People, Asset or Liability?

I had a couple of minutes in the lobby, so I was looking at all the teamwork posters on the wall.
–Our people are our most important asset!!–
For the first time, it struck me as odd. I was working with the management team to find a new Senior Project Manager. The last one didn’t work out so well and by the time they figured it out, they almost lost their biggest customer. I was having difficulty getting them to spend the right amount of time on the job description, defining the management skills necessary for this position. The last guy had the technical skills, but none of the management skills.

I entered the conference room, asked the management team if they agreed with the poster in the lobby. Being politically correct, they were quite enthusiastic in their support.

I asked them again, “Are people our greatest asset?”

This team has been around me for a while, so they know when I ask a question a second time, their first response may need some rethinking. I could see the wheels churning. Finally, someone took a stab at it.

“Our people may not be our greatest asset. The right people are our greatest asset. The wrong person may be our biggest liability.”

“Good,” I replied. “Sometimes it takes a bad hire for us to realize how important this up-front work is. So, let’s get to work. What are the skills, knowledge and behaviors necessary for success in this role?”

Front End or Back End?

“It always seems like I don’t have time to prepare when we interview candidates,” complained Paula. “I don’t even have the time to write a job description for the open position. I know we are supposed to, I just don’t have the time.”

“Paula, whether you want to or not, you will spend the time,” I replied.

“What do you mean?”

“As the manager, you will either spend the time on the front end creating the job description, defining the necessary skills and behaviors, or you will spend the time on the back end trying to shape the person you hired into a role that you never defined clearly in the first place.

“You get to choose where you want to spend your time, on the front end or the back end.”

Need a Heads Up

Frieda was frustrated. “I sit in a department managers meeting and get called on the carpet for an assignment that I knew nothing about. One of the other managers pulled an end-around and took a project directly to one of my staff members. I am not a mind-reader, how am I supposed to follow-up on a project I know nothing about. I told everyone in the staff meeting that if they want work done in my department, they have to work through me.” Frieda stopped. Calmed a bit. “That didn’t go over real well. Now everyone thinks I am a prima donna.”

“Do you think the other department managers are being malicious?” I asked.

“No, things are just busy. I think they just wanted to get their project done.”

“So, in busy companies, this kind of thing happens. We simply need to get work done and sometimes you may be out of pocket and one of your team members becomes convenient for the project. Don’t take it personally. The question for you is –How can you, as the manager, find out about these projects so you can schedule them appropriately?

“Do you have a weekly staff meeting in your department?”

“Of course, that is when we sit down and take a look at all the projects in-house, get a status report and talk about production issues.” Frieda was firm in her response.

“So, I want you to add an agenda item. –What are the projects that have been assigned that we don’t know about? This is actually pretty easy. These would be projects that your team is working on that are not on the project list. The purpose is to capture the project information so your team can respond appropriately. You get back in control and your fellow department managers see you as cooperative and helpful. AND, with your fellow managers, you can ask for an email heads up about the project, so you can make sure appropriate resources are deployed and that the due date has been effectively communicated and on your master schedule.”

Smartest Person?

“I’m not trying to show off,” defended Alex. “I have the answer, it’s quicker, it solves the problem. I know it looks like I am a just being a glory hog, but I call it a touchdown!”

I waited. Alex was in no mood to listen, not even to himself. So, I waited some more. Finally, I spoke.

“Alex, three months ago, as our best technician, did we expect you to have the answers to the biggest decisions on your projects?”

“Absolutely, that’s why I got the promotion.”

“Yes, three months ago, we expected you to be the best, the smartest person in the room. That’s why we promoted you to manager. Do you think this is a different game now?”

“I suppose it is or I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of you.”

“Alex, the game is different. Before, we expected you to have all the answers. Now you are a manager. We expect you to have all the questions. Instead of being the smartest person, you may have to be the dumbest person. I want you to ask,

What if? By when? Why did that happen? When do we expect to finish? What could we do differently? How come that happened? What is stopping us?

“Just a few simple, dumb questions. It’s a different role you are playing, now.”

What If You Never Came Back?

“I called my office to see how the meeting went, and found out, just because I was out of town, they decided not to have the meeting. There were important items on the agenda, but they cancelled the meeting.” Bob had just returned from three days on the West Coast.

“What if you never came back?” I asked.

“What do you mean, if I never came back?” Bob replied.

“What if you decided to move to Montana and manufacture dental floss? What would your team do without you? How would they have their meeting?”

“Well, I guess, they would pick someone to lead the meeting and carry on.”

“Look, this is a regular meeting, right? Happens every week? Agenda very similar from one week to the next? It’s an important meeting, but the structure doesn’t change much.”

“You are right,” confirmed Bob.

“Pick your next strongest person, tell them to prepare the agenda for next week. Tell them they are going to lead the next meeting.”

“But, I will be at the next meeting.”

“Exactly, but you will become a participant. If you want your meetings to occur while you are out of town, you have to start identifying the leadership while you are in town. Each week, pick a new person to lead. Publish a rotation schedule. You will still be there to prompt and assist, AND you will test their leadership in a safe environment.”

Playing Catch

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In other words, plan, organize and catch employees doing things right?

Accurate AND easy to miss the point. Catching people doing things right requires planning and organization. I don’t want to simply catch them as if it were an accident.

I want to catch them as if I am “playing catch.” I want to be at the ready, glove in hand, waiting, anticipating AND even if the ball is off target, make every effort to field the throw. Yes, I want to catch them doing things right.

I have my uniform on, hands on my knees. Poised to move right or left. As a manager, I am ready. Play ball.

Stick Around

“But then, as the manager, I have to stick around to see if they actually complete the task,” moaned Shirley. “Why can’t they just do it the way I showed them?”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “If you tell them about the new procedure, show them the new procedure. Get them to try the new procedure. Then leave. How long will they continue to perform in the new way?”

Shirley shook her head. “60 seconds! That’s it. As soon as I leave, they go back to the way they did it before.”

“Shirley, you are focused on what you do before the new behavior. What could you do differently after the behavior to get a different result?”

“You mean, stick around and watch longer?” she said. It sounded like a question, but it was more of a statement.

“And if you stuck around longer, what else could you do to get a different result?”

“I guess I could correct them if they did it wrong.”

“And if they did it right?” I prompted.

“I could tell them they did it right?” Now, it was a question.

“Yes, and what else?” I asked.

“Ask them to do it again?” The picture came into focus for Shirley.

“Yes, ask to see it again. Smile. Ask other people to watch how well it was done. Smile again. Tell her you want her to practice and that you will be back in ten minutes to watch again.

“If you want someone to acquire a new behavior, telling and demonstrating only gets it started. If you want the behavior to be repeated, you have to design rapid fire frequent positive reinforcement after the behavior. Watching, smiling, paying attention, encouraging. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Span of Accountability (Control)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I’ve been following your blog since you spoke at an event at our office in 2015. I see a lot of posts discussing timespan and organizational structures. What’s your view of “span of control” as it relates to organizational structures? The military has a 3-5 subordinate unit rule of thumb which makes sense for matters of life and death. Yet, I’ve seen organizations with people managing 20+ direct reports. This seems to be on the other end of spectrum and untenable not just from a managerial perspective but from a human/leadership perspective as well. Your thoughts?

I am not a military expert, so I am not certain of military rules of thumb related to span of control. Any readers familiar can jump in the comments.

Before I leap in, however, I want to re-frame the question. It is not a matter of management or control (even span of control), it is a matter of accountability. Here is my re-framed question – How many people can one manager be accountable for?

Elliott acknowledged a concept know as the Mutual Recognition Unit (MRU) which addressed your question. How many people can a single manager have on the team and remain an effective manager?

It depends. The maximum number Elliott placed was around 70. Beyond 70, it is likely the manager would begin to lose effectiveness. You have to remember the primary function of a manager is to bring value to the team’s problem solving and decision making. I can already see your skepticism through my internet connection.

For a manager to be effective with a team of 70, the work must be repetitive with low variability. The higher the variability in the work, the fewer allowable on the team.

Take a high-volume call center where customer support representatives respond to the same phone calls day after day. One supervisor may attend to teams as large as 70 before losing track.

Take a US Navy Seal team. How many on the team? I am thinking six. Why? Because the work is always variable with high levels of risk. One manager to a team of six.

So, it’s your organization. How do you assess the level of variability in the work? How much is repetitive? How much risk if the team gets it wrong? These questions will guide you to your answer.

Positive Reinforcement in the Real World

“So, how does that work around here?” Travis asked. Using the analogy of video games and expert levels made the reinforcement process understandable, but we were running a loading dock, not playing a video game.

“Travis, the guys loading the trucks, have you noticed the different colored t-shirts they wear, the ones with the company logo on the front?”

“Yeah, I noticed. We started that about three weeks ago. The new guys get a white t-shirt to start. We had a meeting about it.”

“And when does the new guy get his white t-shirt?”

“The first day,” Travis smiled.

“No, the first day he punches the timeclock reporting for work on-time,” I clarified. “What is the most important first behavior?”

“Showing up for work on time,” Travis said.

“And when does he get his second white t-shirt?”

Travis was catching on. “The second day he punches in for work on time.”

“And when does he get a yellow shirt?” I continued.

“Five days on time, consecutive days on time.”

“And when does he get a green shirt?”

“When he passes forklift training.” Travis stopped. “I think I get it.”

How to Coach Increasing Competence

“Sustained, discretionary effort. That’s what we are after,” I said. “The training period requires more attention and focus from the manager. But as time passes and new behaviors become competent skills, the reinforcement changes.

“In the beginning, the manager has to overcome push-back and fear of failure. But, as the new behavior turns to competence, the issues change.”

“So, what does the manager do differently?” asked Travis.

“Lots of things, but let’s start with the easy stuff. In the beginning, the manager may reinforce good old fashioned effort. But as time goes by and the effort becomes accomplished, the manager changes to reinforce a specific sequence. As the specific sequence becomes accomplished, the manager may reinforce speed or efficiency.

“Let’s go back to our example of the video game. Modern game designers structure training sequences into the lower levels of the game. Leveling up requires certain fundamental skills be demonstrated. Once accomplished, the player is introduced to more complex scenarios where mastery of the fundamentals must already exist. Each level becomes increasingly complex. The schedules of reinforcement change, but the principle remains the same. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”