Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

But, the Team Missed the Deadline

Lindsey had a puzzled look on her face. “I don’t understand. The team missed the deadline. We lost the project. If not the team, who do we hold accountable for the result? And believe me, this was a big deal. There was a big team bonus riding on this project.”

I started, slowly. “Who knew about the project first? Who had knowledge about the context of the project among all the other projects in the company? Who had the ability to allocate additional personnel to the project team to meet the deadline? Who had the authority to bump other project schedules to meet this deadline? Who was in a position to authorize overtime for this project?”

“Well, the Memphis team Manager,” she replied.

Who Do You Hold to Account

“I don’t see it,” Lindsey grimaced. “As a company, it is certainly not our intention to pit management against team members.”

“Yet, you feel a growing divide, and you are blaming the uncertainty in the economy,” I replied.

“Well, yes, if it weren’t for the economy, I don’t think this would happen.”

“Let’s take a look at managerial accountability. Who do you hold accountable for the output of any of your teams? They have a goal, the goal is not reached. Who do you hold accountable?”

“You’re right. Just last week, our Memphis project team missed a deadline that cost us the opportunity to land a project. It wasn’t my team, but anyone could see from a couple of weeks before, that they weren’t going to meet the time constraints.”

“Who did you hold accountable for missing the deadline?” I asked.

“Well, it was the Memphis project team.”

“Wrong, it’s not the team we should hold accountable for the result.”

The Third Part of the Story

“I don’t understand,” Roger shook his head. “If Brad would just start earlier on these longer projects, things would be under control, and he wouldn’t be cutting unnecessary corners which compromise project quality.”

“Why do you think he procrastinates until the end?” I asked.

Roger shook his head.

“Because,” I continued, “he cannot see the end until he is two months away. On a project with a nine month deadline, Brad cannot see the end. It is too far away. There is so much uncertainty between now and nine months from now, that he cannot see it.

“So he takes no action.

“Of course, the pressure of the project builds, because now things are getting late, but even that is not what finally kicks Brad into action. With sixty days to go, Brad can now see the end. And when Brad can see the end, he starts to act. It is frustrating for us, because we saw this nine months ago.

“Everyone has a story. And every story has a beginning, middle and an end. When you listen to someone’s story, you will hear the Time Span of their story. They cannot take action in their story until they see the end of their story.”

Overtime and Weekends

I managed to get two steps up the food chain, talking with the boss of Olivia’s boss, a senior vice president in the company.

“So, how did the audit project get delayed for your ISO re-certification?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You spoke with Olivia, one of our supervisors. Her manager, Brad, is really in charge of that project, it’s a Stratum III role, and we have had more troubles than just the audit with Brad.”

“Procrastination?” I suggested.

His eyes grew wide and his head began to nod in agreement. Eyebrows furrowed. “Yes. And I have talked to him about getting a jump on these longer term projects. Brad is okay with projects of about 60 days, but anything longer than that and he really gets in the weeds. In the end, you start to see him power through, working overtime and weekends. When he started working here, he looked really dedicated, but as time goes on, I don’t see that as effective manager behavior.”

“What length project is Brad good at?”

“Two months.”

“And how much time is left before the audit?”

“Two months.”

“What connection can you make from that?”

Time Compression?

“We have an ISO process audit coming up in two months and we have to get all the documentation updated before it starts. So, that makes it a two month Time Span goal,” Olivia described. “I am not sure I understand. This is a very complex project. The documentation is very detailed and technical. It will require someone at my level to supervise, to make sure it is correct. If we fail this audit, it puts several contracts in jeopardy. But a two month Time Span looks like Stratum I work.”

“There are two kinds of complexity. One type is created by the amount of technical detail. The other type of complexity is created by uncertainty,” I replied.

“Okay, I understand that if something has a lot of technical detail, it will take a long time just to parse through it. That might make a project’s Time Span longer. But I cannot get over the fact that this project has to be complete in two months, but the level of work is definitely higher than Stratum I.”

“Don’t be fooled. Because you only have two months, a great deal of uncertainty is gone. While you may think this is a tough project (detailed complexity), the limited Time Span forces this to be a simpler project.

“In two months,” I continued, “you don’t have time to start your documentation over from scratch. You don’t have time for massive overhaul, no in-depth analysis. You only have time to perform a quick review, observe a limited number of examples and make some relatively minor changes. Here’s the rub.

“The real Time Span of this project started the moment you finished version one of your current documentation. The true Time Span of the project is closer to one year than two months. Unfortunately, no manager took this assignment. No work was done. Procrastination killed its true purpose, and likely, the quality of the end product.”

Current Goal, Five Years Ago

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
It seems that long term goals are hard to articulate. In setting long term goals, would you agree that they are by nature more ambiguous? Should we worry less about being precise?

Response:
A long term goal, by its nature?

Five years ago, our one year goal was a five year goal. What has changed in the four years between?

The goal has taken shape, become clearer, better defined, more concrete. It has also taken turns and twists, met with contingency and unexpected, yes unintended consequences. It is now more certain, less left to chance. Murphy has less time to play.

It is the Time Span of Intention, the most important judgment for a Manager, to determine those things necessary in the future.

Ambiguous?

Precise?

Things Change

Krista had a sheepish look on her face when I asked to see her list of goals for the next three months.

“I don’t really have a list,” she said. “I mean, I know what I am supposed to do. I keep it in my head.”

“Then how do you organize your list, if you don’t have it written down? How do you share your goals with other people? How do you change and update them? Most importantly, how do you make decisions about goals?”

“Well, when I started this job, my manager explained things to me. I had a job description and I signed off on it. Is that what you mean?”

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

“About two and half years ago,” she replied.

“Your customers have changed, your market has changed, technology has changed, regulations in your industry have changed, your team has changed. Do mean that your goals have NOT changed in two and half years?”

That Annual Event

“What do you hate about performance appraisals?” I asked, gazing into a classroom full of rolling eyes. The snickers and muffled laughter hinted that I struck a chord.

Each table created responses that sounded like these:

  • They are a waste of time.
  • They are supposed to cover a whole year, but no one remembers anything earlier than three weeks ago.
  • My manager hardly knows what I do, anyway.
  • My manager is just trying to remember the bad stuff, so he doesn’t have to give me a raise.
  • The only score I ever get is a 3 out of 5, because any other score requires an explanation, and no one wants to spend the time on the paperwork.
  • My manager is out of touch with the problems I face on a daily basis, and he uses some sort of rating system that doesn’t make any sense.
  • Sometimes, I think my manager is wrong about the way he sees things.

If you are a regular reader of Dilbert, you can come up with another hundred observations. The reason they are funny is that they most accurately describe the truth.

Talking to Candidates?

“You want me to read resumes and talk to candidates?” Roger protested.  “I am not the hiring manager.  The hiring manager is on my team, it’s his responsibility.  I just hope he does a good job.  That position has been a rotating door for months.”

“And, what are you accountable for?” I asked nonchalantly.

“Let me give you a long laundry list,” Roger replied. ” I have four projects in play, we have some capital equipment I have to vet and approve. Plus, I have a couple of personalities to straighten out and I have a huge communication issue between operations and quality control. And, you want me to get involved in this hiring process?”

“Sounds daunting,” I said. “What more important thing do you have to do than to build the infrastructure of your team? In fact, the reason you have all these issues is you did a lousy job of recruiting in the first place. You do this job well (recruiting), and your life as a manager will be wonderful. You do this job (recruiting) poorly, and your life as a manager will be miserable, and for a very long time.”

Objective or Subjective?

“Our company has adopted something called Management by Objectives. MBO they call it,” Sara reported.

“And why did your company adopt that strategy?” I asked.

“There were some who said that our appraisal system was too subjective, that it needed to be measurable. So everyone had to sit down and make up some objectives.”

“And why do you think your company made that decision?”

“Some of the managers were uncomfortable making judgments about a team member’s performance. There were squabbles, disagreements and the whole thing turned into a big distraction.”

“And how is MBO working out for you?”

“Well, it has just as many downsides as the old system,” Sara replied. “Some people get so focused on their own objectives, they forget about the other people they work with. Cooperation gets stopped dead in its tracks. And sometimes the objectives are not really in the control of the team member. We seem to spend more time talking about how unfair the system is than we do about improving individual effectiveness.”