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Bureaucracy as a Crutch March 14, 2014

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it. – Seth Godin

Seth’s post about bureaucracy strikes a chord with anyone who works in or around large organizations.  Especially as consultants, roles in which we are often presented with the worst parts of an organization, several months can be spent simply cutting through the red tape to make things happen.

Large organizations quite often have individuals who have a vision for where the group could be.  But as Seth points out, these people are often tempered by risk-averse policies and procedures put in place to avoid bad press, potential unhappy customers, or internal HR issues.  Nevertheless, large organizations manage to fall over themselves (I’m talking to you, airlines) when policies restrict customer-facing employees from helping the very people for whom they are there in the first place.

It takes a great deal of time, money, and human energy to change the course of large bureaucracies.  Indeed, while corporations seem to at least make feeble attempts now and gain, governments appear to be beyond help in many ways.  Those with the power to tax and spend a nation’s wealth seem more and more inclined to do so, with few within the government seeming to have any will at all to strive for greatness.  And if our collective vision for greatness must come from those who lead – at every level – we seem to be sorely lacking the will to do any better.

Corporations, especially those large enough to regularly find themselves in national or world news, at least seem to be cautiously interested in trying new things, projects for which outside consultants often provide a valuable objective viewpoint.  If you work for one of these organizations, it often is as “simple” as demonstrating some economic value of the innovation in question.  Of course, it then is necessary to present such a case to the right people – which presents its own challenges.  Unfortunately, the more policies and people your organization has, the more likely it will be to have some of those people gaming the system and bending the bureaucracy back on itself.  Loopholes and technicalities can be blessings or curses depending on which side of the issue one finds oneself.

Advice, not Coaching April 23, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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The job-search scene is hard enough.  You send applications, letters, resumes, and networking requests, spend hours searching the same boards over and over again hoping that this week, it will be different.  Unless you have considerate friends to give good feedback, or actually pay money to have someone review and edit your personal documents, you rarely get much constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement.

Enter Shea Gunther.

His clean tech job ad, unsurprisingly, drew hundreds of eager applicants looking for a great writing gig.  Anyone who reads applications for a living surely can guess at the percentage of worthwhile responses, and can probably sympathize with Gunther”s realization that there are truly a lot of bad resumes out there.

Perhaps out of frustration, he took it upon himself to write what appears to be a well-thought-out rejection letter (also here) – something most prospective employers wouldn’t bother to do.  Most applicants are lucky to get a form letter response, if anything at all.

So what went wrong?  Wouldn’t most people want helpful tips to improve their future search?  It turns out, not.  And, it turns out, this should not be a surprise to anyone.

While there are many hardy souls out there who took Gunther’s words at face value, many more thought he was being insensitive, arrogant, egotistical, and all manner of other unprintable names.  Gunther’s mistake was in believing that he could coach these people without ever meeting them.  He was giving unsolicited advice that triggers the human defense mechanism – he literally caused most reader’s brains to react with automatic rejection of their own (if you want to find out how this works, I highly recommend the book “Your Brain on Business”).

The takeaway from all this is that constructive advice is most helpful if the adviser is aware of the listener’s motivations in the first place.  A coach is someone who supports the individual’s effort and provides the necessary leeway to allow some degree of failure.  But this only works if the coach understands that individual’s limits and personal goals.  Basic, unfiltered advice is all over the internet, and most people have a high tolerance for sarcasm and cynicism.  But if the intent is to provide truly helpful and personal guidance, there’s only one way to do it – and it doesn’t involve a keyboard.

For Shea’s rebuttal to the naysayers, click over to salon.com

Improving People, Improving Organizations January 16, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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If your life includes teaching, coaching, or mentoring (and, I claim that everyone’s does), there are many occasions during which learning “plateaus”.  That is, there will be times when it seems – to the student at least – that upward progress has ceased.  Student pilots study and expect this as part of the learning process.  Instructors are taught to use such times to work on other topics and let the difficult issue temporarily drop in priority.  This is done because the human brain often takes time to assimilate and synthesize the thinking required for complex tasks.  There are biological limitations to our capacity to learn.

But what about the learning environment (i.e., the workplace)?

Funny enough, individuals don’t work in a vacuum within their organizations.  Not only will each person learn and develop at different rates, but the organizational culture will almost assuredly change much more slowly.  Each new bright spot of success brings with it the realization that not everyone is “seeing the light” in the same way.  Like a religion, there will be fanatics and disbelievers.  But within any given organization, the fans will quickly become frustrated and disillusioned if the rest of the group doesn’t catch up.

What’s happening here?  Again, we have our own brains to blame.

We are wired to believe our way is the right way.  When those around us don’t agree, it creates a conflict, called cognitive dissonance.  When working in an environment of change and – ostensibly at least – improvement, this becomes more difficult to handle, since we must now reassess our co-workers as we and they change together.  Who is working with me, and who is against me?

This is the point at which the organizational leadership is critical to both harness the power of those bright spots and to convince everyone else that the change is really the right thing to do.  Without this commitment, those who have improved – by whatever objective measure you choose – will become more frustrated at the lack of progress around them.  At worst, they become so fed up that they leave the organization.  That leaves you, as the leader, with a less and less motivated team and a more toxic environment in which to make any change.

The forthright commitment from all levels of the organization is critical to keeping those “early adopters” of change from disillusionment and to keeping everyone else headed in the same direction at the same time.

…But Not Too Boring November 18, 2009

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A while back, I wrote a short response to an article about leadership – one that went out on a limb to say that “boring” leaders may be more successful than the high-profile, charismatic types that we might otherwise envision as fitting that role.

More recently, however, Seth Godin wrote, “As an organization grows and succeeds, it sows the seeds of its own demise by getting boring.” So, what’s going on here?  How is it that “successful” leaders – those with “attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness, and the ability to work long hours” – appear to be heading down exactly the wrong path? (more…)

Fuel the Fire; Don’t Burn Out November 1, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Last month, we discussed some of the factors affecting the attraction of young people to engineering, math, and science. This perennial issue seems to have as many solutions as there are practicing engineers. Existing programs, such as the West Point Bridge Design contest and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) ASCEville.com are intended to address youth directly and provide hands-on educational opportunities. But in most cases, such programs depend on the active participation of practicing engineers — many of whom have difficulty finding the time or motivation to volunteer. Are today’s engineers ready to accept the personal responsibility to develop the next generation, or are we ever more dependent on universities to provide the foundations upon which we then may build? And what of the subsequent laments that such schools do not adequately prepare graduates to enter the workforce? (more…)

This Time…or All the Time? September 28, 2009

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When giving or receiving instructions, it’s important to distinguish “rules” from special circumstances.  Engineering is loaded with rules-of-thumb, shortcuts, assumptions, and yes, a few guesses.  “Safety Factor” is just a fancy euphemism for “fudge factor”.  Throughout the design process, especially when training or mentoring younger engineers, it is critical to fully explain when a task is to be done all the time or whether it is being applied for this special case (and other special cases like it). (more…)

The Flip Side – Camel Guest Post July 23, 2009

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From my “Manage a Camel” guest post in the UK:

It isn’t hard to find resources promoting effective management – whether of projects or people.  From IT to manufacturing to engineering, one of the most common recommendations – nay, directives – is to delegate.  To believe some of the various posts, the job of an effective manager entails continuously foisting work off onto subordinates in order to have time to “manage” the job.  And if you are one of those subordinates, it is usually pretty obvious when one of your many bosses has recently read about the latest fad and decided to send all the unpleasant work your way.  But that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  MORE…

Personality Management July 17, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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One of the most difficult transitions in many professions—especially engineering—is that of moving from a strictly technical job into management. Whether management means supervising one person or overseeing an entire project, significant psychological adjustment is necessary to manage human resources as well as technical ones. This difficulty is nothing new. Long before many of the well-known quality management and coaching principles were developed, firms recognized that technical experts did not necessarily make the best managers. Recently, there have been many comparisons between management and leadership, and an emphasis that they are indeed two different attributes that require different skills. (more…)

Exciting to be Boring June 3, 2009

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What characteristics are recognized as being common attributes of CEO’s and other business leaders?

Charisma?

People skills?

Vision?

Interestingly, not necessarily.  (more…)

Back to Basics April 11, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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As we negotiate the latest economic hurdles facing our industry and our individual businesses, we face many complex challenges. One of these is the double-edged sword of strategic planning. As usual, our time is constantly under assault from competing interests and conflicting priorities, and strategic planning is often one of the unfortunate casualties. Firms that neglected to fully plan and prepare for these conditions are now likely paying the price in lost business, lost employees, and lost morale. These are critical times, with many firms literally on the brink of collapse, and the ones most in need of a clear course have precious few resources available for plotting it. What is a leader to do? (more…)