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.

Constructed, Tested, Adopted

“Easy to answer the negative, more difficult to answer the positive,” I repeated. “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I remember reading something from a long time ago, about a company that had something called skunkworks,” Susan was thinking. “It was still inside the company, not really a secret, but hidden away somewhere.”

Lockheed Martin, America’s first jet fighter,” I explained. “Why do you think it was hidden away, not a secret, but out of sight?”

“They were probably experimenting with things where they did not know the outcome and the probability of failure was high. My guess is that, when there were failures, no one knew about it, so nobody got fired.”

“Exactly, the probability of failure was high, so the skunkworks were separated from operations, there was no real impact, no downside consequences. So, if the probability of failure was high, why did the company tolerate it?”

Now, Susan smiled. “Because the possibility of upside was substantial. And, they had to work all the kinks out of the ideas. There were likely failures along the way, but the company minimized the risk while they were making headway.”

I repeated my question, “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

What’s Stopping Innovation?

Susan looked down, her face long in frustration.

“You look at creative ideas,” I said. “I look at context. I have to acknowledge your frustration at the lack of progress in your journey of innovation. Let me re-frame my observations with a forward looking question. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I am not sure where you are going with this,” Susan responded.

“Let’s assume your creative ideas have merit. What conditions exist in your company that resist the construction, testing and adoption of new ideas?”

“Now, that’s an easy question to answer,” Susan chuckled through her frustration. “There is a long list –

  • We already tried that before and it didn’t work?
  • It’s too expensive.
  • It will take too long.
  • The last person with an idea like that got fired.
  • We are headed in exactly the opposite direction and we have too much sunk costs to change direction now, even though what we are doing isn’t working.

“Nice list,” I smiled. “It’s always easy to answer the negative, now let’s answer the positive. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

Possibility for Creativity

“When I look at my company,” Susan said, “many times I see the stifling of creativity and innovation, often in the same sentence extolling the virtues that are being trampled.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have some initiative suggested by a consultant, process improvement,” she said. “We spend a couple of off-site days banging our collective heads together to come up with ideas to make things more efficient. We chew up a couple pads of flip-chart paper, posted on the wall, everyone high-fiving.”

“And?” I asked, looking for the other shoe to drop.

“And two weeks later, nothing has changed. We are still doing things the same way, suffering the same consequences.”

“Do you personally believe creativity and innovation are important,” I pressed.

“Of course,” Susan replied. “We had some great ideas, it’s just that nothing seems to happen.”

“Sometimes, ideas are not enough, intentions are not enough, even first steps are not enough,” I replied. “Sometimes, it’s the context in which these ideas sit. It is the surrounding conditions that serve to resist new momentum, change. We are seldom wanting for creative and innovative ideas, it is creating the conditions for those ideas to flourish. Sometimes, it is difficult to create the conditions for those ideas to even be possible.”

Underpinnings of Theory

“I have to tell you,” I started. “I have a high bias for action. Theory is okay, but for me, I am more interested in real world application, the theory, not so much.”

Pablo gave me a short grimace. “Unfortunate,” he said. “I know you young people are short on attention, you look for excitement in the world. Often, the underpinnings of theory escape you.”

“It’s not that,” I defended. “I just lean toward doing something.”

“I am sure that is what you believe, but every action you take, indeed, all of your behavior is based on your perception of the world, what is going on around you. Understand, that perception is always a frame of some sort. There are things within your field of vision, and things outside your field of vision. Sometimes, to change your frame, all you have to do is turn your head.”

“I get that,” I nodded. “I’m a visual person.”

“Most of your frames,” Pablo turned his head to see me sideways, “are not visual frames, but mental frames. Your mental frames are based on assumptions, beliefs, the way you see the world. Most of your frames are based on some theory. And, if your theory is not intentional, studied, tested, then your behavior may be (mis)guided by a theory of which you are not aware.”

A Thanksgiving Note

Just a quick note for Thanksgiving (here in the US). I am settled in at home, turkey in the fridge, favorite recipe ingredients stacked on the counter. A time for gratitude.

I want to give special thanks to all the readers of Management Blog. We have just completed 17 full years of publishing. I think I will have a beer. Happy Thanksgiving.

See you all next Monday, Nov 29. -Tom

Inside the Function

“Take your most important internal function,” Pablo instructed. “In the beginning, likely will be operations. What is the work most closely related to producing the product or delivering the service? Especially in the beginning, that is mostly short-term work, 1 day to 3 months. Most production roles have a supervisor, with longer term goals and objectives, 3 months to 12 months. The supervisory role is to make sure production gets done, completely, on time, within spec.”

“So, every production person knows they have a supervisor?” I added.

“And, every supervisor knows they have a manager,” Pablo smiled. “This is the beginning of structure, nested goals and objectives related to successive roles (context), a production role, to a supervisory role to a managerial role.”

“The roles are distinguished by longer timespan goals and objectives?” I suggested.

“Yes, the roles are different in that way, but also in the way they relate to each other. Organizational structure begins with nested timespan goals, but also includes the way we define two things associated with those role relationships.”

“Accountability and authority?” I chimed in.

Pablo nodded. “In this working relationship between the team member and the supervisor, what is the accountability? What is the authority?”

My turn to show off. “The accountability on the part of the team member is to apply their full capability in pursuit of the goals and objectives agreed to by their supervisor, in short, to do their best. It is the accountability of the supervisor to create the working environment that makes those goals and objectives possible (probable). It is the accountability of the supervisor for output.”

“And, the authority?” Pablo prompted.

“The authority to make decisions and solve problems appropriate to the level of work in the task.”

The Framework of Structure

“Organizational structure based on the timespan of related goals and objectives?” I repeated, as a question. “Has to be more complex that that.”

“Of course. Organizational structure is complex,” Pablo replied. “But, that is where is starts, looking at the level of work, goals and objectives.”

“A bit overwhelming,” I surmised. “Still looks like a large kettle of fish.”

Pablo nodded in agreement. “After the vision and mission, the founder must examine the internal functions required to kickstart the company. And, remember, this is an infant company, so there aren’t that many internal functions. Producing the product, delivering the service, finding a customer willing to pay and a way to deposit the money into the bank. That’s it, in the beginning.”

“So, in the beginning, following the vision and mission, I have to define the first functions required to produce the product or service. And in each function, determine the goals and objectives?”

“And, the ‘by-when’ of each goal will tell you the level of work required. That is the beginning of structure.”

Goal Based Structure

“If organizational structure is so important to the way things work,” I asked, “where do we start?”

“It always starts with the founder, entrepreneur, “Pablo replied. “Someone had an idea for a company, so they start it. It starts with that idea.”

“Vision, mission?”

“Yes, but immediately think about timespan,” Pablo inserted. “I know the founder thinks about where that first customer will come from, but successful thinking starts with what that organization will look like in the future. What will things look like in five years? And, that’s the start of structure.”

“How so?” I said, looking for something more specific.

“Don’t overthink this,” Pablo admonished. “Structure starts with a series of contexts, the first context exists in the imagination of the founder, long term. This is what the organization will look like in its market, including customers, competitors, vendors, supply chain, delivery chain. This is a complex context, passed along, inside the company.”

“And?”

“The next layer of context is shorter, goals and objectives 2-5 years in length. This is a cascade, a nesting inside the vision and mission.”

“And?”

The cascade continues,” Pablo explained. “The next context shorter, 1-2 years. With the next context 3-12 months, followed by the next context 1 day to 3 months. Organizational structure is simply a cascade of nested contexts within which people work.
———-
S-V – 5-10 years
S-IV – 2-5 years
S-III – 1-2 years
S-II – 3-12 months
S-I – 1 day-3 months
———-
“Layers inside the company, levels of work, all based on the timespan of their related goals and objectives.”

Working Relationships and Social Relationships

“Why is this so important?” I asked.

“We look at an organization and instinctively think it is a collection of personalities, and that we must pay attention to the personalities as that will be the way our organization gets along. Far more important is the structure, the way we organize the work and define the working relationships,” Pablo nodded.

“How so?”

“Think about the simple relationship between a manager and a team member,” Pablo continued. “That relationship will spell trust, fairness and deep satisfaction. OR, it will spell frustration, manipulation and despair. The organization gets to choose how it defines those working relationships. Further, those emotionally charged responses will spill over into the way people see the rest of the world. On the shoulders of the organization is the tone for other social relationships.”

Matching the Work

“I’m a structure guy,” Pablo said. “When you think about effective managerial leadership, I think the focus is on the structure.”

“It’s not on charisma, likeability, luck?” I asked, knowing the answer.

Pablo gave me a knowing smile. “The first key area for any manager, is to design and build the team. Individual achievement is a myth. If you want to create something great, it takes a team, a collection of teams, organized to get work done.”

“Before I do anything else, I have to build the team?” I wanted to know.

“Before you build the team, you have to design it,” Pablo continued. “That’s where most companies make their first missteps. As time goes by, there is too much to do, always work left over. Someone has a brilliant idea, let’s hire some more people. And, they do this without any thought of the overall design of the team to get work done.”

“So, first I have to think about the work?”

“And, not just task assignments, we have to figure out what problems must be solved and what decisions have to be made. With that, then we have to determine the level of problem solving and the level of decision required on the team, to make sure when we start to match up the people, we can select the right ones.”