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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Art of Managing—Managing Effectively is Hard, Good Work

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.

For some reason, the work of management and of managers often is positioned as a poor second cousin to the richer, nobler tasks of leading. Managing isn’t as captivating to many…sounding and feeling more clerical than inspirational and achievement oriented. Even the label of “manager” tends to connote someone of lesser rank toiling away over spreadsheets and far removed from the loftier issues of leaders.

The academic world and the world of business writers (and leadership bloggers!) have often worked to focus on the differences between leaders and managers. Kotter started this dialog, management texts explore the concept and it’s not uncommon for the dialog to become a debate. In my view, it’s a ridiculous non-debate. Do you really want to work for a leader who cannot manage and a manager who cannot lead?

Yes, leading is critically important. It’s also a tool of management and managing (planning, organizing, leading and controlling) and while those we label as leaders may dream and speak of building great monuments and testaments to the human spirit and ingenuity, those we call managers bring these visions to life.

The Proper View on Management and the Need to Reinvent:

Gary Hamel, founder of the Management Innovation Exchange (MIX) and a professor at the London School of Business, describes management as, “the technology of human achievement.”  (Note from Art: check out Gary’s fabulous video on this topic at the MIX site.)

Hamel also suggests that the present tools of management are steeped in thinking cultivated from the industrial revolution and early 20th century thinking and fundamentally not appropriate for our emerging world. This goes for how we lead as well. He offers: Current management practices emphasize control, discipline and efficiency above all else — and that’s a problem. To thrive in the 21st century, organizations must be adaptable, innovative, inspiring and socially accountable. That will require a genuine revolution in management principles and practices.

If Hamel is right, the work of today’s manager includes both flying the current plane and building a new one simultaneously.

The Critical Work of Today’s Effective Manager:

The effective manager understands her business and how her firm makes money with clarity, and her decisions are guided by this knowledge. She is well versed in strategy, constantly aware of environmental forces impacting the business and critically attuned to forming a work environment that allows her people to operate at their creative best. She provides frank feedback, knocks down barriers for her team and navigates the firm’s political environment and senior leaders with the agility of a world-class athlete. She finds and develops talent, translates corporate goals into specific functional objectives and works to constantly gauge progress and quality and identify opportunities to improve performance.

And while she’s at it, as Hamel suggests, the effective manager is looking for new ways to create an advantage by changing and innovating her practices. Consider just two key issues faced by today’s managers:

1. How to cultivate effective project teams (we live in a world of projects) with team members distributed across continents and cultures.

2. How to combat and outflank fast emerging competitors armed with technologies that were pipe dreams just a few years ago and now threaten a firm’s very existence. From external awareness to command of strategy to managing the process of turning ideas into offerings, this is critical, hard work indeed.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The work of the effective manager builds bridges, moves mountains and brings great big dreams to life. Perhaps the world and our firms need a few more people proud of their role as managers.

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In Pursuit of the High Performance Senior Management Team: Part 1

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementNote: this is the first of an on-going series exploring the issues, challenges and opportunities for senior managers to strengthen group and organizational performance. Whether you are CEO, a member of the senior management team or, someone on the rise and aspiring to this level, the content we’ll explore on teaming, power, politics, strategy and execution are relevant to you.

Part 1 sets the stage for our on-going discussion.

Let’s start with the contention that a high performance senior management team is one key component of effective and sustained organizational performance and organizational health.

While not a researcher by background and sensitive to the human propensity to recreate the fundamental attribution error, I’m comfortable through many years hanging around, leading, guiding and generally working with senior managers in all manner of firms and industries stipulating that there is a relationship between this group’s performance in several key areas and overall organizational health.

More specifically, when the individuals who comprise the senior management team unite and focus on executing around a limited number of critical priorities, including strategy clarification and communication, execution coordination and talent selection and development, the rest of the organization is better positioned to perform at a high level.

Easy to write. Not so easy to realize in practice.

If I had a dollar for every CEO who has confided to me that he/she isn’t satisfied with the performance of their senior management group, I would be at least a good dinner and a few bottles of great wine richer.

The CEO concern is typically in the neighborhood of a nagging belief that organizational performance is being left on the table due to lack of alignment. The most commonly described issues or obstacles include personality conflicts, political gamesmanship and communication challenges.

Most CEOs are quick to highlight a perceived lack of trust between members as a contributing cause of poor management team performance as well. Of this grouping of issues, trust is perhaps a core contributing cause of team dysfunction and the rest truly just symptoms of poor team leadership and development. Ironically, the team leadership/development is on the shoulders of the complaining CEO.

Hackman’s Conditions for High Performance Team Development:

The recently late J. Richard Hackman devoted a career to studying teams and his five conditions for high performance are minimum table stakes for team development at any level. They are:

  1. A clear and compelling purpose
  2. The right (and clear) team membership
  3. Expert coaching
  4. Enabling structures
  5. Supportive organization

In almost every case of the frustrated CEO or perplexed management team member, one or more of those conditions are absent.

While developing an understanding of the conditions for successful team creation is a core part of this series, it’s useful initially to explore some of the most common areas where senior management teams flail and fail. A good understanding of the tripping points is important to building a program for successful team development.

4 Key Areas Where Senior Management Teams Fail and Flail:

1. Failing to establish an identity as a team at the senior level. The lack of team identity at this level manifests itself in a grossly tactical focus at the expense of the heavy lifting of direction (strategy), resources and execution and talent development. While the group meets from time-to-time, there’s little integrated work around what should be the core priorities of the senior management team: strategy, execution and talent.

2. Hiding behind collegial dialog. It’s impossible to drive business without robust dialog on the big issues. This is the uncomfortable vetting of different viewpoints and interests and the honest admission of weaknesses and blind spots with the need for individual and functional improvements. Many senior teams remain collegial and tactical in their discussions, preferring the safety of this environment to the perceived dangerous chasm posed by the hard issues in front of the team.

3. Failing to work at improving team performance. It’s unlikely that a group of high-powered and successful individuals will automatically coalesce as a team without addressing Hackman’s core issues above and without working hard at building trust and moving beyond the comfortable content to the hard issues facing the business. This is difficult work…and it often requires taking a leap of faith to engage professional guidance (Hackman’s coaching component). Instead of this heavy lifting, most senior managers meet and report and discuss, but few integrate their efforts to team.

4. Expecting too much teaming. While this might seem contrary to the core premise here, the reality is that there is a limit to the concept of “team” at the senior management level. Laser focus on the big, critical issues is much more important than promoting the belief that the people have to perform like a team for every single organizational issue. The executives are functional leaders responsible for promoting execution within their own tribes, and the concept of team is capable of being pushed too far around the executive table.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Most senior management groups are teams in name only, but not in performance. Sadly, the costs to the organization of this failure to coalesce at the senior management level are heavy.  Great functional performers are not automatically great team players, and the hard work of moving from a team by name to a team in performance is just that, hard work.

The first step is recognition.

Up next in the series: creating the senior management team identity.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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Art of Managing: Work is Where the Brain Is

Small Ideas Add UpIn the past two weeks there’s been a buzz in the world of business generated by two firms changing longstanding flexible working arrangements. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer  announced an end to the firm’s liberal telecommuting policy, and Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly tossed out the firm’s long publicized Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) approach that offered location and time flexibility to non-store employees.

Not incidentally, both firms are fighting for corporate survival.

I suspect that the fundamental problems of two firms who no longer exist for completely obvious reasons, have as their root causes, something much deeper than whether butts are in seats behind the same walls every single day.

Like politics and religion, this topic is personal and controversial. I’ve yet to run into someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. You can intuit my position from the headline of this post.

Not All Roles Demand Physical Proximity:

Certainly, the nature of an individual’s work plays a critical factor in location choice. Some functions are highly interdependent and there’s little option for location or time flexibility. Other roles are highly independent and whether the individual commutes to a cubicle or works from a quiet room in her home and engages via video or audio conferencing is essentially meaningless.

As an experienced executive accustomed to both leading widely dispersed teams at market leading firms, and to working comfortably anywhere I can connect and engage, I struggle to understand the office-only mentality for all positions and all employees.

For firms that are dependent upon engaging and motivating the best available talent, demanding daily physical presence is just dumb. You reduce the size of the target talent pool, increase costs of acquiring, moving, housing and transporting these employees, and any gains in productivity for requiring this class of knowledge or creative workers to be in-office are subjective at best.

The stress of a flexible work-location approach is mostly borne by the remote individuals who may miss opportunities to build relationships that lead to career advancement. Nonetheless, for many groups of knowledge workers, the flexibility is worth the risk.

Sometimes, There’s No Substitute for Being in the Same Room:

I’m a huge fan of periodic (not constant) contact with team members and colleagues for creative and personal reasons. It is essential, even for globally distributed project teams. There are many circumstances where technology is just a poor substitute for sitting down with a group or breaking bread over lunch with your peers. We build relationships best in-person. However, the command for all employees to be in-place and imprisoned 8-5 feels like a carry-over from a bygone era.

The Organization as a Young Tool of Creation:

The organization as a critical tool of management and human invention is a relatively young institution. Frankly, our collective mindset on managing is young as well and hasn’t perhaps yet found the best approaches to harnessing the advances in technology and resources available around the globe and around the clock thanks to globalization.

The troubles of two firms who tried something new and are now retreating from their experimental approaches  shouldn’t dissuade other firms from searching for the balance that works best for their people, their customers and their top and bottom lines. And speaking of the bottom line:

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a world of possibilities in experimenting with the organizational model and location is one of the variables. While the nature of the work should drive the decision, if physical presence isn’t absolutely essential, I’ll take the smartest and most creative people I can find, regardless of location. I’ll figure out how to adapt my management system and technology tools to support their efforts to do their best work.

And yes, one has to wonder whether Mayer and Joly may be fixing the wrong problem.

Additional Resource: from HBR Blog Network-The End of Results Only at Best Buy is Bad News (great post…even greater comments!)

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:

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Integrator Leaders-People Who Get Stuff Done

Regular readers know my perspective on those who lead without authority. I’m a huge fan. These are the people who turn good businesses great and who power teams with the kinetic energy created by their constant motion.

Great product managers, strong project leaders and anyone else regardless of title, who takes on accountability for results without the traditional formal authority (hire, review, promote/fire authority), are worth twice their weight in platinum.

While executives meet and do what it is that executives do, Integrator Leaders view it as their inalienable right to bend the internal structure to meet their needs for initiative achievement. Instead of viewing departmental boundaries as limits, they view them as deep pools of know-how and prospective resources.

The best I’ve known manage their executives by garnering support for funding, resources and prioritization, and then delivering results. They understand the language of strategy and growth and innovation, but mostly they understand the language of motivation. Without the burden of formal authority, they are free to engage with talented colleagues and leaders in all areas of an organization, building support and coalitions, and focusing these resources on doing something new, big or both.

Oddly, much of what passes for traditional approaches to managing is seemingly at cross-purposes with supporting Integrator Leaders. The pursuit of “control” in management and misguided measurement in the form of inappropriate silo-based performance indicators often serve to fight the emergence of a culture that leverages these Integrator Leaders.

While an organization filled with Integrator Leaders all chasing their own agendas, regardless of how well they align with the big picture strategies and goals, sounds a bit like chaos, fortunately, not every person will gravitate to the role of Integrator Leader.

For managers and executives who do have one or more of these priceless professionals on their teams, you will be well-served to point the Integrator Leaders in the right direction, loosen the silo and measurement controls and focus on supporting and monitoring instead of controlling or reining in.

Oh, did I mention that Integrator Leaders are just what the management doctor ordered in a world where the need for speed and the pursuit of learning and adaptation are all table-stakes for organizational survival and success>

What are you doing to support the emergence of Integrator Leaders in your organization?

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