Am I Capable?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been an avid reader of Jaques’ books for quite some time, and I have a question: most of what you say is to help managers and HR workers to find and hire the correct people.

But what about someone who is creating a company (my case)? How can I accurately measure my own capability, and, therefore, structure my company correctly so that its complexity doesn’t surpass my own level of thinking, while also hiring subordinates exactly one stratum below, in the case of the first hire(s)?

I would be very much interested since I’m having a hard time to be objective trying to evaluate myself.

Response:
How does the song go? “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

First, your interest in assessing your own cognitive capacity will almost always lead you astray. Don’t attempt to assess yourself, assess the work.

Second, a start-up organization has a different focus than other, more mature organizations. There are so many missing pieces and fewer resources to work with. The start-up has a quick timeline to death.

So, my first question is always, what’s the work? As you describe the work, what is the decision making and problem solving necessary? More specifically, what is the level of decision making and level of problem solving required to make a go as a start-up?

Here are some other necessary questions for your start-up.

  • What is the (market) problem you are trying to solve?
  • Does your product or service solve that market problem?
  • Can you price your product or service high enough to allow for a profit?
  • Is your market big enough to provide enough volume for your product or service? Is your market big enough for a business or just big enough for a hobby?

The first focus for every start-up is sales. Can you get your product or service into the market place and please find a customer to buy it?

In the beginning, the level of problem solving is very tactical. Can you make it and will someone buy it? That’s about it. That is why there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there. That is also why so many fail. They cannot get their company to the next level of problem solving.

Once you have a sustained momentum of sales, the next level is all about process. You see, if you can create a sustained momentum of revenue, you will also create competitors. The next level is about process. Can you produce your product or service faster, better, cheaper than your competitor? This is a different level of decision making, a different level of problem solving. It is precisely this level that washes out most start-ups.

So, focus on the work. Do you have the (cognitive) capability to effectively make the decisions and solve the problems that are necessary at the level of work in your organization? Stay out of your own head and focus on the work.

BTW, we have only described the first two levels, there are more.

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

Structure and Creativity

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Enjoyed your presentation yesterday, have a question. In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
Thank you very much for your questions. Remember, yesterday, we only scratched the surface of Elliott’s research. You have many questions (not just one).

Let me first talk generally about structure and creativity. You are fearful that structure will stifle creativity, when in fact, Elliott believed quite the opposite.

Specifically, organizational structure looks rigid on a chart, with its neat boxes and circles and arrows that point the way. Off the paper, organizational structure is simply the way we define working relationships. And, there are two types.

On a chart, we see managerial relationships in a vertical fashion, and we have an intuitive sense how that works. In a moment, I will attempt to shift your intuitive sense in a way that opens up the creativity you cherish (all organizations cherish). But, before that, the other type of working relationship is horizontal. People have to (required behavior) work with each other, but they are not each other’s manager. On a chart we typically represent these with a horizontal dotted line. It’s the dotted line that gets us in trouble. Again, we have an intuitive sense of this horizontal working relationship (cross-functional), but we rarely define it with any more clarity than the dots in the line that connect.

What is missing are two A words. Accountability and authority. In a managerial relationship, we get the authority part, but fail to understand the accountability part. A client of mine, Mike, owned a carpet cleaning business. Every once in a while, thankfully not very often, a technician would ruin a customer’s carpet. Who did Mike want to choke up against the wall? The technician, of course.

You see, Elliott assumed that technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. And it is the manager Elliott held accountable for the output of that technician. The manager hired the technician, trained the technician, provided the tools, the truck, selected the project and created the working environment for the technician. The manager controlled all the variables around the technician, it is the manager that Elliott held accountable for the output of the technician.

In this vertical managerial relationship, we get the authority part, without understanding the accountability that goes with it. Only when the manager understands the accountability-for-output is placed on them, that the shift takes place. Elliott was very specific, he called this an MAH (Management Accountability Hierarchy). The org chart is no longer an org chart, it is an accountability chart. And, that chart now illustrates who is accountable. This small shift changes everything we understand about management.

We casually call them reporting relationships, when reporting doesn’t have much to do with it. It is an accountability relationship where the manager is accountable for the output of the team member.

It’s all about context. It is incumbent on the manager to create the context. Remember, Elliott assumed the technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. It is incumbent on the manager to create the context in which each team member can do their best. It is in the creation of that context, that creativity flourishes. I know you have more questions, but, enough for today.

The Good Stuff

Negative thoughts are unconscious. We don’t have to think about having negative thoughts, they just arrive. The primal brain is always on the lookout for bad stuff. Its constant question – is this experience going to kill me. Your primal brain cannot distinguish between fact and fiction, that’s why we cry in movies. Your primal brain is always subject to hi-jack.

Positive thoughts require conscious activity. I often ask the question, what good happened today? People struggle to respond. No part of your brain is on the lookout for good news.

Unless you train your brain to look for good news. And, you have to train it long enough for it to become a habit. And, that habit can be easily broken the next time your primal brain gets hijacked.

So, thank your primal brain for sharing, then get on with the good stuff.

New Behaviors and Habits

Muriel took a measured breath. “I have an uneasy feeling, and I don’t know why,” she explained. “Things are going okay, but, as we ramp back up, I think things are going to change. And I am not sure I am prepared to adapt quick enough.”

“Things are going well, now?” I asked.

“Going okay, not great, but okay, kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“When did things start to go okay?”

Muriel laughed. “You are right, it’s been a tough few weeks. I don’t know if I just got used to it, or if I got better.”

“So, things got easier. New unknown problems became familiar, you knew what to do and how to do it.” I said.

Muriel nodded affirmative.

“And, we know things will change, again, because they always do. Change in your company, on your team and with yourself. And when things change, you are faced with your own incompetence.”

Muriel winced. Close to home, perhaps. I continued. “But you do adapt and you do change. But tell me, when you successfully perform something new, for the first time, does that make you competent?”

“No,” she responded. “Competence requires practice, doing it well over and over, until it becomes a habit.”

“So competence is not simply acquiring an occasional new skill, but acquiring a new habit.”

Permanent and Temporary

What changes have become permanent and what changes are only temporary? As we live in this science-fiction movie, we think, at some point, the movie will be over, we can walk into the sunshine and everything will be normal again.

It is too easy to think that things are temporary, when some things will never return to the way they were. So, some things require only a short-lived adjustment, an accommodation. AND, some things will require new habits.

If it is temporary, we can live with a small discomfort, an awkward way. If the change is permanent, we better figure out a better way and get really good at dealing with it.

Blame Game

It is important to understand the problem. Even more important to understand the cause of the problem.

Many people confuse the cause of the problem with blame. Blame, no matter how well placed, rarely gets you closer to the solution, even creates distraction that prevents forward steps.

In what way can we fix (mitigate, prevent) the problem is a more useful question.

Looking for Land

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I gotta tell you that these comments are tone deaf to the situation we are currently in. I am a CEO and focused on survival. I do not know if there will be demand for our services in 1 month or 6 months from now.

Now is the time to lead through the crisis not dream or imagine what life will be like 5 years from now.

If I were to think 5 years down the road it would be like the captain of the ship on the flag pole looking for land while the boat was on fire. It would be best for the captain to get down and lead the team in extinguishing the fire.

Response:
I talk to CEOs every day. I wonder if some will make it, some will not, some are already out of business.

Many states have opened up (with restrictions), but just because regulation has relaxed doesn’t mean the market has returned. I assume most who qualified, applied for PPP and already made work-force decisions. You are likely monitoring sales like a start-up.

If you stand back and look at your competitors, what are the characteristics of those that will be alive in 2021? What did they focus on in the past 60 days? What will they focus on in the next 90 days? What will they focus on, rounding out the year into next?

Overestimate and Underestimate

I don’t know for certain what will happen tomorrow, but I have a pretty good idea. I can even forecast the number of COVID-19 deaths that will occur tomorrow, within a reasonable margin of error. But, tomorrow is not where the game is played.

For the most part, we can anticipate what life will be like in three months time.

“People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and to underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.” – J. C. R. Licklider, Libraries of the Future, 1965.

It is important to make sure your teams are assembled and safe to do the work tomorrow, but the real chore for the CEO is to imagine life (markets, regulations, labor, technology) in five years time.

In four years, your five year plan will be your one year plan.

Impact of External Systems

By the time an organization reaches S-III maturity, its core system is maturing and provides for eventual profitability. At S-IV, the organization sees the emergence of multiple systems and sub-systems (marketing, sales, account management, operations, quality control, research and development, HR, accounting).

At S-V, with maturing multiple systems and sub-systems, the organization has to look outward, to external systems. No matter how well the company is organized internally, it is external systems that impact success (or failure).

Market (External System)
Markets organically shift related to demographics, trends, economic growth or contraction. These organic shifts are sometimes subtle and relatively slow. The relative slow speed allows companies to respond (market response).

Regulation (External System)
Most companies are financially regulated (taxes), some are subject to stringent environmental regulation. During COVID-19, regulation dramatically clamped market demand, by defining essential vs non-essential companies.

Labor (External System)
The US went from record low unemployment to depression level unemployment in a matter of 60 days. Labor is an external system that impacts the way we internally organize.

Finance (External System)
Finance includes institutional debt, credit lines, owner investment, private equity investment. The company believes it should be able to borrow as much money as it has the ability to repay. Banks, on the other hand have these concepts called covenants which require certain internal ratios. Finance, as an external system has an impact on the way we internally organize. COVID-19 shifted credit in some cases to forgivable debt guaranteed by government.

Most of these external systems stand alone, but COVID-19 has brought together a not-so-subtle interplay. The organizations who survive are those who are mature in their internal systems, but also understand the interplay and impact of external systems. Those companies funded in the first tranche of stimulus were those who kicked in applications immediately. Most smaller companies, with immature systems, without awareness of external systems were brushed to the second tranche or left in the cold.

It is the role of the CEO at S-V to ensure both, maturity of internal systems and skilled experience in external systems.