Learning Opportunities

Normally when I get started on a new post I have an idea as to what the title should be. I sat here and knew what the topic was that I wanted to cover, but try as I might I could not come up with a title that satisfied me. I had a few but when they sound trite to even my own ear, they don’t make it to the post. Hopefully an idea for the title will present itself during the course of the post. Interesting, I normally don’t have a problem titling a post.

Over the course of my career I have learned that I am a positive reinforcement type of individual. I tend to focus on what I need to do to get better, as well as what the team needs to do to improve. That does not mean that I ignore my own or others mistakes. It does mean that I have found that going back and beating myself up, or beating up others for past mistakes does not normally provide a constructive solution. Since there is no way to go back and modify a behavior or decision that has already occurred, it seems to me that the best approach is to acknowledge the issue, understand what caused it, and take the appropriate steps to first solve it and then make sure that you have learned enough so that you don’t repeat the same issue in the future. Pretty simple, but it seems to have worked very well for me.

Too often it seems that issue resolution loses its way and becomes more of a historical re-visitation of the issue in order to make sure that blame is appropriately assigned. While culpability will be a topic of concern in the longer term, the immediate topic needs to remain on the issue resolution. Besides, I have also found that by the time the issue has manifested itself, those ultimately responsible for the issue are either abundantly aware of their own actions that were the genesis of the issue, or long gone from the scene.

No one likes to be wrong and no one likes to make mistakes. However once the mistake has been made there is the immediate need to rectify the situation. Corrective actions need to be scoped out and implemented. Once that is done and the solution is in process, then the learning opportunity can be examined on both an individual and business level. Again the focus needs to be on what has to be done on order to achieve the desired results or conversely what needs to be done to avoid the undesirable results.

It may be a subtle difference but it can and will set the entire tone for the team going forward in how it behaves and works. Looking at what needed to be done right in order to achieve the desired goals will automatically create a learning experience when people compare it with what was actually done. Looking at what was done has the potential to be perceived as more of a blaming experience than a learning experience.

Focusing on the positive aspect of what needs / needed to be done instead of focusing on the specific activity that generated the issue is one of the best ways to keep an issue that currently just needs resolution from devolving into what can be perceived as almost solely a blame assignment exercise. It is critical to understand this from a team leadership point of view, otherwise you can run the risk of having the team disengage from the resolution process.

By keeping a focus on what needed to be done you can retain the team’s capability to make aggressive decisions and take decisive actions. If everyone understands that issues will be resolved and reviewed from the point of view what needed to be done as opposed to the perception of holding any individual or team’s mistakes up for analysis, you will continue to encourage the team to make those types of decisions or to take those kinds of actions.

If your post issue actions become not much more than an analysis of the incorrect decision or action, you will begin to incite those individuals or teams to not “risk” making those decisions or to take those actions, as no one like to have the mistakes specifically and publically aired. By focusing on the negative you are encouraging the team to avoid the negative reinforcement.

You would hope that avoiding this negative reinforcement would result in more positive result generating decisions and actions. What I have found is that it normally results in fewer decisions or unilateral actions of any kind as people withdraw from risking the negative exposure.

Let me repeat that. Negative reinforcement or even the perception of negative reinforcement will result in fewer mistakes and issues because people will stop making decisions or taking actions. The only way to assure that you are never wrong is to not make the decision or take the action.

By looking at what needed to be done instead of what was done the business leader can communicate the same learning experience to the team or individual without the perception of it being an analysis of what that team or individual did wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. The objective is to keep everyone striving to do more, but with fewer mistakes. If people only recognize the downside of the mistake, the analysis of what they did wrong, they may choose to reduce the potentiality of repeating that uncomfortable event by becoming just that much more conservative in their approach to business.

In the times of that much more aggressive competition and the various drives to reduce costs and improve margins, it will not be the fully conservative approach that will carry the day. It will be new and innovative ideas, decisions and actions that move organizations and businesses forward.

Not everything new and innovative will work. However I think we are all in reasonable agreement that many of the current methods and directions associated with businesses (and government for that matter) today will not take us where we need or desire to go.

If we focus on the mistakes that get made instead of taking action to correct them and focusing on what the proper course of action is for future events we are encouraging people to not make mistakes. This on the surface is good. The only problem is as I have already said; the only way that I know of to assure that you don’t make a mistake is to not do anything. In taking the mistake focused approach, this is invariably what you get – fewer mistakes because there are much fewer decisions and actions taken.

I still don’t have a title for this post that I am fully happy with. That means that I will have to go with instinct on this one. If it’s wrong, I guess I’ll just have to look at it as another learning opportunity for me.

Turn On The Lights

Sunsets are nice. They have beautiful colors and signal the end of the day. They inspire poetry and song. All in all though, I think I prefer sunrises. They signal the onset of a new day. They also inspire poetry and songs although I don’t think quite as many poems and songs as sunsets. Apparently the preponderance of poets and musicians are not up early enough to see sunrises, but do manage to see the sunsets. Go figure. I like sunrises because it is nature’s way of turning on the lights.

When I was a younger person, a long, long time ago, I used to enjoy the night. The sunset would happen (very nice) and then life would begin. As I have gotten older I have now found that the nights are a particularly nice time for sleeping. Perhaps I am fortunate in that I usually have no need for any type of sleep aid other than turning out the lights. My children don’t seem to share this affinity for sleep and hence I don’t seem to be able to sleep as much at night as I would like.

I do get up earlier than them though. Most of the time I get up before sunrise and despite some of my more mischievous urges, I do not go and wake them up as early as I have awoken just to get even with them for keeping me up the night before…..usually.

It seems to me that there is now something of a direct relationship between my energy levels and the amount of light present in my environment. I don’t think I am entirely unique in this respect. I think everyone has had discussions with their friends regarding low energy levels and “blah” days when it is rainy or cloudy outside as opposed to bright sunny days. I know my kids do, but I normally attribute this to the fact that they have probably been up most of the night surfing the internet, playing video games or talking to their friends on the cell phones instead of sleeping like I was trying to do.

Even plants, I guess especially plants do better in the light since their vital link in the ecological chain is to convert light energy and carbon dioxide into chemical energy and oxygen. I find I am very partial to that oxygen thing. The key here is the use of light energy to enable the performance of a necessary task.

Now you may wonder what this relatively long harangue about light in its various forms has to do with business. I will now get to that. After travelling to multiple domestic and international locations over the last several years, I have arrived at significant question:

Is it just me or do our work environments seem to be getting darker?

To this point I am going to make what I think is a subtle but necessary distinction between “sufficient light” and “necessary light” in the office environment. Sufficient light is the amount of light required to conduct day to day functions in your office (or cube) without straining or otherwise causing damage to your eyesight. Necessary light is the amount of light required to generate a brightness or energy in the office environment that adds rather than detracts from your emotional state.

There is obviously sufficient light in our physical business environments for us to conduct our work. This is not a question. Perhaps I am getting older (obviously) or it may just be my imagination but I don’t remember offices being this dark last century.

I threw that “last century” remark in to give a little more feeling to the idea of in times past.

I understand the ideas associated with energy conservation and the high cost of utilities, but could we actually be dimming our office environments in an effort to save money? I have been in many different buildings over time. I seem to remember a time when most office ceiling light fixtures contained the larger (slightly over two inches in diameter) fluorescent tubes. We used to complain about how the bright fluorescent light made us all look so pale.

Now when I look up I see fewer of the larger brighter bulbs, or I see them replaced with the new one inch diameter bulbs, or I see even fewer of the one inch diameter bulbs. I looked it up. The new bulbs use about twenty percent less energy, but they produce about ten percent less light. From an efficiency point of view getting a twenty percent cost reduction while suffering only a ten percent performance reduction is a good trade to make, initially.

It seems that businesses are using fewer light bulbs, and the bulbs that they are using are producing less light.

Now this is a little thing, but in a business environment where we want to capture every iota of efficiency have we possibly missed something here? I understand the hard dollar savings associated with lower energy consumption for lighting the work place. What I am concerned about is the potential soft dollar loss associated with reduction in the efficiency of our teams by making the work environment just that little bit less friendly, appealing, and yes, energetic.

I am not saying that adding lights or generating / providing more lumens in the office will immediately improve productivity. I am saying that it is probably one of the steps that will need to be taken in addition to many others if we are serious about reenergizing (there is that “energy” word again) our work places.

When people started working from virtual offices instead of the standard brick and mortar office we seemed to have lost some of the human interaction and energy that made our organizations vibrant. When we started to implement the energy cost saving measures that seem to have further added to the darkening of our offices (possibly because it is believed that there are not as many people there now so not as much light is needed) we seem to have further reduced the overall energy level of our offices.

I think it is time to turn on or turn up the lights and brighten our work places. I have said in the past that I also believe we need to find ways to get people out of their virtual offices and back into the business environment where they interact face to face. We need to put energy back into our office environments, the light energy that even plants need, but especially the people energy that the business needs. If you are going to try to put the people back in the office, you will need to turn up the lights for them.

Not to go too far overboard here, but I do seem to recall a pretty important quote on this topic. I think it went:

“Let there be light.”

Don’t Drive Angry

For those of you that don’t know, I live in Texas. Texas is an interesting state and there are many things that I like about it. And there are a few that I am not so fond of, such as the apparent absence of any mountains or anything else that might pass for “terrain” within a five to six hour driving radius from where I live. It’s pretty flat here. Driving in Texas is invariably a very high speed endeavor and learning experience. Hence there are many signs along the sides of the various highways which simply state “Drive Friendly”.

It may be a reach but I got to thinking of the parallels that exist between Texas highways and today’s business climate. I think it is obvious that there are far more ups and downs in today’s business than there are on Texas’ highways, at least in the part of Texas that I live in. Now there is supposed to be some mythical portion of Texas that is referred to as the “hill country” where there are supposed to be some hills and there may be some people who claim to live there that might dispute this assertion.

I have flown and driven over a great deal of the state. While not “planer” flat in the mathematical sense, it is by and large pretty flat.

But I digress….

I think that some of the speed limits on Texas highways are some of the highest speed limits in the country, and even these are considered to be not much more than guidelines and suggestions as opposed to limits and laws by the Texas locals driving here. People move quickly here on the roads. This requires a great deal of attention and high speed interaction if you are to get anywhere safely.

Are you now starting to see the parallel between driving in Texas and working into today’s business environment?

What Texas has learned is that high speed interaction between people requires a certain amount of courtesy and respect between the related participants. There needs to be a certain adherence to the protocols associated with the various interactions (such as driving on the proper side of the road, remaining in your appropriate lane, dimming lights for oncoming traffic, and if you are going to swear at or call the other participants on the road derogatory names it is probably good form to keep your windows up so that they cannot hear you (this would be the automotive equivalent to the “mute” button on a conference call). Hand gestures of just about any kind, other than a polite, short, open handed wave are discouraged.

In short, this type of mutual respect and interaction on the Texas highways can be considered driving friendly.

What the Texas highway department has realized is that people who are not friendly on the Texas highways seem to have more issues and unpleasant interactions on the Texas highways than those that are friendly. They have learned that people who are not operating in a friendly manner in a high speed environment have problems interacting with other people in a high speed environment. Being tired, angry or any other non-friendly physical or emotional state could affect how they are perceived and have a detrimental effect on their performance and interactions.

Overly aggressive behavior, just as overly timid behavior had a tendency to cause issues on the roads and disrupt the smooth flow of traffic. The same was seen with a lack of respect for the needs and rights of the other drivers on the road. It was also noted that the boorish behavior of one could engender a similar behavior in others, again resulting in a limitation of the progress for all. Even those that are maintaining their proper decorum on the roads needed to be ever aware for those that were not in order to make sure that they were not inadvertently caught up in issues not of their own making.

Hence the multitude of signs dotting the (mostly flat) Texas highways reminding all participants to “Drive Friendly”.

Unfortunately, most business environments do not come with signs reminding the various participants to drive friendly.

By its very nature today’s high speed business environment requires us to openly and directly confront the various issues that we face on a daily basis. Many of these issues can be the result of actions, activities and behaviors of others on the same road. In short there are many times where we are asked, or in some instances forced to deal with issues that are not of our own doing. There are other times where we will be dealing with issues that are our own. This is business.

When there is an issue to be solved it doesn’t matter at that point in time who is responsible for creating that issue. Despite everyone’s urge and desire to first thing figure out who is to blame for it. What matters is who is going to be responsible for solving it. If someone is driving on the wrong side of the street or running red lights, it can create issues. If there is a traffic issue you worry about taking care of the issue and those affected by it first, then you look at who is at fault. Getting people back in the right lanes and making sure that they stop at future red lights should be the preventative solution goal as it is always more effective to avoid future issues than to have to expend the time and resources required to deal with them.

By the way, that red light thing in Texas can be tricky. I think the standard street light progression as perceived by Texans is: Green – Yellow – Dark Yellow – Really Dark Yellow – Almost Green Again – Should Have Been Green Again By the Time I got There – Green. It seems that the standard response to any of these perceived light colors or light color changes is to increase speed to enable that person get through the intersection as quickly as possible and thereby minimize the time available for any intersection issues. This approach does not always seem to work.

Business is about how effectively we can interact with others in the pursuit of our objectives and goals. Our human nature makes it difficult to separate how we are feeling at that time from how we are dealing with others. Anger and other emotions have a tendency to adversely affect our performance and decisions making abilities in the office, just as they do when we get behind the wheel of a car.

Business decisions and judgment, like the decisions and judgments while driving on the highway are best performed when we “Drive Friendly”. Perhaps we might do better if we added a few more “Drive Friendly” signs to the office environment, instead of just having them on the sides of the flat Texas highways.

Thinking It Through

Every now and then I have a good idea. Depending on whom you ask you can get the entire gamut of responses as to how often this type of event actually occurs. My mother seems to think just about every one of my ideas is a good one and that they are the result of the fifty percent of my DNA that came from her. It seems to me that she didn’t always think that. I think it started when I got the idea of graduating college and moving out. My wife on the other hand seems to think that I might have a significantly lower hit rate for good ideas as opposed to the total number of ideas that I have. A much, much, significantly lower hit rate. I think the number of good ideas that I have probably lies somewhere between these two boundaries, but it is hard to tell which is which until I spend some time thinking them through.

A good example of this process can be seen in how I write these articles. I keep a pad and pen around where I capture all the ideas that I have for topics for future articles. When I have an idea, I write it down on the list. The list grows and the articles get written. Seeing the list helps me visualize and formulate what ideas I want to convey and what I want to say. When I don’t capture my idea on the list I have a tendency to forget what my idea was and then I go through the day kicking myself because I have forgotten what was obviously going to be a great topic.

I didn’t get this process from school or writing class or anything like that. I got it from work. I always keep both a notebook and a whiteboard (both topics of previous articles) in my office where I would (and still do) capture the things that I felt needed to be done. I know that writing something down instead of typing it in is old school, but so what.

As of that point in time that the topics got written down on the article list or objectives were written on the white board, all of them were good ideas. Ideas such as “insult the boss” or “complain of wife’s attire” are not good ideas and didn’t make the list. I was obviously proud of this fact.

I then started working through the ideas selecting the topics to write about or prioritizing the various things I felt needed to be done in the business. I would start writing articles or further outlining activities on the white board or charts. I would very rapidly start to see which of my topics and activities would be fruitful and relatively easy to generate positive results. I would also see that some other ideas and activities would also be good, but would require deeper thought and more effort to bring to closure. It was some of these activities and articles that I have been the most proud of.

I would also begin to see that in some of those topics and ideas, regardless of how hard I worked them at this point in time were not going to yield something that would work out well enough that I would want to sign my name to. These items and objectives were not then discarded. They were put back into the holding file for further consideration and thought. Some have stayed there a very long time and probably will never see the light of day. Some have stayed there a relatively short period of time before the translation occurred between what I had and what I wanted. Some were left on the white board to remind me what I needed to think about and what I felt needed to get done.

What brought this mental process to mind was my last article, the one that I didn’t write and didn’t post. I had a great topic. I thought it would be one of those easy to write and be oh so proud of it ones. I got started. I soon realized the path that I was on for that topic was taking me down the wrong road. Try as I might I couldn’t see a way to get onto the right path and convey the wisdom that I was absolutely sure that I had inside of me. I had to put it back in the holding file. It wasn’t ready.

I suspect that if my wife ever reads any of my articles that she is smiling right now and commenting to herself that I should probably do that with far more of my ideas.

The point I am making here is that at the start all ideas start out as good ideas. It is not until after we work on them and work through them that we can ascertain the feasibility and applicability to the goals that we have. Some make the grade. Some do not. I have actually found that the majority of both my article topics and identified business activities end up at least in part resulting in a product that gets put forth into the world in one form or another.

There will always be those that will want to poke holes in your ideas, or articles for that matter. I have gotten some interesting comments regarding some of the topics and articles I have written. I am pretty sure that some of their suggestions and conditions that they have ascribed to me regard capabilities that are probably either genetically or biologically impossible.

But it doesn’t stop me. It really doesn’t even slow me down.

There will always be those in business that will at first adhere to the “Not Invented Here” school of ideas (commonly called NIH Syndrome). It is at this point in time that your metal will be tested. How feasible is your idea or proposal? Have you thought it through?

Many of us have a tendency to propose an incomplete or not fully thought through and formed idea. It might be a good idea that is worthy of going on the list for development. However proposing it prior to thinking it through would be like publishing an article before it is fully written.

What is the first thing most people do when they hear a new idea?

They try to shoot holes in it. They look for the weaknesses and the reasons that it will not work.

It is the common perception that if one chink in the armor can be found, if one flawed aspect of an otherwise glorious and eminently functional idea can be identified, then by association the entire idea can be dismissed as unworkable.

It may be human nature where the inherent resistance to change may be built into our collective DNA. I don’t know. Sometimes it seems that we would rather continue down the known road, which we know will not get us to where we need to be, instead of changing direction and setting out on a road whose final destination is not fully known but at least is going in the direction we want. When I catch myself resisting someone else’s new ideas I consciously try to take a step back and try to be more receptive. Even so, it takes an effort.

Thinking through the new idea will help you uncover any potential issues and weaknesses. It will help you prepare for the NIH syndrome that you will inevitably encounter. It will prepare you with responses to potential objections. It will also save you some embarrassment if your idea turns out to be one of those that actually should have stayed on your list or white board for a little while longer.

Most everybody at one time or another has good ideas. Some get captured and some get forgotten. It is the interval and the effort that goes into the idea after it gets captured and before it gets proposed that is the key. It can be the difference between being just another “off the cuff” suggestion and a studied and considered proposal for improvement. A good idea matters. Thinking it through matters even more.

Thick Skin

A new year always brings many opportunities with it. The opportunity for both business and personal growth. The opportunity to break eighty on the golf course. The opportunity to break seventy on the golf course. The opportunity for our elected officials to step up, tell the public the truth and most importantly, solve some problems.

Some of these opportunities are more likely to occur than others, and are listed in no particular order of increasing improbability of happening.

The beginning of a new year also means that it is time to review the last year’s performance. That usually translates to year end performance reviews. I have discussed the need for, and various approaches to giving performance reviews in the past. Most of these approaches usually reduce down to: Be professional, be factual, be balanced (what was good and what could be improved) and most importantly, be brief.

Chances are that the person you are conducting the review with is probably enjoying the review at least as much as you are.

This time though, I’m going to take a little bit of a different approach to the joys of year end reviews and approach them from the point of view of the person being reviewed. We all essentially report to someone, and that someone is responsible for conducting our year end review.

I have tried several times to conduct year end reviews with my wife, but for some reason it seems that these meetings end up becoming her yearend reviews of me. Go figure.

I have had many different types of managers in my career. There have been those that clearly were uncomfortable with the review responsibility and only provided the most cursory of reviews. There were those managers that took their review responsibility way too seriously and scheduled two to three hour reviews in an effort to make sure that I obtained the maximum benefit of the considered and judicious input they had regarding not only my performance, but just about any other topic in life that came to mind while they were talking to me. And there have been those that did the bare minimum just so they could say they performed the review if they were asked.

There was a manager that once handed me his manager’s year end review form that he was supposed to fill out on me, and asked me to fill it out for him so that he could then turn around and conduct my year end review with it. This was interesting the first year it happened, and I tried to be pretty honest with him and myself regarding my performance. The face to face meeting was obviously pretty brief. The second year it happened, there wasn’t even a face to face meeting. The third year that it occurred seemed to me to be a call to action.

As in the previous years I filled out the form, but this time I added a “new” objective to the list. This new objective was that I be able to “walk on water”. In order to exceed this objective I would need to be able to walk on the air above the water. In order to achieve this objective I would need to actually walk on water (not during the winter on ice – frozen water, as this would meet the goal, but wouldn’t be note worthy). Anything else would be a “needs improvement” rating.

In this instance I rated myself as an “achieved – with an asterisk” in that I noted that I was not able to figure out how to walk on the water, but I was able to part the water and walk across the bottom without getting wet, which was almost as good. The only difference was that my shoes got a little muddy.

He never said a thing to me about it. I don’t think he even read it. I still smile every time I think back to that form and realize that it is a duly signed review archived somewhere in the human resource records of a major corporation.

Occasionally however, I have had the good fortune to work for a leader that took his responsibility seriously, and put the time in to conduct a considered and accurate review of me. They usually took the approach that we all want to do well, but that invariably there were areas where we all could do better.

I have discussed in the past the necessity that we all conduct “difficult conversations” with our team member when the time or situation calls for it. Now it is time to understand how to handle having an uncomfortable or difficult conversation conducted with you.

Being told what you didn’t get done, or what you need to do better is going to happen. You need to understand and accept this. It might not have been your fault or responsibility. It might have been unavoidable. It is conceivable that you might have actually not performed up to your usual high levels. There may in fact be no one on the planet that could have performed better than you under these circumstances. It doesn’t matter. Regardless, it is the start of a new year and you are going to be reviewed on last year’s performance.

The first thing to understand and acknowledge when being reviewed is your area of responsibility. The issues and the decisions that spawned them may have taken place elsewhere or in the past, but you are there now and for better or for worse you own the situation now. You are now the responsible party.

Don’t dodge it. Don’t blame it on past administrations. We have enough politicians doing this. Stand up and note what your area of responsibility is. Chances are that it is already recognized where the issues arose. There will be those issues that are not attributable to you and those that are.

Also remember that this is a review, not a “blame-storming” session. It is always difficult to not be defensive in a situation where those things that have not gone as well as anyone would like are being reviewed. As strange as it may seem, I have found that the less defensive that I am about difficult issues, the less accusatory sounding people are when they discuss the various points to be covered. I have also found that sometimes there is truly valid input available on what and how I can do better.

Always remember in a review that facts are your friends. Discuss the facts and how they may be interpreted. Do not try to modify or discuss opinion, yours or anyone else’s. Trying to modify or discuss opinion is called an argument. Having an argument as the result of a yearend review is definitely the definition of a lose – lose situation. Without the facts to support a different performance perception, a yearend review argument will generate a negative outcome on this year’s review, and a poor expectation will be set for next year’s performance and review as well.

No one likes to be the recipient of a difficult discussion or review. The natural reaction is to try and justify or argue the position. This approach invariably fails unless there are facts available to both parties that can modify opinions. And even then there is only so much that you can say or do. It is a very fine line.

When I have conducted difficult conversations or reviews I have been careful to address the behavior or performance and not the person. It is business and we are professionals. No matter what it feels like, it should not feel like a personal attack. I did not enjoy the conversation, but it was my responsibility to conduct it.

The same rules seem to apply when you find yourself on the other side of a difficult conversation or review. Do not allow it to become personal. It is business and you are a professional. It is difficult to do, but it is a must. Be professional, be factual, and be balanced as to what you can do to improve the situation. If it was felt that the issue needed to be addressed with you in the first place, there needs to be some sort of response provided that the message being sent was acknowledged and received. I said acknowledged. I didn’t say agreed.

Sometimes it takes thick skin to accept the responsibilities that go along with being a leader. There are very few who can say that they have not erred or that their performance could not be improved. Sometimes i
t is not fun to be told this by someone else, but it does go with the position.