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People-first management

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Edwards Deming believed that work quotas and management by objectives (MBO) are counterproductive because they have a detrimental effect on quality – i.e they emphasise quantity over quality (see point 11 of Deming’s 14 principles).  Despite this, quotas and “objective” performance indicators advocated by MBO   continue to be popular in many organisations. I have had several discussions with assorted managers  from diverse organisations about this,  and although some concede the shortcomings of MBO,  many continue to believe it is the best available method for managing people because it “eliminates” subjectivity.

Now, the alleged objectivity of MBO can be debated, but it’s probably not going to make a whit of a difference: performance measurement systems and those oh-so SMART objectives are here to stay.   Which brings me to my point: performance measurement systems tend distort the behaviour of many managers who, in the push to achieve their objectives,  drive their teams beyond reasonable limits.  In the long run this is counter-productive: folks suffer burnout, lose respect for the manager or, if things get too much,  simply up sticks and leave for pastures of a better shade. This is a loss for the organisation. There is another way – one which  maintains employee motivation and engagement in the workplace whilst also getting the best possible results. Honestly, there’s no rocket science involved; just a small shift in perspective. It can be summed up follows: put people first and results will naturally follow.

How might one do that? Here are some concrete actions one can take:

1. Set people up for success, not failure: This is important: ensure that you set realistic objectives for team members, else you’re just setting them up for failure. Yes, I know Realistic is the “R” in SMART, but it’s frequently forgotten.  What do you do if your boss sets you unrealistic goals?  Two words: push back. Longer answer: explain logically (but without getting emotional or excited) why you think the goals are unachievable in the time allotted. By the same token, be prepared to receive similar feedback from your team. If you have to live with MBO, make sure that meeting objectives doesn’t call for superhuman effort. The workplace is no place for heroics.

2. Assume everyone wants to do their best: Some managers start with the assumption that people need to be supervised and monitored continually (as per Theory X) else they will lapse into slackness and indolence. In my experience the opposite is true: people generally want to do well and be recognised as valuable members of the team. This makes a manager’s job easy:give people meaningful work, empower them to make decisions about how they will do it, and  get out of their way; don’t interfere , avoid gratuitous advice (unlike me!), unnecessary recurring meetings and pointless written reports. Monitor progress informally ( MBWA works well for me in this regard). Jump in only when asked to do so, or if intervention is really necessary.

3. Be consistent: Tell a consistent story from day-to-day. What does this mean? Well, it’s a combination of things, including:

  • Not flip-flopping on decisions. I’ve seen managers who’ve changed their minds as often as they’ve changed clothes. Such behaviour confuses and eventually irritates everyone who reports to them.
  • Approaching work and any work-related issues that arise in a consistent way. This amounts to having a set of principles by which you live your professional life. This is particularly important when you’re under stress, because that’s when impulsive or “out of character” decisions are made. At such times remind yourself of the need for consistency: take a step back and examine the decision in the light of your principles.

Consistency is important; any inconsistency, though not apparent to you, will be quite evident to those who report to you.

4.  Treat failures as learning experiences: Despite everyone’s best efforts, there are times when things go wrong; sometimes badly wrong. At such points it is important to remember that mistakes happen.  Identifying and berating a scapegoat may feel good for a moment or two but the satisfaction soon fades, leaving you with a very upset team member.   Instead of looking to anoint a scapegoat, find out what went wrong and why, and what might have been done to avoid it. This should be done dispassionately, with a no-blame attitude even if the offender is responsible for a  mess up.

5. Don’t “crunch credit”: Often a manager will get the credit for work done by his or her team. This is natural because the manager is the public face of the team. Unfortunately in some of these cases, the  manager hogs the credit, barely acknowledging the efforts of his or her team. The right thing to do, of course, is to pass  the plaudits on to the team, ensuring that those involved are recognised and rewarded appropriately. The latter is important: the rewards should be appropriate  (no lucite plaques!).

6. Offer opportunities to learn new skills: Doing the same thing over and over again gets boring. To maintain the interest and engagement of people in their work, it is critical to offer them opportunities to do new things. Ideally you would have the means to send them to external courses, but sometimes that isn’t possible. However, it is always possible to give people a chance to pick up new skills whilst on the job. Admittedly this is somewhat easier in IT, where even a small corporate IT shop would have a range of technologies – certainly enough to offer people something new to learn. However, people need the time (and official sanction) to do this – and that’s where the manager comes in.

7. Empower people to make decisions: People should be able to make decisions regarding how they do their jobs. This helps in two ways:

  • Decisions get made at the level at which work is done.
  • Folks who do the work feel in control of what they do, and are able to fulfil their potential.

See my post entitled Empowered or Not – a litmus test of organisational culture for more.

The points listed above are based on personal experience. They’ve worked well for me in many different contexts ranging from projects to corporate environments. I can attest to their effectiveness in improving  team motivation and morale which,  in turn, leads to improved productivity and results.

To summarise: push people to achieve results and you’ll get neither results nor a happy team; improve team motivation, though, and you’ll get both in spades.

Written by K

October 10, 2008 at 8:20 pm

A new model of motivation and its relevance for project managers

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Many managers struggle with the question of how to motivate their team members effectively. A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled, Employee Motivation: A Powerful New Model, by Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda Eling-Lee describes a new model that provides concrete steps which organisations and individual managers can take towards improving team motivation. The model is based on analysis of data gathered from a large number of  employees across many organisations.  Projects are temporary organisational structures so  the model is of potential interest to project managers: hence this  annotated summary of the article.

The authors start with the premise that people’s choices are guided by four basic human drives which were described in a book written by Nohria and Lawrence in 2002 (see a review of the book here).  In brief, these are the drives to:

  • Acquire: To obtain tangible items (things such as a car, house etc.) and intangibles (such as respect, status etc.) .
  • Bond: To seek membership in groups (e.g. work teams) and form connections with individuals (e.g. friendships)
  • Comprehend: To understand the world and thus develop a personally meaningful and coherent view of one’s social and work environment.
  • Defend: Protect what is important (to the individual) and ensure fairness (to those who form a part of one’s world)

The authors make the point that these drives are independent, and that one must address all of them in order to motivate employees fully. This is interesting because it implies, for instance, that people cannot be motivated by money alone. This point may be obvious to some, but I know some managers who believe that financial rewards alone are enough to motivate employees and team members.

The authors suggest some organisational levers that may be used to fulfil each of the aforementioned drives. These are:

  • Reward System:  A well-designed reward system that includes equitable remuneration and  transparent, performance-related bonuses can be used to address the drive to acquire.
  • Corporate/Team Culture: A collegial work environment. which encourages openness, camaraderie,   and team work will foster a sense of belonging in employees / team members. This can fulfil the drive to bond.
  • Job Design: The drive to comprehend, or understand one’s place in the world can be fulfilled by engagement in a job that is interesting, challenging and meaningful. The employee or team member should clearly understand the importance of his or her job, and where it fits in the big scheme of things.
  • Performance management and resource allocation: Any system that includes performance-related rewards must be accompanied by an transparent and trustworthy processes to assess performance. Further, any resource allocation (for projects or other corporate initiatives) must be done in a way that is based on the merits of the endeavour, completely free of bias.  Performance assessment, through its effect on individual and team rewards impacts the employees drive to acquire and bond; whereas the resource allocation, through its effect on projects impacts the drive to comprehend (i.e. people’s jobs). Hence these two offer employees ways to defend things that are important to them (or things that fulfil other drives).

Granted, project managers do not always have control over all (or even any!) of the organisational levers listed above. However, the authors’ research indicates that employees more often than not understand the limited influence that  their direct managers have on these levers. Hence, most employees only expect their managers to do their best to fulfil all four motivational drives within the  organisational constraints that are imposed from above. That is, employees are pretty realistic about what their managers can and can’t do. This is good news for project managers because it means that team members generally do not expect miracles from them! Examples of specific things a project manager might do include:

  • Offer more autonomy and learning opportunities to team members.
  • Promote team bonding through joint activities.
  • Foster relationships based on trust within the team.
  • Recognise achievement through public acknowledgement and other non-financial means (for example, by informing the senior management)
  • Raise the profile of the team in the larger organisation.

…and so on. There are ways to tweak organisational levers, even if one doesn’t quite have the muscle to yank them.

To summarise: the article outlines a model of motivation that is built on research in biology and psychology. The model is based on the need to address four basic human drives – i.e. the drives to acquire, bond, comprehend and defend. Managers need to  understand that all four drives must be fulfilled in order to motivate employees fully. Employees generally recognise that their direct managers have limited control over  organisational culture and reward systems. However, they expect their managers to do their best to motivate teams within these constraints. In my opinion the article is worth a read (regardless of the validity of the model) because it emphasises that motivation involves more than financial reward and, even more importantly,  it encourages front-line managers to take an active role in motivating their teams.

Written by K

October 6, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Motivation in project management

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In recent years, the focus in project management has shifted from technical aspects of the profession (scheduling, planning etc.) to people-oriented factors such as motivation. This is reflected both in professional practice and academia. On the one hand there is a growing interest in courses on soft skills and leadership; on the other, an increasing number of research papers on these issues. In fact, I have come across two papers on motivation published in the Project Management Journal (PMJ) within last six months. I reviewed one some time ago, in my post entitled Motivation Rehashed. Here, I review the other: a paper entitled, Motivation in Project Management: The Project Manager’s Perspective, published in the June 2008 issue of the PMJ.

First a brief look at what the paper is about. In the introduction the authors emphasise that, “the interpersonal skills needed to motivate a project team are a project managers most important asset.”  Despite this, there is no clear definition of motivation in the literature. For example, some researchers have explained motivation as, “the level of energy people bring to their work,” whereas some others have viewed it as being centred on “expectations and reinforcements.” As a consequence, the authors claim there’s still a good deal of confusion about what motivates people. To address this, the paper begins with a literature review and an overview of the theoretical basis of motivation research. The emphasis is on research relating to  motivation in the context of project teams. The review is followed by original research on project managers’ perceptions of how they are able to influence motivation. The work is based on data collected from practising project managers.

Background and Literature Review

Recent research indicates that asking the question, “How do I motivate my team members?” might actually be counterproductive because most people begin new initiatives with enthusiasm and a desire to contribute to, and consequently feel proud of  their work and organisations. This suggests that project managers may be better served by focusing on how one can help people maintain their motivation levels through their work tasks and roles. The PMBOK definition of motivation which is, “energising people to achieve high levels of performance and to overcome barriers to change”, suggests that there is more to motivation than “maintenance of enthusiasm” by doing the “right things.” The authors delve into this in some detail, as I discuss next.

Motivation is inextricably linked with leadership and power. Research has shown that use of autocratic, coercive or laissez-faire leadership styles can have a detrimental effect on motivation. This is obvious to those  who have worked with such managers! More effective leadership styles emphasise the leader as an initiator, negotiator, coach and participant. The last one is interesting – if a leader is viewed as a participant – being “one of the group” – loyalty and motivation emerge more unconditionally. Such leaders employ a participatory approach that includes all team members in a meaningful way.

After discussing motivation and its connection to leadership, the authors move on to reviewing research on the sources of motivation – i.e. where motivation comes from. Motivation can be viewed as intrinsic or extrinsic. In a nutshell, the former is a desire to do something because one finds it interesting, whereas the latter is a desire to do something because of some anticipated rewards not related to the activity. Research indicates that an inclusive leadership or management style is conducive to intrinsic motivation whereas an exclusive approach (coercive or authoritarian) relies on extrinsic motivation. In their book entitled, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman state that the best companies focus on fostering intrinsic motivation in employees.

The difference between extrinsically and intrinsically motivated employees was explored by Gagne and Deci in their paper on the relationship between work motivation and self determination theory (SDT). In SDT, states of motivation are viewed as a continuum ranging from amotivation (no motivation) to intrinsic motivation. SDT uses the terms autonomous and controlled motivation: the former corresponding to intrinsic and the latter to extrinsic motivation. The Gagne and Deci model, identifies four stages of extrinsic motivation, starting from external regulation wherein the person works only to obtain a non-work related reward (no self determination) , to integrated regulation wherein there is some self-determination because the person has internalised some of the reasons for doing the work. Integrated regulation is thus just a small step away from intrinsic (or autonomous) motivation. Another interesting research finding is that intrinsic motivation is fragile in that the presence of a person with lower motivation on a team can reduce motivation levels of other team members.

Next, the authors highlight some practical motivation-controlling factors, linking these to research regarding the efficacy and limitations of each:

  1.  Optimising energy: This refers to the innate capacity for work, which differs from person to person. Research by Welbourne and coworkers shows that there is an optimum zone of employee energy, and that this limit should generally not be exceeded. This zone varies from person to person. Furthermore, it turns out that managers can assist employees to stay in the zone, or even raise it by timely interventions and enhanced one-to-one communication. 
  2. Autonomy: In an earlier post, I have written about the importance of empowering people to make decisions relating to their work.  Research indicates that autonomy results in better job satisfaction and, hence, increased intrinsic motivation. One practical way to do this on projects is to specify the deliverable (the “what”), leaving decisions regarding the method of creation (the “how”) to the responsible team member(s). 
  3. Feedback: Research shows that positive, constructive feedback enhances motivation. Negative feedback, on the other hand, reduces both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Perception of feedback is important too: feedback perceived as being controlling will have a negative effect on motivation, whereas feedback seen as being competence related can have a positive effect if properly delivered. 
  4. Rewards and recognition: Rewards are related to extrinsic and recognition to intrinsic motivation. In their book, Peters and Waterman point out that successful companies make it an organisational goal to repeatedly recognise employee contributions. Research by Deci and associates indicates that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, especially if those rewards are linked to specific tasks. This is particularly interesting because many organisations tend to use reward  systems based on task or project performance. Also relevant to project work, is the finding that teams should be rewarded as a whole. This is controversial because rewarding all team members equally can create conflicts if certain individuals are perceived as being “freeloaders.” On the other hand, though, both Deming and Drucker point out that individual rewards will eventually lower (team) productivity and morale. This because they lead to a perception of inequity amongst team members. Deming also pointed out that merit systems based on management by objectives are a major source of inequity (see point 11b of his well-known 14 points).

Following the discussion of motivational factors, the authors provide a brief organisational perspective on motivation vis-a-vis project team motivation. As far as organisations are concerned, research by Sirota and coworkers indicates that equity, achievement and camaraderie are factors that are strongly correlated to employee satisfaction within organisations. Equity relates to the perception of fairness; achievement to pride in one’s work and associated recognition; camaraderie to cooperation and a feeling of community. It is vey interesting that these factors were found to be significant regardless of gender, ethnicity or level within the organisation! Clearly, there are differences between organisations and project teams. The most obvious differences are: a) teams work within larger organisations, and b) projects, unlike organisations, have distinct stages. This brings up questions about how these differences are perceived and handled by project managers – questions that are addressed in the next section.

I found the authors’ literature review and associated discussion very interesting, particularly because they highlight some non-intuitive aspects of motivation. Further, the review provides practitioners some excellent suggestions for further reading on the topic.

Having painted the background with a comprehensive literature review, the authors move on to a discussion of their research on project managers’ perceptions of team motivation.

Project Managers’ perceptions of motivation

The authors pose the following research questions:

  1. What are the factors that most commonly cause low levels of motivation on project teams?
  2. What are the most successful (intrinsic) motivation techniques in project environments?
  3. Can a project manager influence team motivation levels despite (negative) organisational influences?
  4. Should different motivation techniques be applied at different stages of a project?

The authors conducted an online survey of practising project managers using a questionnaire that was based on the above questions. They received 115 completed questionnaires which, on analysis, revealed the following results.

Factors lowering team motivation:

The authors found that the following factors were the greatest team demotivators (in order of importance):

  1. Missing top management support.
  2. Personal conflicts between team members.
  3. Inequity in reward system.
  4. Schedule conflicts.
  5. Time overruns.

Having suffered the ill-effects of each of these at one time or another, I think there should be no surprises here for most practitioners (excepting perhaps the order).  Interestingly, content analysis of the results showed that each of the above factors are closely related to the project manager’s ability to communicate effectively. A project manager who can communicate well – be it with top management or team members – will be able to lessen the impact of the above factors.

The research also probed the de-motivational effects of changing each of the classical constraints of scope, time, quality and cost. It was found that scope had the largest demotivating effect followed by time, quality and cost. This highlights the importance of clear scope definition and management throughout the project.

Successful motivation techniques

Most of the responses regarding successful motivation techniques centred on the importance of communication. For example, over 90% of respondents agreed that providing positive, constructive feedback is an effective motivator. Many also agreed that personal conversations (e.g. Management by Walking Around) is also a useful technique. Respondents also agreed that it was important to develop an understanding of individual team members. This would be important, for example, in ensuring a good match of skills (and desires!) to tasks assigned.

Participation was also found to be a good motivator. For instance, a large number of respondents indicated that involving the team in creating the work breakdown structure is a good motivational technique as it offers the team involvement in a key aspect of the project at an early stage. What struck me was that “warm and fuzzy” factors such as involvement, communication, responsibility and trust are found to be very important to creating and fostering motivation. The hard-headed project manager with little or no time for niceties would do well to take note – and, yes, there are a few of those around!

Project team motivation vs. organisational motivation

Although organisational factors such as culture, strategy etc. have a clear influence on project teams, over 60% of respondents felt that project managers can influence team motivation positively, despite negative organisational factors. Content analysis of the data further revealed that setting of team goals  that are within the project manager’s control  can help motivate the team. On the other hand, scope change was found to have a demoralising effect.

Regardless of the mechanics of how project managers motivate teams in the face negative organisational influences, it is interesting that many feel that they can do so. Even those who struggled to motivate their teams on their last project indicated that it was possible to create a positive subculture within a larger, negative organisational culture. Is this just wishful thinking, or is it based on something more solid. Unfortunately the authors can’t (or don’t) tell, so neither can I!

Motivation at different stages of a project

The results indicate that team motivation generally declines as the project progresses. Over 80% of the respondents agreed that motivation is high at the start whereas less than 50% thought that it was high towards the closing stages. On the other hand, respondents indicated that the project managers role in team motivation is greatest at the start of a project, and becomes a shared responsibility (between the manager and team) as the project progresses. This, to me, seems a bit strange : if motivation is known to decline as the project progresses, shouldn’t the project manager take even more responsibility for maintaining it in later stages of the project??

According to me, the authors do not answer the question they pose – i.e. they don’t tell us whether or not different motivation techniques should be used at different stages of the project.

In closing

I found the literature review presented in the paper very informative. The authors have done a great job of presenting interesting and relevant work on motivation from the project manager’s perspective. The research, however, has an incomplete feel to it. The authors admit so themselves. In their own words, “The results of this study merely highlight trends in current opinions and should not be interpreted in other ways.” And in the final line, ” The trends expressed in this research should be followed up with case studies or ethnographic analyses to create a more thorough picture of the project manager’s perspective.”

In summary: the authors’ research is far from a comprehensive investigation of project managers’ perception of motivation,  but it does point to certain trends that make intuitive sense. The results may also help in the design of further studies. Be that as it may, in my opinion the literature review is what makes the paper a worthwhile read for professional project managers.


Schmid, Bernhard., & Adams, Jonathan., Motivation in Project Management: The Project Manager’s Perspective, Project Management Journal, 39 (2), 60-71. (2008).

Written by K

August 29, 2008 at 6:47 pm

The means, not the end

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One of my continual complaints about the way project management is taught and practised is that the focus is on process rather than success. I’ve alluded to this in an earlier post, in which I drew an analogy between the fixation on process  and being blinded by a light. Thus transfixed by process, the project manager loses sight of the real objective of the project- which, presumably, is to create high quality deliverables. Preoccupation with process has other negative side-effects too.  In a recent post, Scott Berkun points out that it is the reason that  project managers [generally] get no respect from those who do “real work” on the project. Project managers are often seen as obsessed with artefacts such as schedules, plans etc., which team members do not see as being critical to project success.

The reality is, project managers are sometimes caught between two conflicting imperatives:

  1. To get the job done – which requires them to focus on helping the team.
  2. To satisfy the requirements  of project management standards mandated by their organisations or PMOs.  

Many project managers focus on the latter, completely ignoring the former. Now, I’m not advocating the wholesale dumping of standards. These should be followed wherever appropriate, but only insofar as they contribute to the project. A lot of process-related stuff is simply administrative stuff that the team will see as irrelevant –  stuff that a project manager has to do, but doesn’t contribute to project success. On the other hand, there are several things – not mandated by methodologies – that a project managers can do to really help the team focus on outcomes. Here are some of them:

  • Minimise distractions and irritants: This amounts to keeping bureaucratic overhead inflicted on the team to a bare minimum. The project manager should be taking care of all administrative work, involving team members only when absolutely necessary.  A distraction (or should I say, irritant) familiar to  most is the unnecessary meeting.  Forget regular status meetings, if possible. If you absolutely must have it, restrict it to a 10 minute stand-up affair.
  • No surprises: A project manager needs to anticipate potential problems or risks. In my opinion one of the main functions of a project manager is to foresee and avoid  nasty surprises, or project banana skins as I’ve called them in an earlier piece.
  • Empower the team: Those who do the work are best placed to make decisions regarding the work. Sure, the project manager needs to ensure that decisions made are consistent with project goals and don’t create any conflict, but the decision itself is best left to the experts who are doing the work. This brings me to the last point which is to
  • Get out of the way: The project team knows what they have to do. Leave them to it. Many project managers (particularly those with a strong technical background) feel the compulsive need to get involved in details. Team members will view such behaviour as interference at best, or micromanagement at worst. Don’t do it.

Processes and methodologies sometimes get in the way of project work because of the undue importance accorded to these by project (and programme) managers who really should know better.  Despite the requirements of PMOs, the real aim of a project isn’t the creation of project management artefacts. Project managers are far better served by focusing on the objectives of the project, and helping their teams do the same.  Methodologies and processes should be tailored to help one do so – even on a per-project basis, if necessary.  Remember, they are only the means, not the end.

Written by K

August 11, 2008 at 7:38 am

The Jekyll and Hyde manager

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Marty was in the server room, working with the consultant from Guaranteed Uptime, when Rob burst in. “Marty, I want you to go over to Jan’s desk right away,” he said. “She’s having trouble with the CMS again.”

“OK Rob, just as soon as I finish here.”

“No!  You’ll need to go right away. If she doesn’t get looked after she’ll complain direct to Max. Then he’ll raise a stink about how inefficient IT is.” Rob’s tone was such that even the consultant looked up in askance.

Marty had been through this before. “Yeah Rob, give me five minutes. We’re almost done here.”

“You’d better get down there soon,” he said. Then , turning abruptly, he stomped off slamming the door on his way out.

The consultant looked at Marty, eyebrows raised.

“Don’t ask”, said Marty,  and continued with his work.

Less than five minutes later…

“Uh oh,” said Marty sotto voce, as he heard Rob crash in again.

“I thought I told you to go over to Jan. Drop what you’re doing and go…NOW!”

Marty shook his head, and turning to the consultant he said, “I’ll be back in five.” He brushed past Rob and walked out.


The next day, word of Rob’s tantrum got around within the team. Regardless of the urgency of Jan’s problem, the consensus was that Rob’s behaviour was not acceptable. Yet, everyone knew that nothing would change. Rob had joined the company just under a year ago, and had been anxious to make a mark from day one.  Obviously he’d succeeded, because although his team didn’t think much of him, senior management seemed to have a different view…


“Hi Max. Everything OK? Anything we can do for you?” asked Rob in a tone of faux sincerity. He’d spied Max entering the IT area and had rushed out to greet him.

“No. It’s all good. You’ve been looking after us very well. Jan mentioned that you sorted out some problems for her double quick yesterday.”  He took Rob aside. “Look,” he said, “you’ve been doing a fine job since you took over. It’s been noticed, and even talked about at the recent board meeting. Well done, and keep it going.”

Max’s words sounded like an endorsement to Rob.  “After all,” he thought, “if management likes what I’m doing, I must be doing a good job.”


Jekyll and Hyde and managers such as Rob are a fact of corporate life. They are easily recognised by the two faces they present at work – Jekyll to those who they report to and Hyde to those who report to them. Such behaviour enables them to get ahead in the short run but, because they ruin their work relationships in the process, they often lose out in the longer term. 

There is another way, of course. That is to get ahead by doing things right.  The two are not mutually exclusive, regardless of what Jekyll and Hyde managers may think. It is possible to advance and treat everyone, regardless of their position,  with respect and consideration. If done this way, one will advance and also retain the loyalty of those who one may depend on in the future.

Written by K

August 5, 2008 at 6:54 am

Empowered or not – A litmus test of organisational culture

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In a recent lecture on leadership in software development, Mary Poppendieck relates the well-known parable of the three stone cutters. The story, in short, is as follows. Three stone cutters are asked what they’re doing by a passer-by. The first one answers, “I’m cutting stones”; the second, “I’m earning a living”; and the third, “I’m building a cathedral.” A variant of this tale is related in Ricardo Semler’s best-selling book, Maverick, in which he details how he turned his company, Semco, from a traditional, hierarchical organisation to one in which workers were empowered to make decisions that affected them. In effect, he turned an organisation of stone cutters into one of cathedral builders.

When asked, most senior managers claim that their organisations, like Semler’s, have more cathedral constructors than stone slicers. However, this is their subjective impression which, quite obviously, should be taken with a sprinkle of sodium chloride. What’s needed is an objective test of employee empowerment in organisations. In her lecture, Mary Poppendieck proposes such a test. Here it is:

What do people in your organisation do when they are annoyed by some aspect of their job?

Possible Answers:
a) They complain about it.
b) They ignore it.
c) They fix it.

(a) corresponds to the stone cutter, (b) the wage earner and (c) the cathedral builder. Poppendieck’s point is that when people are empowered to change aspects of their job that they feel need to be fixed, then it is clear the organisation has pushed decision making down to lowest possible level. This situation is desirable for two reasons:

  1. Decisions get made at the level at which work gets done.
  2. Everyone in the organisation is able to fulfil their full potential

So, now that you’ve taken the test, do people in your organisation (or team) cut stones, earn a living or build cathedrals?

Written by K

July 23, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Lead, don’t take the easy way out

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Over the last few weeks, parliamentary proceedings in Australia have been dominated by debates (if one can call them that) on the price of petrol. In the process, the public has been treated to the unedifying spectacle of a government and an opposition squabbling over a GST cut on excise  which, if passed, will reduce the price of petrol by the princely sum of 4 cents per litre. A cut that will sooner than later be swallowed by ever rising oil prices.

Rather, than lead – in this case by telling the truth about hard choices that face us – politicians continue to take the easy way out by looking after their own short-term interests (i.e. the next election). Hence the fixation on cutting petrol prices, even if by only an insignificant amount. The truth is we need to look at long-term solutions such as improving public transport and fuel efficiency while also looking at alternate energy sources. All hard yet necessary options which, if implemented, might well irritate the electorate. Incidentally, regarding the first point, anecdotal evidence suggests that soaring petrol prices have already pushed more people into public transport, thereby putting further strain on an already creaky system. Addressing that, for a start, would be more productive than arguing over a 4c price reduction.

In the words of Ross Gittins, a Sydney Morning Herald columnist – our pollies are too gutless to give us the bad oil . And there lies a lesson in how not to lead, because Gittins is absolutely right: our politicians aren’t leading, they’re taking the easy way out.

Written by K

June 11, 2008 at 9:09 pm

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