Saturday, 21 March 2015

Leadership - A Duty of Consistency and Common Sense

I read a newspaper article today about a Japanese academic, an expert on China, who works at my old alma mater, the University of Nottingham. She has been forced to leave the UK because she has failed to meet the home office requirement of living in the UK for more than 185 days a year. She was unable to meet that commitment because she had to travel for her work and spent 270 days in China in 2010 and 202 days there in 2011. She has an Australian husband and a one year old son born in the UK. After initially being denied the right to stay in the UK, a judge declared that it was not in the national interest to deport her given her expertise (she advised the UK Government and some of her research was government funded). The Home Office in its infinite wisdom appealed and she has abandoned her claim because of increasing legal expenses.

Meanwhile the country pays host to scores of foreign criminals, often ruthless and violent, who manage to evade deportation, even after serving lengthy prison sentences because they have conned the increasingly useless justice systems over their human  rights.

Before you turn away, this isn’t another article about the nonsensical human rights regulations and their constant abuse and deliberate misinterpretation by our liberal elite. The problem is more that we have lost sense of consistency and common sense in so many parts of our daily lives.

The problem occurs in government, across the civil service, in local authorities but is also rife in private companies and corporations. The larger the instituition, the larger the problem. As systems get bigger, they get exponentially more complex, and as complexity increases inconsistency is almost inevitable. The failure to address inconsistency is largely because we fail to use common sense.

How often do we see businesses embarking on massive redundancy programmes, eliminating their valuable, knowledgeable and loyal staff, only to take on more useless managers and expensive contractors with no loyalty, and with no experience of the real and specific organisational issues that face them.

If we could use a little common sense every time we spotted an inconsistency, we could start to eliminate the inconsistency at least, and maybe even fix the root cause of the problem that gave way to the inconsistency in the first place. In my circles it’s called Continuous Improvement. By fixing problems as you encounter them it is possible to start to control complexity by reducing the number of problems that can occur in the future.

But instead of fixing the right problem, our leaders cover up the issues by creating new rules and regualations and introducing more complexity and more inconsistencies. And the vicious cycle starts over.

As we head towards the general election our politicans should seriously think about policies that end these nonsenses and engage their frontal lobes with a bit more rigor before they embark on the next round of rules and regulations that make our blood boil.

Sadly, it will be too late for Dr Miwa Hirono.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Teams In the Workplace – Flogging a Dead Metaphor?

You could probably wallpaper a small city with the amount of material that has been written about Teams in the Workplace. That search term alone provides 112,000,000 items to browse through. It seems that nearly every day a new article pops up on LinkedIn or HBR or some other illustrious business compendium about how to better manage your teams,  the dangers of underperforming teams,  how to rebuild a failing team and the like. And, inevitably, a good percentage of these articles will make reference to the sports team metaphor.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in some very high performing teams whilst simultaneously being part of some very high performing management teams. Conversely, I’ve worked in some highly dysfunctional teams, almost always under even more dysfunctional management. Since I’ve been self-employed I’ve spent most of time my working with groups of people who are referred to as teams, but who are really more a bunch of people thrown together organisationally, geographically or functionally (or a mix of these). The distinguishing feature of these people is that they primarily operate as individuals supporting other individuals, groups or even 'proper teams'.
In the circles I operate in, mainly the quality and process management and consulting world, there are plenty of lone wolves like me. Auditors, project quality managers, process evangelists and consultants often act as one man bands – working with and amongst many teams, but almost always on the periphery of the teams themselves. The nature of the work sometimes necessitates this, but often the people who take on these roles do so because it fits their personalities both in and out of the workplace.

For extroverted introverts like me, this is an ideal situation. I get to focus on the things I do best, for the people who matter the most – namely my customers. I’m not generally subjected to random time-wasting team meetings, and rarely have to suffer the humiliation of clich├ęd team building exercises like bowling night or a two day outward bound course, both of which fill me with utter dread – the former because it’s a showcase for my total lack of bowling ability, the latter because I used to spend much time in the mountains in the company of my dog or with just a few close companions.

That doesn’t make me anti-social – I’ll go and share a beer and good conversation with my colleagues any day of the week – I’m just averse to being organised in the name of team building when I’m not a member of a genuine team. (Some people might say that I take this aversion even further, and that I’m actually averse to being managed, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Good, competent individuals know what needs to be done to achieve the appropriate synergies between themselves and their colleagues. Good leaders are able to see where there may be deficiencies in skills (hard or soft) and plug the gaps accordingly with additional staff or through coaching and mentorship. Likewise, they see where there is discord and take appropriate actions. With good people and good leadership, teams actually become self-forming and self-managing.
I often think we have taken this whole sporting metaphor too far when we’re dealing with the workplace. Shoe-horning a group of individuals into a ‘team’ when it isn’t necessary is a waste of time and effort by all parties. I often see it as (yet) another management indulgence – because the books and the articles say it’s a good thing, so a manager does it. The reality is that the vast majority of professional sports people fit into this category of 'groups of individuals' rather than teams. Squash and tennis players, swimmers and athletes, golfers and cyclists are primarily individuals brought together on occasion to compete under a flag - an artifical team - Team GB, the Ryder Cup team or the Davis Cup team. There may be some strategic pairing or tactical placement of individuals to boost the overall 'team' achievement but ultimately it is always about the performance of the individual, regardless of the team. Even soccer, cricket and rugby teams are ultimately teams of individuals and even the best managers are powerless to do anything about a group of players who can't produce the goods on the day.
I said at the beginning that I'd worked in some very high performing teams. Those 'teams' were made up of hugely talented individuals and guided by hugely talented leaders. None of them indulged in puerile team building exercises - they succeeded because of mutual respect, and the  desire to do the best for themselves and the people they worked for, and with, both internally and externally.
The witicism says that there's no 'I' in team.  I'm not so sure about that. The best teams are full of 'I's!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Can Outsourcing Quality Really Be A Good Thing?

After twenty two years climbing corporate ladders I decided to go freelance back in 2006. On several occasions I have taken on a contract as a Project Quality Manager. Generally, this means working as a team member of one or more projects, helping the team, and mostly the project manager, to make sure they are following corporate standards, using good practice and generally steering them in the right direction to ensure that quality is built into the end product.

One of the contuining conversations I have with myself, is whether this kind of outsourcing is a "good thing". My accountant and bank manager would certainly say that it is. With my experience I can command a decent daily rate, and usually I'm protected from political shenanigans which means I can leave my work in the office when I leave the building. I enjoy working at the coal face, engaging with project teams, and even occasionally facilitating beneficial changes in the organisation. Above all, I always try and make a difference.

But my passion is about helping organisations improve, especially in areas which seem to have fallen out of favour as core functions within the business, like quality and process management. More and more businesses are outsourcing their quality and process activities, either to individuals like myself, or to larger outsourcing consultancies like Wipro, Accenture or Cognizant. And this causes me a great deal of concern. In fact I touched on this very dilemma back in 2011.

On numerous occasions I have sat in on Town Hall meetings where the senior management extol the importance of high quality and effective processes and in the next slide indicate that these functions are being outsourced. What sort of mixed message is that? They are basically saying "These are critically important to us but we're going to outsource them to the lowest bidder because cost savings trump everything else"!

When organisations make their quality and process specialists redundant it makes me feel that part of the organisational conscience is being ripped out. These people form a part of the glue that keeps many of the other parts of the business together. When I have been privileged enough to lead quality and improvement activities across the organisation, myself and the members of my team have been among the very few people who interacted with everyone in the business, pretty much on a daily basis. We also had strong connections with other related organisations, mainly other UK delivery centres, but with other global teams. We were uniquely positioned to help teams and individuals reach out to other people who had knowledge that could help our people.

Outsourcing these roles and functions may still ensure that core activities are performed. Contractors can undertake audits, assure compliance, identify and even lead improvement activities but as outsiders they will never be treated in the same way as genuine peers to the engineers and delivery team members. And the little bits of knowledge they accumulate, and the networks they build, will disappear out of the organisation at the end of the contract, leaving the next person to start building up those relationships all over again.

I've often commented that I believe there are two types of quality staff. There's the old style manager who hides behind dusty old standards and checklists, focusing on policing the business, and avoiding change. Then there are the proactive, modern quality leaders who drive change and improvements, strive to add value and work closely with people to help them meet and exceed their objectives. In some ways both of these are preferable to itinerant quality staff, like myself - who have probably been driven to ply their trade like modern day quality mercenaries because their traditional roles have been outsourced.

I've been very fortunate that I learnt my trade as a permanent employee, and managed to embrace all kinds of quality related disciplines on the job. I can double up as a project or programme manager, a process improvement lead, a communications manager or even an operations manager, and I can lead major business change initiatives. But some of the younger people I work with who are starting out on their first quality contracts will not be so fortunate. They won't be offered the same types of opportunities that I was, because those opportunities won't be available to externally contracted quality staff (no matter how good they are).

A dedicated, effective, value added quality service, culture and mindset takes a long time to build in an organisation. And like a reputation, it takes very little for it to be shattered beyond repair. So, if you are considering outsourcing your quality function, think again. Do you really want your reputation to go down the pan in order to save a few overhead costs?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Location, Location, Location...

I first read Peopleware by Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister not long after it was first published in 1987. I was still cutting code for a living, learning my trade (as I hope I continue to do so some 30 years later) and had little enthusiasm for going into management which appeared to do nothing except stifle my creativity.

The whole of the second section of the book is about The Office Environment. It made interesting reading to me when I first read it and it makes even more interesting reading now, largely because, in the twenty seven years since it was originally published, no-one who has anything to do with office or facilities management seems taken the blindest bit of notice of it.

Since reading Peopleware, I have worked in hundreds of offices, all over the world and in many different industries. With one or two exceptions, most office environments I have encountered have exhibit the same characteristics that De Marco and Lister described as being detrimental to productivity, especially amongst knowledge workers.

Whilst some organisations have taken steps to build collaborative workplaces and others have gone down the green and environmentally friendly spaces, many organisations continue to cram their knowledge workers into large open plan offices which are more like chicken batteries than areas to encourage the type of focus and concentration that is conducive to high productivity.

In fact, things have got progressively worse as more and more work is farmed out to low cost centres in other parts of the world and the volume of conference calls increases (in both number and noise level!). One office in London that I worked in (thankfully only once a month) was more like a school refectory than a software development hub. Space was at such a premium that workers were denied even the basic privacy proffered by a cubicle. Some 500 people shared that space, and there were three floors with exactly the same layout.

The whole nature of globalisation brings into question whether large corporations will ever be able to become genuinely lean or agile as close collaboration becomes increasingly difficult. Some of my work increasingly sees me isolated from the people I would normally expect to be closest to. On some contracts I have never met my colleagues face to face, and will probably never do so. As “shared services”, like quality, process management and even project management become outsourced, the nature of the relationships of people within projects become more complicated, less personable and more remote (literally and figuratively), and I struggle to understand how this can benefit anyone except the bean counters. 

As an introvert, who generally dislikes the notion and reality of conducting business over a telephone, I sometimes wonder how much longer I’ll be able to last in this new world, which relies far more on the ability to make yourself heard and understood over the airwaves, than the old social mechanisms of building nurturing relationships with real people, who more often than not have become genuine friends as time goes by.

Homeworking does help relieve some of the inherent problems imposed by noisy, impersonal, factory farm offices. My home environment is considerably quieter, and it’s much easier to link up with colleagues via video, which at least gives a semblance of dealing with other humans, not just disembodied voices. I have the ability to spread out, I don’t need to worry about clean desk policies, I don’t mind having meetings in the middle of the night to be able to connect with colleagues across three continents (well I don’t mind as much, as long as I’m free to organise my days around this).
But ultimately, I have real doubts about the future of businesses that continue to think of their knowledge workers as items in a warehouse, stacked high and precariously and with no real sense of connection to their neighbours.

Farmers have long known that the better they look after their livestock, the better the end product. Those same farmers also understand that although it may cost more to reach the goal, people will always pay for a premium product if they feel that they are getting value for their money. Cutting costs without continuing to provide a healthy environment for workers to thrive in is completely counter-productive, and ultimately these organisations will pay the price for their lack of understanding.  Maybe if all managers, CEOs and CFO read books like Peopleware, they might actually begin to appreciate what a lot of their employees have understood for many years!