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.

The Plan and Its Train Wreck

“Why is planning so important?” I asked.

“Well, if we have a plan, we know what to do,” Susan replied.

“And, if we know what to do, then we will get what we want in terms of the outcome?” I pressed.

“Well, most of the time.”

I shook my head. “Rarely. Planning only works until its train wreck with reality. Most of the time, things turn out the way they turn out, regardless of the plan. So, why is planning so important?”

It was Susan’s turn to shake her head. So, I continued.

“Think about planning as the mental exercise of anticipation.”

Susan’s head shaking became a nod. “Anticipation sounds like what ifs. We don’t know the what ifs in the future, all we can do is guess. What if we guess wrong?”

“So, our planning has to include what if-yes and what if-no,” I said. “And, is there more than one variable in the future?”

“Always more than one variable,” Susan replied.

“And, if we take variable A-yes, variable A-no and variable B-yes, variable B-no, that gives us four quadrants to plan in.”

Susan jumped in. “And if we take short-term and long term slices.” Susan stopped.

ScenarioPlan

“Planning is the mental preparation for making decisions down the road in the face of uncertainty,” she continued. “And the further into the future we plan, the more uncertainty there is. It is not the plan on the piece of paper that matters. It’s the mental fitness, exercised by planning, that makes the difference in the problems that must be solved and the decisions that must be made.”
______
For more information on scenario planning, visit Gideon Malherbe.

What Gets Missed on Zoom

Zoom supplanted much personal interaction during this pandemic. But, here is what we miss.

Only a small part of verbal communication is in the words we speak. Much of our message (indeed, micro-messages) that we communicate are non-verbal. In person, we get the whole picture and quickly divert our attention to details that we perceive as important.

On Zoom, we get a limited picture, hand gestures out of frame, posture obscured by what we cannot see. Facial expressions get lost in a focal length that never changes. Looking someone directly in the eye means to stare intently into the lens of a webcam with the subject only in our peripheral vision.

The best leaders are those with emotional intelligence. The (emotional) data we pick up is mostly non-verbal. On Zoom, emotional data requires we pay close attention, not just to the spoken words, not just with what the screen shows, but those subtle cues. And sometimes, when the data isn’t clear, we have to verify, ask questions and clarify.

  • It seems to me that you are struggling with this decision, is that accurate?
  • You appear hesitant, can you repeat that thought?
  • I see the commitment in your face, am I seeing this correctly?
  • I didn’t catch what you said, I was focused on your determined expression. I want to make sure I understand your intention.

It’s Not a Technique

“I am thinking about taking a course in time management,” Earl announced.

“So, you think you need more time to get things done?” I asked. “I have some bad news for you. The clock never slows down. I cannot give you any more minutes in a day and the rate of those minutes never changes. You cannot manage time.”

Earl had a quizzical look on his face. He was certain that I would give him a referral to a time management course, or at least give him a book to read.

“You can manage yourself, you can be more productive, you can manage tasks, but no matter how much you stare at the clock on the wall, the second hand will continue to tick. You know the techniques.

  • To do list
  • Prioritize
  • Uninterrupted time
  • Time budget
  • Weekly review
  • Only handle it once
  • Action list
  • Say no
  • Delegation
  • Pareto principle

“And, understanding techniques to be more productive, techniques for self-management, techniques for task management seldom work.

“It is not desire that fails people, for most want the outcomes that time management produces.

“What fails people most is discipline. The discipline to perform something over and over until it becomes a habit. It is only when you create a habit that you will gain the benefits from any time management technique.

“I can teach you the techniques, but only you can supply the habit.”

React vs Respond

Most of us are good at reacting. The pandemic required it. And, we were good at it. We figured out fast what was necessary. What will stick? It is no longer enough to react to circumstances, we now have to respond.

Think carefully about your business and the accommodations you have made. Fingers crossed, we had hoped to relax back to January, but reality is clearer now. It is easy to find the trends. Which are impacting your business model?

Technology, geography, sensory substitutes, communication channels, I am curious to hear your stories. Most interested in hearing about the opportunities.

Death of the Third Place

Ventured into my first Starbucks since March. The parking lot was empty, signs on the floor for social distancing, but no customers to distance from. Two baristas behind the counter mentally wrestled with who was to take my order. Waiting, I looked around at the cordoned seating. Is this the death of the Third Place?

Most companies have managed to return to some threshold of spaced out (space between people) operations. Products are moving, services provided. But, what of the customer experience.

Starbucks built their business on the notion of the Third Place and caffeine. I am certain they could have been more efficient had they applied six sigma principles to the order taking and coffee preparation, but what would be the point? Starbucks was all about the Third Place between home and the office where time was NOT of the essence.

What has changed about your customer experience? “Yes, you can come to our office, but please text us when you arrive. Remain in your vehicle until we confirm by text that we are ready for you.”

What happens to the Third Place in your business model?

The Learning Never Stops

We are in the process of learning and the learning never stops.
What are the impacts to your business model?

  • Pretty much everyone has discovered Zoom. It is not as good as being in person, but it works pretty well. We are learning its impact on travel budgets, travel time avoided, continuity stops and starts between travel trips that did not occur.
  • Individual initiative. We have learned who can work independently (making decisions and solving problems) and who struggles without constant oversight.
  • Necessity of being there. When it is not possible (or prudent) to be there, we learn more about the necessity of being there. Human inspection is replaced by remote sensors, providing not periodic data, but constant 24/7 data.
  • Distributed decision making. If it is convenient for managers to make decisions, decisions get made by managers. With a distributed workforce, where it is not convenient (incomplete data, delay) for managers to make decisions, decisions get made by the most appropriate person.

What are the impacts to your business model?

Agile

I let others conjecture the path of COVID-19, AND a couple of things are clearer. My focus is not on the pandemic, but your business-model-response to shifting circumstances.

  • The heat of summer in the northern hemisphere will reduce the ability of the virus to survive, creating a seasonal impact. This does not appear to be true.
  • There will be waves of contagion. I don’t know if we are in the second wave or the lingering impact of the first wave. Does it matter? There will be more waves.
  • Hope against hope, there will not be a vaccine until early next year.

Those business models that survive will be those who adapt to reality.

  • Find a market with a business need, set out to solve it.
  • Test the solution to be adequate and understand its value in the market.
  • Determine if the cost of the solution is less than the market value (profit).
  • Determine if the market is large enough (enough profitable transactions) to build a business.
  • Determine the next adaptation required to sustain the business model.

This begs the question of innovation and creativity. What is the agility of your organization?

Interviewing for Soft Skills

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I attended your presentation a couple of times. At the last event, you mentioned that you would share a list of interview questions which would help us to evaluate candidates for soft skills rather than just technical knowledge.

Response:
Interview questions about any soft skill uses the same model as any attitude or characteristic.

  1. Identify the behavior connected to the soft skill.
  2. Identify a circumstance where we might see that behavior.
  3. Develop questions about the behavior.

Behaviors related to listening –

  • In a coaching situation, where corrective action is required.
  • In a coaching situation related to misbehavior.
  • In a coaching situation, where a new skill is being learned.

Behavior – Listening in a coaching situation, where corrective action is required.

  • Tell me about a situation with a team member, where corrective action was required.
  • What was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What did you observe that required corrective action?
  • Where did you have the conversation with the team member?
  • How long did the conversation last?
  • How did you approach the team member?
  • Step me through the conversation?
  • How did the team member respond in the conversation?
  • What was the result of the conversation?
  • What steps did you take to follow-up on the conversation?

Behaviors related to individual initiative –

  • Appropriately beginning a project without being told.
  • Continuing a project without being reminded.
  • Finishing a project (all the last steps) without being reminded.

Behavior – Appropriately beginning a project without being told.

  • Tell me about a project that needed to get started before your manager knew about it?
  • What was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • How did you know what needed to be done without your manager telling you?
  • What were the first steps in the project?
  • How did you know those steps would be okay to complete without specific direction from your manager?
  • Did your manager ever review the initial work on the project?
  • What was the result of starting the project before your manager knew about it?

Behavior – Continuing a project without being reminded.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on, where the flow of the work was interrupted by other work, perhaps a long project that had stages to it?
  • How were the stages of the project planned?
  • How long was the project?
  • How did you know you were at a stopping point in the project and it was okay to complete other work?
  • How did you know it was time to pick the project up where you left off?
  • What flexibility did you have to decide where to stop and where to pick up with all of your other work?
  • How was your work scheduled?
  • Did you have your own schedule that you created?
  • How did you remind yourself that you still had uncompleted work on a project that you stopped?

Behavior – Finishing the work (all the steps) on a project, without being reminded.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that never seemed to end, that when you thought the work was done, there were still more steps to complete?
  • At the end of the project, what kind of items popped up, still undone?
  • At the end of the project, how did you find out about those undone items?
  • At the end of the project, how did you keep track of those undone items?
  • Did you personally have to complete those undone items, or were there other people working on those items with you?
  • How did you track what you got done and what others got done?
  • At the end of the project, when ALL the items were finally completed, how did you know there were NO uncompleted items left?

You can interview for any attitude, characteristic or soft skill, as long as you can connect it to behaviors.

What Do We Bet On?

As we wait, what are the possibilities? What are the uncertainties? Ambiguities? And what do we bet on?

  • We look for things we hope for.
  • We look for things that drive our optimism.
  • We look for things we like to see.
  • We look for data that supports our wishes.
  • We look for data that confirms our suspicions.
  • We look for data that supports our own bias.

Reality always wins.

Do not be mislead by hope, what we like, our wishes, suspicions and bias. It is too easy to be lead astray. Most managers I work with are optimists. It is a valid way to see the world, AND there are other possibilities.

What is the worst that can possibly happen?
Prepare to accept the worst-case scenario.
Work to improve on the worst outcome which you have mentally agreed to accept.

I suggest these are not mutually exclusive AND we can hold two simultaneous thoughts that appear to contradict. The intersection of worst outcome and the position of optimism may provide the guidance we seek. It will ALWAYS be better than the worst outcome.

Improve on the worst outcome comes from Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

What’s New?

Problem solving at S-II works really well as long as we have solved the problem before. Elliott’s problem solving schema related to states of thinking –
S-I – Declarative (trial and error)
S-II – Cumulative (best practices)
S-III – Serial (root cause analysis, single system)
S-IV – Parallel (multi-system analysis)

S-II – Cumulative state is one of connection. Given a problem, a person with S-II capability can see the pattern causing the problem AND only has to match the pattern to an existing (documented) solution. This is the world of best practices. Best practices work well as long as the problem is one we have solved before. Forty percent of the population can effectively use best practices to solve problems (which is why “best practices” are so popular in management literature).

But, best practices are of little use if the problem is new (we have never solved it before).

S-III – Serial state is one of cause and effect. This is where NEW problems are solved. And, only 4-7 percent of the general population can effectively engage in root cause analysis. COVID-19 presents itself as a problem in all four states of thinking. Initially, COVID-19 was characterized as something we have seen before and could be dealt with using best practices (treat it like the flu). When it became apparent that the contagion rate was higher and the (yet to be defined) mortality rate was higher, the medical community responded with trial and error problem solving (S-I), recommending social distancing, initially no masks, then masks. Trial and error solutions became best practices and now the world is mask-wearing (go figure). But, root cause analysis (S-III) will provide the only inroads to a lasting solution (vaccine).

S-IV – Multi-system analysis will confront the longer term problems of vaccine distribution (capacities and priorities, medical systems) along with economic impacts (economic systems) and social behavior (social systems).

How much trouble do we create for ourselves when we mix up an S-I solution to an S-IV problem?