Self-Solving Dynamics: No More Superhero Managers

super-managerDependence-Based Management

My office in the lower level of the department store was the first one in the executive office suite and I kept my door open most of the time because I had no windows. And as the head of HR, I was the one everyone came to with all kinds of issues, from advice on how to deal with an underperforming employee, to where to access keys to the storeroom. At the time, I was one of the most proficient with the new computers that were slowly taking traction, so I was also the Help Desk and printer-unjammer. I admit, there was a part of me that enjoyed being so important! They say knowledge is power, and as the one who interacted with virtually everyone and every aspect of the store, I knew a lot!

But I was finding myself working long hours to get all of my work done due to the constant interruptions. I’d shut my door for a while to have a few minutes of focus, but it wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my door, or sometimes a full-fledged barge-in, and I’d find myself shifting gears to help the person in front of me.

Often I would try to schedule time with the interrupter so that I could finish the task at hand, but that wasn’t always an easy solution, especially in a multi-shift, 7-days-a week retail environment. Something had to be done or I was always going to find myself behind on my work and resentful for the interruptions.

I began to switch my approach from giving the answer immediately and spending time explaining the details to asking questions to make the other person think through the options and the best course of action, or to discover their own solution. When employees came to me to complain about each other, I pushed the resolution back on them rather than solving things for them. I had to let go of that feeling of being “in charge” and pack up my superman cape (or at least hide it under my suit jacket!) and allow folks to think things through on their own.

At first it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to be the hero with a fix, or at least a scapegoat for those who don’t want the accountability of making a decision. I had to get used to making it their problem, not mine. And they had to get used to coming up with their own solutions.

Empowerment & Accountability

There is a need for empowerment and accountability in the way we lead staff. These are not new concepts, yet are often weakly applied by well-meaning or, sometimes, controlling managers who step in to direct the behaviors of their employees. Empowerment – putting the power to handle situations on another – means I have to release that power so that the other person can pick it up.

Accountability shifts the responsibility for outcomes to the right person(s). If a manager holds themselves accountable for solving interpersonal issues on the team, or directing day-to-day activities (a la micromanaging), then employees will never hold themselves accountable. So it requires that I, as a manager, change my mindset to place accountability with the individuals involved, whether the issue is communication, task performance, or tactical decision-making.

We know, logically, that empowerment and accountability make sense, but between our need to control, a mistrust of our staff, and a mindset that says, “it’s easier to do it myself,” we build dependence that is both time-consuming and debilitating to our direct reports.

Self-Solving Dynamics

The idea behind self-solving dynamics is to shift responsibility to the people impacted by the outcomes. Instead of the boss fixing problems from operational setbacks to interpersonal challenges, self-solving dynamics places the burden of a solution on the shoulders of those who identified the problem (or opportunity) in the first place.

Self-solving dynamics takes a commitment by management to resist the temptation to be a fixer and instead be an enabler. I don’t mean enabling in the negative sense of allowing codependent behaviors, but in the opposite sense of allowing independent behaviors that lead to self-efficacy. If we want a workplace in which individuals at all levels are cognitively engaged, applying their whole being to not only attain organizational objectives, but achieve personal fulfillment as well, we have got to let go and trust that people will figure it out.

Students of leadership will remember the Theory X and Theory Y models presented by Douglas McGregor. Theory X managers see followers as disliking work, avoiding responsibility, and need constant supervision. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, view followers as individuals who seek and accept responsibility and want to solve work problems imaginatively.

It requires a Theory Y leadership mindset to allow self-solving dynamics to flourish. But with a workforce that has been victimized by poor leadership and mistrust, it takes intentional commitment to training, coach, and developing followers to gain confidence and skill. It also requires managers to reflect on their management style and asking for feedback from colleagues and direct reports.

 

Self-Solving Dynamics Defined

Self-Solving Dynamics is the practice of shifting responsibility for solving problems in from the manager to those impacted.

Moving Toward Self-Solving Dynamics

To make the shift to self-solving dynamics requires a realization that followers have been conditioned to ask the boss to solve problems, especially interpersonal or inter-team problems, and that bosses, for a variety of reasons, have obliged. To make the shift…

  • Be aware of your tendency to solve problems for others, and the motivations behind those tendencies (power, self-importance, expediency).
  • Practice asking questions when people come to you for solutions, rather than jumping in immediately.
  • Be comfortable with mistakes; allow followers to learn by doing (just like you probably did!).
  • Be available for consultation, but leave the burden with the one(s) with a problem. Allow them to own the solution. Coach, but don’t solve for them!
  • Ask them to prepare a “lessons learned” summary, which will help them hone their self-solving skills and allow you to celebrate and coach more specifically.

So the next time an employee knocks on your door and wants you to solve a problem for them, tuck your superhero cape back inside your shirt and use the principles of self-solving dynamics to make them a superhero that can soar on their own!

 

Search & Sort: Tips for Putting Information Into Action

Screenshot 2015-07-29 06.59.02According to the philosopher and man of science of a century and a half ago, Herbert Spencer, “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Ralph Waldo Emerson picks up on this thought, adding, “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” As we gather information to educate ourselves on a topic we ultimately aim to take action using this new-to-us knowledge.

Gathering information without the aim of putting it into action may be interesting, but certainly won’t lead to change.

But with the avalanche of information falling on us through a typical Google search, we quickly become buried in material. With pages and pages of results for our simple query there is no shortage of information – results abound! So we suffer from information overload, right?

Well, according to Clay Shirky, who writes and speaks on the effects of internet technology on society and economics, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” In fact, all of the futurists remind us that the amount of information available to us will continue to increase. More and more stuff will be added to the internet, so we have to improve our ability to find relevant information and be able to access that information quickly when we are ready to use it.

So before we can put information into action we have to gather it and store it or organize it. I think each of us has developed some good habits when it comes to accessing, storing and retrieving information. But I imagine we each have some gaps as well. And what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you, but maybe you’ve discovered something that hasn’t come my way yet.

The fact is – there are multiple answers to this conundrum of how to manage information so that we can put it into action later. So here are Todd’s Tips for Putting Information Into Action, categorized into phases of gathering, organizing, and retrieving.

Todd’s Tips for Putting Information into Action

Information Gathering

  • Go beyond Google!
    • Find credible sources and case studies through online journal databases using your public library card. Most libraries provide free access to EBSCO and other article databases from the convenience of your laptop.
    • Look at the references in that Wikipedia entry to see where they got the information. You may question the reliability of the Wiki entry, but often the summary is based on valid sources.
    • Use google.com to home in on deeper articles. It takes a little practice to get the most useful results, but you can often find really good full-text articles and e-books.
    • Another Google Chrome add-on, called Mya, is in beta testing right now. It allows users to search specific sites for topical information, then save results for later use.
  • Compare & contrast multiple sources. Don’t trust the first source you find – get different viewpoints and draw your own conclusions.
  • Books, articles and blogs are still great sources of information! Commit to reading non-digital sources regularly.
  • If you’re not sure where to start researching a topic, ask someone! If you don’t have anyone in your professional network to tap in to, LinkedIn groups are a good way to find practitioners and experts in just about any specialty. You can start a discussion and ask for responses, or search for people to connect with and send an InMail to.
    • If you use the Kindle app and highlight quotes, you can access all of your highlights using the My Notebook icon. If you use the desktop Kindle app you can copy & paste those quotes into a separate document and save it in your folder system.
    • Leverage social media. Many authors or professional groups have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, as well as blogs. Follow them for continuing discussion and research on topics of interest to you.

Storing & Retrieving Information

  • Consider going 100% digital.* Scan articles and training materials, type up notes from presentations as well as quotes from books. (A bonus of typing up notes & quotes is that your memory is aided by the process!)
  • The key is your folder and sub-folder system. Make it your own – only you need to know how to find things in your system, so do what makes sense to you.
  • Use Dropbox, Google Docs, or some other cloud-based system to store your information so that you can retrieve it from any device and any location.
  • Use bookmarks to sort searches and online finds. Most browsers allow you to save articles as PDFs, so you can easily add that online gem to your folder system.
  • Use tags for individual files to help making search more accurate a
  • When you “like” or retweet an article or other resource through social media, go the next step and save the item in PDF to the appropriate folder.
  • Evaluate your system from time-to-time and make tweaks – pay attention to the growing pile of paper resources and schedule time to scan.
  • Purge! That great article on new technology from 1993 may be an interesting historical record, but it’s cluttering up your files. Get rid of it!

*if you have file cabinets full of paper documents, take out one at a time and scan & file each item. It may take a while, but you’ll have all of those docs in one place, organized for easy access. Make sure your scanner can do optical character recognition (OCR), which makes the text searchable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to gather and store information, but it should provide some food for thought as you consider how to collect and sort material. Keep in mind Shirky’s warning that it’s not information overload but failure to filter. If you’re getting too much clutter, evaluate what you actually use and remove what you don’t. That could mean unsubscribing to a newsfeed or blog, un-liking a Facebook page, or moving that pile of magazines to remove the guilt of not getting to them!

Putting information into action, then, means being able to access the material you’ve squirreled away quickly and efficiently.

When I am asked to deliver a presentation on change management I can go to my Research folder, open the Change management sub-folder, then see additional sub-folders labeled PowerPoints, Assessments, Theories & Models, and Handouts. I’m not spending hours searching for my stuff because it’s all at my fingertips.

NOTE: I can’t fully claim all the credit for the tips below; they come from a session I facilitated recently for the Omaha Organization Development Network. So thanks, colleagues, for your contributions!

  

PLEASE MIND THE GAP

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If you’ve ever been to London and traveled on the tube (underground subway) you’ve heard the phrase “please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  It’s a reminder that there is either some separation or a step up or down that could trip you up and cause harm.

I chose this ubiquitous phrase as the theme for my blog on performance management (www.CreativeGapMinding.com) because it’s a fitting reminder that there is often a gap between what we are currently experiencing and what is possible, and that there are dangers to not minding these gaps.

KNOWING THE GAPS

Minding the gap means not just watching for the dangers, but preparing for them…minding them. Minding a gap means proactively keeping it before us and not haphazardly walking through the terrain of our workplaces.  Mindfulness is a choice to open our eyes to what’s happening around us – to take everything in consciously and with a determination to remove the blinders that so often keep us from the levels of success that are possible.

A gap is anything that could get in the way of achieving goals; missed opportunities, unrecognized threats, inefficiencies that create waste.

TOOLS FOR MINDING THE GAPS

There are countless tools that help identify gaps. Here’s a handful that I like to use…

1.   SWOT Analysis: The SWOT is a tried-and-true tool used around the globe. Even a cursory use of a SWOT can identify things that should be considered. The SWOT’s four quadrants: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, can lead to further exploration of gaps that exist, either in a positive sense (Strengths/Opportunities), or n a cautionary sense (Weaknesses/Threats).

2.   Five Why’s: Another simple tool is Five Why’s, which seeks to get to root causes of issues. Start with the surface symptom that reveals a missed opportunity or shortfall, then keep asking why that behavior or condition exists until you’ve discovered the source(s) of the gap.

3.   Root Cause of Success Analysis: We are used to looking for the root causes of problems, but rarely take time to consider the actions and decisions that lead to success. Take the fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram, and instead of starting with a problem statement, begin with an identified success. Identify all of the systemic factors (people, technology, policies, management, etc) that contributed to the success. You may identify gaps or opportunities that will take things to the next level.

4.   Appreciative Questioning/Future Search. Appreciative Inquiry and Future Search are similar tools that build on organizational strengths and successes and uses positive questions to imagine the desired future together. Getting representation from all stakeholder groups to contribute stories of when they have felt empowered and engaged in the organization unlocks a powerful dialogue that uncovers opportunities and addresses unseen gaps between stakeholder groups.

 

Become a gap-minder by focusing on the difference between today’s reality – those things that you know could be better – and what is possible. Many companies find themselves dinged up from their lack of minding the gaps, but paying attention to the risks and possibilities before you trip can mean higher levels of success and a more engaged and satisfied work culture.

   

Why Would You Want to Be the Devil’s Advocate?

Imagine you’ve just pitched a great idea to your colleagues and boss. You’ve made great points, showed data to back up your recommendations, and are sure you’ve wowed the group with your amazing solution to the problem du jour. Then inevitably the colleague you knew would oppose whatever you present raises his hand and says, “I just want to be the devil’s advocate here. What about…?” You let out a controlled sigh and concentrate to hold your eyeballs in place so no one will see the eye roll you’re imagining in your mind.

So what’s the deal with this guy? Why always the devil’s advocate role for him? Does the devil really need an advocate? Maybe a more honest statement would be, “Now I’m going to criticize your idea because I don’t like it.” The devil’s advocate isn’t looking for ways to implement your idea; they’re looking for ways to prove why it doesn’t work.

When we take on this role, and we’ve all worn the badge in some meeting along the way, we shut down any meaningful dialogue and create sides. What motivates us to squash someone else’s idea? Fear of change? Envy and resentment because it wasn’t your idea?

Those who are naturally critical may think they’re doing the group a favor by challenging every suggestion, no matter how well thought out and viable. This cat-and-mouse game is seen as sport, but in reality more harm is done than good. The mouse rarely survives the claws of the cat.

What would happen if the devil’s advocate role was banned from our conference rooms? What if instead we started saying “yes, and…” when we hear a new idea.  With an attitude that says, “how can we make this work?” we can change the dialogue to something more productive and affirming. Instead of people being put on the defensive, fighting against the devil, we would encourage idea generation and look for ways to perfect the proposal or clarify points.

Does this sound too altruistic? Too soft? Are you wondering who is going to challenge all of the half-baked ideas pitched in meetings? Maybe your worry and need to challenge others’ ideas is an opportunity to evaluate your own motives.

Throwing away ideas too soon is like opening a package of flower seeds and then throwing them away because they’re not pretty.

Use the same energy you put into being the devil’s advocate into advocating the ideas of your colleagues. The positive transformation will empower you and others to make things possible, to uncover potential, and to co-create the future.

Not My Problem – Leading Teams to Self-Solving Dynamics

As leaders we often have team members come to us because of a relational or strategic logger jam that is impacting the workgroup. And more often than not they are looking to you, the leader, to fix it for them. So being the good leaders that we are we jump in and start problem-solving. After all, we have the insight, experience and position to push the team to resolution, right?

Not so fast! In our good-intentioned efforts to take the lead and generate solutions, we might be perpetuating the problem. The real issue is not so much the particular scenario they’ve asked your assistance with, but the underlying dynamics that, in the words of pop-psychology, create co-dependence. You come in as the hero, or the enforcer, and the team relinquishes responsibility for handling their own interpersonal and operational conundrums.

A healthy social dynamic instead places the burden of solving these roadblocks on the whole team, not just the leader. The best leaders resist the temptation to be a fixer, instead helping the team process the issue by getting to the real motivations of individuals. The team is strengthened as the leader acts as facilitator, using emotional and social intelligence to read and work through the emotional positions that are causing the conundrum.

Here are three steps leaders can take to put the burden on the group to solve its own problems:

  1. Stop. Stop talking! Resist the urge to provide solutions. Slow down and get perspective. Expediency does not typically lead to lasting solutions. If you struggle to do this, you may want to evaluate your own motives – why do you feel you need to fix things for the group?
  2. Ask. Your first task should be to get group members to open up. Ask probing questions to uncover the meaning behind the meaning of the roadblock. Go below the surface to understand assumptions, biases and motivations. Avoid blame, foster respect, and look for the positive. Help build appreciation.
  3. Relinquish. Let go of your own solutions and allow the group to find their own way out. Keep asking questions to clarify the direction, and facilitate to keep dialogue focused, but remain silent about the direction you recommend. Why? Because you will perpetuate co-dependency and the group will continue to look to you and not themselves, which is inefficient and non-empowering.

One last note on turning over the responsibility and accountability to the group: it may take time. With our culture’s obsession with sense of urgency and expediency, this process may seem time-consuming and inefficient. But as the adage goes, “if you don’t have the time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?” By creating a dependence on the leader, the group becomes a drain as it relies on the leader to step in any time a roadblock arises. But if the leader trains the group to process its own issues, it will eventually become independent and high-performing.

Illuminate and Eliminate Invisible Performance Barriers

Leaders spend a great deal of time creating strategies, laying out short– and long-term  plans to increase market share, improve net income, or simply retain customers only to have those best-laid plans run into unseen barriers. The types of barriers range from unforeseen expenses to a lack of motivation from employees.

To uncover these hindrances to performance and deal with them effectively takes an ability to analyze factors within the organizational system. This is no easy task in the rapid-fire corporate environment most of us live in.  The barriers remain hidden to us because we can’t slow down enough to reflect and consider what is getting in the way of the plans we were sure would work.

Exposing performance gaps requires a systematic approach that looks beyond the surface assumptions, such as training, pay and incentives. It is a common solution to retrain or reprimand employees who are not meeting performance expectations, but we fail to get to the real issue, which could be anything from an ineffective software program, a poor system of accountability, or a workflow that creates a bottleneck outside the control of the employee you’ve determined is a poor performer.

The fact is, identifying gaps in human performance is not simple. It takes skill and a reliable process to evaluate the multiple factors that contribute to performance gaps.  A useful model is the Human Performance Technology model promoted by the International Society for Performance Improvement, which espouses ten competencies that, properly applied, identify the unseen barriers and provide a framework for performance improvement.

 Illuminating and eliminating invisible performance barriers takes practice, but the benefits of following the HPI model leads to net gains, increased engagement/satisfaction, and an increasing ability to see the unseen as the organization builds a culture of evaluating the system and making smart, strategic decisions.

*To find out more about Human Performance Improvement & Technology, visit www.ispi.org

Visit www.cornerstoneglobaltps.com for more information about HPT-based consulting.

The Peter Principle Revisited

In The Peter Principle, author Laurence Peter describes a common occurrence in many organizations – people rise (or get promoted) to their level of incompetence. They do well in a position, whether operating equipment,  completing administrative tasks, or selling in a retail store. As a reward for their exceptional performance in that position they are moved up to the next level, usually some sort of leadership or management position.  Individuals in search of advancement apply for, and sometimes win, jobs they are not truly qualified for. I’ve seen it time and time again in every type of organization and the results are a serious problem in the organization. Not only is there the loss of efficiency, but the frustration and stress on both sides of the equation creates an atmosphere of paranoia and firefighting. When incompetence abounds due to bad hiring & promotion decisions employee engagement takes a big hit and chaos abounds as management works to clean up messes and keep employees focused and motivated.  

The wise organization takes an intentional approach to developing a career path for individuals. Understanding competencies, strengths and talents allows individuals and companies to prevent the Peter Principle from happening. Job descriptions get a bad rap, and many are poorly written, but when done right they can be used to ensure people do not rise or get promoted to their level of incompetence, but rather find where they have the greatest strength and talent and align their job responsiblities accordingly. Once someone is in a position where they cannot perform well, the emotional and productivity toll is hard to overcome.

Big Problems, Small Solutions

Why do we always think a big problem requires big solutions? With this mindset we can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and miss the small solution that can make a big difference. Brothers Dan and Chip Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, talk about this phenomenon. Their observation is that, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over decades.” Most of our problems in organizations do not require decades to improve, but they do take a strategic approach. We have to resist the temptation to put band-aids on complex issues and take a systems view to explore the multiple sources contributing to the problem. In a recent job I was tasked with solving a performance problem with call center agents. Month after month a group of agents fell below quality expectations. I brought in the experts – Quality Analysts, Team Managers, and Trainers – and asked each of them what they thought the problem was and how to solve it. All of them had a diferent perspective and all of them was right. If I had only listened to one group and not the other, small solutions would have been missed. The solution was not a large-scale training program, but a multi-faceted one that included targeted coaching, group activities, and repositioning the agents nearer the help they needed to succeed. It was a big problem with a lot of attention from senior management, but the solutions were small and organic.