Friday, May 28, 2010

The Strong Boss [Matt Schlegel]

One of my clients is a strong leader. She is a strategic thinker and as smart as they come. She guides herself and her team to deliver consistently great results. Yet, she complains to me that her team fails to think for themselves. As such, she has to maintain a hands-on approach and monitor the team continuously. She finds this tiring and aggravating and wishes she could delegate more. What is happening here?

As I began to interact with my client’s team, I discovered that the team was very good at reacting to direction from the boss. The team understood that the boss highly valued action; therefore, they took direction from the boss and turned that into action as quickly as possible. There was very little need to highlight problems since the boss set the agenda on the important problems to address. Also, the team minimized analysis and planning activities since these activities took time and slowed progress toward action-oriented results.

The figure illustrates the problem-solving dynamics of this organization. The leadership style of the boss created a strong tendency towards action – Git ‘er Done (step 7). The team members attracted to this type of organization are those that respond well to that leadership style. For instance, once the boss set the direction, the team found little need for further conversation about the problem (step 1). By moving directly to step 2, people would organize and figure out how they would respond to the boss’s direction. Ideas would be generated (step 3), but the team would find there was little value in analyzing the ideas (step 4) and building plans (step 5) around those ideas. Rather, the team would present a promising idea (step 6) to the boss for review and approval. The boss, being the smart strategic person that she is, would be able to quickly assess the idea and approve it, modify it or send the team back to the drawing board. In that way, the team would quickly move into the Execution Phase (step 7.)

This action-oriented problem-solving style is very effective in that it produces results quickly. One way to characterize this method is as an iterative method. Another description is “Fail Fast.” This is a great methodology to try different approaches and quickly iterate to a successful solution. And, because the leader in this case was as talented as she is, the probability was high that the ideas she directed the team to pursue would be successful. The cost of this approach is that she had to spend a tremendous amount of energy setting direction, reviewing ideas and monitoring results.

In working with this team, I found that I had to start at the end with the neglected Debrief Step (step 8), reviewing with the team how they solve problems, and determine what was working well and what not so well. Out of this discussion came a list of potential problems (step 1) that the team considered important to address. Reviewing this list with the strong leader, we quickly came into agreement on the important problems. The big difference was that the problems were now the team’s problems, not the boss’s problems – the team was highly vested in solving these problems.

Working with the team, I had them spend more time on analyzing different ideas for solutions and putting together a well-thought-out plan before presenting the plan to the boss. The team put together a terrific proposal in which they genuinely held pride. They presented that to the boss who was equally pleased and gave the team permission to move forward, which the team did with considerable enthusiasm.

The strong boss learned how her personal leadership style was impacting the performance of the team. The problems she experienced with her team were as much the result of her own behavior as that of her team. By allowing the team some say in choosing the problems to solve, the team delivered great results and took far less oversight from the boss, which made the strong boss happy.

Matt Schlegel developed his problem-solving methodology over the past decade. He continues to use the process to help companies solve big challenges, and folds those experiences into the refinement of the process. He also consults for companies developing products jointly with Asian companies. Matt can be found at


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Automate As Much As You Can [Rino Jose]

Automation is the ultimate delegation

One of the classic traits of an effective leader and manager is that they delegate work. They find ways to offload work to others so that they can focus on activities that have higher value to the organization. If the work that's delegated is challenging because it requires intelligence and insight, then this provides junior executives and managers with an opportunity to develop their skills. If, on the other hand, the work is doesn't require insight and thought, it becomes a distraction that prevents people from working on things that matter more. When this happens, the work should be delegated further.

Of course, the ultimate delegation is to simply automate the work. If you can automate any of your work, you should. Having people do work that can be done for them is a waste of time, effort, and money..

Capture what you've learned

Automation enables you to capture and use what you've learned. It's a way of documenting the lessons your team and organization have learned over time. It lets you leverage your project retrospectives, postmortems, and brainstorming meetings. It helps puts into practice what you've decided to do.

People are overloaded today. It's hard to find anyone who has the spare time to shepherd change through an organization. If, however, change can be automated -- at least in part -- the effort of realizing change can be greatly reduced.

Don't keep reinventing the wheel

If you haven't automated how you do typical tasks or how you collect status or how you manage projects, then your organization will reinvent these things differently each time. If you have multiple teams within your organization, each team will develop their own way of doing things. There won't be consistency in how anything is done.

Not only will people be wasting their time reinventing new ways for doing the same thing, but they will multiply the effort it takes you to understand the status of anything. You won't know where your team is at any given time. You won't have a clear view of where projects will land or where the bottlenecks are. Some people will give you spreadsheets. Some people will give you subjective reports with lots of handwaving. You'll have information fragments that don't fit together. When things go wrong, you'll be surprised. When you ask why, people will externalize blame. It might not be anyone's fault -- lacking consistency is really to blame.

Automate to get into a rhythm

Stop doing things differently each time. Use templates for your meetings. Document your workflows (more in an upcoming post). Use tools to automate as much as you can.

Automation helps you get into a rhythm. It provides the infrastructure for your work. It enables you to apply your skills and insight directly to your problems instead of wasting effort on figuring out how to apply them.

When you automate things, people know what to expect. Each time you perform a certain type of work, it becomes easier to do. Every team starts executing consistently. Your teams will find their rhythm and their pace. Your teams will develop organizational momentum.

Keep questioning what you automate

Building organizational momentum is great. Teams are more effective. People have greater impact. Everything runs better. However, don't forget to question what you automate.

When we learn new lessons or when the environment in which we work changes, we need to ask if we're still automating the right things. If something is no longer necessary, we should drop it. If we're missing something, we should add it. If what we're automating isn't working, we need to fix it.

We automate to make ourselves more effective, not to stop thinking. It's ok to create and use cogs to make our jobs easier; it's not ok to become one.

(originally posted on Management Revolution)

Rino Jose is the principal co-founder of Lakeway Technologies, a startup that develops web apps for automating engineering and project management. He has developed software and managed software teams professionally for over 15 years. As a manager and management consultant, he has led turnarounds for multiple engineering teams. Rino holds a B.S. from U.C. Berkeley and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania with cross-disciplinary focus between Engineering, Computer Science, and the Wharton Business School.