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Forget solutions, let’s first get the problem right

Forget solutions, let’s first get the problem right

Strategic misalignment often results from leaders disagreeing on what to do: Which solutions to adopt, and which ones to forego.

Instead of focusing on solutions, our research indicates that strategically aligned executives first agree on what problems represent priorities. Only when problems have been well defined and priorities established do they start a conversation on what to do.

In this blog post, we explore expert advice on reaching strategic consensus.

What’s your problem?

Strategy meetings often start with someone asking “what should we do?” As if everyone at the table is already on the same page as to the problems facing the organization. That’s rarely the case.

After all, we have little visibility into other teams’ difficulties. So leaders tend to pitch solutions addressing their individual team’s problems with little knowledge on how it will affect others.

Under a lenient CEO, this translates into each team setting its own priorities, regardless of whether they are conflicting to the organizational strategy.

Examples of misaligned organizations abound. We usually hear about them when a company announces it is “going back to its roots” and divests dozens of unprofitable business units.

Why are we so quick to jump to solutions? For one, our business culture doesn’t reward people for taking the time to properly defining and agreeing on problems. We are rewarded for solving them. Fast.

We thus focus much more energy on solving problems than defining them. A professor from the University of Washington in St.Louis shares in an interview that:

“Our business philosophy is to get to the answer quickly. To formulate a strategy quickly. Yet the result is an implementation that takes forever and rarely succeeds.

If we engage in conversation and reach unity, implementation could be achieved much faster. So the need to get to a solution quickly is an impediment. Jumping to solutions only works when the problem is simple. With regard to complex problems, jumping to solutions quickly is the wrong thing to do.”

To better achieve strategic alignment, he advocates for a process where stakeholders first agree on the problems facing the organization:

“The key is to first have unanimity on problem definition. Not talk about any solution. Reason why people have arguments is because each jumps to solutions on what to do, which tend to be different, and fight over them because they have different views.”

In support of that argument, Russell Eisenstat, strategy consultant and former faculty at Harvard Business School, notes in a HBR article how we can:

“Mobilize commitment to change through joint diagnosis of business problems. As the term task alignment suggests, the starting point of any effective change effort is a clearly defined business problem. By helping people develop a shared diagnosis of what is wrong in an organization and what can and must be improved, a general manager mobilizes the initial commitment that is necessary to begin the change process.”

Aside from successfully reaching alignment, discussing problems without mentioning solutions also decreases the chances of conflict during the strategy process. Jackson Nickerson, a strategy researcher, shares in Microfoundations of Strategic Problem Formulation that:

“By first focusing on identifying relevant symptoms and prohibiting solutions prior to formulating the problem, …it is unlikely that discussions of symptoms will trigger political reactions the way that deriving solutions can (discussing symptoms has fewer direct implications for which actions need to be taken and whom such actions may benefit)…”

Can we agree on the important problems?

Now let’s assume the strategy team has successfully identified the problems facing the organization, how do we decide on which ones to focus on?

Russel L. Ackoff, former Management Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, proposes in Idealized Design to start:

“…with an illustration of all problems facing the company today and foreseeing what would kill the company if we did nothing. What problems would you want to focus on if the survival of the company was at risk?”

Looking at this from a different angle, Prof. Nickerson suggests in The “Problem” of Creating and Capturing Value:

“In selecting problems managers must decide not only which questions represent design challenges to create value but also which problems their organizations have a reasonable likelihood of solving at a low enough cost to create and capture value.”

Prioritizing initiatives that keep a company alive, competitive and profitable sounds elementary. Yet how many activities at our organizations fail this test? Too many in my opinion. For example, why did Instagram change logos?

Stronger together

In the end, the main goal of agreeing on problems is to work together as one unit. As one company. One community. Never letting differences of opinion divide the team.

That’s why the best leaders work to strengthen the organizational bond. Quoting Arie De Geus, former strategist at Shell, in The Living Company:

“A manager of a living company… must let people grow within a community that is held together by clearly stated values. The manager, therefore, must place commitment to people before assets, respect for innovation before devotion to policy, the messiness of learning before orderly procedures, and the perpetuation of community before all other concerns…

The feeling of belonging to an organization and identifying with its achievements is often dismissed as soft. But case histories repeatedly show that a sense of community is essential for long-term survival.”

Because “Working together always works.” – Alan Mulally, former CEO @Ford


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3 practical tips on maintaining team trust

3 practical tips on maintaining team trust

Maintaining trust with the team is in my opinion the foundation of leadership. So today, I’m going to share three tips on how to maintain trust day-to-day.

1. Don’t rush meetings

I get it. Everyone’s busy and there are fires to fight.

Most of us wished the meeting ended 5 minutes ago, so we can all get back to work.

However, rushing conversations creates a culture where nothing but the most urgent matters are discussed. Team members will avoid raising up concerns that are just starting to cause harm. Personal issues and frustrations are also skipped, since most wouldn’t want to bother their busy manager with it (until they’re ready to quit).

In other words, rushing conversations fails to allow people to raise emerging thoughts and problems. There is thus no opportunity to catch and resolve issues before they become big fires.

So next time there’s a meeting or a 1-on-1 chat, let’s not rush it. Let’s instead allocate a generous time slot for questions and concerns.

2. Listen

Managers much more famous and capable than I have said this before, so I’ll save my words on this point: Avoid speaking over people, interrupting them, or talking without listening.

In my experience, actively listening is much more powerful at effecting change than speaking at team members. If I wish to make a point, I ask questions to help the other party think through an issue together, and keep my mouth shut.

It still surprises me how powerful listening is.

3. Make time to observe

On countless occasions, I’ve heard team members complain about how leaders don’t understand their problems (I work hard to be a venting channel for people). That leaders seem clueless to their daily challenges.

In those situations, I empathize with both team members and managers. Fact is, managers are a level removed from daily challenges of their subordinates, so have a hard time understanding their problems. They lack context.

Yet it’s the manager’s job to understand their team’s problems. To represent and advocate for their needs.

In my opinion, the best way to keep tap on the team’s daily challenges without throwing ourselves back onto the front line (although that can’t hurt either, if one can afford it), is to make time everyday to observe the team’s work. Observe interactions between team members, with other teams, with customers, and ask about their challenges over lunch.

The danger in not observing the team is not becoming ignorant. It’s that our perception of the team’s challenges will bias toward the most vocal (or whiny) team members. A tiny snapshot of the team’s actual situation.

So to avoid sounding out of touch, let’s make the time to observe the team regularly.

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These 3 roles will boost happiness at your growing startup

These 3 roles will boost happiness at your growing startup

Much has been said about a startup only needing engineers to kick start.

Yet as growth spurs, a startup team is bound to need people other than techies. People who can manage, sell, build relations with customers, market, strategize… All necessary to build a successful company, adopt a winning strategy. Not just build a product.

While most companies will create roles to meet customer needs, not many will consider creating roles for employee needs. Yet they are just as important, if not more. Especially if your company values include “putting employees first.”

Today, I’m advocating for three roles to boost employee happiness.

1. Head of Happiness

When people feel frustrated, emotionally unstable, or just need to vent, they go to the Head of Happiness. A trained psychologist or therapist, the Head of Happiness is responsible to listen to people impartially and helps them process emotions. They also offer advice on interpersonal communication to help people avoid and resolve conflicts. Having a deep understanding of how team members feel at the company, the Head of Happiness is also tasked with team building and communication initiatives.

What is success for this person?

Team members are comfortable voicing their thoughts and feelings to each other, leaving nothing unaddressed.

Why is this important?

With a growing team, politics often silently infiltrate the workplace, while culture turns from open and transparent to toxic. This person can help avoid this.

When is this role needed?

When we increasingly see people venting to each other, but failing to resolve conflicts.

2. Management Coach

The Management Coach teaches first-time people managers core management principles. They organize working sessions to discuss ongoing challenges and share best-practices. The management coach also acts as a mentor and advisor to all people managers, helping to objectively diagnose situations from a second perspective. Ideally, the management coach is someone with many years of people management experience (it could certainly be an existing manager).

What is success for this person?

Team members don’t doubt their manager’s intention to help them grow and maximize their individual potential.

Why is this important?

Many startups promote young and inexperienced technical workers into management positions. Taking on such responsibilities without experience or training can lead to many trial and error mistakes, frustrating subordinates and wasting time. An experienced management coach can both prevent mistakes from being made, and help managers diagnose challenges to speed up their trial and error learning process.

When is this role needed?

When one or more managers on the team have no experience leading people.

3. Head of Strategy

The Head of Strategy is responsible to formulate a business strategy, keep it relevant, and enforce it across the organization. This translates into spending time researching industry trends and competitor intentions, leading cross-team strategic planning at the organization, and set key metrics to maintain strategic focus. Leaders can consult the Head of Strategy on whether a decision or action is aligned with the company’s strategy, and also have them facilitate and manage cross-team collaboration projects.

What is success for this person?

An explicit business strategy exists and all teams are collaborating on it, rather than acting in silo.

Why is this important?

Lack of strategy or lack of strategic alignment between teams means the company is doing everything, going in all directions, unsustainably.

When is this role needed?

As soon as people no longer fit in the same room and walls divide teams.

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30 lessons I learned managing people for the first time

30 lessons I learned managing people for the first time

I joined a startup out of college, wanting to effect change and make an impact right away.

Two years thereafter, I was thrust into a management role. It was exactly what I wanted. It started with a couple direct reports, and over time, I found myself leading 20 analytics professionals. Having no prior management training, I made many mistakes. People have quit, projects have failed, and targets have been missed. That said, I’ve also successfully helped the company grow from 12 to 100+ team members.

I owe my team for all the knowledge I’ve gained. The team that served as guinea pigs early on, forgave me time and again, and never gave up in our pursuit of success. Here are 30 lessons I learned on my journey so far:

  1. Don’t set any expectations with new hires, apart from the need for them to learn and ask a ton of questions. In other words, expect them to be curious. Expecting anything more has a high chance of catalyzing impostor syndrome.
  2. Before trying to influence people, first gain their trust.
  3. Perks, ping pong, and free beer matter less to team members than a purposeful mission, fast-tracked professional development, and fair compensation plans. Plus, all these standing desks, designer offices, and free food create a comfortable and entitled atmosphere that incentivizes chilling, rather than the underdog culture that pushes people to strive for more, to win. Which one do we want?
  4. It’s unreasonable to expect our boss to be perfect. It’s unreasonable to think that the CEO knows everything, and will always take the right decisions. We have a much better view of the challenges facing the business from down here. It’s thus our duty to speak up.
  5. One of the world’s top thinkers (Clayton Christensen) has researched and explained how to disrupt a market. We thus don’t need to reinvent the process or “figure it out” all over again. Let’s just make sure that our solution is actually disruptive and not sustained in nature (i.e. a solution that offers worse performance than existing solutions at first, and that existing clients don’t want right away, but that can be improved rapidly)
  6. Innovation isn’t brainstorming a ton of ideas and trying everything that seems interesting. There’s a systematic process that can make innovation projects much more effective, starting with problem definition, not problem solving.
  7. Forecasting is overrated. Scenario planning is much more critical when it comes to planning for the future.
  8. Managing my boss is just as important as managing my team. I have to understand that my boss doesn’t have time to explore what I need, how I’m doing, and what is reasonable to expect from me. It’s up to me to communicate all of that.
  9. As the organization grows, there is a tendency for teams to work in silos; caring only about their specific team goals. This can be detrimental to the organization as processes that require cross-team collaboration (i.e. everything) can break down. When/if that happens, everyone needs to come together and see the company as one unit, working towards the same goal.
  10. Surveys are misleading and lack context. Instead, let’s make time to observe. Observe team members to get a sense of their fears and motivations, observe customers to understand their pain points, and observe leadership for clues on the business challenges ahead.
  11. Toxic culture will destroy a companyThis includes both organizations where people stay silent and don’t bring up problems, and those where leadership listens to problems, but sweeps them under the carpet. Dishonesty prevents the company from seeings the obstacles ahead and plan accordingly.
  12. Don’t let instincts get in the way of a great work culture. Our subconscious can behave differently than desired, leading to biased decisions that hurt the company.
  13. Before hurriedly analyzing data to answer a question, let’s first why we care, what actions we plan to take, and what reports we envision being useful. Otherwise, it’s very likely we’ll get distracted by data and waste time.
  14. Adopting the right metrics helps to guide people when we’re not there and reminds them of what is important. It’s thus crucial for effecting change.
  15. Define the problem before solving it. Too much time is wasted solving the wrong problems.
  16. When it comes to decision making, the most important step is to evaluate all potential outcomes and to plan around each scenario. Nothing ever happens as planned, so we need to stand ready to face the worst case scenario.
  17. Before taking a decision, let’s first check our blind spot: Look for biases, subconscious tendencies, and invalidated assumptions.
  18. A hiring process is comparable to a sales process: A funnel with multiple stages that can be improved. The goal is to maximize the ratio of [people interviewed] over the number of [people hired and successfully working with us].
  19. Even A-players will feel unsuccessful without clear expectations and goals.
  20. Great insights are often lost because we don’t think to ask people about their past experiences. Before going live, let’s ask team members whether they’ve worked on similar projects, have experience with a new role we’re creating, or have previously implemented a change we’re considering.
  21. Implementing change is hard, because human beings are animals of routine. Before changing, we need to plan ahead, win hearts & minds, and reach mutual agreement. Ideally, change feels like a natural evolution everyone is excited about.
  22. Having too little processes makes operations chaotic, while having too many processes brings inefficiencies. A fine balance can be found via a set of guidelines that empowers team members to make individual calls.
  23. We should feel comfortable to disagree with our boss and challenge their opinion (with evidence). A healthy culture welcomes constructive debate and feedback.
  24. Shying away from having tough conversation and giving constructive feedback will make us frustrated in the long run. It’s a sign that we’re not comfortable exposing our thoughts. To make it less personal, we can focus our feedback on the behavior, not the person.
  25. Great leaders are also great coaches who diagnose, train, and support their team members. It’s unfair to delegate tasks to team members without diagnosing their capabilities first. It sets them up for failure.
  26. If someone is underperforming, they could be: A bad fit, not trying hard enough, or not getting the coaching they need. Work with them if it’s the latter case, but let them go otherwise. To avoid feeling bad when firing someone, set clear expectations, and give the team member a fair chance to improve. Let’s however not hold on to hope if there is no hope.
  27. Goals are important, but not more than everyday advancements. In addition to celebrating goals, let’s make time every day to praise team members’ effort and progress. This reinforces a growth mindset.
  28. +1’s matter. Showing support for other people’s ideas matters. It shows how popular an idea is, which influences the final decision. If we decide not to voice our support, then we are not entitled to complain after the decision.
  29. While we’re on this journey, let’s remember to breathe, to be mindful of the present, and to appreciate the value we’re bringing to our team, our company, and the world. There will always be a new mountain to climb, a new problem to solve. Let’s take time daily to turn around and appreciate the view on this adventure. Yoga helped me a ton with being mindful.
  30. Change jobs and move on when you’ve stopped learning and growing, when the culture is making you unhappy, or when you don’t trust the leadership.

 

Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!

Don’t let instincts get in the way of doing the right thing

Don’t let instincts get in the way of doing the right thing

I like to believe that I am an objective being, actively in control of my decisions and actions, especially at work.

Yet time and again, I find myself less than proud of some of my past behaviors. I’ve had demographic biases toward people; I’ve opposed arguments without assessing their basis; and I’ve agreed to ideas that are against my personal values.

Fact is, I am often a slave of my subconscious, of my brain running on cruise control. And I’m starting to recognize that like animals, I have instincts that are challenging to overpower.

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem if our actions differ from our desired actions. If our brain on autopilot takes decisions that go against those we’d take consciously. It’s especially a problem if our instincts get in the way of creating a fair, transparent, and innovative workplace. The type that startup companies in this globalized world need.

So let’s take a moment to recognize our instincts. Allow me to share three instinctual behaviors that get in the way of…

… debating with the boss

I can recall numerous occasions where I’ve disagreed with my boss and yet didn’t try to voice or argue the matter. I’ve disagreed over the team’s compensation plan, our holiday policy, and even our company strategy. Yet on many of these issues, I’ve kept my thoughts to myself.

Why?

Well, to survive of course. Self-preservation is the need to keep myself alive and economically healthy. It is also the reason I will avoid arguing with my boss. Fact is, I see my boss as the hand that feeds me, so the last thing I want to do is to create conflict and paint myself as an enemy. I simply don’t want to get fired.

How can I become more vocal with my thoughts?

Everytime that I disagree with my boss nowadays, I first note it down in my journal to first avoid losing that thought. I then let it sit for 24 hours to ensure that my reactionary emotions are gone. If I still disagree after that, I will start to work on a way to introduce my disagreement, gathering evidence to support my thoughts, and planning for the right time to speak up. I also find it helpful to state my goals (why I’m of this different opinion), because they are often the same as my boss’s goals, so it helps us start the conversation from the same footing.

… being excited about changes

Most people I know react to a new proposed change with skepticism. Not many individuals react to a surprise change with a “Hooray!” Ok, maybe extreme sport athletes do. But for most of us commoners, we love a good old routine.

Why?

For the simple reason that we are creatures of habit and routine. As explored by NPR and Psychology Today, our habits and routines help us navigate our days with greater ease, greater comfort. As I’m typing this blog post, I am not actively thinking about which letter to press on my keyboard, my brain has made typing a habit, and I only have to think about what I want to say. There are dozens and dozens of tools that each of us depend on to do our work. To become more productive, we make a habit of using all these tools.

Yet when things change, our habits and routines have to be reset. We thus are naturally upset by change. If someone was to change the letter placement of my laptop keyboard, I’d be frustrated regardless of whether it’s better for my health or not. It simply takes me outside my comfort zone and I have to re-learn basics of typing again. We thus dislike it when people change the tools or processes we’ve grown accustomed to.

Being skeptical of change is in my opinion a good thing – it ensures that we take the time to properly review any proposed change’s potential impact, and take the necessary precautions. Yet this instinct can also backfire when people are stubbornly opposed to change without reason. According to some studies, 70% of change management initiatives fail. I’m willing to bet that people’s instinctive opposition to change has something to do with that.

How can a workplace assess changes objectively?

On our team, we first make sure that there are no surprises. No changes are made or even proposed before we first accurately pinpoint the problem at hand. We then work to ensure that all stakeholders agree on the problem. Only then do we start working to find a solution to the problem. Since all impacted parties are already involved and have agreed to participate in solving the problem, there is usually little to no opposition to any proposed changes. They architected it together.

… objectively judging people, especially individuals that are different

When I interview candidates, I often find myself asking more questions to people that did not come from a background (education, experience) similar to those of existing team members. In a way, we could call it playing it safe, but on another level, I’m simply judging people differently because they come from different walks of life.

As I consulted colleagues from other companies and startups on how they handled these situations, it became clear that this problem exists across industries, and in companies large and small. Age, gender, education, ethnicity, and even fashion discriminations were rampant. My colleagues and I both suffered such discriminations as well as contributed to them. We realized that most of the time, people were not even aware that they were discriminating. We’re talking about really smart, often Ivy league educated managers that would fight for feminist causes or march with Martin Luther King should he still be with us.

Why?

In my opinion, it comes down to the fact that we fear the unknown. We are afraid of things we are not familiar with: Foreign cultures, people, ideas. Here, foreign can take the form of a different neighborhood in the same city, not just another country. In its worst form, our fear morphs into Xenophobia, as witnessed in the recent Brexit. Day-to-day, we avoid certain parts of the city, sit with colleagues that are similar to us at the cafeteria, or ask some people more questions than others at interviews.

Again, why?

The question then begs… Why in our multicultural society (at least in much of the western world), are we still so afraid? Haven’t we been exposed to enough different people, cultures, and ideas that we can comfortably shed away our biases?

Well, fact is that even though there are multiple cultures found near each other geographically, there are limited interactions between them. Cultures are not mixing.

Simply glossing over a demographic map of the USA will expose the fact that most neighborhoods in cities are segmented demographically. African Americans, White Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans can all be found living apart from each other, in different neighborhoods. How do we expect to really understand other cultures if we are never exposed to them? Do we really understand their differing values and cultures? The situation is even worse in rural areas and smaller cities.

So this leaves us popular culture to educate us on the values and lives of foreign cultures. Yet no luck there either. According to research from USC, 73% of actors in Hollywood are white, 13% black, 5% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. That means that we are all overwhelmingly educated on white American culture, but little else.

All these stats are further augmented by the fact that 75% of white Americans do not have non-white friends. White Americans thus have no clue about the values, culture, and ideologies of the ~70 million non-white neighbors they share their land with.

This problem persists in the startup ecosystem and Silicon Valley, where most people are White or Asian. It reflects the demographic of university populations.

So how can I avoid being biased toward foreign people / cultures?

Simply being aware that we feel safer around people like us, and less so around those that look and think differently is a good start. Acknowledging we need people who think differently for innovation may be the next step. Let’s not fear our differences, but embrace them. We are all different, not better or worse.

The next time that candidates are being interviewed, perhaps we should take cues from musical orchestras and do it behind a curtain with voices masked. I’m kidding. Let’s all start with being more aware of how our brain operates on cruise control.


Recommended exercise

The next time that someone proposes a change, at work or at home, on how we do things, take note of our initial reaction. Did we oppose it instinctively, or did we keep our mind open and curious?


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!