firmly hold them accountable to progress.

5. Write the rules. Most senior management teams don’t take the time to ensure clear, written rules for their discussions. Try establishing clear standards and values for communication, including: one topic at a time; everyone participates; divergent opinions are welcomed; there’s a time for assessing risks and identifying problems with ideas…and there’s a time for building solutions…don’t mix those time-frames. This is work that good project managers and team builders do in their sleep…but most CEOs aren’t wired to focus on the hard work of building team dynamics and team communication standards.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s nothing easy about building high performance teams, particularly when the group at hand is comprised of senior executives. The real value that accrues from these groups of high powered people working together comes from their ability to have the right conversations and move from issue to action quickly and effectively. While the topics of these groups…direction, strategy and investment are big and lofty and ambiguous, the use of one or more of the above ideas can help neutralize the political dynamics and help the group develop a more effective and open communication style and cadence.

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.


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.

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: 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.


Why Workplace Teams Struggle—And What to Do About It

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 workplace teams I observe are not much better than the typical nightmarish college class group project that most of us have lived through at one time or another. The goals are vague, roles are poorly defined, leadership is absent or misdirected and there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for participating, ranging from the loner’s cry of, “Get me out of here!” to the naïve whine of, “Why can’t we all get along?” Oh, and don’t forget that there’s always a few simply along for the ride while others practically kill themselves in an effort to prop up the rest of the team.

Too many of our workplace teams stumble along in search of performance and quality output, while we as managers look on with a mix of horror and disappointment at the slow-motion pile-ups occurring in front of us.

And while we would like to point to senior management teams as best practice examples, those groups are most often “teams” in name only, struggling to get out of the starting gate on anything more than showing up and sharing functional and operating status updates.

At Least 4 Big Reasons Why Our Workplace Teams Struggle:

1. We’re naïve. We ignore the reality that groups of otherwise competent professionals don’t necessarily and naturally combine and produce. 1+1+1+1 should = 5 or more according to the theory, yet without guidance, coaching and structure, breaking even on productivity is a long-shot in most cases.

2. We don’t teach people how to work in groups. And yes, working successfully in and with groups is a learned skill. Sure, all of your team members have been through leadership development programs, but helping individuals develop their own leadership skills doesn’t necessarily translate to performance in a group setting. The skills, practices and behaviors necessary for team success and success on a team are different than those required for leadership success.

3. We don’t coach our teams. This simplest of all steps…ensuring that our key project teams, our senior management teams and other related work groups have valid, objective coaching support is almost summarily ignored in the corporate world.

4. We don’t walk the talk when it comes to teaming. Our values might include the word “team” or “teamwork,” but we don’t teach and reward the behaviors that make teams work.

9 Ideas to Help Strengthen Team Performance in Your Workplace: 

1. Embrace the idea that cultivating high performance teams in the workplace is hard work. Too many of us ignore this reality. Acknowledge this publicly when forming a new group. Share ideas on the challenges and opportunities of group work and leverage the ideas and tools below liberally as part of the teaming process.

2. Extend professional development efforts in your organization beyond individual skills development. Add a “team” track to the work and provide widespread access to this content. From brainstorming to making decisions to learning to adapt based on momentary failures or risks, doing this in a group setting is difficult and merits investment in training.

3. Define behaviors critical for team success and openly discuss and debate those behaviors with any new team you are forming. Codify these behaviors and strive to keep them visible in the process of group work. Individual team members must understand they are accountable to supporting and exhibiting the behaviors spelled out in the values.

4. Encourage teams to examine primary contributors to project or group failure. While it’s fairly intuitive that vague goals, unclear roles and a lack of understanding of the customer are contributors to project stress or failure, many otherwise smart people contribute on groups who step all over those landmines. It’s healthy for people to be challenged to recognize the problems and press the stop button.

5. Challenge teams to define what success looks like in their own terms. This firm definition of success (perhaps shared via a custom scorecard) is priceless context that supports performance.

6. Make a religion out of choosing team leaders right for the situation. Seniority or title are almost never the right reasons to choose someone as a team leader. Choose the individual who offers each unique group the best chance of success.

7. Provide a coach for critical projects. Every team struggles to learn how to talk, debate, brainstorm, decide, provide feedback, learn and of course, execute. A coach is your best chance of helping a group learn how to navigate these challenges.

8. Recognize that teams cycle through phases of storming, norming and performing. Leadership and coaching are essential to help not only with the early-awkward phase of start-up, but also as projects progress and new or unanticipated challenges arise.

9. Get the executives involved. One of the critical contributors to project or group success is an informed, empowered executive serving as a sponsor and resource for a team. The ability of this individual to cut through corporate noise is priceless. A good executive sponsor is part advocate, part coach and part accountability guru, and is present and involved at the right level.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Great teams don’t happen by accident. They are products of very deliberate work to form the environment for success. While our natural tendency on groups is to bypass the squishy front-end of purpose and behaviors definition and get to work, the time spend defining what success looks like is the most valuable time of all. Teach, coach and support your teams for success. Anything less is a formula for individual and group stress and poor performance. It’s time to quit watching the group pile-ups and start building in the values, behaviors and programs that help these teams succeed!

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.