Category Archives: Learning

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

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.

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?”
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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.

The Practice of Delegation

“I’m a little disappointed,” explained Ruben. “Disappointed in myself.”

“How so,” I asked.

“Since I was promoted to manager, everyone said I should delegate more stuff. So, I tried.”

“What have you tried?” I prompted.

“Well, I bought three books on delegating. I finished one and I am reading the second.”

“So, what’s changed, for you?”

“Nothing really. I mean, they are really good books, but I still do everything myself.”

“Ruben, delegation is a skill, a skill that can be learned. Every skill has two parts. The first part is technical knowledge. That’s the stuff you have been reading about in those books.”

“What’s the other part?” Ruben asked.

“The other part is practice. You actually have to get out there and practice. I really don’t care how much you know. I am interested in what you can do.”

Even If It Wasn’t Effective Before

How do most managers manage?

Most managers manage the way they were managed, even if they hated it. Especially under pressure, most of us return to routine grooved behaviors, even if the behavior was not effective back then, even if the behavior failed back then.

Learning something new is only half the battle. The other half is changing your habits to integrate something new. It takes conscious thought and a bit of persistence. -Tom

Real Learning

“And that concludes my report. A well-thought out plan, perfectly executed.” Martin smiled. I knew he was lying. His plan may have been well-thought out, but life is never that perfect.

Carla was next up. She was nervous. Her plan was solid, but her team had hit some rocky patches. “I guess things didn’t go the way we thought,” she reported. “We had to make several adjustments as we went along. Our project required three additional meetings. In the end, we made the deadline and came in under budget, but it was tough. I will try to do better next time.”

Carla got a quiet golf clap from the room for her efforts. I moved up to confront the class.

“Carla thinks her project didn’t go so well. Carla thinks she should have had a better report for class tonight, but here is why her report is so important.

“You read these management magazines out there, about CEOs with well-thought out plans, perfectly executed. Some reporter shows up to write about every target flawlessly achieved. No pimples, no bumps, no bruises. Whenever I hear that, I know I have to get the guy drunk to get the truth.

“But, look at Carla’s report. Her team started out toward their first objective, they got off course.” I drew a line across the page with an abrupt turn. “It took an extra meeting to figure out where they went wrong, to get back on track.

“They met their first target, but immediately things went south again. Another meeting, another adjustment.” My line on the flipchart meandered across the page with another hard turn back to target number two.

“And it happened again, before the project was finished.” The flipchart now showed huge jagged lines criss-crossing the page. “And this is where the real story is. Not the neatly wrapped perfect execution. The real story is out here, where the team cobbled together a solution to an unanticipated event to get back on track. And over here where the client threw them a curve ball.

“And that’s why Carla’s story is so important. And that’s where real learning exists.”

Habits Help, Habits Hurt

“But habits can help and habits can kill,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” Muriel replied. “We just talked about how competence and habits go hand in hand.”

“Yes, they do and like many things, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.” I could see Muriel’s face scrunch up, mixed in resistance and curiosity.

“Competence requires a set of habits. Habits help us, habits hurt us. Think about a new problem that must be solved, like that change in production last month.”

Muriel winced. “I know, I know. We practiced hard on producing that left element. We were really good at it, and it was difficult. Then we got the machine. Using the machine was even harder, so my team kept doing it manually. Someone even sabotaged the machine configuration that kept it out of the loop for two days. All in all, it took us three weeks to become competent on the machine, when it should have taken only five days.”

“Habits can sometimes be a powerful force in resisting change. Habits are grooves in the way we think. They can be helpful, but sometimes, we have to get out of the groove and it’s tough.” -Tom

Watching, Observing, Assessing

“You can still feel an allegiance to the project,” I said, “and, you are correct, as a manager, you have to solve the problem in a different way. You have to move the team. What are your levers?”

“What do you mean?” Miriam looked puzzled.

“It’s one thing to say you have to move the team, but what do you do? Where is your leverage? If your role is NOT to solve the problem, but to get the team to solve the problem, what do you control?”

Miriam stopped to think, then finally replied, “I get to pick who is on the team, team membership. I decide on training. I decide who plays what role on the team. I specifically assign tasks. And, I get to watch, observe. I can coach, but I have to stay off the field. Ultimately, I have to assess effectiveness in the role. It’s either more training, more coaching, more time or de-selection.”

“And, at the end of the day, who is accountable for the output of the team?” -Tom

Why? You Ask.

The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do, but those who ask the most effective questions.

Yet, some people would rather complain about a problem they can’t solve, than execute a solution they don’t like. Or, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

You will never learn from questions you don’t ask. So, why do we hesitate?

  • It’s uncomfortable to admit we don’t know.
  • The answer is obvious to everyone. Or it should be obvious to everyone, even if it’s not.
  • Our assumption may be wrong, but to ask a question requires us to re-examine what we believe to be true.
  • We might be wrong, but no one will notice, unless we ask the right question.

Asking questions takes us out of knowing mode and places us in learning mode.

Homage to Lee Thayer and Wayne Gretzky.