Context is Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I believe you when you say that a key managerial component is setting context. How does culture fit in to context?

Response:
Context is culture, that is why it is so critical for managers to set context. Context is the culture in which we do our work.

Beliefs and Assumptions. Culture is the way that we see the world (Grodnitzky). Culture is the lens through which we see every element of our surroundings. Culture is what we believe to be true (whether it is or not). It is the collective consciousness in our workforce.

Connected Behaviors. Culture drives behavior (Grodnitzky). Lots of things influence behavior, but culture drives behavior. These behaviors are attached to the way that we see the world. Change the way we see the world and behavior changes. If, as a manager, you want to change behavior, you have to change the way you see the world. Change the context, behavior follows (Grodnitzky).

Tested Against Reality of Consequences. Every connected behavior is challenged by reality. Is the way we see the world aligned with the reality of consequences? No plan ever survives its train-wreck with reality. Everyone has a plan (the way they see the world) until they get punched in the face (Tyson). The reality of consequences tempers the way we see the world. As a manager, do not believe that you can get away with a bullshit culture.

Customs and Traditions. Those connected behaviors that survive the test against reality produce our customs, rituals, traditions. These routine ceremonies reinforce (for better or worse) our beliefs and assumptions about the way we see the world. Some behaviors are simply repeated often enough to become rituals. Some traditions are created to enshrine the belief. Either way, over time, make no mistake, these customs will have their day against the reality of consequences. Be careful what you enshrine.

Context is the environment in which we work. What does yours look like? -Tom
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Many thanks to my mentor Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything.

How to Set Context With Your Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I hear you say that management is about setting context. I think I understand what that means, but I do NOT understand how to do it.

Response:
Culture is context. Setting context is the prime objective for every manager. Context is the environment in which work is done. Work is making decisions and solving problems. This is fundamental managerial work. Three moving parts –

  • Communicate the Vision. This is the future picture of a project, picture of a product in a package, the output from a service. This is what a clean carpet looks like.
  • Performance Standard. This is the what, by when. This is the objective in measurable terms. This is the goal – QQTR, quantity, quality, time (deadline or evaluation period), resources. The vision is full of excitement and enthusiasm, specifically defined by the performance standard.
  • Constraints. There are always constraints and guidelines. Budget is a constraint, access to resources is a constraint, time can be a constraint. These are the lines on the field. Safety issues are always a constraint. When the project is finished, you should go home with all your fingers and toes.

That’s it, then let the team loose to solve the problems and make the decisions within the context. Do not make this more complicated. It’s always about the fundamentals. -Tom

How to Interview for Teamwork

“The new guy just doesn’t seem to fit,” Cynthia said. “Our company is built on a culture of teamwork. He doesn’t seem to be a team player.”

“You hired him. What questions did you ask about teamwork?” I wanted to know.

“Well, I asked him if he thought teamwork was important?” she replied.

“And?”

“And, he said yes. He said teamwork was very important at his last job.”

“What did you expect him to say?” I pressed.

“Well, I wanted him to say teamwork was important, because, to be successful at this company, we have to work as a team,” Cynthia insisted.

“So, the candidate gave you the response you wanted to hear?”

Cynthia was silent.

“Look, teamwork is a state of mind,” I nodded. “It’s like an attitude. You cannot interview for an attitude. You cannot interview for a state of mind. You can only interview for behaviors connected to that attitude. Ask yourself, how does a person, with an attitude of teamwork, behave? Once you identify connected behaviors, you can ask a better set of questions. So, what are some behaviors connected to teamwork?”

Cynthia thought for a moment. “Cooperation, support, listening, constructive feedback,” she replied.

“Okay, try these questions.”

  • Think of a time when you worked on a project where teamwork was critical for the success of the project?
  • What was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • What was your role on the team?
  • What was it, about the project, that required a high level of teamwork?
  • Describe how the team worked together?
  • What worked well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What did the team do to pull together?
  • What was your role in pulling the team together?
  • What was it, about the project, that pulled the team apart?
  • How did the team respond to that?
  • What was the outcome?
  • What did the team learn about working together from the experience on this project?

“Would these questions give you some insight to the candidate’s attitude toward teamwork?” -Tom

How to Interview for Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
All of our projects are different. We never know what our customers will want, in advance. It’s almost always a custom solution. So, when we are hiring a project manager, it’s difficult to determine what skills the candidate will need to be successful. That’s why, most of the time, we wing it, when it comes to interview questions. How can we do a better job in the interview, instead of just working off of the resume?

Response:
We may not know anything about the project, but we can still work on preparedness. So, think about behaviors connected to being prepared.

  • Diagnostic questions
  • Project planning
  • Short interval planning
  • Project adjustments
  • Discipline

The only way to work through an ill-defined or unknown project specification, is to define the project. You are accurate, that many customers don’t really know what they want. Sometimes your best contribution, in managing the project, is helping the customer to define the project. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made as the project meanders its way to completion?

Determine questions related to diagnosis, planning and project adjustments.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on where the customer was not clear on what they wanted?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • What was the purpose for the project?
  • How did the customer describe the project?
  • What was the real project?
  • How did you determine the real project specification?
  • What changed about the project when it was better defined?
  • What changed about the resources required when the project was better defined?
  • What changed about the budget when the project was better defined?
  • How did you explain the changes in resources and budget to the customer?
  • How many people on your project team?
  • How did you explain the changes to your project team?
  • What mid-course corrections were required?
  • How did you discover the mid-course correction?
  • How did you determine the overall project met the initial purpose of the project?

These questions will get you better data, than just winging it off the resume.

Levels of Work in Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last week, we attended your workshop on Time Span. Your explanation of the capability difference between a technician, a supervisor and a manager, I think, provides a profound clarification for a huge hole in our hiring process. I now understand the difference between the roles. How do I tell the difference between candidates? How do I test for time span capability?

Response:
Don’t overthink this, and don’t play amateur psychologist. Telling the difference between candidates is not a matter of climbing inside the head of the person across the interview table.

We spend a great deal of time in the workshop defining levels of work and that’s the foundation for the diagnosis. You are not trained in psychology, but you are an expert in the work. Play to your strengths as a manager.

The cornerstone document that defines the level of work is the role description. To determine the level of work in the role, I ask –

  • What are the problems that must be solved and how must they be solved?
  • What are the decisions that must be made and what must be considered in making those decisions?
  • What is the longest time span task related to those problems and decisions?

Let’s look at project management.

Can you manage a project with sticky notes stuck around your computer screen? The answer is yes, as long as the project has few problems or decisions, and is of very short duration. For a long duration project, the glue on the sticky notes dries out and notes fall to the floor (or behind the desk). Stratum I level of work.

Longer time span projects will typically require list making and checking deadlines. Sticky notes graduate to an Excel spreadsheet. The problems to be solved will reference documented solutions (like a best practice) that are well-defined (as long as we pick the right best practice to the problem to be solved). Stratum II level of work, project three months to one year.

But spreadsheets break down when the project becomes more complex. Difficult problems appear with no defined solution. The problem requires analysis. Priorities change, elements in the system are uncertain, yet must be accounted for. Project management software replaces the spreadsheet checklists. (MS-Project is a spreadsheet on steroids). Stratum III level of work, one to two years.

And then we realize that we have more than one project attacking the same set of resources. Everything that could go wrong on one project is now multiplied by several projects. Projects, and their resource allocation, begin to impact each other, competing for budget and managerial attention. Simple project management software gives way to enterprise project management software like Primavera and Deltek. Stratum IV level of work, two to five years.

With the level of work defined, looking at problem solving tools, the next step is to interview candidates about their projects.

  • What was the time span of the longest project?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the planning stage?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the handoff stage to operations?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the execution stage?
  • How were those decisions and problems managed?
  • What systems did you use to manage those problems and decisions?

Don’t play amateur psychologist. Play to your strengths as a manager. It’s all about the work. It’s all about the level of work. -Tom

Not the Right Questions, Not Enough Questions

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You told us not to hope. You told us not to look in the eyes of the candidate. You told us not to make the decision in the first three minutes of the interview. All you told us was what NOT to look for. But, you didn’t tell us WHAT to look For!!

Response:
Look for something that sits in front of our eyes. And yet, we cannot see it.

It is easy to observe behavior AFTER the candidate shows up for work, we can see the evidence of the work product, and we are often disappointed. We made the hire based on hope, based on what we thought we saw in the eyes of the candidate, and made that decision in the first three minutes. We made our decision BEFORE we had any data.

The question is, how do we get that data, how do we get that evidence in the interview? It is, as easy to see in the interview, as it is to see in the work. No, we cannot directly observe, but we can certainly ask questions that allow us to observe through description.

The problem is that we don’t ask questions related to behaviors in the role. We rely on stupid stuff that we, as interviewers, interpret about the candidate. We use trick questions. We try to climb inside the head of the candidate. STOP. Don’t play amateur psychologist.

But, we are experts about the work. We can spot positive behavior on the plant floor or in the field. We can spot negative behavior, and it takes only a nanosecond for us to tell the difference. Why? Because we are competent managers.

Don’t play amateur psychologist, play to your strength as a manager. It’s all about the work. We don’t see the evidence in the interview because we don’t prepare to ask the right questions, because we don’t prepare to ask enough questions. So, we rely on faulty assumptions, like hope. And because we don’t have the right questions, or enough questions, we make the decision in the first three minutes.

What to look for in the interview is EVIDENCE. And most interviewers don’t ask enough questions to gather that evidence. -Tom

Impact of HR at S-IV (Integration) Level of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I read, with interest, your post about the impact of HR at Stratum III level of work. What about Stratum IV?

Response:
When companies are able to pull the silent switch in HR from S-II to S-III, they shift HR from a cost center to a value add center. The shift in HR at S-III to S-IV drives HR from a value add center to a strategic center. Sounds glib and trite, but here is what that means.

Understanding tactical to strategic can be measured in time span. The shorter the time span, the more tactical, the longer the time span, more strategic. HR at S-III maintains a 12-24 month outlook, HR at S-IV maintains a 2-5 year outlook. We still call it HR, but the roles are very different. There are three challenges for the HR professional in search of the context for this S-IV role.

The first challenge is to get beyond the annual strategic planning retreat, because most annual strategic planning retreats are really tactical planning retreats. To prove this, look at any published action plan from any strategic planning retreat. No goal or objective is beyond 12 months time span.

The second challenge is that conversations have to happen at levels-of-work above S-III. Conversations with managers S-III and below still arrive at tactical issues less than two years time span. So, this conversation has to happen with S-IV managers and the S-V Business Unit President.

The third challenge is the futile reference to the company’s strategic documents, Mission and Vision statements. As they exist, they are rarely helpful, mostly filled with Pollyanna statements about premier providers and exceeding expectations. So, yes, we have a problem.

Most small to medium size companies don’t think out 2-5 years, at least, not very clearly. Specifically related to HR, here is a short list of S-IV workforce issues.

  • Aging of the workforce, succession planning at all levels of work, 2-5 years.
  • Workforce trends of generational transitions, boomers, Xers, millennials, 2-5 years.
  • Impact of technology on workforce, 2-5 years.
  • Market scarcity of workforce, 2-5 years.
  • Wage management, 2-5 years.
  • Skills training of workforce, 2-5 years.

A funny thing happened during the last recession in some construction markets. As constructions projects slowed and finished, with no new backlog, foreign workers returned home while others discovered air conditioning. Now, as construction resumes in a growing (albeit slowly) economy, there is a shortage of direct labor. Market scarcity of workforce is driving up wages for work inside fixed amount contracts. This is an S-IV HR issue.

Business models are shifting. McDonald’s built into their business model a young transient workforce. Using automation and with an emphasis on training, they were able to constantly recruit first-job employees with the knowledge that employee was going to leave in 1-2 years to their second job or college. Now, McDonald’s is faced with a work-force that chooses life-long employment in the fast-food industry, demanding a minimum wage of $15 per hour. This is an S-IV HR issue. McDonald’s is already testing self-serve kiosks to replace some of their fast-food workforce.

Technology is replacing labor. Robotics replace welders. BIM (Building Information Modeling) reduces labor hours, at the same time requiring new skills to run the software. This is an S-IV HR issue.

John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President of AT&T Technology and Operations describes AT&T as a company with very little turnover, 3rd generation employees, now facing competition from Google and Amazon armed for war. Basic math tells them that “ten-thousand employees are behind the curve, about 50,000 are about to be behind the curve, and in the next 24 months another 20,000. 80,000 employees are in an alarm state of need to change.” That is an S-IV HR issue.

Greg Coppelli, CEO, Apollo Education Group says that most organizations who spend (billions) recruiting talent see an ROI on that effort less than 50 percent of the time. That is an S-IV HR issue.

Here are some HR S-IV questions to ask.

  • What do we see happening in our market over the next 2-5 years?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next month, what will happen?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next year, what will happen?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next two years, what will happen?
  • If we do nothing to respond in the next five years, what will happen?

Hope Derails an Interview

“I had hoped that my new hire would have the potential to work at a higher level,” Marilyn explained.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, at his last job, perhaps there wasn’t the kind of opportunity we have here. During the interview, he was very interested in the work we do. I could see it in his eyes.”

“And?” I prompted.

“And, after the first three minutes, I just knew he was the right person,” she concluded.

“And, now?” I pressed.

“And, now, I think I made a mistake.”

“And, why do you think you made a mistake?”

“Now, that I am looking at the real work output, it is remarkably disappointing,” Marilyn shook her head.

“So, the real evidence of work product is a different picture than what you hoped, what you saw in his eyes and what you interpreted in the first three minutes of the interview?”

Marilyn stared. “I guess I was looking at the wrong things.”

“The real measure of performance, even in an interview, is not a gleam in the eye. The only measure of performance is performance.”

Impact of HR at S-III (System) Level of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I read your post yesterday about HR at different levels of work. I am stuck at S-II. How can I make an impact at S-III? How do I get the company to understand why this is so necessary?

Response:
Most companies see the HR role at S-I and S-II as necessary only because they are mandated by law to keep track of that stuff (compliance). By definition, administrative processes do not directly add value to the product or service experienced by the customer.

But, there is a silent switch at S-III where Human Resource systems begin to add value. It is not that most companies don’t see it as necessary, most companies don’t see it at all. They are blind to it. The only time they respond to it is when they find themselves suddenly short-handed.

Here is the prescription to have HR impact at S-III (system) level of work. Get out of your office and meet individually with each functional manager. Here is a list –

  • Sales manager
  • Marketing manager
  • Contracting manager
  • Project manager
  • Operations manager
  • QC manager
  • Warranty manager
  • R&D manager

Ask them these three questions –

  1. What is the output created by your (function) department?
  2. What roles and how many people do you need to do that work?
  3. What will change in a month, six months, a year related to your work output and the people you need?

Go back to your office and write up your notes, one page per function. Put these is a tabbed 3-ring binder.

Have another meeting with each manager, show them the one page and ask three more questions –

  1. Describe each role on your team, what problems do they have to solve and what decisions do they have to make?
  2. What does each of those roles cost you in compensation?
  3. How long does it take (lead time) to find candidates and train someone to be productive on your team?

Go back to your office and write up your notes, one page per function. Put these in the tabbed 3-ring binder.

By now, you should see the pattern of these questions and the construction of this human resource system. As the HR manager, you are making this system visible to each functional manager, so they can see it. You have also established a series of meetings that will continue (forever) where you will ask questions and begin the execution of this system. Your next meetings will consider these questions –

  • If you expect work volume to increase (or decrease), given the lead time for training, when do we need to begin a recruiting effort?
  • How will we describe the role in a job posting?
  • How will we include the necessary elements in a role description?
  • What are the key areas in each role, critical role requirements and output in each key area?
  • What questions will we need to create to use in candidate interviews?
  • Who would be valuable members on the hiring team?
  • What will the onboarding process (orientation, training) look like?
  • Which manager will be accountable for the output of this new hire?

Write up your notes, organize them into the 3-ring binder (your HR system) and EXECUTE. What you have created is a system called workforce planning. There is no magic fairy dust to this process, just a little (hard) work. -Tom

HR and Levels of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was hired in an HR role about six months ago. So, I have settled in. I know who the players are and have made a bit of headway. I published a new employee handbook, negotiated the renewal on our health insurance plan and straightened out a very messy vacation policy. But, I still don’t feel like I am part of the company. There is so much more to be done, but, I don’t get invited to meetings with top management. Most often, I find myself in my office listening to some teary eyed employee who feels they were mistreated by a co-worker. Is this all there is to this job?

Response:
This trap is set in most companies I visit. The HR role feels necessary, but most organizations do not know how to define it, and settle for a role below the level of work they truly need, or outsource this function to their payroll company, from a lack of understanding or simple frustration. A recent article in Forbes, describes the problem.

CEOs identified talent supply and retention as their No. 1 “hot button” issue in 2016, and talent shortages are cited as one of the primary constraints on corporate growth. Coupled with the pricey tab that employees’ salaries represent – salaries can account for up to 80% of operating costs – HR cannot afford to cling to its compliance and administrative heritage instead of shifting to a more strategic contribution. Most organizations concur – 85% of global companies believe that HR must undergo a transformation in order to adequately address emerging business priorities.

The article continues with some generic thoughts, but nothing to assist you in an emerging HR role.

Looking at levels of work will bring us more insight into what is necessary. If people are our most important asset, the organization has to figure this out. Otherwise, the search for talent will become the biggest constraint, choking off growth and creating chaos.

HR role, Stratum I level of work (Time-span = 1 day to 3 months outlook)
This is all the compliance filing that must be completed and properly organized. I-9 forms, employment applications, health insurance registration, COBRA forms. It is enough to make your head spin, but has to be done. The good news, there are many software platforms (cloud-based) that can help store all this stuff. Payroll services can be helpful by providing the necessary forms and a place to electronically keep them. But recognizing this level of work does not mean the company would survive an audit or actually have the documentation to defend a claim or lawsuit.

HR role, Stratum II level of work (Time-span = 3 months to 12 months outlook)
This is the minimum level of work that will assist the company in surviving that audit or defending that claim. Stratum II managerial level of work is described as make sure work gets done. It is one thing to have a health insurance form available to be filled out by a new hire, but it is at level II, that we ensure the form was filled out correctly, completely and within the time deadlines required. It is this level of work that conducts self-audits, that creates a filing system (using cloud-based software or a payroll service) to make sure that all compliance issues are accurate, complete, on-time and appropriately filed. Do not entrust this to an outside service or software. This is an internal role. If a health insurance form is not filed on-time and a new hire is diagnosed with cancer, it is the company that is on the hook.

But if this all that HR is, the company is missing the boat and truly does not understand what is necessary.

HR role, Stratum III level of work (Time-span = 12 months to 24 months outlook)
This is where the leverage for HR begins. If Human Resources is really about humans, then it is time to dig in and create the system of acquiring talent. This is a system like any other system in the organization, yet one that receives the least attention (except by the HR professional in the role). Most companies can see the necessity of a capital equipment purchase. They look ahead, create flow charts and make budgets to buy that capital equipment. Most companies overlook the necessity of workforce planning, defining the level of work in necessary roles. Most managers are too busy getting work done to spend sufficient time on the people side until it is too late, the project is under contract and we suddenly do not have the personnel capacity to perform the work. The biggest contribution from HR is to instill the discipline, with every functional manager, to make sure they anticipate their human capital needs looking 1-2 years into the future. That look-ahead must be backstopped with a talent acquisition system that delivers the right team at the right time, with the required capability, trained up and ready to go.

HR role, Stratum IV level of work (Time-span 2 years to 5 years outlook)
But, for HR, this is where the real game is played and most companies never see this. Stratum IV managerial roles contemplate all the existing systems and sub-systems and integrate them together. This is an integration role looking out 2-5 years in the future. This is a strategic role. HR professionals that work at this level, DO get invited to senior management meetings, not to sit in the back of the room, but front and center. The success of any company in building a business model, shifting strategy, responding to new markets, depends on the right people in the right roles.

Funny, that is what Jim Collins told us in Good to Great. Unfortunately, he shrugs that off. “I am not going to belabor all five levels (of work) here, as levels 1-4 are self explanatory and discussed extensively by other authors.”

Shame on you, Jim Collins, this is where the game is played. Most companies fail because they do not truly understand levels of work and fail to field the team required to execute.

And this is where HR professionals can make great contribution, sitting at the strategic table, asking the questions and defining the people system required to support the best laid plans of mice and men (and women). -Tom