Why sub-Optimal is Best

I’m quite a fan of systems-thinking and process reviews, except for the fact that these methodologies seduce people into thinking that they will come up with the perfect way of doing things. But experience, or just looking around you, shows us that this isn’t the case. So why?

“Let’s design a process that will enable us to do < this thing>  in the minimum time!”

We’ll run a series of workshops to map the minimum steps, quickest possible times and fewest hand-offs to show that efficiency can theoretically be increased by e.g. 200%. And by-the-way show how just how rubbish we are at doing <this thing> at the moment! Compared to a perfect world of course – a world in which there are no variations to the inputs, the environment, or the client/customers’ expectations.

If your mission is (like mine!) to deliver great public services, you’ll recognise that service-users do not come in standard dimensions, to an exact specification, and on time. They come with a wide variety of interests, needs and circumstances – square pegs that don’t fit precisely into our perfectly round system requirements. Consistency of process and uniformity of outcome are not possible if the inputs come in all shapes and sizes. So the people working in the system try to find ways to help the people that, after all, they are employed to help, by not following the perfect process.

“We need better managers and performance measures, to get people to follow the process properly!”

Well my answer to that is – we already know how to solve global warming, and we already have enough money to prevent everyone on the planet from starving, but how’s that going?!

People are emotional beings: We will do more of the things we like, we’ll do less of the things that we don’t like, or don’t agree with. It’s easier to say “yes” or “maybe” to a customer rather than telling them they don’t meet the criteria for a particular service. We’ll do what we find comfortable, and avoid the tricky bits, rather than remember the exceptions. We’ll ask a colleague what to do next, because its easier than looking it up on the system. With the best of intentions, we’ll find work-arounds and short cuts to make life easier.

Designing a system or process that relies on everyone behaving perfectly, following a prescriptive approach, with precise timings, and without mistakes or variation, is a recipe for disappointment and getting your performance measures, budgets and resource requirements terribly wrong. And by the way, you’ll spend a lot of time and money trying to force manage process compliance. There goes the dream of maximising efficiency and saving money.

And at the same time, we send inadvertent messages to the people who actually do this work, that:

“Our managers are idiots, who don’t understand the complexity of our jobs!”
“These performance measures are unachievable and unfair, so why should I bother?”

But remember, I started by saying “I’m quite a fan of systems- thinking and process- reviews”,  so….

What am I Talking About?

  • Putting the systems design and process-reengineering in the hands of the people who do the work, to use in the work. Don’t take them away for weeks, or months, of process workshops.
  • The act of continuously checking how well we’re doing and trying out new, better ways of getting the outcome we’re looking for, with evidence of what works in practice, not theoretical opinion of what’s best.
  • Allowing people to make mistakes, and to stop doing things they know don’t work. Not unthinkingly following a process.
  • Don’t try and prescribe the perfect process. Rather give people trust and autonomy, and the flexibility to follow the guidelines and use their discretion to achieve the best outcome.
  • By all means capture the best process in writing, once it has been shown to work, as a guide to help the team, not as a set of rules which has been written in advance in a remote office somewhere and issued as an instruction.
  • Don’t set stretch targets (aka ridiculous, macho KPIs) but encourage teams to measure what they do and nurture their creativity to find ways of making their achievements a little bit better, bit by bit. And praise and promote and celebrate those achievements.

In short, don’t write processes and procedures that expect people to be anything less than human. Allow the space and flexibility for failure and creativity both, for better results.


“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
             Voltaire

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Thinking Out Loud!

Thinking Out Loud!

No, not the Ed Sheeran song:-) but some really useful feedback from a good colleague of mine; and, some practical tips I’d like to share…

I’m very comfortable sharing my thoughts, ideas and opinions with colleagues. Why not? Everyone’s views have merit. Just because I say something, doesn’t mean it’s my firmly held belief, or a fixed position. We’re having a discussion right? I say what I think, you say what you think, we can agree, disagree, and between us develop even better ideas. Right?

Well, it depends…
If you are a more reflective person, you might want time to think, develop your thoughts, and evolve an idea, before sharing it. Actually that sounds like quite a good approach!

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 12.49.50

 

Except that often in the workplace, in meetings full of people like me, you won’t get a word in edgeways, and your colleagues will probably believe that you didn’t have anything to contribute anyway. “Just speak up!”

A few years ago, I worked with a just such a colleague – Carl. He (carefully collected his thoughts and arguments, and) explained to me that he used to believe that all these talkative people were more decisive, quicker-thinkers than he was. But he came to realise that we were going though the same thought processes as him, only OUT LOUD! Couldn’t we see the impact this behaviour has on others? How domineering and obstructive to idea-generation and good decisions? If we’re not trying to dominate the discussion and impose our views, and we want to learn and develop better ideas by sharing with others, we need to stop transmitting sometimes, and take time to receive.

“It was impossible to get a conversation going; everyone was talking too much.”
Yogi Berra

In order to get the benefit of everyone’s contribution, there needs to be some peace and quiet, to gather one’s thoughts and listen to others. “Time to Think”Nancy Kline

I have applied what I learned from Carl and Nancy, whenever I have the opportunity to shape a discussion item at a meeting. Here’s how:

  • Introduce the issue for discussion ~ sometimes there will be an information  paper disseminated in advance, sometimes just an interesting proposition, or question to consider.
  • Ask everyone to take 3-5 minutes to think about the issue, in SILENCE (which is anathema to managers who love to come to meetings to talk!) and jot down a few notes.
  • Allow everyone to share their views and suggestions on the issue, and for everyone else to KEEP QUIET – don’t agree, disagree, interrupt, laugh, sneer, nod approvingly, or anything else. Just LISTEN. (This can take some firm chairing of the meeting:-)
  • Only when everyone has had time to think, shared their thoughts, and listened to others, do we open up the debate and draw some conclusions.

When I do this, I immediately note down the first 2 or 3 things that come into my head ~ “I don’t need 5 minutes!” But then, as I take that time to think, my ideas develop and become the richer for it. And because I’m not Thinking Out Loud, I am allowing other people to develop and enhance their ideas, too.

This is especially valuable when you have a mixed group of people, some of whom might consider themselves more junior, less experienced, or less knowledgeable, than their colleagues. EVERY time I do this, I find that someone comes up with different angle, or idea which significantly enhances the debate: often from those that bring a different or new perspective – exactly those people who might not have said anything in the usual meeting free-for-all.

We avoid the common problem of polarisation and two-way debate between the parties who are quickest off their mark to share their thoughts and disagree with each other – backwards and forwards, not getting us anywhere. Which also means we get many more ideas and suggestions in less time.

So better engagement, better ideas, better decisions and in less time!

Thnking out loud

Agile for Managers

The term “Agile” has made the leap from the software industry into management jargon – why? what do we mean by it? and what do Agile Managers do?

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 20.22.58

The hierarchical organisational structure developed by many large organisations is said to be based on military principles of roles and responsibilities defined by seniority, with functions organised into separate departments. Successful for perhaps a century, this model is common in large bureaucracies and public bodies. But it’s strengths are suited to stable conditions, where the organisation can control, more than respond to, gradual changes in the environment. Building a large business, employing thousands of people, with £billions in buildings and assets takes decades. This model may be on its way out.

The rapid, revolutionary change and ubiquitous nature of what we used to think of as a support function – IT, has not only led to new ways of organising work, but to entirely new types of business. Amazon, Uber and Giff-Gaff, are well known examples of doing things differently, and the new, weird and wonderful seem to spring up from nowhere! challenging our assumptions, changing customer expectations, and stealing our market share. So we’re all talking about “being agile” – innovating and discarding ideas quickly, without the need for elaborate organisational infrastructure; challenging established attitudes to risk, decision-making and the roles of the manager, team leader and team member.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 09.40.21

Adopting principles of systems-thinking, lean enterprise and the Toyota Kata, agile organisations recognise that innovation, process improvement and decision-making have to take place ‘in the work’, not in the Boardroom; that what we think of as management is in fact a diffuse range of functions, contributed to by many, not concentrated in the few; and, that the most successful leaders create the conditions for success, motivating their people through “autonomy, mastery and purpose” rather than directing them through command and control.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 09.29.21

Central to the Agile philosophy is experimentation, based on incremental, iterative change: a continuous development cycle of trying new things, measuring if they work, and moving on if they don’t; innovating and responding to change through bite-sized initiatives; taking many small steps towards your goal rather than setting up grand process reviews and long-term project plans. The change cycle is short (daily, weekly, maybe even hourly), feedback is immediate and outcomes are evidenced. Decisions are made at the front-end, close to the customer, based on real-time measures. Team members have first-hand knowledge and ownership of their performance data and know what their goals are (even if they keep changing) and believe they have the ability, responsibility and power to achieve them. Everyone is engaged – they learn, improve process, develop skills and enjoy their work.

So, what does this mean for the manager then? If it’s not your job to tell people what to do, oversee action plans, collate monthly KPIs and challenge poor performance? If 121s, management meetings and quarterly performance updates (as we currently know them) are redundant?

The Agile Manager will:

  • facilitate and coach their teams
  • be present to show and ask and resist the temptation to tell
  • share ideas, listen and observe
  • encourage people to try new things, and accept the risks
  • test on a small scale and quickly discard what doesn’t work
  • establish a culture of measurement and use of data
  • match workload to team capacity
  • ensure everyone knows the current state of play and what to aim for next
  • sell the vision and purpose – make it meaningful and personal
  • inspire through motivation, recognition and celebration
Could you be more agile?
“Try something new” and use the Continuous Development Cycle to start making incremental changes to the way you work, and encourage your teams to do the same…

CD Kata copyright

Agile for Managers

The term “Agile” has made the leap from the software industry into management jargon – why? what do we mean by it? and what do Agile Managers do?

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 20.22.58

The hierarchical organisational structure developed by many large organisations is said to be based on military principles of roles and responsibilities defined by seniority, with functions organised into separate departments. Successful for perhaps a century, this model is common in large bureaucracies and public bodies. But it’s strengths are suited to stable conditions, where the organisation can control, more than respond to, gradual changes in the environment. Building a large business, employing thousands of people, with £billions in buildings and assets takes decades. This model may be on its way out.

The rapid, revolutionary change and ubiquitous nature of what we used to think of as a support function – IT, has not only led to new ways of organising work, but to entirely new types of business. Amazon, Uber and Giff-Gaff, are well known examples of doing things differently, and the new, weird and wonderful seem to spring up from nowhere! challenging our assumptions, changing customer expectations, and stealing our market share. So we’re all talking about “being agile” – innovating and discarding ideas quickly, without the need for elaborate organisational infrastructure; challenging established attitudes to risk, decision-making and the roles of the manager, team leader and team member.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 09.40.21

Adopting principles of systems-thinking, lean enterprise and the Toyota Kata, agile organisations recognise that innovation, process improvement and decision-making have to take place ‘in the work’, not in the Boardroom; that what we think of as management is in fact a diffuse range of functions, contributed to by many, not concentrated in the few; and, that the most successful leaders create the conditions for success, motivating their people through “autonomy, mastery and purpose” rather than directing them through command and control.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 09.29.21

Central to the Agile philosophy is experimentation, based on incremental, iterative change: a continuous development cycle of trying new things, measuring if they work, and moving on if they don’t; innovating and responding to change through bite-sized initiatives; taking many small steps towards your goal rather than setting up grand process reviews and long-term project plans. The change cycle is short (daily, weekly, maybe even hourly), feedback is immediate and outcomes are evidenced. Decisions are made at the front-end, close to the customer, based on real-time measures. Team members have first-hand knowledge and ownership of their performance data and know what their goals are (even if they keep changing) and believe they have the ability, responsibility and power to achieve them. Everyone is engaged – they learn, improve process, develop skills and enjoy their work.

So, what does this mean for the manager then? If it’s not your job to tell people what to do, oversee action plans, collate monthly KPIs and challenge poor performance? If 121s, management meetings and quarterly performance updates (as we currently know them) are redundant?

The Agile Manager will:

  • facilitate and coach their teams
  • be present to show and ask and resist the temptation to tell
  • share ideas, listen and observe
  • encourage people to try new things, and accept the risks
  • test on a small scale and quickly discard what doesn’t work
  • establish a culture of measurement and use of data
  • match workload to team capacity
  • ensure everyone knows the current state of play and what to aim for next
  • sell the vision and purpose – make it meaningful and personal
  • inspire through motivation, recognition and celebration
Could you be more agile?
“Try something new” and use the Continuous Development Cycle to start making incremental changes to the way you work, and encourage your teams to do the same…

CD Kata copyright

Dream Your Next Job

Wondering whether it’s time to move on from your job? Thinking about what it takes to step up into a leadership role? Is there a way to prepare for your next role, ahead of time?

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Don’t just day-dream, imagine yourself successful in your dream job 2 years from now and ask yourself these 10 questions:

  • What are your role purpose and priorities?
  • What do you do differently?
  • What have you stopped doing?
  • How do you behave differently?
  • Who is in your network?
  • How have you built new relationships with colleagues?
  • What do your colleagues think about you?
  • What has been your biggest achievement this year?
  • What have you learned?

And finally…

  • What insight does this vision give you about how you can begin today to develop your skills, networks and leadership behaviours?

To bring anything into your life, imagine that it’s already there.
Richard Bach

The Ten Demandments

Came across this recently and really liked it so thought I’d share – Kelly Mooney’s Ten Demandments: what customers want, without all the nonsense of setting measurable targets.

  1. Earn my trust through respect, integrity, advocacy and quality.
  2. Inspire me through immersive experiences, motivating messages and related philanthropy.
  3. Make it easy with simplicity, speed and usefulness.
  4. Put me in charge of making choices and give me control.
  5. Guide me with expert advice, education and information.
  6. Give me 24/7 access, from anywhere, at anytime.
  7. Get to know me — listen, learn and study me, the real consumer, not just data.
  8. Exceed my expectations with uncommon courtesies and surprising services.
  9. Reward me with points programs, privileges of access or other worthwhile extras.
  10. Stay with me with follow through and meaningful follow-up.

Being Right Isn’t Enough

I used to think being right was the most important thing.

You know, that pleasure in the precision of resolving a complex problem into an elegant and correct answer  Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 18.29.51 (Maths was my favourite subject at school:-)

But I soon learned at work that being right is almost of no consequence – unless you can convince others to believe in your great idea, and then persuade them to help make it a reality. And that is much harder than you’d think.

A Business Development Director colleague of mine is currently trying to come to terms with the fact that, after a year of number crunching, market research and business planning, his great idea for a new, profitable, sports facility is not being taken up. Does this sound familiar?

“Why won’t they agree? it’s obvious! the proof is all there!”

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 18.43.52Well, there’s timing… and budget cycles… and vested interests… and personal preferences… and petty jealousies and disputes… and politics… and short-termism… and jumping to conclusions… and confirmation bias… and competition… and lethargy… and stupidity… and egos… and fear of the new… and… it’s a wonder any decisions get made at all!

So, if being right isn’t enough, what else can you do?

Find the decision-makers
Find out what their interests are, what is their angle, what aspects should you highlight to them, what information do they find persuasive? savings, or profits, or a deserving cause, or publicity? What other similar decisions have they taken, or turned down, recently?

Build support
Engage influential colleagues who can benefit from your proposal, or because they believe in similar principles. Talk through your proposal before decision-time, resolve any queries, get their input and their buy-in, and hopefully get them advocating for you.

Talk to the blockers
Sometimes the blockers are the best people to talk to early on, because they will be the first to find fault – thus giving you vital information about how to make your counter-arguments.

Sell it
What’s the best way of making the argument? Some people love weighty tomes packed with financial scenarios! others a punchy presentation; or a heart-tugging personal story from a potential beneficiary; or to be there and experience something for themselves. The big sell? or ‘drip-drip’ the idea until everyone believes in it.

Give it away
Maybe best person to make the case is not you! Who is well-connected, well-respected, and might win over the decision-makers more than you? Is your idea important enough to give to someone else to make a reality without you getting the credit?

Be patient.
And opportunistic. Wait for the right time to present your idea – when a business problem crops up that your idea can fix, or a new round of funding becomes available, or another initiative is on the skids and we need a quick win…

Be a bit wrong
Or at least allow others to be a bit right. Compromise. Incorporate other people’s ideas into your own. Aim for the win:win

Too cynical? How do you get your best ideas adopted at work?

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
Peter Drucker