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.

Meeting Satisfaction

“As a participant in any meeting, Sheila, have you ever walked out at the end saying, Darn, I wish we had done this at the meeting.”

“Well, yeah. Almost every meeting I go to, is like that. Sometimes, it wouldn’t take much to make a meeting more meaningful,” she replied. “Almost every time, it misses the mark.”

“So, you think a meeting would have been better if it had just included some unspoken element?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Then, up front at the beginning of the meeting, does it make sense to get those unspoken elements out on the table?”

Sheila tilted her head. “How would you do that?”

“If you are the leader of the meeting, early on, after establishing the purpose for the meeting, simply ask, What is your condition of satisfaction for today’s meeting. What has to happen, by the end of the day, for you to say, this meeting was worthwhile, to say, you are glad you came, you are glad you contributed?

“As the leader of the meeting,” I continued. “You might as well know that up front.”

It’s the Job of a Manager

“What kind of questions?” asked Ted.

“Look, in your position, as Manager, you often don’t have the technical details necessary to make a decision. As a Manager, that’s not your job. Your job is to bring value to the thinking and work of your team.” I waited for Ted to catch up.

“By asking questions?”

“Most Managers think their team will see them weak if they have difficulty making a decision, even if the Manager doesn’t have the technical details. So, sometimes Managers make a decision because they think it’s their job.

“If you have two engineers, each with a different method of solving a problem, you may not know which method is technically the best way.”

“So, how do you make the decision?”

“You don’t bring value by telling them what to do. You bring value by asking questions.

  • What were the top three criteria on which you based your recommendation?
  • What impact will your recommendation have on the time frame of the project?
  • What two things could go wrong with your recommendation?

“Your job, as Manager, is not telling people what to do. Your job is to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.”

It’s Just a Start

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I have completed my MBA and I am now working in an office with a limited territory for our company here in India. I want to know what other things I need to do, like a course, to create better prospects for me to become a manager?

Response:

More learning, taking a course is always a plus, but not sufficient.

You need two things. First, you need to speak with your manager and ask for clear feedback on how you can improve in your current position. Whatever you are currently doing, be the best. Your manager is the best coach to give you that feedback.

Second, you need to find a mentor. Your mentor may or may not work inside your company, but should be in a position to speak with you long term about your career. This is usually not your direct manager, but one more level up. Your conversations should not be centered around your day-to-day accountabilities, but on longer one and two year goals.

Be the best where you are today and keep looking forward one to two years in the future. Congratulations on your MBA. You are now at the start of the game, a wonderful game.

Measuring Output or Effectiveness?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
You describe an evaluation process called the Personal Effectiveness Appraisal. How is that different from a Performance Review?

Response:
The Performance Review, or Annual Performance Appraisal judges the output of the person in the role related to goals or objectives. How close did the team member’s output come to the target? The problem with the Performance Appraisal, it places accountability in the wrong place.

The goal, or the target published in the Performance Appraisal is generally set by the manager. Team members may agree (enthusiastically or reluctantly), but it is the manager that signs off on the target. That target is the manager’s best judgement of what is reasonable based on the manager’s expectation of circumstances. These goals or targets are typically organized into Key Areas, so the role has an array of indicators (KPIs) on which to examine output. Because this method incorporates a series of comparative numbers, it is thought that this Performance Appraisal is “objective” in that the numbers don’t lie. The problem is, the basis for those numbers is still a manager’s judgement. Further, it is the manager that controls all the variables around those numbers, access to resources, number of people committed to the goal, budget allocated, tools, maintenance schedules, overtime permitted, supply chain interruption. It is the manager Elliott holds accountable for output.

The Personal Effectiveness Appraisal is different. Please understand it is still a manager’s judgement, but now the manager is looking at additional criteria. It is not that we put the manager’s targets aside, but the manager must now consider the team member’s effectiveness in the context of the circumstances during the appraisal period. A salesperson, in a fertile market might achieve the target output numbers by simply taking orders. A Performance Appraisal might judge the output as “exceeded expectations,” while an Effectiveness Appraisal might judge the behavior as mediocre.

A salesperson in a difficult market might fall short of the target in spite of extraordinary skill and effort. The Performance Appraisal might judge the output with a failing grade, while an Effectiveness Appraisal might yield a high five, perhaps a hug (if we are still allowed to hug in the workplace).

Freedom in Limits

“But, I want my team to feel free to approach problems on their own terms,” Monica insisted.  “I don’t want to stifle their creativity.  But often, my team just wanders in a state of confusion, trying to solve a problem that’s not that difficult.”

“It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?” I replied.  “We think if we set limits, then we stifle the team, when limits can be actually be very productive.  If we set the limits too narrow, then there is little opportunity to discover a new or better method.  Yet, if we set the limits too wide, we promote confusion, disarray, introduce delay.”

“That’s what I see, I think I am promoting creativity by giving free reign, but the outcome often falls short,” Monica nodded.

“The thing is, we live with limits all the time.  Social structures are designed to impose limits on those involved.  Organizational structures are designed to define the limits within which reality lives.  They are not designed to stifle, but designed to release creativity in real productive ways.”

“Like, when I tell the team to contribute ideas where money is no object, when the reality is, there is always a limit to the budget.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “You may gather ideas with an unlimited budget, but there is always that reality that tempers the ideas.  Brainstorming has its place, but so does problem-solving.”

Setting Context

“One of my main responsibilities, as a manager, is to set the context for my team? What do you mean?” Paula asked. “I assume this is more than introducing each other.”

“It’s all about the work,” I replied. “Context starts with a clear understanding of the task at hand. What is the quantity, quality standard, necessary resources and the time frame. QQT/R.

“Next, is how that assigned task fits with the larger picture, that you, as a manager are accountable for. This provides the team with an understanding of just how big their role is, in the larger picture.

“Context also includes the work their teammates are doing, work that intersects with their work, work output they may be waiting for, work output they produce that someone else may be waiting for.

“Context answers the questions – How do I fit in? What is the importance of the work I am doing? What do others depend on me for? One of the primary accountabilities for every manager is to set context for the team.”

99 Dumb Ideas

Todd raised his hand. “I have an idea,” he said, in response to my question to the group. I nodded, he continued, explaining a thumbnail of a solution to the problem.

“That’s a really dumb idea,” I said. There was a silent gasp. Eyes got wide. Blank stares remained frozen.

“What just happened?” I asked.

Marion spoke first. “You just shot Todd,” she said.

“And what was the team’s response? More specifically, how many of you are now willing to contribute your idea to solve this problem?” I pressed. Around the room there were no takers. Weirdly quiet. I smiled with my next questions.

“How many months have we spent working together, to gain each other’s trust? Side by side, we grappled with problems, solving them, trading those problems for another set of problems, working together, growing together?” I stopped.

“And, yet, how long did it take to stop this team in its tracks?” I continued. “Ideas are fragile. In search of an idea to solve a problem requires a risk from each of you in the room. And, we just saw how quickly all the work and all the trust can be sidelined in one sentence. So, ground rules for the next 60 minutes –

  • No idea is a dumb idea.
  • Every idea has the possibility of spurring the next idea.
  • Ideas can be built on each other, subtle variations may make the difference.
  • Ideas can be seen forward, backward and sideways.
  • One part of an idea can be coupled with a different part of another idea.
  • If the best idea is 1 in a 100, then I need 99 ideas that don’t work to find the idea that saves the day.

It’s Just Wrong

“But, that’s just wrong,” Jeffrey pressed. “I tell my team what’s wrong and then tell them to fix it. It’s up to them how. I am not going to spoon-feed the solution. I want them to figure it out.”

“And, when you tell them something is wrong, what state of mind have you left them in?” I asked.

“I hope the state of mind is urgency. When they screw up, they need to fix it and fix it fast,” he replied.

“Exactly. And, how does that state of mind contribute to the quality of the solution?”

Jeffrey chuckled. “You’re right. Most of the time, the team acts like a deer in headlights, frozen, unable to move, no alternatives, no solutions.”

“Does the way you state a problem have an impact on the way people approach a solution? Is there a more productive state of mind you could leave with the team other than something is wrong, someone is to blame and there will be a price to pay.”

“But, I want them to know that mistakes are serious,” Jeffrey pushed back.

“And, does that get you closer to a solution or does it stop solution-finding in its tracks? In what way could we restate the problem, to be accurate in our observations, without laying blame, promoting a sense of teamwork, generating alternatives and selecting the best solution?”

The Bigger Context

“But, what if my team has some bone-headed ideas?” Francis pushed back. “There are a couple of people on my team that think I’m an idiot, that they have a better way to do something.”

“Occasionally, we are all idiots,” I replied. “Perhaps, on occasion your team is accurate.”

“But they don’t see the big picture,” Francis described. “They think I delay part of a project because I don’t know what I am doing, when the fact is, we are waiting on parts with a six week lead time.”

“So, it’s context?” I asked. “And, you don’t think they will understand a six week delay in parts?”

“They have trouble just figuring out what materials we need for today’s production, much less a part that won’t be here for six weeks.”

“Francis, this is a struggle for all managers. Your team is working day-to-day or at best, week-to-week, but they are impacted by events that happen month-to-month, or quarter-to-quarter. Don’t sell your team short. They may not be able to manage long lead time issues, but they can certainly understand those issues, particularly if you make them visible. In what way could you communicate project scheduling to your team in a way they would understand?”

Stumped

“I have a quality problem,” Francis explained. “My team was falling short on unit output, so I put a spiff out there, some restaurant cards if we met our weekly output targets.”

“And, the unintended consequences of this little spiff?” I asked.

“We met the weekly output target, but my reject rate went up. My team began to cut corners, so I had to double-down on my inspection samples. For parts that passed inspection, our output was actually lower than before.”

“So, you were expecting an incentive to replace something you should have done?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Francis objected. “I expected them to work harder, pay more attention. Didn’t turn out that way.”

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that your team was already working as hard as they could, with focused attention. And that, to reach the target, you, as the manager had to make a change. What change would that be?”

Francis hesitated, looking to abandon responsibility for output. “You mean, I can’t give out restaurant cards?”

“No, what could you have done differently, as the manager? Remember, you control the variables in which your team works. What could you have done, as the manager?”

“I’m stumped,” Francis replied, eyebrows lifted.

“If you are stumped, then who could you ask for ideas?”

Francis grimaced, “You are thinking my team, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “In what way could we increase our production output, while maintaining the same quality standard? Sounds like a reasonable question for any manager to ask of the team. My guess, the response will have little to do with restaurant cards.”