Wednesday

I had a feeling this would happen

I believe in intuitions and inspirations...I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. - Albert Einstein
Every moment of our day we are virtually swimming in vast amounts of information. Various perceptual filters help most of us narrow this torrent down to something manageable so we can function, pursue and complete tasks, hold conversations, have successful relationships and actually hold down jobs. But a lot of the information that we seem to filter out of daily activities and interactions with other folks is still actually perceived and stashed away and encoded somewhere in long term memory, even if we can't immediately bring it to mind.

Rather than just being an uncategorized and random repository of raw data, our brains excel at forming tentative relationships between bits of information. As increased experience triggers similar associations, the connections become stronger. As you can imagine where this is headed, what we're discussing is the basis of recognition.

What makes the process sometimes seem almost mystical is that we are incredibly complex machines gathering, processing, generating, interpreting, storing, recalling, merging, associating, forming hypotheses about data and relationships, and adjusting these on a pretty much constant basis. The data can be blatant and obvious, such as reading instructions for a procedure with a very specific predicted outcome. It can also be incredibly subtle, such as the warmth or feeling of humidity in someone's handshake, dilation of their pupils or the direction their gaze follows when making an assertion. It can be the difference in the time it takes somebody to answer a yes/no question, as in perhaps a child hesitating an extra half second before answering no when asked, "did you take the last cookie?"

Odors or sounds that may be too subtle for conscious recognition are quite possibly stored away in memory with a weak association to an event just experienced; if this happens twice, the association becomes stronger - but may still not surface as an explicit memory. Presented with the odor or sound again, even at a level barely above subliminal, it's quite possible to have the expectation of the event triggered - at which point we have something that looks and feels like an intuition that something is about to happen.

This is an extremely simple example, and in "real life", there are thousands of subtle data inputs that get filed away in our brain, most of which we don't consciously recognize or recall. However some degree of association and categorization is still made. Repeated or similar experiences, however subtle, may reinforce neural pathways, and the basis for intuitive flashes of insight increases.

Those of us with "strong intuitive" skills most likely have more effective ways to receive, categorize, associate and store raw data. They may be faster at associating new inputs with stored associations. Additionally - an important consideration is the ability to "abstract" meaning from raw input data. In this context, that is the ability to extract the underlying meaningful characteristics of an event or association, absent the specific details of a single specific event. Some of us are much better at abstraction than others, and those who can abstract relationships most effectively will also be those who will recognize, or possibly intuit, something about a new situation faster than others will.

Bringing this back around on topic - there's no unassailable evidence to date that anything mystical is going on when we talk about intuition, and intuitions can certainly be wrong. However we can start to appreciate a valid scientific basis for intuition, and start to allow for its potential value in decision making.

Tuesday

Learning to delegate - and trust

Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly, and they will show themselves great - Ralph Waldo Emerson 
One of the most difficult attributes that a new manager must acquire is the ability to delegate. The new manager quite likely received his or her promotion to the new role based in large part on prior performance of the very tasks that must now be delegated. Part of the message in such a promotion is that those tasks were performed unusually well - so much better than the norm, in fact, to become part of the justification for a promotion. Now, no sooner has the employee been recognized for doing "task A" well, it's time to hand that task off to a subordinate, and trust that performance on the task won't suffer, since that would reflect poorly on both the new manager and the subordinate.

It's certainly understandable that a new manager would take a keen interest in trying to make sure that "task A" continues to be performed up to his or her original standards. Of course, though, we know that for the new manager to succeed in such a role, and for the subordinate to grow, delegation and trust become necessary.

Many years ago when I first became manager of a team I had been working in, I had held myself to very high standards for all sorts of attributes of the work I produced. It had to meet all business requirements, be elegant, communicate well to all intended audiences, etc. My work "style" became easy to recognize.

On becoming a new manager, I was now faced with half a dozen folks creating work products that didn't look like mine at all, communicate like mine or necessarily approach problem solving the same way that I would have. My first instinctive reaction was to think about "correcting" the work - which probably, at the time, would have meant making it look like a clone of my own work.

Happily, I took a break before responding, reconsidered the work, and started to see it in a new light. The approach and analysis didn't flow exactly as I might have done it, but they were perfectly valid. The conclusions and next steps were not explained or layed out precisely I would have, but they achieved essentially the same overall objectives.

In the early years as a manager it took serious self-control for me to allow smart talented people on my teams to do their own work and find their own styles. I'd still keep an eye out for actual mistakes, unprofessional work products or opportunities to improve, but short of that, I've encouraged people to develop their own approach and self confidence in their work, along with holding themselves to high professional standards. A great by-product of this is that, when people work on their own terms, they tend to be even stronger guardians of the quality of their work, and take greater ownership of it than if they had to follow somebody else's rote formula. Trust, prudently given, is invaluable, and it is a key factor in successful delegation.

Thursday

Predictive Analytics and Heisenberg

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future. - Niels Bohr
Steampunk Smartphone Case
image ©2010-2014 catbones
In January 2013, IBM published a press release about its growing capability of predicting fashion trends based on analysis of existing information. It read, in part, "Based on an analysis of more than a half million public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources, IBM predicts that ‘steampunk,’ a sub-genre inspired by the clothing, technology and social mores of Victorian society, will be a major trend to bubble up, and take hold, of the retail industry." When I first read this, I found it amusing, and also a perfectly reasonable extension of the application of predictive analytics to a portion of the massive amount of information that surrounds us every day. What caught my eye, however, was an article that referred to IBM's work on this, written about the "risks of predictive analytics" that tried to cast IBM's actions as the leading edge of dangerous practices that could unduly affect outcomes. Although statements of "fact", asserted by trusted sources, can influence beliefs, the "warning" struck me as unwarranted and insufficiently reasoned in this particular context. While propaganda can certainly be dangerous, the topic really needed deeper analysis and a more discriminating treatment in order to make any bold or useful assertions.

Going back to Heisenberg, his "Uncertainty Principle" - which was developed with respect to quantum mechanics and subatomic particles - tells us that, "...we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other." A major implication of the concept, is that the very act of measuring something will actually modify attributes of the item we're trying to measure.

In the field of perception, psychologists learned many years ago that "expectation enhances percept". This was demonstrated numerous times through repeatable experiments with highly consistent results. In short, if a subject is familiar with the perceptual characteristics of something, the likelihood of recognizing the item when it is present increases significantly.

Of course there are various studies illustrating the notion that statements of belief or of "fact" (whether or not actually true), especially by trusted sources (such as IBM), will often be internalized by an audience as actually being statements of fact, after which these bits of information may be repeated, shared and otherwise disseminated as actually being "fact".

In the fashion industry, designers and vendors are constantly trying to anticipate the next "hot" trend -- or define it in such a way as to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I will hazard a guess that relatively few in the world of designers are on the verge of setting aside their existing methodologies, and the opinions of their industry experts, in favor of following IBM's predictions until, and unless, IBM can demonstrate a convincing track record of out-predicting the fashion industry gurus.

Equities markets are far more susceptible to skewed performance based on forecasts. The entire concept of stock and commodities markets is tied to forecasting future performance and value as accurately as possible, and investors (with the exception of a very small percent) will typically act on any seemingly credible forecast. What's perhaps different here, though, is that the actual determinants of stock "value" are obscure for most investors, so they must rely on 3rd party forecasts that they barely understand, if at all. Forecasts for other items such as upcoming fashion preferences won't be swayed as radically by mass market belief in a forecast.

The NRSRO's (nationally recognized statistical ratings organizations, such as S&P Ratings, Fitch, Moody's, Egan-Jones, etc.) exist to evaluate organizations and the debt they hold, creating ratings that, in effect, lead to forecasts of the value of the companies and those debt instruments. These clearly have enormous impacts on the markets -- e.g., a downgrade in ratings will often be followed by a sell off of the corresponding bonds. So - there's nothing new here: it's a generally accepted notion that forecasts of future value do, in fact, have some bearing on that future value. Forecasts like these actually can become self-fulfilling prophecies, which is why there has been increasing scrutiny and regulation regarding the practices of the NRSRO's. But it's also important to remember that the credibility of such organizations has to be earned through past success.

If IBM were seriously trying to establish a new and defensible qualification as a fashion forecaster extraordinaire, they would most likely have come up with a way of "logging" their forecast, and publishing encrypted - but publicly available - forecasts, releasing the decryption key after enough time has passed to test the validity of the forecast. Instead, such an open forecast like this is more of a general demonstration of their capabilities, suitable for marketing and public relations. I'm having trouble seeing any kind of major impact on the steam punk market, although I've been wondering lately what a steampunk treatment of a smartphone might look like...

Saturday

Methodology du jour - in search of the Holy Grail

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something - Thomas A. Edison
The Holy Grail?
Holy Grail?
As quickly as new tools, techniques and methodologies are being created and promoted, we probably should have solved all of the world's business and IT problems by now.  We've paid a fortune and spent enormous time to learn to manage by objectives, reengineer ourselves, swim with sharks, obliterate and flatten the organization, decentralize, turn everything into objects, treat everyone as our customer, earn a black belt, be agile, be gentle and be warriors, and to do it all in one minute.  So why is it that so many organizations are still broken?  Is all of this just medicine show snake oil?

A few years back, after lunch with a new client, we went back to her office to discuss how I might help her improve the operation and efficiency of her organization.  As Senior VP of Information Technology for a huge insurance company at the beginnings of a recession, she had major challenges to deal with: changing technology, shrinking budgets, disenchanted staff and disappointed customers to name a few.  One of the first questions I asked was whether her company had already invested in and committed to a standardized methodology or approach to guide operations and improvement. She smiled at me, gesturing to a large floor-to-ceiling bookcase. "Sure”, she said with a laugh. “About a hundred of them."

If you're like many managers, you may have tried to keep up with the latest thinking about the best way to manage and organize. Depending on your role, you've either told your people, or have been told, to embrace "the new ways" that the company will be run.  Some of these programs have persuasive approaches and can be pretty exciting.  I know that the first time I was part of a "quality circle" program, it felt as if I were right at the leading edge of organizational reform and radical process improvement.

After you've been through your third or fourth such program, you can't help but start wondering.  "Which quality program are we trying this year?" you might ask.  One of my clients, a billion dollar R&D firm, had actually – and unwittingly – engaged two different consulting firms, at about $3 million each, to develop and implement process quality improvement programs.  Neither of the client’s program managers was aware of the other one's initiative -- until they collided during enterprise rollout. I’m really not making this up – and I can pretty much guarantee that anyone reading this is familiar with the company. Even with what seems, from the outside, to be an obvious and stupid mistake, it took another year before the two competing programs were curtailed and later customized, merged and restarted as a single program, at significant additional direct cost as well as the opportunity cost associated with major delays in the process improvement that was the original justification for the program.

What really makes the situation difficult to work out is that a good many of these tools and techniques really do have value.  Object orientation is a powerful metaphor for decomposition, analysis and design.  Customer driven processes make good sense.  It would be pointless to argue with the values espoused by Lean Management, Six Sigma, Kaizen, or many of the other methodologies that are popular these days.  Is it just that, even though our ideas are good, we're lousy implementers?

Eventually, organizations become cynical.  It's a toss-up whether it's the staff or management who gives up first on organizational change and “improvement”.  Especially in a time of corporate belt-tightening, where "right sizing" is the euphemism for "down sizing", management becomes justifiably reluctant to foot the bill for yet another massive change management program.  The employees in the trenches are usually the ones whose jobs and lives are most disrupted by the latest quality imperative, and they're rapidly becoming fed up with the "methodology du jour" approach.

While we're here, understand that the problems I've touched on all exist when you're dealing with legitimate methodologies and programs, no matter how good they are.  There's also another wrinkle to this mess.  It’s all too common these days that any time a good idea or new product is rolled out, a dozen variations on the theme are spawned by eager competitors who see a chance to ride, and profit from, the latest wave.

I've seen a particularly pernicious form of this in my own industry.  Many IT staff augmentation firms (sometimes known as “body shops”), that otherwise perform a useful service by renting supplemental staff to clients, have noticed that management consulting firms have much higher billing rates, billing multiples and profit margins.  Many of the body shops have been busily repackaging themselves as management consulting firms.  Their marketing people and executives have learned to talk about methodology, value chains, quality imperatives, strategy and road-mapping, ITIL, managed services and more. Marketing and pre-sales collateral is created. Sales people are briefed, and they are sent out to convince clients that their company is suddenly qualified to deliver the same kind of services normally obtained from the tier one consulting firms. Contracts are signed, sales targets are raised, clients expect results, and delivery teams are pressured to produce. The potential for failure is enormous, and when this happens, everyone loses.

Expertise and competence can’t be reduced to a set of formulas.  Methodology, process and structure are important and valuable – but they do not substitute for experience and the true understanding of the principles that make any of these work. Learning to articulate these principles, and working to ensure that the organization understands and internalizes them, and that rules and defined processes are in line with these principles, is far more valuable.

Friday

Inclusive management - benefits and risks

Informed decision-making comes from a long tradition of guessing and then blaming others for inadequate results. - Scott Adams
Asking for input from the folks who will be impacted by major management decisions is great as long as it's clear how this input will be used by management, and that promises are kept.

While some of the most forward looking companies are doing this, it's generally not a declaration of a move to management by democracy. That point should be explicitly included as part of the communication to the team. Maybe most won't make the wrong leap and assume that management will abide by "majority vote", but some may make a naive assumption - and be disappointed when it doesn't seem to come true. Effective communication of something as potentially sensitive as this should try to anticipate misunderstanding and get ahead of it. Some might say that this is "over-communicating"; I've generally found that it provides more benefits than harm.

Without going into too much detail or trying to define an inclusive management process that will still have to be unique per executive and situation, it would be good to publish a statement that gives some idea of the way that gathering stakeholder input will become part of the overall process and culture. Such a statement might, for example, note that the management team will attempt to reach out to those who may be impacted by major decisions to get the best understanding of the situation, possible solutions and perspectives, and incorporate this into the decision making process. But if it's the case that additional factors exist that are known to management, but not to all affected, the communication should note this, and let folks know that while their input is needed and appreciated, the final decision will have to factor in other data points to which they may not be privvy.

Management credibility will also be tied to the expectations that this kind of policy creates. While an open and transparent culture is a great idea, it will tarnish very quickly if employees see it as being hypocritical. Such a policy declaration will typically gain an enthusiastic response -- but if it's later perceived that it's little more than internal hype, and that it's not really happening as promised, there's a very real possibility of creating resentment and distrust.

Establishing a transparent and inclusive management process is a great idea. It's important to think through and define how this will work, and communicate that to the team as well in order to minimize the chance of misunderstanding and disappointment. Finally, if trust is to fostered, management must be careful to act in accordance with the expectations they create.

Thursday

Promotions and personal interests

Oh, oh, down they go for all the wrong reasons - Tom Petty 
Not everyone who has the potential to be a leader wants to step into a formal management role. Taking on the mantle of leadership has its rewards, but it also carries a variety of burdens. Some folks recognize this and some have learned it the hard way, and they may simply not want to assume the extra responsibility and stress. Hopefully, a mature organization can recognize that these folks can still make valuable contributions without requiring them to become leaders in a formal sense.

People can "lead" without having to be recognized with a title and formal authority. We see this most often with "thought leaders" -- those whose insights and observations ring true for many people who will, in turn, start to pay attention to the words of wisdom they hear from these folks. Many people around the world, for example, deeply appreciate - and follow - the insights of the Dalai Lama, even though they are not Tibetan or necessarily follow Buddhism. They don't follow him because of any formal authority - but simply because of the content of the thoughts that he shares.

Taking this a step further: for those who share insights, wisdom and perhaps constructive criticism of an organization, taking on a formal leadership role might actually have a negative impact on the contribution that these folks are making. Across my own career, I've had the opportunity to play various roles as inventor/architect, thought leader, as well as executive in charge of various organizations. In some organizations and cultures, the combination was accepted and beneficial. In some others, when I took on an executive title, I was clearly expected to curtail my former contributions. That works for some folks, but I learned a powerful lesson: if advancing in an organization means dropping those intellectual pursuits that I find personally rewarding, then either the role or the organization is not the right one for me.

Billy Joel once said, "If that's moving up then I'm...moving out". Formal leadership roles are not for everyone. We should each be able to contribute as best fits our personality and capabilities.

Leaders learn from animals - to a point

I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the "lower animals" (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me. - Mark Twain
Some organizational experts have suggested that leaders can learn by observing and drawing from animal behavior.

The comparison to animal behavior can certainly be interesting, and anthropologists have drawn certain parallels between animal and human behavior. If anything, though, the kind of animal behavior that allows the most aggressive and brutish of a pack to take over as leader is unfortunately one of those behavior models that all too often occur in human organizations - to the detriment of all. There have been numerous studies about people who are aggressive, domineering, hyper-competitive and even borderline sociopathic doing all too well in corporate hierarchies. That does NOT make them effective leaders.

If we look to the skies for example, bird behavior of following a "leader" as it tilts and wheels around the sky have been demonstrated to be the result of very primitive hard-wired responses to perceptual cues. This behavior is termed "flocking", and perhaps the most dramatic examples can be seen in starling "murmuration". As impressive and awe inspiring as it may be, it is a direct result of the birds having a few hard-wired behaviors, as can be demonstrated by "Cellular Automata" programmed with these same three rules:

1. Collision Avoidance: Steer to avoid obstacles and crowding local flockmates
2. Alignment: Steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
3. Cohesion: Steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates

It's not that we can't learn anything by observing other species. There are numerous good examples, such as the strong caring for the weak, protecting the young, etc. We just need to be careful not to oversimplify the nature of human leadership - as it has become far more complex than most wild animal scenarios.

Explicit operating principles and effective leadership

Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll buy a funny hat. Talk to a hungry man about fish, and you're a consultant. - Scott Adams
Effective leaders must truly understand their own operating rationale and be able to communicate it to their organization. Too many espouse their company's learning culture, collaboration, mutual respect and niceties such as "carefrontation" -- while simultaneously allowing the kind of hierarchical dictator-like management that create fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Among many other issues -- this kind of hypocrisy in an organization is a sure way to dilute the effectiveness of someone in a leadership position. Employees who spend their time worrying about keeping their jobs, and kowtowing to a dictator are rarely, if ever, able to contribute as much as those whose leader encourages dialog and mutual respect.

Another major element that distinguishes effective from ineffective leaders is their ability to formulate and communicate a clear rationale and principles behind their own -- and the organization's -- decision making processes. As obvious as this may sound, most cannot do this. Managers who aren't clear about their own principles and rationale will make inconsistent decisions, creating confusion and uncertainty in the ranks below them -- along with anxiety. Employees who don't understand the proper principles and rationale will have to guess at these, or become paralyzed when novel situations arise, and have to wait for instructions -- vastly disempowering the organization.

Internalizing concepts instead of depending on a formula

Any fool can know. The point is to understand. - Albert Einstein
If effective transformational leadership could be captured in a tightly defined formula, it's likely that somebody would have figured it out over the past few thousand years."Formula" as a basis for human behavior and organizational dynamics has never yet been established in a way that works consistently. Just a quick review of all the attempts at formulaic organizational and process improvement over the past 35 years illustrates this pretty vividly. Remember TQM (total quality management)? Quality Work Circles? The One Minute Manager. BPR, Business Reengineering, firms like Nolan Norton? Hammer and Champy ("don't pave the cow-paths", "don't automate - obliterate", etc.)? More popular today we have the likes of Six Sigma, Kaizen, Lean, MBO, Theory Z, Delayering, Empowerment, CMM/CMMi, Agile, etc.

The methodologies above aren't necessarily aimed at "transformational leadership" in particular, but they DO make an attempt at developing consistent frameworks and, to at least some extent, formulas for establishing "best practices" in organizations. If anything, these are representative of some of the kinds of practices that "transformational leaders" must consider and selectively establish as they seek to transform their organizations.

As valuable as many of these techniques may be in various scenarios, not a single one has surfaced that is universally applicable -- or even effective in ANY situation without guidance by skilled and knowledgeable practitioners, organizational and management support, and a culture that allows for such practices - and none of this has been reduced to a formula. If the tools used in the transformation of organizations can't be reduced to consistently applicable and effective formulas, it's even less likely that the personality, behavior and practices of a prospective "transformational leader" can be established or defined by formula.

If anything, when executives and organizations act in accordance with a belief that any kind of major transformation can be reduced to a formula, you typically wind up with a disaster, and at best, a suboptimal outcome.

Formula and pre-defined structures are great ways to start. But, as the most advanced martial artists, musicians, athletes and Zen masters will tell you - "the ultimate technique is no technique". Framework, method, formula and rote practice are valuable to communicate concepts and approximations of ideal behavior -- but in the end, the best and most effective practitioners are those who have internalized the underlying fundamental principles that lead to successful outcomes. Principles are a slippery concept, but the idea is that once learned and internalized, they help a practitioner respond correctly to a wide variety of novel situations -- situations and responses that most likely could NOT be reduced to a set of formulas.

Transparent communication and satisfactory outcomes

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. - George Bernard Shaw
When specialists in organization dynamics discuss "Transparent Communication" the topic starts to share some of the concepts pervasive in areas such as Zen, Aikido and other sophisticated and mature martial arts, subject/object dualism and ontology. In Aikido, we learn to "blend" with our counterpart during encounters. Students and practitioners of Zen seeking "satori" learn to erase barriers between themselves and the instruments of their practice (Eugene Herrigel wrote a wonderful intro to the topic in the classic "Zen in the Art of Archery"). At one point, he describes a Zen archer drawing the bow, concentrating on the target: the archer may actually be surprised when the arrow is released, because it is not the archer himself who releases the bow: it is the blended system of the archer, arrow, bow and target -- "it" will shoot when all is ready.

Broken down to its three syllables, the word Aikido derives from:
  • "Ai" means in Harmony or Union with;
  • "Ki" refers to the Spirit or Universal power;
  • "Do"means the Way or Path.
  • Together, "Aikido" generally means "The Way in Harmony with the Spirit."
Taking a step back from this and considering "Ki" - Some, with a more religious bent, tend to think of this as a very spiritual kind of power. Others with a background more deeply rooted in science may internalize the concept of "Ki" as a general representation of the underlying physical nature of the universe, the laws of motion, etc. Interestingly enough, the teachings overlap and converge in many ways. Aikido practice develops a deeply ingrained intuitive understanding of the interplay between two (or more) people. The more advanced the practitioner, the more effortless -- and yet more powerful -- his or her movement.

There are clearly unifying concepts across all of these disciplines -- and many more. The more barriers we can tear down, the less resistance and the greater the possibilities to achieve an outcome satisfactory to all involved. Sounds obvious in retrospect - but it's perhaps one of those concepts far too often neglected in the development of company cultures and management.

True service vs. anxiety in sales and public speaking

You are what you do, not what you say you'll do. - C.G. Jung
It's been said that anxiety and nervousness are reduced in public speaking when we do so as a form of service has broad implications for perhaps all of our interactions.

Throughout my career, I've shied away from an explicit role in "sales". Sales isn't "good" or "bad" - I just never thought of myself as a salesman. Yet so many people with whom I've worked have told me, repeatedly, that I'm a natural, and that I'm incredibly effective at selling. I am, in fact, responsible for tens of millions of dollars worth of completed contracts and transactions, yet still don't think of myself as a salesman. I've pondered this over the years, and my epiphany on the subject seems obvious in retrospect, but took some time to understand and embrace.

If I have to present a topic that is of no interest to you, and might in fact be counter to your best interests, I will be uncomfortable. Succeeding would mean, in short, that I've fooled you. The best shysters might be perfectly comfortable with this, as they've developed confidence that they can close the deal regardless of objections. Even worse perhaps, they may be able to convince themselves that a sub-optimal deal actually IS in the best interests of their prospect.

In contrast to this, if I have no problem whatsoever enthusiastically sharing something with you when I am totally confident that it will benefit you, it doesn't feel like "sales" to me.

In the first instance, I am misleading you, and satisfying my own interests at the expense of yours. Anyone with a conscience would be uncomfortable. In the second, I can be confident that you'll be appreciative (at least in the long run), because what I'm describing actually benefits you -- any value I accrue comes in large part from your satisfaction. Far easier to feel comfortable delivering a message like this!

Public speaking is a variant of this idea. While it's recognized as one of the most common fears, I have found the anxiety dramatically easier to overcome when I started to see the difference in audience response when I have something to share that's of importance and value to them. If anything, I have to check myself to rein in boundless enthusiasm when I have something to share that I know will grab my audience's attention and appreciation.

Interpersonal transactions, whether one on one or from a podium to a large audience, engender far less anxiety when based on an honest service motive. Conversely, the most anxious moments come when we attempt to "sell" something disingenuously. A wonderful byproduct of this is that, rather than avoiding you, people will start to seek you out as they come to realize that you truly have their interests at heart.

Transformation or change?

Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day. - Frances Hesselbein
Looking across the last 25 or 30 years, there have been SO many "methodology du jour" recipes for success, e.g., TQM (total quality management), Quality Work Circles, Structured Systems Analysis, Hammer & Champy's version of BPR ("don't automate - obliterate!), business reengineering, lean / six sigma, Agile (and many variants therein), etc, etc, etc. It's always been way too easy for a charismatic but mediocre "leader" (truly, more of a salesman) to learn a new set of terminology, catchy slogans and lesson plans and declare him-(or her)-self to be the messiah of truly functional and happy organizations. After you've lived through a couple of dozen of these, it's very easy to develop "breakthrough methodology fatigue", and start eyeing any "new" approach with a skeptical, if not jaundiced, perspective.

The terms "transformation" and "change" truly overlap in literal definition; we tend, though, to carry our own associations with each. Transformation is definitely the more ambitious sounding term -- but the vagueness continually drive our attempts to characterize the differences. It's important that we bear in mind that the definitions and distinctions usually described are far more likely to be based on our own associations with each word rather than on any formal definition. That doesn't devalue these definitions -- but it's good to remember if you see differences in the definitions, and none seem to be precisely what you think they should be.

A number of the projects I've led have spanned global organizations, hundreds of people working in dozens of countries, multiple cultures, customs and differing legal constraints. Before leading such projects and programs, I was a participant in several of these. A crucial lesson learned is that simply rolling out changes and expecting success is wildly naive and generally doomed to failure. We tend to talk about "change management" as the overarching umbrella that encompasses extensive planning, outreach, communications, discovery of concerns / objections / potential points of failure, addressing fears and resistance, developing a shared vision, communicating valid and compelling reasons for cooperation, recognizing sacrifice and incremental success, measuring outcomes in a shared and mutually understood and agreed upon fashion, being able to declare an end-point and successful conclusion -- at least of a major phase -- without being disingenuous, examining what went well and what could be done better next time, etc.

I'd suggest that an effective operating understanding of "change" vs. transformation could be this: "change" can be a somewhat mechanical implementation of new or different ways to doing something, while transformation is more likely to be a sweeping approach to altering a culture, or parts of it, possibly even to parts of its value system, to embrace such a change and help it become self-perpetuating. When the need for significant change is identified, it's generally naive to think it will succeed without transformation as well.

Value is in the eye of the beholder

A critical concept that service providers must internalize and act on is "making your products and services more worthwhile in the eyes of the customer". Sometimes service and sales organizations actually will continue to improve on the product and service they're offering and regular basis, but are lax in making sure the client understands the increased value they're receiving. That's potentially just as dangerous as not providing the added value at all. If the client doesn't recognize the value, it won't be appreciated. The added value will do nothing to improve your standing with the client or separate you from the pack. Periodic meetings with the client sponsor, when possible, who actually signs the check, in which you walk them through metrics that speak to the client's own KPIs, can be a lifesaver.

This is part of a much larger topic that is relevant across the entire lifecycle of business investment in goods and services. Program and project portfolio ROI analysis, selection and prioritization of new investments and projects, ongoing monitoring of project and program delivery, and post implementation assessment all share the same need for well defined measures of value that are meaningful to each of the stakeholders and speak to the needs that drive their decisions. Routine communication between provider and customer, with an agreed upon way of monitoring and reporting on the value provided, is a key component of a positive, long-term relationship.


When project managers are leaders

Are project managers the same as leaders? The distinction is especially apt, for example, when contrasting enterprise change management (a leader's task) and short-term well defined projects (straight forward for a "standard" PM). However - large complex projects, especially now that so much work follows some variant of an Agile methodology (incremental definition, build, evaluate, adjust, repeat), will definitely benefit from someone at the helm with strong leadership characteristics. A key part of what a leader does is to understand the overall direction and objectives - even if these are somewhat abstract - and distill and communicate these in ways that are effective for each member of the team and the various stakeholders. The very best can "speak" these different languages, i.e.,

  • internalize the overall goals and objectives, however ill defined 
  • understand the critical success factor from each stakeholder's perspective 
  • share a vision of business outcomes, risks and benefits with business stakeholders 
  • make sure each team and team member has a view of the vision and successful outcome in terms that are relevant and meaningful for them, whether IT, product development, marketing, or any other specialty 
  • keep this veritable Babel of vision statements in various languages in sync, so that they help motivate and draw the various teams toward a common successful outcome that meets the primary stakeholders requirements. 

Sometimes -- more often than not in my experience -- the stakeholders may not even be able to fully articulate and delineate a comprehensive vision of success. But a strong project or program leader with "leadership qualities" can, in the best of circumstances, grasp the underlying attributes of success, develop a shared understanding of these with the stakeholders -- and then go on to engage each part of the team, communicating in ways that are effective for each, and lead the entire group - team member and stakeholders - to an outcome in which all can be successful.

This requires:

  • ability to envision logical outcomes from various courses of action 
  • ability to synthesize a vision of a successful outcome, based on incomplete or only partially accurate input 
  • ability to communicate and validate a common vision with stakeholders across a wide variety of domain specific languages, acting as boundary spanner to be sure that the various groups ("domain islands"?) share a common vision, even though it may be communicated to each in different ways 
  • ability to help team members envision outcomes and interim project states in ways that are meaningful and motivational to them. 

It's typically only the simplest and most concrete projects that can be addressed simply through structure, budget and organizational management. Beyond this, the strongest project managers must be able to function as true leaders -- taking ownership of outcomes, drawing all stakeholders and team members together and leading them through uncertainty to success. These folks may not be leaders of large enterprises or companies, but the truly strong ones are, without a doubt, leaders in their own right.

Emergent leaders vs. assigned leadership

As pointed out in a variety of literature on the subject, it is those emergent leaders who, having the needed attributes to wind up evolving into leadership roles from among their peers, typically garner the most respect and the most dedicated following. These leaders worked in the ditches, know the ropes and typically have genuine empathy for the folks with whom they worked side by side. These are also typically great folks to have in a team, even if they're not acting in formal roles as leaders. Team members with these qualities are wonderful, as they don't need constant monitoring and micro management - they analyze situations, anticipate outcomes, keep a long view forward as well as keeping track of immediate tactical decisions, and take ownership of solutions, rather than just observing problems and passing them up-line. Imagine having an entire team with these characteristics!

It is another group - those with formal authority via "assigned leadership", but lacking the needed attributes to be effective leaders - that are all too often in a position to wreak havoc in an organization. While they may not be effective leaders, they may be skilled politicians, and know how to protect themselves - taking credit for the work of others, and shifting blame below them to team members who may wonder why their professional development seems to have stalled. This is one of the categories of management personalities that is potentially the most destructive.

When the wrong leaders are in charge

Just as there are several types of "power", such as referent, expert, legitimate/reward/coercive, we should understand different aspects of leadership that may, depending on the mix, appear in various types of leaders. Several of the classic attributes associated with "leadership" are, in fact, what we'd like to see in most members of an organization. There are places in most organizations for those who don't have these attributes, but some of the most effective employees and team members - whether or not recognized as leaders possess many of the common so-called leadership traits such as: imagination, communication skills, creative problem solving, tact, thinking ahead and visualizing outcomes, empathy, taking ownership of issues and their solution, respect for others and for differing opinions, etc. These are, in fact, some of the key attributes to look for when hiring folks for most types of roles.

Many of the attributes are essentially important characteristics that we'd like to see across our organizations in most employees and colleagues. In most organizations, folks with all of these attributes may or may not have a formal leadership role, and those with formal authority don't necessarily have these desired characteristics. This is where politics and political savvy enter -- not necessarily as determinants of leadership, but instead as levers by which various people may rise to power.

We've probably all seen situations where the wrong person is in charge, and the "right" person or people don't have the opportunity to lead purely because of politics and formal authority structures. In these cases, it may be a real risk for any in the trenches to attempt to come forward and reveal their capabilities and perspective, as those with formal authority may not be so altruistic and open-minded, but instead see this as a challenge and threat to be eliminated.

Part of the reason it may be such a challenge to define "leadership" is the cognitive dissonance created when we *know* certain characteristics *should* be present in leaders, but aren't there. There have been a number of studies suggesting that many (not all) who rise to power may do so as a side effect of possessing personality traits that lean toward sociopathic behavior (even if only a little): self-interest above all else, the need to obtain and expand power over others, lack of empathy for others, ability to pretend to have all the "nice" qualities when such a role play furthers their own interests, etc. This certainly complicates the discussion, as the wonderful characteristics we're describing may be the ideal, but in fact are not typically present in many executives with formal authority.

These dysfunctional leaders - more appropriately termed "bosses " - aren't necessarily "evil" or conniving, and they may actually believe they're trying to do what's best for an organization. People with personality disorders rarely recognize their own problems. Being confident, assertive and being able to shift blame to hapless underlings may let them masquerade as strong leaders for a time. They often look great to their bosses, only being recognized for what they really are by those who directly suffer the results of terrible management actions. Sometimes the charade can continue for years, harming numerous employees and the organization.

Issues like this are less likely when company culture and process shed light on power silos and closed door meetings, and when rationale behind decisions is open for discussion. Organizations must really understand those to whom they grant power, and make sure they truly embody the right culture, personality and values, lest they empower a management pathogen to run amuck.