Category Archives: Management

Episode 130: Why do strategies fail?

Is there a hole in your strategy?

In Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’, written in 1786, he tells, while ploughing a field, a farmer upturned a mouse’s nest. The resulting poem is an apology to the mouse and is the source of the phrase, “the best laid plans of mice and men.” So, next time someone explains the failure of their strategy with the phrase “oh, the best laid plans of mice and men”, feel free to mention the whole Robbie Burn’s poem.

Of course, if it’s your strategy, it would be better if it did not fail. But strategy by its nature is not a ‘perfect science’. There has to be some element of risk and that risk can be the source of failure. While that is true, there are ways of executing your strategy, things we all do every day, that can not only increase that risk but magnify the chances of the failure.

Let us look at 5 of those strategy traps and how we might go about avoiding them.

  1. Not being clear on responsibility

There is an old Abbot and Costello comedy sketch called “Who’s On First.” If you have never seen it, you need to know that it is all about confusion over names. The player’s name on first base is ‘Who’ but Lou Costello mistakenly confuses the name for a question. While the joke was about people’s names, in business we often hear people say, “OK, who’s on first?”

When you hear this, the chances are you are hearing someone say, “I do not know who was meant to have that action.” What you are hearing is one of the easiest pitfalls to avoid in your strategy. That is clarity about roles and actions.  Do not confuse this with the question about who is in charge – that is not the point. The issue here is that a great strategy needs a great plan and a great plan needs actions and owners. Regardless of how good your plan is, it will fail if responsibilities are not clear.

  1. Over-reach

Having a ‘moon-shot’ is a great idea. According to a moon-shot is an “ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits.” In other words, it is a goal that takes time and stretches the team.

The classic example of this was President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and getting him back safely. No one knew how to achieve this goal when the strategy was launched but the learning happened along the way.

The problem of over-reach is not necessarily the goal but the timeline and resources you allocate to that goal. The idea of ‘landing a man on the moon’ within a decade with enough resource is a great and exciting goal. The plan to ‘landing a man on the moon’ within a year without enough budget and resource is an over-reach.  When you build your plan, avoid the over-reach if you want to land your man on the moon. In addition, a strategy that requires you to change what you don’t control is also an over-reach too. Make sure you control what you want to change.

  1. Poor intelligence

Here we are not talking about a lack of intelligence in the members or leaders of the team. This is not a case of ‘people being stupid’ – which by the way they typically never are. What we are discussing here is the reasons why someone would say, “if I knew then what I know now, I would never have started.”

That does not imply you should have known what Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘known knowns.’ You clearly cannot know what is not to be known. The trick here is to make sure you have done enough work to make sure you know what could have been known. Deploying the right primary and secondary research plans before you invest too much in your strategy is a vital step. You can’t always know everything, and trying to learn everything is a mistake, but a lack of enough good information is often the cause of strategy failure.

  1. Bad communication

Mike Tyson famously said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The idea here is that we all have to make sure our plans are adaptive. We know that things are going to happen to throw us off course and re-centering ourselves is critical. My guess, is that in your plans, you allow for this and even dedicate time to assess if this is happening. The reason for strategy failure here is not the lack of adaptability, it’s the failure to communicate the changes it requires.

Good leaders often ‘over-communicate’ to their team members – whether this is good news or bad news. Whether it is a change to the plan or just the news that you are making your goals. It is vital that everyone on the team has the same sense of where you are and what is being achieved. Knowing you are on course is as important as knowing you are about to miss.

  1. Un-stop-ability

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, Forrest runs into dog droppings and a man in the bumper sticker business brings it up. Forrest says “It happens,” to which the man asks “What, shit?” and Forrest answers “Sometimes.” [1]

We know and accept that not all strategies work regardless of how well you plan and execute. You may have had the most brilliant of ideas and yet you fail. Sometimes you just have to accept that you are going to fail and that you need to stop what you are doing. As the old Will Rogers saying goes, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Yet for some people, it can be very hard to call a halt to their project. Whether it is a perceived embarrassment or just a fear of the implications of the failure, they keep going hoping something else will happen. Hope as we know is not a strategy.

Good leaders know when a strategy has had its time and call a halt when see it. They do not blame others for this happening. Ending a failing strategy is a brave thing to do and accepting the accountability for it is the right thing to do. Of course you might be in an organization that punishes you for this but if you are, that says more about the organization than you.

Bottom line

We have all been involved in creating or at least being part of great strategies. The desire to do something and do something different is what has changed the world. But having the great strategy is not enough. To succeed you need to manage it through its execution and avoid the traps that lay ahead of you.

[1] Wikipedia

Episode 129: What are the worst types of people for a team?

Episode 129: What are the worst types of people for a team?

Have you heard the old joke about the difference between Heaven and Hell? In Heaven, it says: the French are the chefs, the Italians are the lovers, the British are the police, the Germans are the mechanics and the Swiss make everything run on time. In Hell: The British are the chefs, the Swiss are the lovers, the French are the mechanics, the Italians make everything run on time and the Germans are the police. Hell as we know, is not meant to be the perfect world.

In a perfect world we would all be perfect and nice to each other. We would get on well and everybody would be happy. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. It’s full of people who make your work life more difficult. Bad team members can be a cancer for both your team and its chances of achieving its objectives.

Here are the 5 types of people who exist in my work Hell and who I want off my teams.

1.    The enthusiastic amateur

“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”  Red Adair, Firefighter

I have not been a great lover of the amateur in business, even an enthusiastic one. There is a sense that if you give someone long enough they will get the right answer. The problem I have is that they tend to go through a lot of wrong answers first. That is why Red Adair implies it’s expensive to hire an amateur. When the author Steven Pressfield talked about the habits of people he said, “The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.”

So does this mean we should never hire someone without the right experience? Well, it depends what we mean by experience. Employees can bring many skills to the table and not all of them are necessarily related to the task. Additionally, we all have to keep learning and can not be ‘professionals’ at everything we do. When putting someone on a team, we need to be clear what they bring to the table, what we expect them to contribute and where they need to learn.

Our job at work is to meet our objectives in the best way we can, often in the shortest period of time possible. We can argue the need to train new members for the team but we should avoid being led by people who are ‘making it up as they go along.’

2.    The passive-aggressive

Over the years, the most commented on episode of The 3 Minute Mentor is the one on dealing with Passive Aggressive Behavior. Wikipedia describes Passive-Aggressive behavior as an “indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.” At work it is simpler to classify it as “saying ‘yes’ to avoid saying no, which is actually what you plan to do.”

If you believe in H-I-T (Honesty-Integrity-Transparency) in the workplace you owe it to the team and yourself to be honest about your intentions. The conflict this may cause is of course what people are trying to avoid, but that conflict may actually be helpful because you may be right. Avoiding the conflict and just saying “yes” is wrong, and may put the mission of the group at risk.

We can all fall into passive-aggressive behavior – to go-along-to-get-along – but in reality it’s a cancer that damages a high performing team. Either the behavior needs to be eliminated or the people will need to be!

3.    The perfectionist

What links Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Tyra Banks and Martha Stewart?

The answer is that you can find quotes where they call themselves perfectionists. Not being a psychologist, I can not tell you the value of being a perfectionist to artists and achievers like this. Maybe to reach the highest levels of achievement as an individual you need to think this way. You can also find quotes about working for these stars – they are often called obsessive and difficult.

Being part of a team requires some level of negotiation and agreement. There will always be something that you might want to do differently than the team but to complete the mission you agree to put your view aside. The Passive-Aggressive agrees to the ‘compromise’ but doesn’t act on it, but The Perfectionist will typically want it their way or not at all. In the end, this can stall a team and make achieving the mission impossible unless The Perfectionist is ignored. This will either lose them from the team or turn them into a passive-aggressive. If you want to know if you maybe a perfectionist, check out this page called “10 Ways To Tell If You Are A Perfectionist.” Are you guilty or not guilty?

4.    The “brilliant jerk”

Teams can be sensitive and delicate. Their success requires compromise and balance. We have seen how people like The Perfectionist can damage a team but there are others that are equally dangerous. While we all want the brightest and smartest on our teams, we should however avoid what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings calls the “brilliant jerk.”

It doesn’t matter how smart you are if no one wants to work with you. Worse, if you put a Brilliant Jerk on your team, because of how smart they are, no one will want to work with them.

There is a great article by Marty Fukuda, Chief Operating Officer of N2 Publishing on giving reasons not to hire The Brilliant Jerk but it comes down to chemistry. At the end of the day people do not want to work with ‘assholes’ regardless of how smart they are.

5.    The shirker

While we may create teams as ‘learning experiences’, typically at work we create teams to get something done. That means there will be actions, follow-ups and to-dos. Therefore, another person to avoid having on your team is The Shirker. Wikipedia defines a shirker as “one who shirks a duty or responsibility.”

In a team, we define The Shirker as the one “who never takes any actions.” Typically, they are the person that is happy to contribute and give other people work but never take it for themselves. Worse, they maybe the one that takes actions, often under peer pressure, but never achieves them. Not for the same reasons as The Passive Aggressive (who never intended to) but just because, oh well, many reasons. Starting with ‘the dog ate my homework.’

More dangerously the shirker can be one who tries to avoid being part of the decision making processes. They believe that by not being part of the decision, they will have ‘plausible deniability’ should the decision turn out to be a bad one. Of course this seldom works out that way but you will hear them say, “I never thought that was the right decision.” Trust me, it’s never too early for them to leave the team.

Bottom Line

A team is only as strong as its members. If I have the power or the opportunity, these are the first people I get out of the way of getting work done.

Can you see these people in your work world?  Maybe you have a type you would like to add to the list. Let me know.

Episode 128: What are the best types of people for a team?

Episode 128: What are the best types of people for a team?

In a recent post on LinkedIn I talked about the 5 People to kick off your team– NOW! The post talked about the five types of people who you probably don’t want on your team if the team is to reach its objectives. Each of the five, either reduced the effectiveness of the whole of derails the mission of the team. Hopefully you did not see yourself on this list. If you did, take time to fix those bad habits.

This time, I though we should look at the satiation from the other side. Taking a slightly more positive view: who are the five types of people we want on our team. Hopefully you will find yourself on this list and if not, that’s something to work towards.

The Gatekeeping

If you look up the definition of the ‘gate-keeper’ you will see it talk about “a person in charge of a gate, usually to identify, count, supervise, etc., the traffic or flow through it.” On every good team you will find someone who is acting as the ‘gate-keeper.’ It is important to separate out this from from the Team Leader as they may not be the same person. But more on The Leader later.

Our gate-keeper is vital become they are the person on the team that keep the processes of the team moving forward. They ensure there are agendas for meetings, they can be counted on to get the people there on time and they help the meetings end of time. Often and sometimes more importantly, in a project with multiple deliverables on multiple dates, they help us get the right stuff done at the right times.

The skill of the gate keeper isn’t only managing the flow of work and people but doing it in an unobtrusive way. A good gate-keeper is neither bossy nor rude. The best are sometimes almost invisible. Sometimes they only get noticed at the end of a project when you look back and wonder how it all went so well.

If you worked on a project and it was successful, you probably need to thank the gate-keeper.

The Foot-soldiers

While history has a habit of crediting the Generals, most wars are won by the infantry or foot-soldiers. The brave men, and now women, who are the first line of defense are often the first line on offense in any battle. It is their victory and their loss, that most defines success or failure in war. In business the foot-soldier is as critical to an organizations success as the CEO.

This is true in our teams as well.

If we are to be more than just ‘talking shops’ then real work will need to get done. That real work requires people who are able and willing to do it. We need people to do the research, build the prototypes, test the hypothesis, to sell the solution and on and on. We all believe that “too many cooks spoil the broth” and in team, “too leaders get nothing done.” Without The Foot Soldiers there is no team work.

Understand who your foot-soldiers are and what skills they have is essential to any successful team. Not having people to do the work is an obvious failure, but just as bad can be giving the wrong job to the wrong person. Match the jobs to the people and work will progress much faster and with less errors.

The Note Takers

We have all been in workshops or group break-outs where great, if not brilliant, ideas have been generated. We are all very impressed with our broad and strategic thinking. Around two minute before we have to the ‘read-back’ we stare at the empty flip-chart and say “who’s going to write something?” We are now about to risk all our good thinking being lost to our bad note taking.

I can never understand the people who volunteer to take the notes or be The Secretary of our clubs. I can not understand but I am always very grateful for them. With their good hand-writing and clear note-taking we get minutes and charts. A good Note-taker can do more that just capture the ideas.

When you take good and accurate notes, you often need to ask for clarifications.  Our Note-takers will be heard say, “what did you mean by that?” While some might find that question aggressive and even painful it is often required to accurately record the idea. No point looking at the notes a week later and asking “what did we mean by that?” In this respect the Note-taker can often be a huge influence in helping to focus any discussion.

If the success of your team is to be judged on its output, then having something to submit will be critical. Where would we be without our Note-takers?

The Simplifier and Communicator

Confucius tell us that “life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The opposite is often true of our projects. They can be very, very complicated. Multi-dimensional, multi-phased and multi-national.

Often we spend weeks working on a solution or project. We consider alternatives and debate options. Then despite our desire to explain intricate and subtle brilliance of our idea, we are given 5 minutes to explain it. This is when the Simplifier or Communicator is most needed. While they maybe two different people but both are vital and they often come in the same person.

Their skill is to take our ‘intricate and subtle brilliance’ and quickly explain it to someone else. Either through story telling or analogies they get the basic point across and sell our solution. The senior manager or ‘buyer’ can quickly get the idea and becomes engaged to find out more.

As team members we are often horrified that all our work over weeks or months can be so simply summed up into a few sentences but without their work, our ideas may go unsold and unimplemented.

The Leader

Finally, I would like to talk about the role of the The Leader. Finally, because while every team needs a leader they don’t define the success of the team. In fact, the role of leader can become too important and their ego can get in the way.

The traditional view of a leader tends toward a Henry V type figure, waving his standard and shouting “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” Clearly there is a time and a place for that type of leader but it’s not always needed. Good leaders need to be flexible in their approach to building and running the team’s they lead.

Mostly, a good leader needs to be like a good manager: hire a great team and get out of the way!

When people ask me about my management style I often say, I think a good manager only really does three things. They make a team member think more broadly than the want to, move faster than they want to and helps them by moving obstacles out of the way. In our teams, a good team leader does the same for their team.

There is an old computer joke about the 6 phases of an IT project. It describes the last three of these as: search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and praise and honor for the nonparticipants. The last major role of the leader is to ensure this does not happen. They need to make sure the right people get the credit and rewards.

Bottom Line

Teams need to made up of lots of different types of people with lots of different skills. While we tend to look for a to the leader, they will not guarantee success. As with like, diversity of people with diversity of skills we always a good idea.

Let me know what you think.

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