Category Archives: Learning

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?”

How to Coach Increasing Competence

“Sustained, discretionary effort. That’s what we are after,” I said. “The training period requires more attention and focus from the manager. But as time passes and new behaviors become competent skills, the reinforcement changes.

“In the beginning, the manager has to overcome push-back and fear of failure. But, as the new behavior turns to competence, the issues change.”

“So, what does the manager do differently?” asked Travis.

“Lots of things, but let’s start with the easy stuff. In the beginning, the manager may reinforce good old fashioned effort. But as time goes by and the effort becomes accomplished, the manager changes to reinforce a specific sequence. As the specific sequence becomes accomplished, the manager may reinforce speed or efficiency.

“Let’s go back to our example of the video game. Modern game designers structure training sequences into the lower levels of the game. Leveling up requires certain fundamental skills be demonstrated. Once accomplished, the player is introduced to more complex scenarios where mastery of the fundamentals must already exist. Each level becomes increasingly complex. The schedules of reinforcement change, but the principle remains the same. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Performance Improvement Depends on This

“Have you ever watched a parent teach their child to walk?” I asked.

“Yeah. I have a niece that is learning to walk. Her parents go goo-gah regularly, but still it’s a wobbly process.”

“Does a parent ever say – No, that’s not the way to do it, let me show you. Don’t fall down like that?”

“Well, no. They just get all excited, clap their hands and gurgle baby talk.”

“Somewhere along the way, we lose our natural instincts in the training process. Behavior that is reinforced gets repeated. The two elements that were missing from your training last year were practice and immediate positive reinforcement.

“Initial attempts at a new skill or new behavior are usually terrible, but that’s not the point. Your job as a manager is to get excited and encourage. Put people in a place where they can try again and get better.

“Look, Travis. When do parents give up encouraging their child to walk?”

Travis was still mentally drawing lines in the analogy. “They never stop, I guess. Only when the kid learns to walk.”

Special Practice

“You did some training last year, tell me about it.”

“Well, first, we invested a decent budget. This was a new process we were working on. We spent a lot of time looking at different programs. We put together a decent PowerPoint, even hired an outside trainer.” Travis stopped.

“And?” I said.

“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.”

Things I Don’t Know

“The biggest change for me,” said Renee, “is that I have to spend time learning. I thought I finished learning when I finished school. I was wrong. Things I learned today weren’t invented when I was in school.”

Renee paused and looked around the table. “I have to keep an open mind that there are things I don’t know. There are things we do that can be done better. There are new ways to reach our customers. There are new ways for our customers to reach us.

“There are new products in our market that are better than our products. We have to see where we need improvement. We have to keep an open mind that we can always get better.

“The main thing is, I can’t keep coming to work every day, thinking, all there is to do, is the work. If I want to be more effective, I have to keep learning.”

Or You Can Be Curious

If you are in situation with another person, who disagrees with you, you can respond in one of two ways. You can be frustrated that they disagree. You can attempt to persuade them to your way of thinking. You can impugn their intelligence.

Or you can be curious. What led them to their position of disagreement? What evidence do they see in the world that you don’t see? What other people did they listen to, that influenced their thinking? What consequences might occur if their position turns out to be a better description of reality?