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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.

Can you manage people without destroying trust? May 28, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Most of us might not readily associate project management – or any other management – with the fields of sociology or political science.  But just as engineering is the application of scientific principles toward a specific objective, management is very much the application of social sciences to coordinating groups toward an objective.

Unfortunately, sociology is rarely given much consideration in engineering curricula, and only passing interest in many business courses.  Surely, many business concepts are founded on sociological and psychological theory, but students aren’t often exposed to the raw studies or how more obscure analysis might be applied in new ways.  What is business and economics but a subset of the continual interactions we have with others every day of our lives?

Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans wrote Middle American Individualism in 1988 as a short examination of the public’s relationship to Big Business and Big Government, especially Americans’ unique distrust of large organizations.  Though focused on how government can better reach such a disaffected population, the book yields some very interesting insights – several of which crop up again in the more recent Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam highlights the significant drop in “social capital” since the 1960’s and uses decades of survey data to analyze reasons and consequences.  He singles out our collective trust in each other – or rather lack of it – as being a contributing force in our declining social capital, the glue that allows our various short- and long-term activities to be reciprocated in the future.  Social capital could in some ways be a synonym for a more familiar business buzzword: synergy.  In short, the sum of our social connections is greater than the individuals we know.

In particular, Putnam highlights the concept of economic “transaction costs” as a consequence of less social capital and trust.  It is these transaction costs that hold particular pertinence to management.  We can think of transaction costs as the various tangible and intangible investments, such as research, bargaining, and enforcement (especially through contracts and courts), of any particular exchange.  These may be informal and individual (the time and effort involved in preparing a dinner for a sick neighbor) or complex business agreements (the process of hiring an engineer, preparing a contract, and executing the work).

Whenever we use a written contract, we increase the cost of that transaction – sometimes literally when we pay attorneys to draft them.  Aside from this, there are other intangible costs derived from the effort involved in setting up the agreement, managing the specific deliverables, and enforcing any variances.  To be sure, complex engineering designs do require clear contracts.  But has our litigious society forced us into formal agreements for even trivial matters?  When we micro-manage a project, do we inherently distrust the other parties when we insist on written documentation of every single activity?

Many businesspeople around Montana pride themselves on the magnitude of agreements executed with a handshake.  Similarly, master consultant Alan Weiss has noted that contracts are part of the implementation, not the sales process.  If you haven’t established the deliverables beforehand, the contract is premature at best.  Quite often, you may find yourself explaining away these written documents as “formalities”.  By requiring them, we are expressing at least some degree of distrust.  When developing relationships, that is the last thing you want to do.

Prioritized Procrastination August 8, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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It takes a strong will to resist the pull of procrastination.  We fall into the trap for various reasons, some conscious, many not.  It happens at work, at home, and most of all, at school.  Fear, anxiety, social and economic pressures, stress – all conspiring to put up mental blocks and false leads against our perceived potential failures – and successes.

If you are awake, you are probably procrastinating.  And this article by Rory Vaden of Southwestern Consulting shows you just how insidious it can be.

We all have to-do lists.  Some are simple, some complex.  A typical project plan is a to-do list of sorts as well.  Everyone has their respective tasks and priorities.  But most projects and businesses also have their share of firefighting and reactionary management, silently wreaking havoc on the successful achievement of your goals.

Managers in particular face this battle nearly every day.  Especially at 24/7 operations that are so common in heavy industries like mining and materials processing, the first question on many managers’ minds is, “what happened last night?”  This sets every day up for potential failure.  Rather than addressing the pre-existing priorities, managers get sucked into the vortex of day-to-day reaction, moving farther and farther from their strategic goals.

Vaden’s tips come down to a few key questions when a new “priority” arises:

  • Was this activity on my primary to-do list when I arrived at work today?
  • Is this activity one of the key drivers of achieving success in my position?
  • Does this activity require my unique thought process?
  • Will this issue likely resolve itself without my intervention if I allow some time?
  • Is there another person on our team who is mostly capable of handling this?
  • Can the resolution of this issue wait until some point in the future without substantial repercussion?

As simple and straightforward as this list seems, these aren’t always easy questions to answer.  Also, like so many other choices, our inside voice can often ignore otherwise obvious signs to the right decision.  Hence, one of the best phrases in this article: objective accountability.

If you are having trouble focusing on those most critical tasks – the ones that provide direct, measurable value to your business – it may be wise to seek an objective opinion.  The key is not to necessarily look outside the organization, but at least outside your normal chain of authority.  Find someone that can not only provide a ruthless culling of your to-do list, but someone who will hold you accountable to stick to it once it’s done.

Just Making Conversation January 4, 2010

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Perhaps the most common advice for any kind of management or leadership position is to initiate and reinforce communication among the staff or project team. To accomplish this, managers are taught to ask questions of their staff and, whenever appropriate, to discover some of their personal goals and motivations. The purpose is clear: By engaging in meaningful conversation, managers are able to monitor and evaluate the employees’ capabilities and attitudes while promoting teamwork and moving projects forward. Many recommendations regarding communication do not, however, emphasize the information-gathering tools that are necessary to rise above simple conversation and engage in a real transfer of knowledge. Put simply, there is a dramatic difference between asking, “How’s it going?” and asking for specific details about progress, resource shortages, or training. (more…)

Who Do You Think You Are? August 13, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Think back to a time when you had a significant decision to make.  Maybe it was a choice of college or major, perhaps it was a new job.  In each case, you may have considered a range of possibilities, weighed pros and cons, or consulted with friends to determine the best course of action.  There were also likely many intangible factors that led to the final decision.  It is no surprise then that organizations, being collections of individuals, follow similar reasoning when tasked with important decisions.  Every decision will reflect the unique identity of the “decider”. (more…)