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.

Merry Christmas

Originally published December 23, 2005.

As Matthew looked across the manufacturing floor, the machines stood silent, the shipping dock was clear. Outside, the service vans were neatly parked in a row. Though he was the solitary figure, Matthew shouted across the empty space.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.”

He reached for the switch and the lights went dark. He slid out the door and locked it behind.

We hope you all have a wonderful holiday. Management Blog will return on January 4, 2021. We will check email over the holidays, so if you need us, you know how to get us.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
-Tom

We Didn’t Have to Wait

Many people see 2020 as a year to (un)remember. Lives disrupted.

A new year is upon us, and with it, a new outlook. Is it a New Year’s resolution? Is it the promise of the vaccine(s)? Is it new habits that help us cope?

We didn’t have to wait. A new outlook can be adopted on any day. It’s a shift. Most people don’t shift until they have to, until they are pushed to. But, the shift isn’t required. The shift is a choice.

Supernatural Powers

“Who is responsible for the team?” I asked again. “Who is responsible for the performance of the team, and all the things that affect performance?”

Melanie started looking around her office, as if someone was going to appear. One of her team just quit.

I continued. “If it’s not you, as the department manager, if it’s not your accountability, then who?”

Melanie’s eyes stopped skirting the room. There was no hero that appeared. One last time, she floated her excuse, “But how am I responsible for one of my supervisors quitting?”

“That’s a very good question. How are you, as the manager, responsible for one of your supervisors quitting?”

“What, am I supposed to be clairvoyant?” Melanie snapped.

“That would be helpful,” I nodded. “But let’s say you don’t have supernatural powers. How could you, as the manager, know enough about your supervisors, to have predicted this departure?”

Getting Consensus?

Adelle emerged from the conference room after two long hours of debate. She shook her head from side to side, a genuine look of despair. “I tried,” she shrugged, “but we didn’t make a whole lot of progress. What we ended up with was mostly crap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, we have been trying to figure out the best way to solve this problem and there are a bunch of ideas, but we just can’t reach a consensus on which way to proceed. I am afraid to get started until I know for sure that everyone is on board. But every time we make a compromise, other people drop off and want something different.”

“What happens to the quality of the solution every time you compromise?”

“That’s the real problem. It’s the compromising that kills it. After listening to all the input, I know what we should do and the little compromises just water it down. We might as well junk the whole project because, in this state, it will not do what the customer wants it to do.”

“Whose meeting did you just walked out of?” I asked.

It was Adelle’s turn to ask, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, was it the team’s meeting, or was it your meeting? Let me put it a different way. Who is your boss going to hold accountable for this decision?”

“Oh, I tried that once, blaming a decision on the team. I got the message. My boss is going to hold me accountable for the decision.”

“Then, it wasn’t a team meeting. It was YOUR meeting that the team got invited to. It is your responsibility to listen to the input, and it is also your responsibility to make the decision. And you don’t need agreement, you just need support.”

Adelle had to sit down to think about this one.

Managing Conflict?

This meeting was different. Business as usual was shattered like crystal on a marble floor. The usual comfort level was suddenly traded for a stomach flipping tension-filled discussion.

“I am sorry, but I have to disagree.” The silence dropped, eyes got wide, butts in chairs started shifting. Someone cleared their throat. This team was at a cross roads. The next few minutes would determine whether it engaged in productive work or disengaged to avoid the conflict currently on the table.

This is not a question of managing conflict, more a matter of managing agreement. In fact, the more the group tries to manage the conflict, the more likely the agreement will be coerced and compromised with the real issues suppressed, perhaps even undiscussable.

Conversely, if the group engaged in a process to manage agreement, the conflict might be heard, even encouraged, thoroughly discussed. Opposing viewpoints might be charted out and debated. Expectations might be described at both maximum success and dismal failure. Indicators could be created with contingency plans for positive and negative scenarios.

Does your team manage conflict to make sure discussions are comfortable and efficient?

OR…

Does your team encourage spirited discussion of both sides of an issue? When things get uncomfortable, can your team live through the stress of conflict to arrive at a well argued decision?

When I look around the room and see that each person is comfortably sitting, I can bet the issue on the table is of little importance. But, if I see stomachs tied in knots, this issue on the table is likely to be important.

Heightened Intuition

Remember the bio-feedback days. It was all the rage, an entire arm of the psychology, self-help, medical community started a little cottage industry. I don’t know where it started, maybe with the old lie-detector machines that measured Galvanic skin response. The essence of the science was that various stimuli in the environment create predictable biological responses in the body, sparking electrical and chemical changes in brain patterns and hormone levels. It’s what gives you the sweats when you get nervous.

You don’t hear much about bio-feedback anymore, but the bio-responses in your body are still very real. As a Manager, these bio-responses can work for you and against you. For the most part, bio-response is unconscious, we don’t know what is going on inside, but the hormones are being released nonetheless. As brain patterns change or hormone levels build, if the Manager can become sensitive to the change, two very important things can occur.

  • Heightened intuition
  • Channeled reaction

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We were talking about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge. Some people believe that intuition is unexplainable, but I think intuition is simply getting in touch with the bio-responses that unconsciously occur all the time.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I had asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness, which is a bio-response to “I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me.” BOOM. That’s the bio-response. Heightened intuition (simply getting in touch with the bio-response) tells me that we are talking about something more significant than the weather. The first important element of bio-response is heightened intuition.

The second is channeled reaction. The automatic (unconscious) reaction to a bio-response is to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response is simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. It is also likely that the conversation will steer back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. When the Manager becomes aware of the bio-response, the reaction can be channeled productively. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoiding it would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything. OR, I could engage, and channel the reaction. I could let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The bio-response gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.

Planning and Execution

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I have been with the company for only 7 months now, and am very thankful I’ve found this site.

The biggest problem I face is three years of rapid growth in a family owned company. The culture is not keeping up with the changes in methods required to handle the increased volume. People still are working from memory instead of set processes, and are reluctant to train others in what they were solely responsible for years. Trying to force these changes seems to only increase turnover.

How can I influence my “older,” and most valued for technical skills, employees to change their ways of thinking?

Response:

If you continue to force these changes, turnover will eventually remove the resistance, and that’s not likely your intention.

In the meantime, think about these two things, planning and execution. Of the two, which is more difficult?

Flawless execution, to the fundamental processes, with speed and accuracy is best accomplished under a form of organization government known as a dictatorship; tyrannical may be the most effective. (BTW, you cannot be the dictator).

But, to be able to execute flawlessly, requires a planning process to support it. And this planning process must be created under a very different form of organizational government, a democracy. I know it is slow, requires participation, accommodation, discussion with divergent points of view, but it is absolutely necessary.

Plan like a democracy, execute like a dictatorship. It sounds as if you have things backwards. You are planning like a dictator, and you experience democratic execution. You are dictating and forcing processes, but the execution is slow, with much discussion (grumbling), divergent points of view and resistance.

You have to reverse the process. Plan like a democracy, execute like a dictator. Call a meeting. Explain the situation. You have increasing volume and the need for greater speed. Tell them the meeting will reconvene in twenty four hours, at which time, you will listen to their plan to handle the increased volume. Adjourn the meeting.
___
This process is explained in more detail in Driving Force by Peter Schutz.

For Well Over a Decade

“But, I thought, to do planning, the first step was to create some goals?” asked Nicole. “That’s what we have always done.”

I nodded. “That’s where most people start. And goals are important.” I stopped. “How do we make sure we are going after the right goals? And how do we make sure the targets are set high enough?”

“Well, we have to know where we are headed,” Nicole replied.

“Exactly, and that is what we have to define first.”

Nicole winced.

“There are a number of ways to do that,” I said. “We could take a picture, draw a picture, describe a picture of where we are going?”

“What do you mean?”

“A company I know, just finished a brand new building, something, as a team, they had been working toward as long as I knew them. For years, hanging on the wall, there was an artist’s rendering of that building. That was it. That was the vision. And everyone who walked by or sat in that office knew precisely where the company was headed.

“Year after year, without wavering, that picture stood inside the heads of the management team. It drove them to perform with that single thought in mind. Two weeks ago, they had their grand opening. It is amazing how that single visual picture drove their thinking, their performance, their goals for well over a decade.

“The first step in planning is vision.”

The Future Looks Like?

Miriam creeped into the conference so as not to disturb the rest of the meeting. Everyone was working hard on their business plan for 2021. “I’m having a bit of trouble,” she said. “I know all the steps for the plan, but I am just stuck.”

“And step one is what?” I asked. We were working with a structured planning model.

“Step one is to create the vision for my department. And that was easy. I think I got it all captured in a couple of sentences. It’s the rest of the plan that I am having difficulty with.”

“Interesting,” I replied, “that you can capture that much detail in two sentences.”

“Well, you are right,” Miriam confessed. “There isn’t a lot of detail, but I thought it would be better if it was short.”

“Miriam, here is the way the vision part of the plan works. The more detailed it is, the clearer the images are, the easier it is to write the rest of the plan. Instead of two sentences, write two pages. I want to know who your customers are and what services you provide. You probably have more than one customer segment, tell me how they are different and how your services to each are different? Tell me what position you hold in the marketplace, what your market share is? Who are your competitors? Tell me what your competitive advantage is, what are your core competencies? Who are your key personnel, how do you find them, how do you grow them? Tell me about your facilities, your plant? How do you control quality? How do you guarantee performance?”

Miriam left the room with a bit of thinking to do. A couple of days later, I read her vision statement. It contained all the detail we talked about and more. The plan that followed was clear and detailed, all driven by a carefully constructed word picture of the future.

The first step in the plan is vision.

With Gratitude

“What are you thankful for?” I asked.

The eyes from the other side of the table turned kind.

“I am thankful for this time of year, where things slow down. I stop. I stop being busy and become aware. If we don’t stop, we just keep going. Gratitude is about awareness. When I stop, my heart rate goes down. I am calm. In the quiet, I can take it in. I can watch and see things more clearly for what they are.”

“And, what do you see?” I prompted.

“I see connections, the relationships I have with other people. I play a role in other people’s lives and other people bring value to mine. It’s all about connections.”

“And, what are you thankful for?” I asked again.

“I am thankful that I am not wandering alone. I am thankful for those around me, that are connected to me. It sounds too obvious. That’s why it is so important to slow down and become aware. If we don’t stop, we just keep going.”

During this time of Thanksgiving, I am going to stop. To become aware.

See you next week. With my gratitude.