Friday, February 17, 2012

An antidote to management by email

I once got a new business area manager (my boss' boss) who introduced himself to the consultants in his business area by sending a long email with instructions on how we should act if we would find ourselves in a situation without an assignment, or in "a situation of non-utilization" as he preferred to put it. Many of my colleagues who read his email didn't even know who this guy was, and only a rare few had actually met him in person even though he had been with the company for a few years.

That email really stuck with me. There is truth in the saying that first impressions last, especially when what you see is a person's behavior. I believe this was actually my first encounter with a person in a management position who practiced management by email to the extreme. After this experience I have become better at recognizing and spotting this style of management where managers rather hide behind Excel sheets, Word documents and lengthy emails than to meet people in person, even when it is possible to do so.

I am not sure that this style of management would have worked even in a factory in 1930's. I am sure the managers back then were much more present than many of today's managers, simply because they had to be physically close to the production to listen and learn what needed to be done so they could instruct the workers what to do. That's is also the problem with management by email; the lack of listening and lack of learning. If there is no listening, then communication also suffers. It will be hard to reach a mutual understanding of what needs to be done and how to get it done.

What this essentially means is that if you don't listen, you won't be able to communicate efficiently and you won't be able to lead people. Despite this, there are lots of managers practicing management by email and who think they are leaders. In my experience, lack of self-awareness is the common denominator for all bad managers I have encountered, so it is only natural that they think of themselves as leaders when they really aren't.

When looking at the increasing problems with employee engagement in many organizations today, I believe much of it can be blamed on lack of listening and communication, and ultimately lack of leadership, among management. These are the people who make decisions that affect people and their situations, and making those decision without knowing enough about the people and the situations they will affect is a sure path to failure and misery. Organizations require more and more of their employees, but management is not listening to them. There is no chance managers can empower their people to get the job done faster and better without listening to them and understanding what they need.

(photo from stock.xchng)

Unfortunately, the misuse (abuse) of tools such as email can increase the distance between the managers and the people doing the are supposed to be leading. Instead of leading, they divert most of their attention to reporting (pleasing their manager to safeguard their own positions) and primarily meet their people in the form of names in emails and Excel sheets. What they should be doing most of their time is to listen and communicate with their people, analyzing their situations and trying to figure out how to empower them to get their work done.

In a world where distributed and virtual organizations will become the norm, you need to find antidotes to management by email and general lack of listening, and you need them now before it is too late and all the talent has left the organization. This alone is a reason why organizations should look to replace broadcasting tools such as email and traditional intranets with social tools that allow rich and intreractive real-time two-way communication that help to bring people closer to each other by making them listen and communicate more. And why you should always aim to have face-to-face meetings whenever it is feasible and there are important and complex things you need to communicate about. These tools are the tools for real leaders, and it is easy to find the real leaders for the digital age in your organizations, simply because they find it wise to embrace these tools and learn new habits that make them better at leading virtually.

On a final note, to prove the truth in the saying "a fool with a tool is still a fool", my old business area manager also tried blogging for a while (because it was the cool new thing to do). But in the end he wasn't really interested in listening to what other people in his unit or elsewhere had to say. He just wanted to continue broadcasting. After a couple of months of broadcasting on the business area blog (which you could comment, but not from outside the firewalls where most people spent their time), he stopped and reverted to good old email. Foolish. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The collaboration pyramid (or iceberg)


The majority of the value-creation activities in an enterprise are hidden. They happen below the surface. What we see when we think of collaboration in the traditional sense (structured team-based collaboration) is the tip of the iceberg – teams who are coordinating their actions to achieve some goal. We don’t see - and thus don’t recognize - all the activities which have enabled the team to form and which help them throughout their journey. We see the people in the team, how they coordinate their actions and the results of their actions, but we rarely see the other things which have been critical for their success. For example, we don’t see how they have used their personal networks to access knowledge, information and skills which they don’t have in their team already but which are instrumental for their success.



The layers which are below the surface are usually not recognized or valued. Below the surface you typically find:
  • The direct and indirect contributions from people outside the team – by the extended team, stakeholders and external contributors
  • Other kinds of broader and ad hoc collaboration (social collaboration) than those that fit within the traditional definition of (structured, team-based) collaboration
  • The ongoing community building that makes people trust each other and commit themselves to a shared purpose
  • The efforts of gaining the workspace awareness that is necessary for making the right decisions in any collaborative effort
Bring those above the surface so they can be recognized and supported. If people can't do those things, even the traditional collaboration efforts will suffer or might not even happen. If we are to improve efficiency and effectiveness of collaborative efforts, we need to better support these layers.

The first step towards improving these layers of collaboration and support other kinds of collaboration is to recognize their existence and value.

Drive out fear with transparency


“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company. Fear is not the best motivator. It destroys innovation, creativity and trust.”
(W. Edwards Deming's quality point 8, "Drive Out Fear")

If you have read my writings here and elsewhere, or perhaps listened to any of my talks at conferences and events, you know that transparency is one of my favorite subjects to write and talk about. It is because it is the anti-dote to the lack of good collaboration, sharing and communication that destroys so much value in organizations today.

For one thing, transparent communication leaves little room for rumors by putting all the facts on the table and makes people more engaged by allowing them to ask and access the pieces they might be missing. Transparent communication is especially important in hard and uncertain times when people risk being paralyzed by fear of losing their jobs. It is also important when people need to confront themselves with substantial change efforts as it can be used to encourage people to enroll in the change effort, taking active participate in designing and implementing the required changes.

Transparent communication from management also demonstrates their trust in people as people are given all the facts and can make sense out of it themselves instead of just taking part of an official story told by management.

I am fully convinced that the organizations which will be successful in the years to come are organizations where talented, creative and dedicated people want to work and where they are allowed to reach their full potential. For that to happen, the culture must be built trust, not fear. Transparent communication will help to  drive out fear from an organization and replace it with trust.