I recently saw the movie, 12 Years A Slave and to say the least, it was very moving. It evoked a myriad of emotions (anger, sadness, joy, despair, elation etc etc) as I watched it. However, this post is not a movie review, rather it’s reminder (that came from seeing the movie) that slavery is still alive and well (even in the United States where it was abolished in 1865).
You may not be aware of this so I implore you to go to the following resources for more information on slavery today and how you can help:
You may have slaves in your neighborhood, your workplace, your social organizations or even your place of worship. Learn the signs for it and help end it worldwide.
Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmuseumofamericanhistory/8362039752/
Cabin biscuit is a popular biscuit (not cookie and yes there is a difference) found in Nigeria. Truth be told, I don’t know if its anywhere else in West Africa (or the world for that matter) but I’d presume that it is.
As a child, it was the highlight of every birthday party I can remember attending. If cabin biscuit wasn’t offered, well, it wasn’t a birthday party. When I went to visit friends, it was the “kola” along with groundnut (peanuts) and mineral (soda/pop) that was offered. My parents would buy a pack every so often and then put the biscuit in a large empty powdered milk tin. (I don’t believe they were alone in this practice).
I have to confess that occasionally (or quite often as the case would be), I would sneak into their room and take a biscuit or two or three because they tasted so good to me. Somehow, I convinced myself that (a) it wasn’t stealing and (b) they didn’t know. Reflecting on this years later, I was probably wrong on both counts.
Here is the thing though, cabin biscuit taste terrible! It really does. It’s a low cost, dry, cardboard box tasting biscuit. The biscuit that led me to covert raids from parent’s bedroom was actually a bottom-of-the-barrel biscuit. But how could I have known this? It was the only biscuit I knew.
I really don’t remember when my moment of enlightenment came. It was probably some point in secondary school (post elementary) that I realized how terrible cabin biscuit actually was. But I do know that it came after being exposed to better biscuits. Once I discovered that there were much tastier (albeit more expensive) options, I gave up cabin biscuit. It was no longer my biscuit of choice. It was relegated to the bench. In fact, I became insulted whenever it was offered to me. No more raids, no more anticipation, no more anything. I had come to know and desire different.
I’ve seen my professional career traverse a similar arc. For many years, all I cared about was being the best and being in control. I developed in the classic hierarchical organizations where power was associated with your title. Many of the discussions I had with co-workers revolved were centered on how to climb the corporate ladder. The better one performed, the quicker one’s title changed and when one’s title changed, the more muscle one could flex. Generally, the more muscle-flexing capability one had, the more compensation one received. I had figured out corporate America and what my work experience needed to be like. I had discovered the cabin biscuit way – the low quality approach to knowledge work but I didn’t know it. I thought I was indulging in a high quality biscuit.
Three years ago, as a result of a cabin biscuit career change, I found myself in a difficult (severely understated) environment. The entire IT team had turned over and hostility/tension between the Operations and IT department was worse than unhealthy, it was borderline deadly. I thought that acquiring more power would put me in a position to change things. I quickly realized that this wasn’t the case and deep frustration set in. It was at this point, that I stumbled on the work of W Edwards Deming and the System of Profound Knowledge.
This led to discovery and reading the works of others such as Ackoff and Drucker. I suddenly realized that the cabin biscuit way was tasteless, cheap and no longer satisfying. There were actually more rewarding ways of approaching work and society. I discovered alternatives that have led me (in no particular order and not limited) to:
- Desire to experience true fellowship with co-workers.
- Desire to establish meaningful connections
- Focus on trying to understand the needs of others
- Empathize with others as they face challenges on the job
- Choose collaboration over control
- Take a deep interest in psychology
- Place people at the certain of knowledge work
To be fair, I had always experienced the above in bits and pieces throughout my career. The difference now is that my career is all about creating and living these experiences.
We don’t have to settle for the cabin biscuit way of interacting with one another. There are better and more fulfilling ways. Maybe the cabin biscuit way is all you know? I then challenge you to try something else. I have a feeling you’ll be glad you did.
Growing up in an agrarian community, I learned at an early age an important lesson regarding soil. Certain crops will only do well when planted in certain types of soil. Certain types of soil are best suited for certain types of crops.
We had a piece of farmland that was filled with rocks and the soil was clay-like in nature. The only crop that could do well when planted on the land was cassava and year after year, that’s what we planted. But I remember one year, I was determined to plant something else. My parents didn’t discourage me, because they saw what I’ve come to understand as a “teachable moment“. So yours truly, took the time to plant egusi (West African melon). It’s one of those crops that can be planted alongside with cassava and does withstand difficult conditions.
At first things looked good, as the melon germinated and produced seedlings. Everything else was perfect as the necessary rains came and I was optimistic that things would turn out fine. The seedlings began to grow and produce the vine that I figured would ultimately yield the melon but after weeks of waiting, I began to observe that the melons being produced were few and small in size. A few weeks later it became clear to me that a rich harvest was not going to happen and I learned the soil (specifically the rocks in the soil) had prevented the egusi from growing as it should have.
Why tell this story many years later? Well, I’ve come to realize that an organizations culture is just like soil and the behavior of its people are the crop. The culture (or mindset or system or environment) plays a large role in determining the behavior of the people in the organization.
At a previous job, leaders would be (or at least acted) surprised to see people behave in certain ways. But how could they have been? In an environment where people were blamed consistently, cussed at, shouted at, asked to work ungodly hours, afraid, chosen as favorites (or not) etc etc, why would anyone expect anything else besides gossip, “throwing others under the bus”, territoriality, cliques, political maneuvering and outright sabotage to be the crop that was produced?
As there is no cheap fix for soil, there isn’t for culture/mindset/environment either. You can’t use rain or pesticides or fertilizer to simply compensate for poor soil. Even if you( are lucky to?) have short-term success, it never lasts – I’ve seen enough farming cycles to know that for a fact. In org-speak, the annual company award or quarterly pizza lunch with the CEO may be good things to do (albeit extrinsic motivators that need to be kept in check) but don’t expect them to make a significant impact on your culture and how the people in your organize actually behave.
I’ve personally made a decision to care about soil (in addition to other things) and spend my time working, interacting and learning from people who also care about soil. I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on this a bit more. I realize that we may be in the minority but I am not bothered by that as I believe making the world a better place is actually worth it. I hope you begin to care and join us.
I love music. Love reading, writing and playing music. I really do. Always have. Always will.
Recently, I was sent a song that I was supposed to teach a choir. The recording sent to me had the voice parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) recorded separately but no recording of the four parts together. After listening to the parts individually, I decided that I did not like the individual parts and wasn’t going to the teach the choir the song.
A couple of weeks later however, I was privileged to hear the same song performed by a choir and was blown away by the beauty of the song. In fact, I did not recognize it. The parts harmonized in a manner I did not expect. The chorus was soulful and deep. There was a tenor solo that was backed up by the other parts. I ultimately regretted not taking the time to learn/teach it.
This experience reminded me of the quote by Aristotle:
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Each part on its own was lacking but when combined with each other, a beautiful song emerged. Is your team or organization comprised of individual parts just doing their own thing? Or does everyone come together to make sweet music? The next time you listen to a song you like, think about that.
Is that they are just that, estimates, and we can’t rely on them solely even when we have to use them.
Let me cut to the chase right way by stating two things upfront.
- I consider estimates to be measurements based on the work of Douglas Hubbard focused on reducing uncertainty.
- I consider the requests for estimate I largely encounter to be a complete waste of everyone’s time. Sorry!
I blogged on the topic of estimation in the past but after a conversation with my mother today, I couldn’t resist the urge to say a little more.
Mom is conducting research in Nigeria which requires a questionnaire to be distributed to 34 universities in 17 different states in the southern region of the country. To do this, she contracted an individual to travel by road to these 34 universities, distribute the questionnaire and then collect the results. This may seem a little odd to us in the Western world, but that’s how it is done back home. Anywho, we had a short conversation (paraphrased) on how much this would cost.
Me: So how much are you going to have to pay this guy to do this running around
Mom: Not less than N150,000 (for my non-Nigeria friends that’s about $947). I have given him that already.
Mom: It could get up to N400,000 ($2525) because he may have to go some universities multiple times
(Travel in Nigeria can be extremely uncertain as fuel prices can skyrocket on a dime doubling the cost of transportation. The means of transportation is not also reliable all the time. Universities could go on strike causing this individual to have make a couple of trips that were never planned in the first place.)
Me: Lets have touch-points with him after every few universities to see what the expenses are looking like
Mom: Yes, that’s a good idea
Me: At least you’ll have a sense of the what the final bill might look like sooner than later
Mom: And you can get ready to pay for it sooner than later
Now I am pretty sure that we could have reduced uncertainty even further in much more sophisticated ways by really taking into consideration all the variables at play (see How To Measure Anything) here but I really didn’t want to pay to reduce uncertainty any further.
I should also point that the final bill will be presented, accepted and paid based primarily on trust. There are not always official receipts that can be reviewed. The trust discussion is for another day.
Sometimes we need estimates so we can plan and prepare accordingly. How much effort we put into those estimates depends on how much uncertainty we need to reduce. However, we must have feedback loops in the engagement that ensure that we can adjust based on how things are progressing. I think this is one of the things my friends of the #NoEstimates movement continue to reiterate as its a staple value (principle) of both Agile and Lean development.
It’s that time of the year again when companies are going through their annual evaluation cycles. Are performance appraisals valuable? As much as I don’t like the term “performance appraisal”, I believe that the spirit of these things can provide some benefit. I believe that most people want some sort of feedback on their work however my experience with this process has left me with these observations (not exhaustive):
- These “appraisals” happen too infrequently (twice a year at best and most times just once a year)
- Generic templates and scoring is used ignoring the fact that each individual is unique
- Little focus on growth and development of the individual
- Human beings are not real estate/property/equipment/inanimate object, why are we acting like we are
Do you really want to wait an entire calendar year to find out if you are doing a good (or bad) job? I didn’t think so. There should be a continuous two-way conversation between manager and associate that happens all year long. At the end of the day, what are we really trying to evaluate? The individual or the work they produced? I believe that the work produced should be evaluated and because its being produced everyday, we should be able to provide feedback on the work quite frequently.
It looks like, the mass production of appraisal programs, generic templates and their associated methods has created a deadly management malaise that discourages managers from getting to know their people and appreciate their differences. For example, individuals demonstrate leadership in different ways and score everyone based on some set criteria seems to completely miss the point.
Some companies and managers have this notion of the “one-on-one”. My personal experience with this is that it’s rarely about the individual and mostly about the work the individual is doing. Discussions regarding the individual are always left to the last five minutes. Yet, I’m convinced that if the individual becomes the focus, the work ultimately gets taken care of.
As a manager, how often do you check in with your associates to see how they are doing as human beings. Are they still finding joy in their daily work? Is the “system” set up in a way that will allow them to succeed? Do they feel like they are being treated fairly and are part of something exciting? What areas do they think they need grow and develop? Do you need the best way to provide each individual with feedback? If as a manager you want to provide effective feedback, then you have to take the time to get to know your people individually.
I believe that most people inherently just want to do a good job. If you don’t do anything else, at least use this “performance appraisal” season to find out how you (as a manager) can help them with that.
Focusing on strengths, radical improvement comes not from. Weaknesses, it does.
I play the guitar and there are keys (chord progressions) that I feel very comfortable playing in. Playing music in the keys I feel the most comfortable in does not really improve me as a guitar player (I’m stuck to those progressions or using a capo) in spite of the emotional satisfaction I get while playing. I’ve always spent time working on progressions that I know need work but they are rarely the focus of my practice sessions. Recently, I decided to switch things around and actually spend more time focusing on areas of weakness. A couple of things have happened as a result of this:
- I’m improving in the areas that have always been challenging to me
- I’m extremely focused now while going through practice sessions – it’s almost like I’m getting more out of the same effort
- I’ve significantly improved in the areas that I thought I was already good at
I think its quite natural for us as humans to focus on the things we do well and then give reasons (or is it excuses?) why we don’t focus on the areas where we need improvement. I encounter this daily when I’m reminded by myself (and others) that I can’t do something because it is not my “strong suit”. If you’re a sports junkie, its not uncommon to read about what star players focus on during their off-season – their weakness. Whether its getting a mid-range shoot, improving their speed or working on their movement/finishing, the best athletes continually work on the areas of their game that need improvement and are essentially holding them back. So do the best musicians, entertainers, speakers, business man, teachers etc etc. They all explicitly work on the areas of their craft that need improvement.
Working on weaknesses does not start and stop with the individual rather it must extend to the organizational unit. In the same way that individuals should focus on areas that need improvement, organizations should do the same.
As the adage goes “practice makes perfect”. The question is, what are you practicing?
*For further reading see deliberate practice.
**I hope to explore this concept further in subsequent posts.