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.

Art of Managing—Shiny Objects and the Senior Management Team

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsOne of the value killers found inside many organizations is the out of control pursuit of too many new initiatives. The resultant too few resources chasing too many projects, is a sure-fire way to create organizational stress as initiatives fall short, inefficiencies skyrocket and employees, stakeholders and customers grow perturbed.

In one client firm, the sure-fire path to success was to attach oneself to as many high visibility initiatives as possible, in the hope of being associated with the success of one of them. It was a political portfolio game, with most projects flailing and failing. Nonetheless, the politically charged environment and the visible path to success catalyzed a seemingly endless number of new initiatives designed to optimize the visibility and executive attachment of the idea generator without really focusing on solving critical problems.

The root cause of this undisciplined pursuit of new initiatives rests squarely on the collective shoulders of the management team. Both success and struggle are equal opportunity contributors to this situation.

Success generates the ego that tells management, “we can do no wrong,” and struggle or strategy disappointment (either the idea or the execution) generates political flailing that rationalizes the search for a quick fix.

Another team rationalized maneuvers several degrees off of a still-evolving core strategy in the name of revenue coverage. “Until we figure out the strategy, we’ve got to show growth,” was their mantra. Their lack of discipline led to to a collection of disparate initiatives that struggled for room to breathe in an environment where every idea was good and no ideas attached to revenue were turned away. They failed.

Effective management teams learn to recognize the signs of a breakdown in discipline and they redouble their efforts to promote clarity and minimize the tendency to fill ambiguity with unqualified activities.

These groups recognize the dangers of hubris born of success (Jim Collins) or the tendency to flail in search of quick answers when things go wrong. They understand that they are accountable for setting direction and ensuring that each and every choice to apply company resources must create the right kind of value. And they accept that determining just what the right kind of value truly is, is an exercise that can only be resolved through debate and deliberation.

One particularly effective management team holds themselves accountable to evaluating ideas against the filter of,  “Does it create the right kind of value?” They live by the mantra that not every dollar of revenue is created equal, and they’ve learned to separate interesting ideas from ideas that move them closer towards a desired future state (new markets or new customers). They’ve also learned to effectively and passionately make a case for new ideas and then make a decision and move forward. They credit their success to the senior executive who has worked tirelessly to depoliticize their environment and focus them on moving towards the future.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whether you sit on the senior management team or you sit in the middle of the organization where the real work takes place, strive to cultivate intelligent filters for new initiatives. Anchor to key corporate goals and strategies, and always ensure that your initiatives connect to a real customer…not a customer of myth or imagination.

Ideas are wonderful and you don’t want to stifle their generation, however, not every idea deserves to turn into an initiative. Choose carefully. You need just enough to push the team or organization forward and not too many to promote distress. If the people around you are running around trying to keep the spinning plates from wobbling off of their sticks and crashing to the ground, it’s time to reassess.

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.

Just One Thing—Cultivate Your Project Leadership Skills

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around individually important topics. Use them in good health and great performance!

Increasingly, the work of organizations is completed in the form of projects. Strategy is executed in projects. Innovation efforts take on the form of projects. Quality improvement efforts start-out as projects. Even planning the company holiday party qualifies as a project, albeit, a particularly stressful one.

Understanding the discipline and tools of project management is now de rigueur for professionals with any intention of growing in their careers. Whether you are an individual contributor, a functional manager or an executive, it’s great to understand the issues, challenges and practices of delivering projects.

However, when I take a close look at project teams that struggle (and too many do), it’s generally not the misapplication of project management tools or practices that are at the source of the problems. Most often, it’s the absence any visible form of project leadership.

Consider: project teams are generally temporary groupings of individuals with different skill-sets but a shared interest in creating something unique. Often, these individuals have little experience in working with each other, and while they might share an interest in the outcome, it’s dangerous to assume that this group will magically or easily coalesce into a functioning unit capable of navigating all of the issues that arise on teams and with projects.

The Project Manger/Leader is responsible for guiding this team from selection and assembly through the murky woods of learning to act, decide, learn, argue, resolve, create and execute together. And for an encore, they have to coordinate the phases of the project, the use of the tools and the communication and coordination and general herding of cats necessary to move the team forward and keep the stakeholders appropriately informed.

The most successful project leaders I’ve encountered are lifetime students of human nature, relentlessly focused on engaging the hearts and minds of their team members and forming a team environment where the landmines surrounding human interaction can be safely navigated.

These individuals take the time to cultivate their leadership and coaching skills. They develop confidence in delivering tough feedback and they work hard to create visibility for and support the development of their high performing team members.

And along the way, they create remarkable value for their firms, rescuing troubled projects and safely guiding even the most challenging of these activities to success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Remember to put the “Leadership” into your firm’s project work. If you’re a project management professional, invest in your leadership skills development and put the tools to work to strengthen your performance and your team’s performance. If the project culture in your firm is more informal, remember to bring the leadership focus when it’s your turn to plan the holiday party or plan that new market launch.

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.

New Leader Tuesday—4 Big Benefits of Coaching Your Teams

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsThe New Leader Tuesday series is dedicated to helping first-time, early career and even experienced professionals with a “beginner’s mind” progress on their journey towards effective leadership.

“I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary… But don’t count on it.”  -J. Richard Hackman

The operative phrase in the late Dr. Hackman’s quote is, “But don’t count on it.”

Too often and with the best of intentions, we assemble a team of our best and brightest to tackle an important issue and then assuming our job is done and the task is in the hands of these capable people, we step away and wait for the results. And all too often, instead of something magical from our teams, what we get back looks and feels a lot like flailing heading towards failing.

Effective leaders understand the importance of coaching to team success, and they either remain involved in this capacity or, better yet, they ensure that a responsible and objective third party is placed in this role.

At Least 4 Big Benefits of Coaching Your Project and Work Teams:

1. Speed and Focus from the Start. The presence of a coach helps teams accelerate through the forming and storming phases by ensuring clarity of and focus on the purpose of the team. While there’s always some natural and healthy “storming” around the definition of the project and the design of roles and accountabilities, a team coach can help minimize the flailing and ensure prompt and safe passage through the fuzzy front-end of a new initiative. Getting start-up right sets the tone for the much needed collaboration and coordination in subsequent phases.

2. Social Loafing is Stomped Out. Teams are at their best when every member of a group is fully engaged. Sadly, much like the many miserable classroom group projects we experienced in school, there always seems to be one or a few members who are distracted or uninvolved or, afraid to get involved. High performance is only achieved when every team member is actively engaged and participating and a team coach is invaluable to ensuring this takes place.

3. Teaches Teams to Talk. While everyone shows up knowing how to talk, teams need to learn how to communicate. Emotions, opinions, agendas, power and all manner of biases serve to fight against effective communication in groups. Team coaches help parse those out in search of focus on the material issue…mission, scope, facts, framing, decision-making and execution.

4. Helps Navigate Around the Traps. We all know that people working in groups are potentially prone to various traps (e.g. group think, escalation of commitment, Abilene paradox, reliance on the wrong information/data) that threaten to adversely impact decision-making and project outcomes. An effective coach listens and watches for signs of emerging traps and helps teams navigate around them through careful use of questioning and polite but firm challenging of assumptions and issue framing.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While some initiatives merit bringing in a professional team coach from outside, many project teams will benefit from simply inserting an uninvolved 3rd party who understands that he/she is there to deal with the above topics. Create a brief responsibility description for the team coach…make certain to build in and empower the role in the project charter. Evaluate the coaching component in the post-project debrief and refine the responsibility description to reflect lessons learned.

I’ve worked with organizations where functional managers or executives frequently participated in this activity by reciprocating with each other on different projects. In addition to a positive project outcome, the team members appreciated the help in navigating the sticky issues of group dynamics and performance and the organization took one more step down the road towards high performance.

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.