Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Setting Enhancement Priorities

first-pants-then-your-shoesYou have just implemented a system.   As always, the schedule forced the delay of some of the features and most are OK with that… for now.

The list of enhancements is long and includes both the requests of the patient user community, and the perhaps less patient executive team.  The executive list should get the same level of scrutiny as the user community list.  If there are objective measures behind all of the enhancements then it will make the conversation less tricky.  If not, then it is time for a Crucial Conversation.  If the executive list is implemented blindly without a comparative analysis of all of the enhancements, then there is a real risk of undermining the corporate objectives and any hope of confidence from the user community.

While you go about setting enhancement priorities, make sure the rigor behind the process of determining the priority is at the top of the list.

Culture SMEs and “Pelada”

Pelada: (Portuguese) 1. poor, 2. bald, 3. skinned 3. naked 4. second rate soccer game.

I love the rich meaning used in Brazil to describe pickup soccer games. Sure these games are not world cup matches, but the style in which the games are played (with a freedom like being naked) makes players world cup caliber precisely because it promotes free experimentation and risk taking (in short independent thinking) they would never try out in a formal game. Yet, without that skill they would never make it to the biggest games.  If you are a musician it is the essence of jam sessions and at the heart of creating new music. It is the soul of Jazz.   For more on this Read: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130419/us-national-team-pickup-soccer/#ixzz2ikZhE5iY

The speed of the game of soccer requires players to incorporate what they learn in “pelada” to adapt to the fluid nature of the game.  But they play “pelada” (yeah we do it here in the US too) for one reason. It is really fun and the joy they get from it makes them the great players they are.  Is there room for “pelada’ in your business?

An overly hierarchical or command and control style of leadership (like you see in American football and in many businesses) does not work in Soccer.  The game is simply too fast for a regimented approach that includes sideline instruction and narrow understandings of position.  It stunts creativity and adaptability which are both necessary for the game to be fun and successful.  Watch a high level soccer match and see how little instruction is being shouted from the sidelines. There is no time for plays to be sent in.

Just as I bet your love of baseball did not start with discussion of the infield fly rule or the virtues of the designated hitter.  (I confess, I stole part of this analogy from a priest www.wordonfire.org).  Nobody is going to love working for you because they get to spend time learning your system or the structure you have in place so they can dutifully  execute it. (Do I smell cult?)  It better be compelling, worth doing  and flexible; something they can ‘belong to’ rather than ‘fit in to’ and capable of adapting to the dynamic nature of business (you know… like culture). Only that will lead them to want to know about your systems, structure and leadership style.

Hierarchical command and control environments promote and perpetuate the SME culture. (This LinkedIn interchange highlights the risks, and fits nicely with the soccer analogy about ‘speed of the game’)

Brett Gibson We don’t hire SME’s. We hire those who can think for themselves and provide value to our clients. #SoftwareCulture

Dan Clark I think you hire both really. It’s a Venn diagram no? 

Brett Gibson Not really. SME never makes up for toxic behavior. Hire for DNA – not skills alone. Ability to learn trumps the arrogance and lack of collaboration skills often accompanied by a supposed industry SME. That’s where SME turns to SMA. The ‘A’ is anatomical and should be vetted for during the hiring process. Our industry moves so quickly that hiring for skills outdates itself within a year. The ability to learn is the hallmark of the knowledge economy. The ability to look out for the best-interests of the client cannot be found in the skills of the SME. They are more interested in scolding others who don’t follow the exact practices of their latest religion.

It s true for business, soccer and apparently American football too.  In the words of recently deceased and former head coach of the Houston Oilers Bum Phillips: “Two kinds of players ain’t worth a damn: One never does what he’s told, and one does nothin’ but what he’s told.” (Thanks To  @micjohnson for retweeting @JPosnanski).  Ironically SMEs can be both and are ill-suited for football, business and they sure ain’t “pelada”. If you are continuing to hire SMEs what does that say about your culture? Is it making the game too fast for you?

Culture or just Cult

I am fascinated by organizations that decide to implement a culture.  I am sure it issues forth from the best of intentions, but beginning this way ensures it will end up a cult instead of culture.   If you doubt it, I have one question:  Is your company something people ‘belong to’ or ‘fit in to’?

Culture is something people ‘belong to’, they  know it through experience and it is hard to capture in a mission statement because it implies freedom and support to take risks to succeed and fail.

A cult (no matter how benign or altruistic) is something prescriptive that people try to ‘fit in to’; the focus is not freedom but about following the leader, staying in line, asking permission, and having the right answer.  (Yeah, grade school and perhaps most of our work experiences were more cult than culture.)

Culture is like fire.  It’s essential for survival, controlling it eventually puts it out and it destroys us if we don’t tend it.

Is our work environment making people tools?

I have been having a lot of conversations these days with people on the difficulties of getting the right person in the right job.  It might be the one thing that keeps every business owner awake at night. 

There is a lot of effort being put toward making sure the person has the actual skills they say they have, and that you actually need.  In some cases (like programming or engineering) that is essential, but as those who hire and manage people know, it is by no means the only consideration.   I don’t know if he coined this phrase but Brett Gibson www.silverfernsoft.com has a saying that captures this quite well.  “We hire for skill and fire for attitude.”  I know there is no end to the stories we could all tell about people who had the technical job skills but lacked other critical (but sometimes hard to identify) skills to be successful.  Why does this keep happening?

I can’t help but wonder if one contributing risk is that we treat people (inadvertently) as purely a means of production.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should hire and keep people who do not contribute to the success of a business.  Yet, when we focus on production only It is dehumanizing. It reduces the person to the level of an object or a machine even a tool.  

Speaking of tools…when this happens it can actually encourage the employee to behave in very uncreative ways.  Remember the quality movement adage: “Be careful what you measure; it drives behavior.”?  If the employee feels objectified or feels that the goal is only about production, they will be very tempted to become the tool that can perform to those measures.  They begin to focus on just what you are measuring.  In short they stop (or never start) critically thinking. 

Critical thinking involves risk taking, a willingness to put the accepted business practices on trial, or to think in radically new ways.  Are you comfortable with that?  Are you willing to invest the time it takes to  do that?  If there is not a demonstrated tolerance for it in your company it would be considered stupid to be the first one to test for that tolerance.  This is one case where the advice I give to my daughter about boys is true of employers: “watch what they do and ignore what they say”.  

Everyone wants to be successful.  If there is an overemphasis on measures they will likely end up performing like the tool you may have inadvertently told them you wanted them to be. 

If you want a real measure of your culture, how does your company view the last person who took a risk that failed?  How would your employees tell that story?


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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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