Although all business functions are affected, corporate Information Technology (IT) departments often lend themselves as best examples for a “big elephant” world: they are critical enablers in a pivotal position of every modern organization. Even though the success of practically every business function hinges on IT, also IT is not immune to this silo-forming phenomenon in large organizations.
Over time and with ‘organizational maturity’, the IT department tends to end up focusing on what they do best: large back-office projects that cannot be funded or run by any business function in isolation, since they span across disciplines or impact the entire enterprise. Just one examples for a “big elephant” project is implementing a comprehensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system across multiple locations internationally.
This is the back-office domain and comfort zone of IT with technology know-how, big budgets, long duration, high visibility, rigid governance and clear processes to follow.
Small Elephants in the Front-Office
In contrast, the front-office typically comprises Marketing, Sales and Product Development. Here, a small tweak or agile change (that requires some IT input) can go a long way and have significant impact on organizational effectiveness and business results. – These micro-innovations are “small elephants” as recent Gartner research coined them.
These little disruptions to the slower-moving big elephant world easily trigger the “corporate immune-system” that favors large elephants and suppressing small emerging ones.
Typically, most projects in large organization aim to reduce cost in some way. Only a minority of projects address new business and growth opportunities that tend to come with uncertainty and greater risk.
While big elephants are typically incremental improvement project to save cost, it’s the small elephants that are more likely to be disruptive drivers of growth and future business opportunities: the much needed life-blood of sustaining business and future prosperity.
Barriers in the Big Elephant World
IT departments tend to struggle the farther they move away from their ‘core competency’ meaning leaving the big-elephant back-office and dealing with the myriad of small needs of the customer-facing units in the small-elephant front-office.
Many reasons contribute to say “No!” to emerging small elephants:
Small elephants are disruptive to the big elephant world, perhaps even threatening to the establishment
It is hard for the back-office to accept that there cannot be much standardization around these small small elephant solutions by the very nature of their scope and scale
It is cumbersome to plan and manage resources scattered across small projects that pop up left and right without significantly impacting big elephant projects. Unfortunately, pressure to save cost only fuels the focus on fewer, bigger elephants.
Gartner brings the dilemma to the point: “[..] the focus on optimization, standardization and commoditization that underlies IT’s success in the back office is contrary and even detrimental to the needs of the front office.”
Insights in front-end processes and customer needs are essential (and not usual IT back-office competencies) to seize small elephant opportunities, which are often disruptive and driven by the agile intrapreneurial spirit that makes full use of the diversity of thought and understanding customers deeply.
– See also The Rise of the Intrapreneur
On top of it all, the challenge for IT is to understand the potential and pay-off for initiatives that rely on IT in a domain outside of IT’s expertise: In the mature world of big elephants, ROI projections are demanded upfront and based on models that apply to mature organizations. These models typically do not apply well to measure project ROI in the emergent worlds of small elephants, which puts the small elephants at a disadvantage; another disconnect that easily leads big elephant organizations to reject proposed small elephants.
As a bottom-line, for large IT departments it is simple and convenient to say ‘No!’ to requests for “micro-innovations” coming in from employees scattered across the front-offices. And, sadly, often enough this is exactly what happens. Despite the lasting impact of “No!” (see also How Intrapreneurs avoid “No!”), turning ideas and proposals down too fast also leaves out opportunity for huge innovation potentials (see also 10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?).
What happens to IT without small elephants?
Ignoring the need for micro-innovations and notsupporting them effectively will not serve IT departments well in the long-run. With only big-elephant focus IT departments are at high risk to lose sight of the needs of their internal customers. Consequently, IT undermines and finally loses its broader usefulness, acceptance and footing in the business functions they intend to serve.
When small elephants are neglected or blocked, it practically forces the front-office to look for other resources sooner or later in order IT-services providing resources to get their needs taken care of. Over time, the big IT department drifts to become more and more obsolete, and finally replaced by agile and responsive agencies and contractors that deliver on their front-office customer needs.
After all, IT’s general role is one of an enabler for the core businesses rather than being perceived by its customers as a stop-gap.
How to raise Small Elephants
So, what can a mature yet forward looking IT organization do to support micro-innovations – or ‘balance the herd,’ so to speak, to include a healthy number of small elephants in the mix?
Brad Kenney of Ernest&Young recommends limited but dedicated resources (including time) for micro-innovations in Ernest&Young’s 2011 report “Progressions – Building Pharma 3.0”;
for example, dedicate 10% of the expert’s time to implement micro-innovations
Test changes in emerging markets first, if possible, where agility is high at a lower risk of jeopardizing the bottom line or threatening the established organization and its investments in mature markets
Establish effective collaboration platforms that make it easy for employees to openly and conveniently share content among each other as well as with external parties.
How Intrapreneuring helps
A systematic approach to Intrapreneuring can go a long way to help move these micro-innovations forward. It starts with systematic intrapreneurial skill-building for employees across all levels of hierarchy and includes:
Understanding how innovation happens in large organizations, i.e. large and small elephants and the need for both to exist
Helping employees become aware of and overcome their own mental barriers and silo-thinking
Attracting, inspiring and engaging employees to take their idea forward knowing there are obstacles in their way
Training skills that help to frame, develop and pitch ideas to potential supporters and sponsors
Building and presenting a business case for review and improvement by peers and management
Enabling and empowering employees to bring their small elephants to life and sharing the story of their success to inspire others
Working to gradually change the mindset of the organization, its culture, as needed, to become more balanced on the elephant scale, to unlock the resources within the own workforce and to seize opportunities for growth and the future of the business.
Just as out there in the wild, without raising small elephants the life-span of organizations with only big elephants is limited.
futurethink spoke with Stephan Klaschka, Director of Global Innovation Management at Boehringer Ingelheim, who is responsible for encouraging disruptive innovation within the firm. He spoke about creating “intrapreneurs” in large organizations by instilling an entrepreneurial mindset into employees and ways to use partnerships to get to new ideas.
Books teach us how to say “No!” – they fill up entire shelves in bookstores to help us achieve professional success and personal freedom. Rejecting requests from others helps us de-clutter our busy day and protect us from time-suckers and commitments we immediately regret.
On the other end, we are asked to delegate more to boost our productivity. This comes easier for your client or boss, who has a mandate or authority over what we work on and what process to follow. And then there are Intrapreneurs: champions of ideas they want to turn into reality within large organizations without mandate or authority. (Read also The Rise of the Intrapreneur)
The “No” trap for Intrapreneurs
Intrapreneurs are driven by their passion and belief in the idea they develop and seek support for. They also often stand outside the ordinary structure and processes of the organization. Intrapreneurs need to pull voluntary favors from people they have no control over in order to find support, funding, protection, expertise or whatever else their project requires to get off the ground or move forward.
For Intrapreneurs, avoiding the “No” becomes even more crucial: once they received a “No” to their proposal or request, it is hard to change their mind no matter how much sense the project makes.
– Why is that?
Why it’s hard to say “Yes” again
Put yourself in the shoes of a potential sponsor, lets say a manager, executive or technical expert: this Intrapreneur, a person you may or may not know well, walks into your office and requests resources, money, time, or whatever to fuel an uncalled for project with an uncertain outcome that was not budgeted for and that disrupts your operations.
The safe and easy thing is to say “No.” When rationalizing in retrospect, you just saved the company diverting and possibly wasting resources on this crazy project that may even have felt like a surprise attack! – And so you feel good, right?
Now, when the Intrapreneur comes back later to try his or her luck again, perhaps equipped with more data, what can you do? If you said “Yes” this time around, wouldn’t you be inconsistent with your previous position and possibly even undermine your own authority?
Subconsciously, you may already be biased and seeking a face-saving way to get over this discussion. So it’s safe again to stay with “No,” and remain consistent – and feel good! After all, it’s human nature!
“No” doesn’t turn to “Yes” easily
As an Intrapreneur, coming back to ask for a “Yes” again is an uphill battle, a double sell. You are basically wasting your energy fighting human nature rather than helping your cause effectively. Chances are you will not be able to turn around a previous “No” into a “Yes,” no matter how much more data and other good arguments you throw at the aspired sponsor. When seeking voluntary support from others, hearing a “No” is a huge obstacle that is hard to overcome.
So, for an Intrapreneur, the million-dollar question (perhaps literally!) is, how to avoid the “No” in the first place and get support for the idea.
How to avoid “No” and thrive your project
For an Intrapreneur, it is most important to listen closely and be open to the questions and concerns the sponsor to-be brings up: they may just as well uncover valid flaws or complementing areas to be addressed to make the idea succeed in the end.
Gifford Pinchot, the author of the best-selling book Intrapreneuring, suggests these nifty tactics for Intrapreneurs to approach helpers or sponsors in a non-threatening or overly demanding way that would trigger the negative response. A small step forward is better than a full stop of the “organizational immune system” kicking in. Don’t ask bluntly for resources of sorts. Instead, ask for advice or a reference to a co-worker!
People love to talk about themselves and being asked for their expertise and opinion. This works with employees on all levels of the hierarchy no matter if you seek a sponsor or advice from an expert.
By asking for advice, there is no Yes-or-No dead-end involved. It’s just a factual discussion among professionals about an idea and what it would take to improve it and to move it forward. Even softer is the question for help to find someone else, who could help or whom the Intrapreneur should talk to next. Even if not interested in the idea themselves, it allows the potential sponsor or expert to refer to another person, who is possibly better suited or more interested without losing face or appearing unsupportive.
Thumbs up all around
In case the idea or project tanks, as the expert/sponsor you didn’t waste any resources nor will you be held accountable. If, in contrast, the idea has a positive outcome down the road, you may even claim having supported it at an early stage or have made a key introduction that led to the project’s success. Now, that feels good no matter what happens with the Intrapreneur’s idea or project, right? That’s human nature too.
From the Intrapreneur’s perspective, for starters, you achieved to avoid the “No” kiss-of-death. You may have even got another lead or hint on what to improve or consider, something you overlooked or were not aware of before. Addressing this may require some more research, data or conversations, but for now, it drives your idea forward to take the next step, which is good and helpful.
It’s not really rocket-science but rather dealing with human nature in a resourceful and constructive way that keeps the intrapreneurial project moving forward.
Google co-founder and CEO, Larry Page, continues to have big expectations for his employees: come up with products and services that are 10 times better than their competitors, hence “10x” – that’s one order of magnitude!
10X vs. 10%
Many entrepreneurs and start-up companies, they seem to ‘shoot for the moon’! Far more than 90% of these ventures fail within just a few years. Few, such as Google, succeeded and grew to dominate internet giants. The question remains though if they can maintain the innovative pace of 10x when the innovation rate tends to sink closer to 10% in matured companies.
How big dreams changed the world
This challenge effects also other visionaries that changed the face of the world and transformed society in ways nobody has imagined, such as:
Apple building a micro-computer at times when mainframes ruled the digital world and only few could envision a demand for personal computing
eBay establishing a new online sales model that millions around the globe use every day
Google taking over the browser market through simplicity, by giving everyone control to use the most complex machine on Earth, the Internet
Microsoft cultivated software licensing to sell one piece of software millions of times over effortlessly at minimal cost.
As disruptive and transformative ventures grow and mature, the definition of what is perceived ‘innovate’ changes. Both momentum and focus shifts. With size companies struggle to continue innovating similar to their nimble start-up origins.
What happens? With size comes a downshift from disruptive to incremental change. Simplicity makes space for adding features. Adding features makes products more complex and ultimately less usable and appealing to the majority of customers.
Look at Microsoft’s Offices products, for example: Wouldn’t you wish they came out with a ‘light’ version with reduced feature complexity by let’s say 75%, so the software becomes easy to use again?
It also starts haunting Google, as their established products such as Search or Gmail need to be maintained. Additional “improvements” aka. features creep in over time. Perhaps you noticed yourself that recently Google search results seem to be less specific and all over the place while the experimentation-happy Gmail interface confuses with ever new features?
Even the most iconic and transformative companies experience the reduction of their innovative rate from 10X to an incremental 10% or so.
Funny thing is that -at least in technology- incremental improvement quickly becomes obsolete with the next disruptive jump. The current technology matures up along the S-curve (see graphics) and generates revenue, but the next disruptive technology emerges. Companies hold on as long as they can keeping revenue flowing by adding features or improvements of sorts to gain or maintain a marginal competitive advantage. Thus, incremental improvement and process optimization found their place here to minimize cost and maximize profit in a market where the product became a commodity, so the competition is based only on price.
The new technology does not yet make significant money in the beginning at the beginning of the next S-curve. The few early units produced are expensive, need refinement and are bought by enthusiasts and early adopters who are willing to pay a steep premium to get the product first. Nonetheless, development reached the point of “breakthrough,” becomes appealing to many and quickly takes over the market: the big jump onto the next S-curve gains momentum. Suddenly, the former technology is ‘out’ and revenue streams deflate quickly.
Large and matured organizations ride on an S-curve as long as possible. They focus top-down on optimizing operations. Little effort is made to address the underlying limitation of the current technology and seeking out risky new successors. Maturing companies tend to transform into a ‘machine’ that is supposed to run smoothly. A mind shift happens to avoid risk in order to produce output predictably and reliably at a specific quality level to keep operations running and margins profitable. Incremental process improvement becomes the new mantra and efficiency is the common interpretation of what now is considered ‘innovative’.
10X has turned into 10%. To keep up with the ambitious 10x goal, companies would have to constantly re-invent themselves to replicate their previous disruptive successes.
How Goliath helps David
Even our recent iconic ‘giants’ find themselves in a tighter spot today:
Google struggles to integrate a fragmented product landscape and maintain the ambitious 10X pace of innovation
Microsoft suffocates loaded with features that make products bulky and increasingly unusable while consistently failing to launch new technologies in the growing mobile segment successfully
Apple waters down their appealing simple user interface by adding features and clinging to defend their proprietary standards from outside innovations.
On top of it, all giants tend to face the stiffening wind of governmental scrutiny and regulation that influences market dynamics to protect the consumers from overpowering monopolies that jeopardize competition and innovation.
This is a fertile ground for the next wave of innovators, small Davids, to conquer markets from the Goliaths with fresh ideas, agility, and appealing simplicity. Where does your organization stand on the S-curve, riding the current curve with 10% or aiming high at the next with 10x?
Observing the down-shift
What can you observe when the down-shift happens? How do you know you are not on the transformative boat anymore? Here are just some examples:
Small Jobs – job descriptions appear that narrow down the field of each employee’s responsibility while limiting the scope by incentivizing employees to succeed within the given frame.
Safe Recruiting – practices shift to playing it safe by hiring specialists from a well-known school with a streamlined career path to fit the narrowly defined mold of the job description. They newbies are expected to replicate what they achieved elsewhere. To risk is taken to getting the ‘odd man out’ for the job, a person who took a more adventurous path in life and thinks completely different, as this may disrupt the process and jeopardize the routine output by shifting the focus away from operations.
Homogenized workforce – as a consequence of hiring ‘safely’, the workforce homogenized thereby lowering the innovative potential that comes with the diversity of thought and experience.
Visionaries leave – with the scope of business shifting, the visionary employees that drove innovation previously lose motivation when innovation and creativity slows. Now they are held to operate in a business space where they do pretty much the same thing as their competition. Naturally, these go-getters move on, as it is easy for them to find a challenging and more exciting new job in a more dynamic place. – This ‘leaky talent pipeline’ gets only worse and costly when the talent management focus shifts to talent acquisition and leaving talent retention behind.
Procedures for everything– operating procedures regulate every detail of the job. The new ‘red tape’ is not limited to the necessary minimum but rather by the possible maximum.
Short-term focus – work output becomes mediocre and focuses on short-term goals and sales targets; the next quarter’s numbers or annual results take priority over following the big dream.
Sanitized communications – broader communications within the company become ‘managed’, monitored, ‘sanitized.’ A constant stream of (incremental) success stories pushes aside an open discussion to target the bigger problems. Opportunities are missed for open dialogue and creative disruption that fuels the quantum leaps forward to outpace the competition. Peer to peer communication is monitored to remain ‘appropriate’ and can even be actively censored. Trust in management and subsequently also among employees erodes.
Management fear of being the first
The real problem is the shift of mindset in top management that quickly works its way down: not wanting to take the risk of being first, which includes avoiding the risk to fail while chasing to next big opportunity or technology. Instead, they sail the calmer waters among more predictable competition fighting for small advantages and holding on to the status quo opportunistically as long as they can. In some cases, the management even acknowledges the strategy shift from ‘leader’ to ‘fast follower’ despite whatever the company motto proudly promotes – and thereby accepting 10% and avoiding to leap ahead of their competition by bold and game-changing 10x moves.
Interestingly, these same managers still love to look over the fence to awe the iconic leaders but steer away to take charge and work to become the leader again themselves. The nagging question remains if they could actually pull it off getting into first place.
Outside-of-the-box thinking may still be encouraged in their organization but is not acted upon anymore. Internal creativity or ideation contests become more of an exercise to keep employees entertained and feeling engaged, but the ideas are hardly being funded and executed. Instead, company resources are concentrated to run the incremental machine predictably and reliably at 10% as long as its profitable, no matter what. – They simply have no resources to spare and dedicate to 10x!
These businesses undergo a cycle of breaking through by successful disruption in a narrow or completely new segment, then continued growth to a size where the organization slows down to an incremental pace and somewhat stagnating innovation. It may then get driven out of business by the next disruptor or pro-actively break up into more competitive fragments that allow for agility and risk-taking once again to become leaders in their more closely defined space of business. This closes the cycle they are to go through next. There is a strong parallel between evolution and Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest.
Keeping this cycle in mind, it becomes easier to see why management undergoes the mind shift to predictable and incremental improvement during the massive growth phase of the company in the center of the S-curve. It is also the time when the disruptive innovators have jumped ship to join the next generation of cutting-edge innovators and risk-taking disrupters that prepare to take the leap working on the next S-curve.
Which way to turn?
The question is where you want to be: the true risk-taker or the incremental improver? Understanding the trajectory and current location of your company helps to make the right decision for you. It can save you from frustration and be banging your head against corporate walls and be wasting your energy in a dinosaur organization that is just not ready anymore for your ‘big ideas’ and quick moves outside its production-house comfort zone.
This leaves some of us thinking which way to turn. If you are looking for predictability, longer-term employment (an illusion these days one way or another) and good night sleep, this is the place you will feel comfortable in.
Otherwise, dare to follow the risk-taking visionaries like Elon Musk (the brain behind PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors; see his recent great interview) to move on.
To say it with the words of Niccolo Machiavelli, the wise and sober realist: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
Shoot for the moon (or Mars, if you are Elon Musk), change the world no matter what and enjoy what you do!
This second part of the blog post looks at how to make virtual teams work. Don’t miss the first part: “Why virtual teams fail“
Telecommuting is on the rise. It leads to more ‘virtual teams’, which means co-workers collaborate separated from another by location and often also time.
There is a bright side and a dark side to telecommuting.
Here is the upside: According to Staples Advantage’s study (see “Employers say work from home works“), 93% of employers found programs that allow employees to work from home benefits employees as well as companies. Half of the employers report more productive employees and 75% agree that telecommuting makes their employees happier. No wonder that the amount of telecommuters has roughly doubled in the US over the past 10-or-so years (http://www.globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics).
The stubborn tendency remains that work may get done at home, but careers are made in the office. The benefit of control over one’s work place and time comes at a price for the career as a recent study by Stanford University revealed: working from home cuts the chances for a promotion in half!
Obviously, there is a disconnect between where the professional world is moving towards rapidly and our mindset that seem to adapt slower and less flexibly to change using digital interaction for effective collaboration.
Because the world is not flat…
Even the most advanced and latest ‘virtual presence’ technology does not offer the same bonding with senior management as face-time does. The ones working from home can be overlooked or -when opportunity knocks- forgotten, even though they often work harder compared to in-office workers and their productivity is higher, as the study showed.
When it comes to telecommuting the world is not flat. Simply put, the playing field is not level between in-office and at-home workers, explains the gap between the positive perception of remote working by employers and employees alike, and the sobering reality of career crunch.
Furthermore, it is not the remote workers alone that require attention and need to be managed differently. It is also the staff remaining in the office (if there are any), since both parties are affected and need to perceive the same leveled plain.
It is human nature to favor those whom we feel close to and whom we work and spend time with in close proximity. To make working-from-home (or from anywhere else outside the office) work successfully, it is the management’s responsibility to level this playing field effectively and sustainably.
Achieving this is anything but easy; in particular, if managers are used to working out of an office. For them it means to break with their habits for the better of the organization. – It’s not impossible though: our habits of sitting at a table in front of a computer all day is just as unnatural for humans; yet we get used to it.
Cover the bases
There are some key aspects to make remote working work:
1. The work itself
First, the work must lend itself to be conducted remotely. Quite a no-brainer: other than in a factory setting, the necessary tangible tools and resources to collaborate cannot be concentrated in one place but must be accessible to the remote staff where ever they work from. For example, remote working is not possible for a factory assembling gadgets along a conveyor belt, where each worker contributes to some part of the process assembling the product. Tools are expensive and immobile, so resources need to be concentrated in around the tools to allow for efficient collaboration.
Not much different from factory workers, the collaboration of knowledge workers is enabled by tools to communicate and to share data and information. The difference is that technology allows information to be transmitted, so we can collaborate effectively and efficiently from all corners of the world. Choosing the most suitable collaboration tools can become a differentiating competitive advantage; you don’t want to lose quality or effectiveness when collaborating remotely.
2. The workers
Working from home is not for everyone for different reasons. It does require continued motivation and self-discipline to work from home as if in the office among co-workers. It takes establishing a new work-day routine in the isolated home environment that is invisible to co-workers. It becomes just as import for the home-workers to take regular breaks: Burnout can easily become an issue when home-workers over-compensate because they either feel under scrutiny by management and/or co-workers in the office. Also less interruptions at home can lead to missing breaks and working longer hours continuously than in the office.
When I introduced remote working as a pilot project in my department several years ago, one of my staff reported in the beginning that he felt guilty taking a bio-break at home, so not to appear unavailable to staff from other departments who remained working from the office.
3. The management
Managing a remote workforce requires a different management style. Managers need to become more pro-active, use communication channels that the staff is comfortable with and adopt ways to communicate with their staff transparently and effectively. Key points for managers are to:
Establish shared team goals
Establish communication best-practices together with the team; this also helps to mitigate timezone, language and cultural differences as well as choosing the proper communication channel depending on content
Manage by performance, not by face-time or physical presence
Actively create equal opportunities for on-site and off-site staff
Set clear rules for management and staff alike aiming to show transparency and leveling the playing field by incentivizing favorable behavior (a matter of organizational justice)
Remain flexible and ask your staff for ideas on how to improve knowledge-sharing and collaboration.
4. The performance metrics
Leveling the playing field comes down to truly embracing a performance culture that incentivizes results – not face-time. Managers need to articulate clear and measurable goals for the team and its individuals in advance and sometimes also more frequently than they used to. Acting transparently and objectively can be a serious challenge for managers and requires leaving the personal comfort zone.
To achieve this, training may be necessary to shift the culture of the organization and prepare management and their staff alike.
As an example, when I first introduced remote working, I asked my managers to establish and document weekly goals with each staff member and to review them for completion the following week. After a couple of months, I left it to the managers to use any other way to set and track performance with their staff. When some managers wanted to put away with the weekly goal agreement sheets, it was their staff who asked to keep them, as they valued the clear and documented goals in their hand. The staff also found them helpful to discuss facts during their following periodic performance reviews. Though not planned for, the weekly goal setting contributed measurably to increase trust of staff in their managers.
Plan for the “soft factors”
Interesting are the “soft factors”, which are the real make-or-break but often tend to get overlooked, forgotten or just not taken into account seriously. What it boils down to is the relationship (trust) and interaction (communication) between managers and their staff as well as among the members of a virtual team. These soft factors are subtile and often require behavioral changes or adaptation, more for managers than their staff.
Do you trust?
Take the time to ask yourself two questions honestly:
Do you trust yourself to be as productive working from home as in the office?
Do you trust your coworkers or your direct reports to work as productive from home too?
My own experiences are consistent with the research: we trust ourselves more than others. – And this is where the problem starts.
Why trust matters
A trustful personal connection is unsurpassed to build trust as a foundation for robust and sustainable business relationships and collaboration. Individuals trusting a person we don’t want to work or do business with this individual.
Trust also makes up much of the ‘social glue’ that holds together teams and organizations. Trust is critical for the success of virtual teams. With lack of trust also the willingness to share information dwindles and so does productivity.
When this happens, our energy gets wasted every day with concerns and redundant or counterproductive work. Workers focus to avoid perceived threats from others, which takes over more and more of their work time, focus, and productivity. In contrast, for people we trust we happily go the ‘extra mile.’
Trust (or the absence thereof) has been identified as the pivotal element ranging from detailed investigations in hundreds of organizations (by Virtual Distance International) to recent bestsellers like “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.
Coming back to the two earlier questions, it proves hard turning the mirror towards ourselves and to accept that also we need to build trust with our co-workers to build and fuel our most robust and valuable business connects and relations.
What is trust?
Let’s take a closer look – what makes up trustful work relationships? Trust is an interpersonal phenomenon. It comes down to three factors that make up trust at the workplace as Karen Sobel Lojeski, NYU professor at Stony Brook and CEO of Virtual Distance International explains:
Benevolence – our co-workers have your best interest at heart
Ability – our co-workers have the knowledge and ability to get the job done
Integrity – our co-workers will do what they promise.
Innovation needs trust
High trust correlates with more successful innovation – why?
When colleagues trust another they open up and share information. Besides the obvious benefit of cross-fertilization that leads to more ideas and creative approaches, by giving away our views and knowledge we become vulnerable as an individual and even more so in a competitive professional environment. This openness comes with a risk to fail that people are only willing to take if failure is acceptable and does not come with repercussions.
Sharing ideas alone is not enough though. Asking thoughtful questions, constructive criticism and mutual support lead to better solutions while curbing hostility and competitiveness. Opening up happens when a task-related conflict will not easily deteriorate into a personal conflict. Innovation within an organization relies on trust among colleagues as a key ingredient that cannot be substituted otherwise.
How we build trust
Trust requires communication and is built most effectively face-to-face with another person, which offers the broadest information channels. An MIT study found a 47% higher performance in companies that are highly effective communicators. Team success is consistently tied to robust team communications. (I wonder if this communication-related increase in performance was ever considered by companies focusing on saving cost…)
Customer-facing business knows that no technology today can offer the same quality and trust-building dialog as in person face-to-face.
Thus, travel to meet business partners and team members remains essential at least in the beginning. Traveling more to meet in person is out of the question for organizations who boarded the ‘cost-cutting’ train: it is considered too expensive. Saving cost here, though, does not pay off over time when it cuts into building trust for good working relationships.
Even more important is trust-building when on-boarding new staff. It is a challenge if most or all work is done remotely by team members who already know and trust each other. It comes back to human nature that we tend to rely on the same people we worked with before, which puts newcomers at a natural disadvantage. Here, management must intervene to level the playing field and provide opportunities also for the new staff.
Perhaps, women are at a natural advantage to connect with others given a higher social sensitivity, i.e. the ability to ‘read’ other people’s emotions face to face better than men. This is also one of the three criteria that increases group intelligence (see “Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!“)
Investing in trust and technology
Since it is not possible (and defeats the purpose) to meet in person especially in virtual teams, we use digital technology to bridge the distance. Consequently, we need to invest in effective tools to remove communication barriers and open broad, information-rich channels of communication among all team members.
Rather than relying on one channel or system, it is more effective to enable the team to communicate by offering many channels that cater to the individual team member’s preferences; for example, phone, instant messaging, video chat, email, etc). For example, waiting more than one minute to establish a video-conference connection is too long and already poses a significant communication barrier.
‘Tele-presence’ seems to be the gold-standard for remote communication but sadly often remains reserved only for executive use if the technology is invested in at all.
Nonetheless, enabling technology can also enhance performance and add value by
Indicating if people are online and available to communicate
Finding experts or collaborators easily within large organizations
Share and exchange information to relevant audiences directly and without delay.
In contrast, here are some examples for communication barriers of organizations with a cost-saving focus that tends to include also ‘technological disablement’ such as
Using slow or time-delaying communication or productivity equipment
Users spending more time trying to connect than actually communicating
Information-poor channels or poor call quality
Resolving technology-related problems consumes a long time or is a cumbersome process.
The Deep Dive
Virtual Distance ™ is a powerful framework to identify and quantify barriers within virtual teams. This methodology helps not only to evaluate existing teams, but to anticipate barriers in future teams. Virtual Distance makes for a superb strategic forecasting and planning tool to build effective virtual teams.
Some years back I read a book by two researchers in search of what makes people happy. Beyond general curiosity, my motives were somewhat selfish: I wanted to find out what the secret to happiness so to apply it to myself and be happy.
Finding the “happy people”
I still remember the researchers approach. It was different from what I expected and has stuck with me since then: they did not come from a nerdy angle that started with lengthy definition for “happiness” along with complex parameters and complicated metrics as you may expect. These two researchers went out to find “happy” people by hearsay and then interview them to identify commonalities or factors leading to their happiness – and the very secret to happiness I was after.
Looking back, the researchers used the power of crowd sourcing (long before it became a household buzzword) to find those happy people. In this practical yet somewhat fuzzy approach, they asked broadly who knew people that were “happy”. Then zeroed in on those reportedly happy individuals that several others pointed to. It may not be the most “scientific” approach I ever heard but intuitively it made sense enough for me to accept it and read on.
What happy people have in common
The researchers found and interviewed, asking if these people felt truly happy and to found out what exactly made them so happy.
The responses surprised me. Most of them, as I recall, did not consider themselves “happier” than others in a particular way despite the many people around them believing otherwise. Of these presumable happy people, most appeared modest and content with their lives. Their happiness came from within and somehow ‘radiated’ out to others.
Overall, they were happy with what they had and not driven by the longing for things they did not have. It seemed they were more resilient or less tempted in what is advertised and suggest making us more beautiful, happy, smart, sophisticated, loved, needed, sexy, admired, or whatever once we buy this or that.
No problems in life?
It got even more interesting for me when the researchers got to the real ‘meat’ probing the million-dollar question: where does this inner happiness come from? Was there an event, experience, or cause? Were these people luckier in life than others, did they win the lottery? Did they not face the same obstacles that most of us encounter; did they not experience pain or feel despair as much?
The answer was a surprise, again, from what I had expected and consistent across responders. What these reportedly happy people had in common were traumatic life experiences, some of the saddest I have ever heard. They had suffered the most painful challenges a human can ever go through; heart-wrenching life stories full of grief with loss and pain on every level imaginable. They had faced certain death, lost loved ones or their health, survived war, crime, assault or terrible disasters. They had lost everyone and everything important to them, everything that they had considered the center of their life at that time.
What they also had in common was a deep gratitude for having overcome these major losses and crises. They were grateful for what they had today starting with their own life. Their happiness truly came from within. They did not crave getting the newest gadget first or show off status symbols of sorts. They were happy being with their friends and family, and going about a simple life they enjoyed every minute. They found beauty again in a flower and took the time to sniff it when others rushed by.
As a learning from these ‘happy’ people for myself, their happiness resulted from enduring a deep and meaningful suffering, overcoming a life-changing trauma and then to truly appreciate that you survived or made it through in the end to live another day.
It even reminds of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, where to protagonist need to descend to Hell (suffering) and work its way up through Purgatory (transformation) to reach Paradise (happiness).
To this day, it serves me as a reminder to value and cherish what I have and can do, and not to become obsessed with what I do not have.
Looking into the abyss
Now we could leave it here to sit back, smile, and cozily reflecting on our lives feeling good for a little while. But why not take it further and ask the ultimate question: looking back when I die, what would I have done different, what would have made me happier?
Obviously, we do not want to wait to find an answer before it is too late. So, let’s crowd-source again and learn from other people at the end of their lives looking back. Thankfully, an Australian nurse recorded the regrets of the dying she worked with over a 12-year period. (The Guardian, Top five regrets of the dying, February 1, 2013)
Here are their top five regrets:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. – This was the most common regret of all.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Read the list again. Take a minute and think about it. – Do any of these regrets resonate with you? What would be your greatest regret?
Now that you know what these soon-to-die people wished they had done differently in their lives, what will you do in the time you still have?
But how does this all come together? What is the change within us that in the end made the ‘happy people’ happy? I was still looking for answers, for a pattern and an explanation to this phenomenon.
Let’s take just one step back to look at the bigger picture and combine the path of hardship to happiness by the ‘happy people’ with the regrets of the dying. Is there a general formula that we can apply to ourselves to be happy?
Attempting an explanation
I don’t claim to have scientific evidence, nor did I mull through endless scientific literature, or study medicine or psychology; to me the answer I found appears quite apparent and not new either. It is known as “post-traumatic growth” in the medical world and defined as “a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”
A change takes place in individuals during post-traumatic growth that transforms mind, attitude, and behavior:
Priorities change – they are not afraid to do what makes them happy
Feeling close to others – they seek and value closeness with people that are important in their lives
Knowing oneself better – they are awareness of their own needs and limitations
Living with meaning and purpose – they enjoy each day to the fullest, carpe diem!
Better focus on goals and dreams – actively seeking to making changes
This transformation changed the ‘happy people’ consciously or unconsciously, and it is this behavior and mindset that others see or sense, which leads them to the conclusion they are happy.
How to be happy
Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could replicate this this transformation and become happy without having to go through the hardship and suffering these happy-after-tragedy people all had to go through? – The good news is you can!
From what I learned from Jane McDonigal, a famous game designer, the favorable result of post-traumatic growth can build four specific individual changes:
Physical resilience – to not give in to sedentary behavior, meaning to get up and active, physically move!
Mental resilience – build up your willpower to persist in reaching for your goals
Emotional resilience – provoke your positive emotions to offset negativity (ideally in a ratio of 3:1, no kidding!)
Social resilience – draw strength from other people; as a practical approach, genuinely thank one person a day or touch another person for at least 6 seconds.
Everyone can benefit for this simply by choosing to do so. It gets even better: over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies confirm that applying these changes can prolong your life by up to 10 years! Amazingly, not only are the ‘happy people’ obviously happy, they also live longer!
So if you are in search for your happiness, as I was, chose to make these personal choices and start your transformation to happiness today!
Vasa’s historic project management lesson Building a battleship is a huge project today as it was hundreds of years ago. Yet, as project managers, do we learn from the past or stumble into the same pitfalls over again? ‑ Learning from the ‘Vasa’ project disaster, the grandest battleship of its time sank just minutes into her maiden voyage!
Sweden’s Great Power period
In the 17th century, Sweden was at the top of its game. It emerged as a leading power in Europe during the so-called ‘Great Power period’ (1561–1721) characterized by a constant state of war with its neighbors in the Baltic Sea.
When King Gustavus Adolphus (1611-1632) inherited the Swedish throne, he was out to change naval warfare entirely earning him the later title “father of modern warfare” for revolutionizing naval tactics.
In those days, boarding was common practice, i.e. pulling side by side to an enemy ship, enter it, and fight man-to-man to take over the ship. The King found these tactics outdated. It was time for a new era of large battleships, which demand the enemy’s respect, serving as firing platforms for mighty cannons to fight from a distance, and project Sweden’s power even beyond the Baltic Sea. The firepower of its guns would now decide the outcome of the battle at sea and bring victory. Thus, the ambitious Gustavus Adolphus needed a new class of heavy ‘ships-of-the-line’ to exchange devastating salvos from afar.
Setting sails to a new era!
After severe setbacks in the war with Poland, Sweden’s naval superiority in the Baltic Sea was in jeopardy. In 1625, the King commissioned the Royal War Ship ‘Vasa’ as the first and grandest of four ships of the new era. The Vasa was planned with an overall length of 69m (226ft), 1,210 tons displacement, 10 sails, dozens of cannons and the capacity to hold 450 men (150 sailors and 300 soldiers). It was a bold statement: the Vasa was the most powerful battleship of its time, no expenses spared!
Spoiler alert, the unthinkable happened: Three years later, on 10 August 1628, the Vasa sank just minutes and a mile into her maiden voyage with over 100 men aboard; over 50 sailors perished.
Putting on the Project Manager’s hat
From a project management perspective, building the Vasa was the most expensive project ever undertaken by Sweden and it was a total loss. – What had gone wrong?
Humankind throughout history has undertaken large and innovative construction projects many times and with success. It is safe to assume that the people in charge applied the best project management practices known at the time to increase the likelihood of project success, i.e. delivering a product to the sponsor’s satisfaction.
Naturally, it is easy for us standing on the ‘hill of the presence’ and look back down into the ‘valley of the past’. Today we have access to sophisticated and detailed procedures for project management, which are generic and serve as a guide to run projects of any nature and size successfully. For example, the Project Management Institute’s Body of Knowledge, PMI’s PMBOK is such a general and proven framework that everyone can learn and follow.
Starting a project
In my experience, it is important for a project manager to have strong sponsorship commitment and ability to control the project scope.
The king himself was the principal stakeholder and sole sponsor of the projects to construct the Vasa and the other three ships to follow with all power and wealth concentrated in the sovereign’s hands. What a great prerequisite to getting the project moving! On the downside, however, this powerful sponsor can also take more influence over the project than is good for the end product, the Vasa.
Therefore, managing the scope is crucial. It includes clarifying the project scope up front and controlling possible changes to the scope throughout the project. Controlling scope does not mean that no changes are possible after the project starts – this would be unrealistic. It means that foreseeable risks and impact on resources, time, quality and other factors need to be evaluated and made transparent to the stakeholders for their approval. It means avoiding ‘small’ changes finding their way into the scope without evaluating risks and adjusting for impact. This communication is a major aspect of the project manager’s job.
As a rule, changes late in the project will increase the cost dramatically, so avoiding ‘scope creep’, i.e. uncontrolled changes late in the game, is crucial.
In January 1625, King Gustavus Adolphus commissioned four new ships over the next years in two sizes, the longest keel length measuring 41m (135ft) and shorter one still an impressive 33m (108ft) keel. He entrusted Admiral Fleming to oversee this program, as the King himself chose to tend personally to the ongoing wars abroad instead. Hybertsson, a competent and experienced shipbuilder was put in charge to manage the Vasa project as the first ship to be built.
The wood for Vasa had already been cut to size when a devastating storm destroyed 10 Swedish ships. Facing his losses and struggling to fill the gap, the King changed his order: He now wanted the smaller ships first to replenish his fleet faster.
This way the Vasa started out to as a smaller ship with a 33m/108ft keel in 1625 but -as we will see- became as a scaled-up vessel again with a long 41m/135ft keel over the course of the project. This was just the first of the King’s frequent and profound design changes during the construction phase and after the keel for the Vasa had been laid. Like the foundation for a house, the keel is a most critical part of a ship’s design; it sets and limits many following structural and other technical characteristics.
Building up to the tipping point
Time pressure from the King and a constant stream of significant alterations continued. Hybertsson did not seem to find time to get the plans for the ship adjusted and re-drawn every time anymore. With the ship’s dimension increasing again over time and adding innovative specifications, Hybertsson left his known terrain and ventured into the unknown of ship-building. Faltering under time pressure, the layout for a smaller ship was simply scaled up to become a larger frame to house the newly specifications. Changes hardly found their way into documentation anymore.
The changes affected not only the length but also the width of the ship. It had to be widened to accommodate more superstructure, another innovation that shifted the ship’s critical center of gravity higher making it less stable at sea. Given the original shorter keel layout, there was simply not enough space to add ballast to give the ship the stability it needed to counterbalance its increasingly heavy top.
Bringing in heavy artillery
The situation got worse. Sweden struggled to win the upper hand in the ongoing war when news arrived that rivaling Denmark planned a large battleship too. The King swiftly ordered adding a second gun deck to triple the armament from initially 24 to now 64 heavy guns plus some smaller guns! The center of gravity rose even higher with the second gun deck, the widened hull, and the added weight of the heavy cannons.
Only 48 of these guns were on board during the maiden voyage ‑ because the gun manufacturer was running behind schedule as were the shipbuilders.
Next, the King ordered hundreds of artisan outfitting sculpted in heavy oak wood and painted lavishly to impress with splendor. It made making the Vasa not only the most impressive and expensive ship of its time but also added more to its instability at sea.
In summary, frequent change orders were issued under time pressure. Changes remained undocumented and without deeper consideration of their consequences. The project schedule and milestones slipped, while the Vasa became larger and heavier than her layout could safely support.
From bad to worse
By now, the project was in serious peril. ‑ But wait, it gets even worse!
One year before completing, the shipbuilder Hybertsson fell ill and died. His assistants, Jacobsson and Ibrandsson, would share the responsibility to continue but only after a period of confusion on who was in charge and direction the workforce of now 400 men. The project management was already poor but suffered even more in the vacuum of accountability and the continued absence of reliable plans and documentation.
Stability is critical for the seaworthiness of every ship. Unfortunately, knowledge and underpinning for reliable calculations for stiffness and stability were not yet developed. The only way to find out if a ship would heel over and sink or not was to try it out in as so-called ‘lurch’ test: 30 men ran from one side of the ship to the other back and forth to make it rock. It took only three runs for the Vasa to rock so violently that the ship risked tipping over – the test was discontinued.
Now, due diligence was obviously applied as good as possible by conducting the stability test as an experiment with observable outcomes. – Having a previous post in mind, “How to apply metrics?” this experimentation deserves a heartfelt “Bravo!”
The circumstances of the test, however, also tell the story of lacking communication and coordination within the project team and with stakeholders: While Admiral Fleming and Hannson, the future Captain of the Vasa, were present during the test, while the shipbuilders, Jacobsson and Ibrandsson, were not present. They were not even informed about the outcome! It raises the question if the builders even knew the test was conducted in the first place. Yet, the Admiral insisted the ballast was too heavy, as it pulled down the hull with the gun-ports coming dangerously close to the water line.
Modern calculations confirmed that the ballast was only half of what was needed to stabilize the ship, but proper ballast would also have drawn the lower gun-ports under water.
The impatient King did not come in person to inspect the Vasa project progress (or its issues) but simply demanded challenging results from afar: He set the deadline for the Vasa launch to late July 1628 and threatened subjects who would not comply with his royal demand ever increasing the pressure.
The bitter end of a prestige project
The day of the maiden voyage came in mid-August 1628, several weeks after the King’s final deadline had run out. The outcomes were horrifying for the King’s prestige project: Just a mile or so into her voyage a light gust of wind caught the sails. The Vasa heeled over on its side and water poured in through the gun-ports. The mighty ship sank on the spot in Stockholm’s harbor ‑ a total and tragic loss of ship and lives.
From a project manager’s perspective, just about every error imaginable was made over the course of this doomed project: ‘Scope creep’ from frequent change requests, no process to address the consequences of the changes, a distant yet overpowering sponsor, intense time pressure on the project schedule, poor communication all around, a lack of documentation, unclear responsibilities, ignorance of risk and impact of unfamiliar innovations, disregarding (or covering up?) results from the failing stability test, and so forth. The absence of project documentation leaves many details in the dark to date.
Following our human nature, whenever a project fails the search for a scapegoat begins: Captain Hannson was jailed immediately. However, the following investigation concluded that nobody was to blame! No reasons were specified for the sinking of Vasa. Perhaps even more interesting, the question was never raised during the investigation whyVasa became top-heavy. It reflects a negligence to learn from past failures for future success, so the fate of ships and crews were left to trial-and-error.
Scope, Change, and Communication
Coming back to the earlier discussion on what is most important to control as a project manager, major issues in the Vasa project arose specifically from:
Stakeholder (dis)engagement – The stakeholder’s perception from afar is prone to dis-align with the situation the project manager faces on the ground. This gets amplified easily by poor communication between sponsor/stakeholders and the project manager, whose primary task is actually communication over anything else – quite contrary to common belief.
The King gave orders from afar without visiting the construction to connect with key players and make more informed decisions; apparently, also his communication with the Admiral, the King’s representative ‘on the ground’, was not effective either.
Admittedly, in those days consequences for failure could be severe and go far beyond what we can imagine today in a corporate environment. The pressure felt by the Vasa‘s project manager and reluctance to speak up may be hard to fathom today.
‘Scope creep’ – The project plan for Vasa was established with a schedule and a projected timeline by when the product would be available; in this case, when the Vasa would swim and be ready for battle. Typically, early estimates found on or favor best-case scenarios. They are outdated only a few weeks into a project of the Vasa size. They need to get updated periodically taking account of changes requested and unforeseen obstacles encountered. A specific finishing date should not be offered at the beginning of the project without careful communication about the associated risks, so as not to nurture unrealistic expectations by sponsor and stakeholders. It needs to be closely managed, adjusted and communicated transparently by the project manager.
The King demanded significant changes throughout the project’s duration that translated into time and money lost. Bear in mind that the King does not know every task that goes into each change and the risks it induces. It demonstrates, even more, the importance of a controlled change management process that reflects the impact of each change transparent and realistically. This gives the sponsor or stakeholders a chance to reconsider whether the change should then be approved or not. As an iron rule, you cannot have it all: cheap, fast and with high-quality, so it is important to choose accordingly.
Unrealistic expectations – The common belief prevailed for several hundred years that a bigger ship, tall and impressive, carrying more guns, etc. would also be ‘more indestructible’. – Too much ambition and the deceiving belief of ‘too big to fail’ sank also another world’s largest ship marking a superlative disaster in 1912: the Titanic.
Nowadays, a project management office (PMO) can help to define project management standards and processes to achieve consistency across projects, which also helps to educate the sponsor on risks and help them set expectations realistically.
After the Vasa disaster
Today, scientific methods, as well as refined and formalized project management methodologies, exist, such as the PMI’s PMBOK, which prepare project managers to deliver the project results reliably and with satisfying scope, time, and quality. However, there is no silver bullet for project success since we are all humans prone to make mistakes often based on assumptions, beliefs, and unhealthy ambition. Even the best method is only as good as the degree to which it is applied and enforced!
In the end, large and heavy double-deck gunships were built and launched successfully. They ruled the seas for a long time, among them the USS Constitution. This ship was launched in 1797 with firepower comparable to the Vasa but nearly twice the displacement of 2,200 tons. This well-measured ballast made the ship safe, seaworthy and successful. With reconstruction completed in 1995, the USS Constitution is on display in Boston today as the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat.
The Vasa today
The Vasa lay in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbor for centuries. Early attempts to salvage it remained fruitless. The wreck was located in 1956 and finally raised in 1961, a full 333 years after Vasa sank.
Usually, organisms such as worms eat away the wood of ships over time but not so the Vasa. It remained in the same condition it sank due to the inhospitable waters off Stockholm. The adverse environment preserved the Vasa so well that it was even able to float with its gun-ports sealed and after water and mud were pumped out of the hull!
The Vasa is on now display in Stockholm and housed in a dedicated museum specially built for it. Around 30 million people visited the Vasa as one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions – a late glory for the grandest battleship that never saw a battle.
Organizations often find themselves struggling with a dilemma: The need for employees working remotely, often from home, is at rise for many business reasons that include cost savings and the competition over attracting and retaining top talent.
On the other hand, many managers have a hard time allowing their staff to work outside their proximity and direct supervision. Their reasons often include the fear of change introducing the unknown but also a certain cluelessness of how to effectively manage a remote workforce and moving beyond their personal comfort zone.
These conflicting drivers open a tension field that organizations tend to struggle with. – Does this sound familiar to you?
No silver bullet Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’, i.e. a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone and in every environment. Too much depends on the nature of the work, necessary interactions and communication between team members as well as the jobs and personalities involved. It takes a close look at the individual organization to craft a remote working program that fits an organization, maximizes collaboration at a measurable performance level.
Telecommuters show increased commitment to their organization and experience more work-life satisfaction over the non-telecommuters group. No differences between both groups though on job satisfaction and turnover intent, i.e. how likely employees are to leave the company.
On a side note, the latter two findings are quite different from my own professional studies and experience, where employees working remotely reported a 57% increase in work-life balance. Increasing workplace flexibility including remote working, i.e. giving the employee more control over their schedule and location, became a driver also for employee attraction and retention.
– What are your experiences? Do you see remote work influencing job satisfaction and employee retention? Please comment.
Interestingly, the study explored also ‘personalities’ and found that more extroverts tend to be telecommuters, so people with a higher drive for social interaction and communication rather than the quiet ones.
This appears conclusive in the light of the simple finding that (a) telecommuting in many companies is not implemented consequently but rather as an “idiosyncratic deal” between individual supervisors and employees. (b) These supervisors prefer granting permission to telecommute to high-performers. This can explain a pre-selection of extroverts over introverts, who may not show up on the supervisor’s radar as much and therefore tend to receive less remote working opportunities.
Generally, teleworkers commute from farther away. They find commuting more stressful and want to avoid rush-hour traffic.
Less surprising, telecommuters were interrupted more by family members given their physical presence at their off-site work location.
This seems to suggest that working-from-home could be less effective than working in the office given more family interruptions. My own observations are quite different and based on a controlled pilot project which showed that the workers in the office feel distracted by their colleagues stopping by randomly; the workers preferred working from home when they needed focus and want to avoid distractions calling this their most productive work time.
Disruptions occur at home as well as in the office. It is the employee’s responsibility and best interest to ensure a professional work environment at their home-office so not to jeopardize their work results. Consequently, also performance needs to be measured by results and not physical presence. This levels the playing field and allows for fair comparison between all workers independent of their working location and distractions.
In the triangle of telecommuters, supervisors and Human Resources (HR) practices the telecommuters generally view the organization differently from non-telecommuters. Most telecommuters perceive technology training is available to them and that the organizational reward system as well as their supervisors was supporting telecommuting. Telecommuters also believe that there is an underlying business requirement that drives working remotely.
Once again we see that a level playing field is viewed as an important success factor for effective teleworking. Technology serves as enabler that makes teleworking possible in the first place and connects coworkers across remote locations. Offering remote working not only becomes a business necessity but also addresses increased expectations of the modern work force to telework powered by ever improving communication and collaboration technology.
Now, the telecommuters in the study seem to understand the changed business environment that pushes organizations to open up to flexible work arrangements for competitive reasons including cost savings as well as employee productivity and retention – the supervisors ‑apparently‑ did not ‘get it’.
For most of us the times are over where workers came to the factory or office only because the resources needed to accomplishing the work were concentrated in a specific location and could not be distributed (think early typewriters, heavy production equipment, incoming mail and so on). For a growing services industry these limitations no longer exist – yet this out-dated paradigm remained present in the minds of many. People tend to have a certain picture in mind what work ‘looks like’ and where it has to happen which comes down to an office with everyone present from 9am to 5pm.
From the supervisors’ perspective things look different than for telecommuters. Over 50% of the supervisors of telecommuter believe “that employees have to be high performers”. This view is shared by only 37% of the non-telecommuting supervisors. This brings us to a most critical component and success factor for making remote working work…
Management attitudes – the make or break The MTI study phrases this barrier kindly as “challenges and obstacles emanating from attitudes of individuals in the organization”. The obstacles to implementing an effective telecommuting model often originate from management itself or even the Human Resources department tasked to make a policy. The reasons for resistance can be multifold and include a lack of better knowledge, fear of change such as losing perceived control, lazy avoidance to probe outdated beliefs or taking a one-size-fits-all approach without evaluating the specific environment.
I even experienced the paradox of managers believing they can work from home just as effective as from their office desk and making use of this flexibility at their convenience while not trusting that their staff could be similarly effective or was trustworthy enough just as much. They see remote working being a ‘perk’ for their staff reserved for ‘top performers’ who deserve it – a double standard is being applied which is often enough based on murky or questionable criteria (if at all). These managers show a sense of entitlement while ignoring that (as the MTI study confirms) remote working increases employee satisfaction and commitment which tends to increase also performance; as an example, performance increased by 30% in the department I manage.
Some managers fear they may lose ‘control’ and that their staff may abuse the newly acquired freedom to control their schedule and work location. This ‘control’ is often based on the deceptive perception that staff works ‘better’ and is ‘under control’ when confined to an office location and ‘eye-balled’ by the supervisor.
More effective is the consistent application of measurable and pre-defined goals that demonstrate unambiguously, transparently and quantifiable whether an employee met the goal or not – independent from their schedule or work location. In practice, managing-by-performance showed more effective to distinguish effective performers from under-performers than a manager looking around the office space and hoping the staff is performing just by their mere presence.
What it takes to make remote working work Implementing remote working is not exactly rocket science but takes an honest and diligent approach based on trust and clear expectations. From a practical perspective, a viable model includes:
Put away with the ‘telecommuting-is-a-perk’ attitude
Closely look at which jobs have remote working potential together with the affected employee
Identify the employee’s team, i.e. the people who need to cooperate closely even across departmental boundaries (organizational, geographic, etc.)
Include employees to model how remote working could work in their team, try it out and be flexible to improve the model
Strictly rate all employees by their performance based on measurable and tangible results that are clearly defined
Apply transparent standards for all employees consistently
Treat remote and non-remote workers similarly including equal opportunities treatment and rewards
Provide effective communication technology and adequate training
Address manager concerns and prepare management with adequate training and guidance.
It is true that managing a remote working environment provides new challenges. They include in particular:
Strictly managing-by-performance by setting clear expectations and exercising transparency.
Overcoming ‘old thinking’. Questioning ones habits and beliefs to approach with an open-mind new or different ways of working. Include your staff to come up with ideas on how to make it work.
Diversifying and mastering the spectrum of communication channels. Choosing and using the media preferred by the staff to communicate effectively and efficiently with employees.
If this includes peer-to-peer video, instant messaging or texting (SMS) then learn to master these technologies. Limit face-time for confidential or sensitive topics that should better not be communicated electronically; don’t abuse face-time for routine communication.
Most of all, mutual trust is the key component in the critical relationship between manager and employee. This can be the hardest to build. For managers, taking some temporary measures can prove helpful to establish a trustful working relationship with their staff; for example, start with documenting and reviewing weekly performance plans together with the employee until the manager develops more trust and is comfortable with exercising less timely supervision.
In general, if an organization lacks trust then remote working will hardly be implemented effectively, consistently or to its full potential – but then, remote working may not be the biggest problem this organization faces…
GenY for managers: look beyond the labels! Understand the drivers and grasp opportunities that Generation Y brings to your workplace!
It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This youngest generation at the work place (born after 1980, also called Millennials) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?
Generational clash has changed Clashes between generations were always present to some degree: Young people want to prove themselves, probe the boundaries and seek opportunity. The older are in power, hold the wealth, make the decisions and are typically reluctant to change and letting go of their well-established and comfortable status quo.
However, something significant has changed: Where in the past three generations used to live at the same time, we now see that four generations are working together simultaneously. A conflict that used to predominate the homes is now also present in the workplace (as a result of several factors that include demographic change, geo-economical impact, longer life expectancy and increasing retirement age).
While in our personal lives we may be able to avoid or by-pass some areas of generational friction these same ways may not be possible in the workplace. Here you have to get along and collaborate with your co-workers. This is challenging not only for the multi-generational workforce but also for the managers facing the new need to mitigate generational conflicts, integrate the staff, and provide a constructive and collaborative work environment.
Why managers struggle with the mysterious Generation Y For managers it is important to take a close look at GenY, since GenY outnumbers the significantly smaller GenX (born 1965 to 1980) and is the largest workforce generation. The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) retire from the regular workforce leaving a gap. Nonetheless, given the typical career progression, higher management positions are still firmly held by Baby Boomers or their preceding Pre-Boomer generation (born before 1946) – the generations farthest apart from GenY.
Ignoring the differences between generations or addressing them in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner backfires. It also misses to leverage particular traits of the young generation that become critical for an organization to sustain in the face of change coming at ever faster pace and with increasing complexity (see my earlier blog: ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?).
It is Generation Y that people seem to have the hardest time wrapping their heads around. Simply pigeon-holing GenY does not do them justice and doesn’t help understanding and managing them either.
‘Kids’ entering the workplace? It is even a common misconception that GenY have not yet arrived at the workplace and that they are ‘kids’ just coming out of school or college. If you consider the demographics, however, the early GenY’ers are 30 years old now, so they are hardly ‘kids’ anymore. They come well educated and already gained some experience at the workplace for several years now. They are not ‘out there’ anymore but ‘in here’ now!
Instant gratification and fast promotions? It is true that GenY seeks fun (who doesn’t?) and grew up with high-end video games in which the players typically rack up points in fast progression opening up new levels or challenges to continue the game. But that’s only one side of the coin. It also forms a mindset to figure things out, address challenges with optimism in a playful way, master technology, compete in ever-changing surrounding as well as hooking up with a network of friends to play and succeed together – don’t be fooled, these are the critical basic skills in the world we live and do business in!
Entitled? Look at GenY’s parents that determined the up-bringing: The generation of Baby Boomer parents indulged in perks and benefits like only few before them; the succeeding GenX only saw these goodies going away when they started entering the workforce. Fortunes were racked up or inherited by Baby Boomers.
GenY kids often grew up in a world of abundance; nothing was too good for them or out of reach – and sponsored freely by the parents with enough cash in their pockets to offer their kids any imaginable aspect of a ‘better life’.
Instead of flipping burgers during summer holidays to earn their own money, many GenY kids had spare time on their hand to learn and have fun while ‘helicopter parents’ took (and continue to) care for their well-being and even professional advancement as adults. Who would say ‘No’ if you are young and your parents offered to pay for your car, your shopping dreams or set you up for a prosperous and promising career?
This way many Baby Boomer parents did their part to breed a generational culture of entitlement or at least high expectations while reinforcing the message “You can do anything and succeed!” – It does not seem fair to hold this upbringing against their kids. (Instead, it provokes the questions why Baby Boomers, in particular, seem to have such a hard time letting go to let their kids live their own lives without excessive parental hand-holding? – But that is a topic for another time…)
GenY is prepared, assertive and speaks up. They know what they want and how to get it. Don’t underestimate them as customers either, since GenY is a serious economic power and probably even more so than any previous young generation in history!
Lazy, impatient and needy? Let me share with you my first-hand experience with GenY at the workplace. I gain my insight as the founder and chair of a generation-oriented employee resource group (ERG) which gives me ample opportunities to work closely with GenY’ers on various projects. It made me probe my own biases and assumptions based on practical work experience (which, by the way, I don’t always see reflected in articles written about GenY).
What I learned is quite different from most preconceptions: The GenY’ers work hard and with ambition, they are not a bit lazy.
When we coin GenY ‘needy’ or ‘taking up too much of my time’ we are actually ignoring that they want to contribute to a meaningful cause in the most effective way. What they are asking is to understand the ‘why’ before going to work. This questions and challenges the status quo in a constructive manner – which is good! If we cannot answer their question satisfactory or insist that we already know the best way ‘how-to’ then it is us (the non-GenY’ers) standing in the way of innovation and change. As a general truth it is not their questions that can be compromising but rather our answers.
Some tasks require not only book-smarts but also experience (including managing people) that many GenY’ers cannot have made at this time in their careers. Therefore, they can be over-confident and over-estimate their abilities and effectiveness; support them and offer them learning experiences as a reality-check and growth opportunity.
Empower GenY to put their specific inherent qualities to best use given that they tend to be natural networkers and solvers of complex problems, they user modern technology effectively and approach different ethnicities and cultures with an embracing ‘color-blindness’. – Are these not exactly the qualities that we need in the world we live and work in today and tomorrow?
Engagement and empowerment drives loyalty A short while back I wrote in this forum about How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm? It comes down to approaching the workforce differently by offering flexible career paths, support staff to remain employable and accommodate benefits to their needs instead of hiding behind archaic one-size-fits-all models.
As managers we need to consider GenY’s particular needs and expectations to attract, engage and retain them. We need to leverage their unique talents and skills for the better of the company while helping them to development and grow. Empowerment includes guidance and creating opportunities for GenY to make mistakes, learn and get active ‘their way’ in areas that wakes their interest and that are meaningful to them as well as to your organization. – Then relax, sit back and see beautiful surprises unfold!
Leverage employee resource groups (ERG) as an opportunity Some managers may ask on how to get started, what could be a first step to engage and leverage GenY? One way of doing it is by founding an inclusive ERG to focus and organize your emerging workforce.
As an example, I founded the Next Generation at the Workplace (coined ‘NxGen’) ERG that has already changed the company’s perception of employee engagement, increased ERG credibility and raised the business value seen in ERGs among managers. Our NxGen approach is to address opportunities in business-relevant projects with measurable results for the business (such as return-of-investment, ROI). Our projects often focus on relevant topics are outside our immediate field of work but are always sponsored by an executive to ensure governance and strategic alignment. These projects provide an excellent and safe training ground for up-and-coming leaders. NxGen supports the organization directly through the project’s immediate deliverables as well as indirectly by establishing a free and hands-on management development program that comes with networking, coaching, and skill development already built-in. Everyone wins!
No matter if you have a dedicated ERG or not, don’t discount GenY based on labels. Dig deeper to find the treasures that this generation has to offer. Your organization’s future relies on them!
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NxGen was nationally recognized as a ‘cutting-edge’ approach to employee resource groups by the Network and Affinity Leadership Congress 2010 (NALC), a national conference focused on training ERG leaders to align with the business goals of their organizations.
Please leave a comment and, if you are interested in ERG topics, feel free to join our ERG Leaders group on LinkedIn.com to discuss, share and learn!
Is ‘middle management’ to blame? About the differences between managers and leaders, two conflicting roles that are both needed in an organization.
What is wrong with middle management? Listen around, ‘middle management’ gets blamed all around for many things and even more so, for the big disconnect between executives and the staff and managers in the trenches.
A colleague just asked me again today – what is wrong with middle management?
Is there a systematically flaw that affects so many organizations?
Management versus Leadership?
The confusion originates from a lack of clarity over the roles: We need to look first at what the difference is between a manager and a leader: Is there one at all and are these roles exclusive or do they overlap?
Don’t be mistaken, significant differences exist between managers and leaders; yet an organization needs both, managers and leaders. It is necessary to distinguish these roles, since their focus and goals are quite different. Not only can they conflict to some degree, they actually have to for the better of the effective organization overall. ‑ Let’s take a close look at both roles:
Management role A manager typically supervises a unit that produces an output consistently (such as a product or service). The manager’s job is to improve the input (resources) and output (deliverables) and make tactical adjustments. Most changes are moderate and of an evolutionary character focused on optimization by refinement of the here-and-now.
Given their tasks and responsibility, managers do have a professional tendency and even obligation to resist changes that disrupt their well-oiled and optimized “machine” whose output is also their immediate measure of success in most organizations.
For an effective manager it is all about “doing-things-right”. The ways often get documented in procedures to solidify and guard the established processes to guarantee the reliable delivery of results. Focused on preservation and functional optimization, managers can also easily fall in the trap of judging too soon and then making an adaptive decision too late.
Leadership role In contrast, a leader takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture that aims strategically at the organization’s future. The effective leader shakes up the established structures and “does-what-is-right” by bringing about change that will position and optimize the organization for future success through transformation. (Read more on Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?)
Leaders must stay flexible and willing to deviate from the current path to drive the needed change to successfully shift or even turn the course of the organization. Consequently, the leader must take into account major disruptions of otherwise smooth and sub-optimized operations. (Read more on How to become the strategic innovation leader)
The farther a leader is removed (usually way up in the hierarchy) from the level where the output is produced, the more abstract the work appears. It becomes easier for leaders to make game-changing decisions flexibly that may turn out unfeasible on the factory floor or other real-life business settings or that confuse the staff.
A good leader follows guiding principles and keeps the staff in the loop to prepare them for upcoming changes. Removing elements of surprise where possible is an effective early step of successful change management when it comes to implementation.
We need both! The goals of leaders and managers conflict and create a constant tension field. It requires active balancing and healthy negotiation to prepare the organization for the future while not sacrificing the ability to deliver results reliably as the organization moves ahead on the bumpy road of change and uncertainty. (More on Mastering the connected economy – key findings of IBM’s 2012 CEO study)
This makes clear that an organization needs both, effective managers and visionary leaders. It also makes clear though that both roles may not be best united in one person to avoid a conflict of interest that compromises best results for the organization overall.
Where middle management gets stuck
As you move farther down in a hierarchy from the leadership level and closer to operations, the harder it becomes for managers to balance the high-flying leadership vision with the demanded production or service targets on the ground.
So here is where you find the clash and overlap between leadership and management: The middle management gets caught in the middle, literally!
Middle management needs to bridge the gap even for self-preservation by negotiating and brokering between the workers and the leaders. It’s a tough job! Middle managers deserve some sympathy as they get torn by the conflicting needs of the organization every day and often enough not fully included by leaders while yet having to make sense of the dilemma and translating it for their staff.
Can’t do without… Thus, there is no ‘systematical flaw’ but only the reality of conflicting needs of an organization that requires both, effective managers and visionary leaders. This comes with accepting the entailing tensions and conflicts to deliver results reliably and consistently while readying the organization for meeting the challenges of the future – which puts the middle management in the hottest spot!
Do people fear change? I doubt it. See how fear relates to ‘change’ and how to harness it.
Fear of change?
An interesting discussion I got involved in recently is about ‘What gets in the way of embracing change?’
It quickly revolved passionately around whether employees like change or not.
People love change! From my experience, people love change! – Not convinced? Look around you: People love fashion, wearing different clothes and hair styles, driving a new car, using gadgets with cool new features (look at the success of iPhone, iPad, etc.!) and so on. These are all changes we embrace all the time!
Obviously, ‘change’ as such is not the issue; so what is?
Angst or fear? ‘Angst’ describes “an acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety”. There is no specific source, however, so angst is based on the abstract, the unknown.
In contrast, ‘fear’ is anxiety about a “possible or probable situation or event”. Strangely, fear of change hints at something specific and not at some unspecific angst the general term ‘change’ leads up to. Nobody seems to use the term angst relating to change. – So what is the mix-up about?
When it comes to fashion or hair styles the fear is not about the new color or cut but about how otherswill respond to it and how this will affect me.
Will the person I fancy secretly finally notice me and be attracted to me? Will I appear more daring, more professional or more ‘me’ branded – or what ever else it is you wish to symbolize or achieve through the change that you initiate.
People fear uncertainty of the consequences!
What people fear are the consequences for them that the ‘change’ entails and even more so if they have no control over the change. Translated into the workplace this comes down to what changes for the individual employee: First of all, their gotten-used-to equilibrium gets disturbed by an outside force – not by free choice of the individual. This type of change typically induces much uncertainty for an individual with little or no control over how it will play out for them. Instead, the well-established and familiar routine stops. It is replaced by something different, possibly something they don’t know or understand fully.
Now, where the fear comes from specifically for the employee is that one day the employee is competent in doing their work and delivering results, while the next day (i.e. when the ‘change’ takes effect) they may need to learn, adapt, give up comfortable routines, figure things out the hard way, may not know how, fail and struggle ‑ and be inhibited during this period to produce results again so this comes with a lack of satisfaction and appreciation or other forms of acknowledgment.
Other colleagues may adapt better, learn faster and surpass them in the ability to the work done in the new way. Then, the employee may find they got left behind and may no longer be needed by the new organization. This potential lack of professional competency is the origin of the fear possibly combined with loss of certain perks or proprietary knowledge acquired over time that helped them staying afloat and ahead of others in the good old days.
Ask yourself if you would like to be surprised today with a major reorganization, for example, that let’s you hanging in the limbo with uncertainty about your fate within the company for months or by a new process thought out in some remote ivory-tower that is unlikely to work in the reality of your workplace…
This is where the major opposing force to effective change comes from: the employee resistance. If resistance is high also the chances are high that the change will not be implemented effectively, not efficiently or not even at all.
Change as an equation Change can be expressed in an equation called Gleicher’s Formula (after David Gleicher and Richard Beckhard, 1969). Several variations of the equation exist but they all include the same three factors, which multiplied need to exceed the amount of resistance (=cost) on the other side of the equation for the change to be implemented successfully.
According to the streamlined formula (by Kathleen Dannemiller, 1992), change (C) is the product of
The dissatisfaction with the status quo (A),
The desired state (B) and
The practical steps taken towards the desired state (D).
These factors multiplied must outweigh the amount of resistance represented here by the cost of change (X). Here is the formula: C = (ABD) > X
In practice, there must be significant pressure present from dissatisfaction with the current state (status quo), a clear description of what the new state should look like in the future (vision) and effective measures taken to get from the current to the desired state (action plan).
Overcoming resistance in the changeequation Resistance may include different elements but a major contributor is the resistance originating from the people affected by the change. It is crucial for reaching sustainable results to keep this friction low by engaging these vital stakeholders actively and early on where possible.
What it comes down to in practice is having a sound plan and excellent execution of change management together with the people affected by the change. Include them to work issues out as they arise early on when alterations cost little and to buy in to the change and drive it. Don’t underestimate the impact and potential of employee empowerment and the pay-off that it can have for the organization that does it right!
Including and empowering employees effectively in organizational and procedural change projects becomes a powerful differentiator between an effective change implementation and a costly disaster.