Good performance?

Most architects that I know pay very little attention to their reputation and visibility within their organisations. They typically consider such activities with contempt.  It is playing politics, it is putting style over substance, it is dishonest.

Dishonest? Yes, dishonest! Why? Because every success is a team effort. Any one person taking credit is disrespecting the other team members.

So what do you do in a culture that recognises and rewards those who glister rather than those who just get on with their work and do an exceptional job. Your choice is stark – play the game, move on, fight or accept it.

If you play the political game then you earn the contempt of your peers and sometimes yourself.

If you accept then you will see those with little talent prosper, they will advance and perpetuate a political system that creates a kakistocracy – rule by the worst and all that this entails.

As one who has fought many times, I cannot recommend it. It is stressful. It will damage your reputation. And support is hard to find among managers who are just trying to survive themselves. A little passive aggressive resistance may be in order – be humble, retain your integrity, give valid praise in public to those who deserve it, counter any undeserved criticism of others and help those with unrecognised talents to find places where they can excel.

Your remaining option is to move on. This may take time since there is little point in moving on to a similar environment. You need to find the right people to work with. In particular, the right manager…

A manager of mine, when he understood what was happening, said “perhaps I am looking in the wrong place”. He realised that he could not rely on the grapevine to provide an accurate picture of performance. The news spread by others is biased, it is politicised, it carries the advertisements of the carriers. He had begun to realise that the formal performance reports of project managers, clients and others were often biased.

He worked out that he needed to get out there and continually and consistently look for himself. He started to take a deeper interest in the capabilities, aspirations, working environment and efforts of his team. Only then did he start to get an accurate picture of the performance of his team. And only then was he able to help them. Only then did he start doing his job as a manager. Only then did he discover the excellence in his team. With this knowledge he was able deploy the team better, grow their capabilities and to start to repair the reputations of his team.

Taking over…

A long time ago, I took on my first “real” management position with a responsibility. I was to lead a product development department of about 20 people. I didn’t know what leadership was. I had this vague concept that it was about a guy standing in front of a bunch of folk waving everyone forward over a parapet. The group would then charge forward joyfully into battle. Miraculously we would come out with minor cuts and bruises and no casualties ready to fight another day.

Why would they follow me? Perhaps I because I had said some rousing Shakespearian words. Why were there no casualties? I can’t fathom that one.

I had great optimism and incredible naivety. The result of this was a two year nightmare of making mistakes as my team meandered with no direction in some other field.

I eventually left that job to my great relief and probably my team’s. I had been the boss but not the leader. The two are not directly linked. Being boss gives you control over people’s pay and prospects. But they have a much greater level of control — the boss’s success lies in the hands of his team. This is the first great realisation. It doesn’t help directly because it only tells what not to do.

When I joined the software company as head of product development, I spoke to the directors. I learned what they expected of me and how it would benefit the company. Then, on my own, I decided how my team would deliver it. I stood up in front of them and told them what we were going to do. I got blank faces. I got shrugs of indifference. I got folded arms and frowns. There was a growing low hum of chatter in the background. Anyone observing would have realised that I had failed to convince and the team had moved from neutral to being against me.

I struggled on for a year with an ineffective team who just about kept me in a job but no more. Performance was lack lustre. Our year end bonus was pitifully low. I had a member of staff complain about my performance to the CEO and a salesman too. The CEO had appointed me so he called me in. He gave me a simple piece of advice, “ask for help”.

I asked for and followed the advice tentatively and finally left the company without really stepping up to the job. I had three months off before starting a new job. The separation and the break gave me the opportunity to reflect and learn from the experience.

The first lesson was that that being the boss does not make you a leader. The second lesson was that people chose to follow leaders. Leadership is earned over time. It does not come with the position. It is not a result of authority. A job described as a “leadership position” is one where you are expected to earn leadership quickly. I recruited a soldier into a team of mine who brought this home to me, he said, “the officer may be the boss in peacetime, but when we get on the battlefield, he relies on his men to keep him alive, it focuses the mind”.

The third lesson was that in most situations there are already leaders in place. There are people who are followed by the majority of the staff. They may not be in management positions. They may lead in a direction that contradicts the organizations objectives. But they are there. They are a route to establishing your leadership. You need to build relationships with them and get them to bring the rest of the team along. Since that first disastrous management role, I have always looked for these leaders and very quickly told them that I am putting my trust in them to help me make the team more successful.

I went through a number of transitions in my thinking:

Tell to Listen

I to We

Being above to Being on the level

Arrogance to Humility

Authority to Vulnerability

Being in front of the group to Being with the team

Driving the team to Batting for the team

This is what we are going to do to How can I help you?

Company goals to Individual goals

Boss to Servant

Going through these transitions is simply good management. Practicing good management earns the manager the leadership role. This was the fourth lesson.

The fifth lesson was that you have to defend your team. I have “been into bat” for my team over pay, grades and conditions and won most of the time. I won because the case for change was good and I followed through. Other managers who had similar situations but who didn’t have the guts to fight were not happy. I have had stand up shouting matches, attempts to discredit me, threats as a result of this. The weak manager is dangerous when cornered — this was the sixth lesson.

I, and the team as a whole, have expectations of each other. We will always aim to be professional. We cover for one another. We deal with problems in the team. We are like a family. What about the organization? This is tied up with being professional which implies delivering the organization’s objectives — this is the only reason for the team to exist. Failing to meet these objectives is the team’s biggest internal threat. The team will not protect a member that threatens its existence. It expects the leader to either change that team member’s behaviour or to remove them. The seventh lesson is that the leader protects the team from internal threats.

There are times when the organization’s existence and the current form of the team are not aligned. This may mean moving people out. In one role had to fire 12 architects because we were restructuring. My approach was to talk to each one and find out their aspirations. They were clever people, they knew what was happening. I eventually placed 11 of them in alternative roles within the organization; every move was a good move. Only one person left and went on to another organization. The eighth lesson is that the leader “bats for the team” even when managing them out.

There is a difficult balance in all of this. With the team on a day to day basis, you are a team member whose responsibility it is to represent the team to the organization. The organization sees you as the boss in control of a set of resources with a set of objectives to achieve. These views will come into conflict and it will be tough. You have to recognise when changes need to be made. You must not be seen as a wrecker who is just protecting his team — if that happens then you will lose all upward influence. This is the ninth lesson.

SMART Objectives Redefined…

In many organisations there is an annual ritual, goal setting time. Time for that tired piece of management advice about SMART goals to be trotted out once more.

Everyone’s heart will sink… Staff will not want to over commit. Managers will push and cajole because there is pressure on them from above. The annual battle is on.

Can you get your bonus without effort? Will you know that, despite all your best efforts, your enthusiasm cannot get you there? Do your managers already know that they have missed their targets. Or have they managed to con their bosses into believing that the “stretch” target they have set has not already been achieved. Have they conned you into working hard for peanuts?

We need to get away from the counter productive nonsense of SMART goal setting. It looks good on paper but completely fails to take into account human nature. Emotion counts! Logic is virtually irrelevant!

Unfortunately it is not going away so let’s redefine it!

Stretch  -  be creative, be wacky, be different, change the rules for yourself and your organisation, be innovative, organisation want a step change, challenge everyone to be different, to take a different route, every organisation wants to improve, to make any significant change you have to do something different, forget incremental change, take a different direction.

Motivate – each day you should want to go a bit further towards your goals, you should want to meet and overcome any obstacle, your goals have got to be exciting, they inspire you, you should wake up in the night with fresh ideas on how to achieve them.

Alive – get excited, make sure your goals will keep you excited, infect others with your excitement, don’t worry if they look at you as if you are mad — you are! Your excitement will motivate others, it builds teams that endure and succeed.

Reach  -  set no limits, so what if it is impossible, the greats of this world didn’t settle for possible, why should you? If you get halfway to impossible, it will be 10 times further and more satisfying than your Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timebound goal.

Timeless — we have one life, lets keep on pushing, keep on going, keep on having fun, lets keep on driving to our great goals because we want to, never retire, never stop, just get another great goal.

Much SMARTer!

The Puppet Master

There is a guy that I have known for about 12 years. He is going to retire shortly. I have admired him since I met him. Those who know him will recognise this description, if he reads it I hope he takes as it is meant – it is a compliment, and those who don’t, well, just think on this description.

He has never been number one, but as long as I have known him, number two. He has been number two to many number ones. He has survived the passing of many number ones.

I joined him once when he was briefing another number one.  At the end of the meeting, I knew who was in charge.  I knew that the puppet was the star but my friend was pulling the strings.

He has several amazing abilities – he is universally liked but many don’t know why they like him. He listens very well, and keeps a confidence given. He takes care of those who put their trust in him. He advises with clarity and honesty. He can read people, their intentions, their emotions, their motivations, he can anticipate their actions, and very often shape them. He has a huge network of friends, many of them with influence.

He is a patient man. If he wants something, he will get it. He will plan a simple plan and “softly, softly catchy monkey” he will execute and deliver that plan.

But don’t cross him, because you will only cross him once. That network of friends that he has will turn into a monster and devour his enemies.

You don’t need permission to do the right thing…

When you encounter something that feels wrong, what do you do? Do you think, the guy that did it must know what he is doing? Do you think, it’s none of my business? Do you think, I’m not getting involved in those politics? Do you think, I’ll let him hang himself? Do you think, I’m busy right now?

Or do you think to yourself, that looks wrong, I’m going to take a little time to investigate? When you find there is a problem, do you then get involved and try to resolve the situation?

When you join an organisation, you sign up to its objectives. If anything contradicts those objectives then you signed up to take responsibility, to get involved and to do what you can to get a resolution. You signed up to do the right thing, you don’t need permission.

If you can see the big picture and the connections that others do not, if you can see the unintended consequences of decisions and actions, then what is important is the action that follows. The knowledge, the contacts, the courage and the influencing skills are critical to getting people to change direction and correct missteps.

When an issue arises, the question is, what is the right thing to do? And that is what we should try to do. Sometimes we fail and we make an new entry in the “I told you so” book or perhaps it should be called the “I failed to convinced you” book.

You don’t need permission to do the right thing but you may need friends and political skills.

A short ride in a taxi

I had just finished a reference visit and I got into a cab to take me back to my hotel. For the first half of the journey the driver was silent. He drove with one hand on the wheel and the other out of the window. I became aware of sudden jerky movements out of the corner of my eye, the hand that was out of the window was twitching.

Five minutes into the journey, the driver asked me where I was from. I told him and he said, “I went there 30 years ago as a kid”. He then said, “I’ve been through there on a train to an interview”. He had been to a lot of interviews in a lot of places. I surmised that these must have been university admissions interviews.

I began to get worried when he said that he had got lost going to one interview because “I’m not very good at finding places”.

He didn’t get the grades, he was going to retake his exams but he had a nervous breakdown. He got a job delivering milk. He wanted to do day release classes but his employer would not give him time off. He had an opportunity to take a job with prospects at an insurance company but it didn’t pay enough. He then became a taxi driver. His ambition now is to retire at 50.

He said, “You might think it’s a waste of a life but I know it’s not my fault”.

I asked him, “What will you do when you are free and clear”. “I have thought about counselling, I’m interested in counselling. I would like to take a counselling course.” I said, “There are always people who need help”. He responded, “But I would want to know if there was a job at the end”. I said, “I’m sure the charity sector would have opportunities which you could do if you were retired”.

He paused, took a breath, twitched a couple times, put both hands on the wheel and gripped it tightly as memories came back. “I went for a position once, they rejected me. They asked me about my family, I told them that I had a sister who was a jerk. I probably didn’t make it clear enough that I am quite capable of working with jerks and idiots without prejudging them.”

At this point he slowed down, relaxed his grip, put one hand out of the window, gave a small twitch, looked around, then said, “I’ve taken a wrong turn but I can get you there without going too much further.”

A few moments later, the hotel came into view. I was silent. He said, “You might think it’s a waste of a life but I have the satisfaction of knowing it’s not my fault”.

SMART Objectives Considered Harmful!

Introduction

Having been a member of staff, a manager and a consultant I have met SMART objectives many times and in many forms. Being faced with the need to create them for myself and help my team create once again, I feel the need to vent some frustration with the apparent obsession with something that I have finally come to conclude can be a harmful activity that is sometimes best avoided. This article explains why I consider SMART objectives should not be developed.

Apparently, the best order to consider your objectives is M-A-R-S-T: so let’s begin…

Measurable

Measurable is supposed to be the most important consideration. This allows you and everyone else know that you’ve achieved your objective.

But this creates a problem – not everything worth achieving is easily measurable.

Therefore you are left with the option of picking something easy to measure or you spend time creating a measurement scheme that accurately reflects what you are trying to achieve.

There are many tales of company activities being distorted by inappropriate measures. Staff changed their behaviour to reflect the measures that their performance was being judged by, “to hell with customer service, I’m measured on how many calls I complete inside 2 minutes”. The thing is that such measures seemed entirely reasonable when they were developed.

There are three basic approaches to measuring schemes that are often introduced when simple approaches fail. Measuring schemes that mimic balanced scorecards, those that have several measures that are in tension with each other, and surveys.

Balanced scorecard based approaches are often introduced without an understanding of how balanced scorecards drive performance. A complete set of objectives should be based on a strategy map i.e. a diagram showing the cause and effect relationships between the achievement of different objectives which ultimately result in the achievement of the financial objectives of the organisation. Without the understanding of cause and effect, the result is that objectives conflict and the individual’s contribution to the overall performance does not improve.

These strategy maps must be consistent throughout the organisation at all levels and across all functions to be effective. Without this consistency, all that results is a random set of activities that does not deliver improved business performance. My experience of getting this right is that is takes about 3 months at about 25% of managers time to get the scheme right, then it has to be updated every few months. The overhead is just not acceptable!

The tension approach requires that conflicting objectives (e.g. quality vs. timescale vs. cost) are formulated and the result is a creative balance. Again, such an approach requires significant management effort to deliver and, quite simply, most managers either are too busy or can’t be bothered!

The last resort of the manager required to measure the immeasurable is to “ask the customer”. On the basis that everyone has a “customer” and “customer service is a good thing” then it must be valid to “ask the customer”. Unfortunately, as the work of Kaplan and Norton on balanced scorecards and strategy maps shows, the customer is only one dimension in the equation. In addition, why is an internal customer’s subjective opinion of your service that is probably biased by politics a reasonable measure that drives corporate performance?

Inevitably, the measure becomes the managers gut feel back up with a reasoned argument based on some anecdotes.

Achievable

  • It’s measurable
  • Others have done it successfully before you
  • It’s theoretically possible
  • You have the necessary resources, or at least a realistic chance of getting them
  • You’ve assessed the limitations

This is pure cowardice, if you want to be successful, if you want to make an impact, you need guts. Making sure you can succeed before you start is for wimps! Leaders take risks, they attempt the impossible. Sometimes they succeed – and its fun to succeed. Sometimes they fail – where’s the next challenge?

As an interim manager I built a career taking on jobs that no-one thought could be achieved. In fact, no-one understood the jobs, they just knew something had to be done, and I was up for a challenge. My most satisfying and successful jobs have come by “going where angels fear to tread”.

Realistic

Apparently, you should be realistic because even if it’s achievable, it may not be realistic. You need to understand…

  • Who’s going to do it?
  • Do they have (or can they get) the skills to do a good job?
  • Where’s the money coming from
  • Who carries the can?

This is all about getting the resources to do the job. To me that’s just part of the job, you don’t start with the resources. You decide to do it, you get the resources, you deliver, simple!

The key is that what you are doing is important enough and that you can convince others of this.

Your conviction and passion are far more important than realism.

Specific

Apparently, the devil is in the detail. The guidelines say that you will know your objective is specific enough if:

  • Everyone who’s involved knows that they are involved – no, we’ll get going and win them over when we need to!
  • Everyone involved understands what we are trying to achieve – no, we’ll develop an understanding together as we progress.
  • Your objective is free from jargon – I’m all for writing it down, it becomes more real, but lets develop a language together that works for everyone.

In a dynamic environment, you start with an idea and only with an idea. Then you act on it and bring people along. Those that can help get involved and develop the idea further, it becomes a team thing, its not mine anymore, it belongs to all of us.

If we wait for the specific, then the enthusiasm goes and the best ideas, which are often the most difficult to conceive of as successful, never get started.

Timely

Timely means setting deadlines.

Time is money, so is quality – too many people get hung up on artificial deadlines that damage the business by riding roughshod over people’s private life and reducing the quality of delivery.

The only real deadline is one where someone dies if you don’t make it, so lets get the value of a timeframe into perspective.

This isn’t an excuse for procrastination or for delay, everything has an appropriate timescale. Often you can’t know it until after you start, if that’s the case then don’t create an artificial deadline.

There’s nothing wrong with having a hoped for timescale, a target can be useful to focus the mind, there’s nothing wrong with having review points, but if you don’t know when your objective will delivered that doesn’t mean you can’t start.

Conclusion

SMART objectives can create inertia and are sometimes an excuse for doing very little. They can damage businesses by stifling creativity, squashing enthusiasm and making mediocrity acceptable. They are a crutch for poor managers.

If you want to improve your bottom line, recruit leaders, encourage leaders, then give everyone the freedom to achieve.