Monday, 31 March 2014

Hug your way to profits

will not play at tug o' war 
I'd rather play at hug o' war 
Where everyone hugs  
Instead of tugs 
Where everyone (…) grins 
And everyone wins.
Sheldon Allan Silverstein (Hug o'WarWhere the Sidewalk Ends) 

Zero-sum games, where a winner wrests victory from a loser, are widely believed to be at the core of capitalism. This is reflected in its language: companies "compete" to "conquer market share" measured in percentages, and "only the best survive". Inside companies, particularly large companies, the same notion applies: I must defend my turf for fear of having my budget reduced or my authority questioned. 

The erroneous notion that only one person can have a given piece of the pie at any given time causes antagonistic behavior that leads to waste, particularly if the pie is not growing. Genuine collaboration and shared success can seem incompatible with competitive capitalism. In fact, they are fundamental prerequisites of corporate success. A company beset by internal strife wastes time and energy in futile battles that take away from its ultimate purpose (and its bottom line).  

A large IT department had been under massive budget pressure for over 5 years and, barely able to meet its maintenance obligations, it had failed to meet the expanding needs of business users. The IT staff was disheartened and disregarded inside the organization, so much so that business users preferred outside suppliers to IT, further depleting IT's financial and morale coffers. In this tug of war, the business users appeared to be winning, when in fact they were no closer to getting what they truly needed: innovative IT solutions to their specific business problems 

To resolve this sterile situation, management decided to replace the unpopular head of IT and reform the IT department. Wisely, they decided to couch this reform as a win-win proposition (hug o'war) wherein both the IT and business rank and file would come out ahead. Old wounds were lanced and patched in cathartic seminars, and a bright future envisioned with a positive, shared vocabulary. 

A few months in, the IT staff has renewed sense of energy and purpose, and they are being treated like partners by business users. The newfound goodwill will need to be stoked regularly to ensure that the group hug can last, but "everybody wins" is now a distinct possibility.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The system drives the behavior – really?

We’ve all grown up with the idea that “the system” drives individual behavior. Well, that’s kind of obvious isn’t it? If you break straight drives with roundabouts, people will slow down, surely? If you create a default option in a check sheet that has to be unticked to be changed, most people will just follow the default option, won’t they? And if you create incentives for any behavior, the behavior will by and large follow, will it?

It seems obvious, but is it true? Behavior doesn’t change… until it does. The best designed systems lead to unexpected outcomes. System theory just argues that the system was not designed well enough – I should know, I wrote my first book on managing with systems. But if systems drove behavior, and systems are largely stable, why does the world change so fast?

There’s another way of looking at this. Let’s assume people actually know what they want. Let us assume that each individual is:
1.    Fairly clear about their immediate goals
2.   Aware of immediate obstacles
3.   Cares about a few passionately, tolerates/dismisses all others
4.   Irrationally terrified of losses
5.    Occasionally satisfied with wins

Systems don’t drive behavior, they limit behavior. Systems offer easy access to some resources and strong pushback on initiative. Every one loves innovation but everybody hates innovators. This is by no means a bad thing because it turns out that the humans in the wild are mostly hungry and murderous. To a large extent our increasingly sophisticated and overwhelming systems have led to us domesticating ourselves. From a romantic point of view, we can miss the wildness of pride in strength and freedom, but from a day-to-day perspective, this is far more comfortable.

System analysis is good at explaining a current state but always falls short in predicting the future state. The system feed-back loops can be seen by all, but, everywhere, in practice, some individuals are testing the limits of the system constraint, and occasionally find a way to turn them, which lands them either in jail or on the who’s who list or both.

My point being that the stuff that matters is not the overall system behavior (hell, every one can see that), but the detail problem by problem initiative where individuals look for clever ways to overcome obstacles, allies to help them do so, and occasionally, stochastically I should say, succeed. The system’s opportunities, incentives and constraints are the sieve through which random human initiative is selected.

Which is why trying to apply any system more thoroughly might only lead to solipsism and weird/crazy stuff – as we’ve seen tragically again and again in the twentieth century.

The alternative is to follow Adam Smith’s core beliefs that:
1.    People know what they want and if you let them get on with it they’ll find a smart way of doing so overall (yes, yes, there will be drawbacks for others)
2.   People have an innate sense of fairness and justice that tempers the sacrifices we ask of others in seeking what we want. After all, liberal societies have abolished slavery, generalized healthcare, reduced poverty far more effectively than directed ones.

At company level, this might mean that in order to thrive, rather than surround oneself with brilliant directors who will implement total systems, such as the business intelligence system, the HR system, the ERP and so on, we might want to think about how to develop individual initiative and individual ability to work with each other.

This does not mean giving up leadership, it means understanding how important it is to give a clear direction both by what one says and how one behaves (every micro-decision of the top dog is obsessively observed and discussed by the pack). And then, within this direction, rather than heavy handedly impose the systems one might want to help people to look for chinks, failures, problems and come up with something new. In practice. One by one.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Are your customers an alibi for what you don’t do?

In a recent meeting between the operations and IT departments of a large company, the operations department asked for a software solution to compare the competing offers of electricity suppliers. In response, IT's 'agile development' team asked for a fully documented requirements document - knowing full-well that it was a nearly impossible request. The operations people are busy running the company and have little experience writing software specs, and their original request was formulated as "let's work together to identify the options that are available to us". The meeting did not end well.

In theory, support departments serve and enable business users - their customers. In reality, long seen as cost-centers operating under ever-shrinking budgets, the support departments of some companies have developed an endogenous culture and a "can't do" attitude. Instead of seeking survival through innovation and service quality, a siege mentality has set in, where the walls are so many impregnable processes that stymie the barbarians at the gates (the business users).

  The endogenous culture results from the low status of support functions (cost-center) and the misguided belief that their function is indispensable independently of the level of service (i.e.: everyone needs a paycheck, so HR is irreplaceable). This monopoly situation breeds contempt for business users who, in turn, complain bitterly about the quality of service and lack of innovation. Without positive external feedback, the support function justifies its existence internally. 

The can't do attitude is a way to preserve power: who needs a border guard if the border is always open? Business users who propose new or innovative services are systematically turned away at the fortress' gates and derided for their insolence, naiveté, or lack of expertise. 

This opposition between "business" and "support" results in significant waste of time, goodwill, and energy, particularly as organizations grow in size. Instead of being the oil that greases the proverbial wheels, support departments become so many grains of sand that slow and frustrate the entire system. This is particularly true of formerly heroic IT departments. Their  relevance has diminished as their roles have been downgraded from developing mission-critical applications to maintaining the once-innovative in-house applications deployed in their glory days.   

Instead of looking for ways to improve and of reaching out in a constructive manner to business users, these support departments tend enter a spiral that justifies their self-image as victims of their customers rather than as sources of innovation. In this way, the customers become the very excuse for not improving, for not doing. The business users are blamed for :  
  • not being able to spell out their needs in a complete (and irrationally exhaustive) manner   
  • when they can surmount the obstacles of the requirements phase, having unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved, and how quickly it can be done 
  • wanting unattainable ROIs (or even having the gall to try to calculate one)    
  • when new services or products are delivered - sometimes very late - not being happy with them and not using them 'properly' or to their 'full potential'  

Breaking the siege can be difficult, since it threatens the survival of those who control the processes. Sounding the trumpets to bring down the walls (unilaterally decreeing change) cannot yield results because the besieged are most often a necessary part of the organization, if not in their current state. A Trojan horse (political maneuvers) can break a stalemate, but it must be followed by quick and decisive transformation towards a desirable new state. The best solution, often long in the making, is a negotiated surrender with a guarantee of safe passage to this desirable target state.

In other words, once the siege is broken, the besieged must be given a shot at redemption, not massacred. This redemption takes the form of a transformation towards a bright and mutually beneficial future, one in which the incentives of the support functions are aligned with those of the business units. Mutual trust and understanding are key elements of this shared future:   
  • trust that business requests will be considered seriously and quickly  
  • trust that business units will stop trying to asphyxiate, denigrate, or circumvent support departments  
  • understanding of the legitimate legal/technical concerns raised by support experts 
  • understanding of the daily reality of business users and the services they effectively need  
Overcoming the endogenous culture and the "can't do" attitude are the first but necessary steps in a long reconciliation process towards the revival of the support services an organization deserves, and whose conclusion is more efficiency for all. 

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Just Another Manic Monday

On Monday morning, trucks will drive on the right and cars on the left. No sorry, on monday morning, if your car's number plate ends on an even number you can drive in the morning, and if it ends with an odd number, you can drive on the evening. No, sorry... oh well, I shouldn't really care I drive a Prius plug-in so I'm exempt - they say. The pollution peak in my city is so alarming the government is taking strong measures, as you can see. Science Fiction? Xingtai? Paris.

Unseasonably warm (yes!) windless weather lets vicious small particles hang around int the air, attacking passerbys. Lovely spring days, but we're advised to keep children at home and avoid public parks. French authorities finally have an opportunity to show us how good they are at doing stuff, and public transport is free and now you can only drive if you car has won the lottery.

The sad/funny part is that the same authorities have been continuously favoring diesel car production, where our French automaker have a "lead on the market" - they could have developed hybrids instead, but, oh, no, the hybrid solution isn't really one, you see - it doesn't solve the problem completely. We need to seek a more structural, systemic solution. One that will stick, not any half-assed, halfway measure.,In the meantimes, those diesel cars sell like hotcakes because gas is taxed far more than gazole and why the hell not? No one else is making so many diesel models - we're protecting our industry. What diesel is the worst for pushing particles in the air? Balderdash! Environmental lobbying.

Meanwhile, as I drive around Paris with zero combustion (my plug-in hybrid is autonomous for going somewhere and back for most city-trips), I can't feel but wonder why all cars aren't doing the same - it's not like mine was more expensive than most cars I see around? Where did we go wrong? Well, we French are very clever, but rarely serious:

  • Incentives - rather than create pollution free zones or implement tough environmental levels for cars, we prefer last minute cobbled together alternate driving nonsense (which drives every one crazy) and that offers zero incentive to get a cleaner car, since administrative, arbitrary chaos will hit you anyhow.
  • Hyper-solutions: rather than solve practical problems one by one and feel self-confident enough that by chipping at the mountain you'll eventually turn it into manageable chunks, we continue to seek total solutions, systemic solutions, systematic solutions that solve the problem in its entirety but that remain forever out of reach - so why bother to do anything? 
The thing about any systemic problem is that there never is one solution, but if you try an addition of small varied steps, you'll find that some unlock the system, even though you never quite know which ones up front. Try and see, try and see.

So, tomorrow morning, only light cars will be on the road - darker colors absorb too much heat. But trucks will be exempt -after all, we've got to eat haven't we. Except foreign trucks of course. Or is it the other way around? Keep on being clever guys, it really works - every new decision makes improvement harder to reach and makes you even more unpopular, but why should you let that stop you?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Context, Luck and Skilled People Failing

Skilled people failing. This is what many lean transformations look like. Why? The rules are changing. Bosses with hammers find that leading their organization now requires a Swiss army knife. What got you here won't get you there. This is a topic that has been covered extensively under the mindset change, behavior change, organizational development, lean leadership topics. Exit the comfort zone into the learning zone, but not too far into the fear zone. Etc.

But let's talk about skilled consultants failing. Specifically lean consultants. What's our excuse? Trick question. Lean people don't make excuses. We ask why and seek causes. I'll put incompetence aside for the moment since the causes and countermeasures to that are well known. Caveat emptor. Where competent and skilled consultants often fail is when entering domains in which there is a high degree of uncertainty, with a high degree of certainty that they know what they are doing. There is also a remedy for that. For those new to the notion of humble inquiry or it's two individual elements, I recommend this book.

Lately I've recognized what may be a pattern among skilled lean consultants failing. We can call it luck / bad luck, bad fit with the client, but to be more scientific it is a case of being unable to recognize the context switch from certainty to uncertainty. Just as leaders who can't switch between directive, supportive, delegating and coaching styles have limited long-term success, consultants need to read the environment skillfully and sometimes stop being the sensei, the coach, the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-move-the-machine guy, or whatever style is not appropriate for the specific client environment.

It's hard to say "recognize when you are in an environment that doesn't suit your default style" because people tend to be blind to these things. As a more general rule, consultants can begin by recognizing that there are almost always invisible factors which have a large effect on the successful outcome of the project, transformation or intervention. Root these out, question assumptions, be nervous if things are going too smoothly for too long. If wins are coming early, fast and easy, question whether you really understand cause and effect. Luck turns. True skill recognizes this.

Skilled lean consultants are in the business of selling effective change. The content has been fairly stable over decades, maybe centuries. The context is constantly changing. How well do you recognize this?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Managing transformation - going up the mountain

Every organization reaches a time in its existence when change becomes imperative – a matter of survival. The appropriate manager must then formulate a desirable target for the transformation: a target that will yield benefits to those who will transform themselves. At this point, the hardest task remains: the transformation itself.

Transforming an organization and its people is like climbing a mountain. The manager has three options for leading the way up: the bus, the sleigh and the adventure.

In the bus, the manager’s people can sleep or passively watch the scenery while the manager drives. When they reach the top of the mountain, they will likely enjoy the view but probably find that it’s a bit cold. Soon enough, they’ll glide back down to the valley. Indeed, reaching the top of the mountain required no commitment or personal investment – no skin in the game – and has little value to them. 

The manager who chooses to use a sleigh will harness his people and whip them mercilessly until they reach the top of the mountain. When they arrive, most will be dead and the survivors will hate him (and possibly their job, or each other, etc…). The results might be durable, but hardly desirable. It is likely that the scars will never heal.

The manager who challenges his people to leverage their collective intelligence to devise a path that they will willingly travel up the mountain will initiate a lasting and fruitful transformation. This adventure becomes a liberating and synergistic shared experience, a founding myth of the new organization. The adventure must be organized in such a way that those who transform themselves are climbing the mountain in short stages, with the applause and benevolent support of their manager and domain experts.  When they reach the top of the mountain, they will own the transformation and form a new organization born of the journey.