Category Archives: Time Span

Cross Department Committees

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Many times when there is an issue that affects more than one department in the company, we assign committees involving members from each department to solve them. While this seems nice from a cultural standpoint, it seems strange that we would ask people in an S-II or S-III role, to solve issues that span multiple departments, typically an S-IV function. I recently experienced this myself where I established a committee, set a clear direction (I thought), and checked in occasionally. The end result was I now had a group who had reached a consensus, but it was the wrong one! We are still able to move forward and correct it slowly, but it feels like we wasted effort. What’s the right answer to this? Be more involved? Assign another committee leader with level 4 capabilities? Provide better direction? Make a larger committee?

Response:
Quick review on general accountabilities at levels of work.

  • S-I – Production
  • S-II – Making sure production gets done, coordination and implementation.
  • S-III – System work, designing, creating, monitoring and improving a single serial system (critical path)
  • S-IV – Multi-system integration

So, your intuition is correct that, where multiple departments are involved with either output or impact, department integration is appropriate.

Your question – Be more involved? Assign someone with S-IV capability? Provide better direction?
Answer – Yes.

In any managerial role, with team members one level of work below, the manager cannot simply call the meeting and then not show up. Undirected, the team will make the decision or solve the problem at their level of context. Each level of work understands its decisions and problems from their level of context. That context is measured in timespan.

Problems or decisions involving multiple departments generally require looking at longer timespan outputs, more correctly, longer timespan throughputs. A single department is usually heads-down, internally focused on efficient output. Multiple department throughput typically looks at two things. Does the efficient output of one department provide the correct input for the next department as work moves sideways through the organization?

  • Does the output of marketing (leads) provide the correct input for sales?
  • Does the output of sales include all the data necessary agreements for proper project management?
  • Does the output of project management provide all the accurate data necessary for operations?
  • Does the output of operations provide all the necessary checkpoints for quality control?

Multiple department integration also requires a look at the output capacity of each department as they sit next to their neighbor department. Is is possible for sales to sell so many contracts that it outstrips the capacity of operations to produce? A lower timespan focus might say we just need to communicate better. A longer timespan focus (throughput) will realize that no communication solution will fix a capacity issue.

So, yes, the manager has to be more involved, include another team member at S-IV, provide better direction on the requirements of any solution. A larger committee might actually be counter-productive if it contains team members at the wrong level of the problem. I offer these same guidelines as those of a couple of days ago.

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the cause of the problem?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • What is the best solution?
  • How will we test the solution to make sure it solves the problem?

Hard to Get Good People (These Days)

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
I am just not getting quality candidates from our referral agency. I have two positions I need to fill. I call and explain what kind of person we need, but they take two weeks to get back to me. And the people they send are just not qualified.

Response:
My first question, how do you source candidates other than a referral agency?

Most of the time, the response I get is, we really don’t have time. We’re just so busy around here. It’s really hard to get good people these days.

Here is my observation. You are not seeing quality candidates because you are not focusing your efforts. If your referral agency is not doing the job, then your company has to take responsibility and source your own candidates. You need to be actively recruiting and networking all the time. You are in the business. You should have a better network than the referral agency. You don’t, because you see recruiting as a distraction. Your expense last year for head hunters was $45,000. And what do you have to show for it. Three positions filled, but two didn’t work out, so you are waiting for the replacement guarantee.

If your company is having difficulty sourcing candidates, what are you doing about it? What ideas have you used to get more and better people into the interview room?

Who Will Be Accountable?

We sat around the table discussing the new team member scheduled to show up for work the next morning.

“Who’s she going to report to?” came the question from Raphael.

“What do you mean report to?” I asked.

“Well, the new person has to report to someone,” Raphael replied.

“When, you say report, you mean report for duty? If that is the case, she can report to reception and reception can properly note the new team member has reported (for duty).”

“No, I mean the new person has to have a manager to report to,” Raphael pushed back.

“So, you think you are a manager so people can report to you?” I pressed.

“I suppose so, that’s what managers do, have people report to them.”

“Let me ask a question. Who around this table will be accountable for the output of this new team member?”

“Accountable, what’s accountability got to do with it?” Raphael looked slightly annoyed.

“If a ship runs aground at night, because the night watchman falls asleep, who do we fire?” I asked.

Raphael had to stop, briefly, “Well, we fire the captain.”

“Oh, really,” I smiled. “Why?”

“Why? The captain is accountable for whatever happens on the ship,” Raphael knew the answer, but did not like the direction of the conversation.

“So, if the manager is accountable for the output of the team, the question is not who this new team member will report to, but which manager around this table will be accountable for this new team member’s output.”

Effective Or Not?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was fortunate enough to attend one of your in-person sessions. I have a specific supervisor not able to effectively complete some parts in her role description, so we followed your assessment exercise. She and I had pretty similar views and she saw that the higher levels of work was where she was struggling. She has asked for 60 days to make some improvements. In your experience have you found that improvements are possible, and that people are able to stretch to perform higher level functions?

Response:
First, I congratulate you on taking the time to have this difficult conversation with your team member. A sixty day period is certainly a reasonable request, however, it’s not hands-off. I would recommend a weekly thirty-minute coaching session between the two of you. You have already identified the areas of struggle, that’s your agenda (written agenda). Pick a Friday or a Monday.

Specifically, your discussion should revolve around the work. I define work as problem solving and decision making. Your questions should be “what decisions were a challenge this week?” and “what problems were a challenge this week?” Pay close attention to how your team member responds.

Your question is centered around the issue of capability. Is your team member capable of making the decisions and solving the problems embedded in the work? Your discussions about the struggle will give you clarity. Over a six-week period, you should have six clear data points that will reveal a pattern. Then the decision is pretty simple – effective? or not?

The Long Game

I feel like we are in the dog days of summer. I was waiting for an inflection point. I thought when the NBA took the court, we would see a surge in excitement and enthusiasm. But ratings are down. I thought MLB would take the field and inspire some positive energy, but it appears the World Series (if we even get there) might be won by the team who has the least COVID contagion among their players. Back-to-school even looks like a mixed bag with local decisions prevailing between classroom, online and hybrid.

The stimulus delayed the inevitable contraction, but, I sense a walk-in-place, waiting for some break. Even a vaccine, emerging from clinical trials may not spell a demarcation toward certainty.

We all wait for something to happen. Panic reaction is over. Measured response is slowly working. We identified things we could control and focused our attention there. But, what to do next?

What will be your strategy? What will you base your strategy on? How wide is your range of what-ifs? If your what-ifs turn out to be wrong, how agile is your ability to pivot? When circumstances shift, how quickly do you recognize the move?

I know things in front of your face have your attention. But, what of the long game?

The Conceptual Game

“So, if you understand timespan as the metric for thinking about the bigger picture, if it is only a matter of context, how well do you understand the bigger picture for your company? You said you may not be able to articulate it, you just know that it’s there.”

“I think the bigger picture requires some translation,” Andrew replied. “I think, when you push beyond 3-4 years in the future, things become fuzzy. My CEO says she doesn’t believe in five year planning, waste of time.”

“Can I substitute a word for you. Can I substitute the word fuzzy with the word conceptual?” I asked.

Andrew repeated. “When you push beyond 3-4 years in the future, things become more conceptual.”

“And your CEO’s observation related to five year planning? Five year tactical planning is a waste of time, but what about five year conceptual planning.”

Andrew looked to the left, then up, as if something were written on the ceiling. “I remember buying a Zune MP3 player, you know, the one that Microsoft built. I thought it was cool. I thought it was the wave of the future. But, Microsoft was playing a tactical game. They thought they were building an MP3 player, and Zune was a market failure. But, Apple was playing the conceptual game. They weren’t building an MP3 player, they changed the music industry.”

Big Picture as Context

“My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future,” Andrew repeated, looking more intense.

“Is that where it stops?” I asked.

Andrew thought for a moment. “No. When I focus on the future, I see what I see. But, if I imagine further into the future than that, play more what ifs, I get a sense of where the company is going. I sense an even larger context. Maybe I don’t understand it, maybe I cannot talk about it, but I get this sense. It’s my manager’s context. My manager has goals and objectives, decisions and problems that are different than mine. While I have a different level of work from my junior project managers, my manager has a different level of work than me. I may not know what that means, but I know it exists.”

“How important is it to know, to understand your manager’s context, or your CEO’s context?”

“On a daily basis, I am not sure I need to be reminded. Where my decisions and problems are clear, it may not be necessary. But things change. When there is uncertainty or ambiguity, I need to know the bigger picture.”

“You just slipped into an analogy, the bigger picture. What do you specifically mean?” I pressed.

Andrew chuckled, nodded. “The bigger picture might actually be that, a visual picture on the wall of something that does not exist now, but will exist in the future. But, to be more specific, big picture, as a context, would be a future point in time, a longer timespan. When bigger picture can be seen as longer timespan, it becomes measurable, and I know more clearly what I am accountable for and what my manager is accountable for.”

A Different Way to Think (About Projects)

“So, what’s your observation,” I asked. “Moving from a project manager in charge of three projects to a senior project manager in charge of 20 current projects, plus all the projects in the pipeline?”

Andrew looked down, studied the table. “Every single project has a beginning, middle and end. Each project has defined edges to it, resources are specific, and at the end, there is a finished project, very tangible.”

“And?”

“Twenty projects are all in different stages, it’s fluid, the boundaries move. Sure, we create artificial borders and artificial time frames to measure things, compare statistics. But, there is a difference in how you play one, two or three projects and how you play a portfolio of 20. In a portfolio, we may play for a high profile project with slim margins to raise the company’s visibility. We might attempt a new technology, in which we are currently clumsy, to practice, get better. A single project game might fail its gross margin, where a portfolio game might propel the company in a direction without competitors (at least for a while).”

“So, is this just about having more projects in a portfolio?”

“Not at all,” Andrew replied. “Having 20 projects pushed me to think differently, but, thinking differently is more about the timespan of decisions. And we have to do both. My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future.”

Just a Few More Simultaneous Projects

“Sounds like you are not so sure of yourself?” I asked.

“I know it’s just another project,” Andrew replied. “And, my experience is deep in project management. My company always gave me the tough projects, the ones with the longest critical path, where Murphy has plenty of time to play.”

“Then, why your doubt on this project?” I pressed.

“When I was successful at managing one project, my company gave me a second project. I did the second project the same way I did the first project and everything was fine.”

“And?”

“And, so my company gave me a third project,” Andrew said.

“How did you do the third project?”

“Same way I did project one and project two. Everything was fine, on-time, on-spec, on-budget.” Andrew paused. “So, they gave me 20 projects, all at the same time, and, six junior project managers to go along.”

“And now, what’s the problem?”

“Managing 20 projects is different than managing three projects. It’s a different level of work. It is a different level of problem solving and a different level of decision making.”

Permanent and Temporary

What changes have become permanent and what changes are only temporary? As we live in this science-fiction movie, we think, at some point, the movie will be over, we can walk into the sunshine and everything will be normal again.

It is too easy to think that things are temporary, when some things will never return to the way they were. So, some things require only a short-lived adjustment, an accommodation. AND, some things will require new habits.

If it is temporary, we can live with a small discomfort, an awkward way. If the change is permanent, we better figure out a better way and get really good at dealing with it.