The Killing Fields of the Project

“I know you are right, that I should challenge my team to solve its own problem with its inability to work together in support of each other, but it is a very uncomfortable conversation,” Miriam wondered out loud. “Everyone’s stomach will be upside down, so, in your words, the threat of a real issue exists. I am just afraid that the whole thing will blow up in my face and I will be the one left to pick up the pieces.”

“It is a risk,” I replied, “and, not​ greater than the risk that mid-project, the team will reach the same impasse for this same reason. And, the higher the pressure of the project, the more likely the impasse. Do you want the team to confront the issue now, while things are calm, or meet the problem in the killing fields of the project?” -Tom

A Manager’s Stomach

“Every time you, as the manager, take a team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem,” I said.

“What do you mean collusion?” Miriam asked.

“Faced with a problem the team doesn’t want to deal with, they panic and engage in non-work behaviors, so they don’t have to deal with the problem themselves. Remember your team of independent technical contributors, all very competent on their own, but they butt heads when they are required to work together?”

Miriam nodded.

“You give them a difficult project where they have to work together,” I continued. “What is the first problem they have to solve? And here is a hint. It has nothing to do with the project.”

Miriam was quiet for a moment, then, “You are right. The first problem they have to solve is how to work together. But are you suggesting that, as the manager, I put them in the same room and talk about their inability to work together?”

“Yes. And what is the reaction when you say, ‘Gentlemen, I called this meeting today to discuss how difficult it is for the three of you to work together. We are going to talk about your behaviors that derail projects and what behaviors need to change.’ Then you stop talking. How is your stomach feeling right about now? How are the stomachs of each of your team members?”

“Are you kidding? It makes me feel queasy just to think about saying that to the group,” Miriam admitted.

“Then, you know you are talking about a real issue. When everyone in the room has their stomach upside down, you know the team is dealing with a real issue. High performance teams get comfortable with discomfort. Low performance teams go into non-work and want you, as the manager, to solve the problem for them.” -Tom

Weasel Wisdom

“This is a team problem, not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic,” I repeated.

“I don’t know if I have the courage,” Miriam replied. “Besides, I always heard that you should praise in public and scold in private.”

“Weasel wisdom,” I nodded.

“I heard you say, there are weasel words, but now you say there is weasel wisdom?”

I continued to nod. “Yes, weasel wisdom. If it is an individual’s issue, you speak directly to the individual, and if it is a team issue, you speak to the team, in front of the team. Yes, you are right, it takes courage.”

“And if I don’t have the courage?” Miriam questioned her own confidence.

“What does that say about your belief? Remember, what we believe drives behavior. What is your belief?”

Miriam struggled. “If I don’t confront the whole team with the team problem, it says we don’t believe the team can solve the problem. It says the team cannot talk about the problem. It says the team can only deal with the problem behind closed doors.”

“And every time you, as the manager, take the team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem.” -Tom

Not the Manager’s Problem to Solve

“Timing?” Miriam repeated. “I don’t wait for the team to struggle. I don’t wait for the panic when the problem emerges?”

“As soon as you put the problem on the table, the panic will ensue. Let’s say you have three head-strong team members, individually, they are all very competent in their roles. But, whenever they have to work together, the three butt heads, with their own opinions about the direction of the project. In this state, emotions run high, cooperation and support disappears, there is passive agreement in public and aggressive backstabbing in private. As the manager, on this project, you need mutual support and cooperation. What do you do?”

“When I see the misbehavior, I would sit them down, individually, and communicate my expectations. I would explain that I would monitor their behavior and that I would not tolerate disagreement and shouting.” Miriam stopped. “I think you are going to suggest something different.”

“This is not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic.” -Tom

Outlast the Panic

“So, let’s say the team struggles. You, as the manager, are accountable for the output of the team. You control all the levers. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Instead of jumping in to fix the problem, which is what I really want to do, I have to get the team to solve the problem,” Miriam replied.

“First, let’s talk about time. As the manager, when will you first know that the team is struggling with a problem?”

“That’s easy,” Miriam chuckled. “I know they are going to struggle before I even assign the project.”

“So, if you know the team will struggle, even before the project starts, when do you, as manager, intervene? How long will you let them twist in the wind? Remember, twisting in the wind costs money and you are accountable for output.”

“Are you suggesting I jump in before the project even starts? I thought I was supposed to let the team struggle with the problem?” Miriam countered.

“When the team encounters its first problem, and begins to struggle, how long does it take the team to start solving the problem?”

“Again, that’s easy. Forever. Faced with a problem, the team will avoid the problem, look to blame someone (else) for the problem, knock off early, work on easier stuff, dump the problem on my desk, complain about the problem, argue about the problem, go into panic mode, go into paralysis, you name it, they have tried it,” she explained.

“Fight, flight, freeze or appease. These are all classic behaviors of a team, faced with a problem, engaged in non-work.”

“So, I am the manager, what do I do?”

“Simple, outlast the panic. Put the struggle on the table and outlast the panic.” -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

The Internal Change in a Manager

“I used to have passion for the output of the project,” Miriam repeated. “Now, it’s a matter of placing value on the development of other people.”

“We often focus on managerial tools,” I replied. “Give me a template, give me a technique, but being an effective manager has more to do with you than a managerial tool. Transitioning from an individual technical contributor to a managerial role requires self-reflection. It’s more than a change in role, it requires internal change.”

“I can feel it,” Miriam said. “It’s a bit scary. I look at a problem in a project and I want to fix it. But, I have to stop and move the team to fix the problem.”

“It is a change in you. You have to ask yourself reflective questions.

  • What is the value of my new managerial role?
  • How does my new role fit in with the output of the team?
  • What do I care about? What is important to me?
  • Is there connection between what I care about and the value of my new role?
  • What new behaviors and habits do I have to develop to be effective in my new role?

“It will take some time,” Miriam replied. “I still feel an allegiance to solve the problem, I just have to do it in a different way.”

No Longer the Glow of the Project

“Management is not all I thought it was,” Miriam explained.

“How so?” I asked.

“I started in the marketing department, working on projects by myself. It was satisfying. I would finish a project and I could stand back and look at it. My friends could admire the project. The project had a glow and it was me.”

“That’s because you are a results oriented person and the results were close at hand and tangible. What it different, now?”

“Now, it is slower,” Miriam started. “As a manager, I don’t get to work directly, I work through other people. The results of the project are the results of the effort of my team. I don’t get the glow out of the project, the team gets the glow. What do I get?”

“And this is frustrating?” I prompted.

“Yes, most of my problems, now, are not project problems, they are people problems. I can get the people problems resolved, but the glow is elusive. It is hard to put my finger on the result.”

“So, in your brief experience as a manager, where is the glow?”

“Sometimes, the glow doesn’t take place right away, and it is subtle, in the background,” Miriam stopped. “The glow for a manager is in the development of the team, learning, tackling tough issues and moving to tougher issues. It’s a very indirect glow. I used to have passion for the output of the project, now, it’s a matter of placing value on the development of other people.”

“Congratulations, you have discovered the true role of a manager. You thought being a manager was so people could report to you. Management is about bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team.” -Tom

How to Get People to Use CRM

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Tom, I remember a few years ago you talked about the effectiveness of negative vs positive reinforcement to affect changes in employee behavior. Here’s my problem: I am responsible for implementing a CRM sales management system affecting over 100 sales reps and 15 regional sales managers. For 30 years, we’ve allowed our sales reps to act without much direction or accountability. Our market was robust so a salesperson’s day was spent taking care of customers, entertaining them, and knocking off early on Fridays.

Then, our market soured, so did our sales.

Over the years, we became a service oriented company with little focus on sales management. As you would guess, there is strong resentment and resistance to the accountability that a CRM requires–assigning prospects, setting tasks and goals, and required reporting to management.

Here is the feedback so far. “Do you want me to sell or fill out these stupid reports?” OR “I’m no good with computers.” OR “I don’t have time.” OR “This is Big Brother micro-managing me.”

I’m experimenting with gamification of the process, creating competition among territories and recognizing successes. The CEO of the corporation is reviewing weekly scorecards and sending email comments to the sales managers on performance.

Here’s the question. What will have the greatest effect on participation, negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement? Should we tie pay to usage of the system?

Response:
This is not an unusual dilemma. Your idea of gamification takes me back to a post I wrote in Sep 2007 (yes, ten years ago), where we looked at how a young teenager learned to play a complex video game without a training course, instruction materials or a tutor. In fact, despite discouragement from his manager (mom), he still managed to achieve a high level of competence at playing the game, would actually go without food or sleep to play.

So, how could you get a group of veteran, grisly sales people to spend time with a CRM system?

First, to the subject of positive vs negative reinforcement. At best, negative reinforcement only gets you compliance. And compliance only works in the presence of the manager and the constant pressure of the negative reinforcement. If the manager is not present or the probability of enforcement is low, the desired behavior disappears. Most negative reinforcement resides outside the individual with only temporary effect.

To achieve commitment (vs compliance) to the behavior, you have to go inside. You have to look for an intrinsic reinforcement. You have to examine the belief. It is not your rules, not your suggestions, not your tracking tools that drive behavior. It is the belief inside the individual.

And your individuals have spoken their beliefs.
Do you want me to sell or fill out these stupid reports?

  • The belief is that only selling creates sales, not filling out reports. Filling out reports is a waste of time.

I’m no good with computers.

  • The belief is that I am good at sales and that I am not good at computers. The belief is that using a computer will not bring in more sales.

I don’t have time.

  • The belief is that filling out reports in a computer is not as high a priority as anything else.

This is Big Brother micro-managing me.

  • The belief is that a good salesperson does NOT need coaching. The belief is that tracking activity may surface accountability to a standard defined by someone else.

Ultimately, this is a culture problem. You don’t get the behavior you want (interaction with a CRM system) because you, as the manager, have not connected success (sales) with activity in the CRM system. They don’t believe you.

Culture Cycle

  • Beliefs.
  • Connected behaviors.
  • Connected behaviors tested against the consequences of reality.
  • Behaviors that survive are repeated in customs and rituals.

You started with a CRM system rather than starting with the team. Your team knows how to make sales, they are experts at it. In a meeting, get them to document the processes and behaviors that create sales. Big flip chart. Here is my prediction – they will create a system similar to most sales systems.

  • Prospecting
  • Qualification
  • Needs assessment (preventing objections)
  • Connection of needs to your product or service
  • Customer willing to solve their problem (pay)
  • Closing
  • After closing support

These are activities in a sequence that creates customers and orders. These are likely the same activities you are attempting to document in the CRM system. But, now, it is the team that identified the behaviors, not some stupid CRM system.

Next, ask them to coach each other. They may not trust you, but they trust each other. Ask them to document what a coaching process might look like. Ask them what collected data might be helpful to make the coaching more effective.

Teaching is not nearly as effective as learning. Turn this into a learning process, not a teaching process. -Tom

Yes, And How is the Team Member Doing?

Last week, we talked about Team Morale as a Key Result Area (KRA). Remember, the work of a manager is different than the work of a team member. Another KRA that often escapes the role description is Team Member Development.

Key Result Area – Team Member Development

Context – An important accountability for every manager in our company is to pay attention to the team. The most critical work product in our company requires high levels of competence, cooperation and support between team members in collateral working relationships. It is incumbent on the manager to use their discretionary judgment in the selection and retention of team members.

Tasks and Activities – The manager will clearly assign tasks within the capability and competence of the team member. Routinely, the manager will test the team member’s capability and competence with project work to determine if the team member is capable of more complex work and if the team member has achieved a higher skill level. The manager will routinely assess the effectiveness of the team member to determine additional skills training, assignment of more complex work and consideration for promotion.

Accountability – The manager is accountable for evaluating the effectiveness of each team member, identifying effectiveness at level of work and skill competence. The manager will review this team member assessment each month in a 1-1 discussion with their manager, to identify potential for higher level of work, adjustment to lower level of work, additional skills training, cross-training, reassignment or de-selection.