Why Does a Manager Manage?

“Emily, why does a race car driver press the metal in excess of 200 mph to win a race?” I asked. “Why does a singer perform on stage? Why does an ice skater reach their peak in international competition? Why does a manager manage?”

Emily knew there was a very specific answer to this question, so she waited.

“They all do those things because they can. They spent great periods of their life creating habits to support the skills that drive them to the top. They reach high levels of competence because they practiced, tried and failed, got better and practiced some more, with a discipline to master those skills. They perform at a high level because they can. The people who did not master those skills, who were not competent, were eliminated in the first round.

“Those who achieve mastery are a select few. And that includes effective managers.”

Elements of the Accountability Conversation

“When you talked to Taylor, what did you tell him?” I asked. Dana had just completed her first accountability conversation. It had not gone so well.

“I told him that I really liked the work that he was doing, but that he needed to come to work on time. And that I really appreciated the effort he was making,” Dana replied.

“I can see why he thought he might be in line for a raise. Dana, the first part of his behavior that you want him to change is coming to work on time. What impact does it have on the rest of the team when he shows up late?”

Dana stuttered for a second, then organized her thoughts. “Well, no one else can get started on their work, until Taylor is there. It’s not just him. In the fifteen minutes that he is late, he costs the team about 90 minutes of production.”

“And what are the consequences to Taylor if he doesn’t start coming to work on time?”

Again, Dana had some trouble. She had not thought this through to the next step. “Well, I guess he could get fired,” she finally realized.

“You guess? Dana, you are the manager. What are the consequences?”

“You’re right,” she concluded. “If I have to speak to him twice about coming in late, I have to write him up. Three written warnings are grounds for termination. So, yes, he could lose his job.”

“And, when do you want this behavior corrected?”

“Well, tomorrow would be nice.”

“Dana, if you want this behavior changed by tomorrow, you need to call Taylor back in here and have another go at this accountability conversation. What two things do you need to cover?”

“I need to talk about the impact he is having and the consequences.”

Not So Sage Advice – the Positive Sandwich

Dana was trembling when I showed up. The color was gone from her face. “Water,” she said, “I need some water.”

There was a chilled bottle on the corner of her desk, still full. I slid it to her, waited for her to continue.

“I don’t think I did that right,” she finally spoke.

“Step me through it,” I asked.

“I had to talk to Taylor. He has been coming late, dawdling on the work he is supposed to get done, and he is really snippy with everybody around him, like he has a chip on his shoulder.”

“So, what happened?”

Dana shook her head from side to side. “Well, I tried to be positive first, then the negative part, then finish it off with another positive. But I don’t think I got my point across. He thinks he is going to get a raise.”

Stop Working Harder

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last night, I got out of the office at 9:45p. I don’t know what it is. This has been going on for the past three weeks. On Monday, things don’t look so bad, but come Thursday and Friday, the work just seems to pile up. I worked the last three Saturdays and last week, had to come in on Sunday. Missed the football game.

If I had known ahead of time, I could delegate some of the work out and it would already be done. But I don’t know about some of this stuff until it’s too late, or don’t realize how long it is really going to take. All of sudden, the pile is stacked up and everyone has gone home. The work’s gotta get done.

Response:
I don’t believe you. If you sat down and thought about it, almost all of your work is predictable, you just don’t think about it. You don’t delegate out, because you like working under the gun. Here’s the thing. You think you will get sympathy from me for all your hard work, but the just dessert for hard work is more hard work. You have to stop working harder and start working differently. -Tom

Most of the Time, It’s the Manager

“Oh, man, they did it again!” Ralph exclaimed, covering his face.

“And how did you help them screw up?” I asked.

Ralph peeked between his fingers. “What do you mean? I didn’t have any part in this.”

“I know, I know,” I agreed. “But if you did contribute to the problem, what was it?”

Ralph started to chuckle, hands now propped on his hips. “Well, if I did have a hand in this, it was picking this group of knuckleheads in the first place. And I probably didn’t explain what needed to happen very well.”

“Indeed. As a manager, before we jump to blame the team, it is always important to ask the question.

“How did I contribute to the problem?

“The Manager is usually at the center of what goes wrong.” -Tom

What Went Wrong?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

We had a deliverable and the engineers on the project came in 3 days late. They finished the project and the quality was solid, so we want to acknowledge their success AND we also want to understand why they didn’t deliver on time. Extra hours were not put in near the end of the project to meet the delivery date. We struggle with acknowledging success when they are simply just doing what they were hired to do.

Response:

It really doesn’t matter what you, as the manager, think. The only thing that matters is what your engineers think. Based on your description, time sensitivity, or sense of urgency was not top of mind.

Project effectiveness, in this case is mixed. While the technical side may have been solidly constructed, the client may have lost several thousand dollars per day because of the delay. Many construction contracts contain liquidated damages for failure to meet deadlines. Most construction litigation is based around damages due to delay-claims.

So, time is important, in many cases, critical.

At the conclusion of every major project, I always insist on a post postmortem meeting to review the following questions:

  • What did we expect?
  • What did we do well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we do next time to prevent this from going wrong?

These questions would allow your engineers to pat themselves on the back for things done well and give them the opportunity to address real issues of underperformance.

On an extended project, I use these same questions at interim checkpoints.

  • What do we expect?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What is going wrong, what is beginning to slip?
  • What corrective action do we need to take, now, to get back on course?

Expecting engineers to call their own meeting to ask these questions will never happen. That is your responsibility, as the manager. Remember, what you think doesn’t matter. What matters is what your engineers think. -Tom

Underperformance and Overperformance

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I was curious about a study in IT that showed that while managers can see underperformance, they can’t see who is over-performing.

Response:

Actually, the results of the study may be correct, however, the conclusion may be flawed.

The results show that managers easily recognize or identify underperformance, but they do not as easily recognize or identify over-performance. The conclusion is that managers do not have the ability to recognize over-performance. I believe that to be false.

Managers do not recognize or identify over-performance because they do not focus on it. Managers allow the distractions of underperformance to dominate their vision and efforts.

It is simply a matter of focus. It is a conscious choice to focus on over-performance, and once that decision is made, the focus becomes quite natural. But it’s that choice that is difficult. It is too easy (unconscious) to see things wrong and too difficult to make the conscious choice to see things going right. -Tom

How to Design a Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I attended your workshop on organizational structure and levels of work. I am a manager without much influence in the company. I want to implement the principles you talked about to design my team. Do I have to wait for the rest of the company or can I start without them.

Response:
Start without them. In the midst of any organization, any manager can be more effective in the design of the work. Start with your own team. Ask yourself these questions –

  • What is the work output expected from my team? Quality standard? Volume of output?
  • What are all the elements required? Materials, people, equipment, tools, consumables?
  • What is the sequence of work elements? What are the steps in the production of output?
  • Does each step in production require a dedicated role or can multiple steps be combined into a single role? What roles are required?
  • In each role, what is the level of work required? What decisions have to be made by each role? What problems have to be solved by each role?
  • What is the sequence of work between roles?
  • What is the work output standard from one role handed off to the next step in the sequence?
  • How often are standards inspected? Are standards inspected embedded into production roles or are standards inspected a separate role?
  • What decisions have to be made, problems have to be solved in the inspection steps?

You may find that drawing this sequence on piece of paper will be visually helpful in creating your team design. As you create this drawing, you may find value in more detail or less detail.

This is an exercise in designing work. One of the biggest problems most teams face is that managers do not adequately think about or design the work of their teams. With the work designed, including decision making and problem solving, you can now describe, in detail, each role definition.

Only with an accurate role definition, can you now be more effective at hiring the right people for the role. -Tom

The Attractiveness of Work

“What is it that this game has, that is so attractive to your son, that he will go without food, water and sleep, in spite of discouragement from his mom (manager)?” I asked. “Your son has achieved a high level of competence in this video game without the traditional trappings of learning, without the traditional trappings of inducement. Yet he continues to play hard.”

“Well, for one thing, it must be fun, it’s play, not work,” Jamie explained.

“And, as a manager, what can we take from that, when we think about our teams and their behavior?”

“Yes, but work isn’t all that much fun,” Jamie protested. “People don’t like work. They like play, but they don’t like work.”

“Jamie, I have looked at your son playing a video game and it doesn’t look all that different than what some of your people do at work. They both sit at a keyboard, staring at a computer screen. As they touch the keys, things move on the screen.”

“I don’t see your comparison, they are two different things.”

“But if you could see the comparison, what would you see?”

Jamie had to think, but she finally spoke. “In the mind of my son, he is part of something bigger than himself, trying to achieve certain levels in the game. As he makes progress, he gets real-time feedback (automatically), so he can adjust his play. When he makes the level, there is a small electronic celebration on the screen.”
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Leaving Shanghai today, bound for San Francisco. Quick trip around the world in five days.

Didn’t Do It For the Money

The conversation was now personal. We talked about Jamie’s son and his behavior related to a video game. We had established that he never attended a training program, never read a training manual, was discouraged from learning the game by his manager (Jamie, his mom). Furthermore, in spite of all these front-end adverse conditions, he achieved a high level of mastery, in playing the game.

“So, Jamie, you also told me that you did not pay your son a bonus when he achieved certain levels within the game?”

Jamie started with a chuckle, but it quickly turned to an outright laugh. “You clearly don’t know my son. Paying him to play a video game is not part of our family culture. That would be a bit over the top. As his mom (manager), I would have to be crazy. He doesn’t play the game for money.”

“What? Teenagers don’t have expenses?” I asked.

“That’s not the point,” Jamie explained. “He doesn’t play for money.”

“So, what does he play for? What does he get from the game that has caused him to spend hours achieving a high level of competence, without external inducements for his performance?”

“Well, he must be getting some internal reward for it.” Jamie guessed.

“And how would describe that internal reward? What is it?”

“Motivation?”

I nodded. “Yes, motivation, and here is where the conversation gets interesting.”
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First day in Shanghai. This place is very Chinese.