Monday, February 28, 2011

February 17 Meeting Notes [Robert Lasater]

On February 17, 2011, the Engineering Leadership SIG of the SD Forum met at SAP headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Featured was a presentation, “Keys to Collaborative Leadership”, given by Mark Voorsanger and Liz Agnew. Both are Certified Coaches.

The presentation was organized as a meal in a fine restaurant, with three “courses”, an appetizer, a main dish and dessert. Each “course” came with a challenge and a goal. The first part, an introduction, was designed to whet the audience’s appetite. The overall goal of the presentation was to inspire new thinking.

Mark V acknowledged that “collaborative leadership” might seem to be an oxymoron, and responded with a quote from Albert Einstein: “if an idea is not absurd, it is not worth pursuing.”

Whetting Your Appetite

To demonstrate the need for collaborative leadership, Mark V quoted two sets of statistics from a recent survey of American employees. The first divided employees into three groups:

Engaged 29%
Not Engaged 54%
Actively disengaged 17%

They then asked the participants in the survey if their current job brings out my most creative ideas. The results were broken down among the three categories:

Engaged 59%
Not Engaged 17%
Actively disengaged 3%

Not surprisingly, most of those who were not engaged or actively disengaged felt their job did not bring out their most creative ideas.

Now the current paradigm for leadership is Hierarchy. Decisions are made at the top. The currencies are power and authority. Mark V characterized hierarchy as working well when:
· People at the top have all required information.
· People being managed are doing rote tasks.
· People being managed are easily replaced

This of course does not characterized modern engineering organizations. Mark V though did stress that hierarchy has its place, especially when decisions need to be made quickly.

At this point, Mark V asked the audience to participate in an exercise. Gather in small groups and discuss how ineffective collaboration is costing you and your organization. Afterwards, several members of the audience shared their responses. They included:
· If you don’t do it my way, you are not collaborating
· Decisions are made without adequate information.
· Software is not reusable.
· There is no safe environment for unusual ideas.

Appetizer: Defining Key Terms

Challenge: No common language
Goal: Define key terms for a collaborative process

Mark V spent several minutes defining some key terms.

Collaboration: All relevant stakeholders have ownership and alignment around what we are going to do and how we are going to do it.

Relevant Stakeholder:
· People with the power to make a decision.
· People with the power to block a decision.
· People affected by a decision
· People with relevant information and expertise.

Ownership: the extent to which people feel or believe that a process, decision or outcome is theirs.

Alignment: The extent to which people see and understand a problem or decision.

Here is a metaphor for ownership vs. alignment:
Ownership: get everyone on the boat.
Alignment: get everyone rowing in the same direction.

And he provided this insight regarding Content vs Process: Content gets attention; process, not so much. Content is What; process is How.

And finally: a Collaborative Leader is someone who leads according to the principle of ownership and alignment.

Regarding introducing the principles of Collaborative Leadership, Mark V pointed out that one needs to be careful with change. Organizations tend to reject change the way one’s immune system rejects a foreign microbe. A suggestion: think small.

Main Dish: Problem Solving Template

Challenge: No common process
Goal: find a common process

A Problem is any situation that you want to change.

There are three obstacles to solving problems:

1. Groups don’t know how to (or don’t even think to) align around the problem that they want to solve. No agreement on the problem = No agreement on the solution + infinite arguing about solutions

2. Groups use implicit processes to do their work. Collaborative problem solving relies on explicit win/win processes.

3. People solve problems iteratively – so that nothing is transparent.

Mark V presented a structured process with a 5-step problem solving template
1. Context (what effect is the problem having; what happens if it is not addressed?)
2. Problem statement – a one sentence statement
3. Intent
4. Desired outcomes
5. Action plan

Mark V cautioned against “baking a solution” into the statement or intent. And one should build ownership and alignment at each step.

Finally there is the question of time. One of the advantages of hierarchical decision making is it is faster; collaborative problem solving takes longer. So it is necessary to concede that hierarchical decision making sometimes is required. But beware of creating a false sense of crisis. This will only work a limited number of times.

At this point, Mark V opened the floor for questions.

Q: How do you deal with the fact that not all stakeholders are equal?
A: Those who are less important are gently and politely informed of this.

Q: How do you avoid “baking the solution” into the problem statement?
A: By actively blocking these attempts. By reminding everyone of the importance of ownership and alignment.

Dessert: The Number One Missing Ingredient in Meetings

Challenge: Unproductive meetings
Goal: More productive meetings

The number one missing ingredient in meetings is the Process – the How. Make it explicit.

One final question:

Q: How to decide on decisions without a hierarchy
A: Some suggestions:
· Vote
· Consensus
· Unanimous consent
Be explicit about the process.

Mark Voorsanger is the Founder of Skyward Coaching (, 415-606-2101. His emal address is

Liz Agnew is president of Integrative Leadership Strategies (, 415.401.7822. Her email address is:

Robert Lasater maintains this blog for the Engineering Leadership Special Interest Group of the SD Forum.


Monday, February 21, 2011

One’s Feminine Side Can Still Hurt One’s Career [Robert Lasater]

A few months ago, Kimberly Wiefling wrote about the advantages a woman’s feminine side can bring to the workplace. Unfortunately a recent study shows those same characteristics can hurt a woman starting her career.

Before proceeding, some background is helpful. When someone receives a PhD in the sciences or mathematics, a typical next step is to take a post-doctorate, a one or two year assignment, a chance to continue research and get work published. Often one takes two or three of these temporary positions before starting a (presumably) more permanent position in the academy or industry. And key to this process are the letters of recommendation, from one’s PhD advisor or post-doctorate supervisor, or other professional mentors.

Recently Professors Randi Martin and Michelle Hebl of my alma mater, Rice University, reviewed several hundred of these letters of recommendation, written for both men and women candidates. They found the ones for men typically described the candidate using terms such as “confident”, “aggressive” and “daring”, while the letters for women uses terms such as “affectionate”, “nurturing” and “tactful” – the kinds of qualities Kimberly point out add value in the engineering workplace.

And when they took their collection of letters, took out names and personal pronouns (“he”, “she”, etc.), and then asked other faculty members to evaluate the (now anonymous) candidates, those written for men got significantly better rankings than the ones written for women. The candidates described as “confident”, “aggressive” and “daring” were more likely to be hired than those described as “affectionate”, “nurturing” and “tactful”. This despite the fact they had taken out all references to gender, and had insured the candidates described with feminine qualities had as much professional success - papers published, lead author, recognition and awards – as those described with masculine qualities.

It is unfortunate that the quick lesson from this work is likely to be to suppress terms like affectionate, nurturing and tactful, even though such people – men and women both – help make the workplace a less contentious and more productive place. But women too can be confident, aggressive and daring, and mentors do need to look for these qualities in the women they are guiding and advising.

I just want to add that in the sciences and mathematics, the most important qualities one looks for are originality and – yes it is masculine – daring. They describe Richard Feynman – and Barbara McClintock, who eventually won the Nobel Prize for her work in genetics. Oh, and persistence. It took 30 years for the scientific community to recognize the importance of McClintock’s work.


Robert Lasater maintains this blog for the Engineering Leadership Special Interest Group of the SD Forum.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Announcing the Next EL SIG Meeting, Feb 17 [Robert Lasater]

The next meeting of the Engineering Leadership SIG will be held on February 17 in SAP Building 2 (3412 Hillview Avenue, Palo Alto, CA), starting at 7:00 PM. Doors open at 6:30 PM.

TITLE: The Keys to Collaborative Leadership

SPEAKERS: Mark Voorsanger and Elizabeth Agnew

About the Speakers:

Mark Voorsanger is an executive coach and consultant with over 25 years working with and managing high technology teams. His experience as a business entrepreneur, senior corporate manager overseeing globally distributed production units, and executive coach and consultant focusing on leadership development and collaboration make him uniquely qualified to work with leaders in high tech.

As the founder of Skyward Coaching, Mark brings the COS and his collaborative facilitation skills to literally every client engagement, from individual coaching to the facilitation of corporate strategic planning. Mark's client list includes Electronic Arts, Sega, DreamWorks, CompuShare and Kaiser Permanente.

Liz Agnew is a certified coach specializing in leadership development and collaboration. Liz earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from Cornell University and a master's degree from Stanford. As president of Integrative Leadership Strategies, LLC, Liz's mission is to bring the world together by making the workplace a sanctuary for learning and truth. She transforms one team at a time, teaching them to work transparently and heal the pain of poor work relationships. Liz's previous clients include Genentech, Hewlett Packard, The City of Atlanta, Sun Microsystems, Lockheed Martin, and Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Liz Agnew has written previously for our blog.

Details of talk:

Nearly every organization we know operates according to some version of the hierarchical system, which uses power and authority to accomplish things.

Although many have attempted to democratize their workplace by getting “flatter” and working in teams, power and authority remain the primary “currency” being traded. If you can accumulate enough power and authority in a hierarchical system, you can “win.” But as we know, a hierarchy concentrates power and authority in a few people at the very top. This prevents the rest of the organization from having the currency required to solve problems and accomplish goals. It makes working across the silos nearly impossible. And it makes the “leader” with the most power and authority essential.

Moreover, the degree of complexity in today’s fast-moving, global marketplace is simply beyond the capacity of the hierarchical approach. The interdependent, multi-faceted problems and opportunities facing leaders and organizations require a new system: one that engages workers by connecting the people with the information to those who make the decisions, and the people who make the decisions to those who implement them. The leader who can help their organizations make the journey to this new paradigm will predominate.

In this talk, Mark Voorsanger & Liz Agnew will introduce and explore the fundamental principles that drive Collaborative Leadership in organizations, principles that have the capacity to transform how we get work done. Join Mark & Liz for this fun and interactive session on The Keys to Collaborative Leadership.

For more information, including a detailed schedule, go here.