High Performance Management—Courage and Business Transformation

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThe topic of transformation is a challenging one for all management teams. It’s not surprising that few muster the collective courage necessary to transform their organizations even in the face of sustained headwinds or looming crisis.

Certainly, there are different drivers behind the need for significant change. One very common and challenging situation arises when a firm comes face to face with its own impending irrelevance, often created by competitive disruption or technological obsolescence. Another scenario…the one I see most often in technology firms is the need to transform to support growth. Both offer their own unique challenges.

The first situation…impending obsolescence and a high probability of organizational death demands transformation on a major scale. The issues are fairly clear, and the adversary easily observed and studied. While some of the big decisions are obvious…shedding unprofitable endeavors, cutting costs etc. selecting the response or strategy that will postpone or eliminate impending doom is quite challenging. The art and science in this situation isn’t the financial management it’s the strategy and execution work.

In the second scenario, transforming to support scaling…to go from good to great or great to greater, the biggest adversary management teams face is overcoming the comfort of “incrementalism” and wrapping their brains and arms around the need to unite on and drive significant change. The overwhelming emotion for managers is to incrementally fix and tweak and tune what has been working versus taking action to reinvent. What’s needed are new functions, processes, systems and talent with a charter to go to new arenas, and what happens looks more like the duct-tape and flexi-hose repairs I use for sudden plumbing problems. I momentarily stem the crisis, but I don’t fix the systemic issue.

Having lived both of these scenarios in multiple technology businesses, I find the second situation, driving significant change while successful (albeit increasingly stymied by capacity, infrastructure and talent issues) to be the most vexing of the situations. There’s almost never a mandate to change and management teams solve small problems all the while the bigger machine begins to squeak and groan and then smoke. As efficiency and effectiveness decline and good opportunities in new markets or with new products go unrealized, management begins to flail and inevitably, the financials begin to move in the wrong direction.

Navigating and ideally, avoiding the squeaking, groaning and smoking phase takes incredibly strong senior leadership starting at the top with the CEO and carrying through the entire executive management team. In the circumstances where we got this right, the group was able to put ego and personal interest aside and focus collectively on what was right for the business over a longer horizon. The groups found a new performance gear, and while talk of risk and uncertainty dominated much of the dialog (and emotional atmosphere), the unrelenting focus on the need to help the business “Level-Up” defined the mission. There must be unanimity or talk of transformation remains just that.

Conversely, where the need was present but the work failed, these teams lacked the collective courage to consider the topic with anything more than lip-service. Talk of transformation in these cases is infused with politics, self-interest and the dialog if it even turns into that, is more an endless philosophical debate. Those seeking to derail this train are able to easily manipulate the agenda and a less-than-unified team lets it drop. In this case, the focus remains on tackling incremental issues versus systemic. It may work for awhile, but it eventually runs into the brick wall of reality.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you and your team have recognized the warning signs of your firm’s structural, capacity, strategic and human limitations, it’s important to begin framing and forming a discussion that looks beyond the symptoms to the underlying issues. The temptation is to attempt to reduce the symptoms with a variety of small fixes. The need is for the team to rethink what it needs to look and act like to ensure a profitable, healthy future. Don’t fight reality. Recognize that the inertial power of the status quo is strong. It takes extraordinary strength to move beyond how we do things today.

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

Just One Thing—Hug a Project Manager

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

My wife informed me that June 4 was officially, “Hug Your Cat Day.” (Who decides this?) While dog lovers everywhere were likely nauseous over this seeming waste of energy, it was a nice sentiment, albeit, one wasted on a creature that would clearly let you know if and when he/she required you to extend a hug. When it was darned well ready of course.

Perhaps a better use of this date and gesture might be to encourage those of us in our jobs and firms dependent upon big things getting done to seek out and either genuinely or metaphorically hug a project manager.

One of the core takeaways my MBA students express after investing 10 weeks immersed in the art and science of this discipline is new found appreciation for the role project managers play in our organizations. Few come into the course understanding the importance of the role; the complexity of the people and process challenges and the nature of the leadership and execution challenges faced by these individuals.

They leave understanding that innovation occurs in the form of projects…as does strategy execution, new product development…new infrastructure implementation…and the reality that almost everything we depend upon to do our jobs originated in the form of one or more projects. They develop an appreciation for the tools of project management…not as magical answers to our problems…but literally as tools to help us get work done.

They also leave the course understanding that project managers are the consummate integrator leaders…working across boundaries, often with little authority but much of the accountability. It’s a role that is perpetually on the hot seat…often with little support.

Firms that get project management use it as a tool to pursue competitive advantage…to spearhead innovation efforts they can commercialize and to ensure they are able to deploy the latest and best technologies to serve their customers and optimize their efficiencies.

In my travels across firms large and small, it’s common for me to encounter situations where the role is poorly defined…the practices loose with little leveraging of the tools and methodologies available to support project success.

And all too often, I find over-worked, under-compensated and under-developed but well-intended people fighting an uphill battle for resources while navigating too many initiatives. Sponsorship and career or skills development are often absent. This is wrong. A great project manager is a difference maker and project competency is critical to organizational success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

So instead of waiting for your cat to decide it needs a hug, find a way to support your project manager. Work on serving as a better team member. If you’re an executive, figure out what it means to be a sponsor for projects and invest your energy in getting it right. If you’re a manager or someone responsible for project managers, ensure that you are investing in and supporting the development of these critical resources. If you’re firm is operating in an ad hoc mode on initiatives, you are leaving money on the table. Fix this.

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.

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.