Monday, 10 December 2018

A Double Standard Is No Standard At All!

If there's one thing guaranteed to make me mad in the workplace it's the failure of people to follow internal standards or guidelines for internal projects. In the IT world, this appears to be the normal state of affairs. I've lost count of the number of internal initiatives that I've been involved with which have no requirements (documented or not), no clear objectives, no stated business benefit, no plan, and no effective management per se.

These companies often have highly developed processes and procedures covering just about every aspect of their business, and yet internal projects (and programmes) are kicked off on a regular basis without even so much as the back of a fag packet plan.

How many times have you been tasked with creating a tool to monitor some aspect of your organisation without any of the prerequisites demanded by management for a customer-facing tool? You must have had the conversation that goes...

Manager: "Knock me up a spreadsheet to track our widget usage across the organisation. Nothing fancy, but I'll need it for the leadership team meeting first thing in the morning".

You: "You can use the corporate widget monitoring tool for that"

Manager: "I don't need the full monty, just a snapshot - it'll only take you a few minutes. You can do it during your lunch break"

You: "OK, then. I'll have it ready for you early by 14:00" 

Back at your desk, you start banging your head against the wood because you know what's going to happen next. The quick and dirty spreadsheet 'project' is soon going to morph into something monstrous and you'll never get an opportunity to eat lunch again. Soon, everyone will be wanting additional features, customisations and modifications (not one of which will be written down).

I've written and spoken about the dangers of the end-user cottage industry of dashboards in the past but the truth is that major corporations run vast tracts of their business affairs using unregulated and un-auditable spreadsheets. Far more complex initiatives are undertaken in exactly the same way and the outcomes are always the same. And they are not good...for anyone!

Organisational change is still one of the most difficult undertakings for a business, and yet many of them still believe they can perform it without any understanding, planning or proper management. The metaphor of building the aeroplane while it is in-flight is entirely appropriate. You’ll be familiar with the executive who is parachuted into your department and immediately starts to take control by issuing edicts about how things need to be done, despite having no previous experience in anything to do with what your department does.

You might think you’ve got lucky when the exec announces he is setting up an internal working party. And then you find that the working party includes all his management cronies and a token member of your department - the one person in the team who is guaranteed to not rock the boat. A few days later you get the memo about the changes and after shaking your head in disbelief you start plotting with the other reliable members of your team as to how to block the change and undermine the new manager. And businesses wonder why change fails.

Maverick workers may be a pain in the backside, but they often operate for the good of their colleagues. Maverick managers, on the other hand, are often only in it to further their own careers. These kind of parachute appointments are very often temporary, and any damage that is done can often be put right before too long, once the exec has been assigned to another department!

But if organisations really want their employees to react positively to change, senior executives must keep an eye out for double standards, where managers expect others to behave a certain way, but fail to do so themselves. If managers can’t follow internal processes then their leaders should be asking why not. If the processes are wrong, then fix them. If managers won’t follow internal processes, then either re-educate them or get rid of them.

A double standard is no standard at all.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Collaboration and Innovation: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” *

Show me a recent company mission statement or a set of corporate values and I'm willing to bet that it'll contain the words collaboration and innovation. It'll probably also contain the word agile and maybe lean as well but let's not get sidetracked in the first paragraph.

Whilst I don’t dispute that innovation and collaboration are ‘good things’, when they appear in high-level mission statements and value propositions, they are usually little more than words plucked off a jargon bingo sheet, fairly meaningless and probably not understood by the people who wrote them any more than the executives and managers tasked to make them happen.

The biggest misplaced assumption about innovation and collaboration is that these things can be made to happen on demand. Secondly, there is the rather suspect assumption that for businesses to succeed everybody in the organisation must be an innovator and a collaborator. Thirdly and finally I take issue with the assumptions that innovation needs to be centralised and that collaboration and teamwork are synonymous.

My main issue with these assumptions is that both collaboration and innovation are organic. They cannot be turned on and off like a tap and management cannot force people to do either (at least not successfully).

I’ve spent quite large portions of my working life as a remote worker so I’ve always been interested in the way ‘home-based working’ falls in and out of management favour. As a remote worker, generally you become a natural collaborator, otherwise, you tend to go slightly deranged. You also become something of an innovator, because there are times when you are the only person who can come up with a solution to a problem you face. Yahoo, IBM and HPE all made headline news when they announced an end to home working because they needed everyone in the office to ensure maximum collaboration. As if being in an office in San Francisco is going to make you any better at collaborating with your colleagues in Bangalore than if you were at home (actually it’s more likely to be the reverse, but let’s not go there).

I recently came across a question asking how to enhance Global Collaboration in an organisation. The question pertained specifically to a situation where the business comprised a significant itinerant workforce. But regardless of the specifics, I was intrigued by what was meant by “Global Collaboration”. Was there an expectation that management could force people across the world to collaborate, regardless of their role, department, or whatever other artificial organisational constructs you’d care to add? Even if that were the case, why on earth would you want it? It sounds like a recipe for disaster in terms of organisational productivity. You could spend all day in meetings collaborating with people you’d never heard of before about subjects you know nothing about!

Collaboration needs a driver and a context. Groups of people need to collaborate from time to time - some more than others. And a failure to collaborate is exactly what causes organisational meltdowns on occasion.  Organisational failure often occurs at the interfaces within those artificial organisational constructs I mentioned earlier, and more often than not is brought about by the very creation of those constructs such as setting conflicting objectives for sales and marketing teams and engineering teams. Or trying to create an agile organisation one project at a time. When individuals or groups of people understand that they have mutual goals like deliver a product to the customer in the fastest time, it’s amazing how quickly they learn to collaborate.

In the same way, it’s amazing how people will collaborate in order to innovate a solution to solve a problem. But management doesn’t generally see this as good enough because they are constantly being told (by people who don’t have a clue what they are talking about) that they need to innovate faster to stay ahead. So soft drinks manufacturers, for example, constantly come up with improvements to their age-old, much-loved recipes that no-one likes and no-one buys. They’ve innovated their way out millions of dollars of marketing, R&D and customer loyalty. Of course, they could have gone to their frontline workforce and asked them if they could come up with better solutions to create their existing products (yup - that’s also innovation!), but that’s not enough to satisfy greedy investors and analysts.

The relatively new fad of creating Centres of Innovation, where good ideas go through various filters before they get approved or rejected and then end up in the hands of people who implement something completely unrecognisable from the initial proposal, sends out an extraordinary message to employees. It says - we don’t trust you to be able to take an idea from nothing to implementation; we need someone better qualified to do that. And in so doing it stifles innovation from the very people who know best what needs to be done.

If you take a dozen people and put them on a desert island with no interaction with the outside world, they’ll innovate a way to kill each other, after the strongest have collaborated together to find out which of the others to kill first.

* Quote from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke by The Captain (played by Strother Martin)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Guest Blogger Melina Leary : How to stop your inbox stopping you

This is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog. It was written by Melina Leary, my long suffering partner, about the blight that affects so many of us, so much of the time. Enjoy!


Although the ability to send messages between computers has been possible from the early 1970s, when I started office work in 1987 it was not widely used as a mechanism for communication. Things were so much simpler in the “good ole days” though. I generally worked within co-located teams with our customer not far away. If I needed to consult with anybody, I only needed to glance across the desk or room to see if they were available.

Email as a blessing

Fast forward 30 years with advent of the internet and a major shift in the way we work, team members may now be scattered across a variety of locations around the world. No more glancing across the desk to check out a colleague’s availability to discuss a matter, they are somewhere else and may not even be awake. The email, along with instant messaging, are perfect tools for asking questions or obtaining feedback from someone who cannot be seen or who has such a strong regional accent is difficult to understand on the ‘phone anyway. Email is also perfect tools for introverts, it is so easy to hide behind a computer and fire off an electronic message and avoid a face to face confrontation.

Email as a curse

The problem now is that email is being used too much. I regularly hear colleagues complaining of email overload, especially after taking a few days off.  Some are even proud of the amount they get as if it is a sign of their importance. However, heavily loaded inboxes become unmanageable and sap productivity. 

Shouldn't take long to go through 4,294,967,295 messages!
A quick search on Google can bring up a number of ways of managing unruly inboxes, from only checking emails at certain times of day and using the 2-minute rule to respond, to flagging important ones and setting rules for auto filing. However, these are all reactive strategies. I firmly believe that if emails are coming in so fast that you can never get around to addressing them all in a timely manner, then it is time to sit back and plan a solution to the problem.

Stop the curse!   

One of the biggest issues I have seen recently is the habit of people to manage entire projects or functions using email as the communication mechanism. There are many other ways of collaborating and sharing information, and the key to doing it effectively for any endeavour is to Plan.

Planning means, identifying and understanding your stakeholders; working out who you need to deal with, why, and how they prefer to be engaged or informed. For example, there is no point in sending emails to people who are rarely online.

Planning how to engage with your team, managers and customers will help ensure communications are managed. Understand what is needed to be shared by who, when, how often, in what format and how shared, for example:

  • if possible, use collaborative tools and documentation repositories to prevent items from being emailed around. Make sure everyone is aware of the filing mechanism and uses the tool
  • use action logs for unscheduled activities to track who is doing what, and meet to progress actions rather than chase via email. If an email is to be sent out for action, put this clearly in the subject heading "For Action: " and only include people in the To: field who actually have to perform the action
  • don’t forget the good old fashioned mechanism of talking. If working in a virtual environment, ping the person first via Instant Messaging to check they are available. Talking to someone about a problem takes much less time than crafting a suitably worded email
  • avoid asking for consensus or opinion from more than one person by email. By doing that you open up a communication channels that may not involve you at all and lead to confusion. It is better to get everyone together in a room, on a call or, if email must be used, obtaining responses via a voting mechanism
  • if you are managing a team, impress upon team members that they do not need to copy you in on everything they are doing. Some do this to prove they are doing their job. It is not necessary; progressing can be done via 1-2-1s or team meetings  
  • notifications can be sent out via business social networking tools such as Yammer
It may not be possible to do any of the above under all circumstances, but using these techniques some of the time will prevent your inbox getting clogged up and missing anything really important.


Email is an essential tool in the workplace for passing on messages and collaborating with others, but, if your inbox is out of control you need to sit back and plan a better way of dealing with your collaborators.  Understanding your stakeholder requirements and planning communications will help keep your emails at acceptable levels and as a result, will increase productivity. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

What Exactly Are Change Agents and Change Management?

I've spent a large proportion of the last thirty years involved in or running organisational, business and software process improvement initiatives. It was probably two or three years before I realised that I was actually managing change. Back in the late 1980's, business change was far from the talking point it is these days - at least not in my circles (and most definitely not in my manager's circles). When the penny dropped, my professional life changed completely.

One of the catalysts for me was a book called "Agents of Change: The Manager's Guide to Planning and Leading Change" by Hilary Maher and Pauline Hall. Although it's a long while since I last looked through it, a casual glance at it's condition shows how much use it received in the past.

Recently I've read a number of articles about "Change Agents" but none of them seem to resonate with my own perception of what a Change Agent is. And yesterday I read an article that even had me questioning what exactly Change Management is. Once again I find myself being frustrated by our use of terminology and how relatively common business terms are perceived so differently by so many people - and that perhaps our adoption of certain terminology actually feeds some of the problems that some of us are trying so hard to eliminate.

Change Management

As I inferred in my opening paragraph, Change Management (or Management of Change) is relatively new in the business world. I doubt that there is anyone who has ever worked someone else who has not been subjected to changes in their working environment without any input to or control over the change. Top down edicts from all levels of management have traditionally been the norm as the command and control culture has predominated across the world of work (and increasingly in government also - but that's a different story).

Because of that command and control system, managers felt it unnecessary to involve staff in the mechanism of change, which was largely achieved through sticks and occasional carrots. Staff reactions to change were considered irrelevant; The prevailing sentiments were "if they don't like it they can leave", or "we know what's best for the company (or shareholders)", and Fear Uncertainly and Doubt were often the chosen tools for affecting change.

As people started pushing back and resisting the big brother approach to change, a few enlightened people began to look at the psychology of change and the effects it was having on staff, especially in terms of productivity and staff retention. People began to understand that a chaotic, dictatorial approach to change was not the best way to implement change, and Change Management became one of the key buzzwords of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In my view Change Management involves taking a holistic view to making sustainable change in a organisation, and looking at the change from a people perspective (whilst still understanding the technical and business requirements of the change) rather than simply as a push process whereby complying with the corporate diktat is the only criteria for success.

Many companies have proprietary 'methods' in place to help manage change - and they usually involve elements such as leadership, communication, collaboration, planning, monitoring and education. My own 5 Facets of  Change is a work in progress.

Even with the concept of Change Management firmly established in the business world, there are still a large number of managers and businesses that force change through the organisation by paying lip service to genuine change management - plans are written, teams established and change agents appointed to carry out the will of management and disregard the will of the people.

So why am I now coming to the conclusion that the term Change Management is not only wrong but may be harmful? It's down to that word 'management', which still has the connotation of someone managing someone else and an overarching implication that leaders define the change and the staff change.

What we're really talking about is the Facilitation or Realisation of Change - helping people at all levels of the organisation to shape change, buy in to change, and work collaboratively across the business to make change successful and sustainable. That last word is key - even force feeding change into the organisation can succeed to a certain extent, but it won't take long before people revert back to the previous status quo.

The Change Agent

I have written about change agents before in this blog (posts about Change Agents). But once again, the use of the phrase causes consternation from some readers. The implication is that as 'agents' they are management spies or puppets, only there to execute the will of the diktat. I recently used the word 'champions' in the context of change and was firmly rebuked by one reader, suggesting that if we needed people to champion change then"good luck with getting it to stick in the long term".

I think of the change agent as a layer of protection from misguided management and wayward change initiatives which are not undertaken without due diligence and planning - those ad hoc changes which do far more harm than good. I see these people as "champions" of doing change appropriately, and making sure that staff get to share their issues, ideas and solutions and get heard!

I see change agents operating at all levels of the organisation, and not all performing the same role. Some will be change process experts, others will be great at building relationships with stakeholders, others acting as devil's advocates, and still others acting as management foils, but collectively they have a single collective goal of making a change work and making the change sustainable.

The problem with terminology is that it doesn't take long for it to become adopted universally and popularised, by which time it's usually too late to realise that we words don't really reflect what we originally intended. What were perfectly good words at the time, become vilified - not because they are bad words, but because people have misunderstood what concepts were being represented and have manipulated things to serve their own purposes. You only have to think about how the term 'agile' has been misused, misinterpreted and misunderstood to appreciate how quickly we make a mockery of ideas that were full of good intentions but get hijacked to serve completely different agendas.

So Change Management and Change Agents have become enshrined into our vox populi. If I try and come up with alternatives it will only serve to further confuse and obfuscate the original intentions - so I'll keep away from talking about Change Stewards and Steering Change, and some of the other phrases that came to mind while I was writing this. Instead I'll focus on trying to make sure that we have a common and shared understanding about the terms we already have in place!