Category Archives: Learning

Project Work

“Who is Marie? And why is she managing only one person?” I asked.

Esmerelda was silent, then spoke. “Marie has been selected to be a manager, but needs some experience, so we gave her a person to manage.”

“And, the impact on your organization is that you added an unnecessary managerial layer. Did you give her a raise as well, did you give her the corner office?”

“Yes, we gave her a raise, and she didn’t get the corner office, but, she did get an office.”

“Like eating an hors d’oeuvre rack of soft cheese, then drinking a glass of ice water. Not good for the digestion,” I said.

“But Marie needs to learn how to be a manager,” Esmerelda protested.

“If she needs to learn, send her to training. Give her project work.”

“Like what?” Esmerelda pushed back.

“Like making a schedule, leading a small project. Give her something of short duration. If your promotion fails, what do you have on your hands, imagine chocolate dripping through my fingers. But, if you give her a project and she fails, you only have a failed project, and you, as her manager, can manage the risk in the project.”

Who Sits on Your Shoulder?

My mood was upbeat, but this conversation with Nathan was not lifting his spirits. His team was not on a mutiny, but they weren’t paying much attention to him.

“So, you have had a bit of difficulty getting out of the gate with your team. As you think about yourself, as a manager, who comes to mind, from your past? Who is that person sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, giving you advice?”

Nathan looked stunned. “That’s weird,” he said. “As I go through my day, I have this silent conversation in my head with an old boss of mine. Whenever I have a decision to make, he pops into my head. It’s like he is watching me and I still have to do it his way. That was years ago, but he still influences me.”

“Was he a good boss?” I asked.

“No, everybody hated him. That is why it’s so weird. I think he was the worst boss I ever had and I am acting just like he did.”

“So, why do you think he has such an influence on you, today?”

“I don’t know,” Nathan said slowly.

“Would you like to be a different manager than your old boss?”

Finally, Nathan smiled. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied.

“Well, that is where we start.”

Practice, Practice

“And, after all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” Travis chuckled. “I heard that in a seminar once. But maybe it’s true. After the training, some of the people worked the new way, but some didn’t. Over time, the whole process was abandoned. ”

“You know your program really didn’t have a chance. It was missing something critical,” I said.

“I know, you are going to say positive reinforcement, but we all talked it up and everyone got a certificate when the training was over,” Travis defended.

“That’s all very nice, but I am not talking about being nice. I am talking about being effective. In the training you demonstrated a new process. This new process required a new skill, a new behavior.

“Travis, I can show you how to throw a ball, but if you want to get good at it what do you have to do?”

Travis looked puzzled, “Practice?” he said.

I nodded. “Very special practice.”

The Big Difference Between Training and Coaching

Tyler finally had a question. “So, have we been wasting out time training our people?”

“Training is not a waste of time, it is how you train that determines its effectiveness.” Tyler squirmed. His company spent thousands of dollars on management training the prior year.

“Tyler, let’s take a fun example. Ever play video games?” Tyler nodded and flashed a huge grin. “How did you learn to play that game? Did it come with an instruction manual? Did you go to the bookstore and buy the Insider’s Guide to the game?”

“No way, I just sat down and started playing it.”

“And what is your competence level?”

“Well, I am at a level 40, now, but over the weekend, I think I can get my character to level 50. That’s as high as I can go with the character in this clan.”

“So, you are telling me that you became an expert. Did you become an expert because their instruction manual was so well written? Did the quality of the Insider’s Guide (that you never bought at the bookstore) have a significant impact on your learning this new behavior?”

“No, I just played the game. My character got killed a few times, but I learned how to navigate around the danger zones. I learned how to engage other characters in battle. I learned out to accumulate powers. Every time I did something right, I got points. Every time I did something stupid, I lost points. My points accumulated, my character got stronger, I leveled up. All around the screen are status panels that give me constant real time feedback on where I am in the game and how I am doing.”

“And you did all this without reading the instructions or attending a training class?” I asked. Tyler nodded yes again. “Tyler, you learned to play the game at an expert level because the game was designed to positively reinforce desired behavior. This positive reinforcement was meticulous and frequent. There were established goals and measurement systems to track progress and status.

“Next week, we will get back together and talk more about training.”

Before or After?

Tyler’s curiosity had moved to intrigue.

“What gets reinforced gets repeated,” I said. We had been talking about positive reinforcement and its impact on behavior. “That’s why measurement and feedback loops are so important.

“Here is the insight,” I continued. “Most managers focus their time before the behavior. Most managers provide training and give lectures on the way things should be done and then wonder why they don’t get the desired behavior. Most managers think their biggest influence on behavior occurs before the behavior.

Let’s meet, let’s plan, let’s discuss, let’s show.

“All of this occurs before the behavior and has minimal impact.

“The payoff, the big influence is after the desired behavior occurs. That’s when to pay the most attention. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Speed of Necessity

What’s changed? In your market, in your industry, in your company, in your team, with yourself?

COVID accelerated many things that were already in play. This acceleration was not brought about because COVID released us to do new things, but because COVID constrained us. Our response to new constraints quickly moved us to change. Change is not fun, most immediately has a negative impact on profit, so why do we do it?

We change because it is necessary, the mother of invention. Human beings have always adapted. Just, not so rapidly as now.

There is a software programming methodology called agile, successfully adapted to other work scenarios. Agile, typically organized in two week sprint intervals, doesn’t mean we work really hard to get everything finished in two weeks. Code written, tested, de-bugged, tested, de-bugged, published.

Agile means every two weeks, we stop. We take inventory, where we have come, progress made, but most importantly, to take inventory of what has changed. What has changed in your market, in your industry, in your company, in your team, with yourself?

And, to take inventory to remind us of purpose. The easy questions ask whether our activity, our work, moved us toward our purpose, or away from our purpose. The harder questions ask if our purpose is still valid in the midst of change.

Off Balance

“Sometimes, during the day, I feel like I am lost,” Miriam lamented.

“How so?” I asked

“Things just seem off-balance. I don’t know if it’s the circumstance we are in, with all the changes, or if it’s me?”

“It’s easy to see the circumstances that have changed. And, part of it is you,” I nodded.

“So, it is me?”

I continued to nod, “Yep. Think about the moment you feel off-kilter, what happens?”

“I am just about to do something, out of instinct, then I have to second-guess, is this what I should really be doing, right now?”

“So, you have a habit that is breaking, at least in question?”

It was Miriam’s turn to nod. “And, breaking a habit feels off-balance. Habits are supposed to help me take consistent action. And, now I am not so sure the next action is right?”

“Miriam, it’s normal, welcome to the world of professional growth.”

A Subtle Shift

Who you are is largely shaped about the way you think. If you need to make a small shift in who you are, you have to make a small shift in the way you think.

In a leadership role, your effectiveness will largely be determined by the way you think about people. If you think about people as obstacles –

  • The guy who cut you off in traffic
  • The person with three kids whose shopping cart is blocking the aisle
  • The co-worker in the next cubicle who you have to go around to get to the coffee machine

Your behavior will follow.

It’s a subtle shift to think about people as people (and much more difficult than people as obstacles). Your team members are not direct reports, you are not a manager so people can report to you. Your effectiveness will only be as large as the people you personally invest in.

Capability Plus Skill Set

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How does someone make the leap from technician to manager? I see it all the time in IT work, and I think it’s why there are so many bad managers out there. Isn’t this the Peter Principle, where people are promoted to their level of incompetence?

Response:
It’s more than a leap. It is a completely different skill set. The technician is an expert in a technical skill. The technician does the production work.

One level of work above is the supervisor. The supervisor does NOT do the production work. The supervisor makes sure the production work gets done; completely, accurately, no missing segments and on time. The tools of the supervisor are checklists and schedules. This is not a subtle concept and most companies don’t get it.

The role of the supervisor is coordination. Success requires two things. First, the person has the capability to make longer timespan decisions and solve more complex problems. Second is the development of a new skill set related to schedule making, checklist making and meetings. The failure is most supervisors are promoted to a role where they are expected to use a skill set they have not developed and the company is not prepared to train.

Not a Training Problem

“Take a look at this training program,” said Crystal. “We have been over it a hundred times, tweaked it here and there, but quite frankly, it’s not working.”

“What happens when you do the training?” I asked.

“Everyone seems upbeat, like they understand. We even do classroom exercises, but it doesn’t seem to stick. Two weeks later, they are back to doing it the old way, with all kinds of excuses.”

“How much coaching do you do after the initial training?”

“Well, anyone who seems to be having trouble, we write them up and they go back to the next training.” Crystal was visibly upset as she described what happens next. “Sooner, or later, they all get written up and so they all end up back in the training. We put this software in place eight months ago and they still write the orders on paper and put the information into the computer later. Sometimes the paper gets lost or it takes a day or two to catch up. We want real-time order entry, but we are nowhere close.”

“So, there is no real coaching except for sending people back to the beginning?”

“Yes, and every time we go round, the push-back gets stronger. They seem to hate the training,” Crystal said, shaking her head.

“I don’t think this is a training problem. And, if it’s not a training problem, what do you think the problem is?”