No MBA mumbo-jumbo, just stuff that's worked through 30 years of team-building in business and the military.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Fastest Improvement is Slow Change

If you want change to work, it's best to go slow.

I remember my first day in South Korea. I couldn't buy coffee; I couldn't even tell which places might sell coffee. I couldn't hail a cab. Forget about getting anything done, all I thought about was feeding myself and putting a roof over my head. And I learned a key leadership lesson: When everything changes, people shift into survival mode and work slows to a crawl.

Your best bet: Change one thing at a time. Change process flow, and then when that becomes normal, reassign people, for example. If you do both simultaneously, you're asking for chaos.

There's something I used to tell soldiers when they were trying to learn to do something quickly under pressure: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. When you try for speed, you're more likely to make mistakes that just cost you time.

Take it slow, things will go smoothly, and overall the pace of change in your area will speed up.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Law of Adjustment

There’s a leadership principle every coach knows: You have to adjust to win.

The Army axiom that relates is, “No plan survives enemy contact.” The Law of Adjustment simply says that you will have to adapt in response to how events unfold. No adjustments means failure.

The leadership challenge is how to know when an adjustment is needed. You won’t unless you have some way of monitoring what is going on, either by checking computer data, walking around, or maybe being briefed by your people. You have to put some thought into the right indicators to look at, and the right tools to use. Key question: “How will I know if we start to fail?”

Planning for adjustments empowers you to do three things:
1. Bounce back from failure. “I was succeeding until X happened. So next time, at that point I’m going to do Y.”
2. Turn impending failure into success. “X isn’t working so let’s try Y.”
3. Exploit success. “Wow, instead of X we’re making money at Y. Let’s put more resources there.”

The bottom line: Adjustments are as important as the plan or process itself. As a leader you need to see that making adjustments is a key part of your role. Actively look for what needs to change; you’re probably the only one who will.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Broken Communication

I just watched some classic bad leadership in a conversation between two managers and a technician. All three were trying to solve a problem, but in the end they all left mad.

The issue: a customer's second bad experience with a bad product. Certainly something managers have a right to ask about. But here's what went wrong: the way they asked was, "Have you done this? Could you try that?" They sounded like they didn't think the technician was trying very hard, or maybe just wasn't competent.

And here's the predictable outcome: the technician finally said, "Look, why don't you guys do it yourselves." That push-back made the managers feel like he's arrogant and not a team player.

Ironically, both sides wanted the same thing: for the other to have confidence in them. Neither got it. And the customer isn't any better off, either.

The lesson is that communication as much about how you say things than what you say. Managers could ask, "Help me understand what you're doing." The technician could say, "Let me ease your concern by explaining how thorough I've been." Same concerns, different words, but the team would still be intact.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Vision: How do They See What Isn't Visible?

OK,  we know as leaders that it's our job to set the vision for our team. The problem is, how can we get them to see something that exists primarily in our own heads?

The only tools you have are words. Maybe if your vision is very small ("Let's work towards a new refrigerator!") a picture could work, but any meaningful vision is beyond that. So here's the rule painting a vision with words: They have to be concrete.

Concrete is the opposite of abstract: it means something that can be physically described. Your vision is abstract, so your description of it has to be easily seen in the mind's eye.

So don't say "Our vision is to delight customers," say, "We want our customers so happy they tell other people." Don't say, "We should strive for a zero-defect environment," say, "If we do our jobs right we can get rid of the scrap bins, and our complaint system." 

Your team can picture a time they got such good service. They can visualize the shop without the scrap bins and all the work that goes with them. Those are concrete images, and they're what you need to help them see an abstract vision.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The hard thing

Vivid memory: I was leading a quartering party (a small advance team that secures a new place for a command post). After maybe 30 minutes, security was out, comms were up, my tactical assessment was done, the perimeter defenses had been sited, and my soldiers were hard at work. So I moved on to the next priority: machinegun emplacement. I got an entrenching tool, jumped into a hole with a very surprised soldier, and started digging. When I left the unit, he toasted me as the only Major he had ever seen dig a fighting position.

I intentionally recall that moment, because it reminds me of a key leadership truth: you reap huge credibility dividends if institutional memory includes images of you dirty from doing the worst jobs.

When you do the hard thing, there are some invaluable outcomes:
1. You understand at gut level what it takes to get the job done. That can only help you plan and resource, as well as be empathetic to your team.
2. On that Us-Them spectrum, you move closer to the Us end of the scale.
3. Your employees are more likely to see you as a hard worker with different tasks than theirs, rather than somebody with a slack job who avoids real work.
4. You get actually get something productive done, which always feels good.

Old-school leadership said, “Never ask your people to do something you aren't willing to do yourself.” These days that isn't always practical in the literal sense, but the idea is good. My advice: At least once a quarter, schedule a half day or day to roll your sleeves up and do the hard thing for a while. You'll become a better leader.