Category Archives: Decision Making

How to Get a Team Member to Ask for Help (when they need it)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have a member of my team that works hard and handles day to day tasks well, but, when his plate gets a little too full, I often don’t find out about it until after an issue happens with a client. I do my best to stay on top of his task list and he knows he can always ask me for help, he just doesn’t. Every client has different times where they are busy and times they are quiet so I need my team to let me know when they need additional resources to hit their deadlines. I think not-asking for help is a mixture of pride and a lack of foresight to see trouble coming. As his manager, how can I help make this situation better (without looking over his shoulder all day, every day)?

Response:
Little problems, allowed to fester, become big problems. And, as the manager, you would have fixed the little problem (when it was easy to fix) if you had only known.

This situation has several parts to it –

  • The team member’s recognition the problem exists.
  • The team member’s understanding where to go for help.
  • The team member’s mindset (belief) about the problem and the channels for help.

Problem Recognition
As the manager, given the same circumstance, you would have recognized the problem or at least the potential for a problem. Your team member may not see what you see, yet, you rely on your team member to spot the trouble. Spend time with your team, in general discussion, on problem identification. You can start with debriefs of completed projects.

  • What did we expect?
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • How did we find out what went wrong?
  • How can we recognize something-going-wrong next time?
  • When we recognize something-going-wrong, what can we do about it?

Next move to existing projects and ask the same questions.

  • What do we expect in this current project?
  • What do we do well, what are our strengths?
  • What could go wrong?
  • How will we find out something is about to go wrong?
  • How will we recognize something is about to go wrong?
  • When we recognize something about to go wrong, what can we do to prevent it?

Channels for Help
These debrief meetings lead into project status meetings. A project going OKAY doesn’t really tell us much. Create some sort of shorthand or code that describes specific states of projects. You can use project stages, color codes, alphabet codes. You pick. Most importantly, identify the code level when the decision is in the hands of the team member and the code level when the decision needs to surface to the manager.

I am suggesting a formal structure that guides your team to ask for help. As the manager, you are currently trusting the team member to make a decision without context. Create a context that provides specific guidelines about when and how to ask for help. Your team can (and will) help you create this context as part of the project debriefs.

Culture
Culture is a set of beliefs that provide context for behavior. Without context, the team member will create their own context, which can be misguided to the purpose of the project. Most team members do not think about the future implications of problems allowed to fester. Here are some questions to structure what we believe about the future of the problem.

  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a day?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a week?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a month?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a year?

Ask your team to collectively imagine into the future. It is a powerful way for a manager to get in touch with current mindsets and create a context to anticipate and prevent problems in the future. Change the context, behavior follows.

And If the Advice is Wrong?

From Outbound Air

“So, what happened?” Jim wanted to know.

“It doesn’t matter what happened,” Mary said. “What matters is that it was my decision and my decision alone. I was accountable for the decision and the consequences of the decision. The technical crew did their best to keep the aircraft in pristine working order. Flight operations did their best to keep the customers on schedule.

“If I decided to fly the plane and something happened, the technical crew would not be accountable. If I canceled the flight and the repair turned out to be a non-event, flight operations would not be accountable. This decision was my decision.”

“What if the technical advice you get from your team is wrong?” Jim pressed.

“I am still accountable. As the manager, I have to evaluate the risk. If the risk is high, even if I trust my team to do their best, sometimes I have to double-check the data or bring in a second opinion on the analysis. I am still accountable.”

The Manager Lives and Dies by the Decision

From Outbound Air

“I have an issue where I could use your help,” Jim explained to the group. “And I think your understanding will have impact all the way to the top of this organization.

“As a manager, you each have a team,” he continued. “And you defined a manager as that person held accountable for the output of the team. So, if there is a decision to be made, related to the objective for that team, who is accountable for the consequences of that decision? Is it the manager, or the team?”

“Are you kidding me?” Johnny replied. “It’s the manager. If it turns out to be a wrong decision, we don’t fire the whole team, the manager is accountable.”

“Then, whose decision is it to make?” Jim floated the question, the same question that frustrated Kevin DuPont. “Whose decision is it?”

“It’s the manager’s decision,” Johnny responded. “The manager is accountable, the manager lives and dies by the decision.”

“But what if the manager doesn’t have all the facts to make an informed decision,” Jim protested, “and needs the team to participate. Needs the team to gather the facts, analyze the facts. Then, whose decision is it?”

Who Appointed You to Make That Decision?

From Outbound Air

“It’s not their role to make a decision like that?” Javier replied.

“Says who?” Catherine baited.

An awkward twenty seconds ticked by on the clock. “Says me,” Javier finally relented. “That is not a decision that my shift supervisors are capable of making.”

“And, who appointed you to make that decision?” Catherine continued to press.

“You did,” Javier replied without hesitation. “My shift supervisors are perfectly capable of handling the day to day uncertainty of running an airline, but the problem of an unprofitable route likely has nothing to do with operations. It could be a marketing problem, a pricing problem. It could be a new competitor. It could be a spike in fuel costs. It could be the discovery of a new oil field in North Dakota, or government throttling of fracking activity. All of those issues could impact passenger load factors and are beyond the level of work of my shift supervisors.”

Who Makes the Decision?

From Outbound Air

“Exactly,” Catherine beamed. “As long as nothing changes, your teams do not need you. They can handle all the routine decisions and problems. But, you know that something will change, something always changes. This airline operates in a world of uncertainty. You helped define a number of standard operating procedures. Your teams know how to handle weather systems, flight delays and lost baggage. They know how to re-route customers. They even know what to do in the event of a computer outage or a security breach.”

Catherine stopped to let this sink in, before she continued.

“But, what happens when our load factors on a route fall below the level of profitability for a thirty day period. Should they cancel all the flights?”

A wave covered the room. Some stared down at the table, some stared at the ceiling. They did not avoid eye contact, but, instead, looked inside to connect to some logical response. Javier broke the silence. “No,” he was emphatic. “First, that is a decision they do not have the authority to make.”

“And, why not. The routes are unprofitable, why shouldn’t your shift supervisors cancel those flights?” Catherine challenged.

“It’s not their role to make a decision like that?” Javier replied.

“Says who?” Catherine baited.

For Every Management Problem

Al Ripley believed, for every management problem, there was a management consultant. As issues surfaced in meetings, Al looked down his nose, over the top rim of his glasses, and ask the inevitable. “Don’t we know a consultant that can help us with that?”

Those meetings were short and decisive. Ripley emerged from the conference room victorious, confident that he met adversity with a firm commitment to the solution, by hiring a consultant.

Some problems, however, did not go away. But then, Al quickly pointed out, “We must have hired the wrong consultant.”

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, by Tom Foster, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Outbound Air

The Executive Team Meeting

As time ticked by, Kevin DuPont’s democratic decision-making began to show some cracks. The executive management team got together each week to kick around the most pressing issues. But Kevin and his team were often at loggerheads when it came around to budget issues. Each department seemed to have its favorite projects.

The starched white shirts would gather in pairs, making deals on the side to support this budget item or that odd project. As presentations were made, the team was slow to poke holes, for fear their pet project would be subject to the same scrutiny.

The Executive Team Meeting, it was called. There were hidden agendas, under the table handshakes, unconscious agreements not to spoil the day for each other. Each meeting’s agenda was like a stepping stone across a creek. Quick strides for each measured step. If a stepping stone was unstable, discussion moved quickly to the next item. Real problems in the agenda were avoided. There was collusion, not cooperation. There was defensiveness, not inquiry. This was the Executive Team Meeting.

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Democratic Decision Making

“I am conducting an experiment,” Marianne explained.

“Why do you call it an experiment?” I asked.

“Because I’m not sure if it will work. I have never tried it before. So, if it fails, then it was just an experiment. I am going to try democratic decision making with my team.”

“How will that work?” I wanted to know.

“Well, we have a situation with a couple of different solutions. Some people think we should go one way, others think the other way. I thought it best just to take a vote. At least that will get buy-in and support.”

“What if it’s the wrong decision and it jeopardizes the whole project?”

Marianne was silent.

“Which way do you think the decision should be made?” I prompted. “And what if the team decides the other way? And how will you explain a poor decision to your manager? Will you say that you disagreed, but your team outvoted you?”

The Decision is Yours

Victor was staring at the floor, head cupped in both hands. “What a stupid decision.” He was quiet. I was quiet. Silence can do a lot of heavy lifting.

Finally, he continued. “I want to involve my team in decision making. But when we take a vote, they often make the wrong decision. As their manager, I feel like a heel, going against their vote. But I don’t want to let them do something stupid and waste a bunch of time.” He lifted his head.

“Victor, first, do not let them vote. Between you and your boss, who is accountable for this decision?”

“Well, I am,” he said.

“If you are held accountable for the decision, then you have to make the decision. You can involve your team, ask them for input, but you are the manager, the decision is yours to make. Here is what this sounds like to your team.

“Hey, Team. As your manager, I have a decision to make. This is an important decision and will have an impact on every team member here. So, I want to you to help me consider all the angles. After I consider your input, I have to make this decision. When I do make this decision, I will need your support and your full efforts to make this happen. So, who has the first idea?

“Victor, understand, people will support a world they help to create, even if it is not totally their idea. You should involve them, but the decision is yours.”

What do I Listen For? In the Interview?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:
It was a pleasure meeting you last Thursday and even more so, hearing your ideas. Much of what you discuss is very similar to my own beliefs, but it was very instructive to hear them so clearly explained and validated. Taking the ideas from theory to practice, how do you use the diagnostic interview to hire someone who may have worked in a completely different field, or even not really worked before?

Response:
The critical role requirements in higher stratum roles depend less on technical skills and more on managerial skills. In large part, managerial skills transfer well from one business model to another.

In any interview, I am specifically listening for the candidate’s description of the work. In that description, I am listening for the Level of Work. Specifically –

  • Elapsed time – related to the Time Span of Projects. What was the length of their longest project?
  • The Story – beginning, middle and end. Where does the story of their work begin and where does the story of their work end?
  • Level of Work – specifically –
    • Individual direct output (S-I)
    • Coordination of many elements, including the supervision of outputs of others (S-II)
    • Creation of single serial systems, work flows for efficiency, consistency and predictability (S-III)
    • Integration of multiple systems and sub-systems (S-IV)

While I am listening for clues about the Level of Work, I am also evaluating effectiveness, based on the candidates description related to the Level of Work. This is where the assessment of a candidate from a different field will require additional judgment on the part of the interviewer. Here are some questions behind the questions –

  • How well do the behaviors described in the candidates field translate to our critical role requirements?
  • How effective will this candidate be in adapting habits and behaviors from their former work to our work?
  • How effective will this candidate be in learning new skills identified in our critical role requirements?

Where the candidate has NO work experience, just coming out of school, I will still ask questions related to circumstances where the candidate was making decisions and solving problems. How did they organize their schoolwork? Extracurricular activities? Volunteer work? There is always something that will reveal Applied Capability, suitability for a role.