Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

Sacrificing Sleep and Food

“So, what gives?” Jamie asked. “Our company spends a lot of its resources on training, planning, development programs. Why do they always seem to run out of gas? You suggest we are missing something on the back end.”

“When I look at behavior, I think we, as managers, truly miss the boat. We are always looking at the front end of the behavior instead of the back end. And the back end, the consequences of behavior, are much more powerful drivers than the front end.”

“I am not sure what you mean,” Jamie responded.

“Jamie, you have a teenager at home, right?”

“Oh, yeah, somewhere in his room, beneath the glow of some Realm vs Realm computer game, I think there is a teenager in there somewhere.”

“Tell me, how complicated is that video game?”

“Oh, boy, I can’t make heads or tails of it. When I look at that screen, there is so much stuff going on, including multiple chat channels, voice over the Internet, status panels, swords, animals, shields, walking, running, flying, transporting, vaporizing.”

“So, to learn how to play that game, you must have sent your son to an expensive training class?” I asked.

Jamie started to laugh. “Are you kidding? He just sat in there for hours and hours, without eating or sleeping. I don’t know how he learned it, but it wasn’t from a training class.”

“You mean, you didn’t encourage him. You didn’t bring in a motivational speaker. You didn’t make him practice?”

“No way, quite the opposite. We discourage him from playing the game, sometimes we even ground him from playing.”

“So, let me get this straight,” I began, “your son has learned to play a computer game at an extremely high level of competence, without going to a single training program. Sometimes he skips meals and sleep to continue playing this game. He does it in spite of his manager’s (mom’s) discouragement. Everything that has been done, up front, violates everything we know about competence and mastery. So, what’s happening?”
____
At this moment, I am likely in the air between Vienna, Austria and Shanghai, China. Presenting to two groups of managers on Levels of Work.

Failure of Front End Influence

“So, what do you think was missing?” I asked.

Jamie retraced the steps of her company’s Quality Circles program. Like many good ideas, there was nothing wrong with the program. It was clearly designed to bring out the best in her people. It had short term results, but, in spite of a great deal of up-front planning and expense, the program experienced an early death.

“You are suggesting,” Jamie began, “that we did our front end work well, but we were missing something on the back end?”

I nodded. “One primary function of a manager is to influence behavior. Indeed, to influence behavior, we spend a lot of time in meetings, developing programs, teaching, training, writing manuals. We spend a lot of time up front, trying to influence behavior.”

It was Jamie’s turn to nod. I continued. “While those things we do up front do have an influence, most behavior is not prompted by what comes before but by the consequences that happen after. As Managers, we spend a lot of time training. We see high performance in the training room, but a week later, nothing has changed in the field. The fire is out, the behavior gone.”

What Curbed the Enthusiasm?

“Why do you think your Quality Circles program eventually ran out of gas?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jamie explained, “people just lost interest, I guess.”

“And why did they lose interest?”

“Well, at first, there was this gung-ho enthusiasm. It was new, but eventually the newness wore off.”

“When you look at the Quality Circles program (or any program) that your company developed, what did you design in, to sustain the program?”

Jamie almost chortled. “Design? We figured if it got started, it would just keep going.”

“Jamie, if you could, think back. Exactly how long did it take for the Quality Circles behavior to die off?”

“I remember, pretty clearly, we started right after the new year, but by March, it was over.”

“So, it took two and half months for the behavior to die off,” I guessed. “And you spent a bunch of money on a consultant to show you how to do this?”

“Oh, yeah, we had a couple of books that we had to read, and we had meetings, planning sessions. It was a big production, right down to the costumes.”

“Costumes?”

“Well, yeah, we had these shirts we were supposed to wear. It was okay, at first, but after a while, people started making fun of the people who wore the shirts.”

“So, there was a great deal of activity, planning and thinking about this beforehand, but not much thinking about what happened after. Jamie, I want you to think long and hard about this sequence.

  • A lot of activity before the behavior
  • Then the behavior
  • The behavior died off.”

Jamie squinted her eyes, clearly imagining the sequence. “So, we did a lot of stuff up front, but didn’t do much on the back end.”

“Yes, so what do you think was missing?”

Goodbye, Irma

I want to thank everyone for the warm wishes during the hurricane. We missed a bullet over here on the east coast of Florida. Got pounded for 18 hours, but most winds stayed under 90mph. We lost power Sunday morning around 8a, probably won’t get it back for a week or so. Funny, I can’t brew a cup of coffee, but I can send a post to all my friends around the world.

I am afraid those on the other side of the state were not so lucky. Lots of other folks in desperate need, more than me.

Lots of re-building to do. Here’s a link to donate to the Red Cross. You can designate where you want your donation to go.

For those of you in Houston, we will see you Thursday, flying into IAH. -Tom

How We Get to Customs and Rituals

Some time ago, writing a role description, I added Culture as a Key Result Area. What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area (KRA) of Company Culture?

There are several frames in which to look at company culture. The one I currently kick around is –
That unwritten set of rules that governs our required behavior in the work that we do together. It is an unwritten set of rules in contrast to our written set of rules, policies, procedures. And, culture is often more powerful than any policy we may write or attempt to officially enforce. Sometimes, culture even works against our stated policy.

What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area (KRA) of Company Culture?

  • What is the source of culture, where does it start?
  • How is culture visible, how do we see it?
  • How is culture tested?
  • How is culture institutionalized, reinforced and perpetuated?

These are the four questions in the Culture Cycle.

Culture Starts
The source of culture is the way we see the world. It includes our bias, our experience, our interpretation of our experience. Culture is the story we carry into our experience that provides the lens, the frame, the tint, the brightness or darkness of that story.

Culture is Visible
Culture, the way we see the world drives our behavior. We cannot see the bias in others. We cannot see their interpretations of the world. We cannot see the story people carry in their minds, but, we can see behavior. Culture drives behavior. Behavior makes culture visible.

Tested
Behavior, driven by culture, is constantly tested against the reality of consequences. For better or worse, behaviors driven by culture are proven valid, or not. Our culture stands for what we tolerate. This is counter to the notion of the lofty intentions of honesty and integrity. Our culture stands for the behaviors we tolerate.

Customs and Rituals
Behaviors that survive, for better or worse, are institutionalized in our rituals and customs. This ranges from the peer lunch on a team member’s first day at work (for better), to the hazing in a fraternity house (for worse). But, it all starts with the way we see the world. -Tom Foster

It Was Never About the Schedule

Deana had my curiousity. “The ops manager said he was afraid to show everyone what he was doing. But, now that the cat was out of the bag, he explained. He understood the sandbagging. He said each person on the team, and he called them by name, thought they were being sneaky by adding extra days to the project schedule, when, in fact, sometimes things go wrong and those extra days might be necessary. He called those extra days, buffers.

“He showed us his secret project schedule where he took all the buffers away from each segment of the project and put them at the end. He was afraid that if people saw their buffers disappear, they would get mad at him, so he kept it a secret.

“The schedule still had the buffer days, but they were all at the end. As the project went along, some of the buffer days were needed, so he would move only the necessary buffer days back to the segment. So, if a project segment went long, they still had buffer days.

“When the last segment was completed, there were still eleven unused buffer days. Guess what that meant?” Deana teased.

I just stared. Waiting for her discovery.

“That means the project came in eleven days ahead of schedule. In all my time here, we never brought a project in ahead of schedule.”

“What was the most important lesson in all this?” I asked.

“You were right in the beginning,” Deana replied. “The issue had nothing to do with the schedule. It was all about the team.”

This series has been an illustration of Basic Assumption Mental State, affectionately known as BAMs. The mental state of a group can shift in seconds. Teams can go into BAMs in a heartbeat, moving from Work into Non-work. It takes courage, and some skill to shift back into work mode. BAMs is most clearly defined in the book Experiences in Groups, by Wilfred Bion, brilliantly captured by Pat Murray and now by Eric Coryell in the stories they tell.

Project buffers is a concept illustrated by Eli Goldratt in his book Critical Chain.

Underneath the Secret Schedule

“What is different about the team, now?” I was curious.

Deana tilted her head back, looking for the answer in the corner of the ceiling. “The team is in learning mode,” she said.

“Are we back to that search for the truth?” I chuckled.

“I believe we are,” Deana smiled back. “Speaking for myself, of course.”

“So, tell me about the project schedule,” I wanted to know. “That’s how this all started. Now that the team is in learning mode, what was up with the project schedule. Was the ops manager the culprit? Did he manipulate the schedule?”

“Funny you ask.” Deana thought lots of things were funny. “It turns out the ops manager did have two schedules. He explained that when the estimates were made about how much time it would take for each segment of the project, everyone on the team sandbagged the schedule. I stopped him right there, and asked him not to use the word everyone. I said, if someone on the team was sandbagging the schedule, he should tell them directly, in the team meeting.”

“And, how did that go over?” I asked.

“Oh, just peachy,” Deana said. “He started laughing, and said okay. He then went one by one around the room and told everyone about their contribution to this bloated schedule. He told Bob that he only needed three days, but put five days on the schedule. He told Joe that he needed six days, but put twelve on the schedule. Around the room he went, each person in turn.”

“And, how did each person respond?”

“Amazing. They all agreed that they sandbagged the schedule, because they didn’t want to be late.”

“Was the team in work mode or non-work mode?”

“Definitely, work mode. Everyone was paying attention, listening, contributing, speaking for themselves. And we were working the problem. We had sandbagging, a published schedule and a secret schedule.”

“So, what was with the secret schedule?” I asked.

How to Move a Team from Non-Work to Work

“And?” I asked.

“And, the ops manager spoke up,” Deana continued. “He said he was sorry he had been so defensive, and that he had been so secretive about the project schedule.

“It was funny, the ops manager spoke for himself. And, when he spoke for himself, you could see the tension in the room relax. It was still intense, but the team went into problem solving mode.”

“No one rolled their eyes at this point?” I smiled.

“No, it was like something came over the team. Something shifted. In that moment, they stopped avoiding the problem and started solving the problem. They went from non-work mode to work mode. In non-work mode, they were in a trance, unconscious. They were talking in pairs outside the meeting, talking about each other behind our collective backs. There was collusion, a revolt was brewing. Worse, the problem was untouchable.”

“And what was the problem?” I asked.

“It had nothing to do with the schedule,” Deana nodded. “It had to do with the team.”

“And, what made the shift?”

Deana had to think through the chain of events. “Part of it was persistence. I knew the problem was still there, we just couldn’t talk about it. But, I talked about it anyway. And you made me speak only for myself.

“And, when I put the issue back out on the table, the team went right back into panic mode. Bob rolled his eyes. When I told him how it made me feel, that was the shift. The issue was on the table and it was going to stay there. No rolling of the eyes, no sarcastic remark was going to move the issue off the table. Even my manager didn’t dare shut down the discussion. This team was going to dig in and deal with it. That shift took about five seconds. Everything changed.”

“And your manager?”

“Yes, my manager,” Deana smiled again. “My manager was afraid the discussion would blow the team apart. Turns out, it welded the team together.”

How to Confront a Team in BAMs

“How did it go? You had your team meeting yesterday. Did you speak up?” I asked.

Deana nodded. “Yes, I was nervous. My manager already shut down this discussion once before, but I took the risk.”

“So, what did it sound like?” I wanted to know.

“You told me I would be okay as long as I spoke for myself. I knew my manager would cut me off if she began to feel uncomfortable, if she felt the discussion might get out of control. So that’s the first thing I talked about, speaking for myself.”

“And?”

“I told them I knew we had talked about this before and that it made me uncomfortable to talk about the project schedule. I looked around the room and asked each person to be patient with me. I told them my stomach was upside down, but I felt that if we, as a team, myself included, could tolerate the discomfort, I felt we could make some headway.

“Then, I repeated what we practiced two days ago. I looked straight at the ops manager. I said that I got a call from the client and she told me they were worried about the project schedule and that I was worried, too. I said I had a copy of the updated schedule, but that I didn’t know who updated it or how frequently it was updated. I said, speaking for me, I couldn’t tell if we were on-schedule or behind.”

“And what was the response?” I asked.

“It’s funny,” Deana smiled. “You could see the shuffling and the darting eyes, everyone else in the room was uncomfortable with me. One of the team rolled his eyes, as if to say, here-we-go-again. I looked straight at him, and said, ‘Bob, when you roll your eyes, it makes me feel like my opinion doesn’t matter. It makes me want to be quiet and for the meeting to just be over. I think this team, everyone in this room, has a stake in solving this problem for the client. I, for one, want to solve it. I want to understand. Here is what I have at stake. I am the primary contact for the client. The client has questions and if I don’t understand, then I can’t respond.’

“And the room was quiet,” Deana continued. “For a moment. Then the ops manager spoke.”
—–
BAMs is the mental state of a group. Non-work is collusive (pairing behavior), uncontrolled, irrational and UNCONSCIOUS. Teams go into BAMs to avoid a real issue. It is an unconscious behavior. One powerful way to shift the group back into work mode is to break the cycle of pairing behavior by speaking for yourself. It requires courage, but moves the team into a state of problem-solving. BAMs (Basic Assumption Mental State) was documented by Wilfred Bion in a tortuous book called Experiences in Groups.

What Do You Personally Know?

“Let’s talk about the truth,” I floated. “Your project manager told your ops manager that everyone on the team thinks he manipulated the schedule. Did the project manager speak on your behalf?”

“Well, he didn’t get my permission, but I sort of agreed with him,” Deana said.

“Tell me what your truth is about this project schedule. Tell me what you personally know happened. And, please, avoid talking on someone else’s behalf. Tell me what you personally know.”

“Well, everyone agrees we are behind schedule even though the schedule shows we are on-time.”

“How do you know that?”

“Everyone said it.” Deana was getting exasperated.

“I asked you to speak only for yourself, what do you personally know about the schedule?”

“I don’t really know anything about the schedule. I mean, I have a copy of the updated schedule, but I don’t know who updates it, or how often. And, I don’t visit the job-site, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of progress.”

“What do you know, first-hand?” I pressed.

“Okay, I got a call from the client, and they were worried that we were behind schedule. That’s what I know, and I know that first hand,” Deana insisted.

“Now, tell me, as if I am the ops manager in front of everyone else in the meeting, about your phone call with the client. And, speak only for yourself.”

Deana took a breath. “I got a call from the client about the project schedule and we were all wondering…”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “Speak only for yourself. Try it again.”

Deana had to gather her thoughts. She slipped into “we” mode unconsciously. “Okay, I got a call from the client about the project schedule. The client told me she was worried and I am worried, too.”

“Keep going,” I prompted.

“What do you mean?” Deana thought she was finished. Off the hook.

“Tell me what you know, what is your truth about the project schedule. Start over.”

“I got a call from the client about the project schedule. The client told me she was worried and I am worried, too. I got a copy of the updated schedule, but I don’t know how it is updated or how often, so I can’t tell if we are really on schedule or if we are behind.”

“So, what was different about what you said compared to what the project manager said?”

“When the project manager said everyone on the team thought the ops manager manipulated the schedule, it sounded like an accusation. You made me speak for myself, so it sounded more like…” Deana paused to think. “It sounded more like a search for the truth.”

“So, the problem in the team has nothing to do with the schedule. It has to do with the way the team searches for the truth.”