Monday, July 30, 2007

Do / Not Do

It doesn't matter where I go, how long I have been there, or who I'm surrounded by. Sooner or later, the conversation begins to repeat itself. Someone starts talking about making a play, striking out in an endeavor, taking risks, making investments. Sometimes it is very simple and clear, "I want to make a bunch of money". Other times it is less so, "I'm nervous about [insert your favorite: retirement, kids college fund, taking care of parents, dying, etc.]."

In all cases, the pivotal part of the conversation is when they realize that their road is always directed more by what they will not do, then what they truly want to do. Everyone is aware on some level of the things they want in their life. Few are aware on any deliberate level of the things they do NOT in their life. The sad part is that most of their situations are directed in the larger part because of the choices they continue to make in avoiding some things, rather than the deliberate decisions they make to embrace other things. Knowing what you WILL NOT do, is much more meaningful and impactful than knowing what you WILL do. Unfortunately, getting this backward is much more common, probably because it is much easier.
Day to day
Where do you want to be?
'Cos now you're trying to pick a fight
With everyone you meet

You seem like a soldier
Who's lost his composure
You're wounded and play a waiting game
In no-man's land, no-one's to blame

See the world
Find an old fashioned girl
And when all's been said and done
It's the things that are given, not won
Are the things that you earnt

-- See The World by Gomez
Making money is easy. Figuring out which of the many ways to do that will fit your specific desires and contributions for Risk/Reward/Reputation/Rapport/Resolve.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Feedback Fouls & Faux Pas

How do you provide feedback to the people that work for you? How does your company review employees? Do you have a cyclic review period tied to compensation? Does everyone scramble around every 6 months or so to collect and deliver evaluations of each employee? If so, I feel sorry for you.

If the people you work with every day aren't providing you feedback daily, then they have no right to show up at the end with a list of could-haves and should-haves. What kind of teammates hold back any information that truly would improve your behavior? The progress you make to improve is something that doesn't happen with a summarized list once or twice a year. It is a daily grind that demands you get unflinching, constructive, and contextual feedback from your peers, your leaders, and your subordinates. Anything less is just an exercise in whining and collective finger-pointing.

The same is true for customer feedback. Customers tell you when you aren't behaving as they would like. If they don't it is because they recognize other forms of value you might bring. Or they ask you to leave. They vote with their pocketbook every day. Just because someone has rough edges doesn't mean the customer doesn't see the value in that edge. Now mind you, I'm only talking about singling out individuals here. Success as a corporation or on an engagement basis still absolutely requires that you measure their satisfaction at intervals, and definitely seek engagement feedback with post-mortems and such. Even with your peers and teammates these are good practices. The point of those exercises is to collect information corporately, meaning "as a group" or collectively. It allows the aggregate experiences, the sum of the value-exchanges, the result of the processes and approaches to be refined and improved. They can't successfully be used for isolating out individual performance if for no other reason then the ineffectiveness caused by the time-delay and lack of context. What was uncomfortable or outrageous in one context can be completely justified if the delivery priorities are met. You have to examine the parts as they relate to the whole, not independently. You can't separate the means from the ends, even if they don't always justify each other.

When it comes to personal feedback I would go so far as to say that if you have feedback to give someone and you don't provide it in a timely manner, then you are the more at fault. Consider how we excuse the behaviors of others around us all the time. There may be some aspect of the context, the value-exchange, or their behavior that balances things out. There may be something there in the moment, at the time you noticed the behavior that allowed you to see past whatever negative things you'd like to complain about. Maybe you emphasized with the situation at the time, or made allowances because you noticed other positive side-effects. As you watched the reactions, maybe you agreed with the messages or appreciated someone else's unique predicament. Or maybe you were just lazy. But if in the moment, when you noticed the behavior, it wasn't significant enough for you to speak up, then you can't bring it up later and beat them over the head with it, out of context. When you no longer have the balance of the empathy, or the clarity of the context, you can't assume you are really being objective. Was the intern rude to interrupt your meeting, or did he save you thousands of dollars by catching a costly mistake just in time? Was voicing objections to a potentially bad decision a good idea, or inflexibility? It may be that she is defending her decisions because she is self-serving, or perhaps she realizes that not speaking out now will open a door for future liability? As any good consultant will tell you, the right answers always start with "it depends".

All of this is not to say that it isn't possible to notice trends over time. Sometimes behaviors are subtle enough, or we are lazy enough, that we need to see the same patterns repeated before we notice the effect. It may have to occur several times before we have enough data points to take umbrage. This is very realistic and understandable. But still we must realize that that at some point, you did know. You became aware and cognizant that the latest data-point was the one that showed the pattern. You witnessed the latest exchange, you noted the recent behavior, you said to yourself "they're doing it again". It is at that moment, that you have a choice. Give the feedback, or store it up as ammunition to blast them with later. My suggestion is: don't be a punk.

Of course, just because I think feedback should be frequent, contextual, specific and time-sensitive doesn't mean I think you can interrupt processes, dialogs, or other exchanges just to give that feedback. I am not ignoring or dismissing the necessity of propriety and appropriateness. Sometimes you do need to set something aside so that progress can be completed, so that events can unfold, and this is fine. The trick is not to let things go. Don't let them fester and build up with time. Find (or make!) time to engage that person and encourage them with what you have noticed. If you care enough to give them feedback, if your feedback is meaningful enough that you expect it to be well received, then it needs to be delivered swiftly and surely. If it is something you can wait months to tell them about, it probably isn't worth spending the time on. If you can't be bothered to help them alter their behavior by giving them feedback right after the meeting that went so poorly, then it must not have been so earth-moving that it needs to come up again at review time. If your feedback is truly impactful, you owe that person a chance to show that they can take your feedback and apply it. If it was just anecdotal or just your opinion on things that might somehow in some subtle or subjective way make them more "successful" (whatever that means!), then you surely can tell them in a forum that won't adversely affect their salary and standing.

In my mind, your compensation should be appropriate for the value you bring the company, not fluctuating to the randomness of some subjective standard. Getting evaluation feedback that helps you improve should be an every day occurrence, not a special event. If you only get a few special events they should be encouraging and uplifting. So if you want to use an evaluation result as a reward or incentive, then direct it for that purpose specifically. Linking it with personal development improvement items sends too many mixed messages and often only reinforces the bad behaviors and laziness of managers unable or unwilling to invest in their individuals.

Does your organize only provide for evaluations at milestones that are spread far apart? If your role requires that you review others, perhaps you could try to focus on and celebrate the positives. Use the special occasion to encourage and build up, rather than tear down. There will be plenty of time to talk about how they can improve at a later time. Like tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Juice vs. The Squeeze

In my recent work-life, I've been noticing a recurring conversation. Mostly the subject of the dialogue goes by names like Motivation, Incentive, or Compensation. At the heart I find they contend with the same concepts, they just take different forms depending on the vocabulary of the participants.

How do you decide that the cost to you for expending your labor continues to be worth whatever you gain by doing so?

How do you know if the juice is worth the squeeze?

The flip-side of this equation is equally important to understand when you are in a position of leadership. Regardless of the words you use, the same exchange takes place. You might call them resources or employees, contributors or individuals, children or parents, spouses or significant others, all these are participants in the various value exchanges we participate in every day. You might call it money, freedom, pleasure, power, contribution, or simply productivity; these are all substitutes for the value in a value-exchange.

When you are trying to get productivity out of contributors (or money out an employer) it only works successfully if the value systems between the two parties have some overlap that can be shared. You can't expect an employee to work for free, you can't expect to be paid if you haven't delivered.

It seems like these value-exchanges would be simple, but in reality it's what causes all the office tension and much of strife in our personal relationships. My current perception is that this is because we tend to hide our true value-systems. We hide them from each other, from our employer, our spouses, and most noticeably from ourselves.

Think about the last time you saw someone complaining about not getting paid enough to you, but then asking the boss for more training, or more vacation time. I witness people hiding their value-systems all the time. They talk about having "interesting" work, when they really only want more responsibility. They complain about working overtime, when they really just want to choose their own working hours.

Even the simple exchanges are difficult enough but when you add the group dynamics, and the comparisons that are invariably made between different value systems, things get even more complicated. You can hardly give out raises to satisfy a person who is driven by financial incentives if most of your workforce is motivated by non-monetary benefits. You can't expect to motivate people with extras and intangible benefits if the financial incentive is non-existent.

My friend said it very well the other day:
I will behave exactly as you incent me to. -- H

If you aren't getting the response you want from your employees, or your boss, from your spouse or from your kids. Then you might examine the value-systems being exchanged. A good analytical review might really surprise you.