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Posts tagged ‘Offices’

Is it possible that almost everything about classic management advice is wrong?

We’ve talked about holacracy before, but it’s gaining a little bit of steam — specifically in areas like Silicon Valley and Seattle that are potentially a bit more forward-thinking as far as corporate structure goes. There’s a long, really good article in First Round about how Medium’s culture is embracing holacracy, and while there are many notable quotes within it, here’s one near the top that got me thinking:

“Management perspective looks at reports as resources — like how can you get the maximum value out of this person,” Stirman says. “But when I think resources, I think like natural gas or coal mines. Thinking about a person’s life that way just seemed really dehumanizing.”

That is kind of an interesting thought — to view people as a resource towards the end of making a better product or selling more of something, or however you want to construe it. Ultimately, though, I agree with the speaker (Jason Stirman of Medium): it is a bit dehumanizing.

Here’s another quote, also from Stirman, a little bit down in the First Round article:

“Classic management advice, and all my mentors told me that insulating your team from things so they won’t worry will make them more productive and happier,” he says. “But they just got angry, and confused, and disconnected. I was constantly censoring all this information and they were way happier when they knew everything.”

Now I started thinking a little bit more. Go through some of the aspects of what might be called “classic management advice:” I mean things like keep a safe friendship distance, ask about roadblocks to progress, weekly (or daily) meeting check-ins, fair rewards, shield them from unnecessary information, etc.

Doesn’t it seem like almost all of that is wrong?

It does to me, honestly — as generations change, it does feel like elements such as empathy, humility, coaching and strong communication will become more important in the development of effective managers.

You can argue that management theory is outdated, as has been argued here, here, here and here — among many other places.

I’ve read somewhere before — although I can’t locate it at this exact moment — that some of the most popular managerial books of all-time are from the first half of the 1900s (i.e. basically before WW2). That doesn’t surprise me, per se. Most things from this list, for example, aren’t from any later than 1998-2000. If you just take into account the advent of Google + social media after that date — not to mention the increased importance of global business and the recession — almost everything is different from even 2000 as opposed to now, and yet there aren’t many more relevant books in the interim. You could argue that a lot of the new “business theory” books are about time management and/or having it all — like Sheryl Sandberg’s stuff, for example — because the new true business challenge is finding time when you’re so busy (cue “Smart Simplicity” or “Essentialism”).

As the generations shift, though, management theory needs to be scrapped. I’m not entirely sure holacracy is the thing, because holacracy rips away so much context — in that people are so comfortable with the idea that “everyone has a boss” — that you need really smart, forward-thinking people in order to embrace it, and I don’t know how many of those are out there in the working world.

When people start getting in bed with new systems, they can sometimes seem like a fad. The point is, with any type of organizational structure, you need to choose the concept that best fits the people you have. That’s what sport coaches do, for example: if you have a strong-armed QB and a bunch of super-fast WRs, you’re going to throw the ball downfield a lot, right? You’re not necessarily going to use a fullback on every play as the ball carrier, because that system (how you generate output) doesn’t match your personnel (your people). It’s the same with your employees and your work system, although football offenses can be changed week-to-week, and organizational changes can take a lot longer, surely. Point is, though: there’s no “one-size-fits-all” for organizations, or for people. Everyone is out there trying to find their best fit. That’s part of the chase and challenge of life.

It is interesting how drastically the shift is potentially going to be from “classical management theory” to what orgs need now — I’m not saying it’ll be something like “the end of hierarchy,” but almost everything above is wrong. It doesn’t reflect how humans actually think and learn and feel rewarded about things. At all.

So a change is coming — and this shift could be a huge strategic advantage possibility for companies in certain industries. It’s less about ideas around simply employee engagement, and more about ideas around the entire picture of an organization’s parts fitting together.

Consider another quote from Stirman:

“We’ve already learned a lot, and I’m so glad we’re experimenting,” Stirman says. “No one knows the future, but now when I hear about the way things should be done, or someone saying ‘here’s how it’s always been done,’ or any Management 101, I’m like ‘screw that.’ We may be doing things differently just to be different sometimes, but it’s also allowed us to embrace so many new things.”

Sometimes I honestly think the singular expression “… that’s how it’s always been done…” is the most damaging thing to business ever.



People need to always remember The Stranger’s Dilemma

What if someone wrote a book about sales and selling called Never Be Closing, as opposed to the oft-cited Always Be Closing? Well, someone has — and they just did an interview with Hubspot’s blog too. Here’s a golden nugget:


A lot of the negative attitude has to do with what we call the Stranger’s Dilemma. We’re all strangers at first, and for good or ill, people don’t necessarily trust strangers. Ironically, many of the techniques salespeople are taught actually reinforce the problem. Many closing techniques are designed to manipulate clients into saying things they don’t want to say. But there’s a better way to deal with the Stranger’s Dilemma: Stop being a stranger. Make it clear your aim is to help your clients. Our whole book is about how you can do that — not through trickery, but by replacing the focus on Always Be Closing with a focus on Always Being Useful.

Here’s the clip, just so we have it here — we’ll get to this quote above in a second:

Alright, so … that pull-quote above came from a question about a stat in their book; the stat’s from Gallup and found that four of the seven least trustworthy professions, off a poll, involve sales or selling as the primary component of their job. Why is the attitude so negative? The answer’s above. We talked about this a little bit yesterday too — people think “sales” is one thing, but it’s really just providing value and adding context on who you are and why you care to a situation — and really, while human relationships (and capturing someone’s attention) can be challenging propositions, the base idea of sales shouldn’t be so fraught and confusing. It’s actually fairly simple. (I’ve never really done sales, so perhaps I’m just talking out of my arse here.)

The guys that wrote Never Be Closing are Tim Hurson and Tim Dunne; they also work with ThinkX Consulting, which appears to be out of Toronto. They have a blog on that site; like most blogs from organizations, the ultimate goal is to drive the reader back towards their products, and this is no different — although some of the posts are interesting, like the most recent one on “Productive Thinking In Groups.” I wrote about brainstorming once and found it fascinating that it’s been to the go-to business idea generation model since the 1950s, but no one has any real idea if it actually works. Tim and Tim make a good point in their org’s post:

Imagine someone saying to you, “Ok, go run the marathon.” Unless you’d trained for a marathon before, you wouldn’t have a clue what to do first. You wouldn’t know how to train, how to develop yourself, how to eat, how to avoid injuries, or even how to effectively measure your progress.

And yet, that’s exactly the approach most organizations take when they ask people to put their brains into high gear and think differently.

Whether you want to produce high quality running or high quality thinking, you have to learn how. No matter how athletic you are or how big your brain is, you can improve your performance exponentially by taking a structured approach to the task.

Back in their Hubspot interview, they talk about a similar concept that I think has some value: the structured debrief. They apply it to sales, but you can apply it to anything. Essentially, after something happens in your life, you sit down and talk through a series of questions about what happened, how it happened that way, why it happened that way, where things could go better the next time, etc. It requires a degree of inward-facing honesty that maybe only a small percentage of humans actually have, but it’s a good idea in theory: look inward and try to figure out, “What just happened and what can I take from that the next time I do this?” (I used to do that all the time when I was teaching public school, and I honestly think it made me a better teacher in my second year.)

So back to the title of my post: always think about the Stranger’s Dilemma in your own life. Even with people with whom you’re very close, you’re still — in some respects — a stranger. (Almost no one can give all of themselves to another person, even in marriage; marriages have secrets.) There are always aspects and elements where you have to give of yourself a little and explain your context and how you can help. This is a powerful life lesson in many contexts, not just selling. But look, everything is a sale anyway, so we may as well apply it there as an entry point.

Just remember: you can think more broadly about these things and apply them even to your day-to-day life.



Could urban physics significantly impact organizational culture?

This is pretty interesting. Just like social physics has cropped up as a concept recently (especially as regards health care), now something called “urban physics” is cropping up, specifically at MIT and NYU, among other university locations. The basic idea is studying — using the Big Data surge of the moment — how different aspects of a city interact, so that you can make better decisions in terms of planning said city. Cities have long — well, for a little while at least — done stuff like this with traffic, but now the implications are even broader:

Urban physics, a more recent addition to Urban Studies, is currently being used by researchers at MIT and NYU to determine how systems within a city interact with each other and with individuals. Marrying traditional research principles with Big Data, urban physics involves monitoring and analyzing an endless supply of urban variables — crime rates, traffic flow, spread of infectious diseases — to understand emerging patterns, problems, and opportunities for change. Urban physicists are applying this research to reimagine a number of concepts, including the energy efficiency of city buildings, infrastructure conditions, and emergency detection.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You can take the same principles above — the ones we’re applying to whole cities — and apply them to micro-environments, such as your office. Consider:

1. When is the workload the heaviest?

2. When do employees seem to want to get away from their desks the most?

3. When employees leave their desks, where do they go? Internal or external?

4. Is there a pathway for natural communication across departments?

5. Is the vibe of the office sterile or conducive to conversation?

That HBR article above talks about a couple of examples in the Chicago area — because that’s where the writer is from — of companies who took Big Data + urban physics and used it to refine how their offices look, feel and flow. For example, here’s a “Tiki Hut Bar” conference room at the Groupon Chicago offices:

Groupon Chicago Tiki

This can all feel a little bit weird — one of the big things you’ll hear from “the old school” about the millennial generation is that they want crazy stuff like Nerf Guns in the office, but goddamn it that isn’t really work – but it’s also kind of interesting in terms of the future implications of everything. You are going to have / need a different workforce vibe in 20 years as a new generation becomes the predominant sector of the workforce, and reducing the sterility of the average office environment could help a little bit with breaking down silos. I mean, as we’ve discussed before, many standard office jobs could be done in pubs with solid Wi-Fi, so why not put speakeasy locations in your office, like Google Chicago did? People gravitate towards those types of spaces, and then suddenly you have marketing and HR at the same table. Maybe a great idea is born. Maybe not, but let’s dream big here, OK?

While people have been a bit slow to fully embrace Big Data, here’s the importance of it: why would you make a marketing decision, for example, off of gut if you could instead make it off of real understanding of your customers? Gut is something you try to eliminate in your day-to-day life of pursuing healthy options, right? So why do you base business decisions on it? Avoid gut, go for fact. And while the focus should be on the end user of whatever you do — because that’s how you make money — you can apply the same principles internally to figure out the best layout for your team and office. It’s not necessarily just about fun, zany and different types of space — that’s part of it — but it’s about a bigger package of where people want to go, when they go there, what they do there, and so on and so forth.

Maybe it’s time to just blow up the idea of performance reviews

I just decided to do a Google News search for “performance reviews” out of generalized interest and came up with these two headlines — “Is it time to kill them?” and “Five reasons to abandon them.” Yep. Everyone seemingly hates them: they can be rushed, they can not align with actual goals, they can be time-consuming and political, they don’t always end up leading to promotions, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. Here’s an article on the common mistakes in the process.

Here’s another one entitled “Skipping performance reviews has few consequences.” Indeed on that one — although I admittedly worked different jobs in the period, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have an actual performance review from 2009 until, well, about now. That’s a half-decade! Now, two of those years I was in graduate school, so there’s that … but still. I had a job from 2009 to 2011 at the same place and in 2010, I think I was supposed to have two reviews (a mid-year and an end-of-year). My boss cancelled both because she was “slammed;” I’m fairly certain there were no consequences anywhere.

Part of the issue here might be that performance reviews are typically associated with HR, and HR isn’t necessarily seen as a business partner — moreso it’s seen as a support function, so they lose priority on projects. That’s one way to look at it. Another way would be the idea that processes and products tend to matter to organizations, but oftentimes people can be seen as interchangeable. While this wholeheartedly isn’t true, it is an attitude you see in a lot of places, unfortunately. Then there’s a third attitude that says “Well, managers know who their top people are … why does it need to come with a lot of excess paperwork?” Well, maybe that’s true with some managers — but definitely not with all.

There isn’t a simple answer to this whole situation. The easiest way to think about it — although this is harder to execute — is to try and make the idea of performance reviews more organic and less forced. The idea there is more regular check-ins between managers and employees, in the form of lunches and 10-minute check-ins, as opposed to one major dump (the performance review) at a specified time of year.

Cool article here on some new performance review software for the HR world and this concept is mentioned: there’s a thing called Trakstar, for example, that can allow for easier and more open communication. There’s another tool called ReviewSnap that focuses more on real-time feedback. I’m not sure any of these things necessarily need to be contained within systems/platforms — can’t people just talk to each other, especially people who theoretically have the same aligned goals at work? — but they seem like interesting alternatives if nothing else. There are others on that initial link you can check out as well.

A lot of these issues are rooted in base human issues around communication, transparency, and the value of work — and those are hard to just up and change, so maybe there’s no true “easy answer” here. (There definitely isn’t an easy answer, no.) I do think the performance review as we currently construe it needs to be scrapped. No more once-a-year, paperwork-laden, confusing, what-does-this-lead-to stuff. Shorter, more organic, and more frequent check-ins, with maybe one major check-in a year on future aspirations / checking on engagement and connection to the company and organization. I’m not sure how you set that up in terms of HRIS, software and all that, but I think that’s the goal.

Doesn’t that seem to be how humans process most of their relationships with friends, etc? They check in a couple of times a year to see how things are, with maybe 1-2 in-person visits and 1 bigger thing? (A wedding, etc.) Shouldn’t we use that model for work check-ins, then? I don’t know if that’s the answer, but it seems potentially logical.

This is the one thing about leadership you need to know

Leadership might be the most important ambiguous word in the English language, right up there with something like “culture.” There are so many different theories about it — from Blue Ocean to a focus on humility — and so many books (entire sections of bookstores), yet it’s pretty much a deceptively simple concept. Use the same traits you’d use to get someone to listen to you and go from there.

In fact, I was just reading this article on Harvard Business Review and the first line struck me more than maybe anything I’ve read on there in weeks:

If you have room in your head for only one nugget of leadership wisdom, make it this one: the most powerfully motivating condition people experience at work is making progress at something that is personally meaningful. If your job involves leading others, the implications are clear: the most important thing you can do each day is to help your team members experience progress at meaningful work.

We know this: 82 percent of managers aren’t really good at their jobs. Even in a tougher economy, people look for jobs on the regular. The single-biggest reason cited for job departures is “relationship with manager” on almost every survey ever conducted. And yet, it’s all fairly simple: help the people under you make progress on work they consider meaningful to them.

Now, this can be a challenge right from the start — some people take jobs out of necessity, as opposed to it being an industry they really love, as one example. How can you motivate those people? Well, here’s the HBR suggestion:

To do so, you must understand what drives each person, help build connections between each person’s work and the organization’s mission and strategic objectives, provide timely feedback, and help each person learn and grow on an ongoing basis. Regular communication around development — having coaching conversations — is essential. In fact, according to recent research, the single most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is coaching.

Goes back to the same old things: focus on people as opposed to processes, embrace organic communications, and have empathy. Easier said than done, yes. But those are the cornerstone elements of the managerial process. It’s not about meeting deadlines and deliverables and all that — there will always be more of those, no matter how hard you try to flee from them — but rather, about developing a team underneath you who can excel in your absence and take on more of the long-range thinking aspects of the job; this, in turn, frees you up for work-life balance and for bigger-picture items yourself.

Inline Coaching Manager

Problem is, this almost never happens:

Strangely, at most companies, coaching isn’t part of what managers are formally expected to do. Even though research makes it clear that employees and job candidates alike value learning and career development above most other aspects of a job, many managers don’t see it as an important part of their role. Managers think they don’t have the time to have these conversations, and many lack the skill. Yet 70% of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training programs. So if line managers aren’t supportive and actively involved, employee growth is stunted. So is engagement and retention.

Here’s a seemingly simple solution: I’ve seen studies — I’ve written about them, but I don’t remember the exact post in which I did (wait, I just did) — where people have estimated that 25-40 percent of a manager’s time is put towards activities that don’t actually matter to the bottom line. Now, if you asked a standard middle manager, they might tell you “That means stuff like performance reviews!” Maybe it does. But if you took that time where they’re off doing whatever and instead put more of a focus on coaching — less of a focus on meetings — wouldn’t that be a good thing in terms of engaging and motivating the team? Seems so.

Bottom line: managing is about coaching more than standard definitions of leadership (“being a general” or “making hard decisions”). Those things play in, yes — but the focus is actually on the “soft skills” that we don’t often focus on.




Is the only reason that four-day work weeks aren’t catching on because of “… that’s how we’ve always done it?”

I’ve written about the idea of a four-day work week twice before — here and here — and I just wrote a piece for Vocoli (might be online tomorrow) on the same topic, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. I’ve also written before about the idea of ROWE — Results-Only Work Environments — and how people aren’t quick to adopt them because of the troubling notion that employees at companies are often treated like children and not adults. The four-day work week, though, seems to make sense. First off, the base amount of hours is the same — 40. In one situation it’s five days of eight/per and in another situation it’s four days of 10/per. It creates more engagement — every week has the chance to be a three-day weekend! — and fosters a better work-life balance, which people are always discussing both in cubicles and business journalism. But – it’s very slow to catch on in the United States. We’ll get to that in a second, but first let’s consider a company based in the United States — Treehouse, also mentioned/profiled in the video embedded above — and see some of the benefits they’ve seen from the four-day work week:

There are plenty of reasons to work a four-day week.

Recruiting is easy (we still pay full salaries and offer a very generous benefits package). We regularly have new employees choose Treehouse over Facebook, Twitter and other top-tier tech companies.

Retention is easier. One of the team told me he regularly gets emails from Facebook trying to win him over and his answer is always the same: “Do you work a four-day week yet?

Morale is boosted. On Mondays everyone is fresh and excited—not jaded from working over the weekend.

50% more time with our family and friends. I get to spend three days a week, instead of two, with my family. 50%. It’s insane. For those on the team without kids, they get to spend this extra 50% on their hobbies or loved ones.

All this makes sense. It makes hella sense to me, actually. So what’s the issue?

1. I think the first thing is pretty simple: change is hard. To change something as fundamental as the five-day work week is even harder. Americans, especially, tend to view themselves as very driven and work-oriented. Sacrificing a day, even if the hours are the same, could make people think they’re at a loss. It’s kind of like all those quotes around “If you’re not at the gym, someone else is…” that you see in NIKE ads. Same applies to business for some people.

2. Health insurance would be a big thing for some people. There are HR compliance issues, potentially, around someone only working four days. Can they be covered? (Usually this is done by # of hours, but still.)

3. You can’t give everyone Friday off; it has to be staggered (some people get Tuesday or Wednesday of). If you gave everyone Friday off, then you’re basically not a functioning company on Friday — and what happens if customers/clients need you? They’ll turn to a competitor, potentially.

4. Much like the ROWE idea above, there’s an element of basic trust here. Employers want to see you working and see you at meetings and see you grinding. If they only get four days of that as opposed to five, that might challenge some of their assumptions about how much you’re really doing.

I honestly think there are two major aspects to “the industrial economy” becoming “the knowledge economy” that we missed: one is the American school schedule, because learning loss is a huge thing. I don’t actually think kids should go to school 360 days a year or anything, but a three-month summer break is a bit much (even if it’s closer to 1.5 months in some areas of the country). The other is the workday. Just off the invention of two products — Microsoft Office and Google — it’s nearly impossible to argue that people in the 1940s should have been on the same schedule as people in 2014. There are more clients and customers and a more international feeling to business, yes — but there are also a ton more tools to do your job effectively (and/or remotely). And people are different: two people, on the same project, might be able to finish it in 32 hours (Person A) and 44 hours (Person B). If Person A has a big family, why do they need to be around the office for the other eight hours?

Flexibility = key to the whole “employee engagement” movement as it continues to develop. Companies should start here and really consider the four-day work week.

Brief thought exercise: do you find/believe that more people get promoted based on innate talent, personality, or ability to handle politics?

Toss out what you know/think/believe about performance reviews and the ascension of some to the manager level. Think about this one logically.

If you’re going to get promoted, that ostensibly means (a) new (and broader) responsibilities and (b) possibly managing others (or bigger projects). For this to be achieved properly, you need innate talent, for sure. You also (ideally) need personality, especially if it is a role that will require more interaction with people (direct reports). You probably (likely?) need to know how to handle the office politics, because you probably (likely?) didn’t get noticed in the first place without having some context around how to deal with that. So clearly, all three are important (as well as other factors not being listed here).

Would you say one is more important, though?

Here’s a quick story: I had a job once where they did pretty strong performance reviews, at least for the top couple of salary bands. I got to attend a “rank” meeting (which was interesting in and of itself) and one of the “player cards” at said rank meeting basically listed out this guy — I will say he was a guy — who was pretty high up and navigating the waters well. On his “drawbacks” area, it said something like, “Very hard to work with; doesn’t foster strong relationships.” On his “five-year-plan” area, it said something like, “C-Suite. Possible COO.” In that case, it seemed to be talent and politics; personality was clearly tertiary. At other places, it might be different — and it should vary by organization, as each organization is different and needs different types of leaders.

The broader question I’m wondering about: in the modern era, is it possible to be simply talented, or simply politically adept, or simply very personable? Or do you truly need a blend?


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