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.
A short one to start the New Year……
A couple of weeks ago I was watching a Fareed Zakaria special where he interviewed Paul O’Neil (former United States Secretary of the Treasury and former CEO of Alcoa) on the subject of “tough decisions”. In the interview, I heard for the first time the phrase discretionary energy used to describe the extra effort that employees have available that they may (or may not) give to their employer – a concept that I find very interesting. A Google search revealed a decent amount of material on the subject.
Most definitions of discretionary energy suggest that its the energy an employee provides when going above and beyond the call of duty to complete an assignment. With this definition, a very simple (but wrong) approach would be for a company to identify what percentage of its employees work over 40 hours (for example) and use that as an indicator of discretionary energy in use. A classic case of mistaking correlation for causation. However, there is a very important ingredient of discretionary energy - an employee should make the decision to bring this energy to the table on their own because they want too. If it is forced, coerced or explicitly asked for by the employer, it is no longer discretionary energy.
For example, if you ask your employees to stay late to complete a task and they do so, as positive as this may be (after all you wouldn’t want them to say no would you), they did not use their discretionary energy. On the other hand, if they realize a task needs to be completed and on their own decide to stay for a couple of hours to get the item completed instead of having it done the following day, then discretionary energy is at work. This is a subtle yet important difference as as most employers mistake the fact that employees heed instruction to extend themselves as show of commitment to the cause. I am not certain that is truly the case (more to come on that) and are then surprised when employees leave and complain of “long working hours”.
If you are looking for a “happiness indicator” or a “level of commitment measure” for the employees in your team or organization, something to look at would be the amount of discretionary energy being used in the workplace. Intrinsic motivation begets discretionary energy. How often are your employees going above and beyond on their own? When people stay late or work on the weekend is it because you asked them to or because they want to ensure that something is completed on time? How often does your team come up with ideas of improvement on their own? What new frameworks, approaches, solutions and patterns are being created or designed to solve problems that exist? Does your customer service representatives take the time to understand people calling with complaints? If this is non-existent or extremely low, you are not tapping into the potential of your greatest asset – your people and that is extremely unfortunate!
On the other hand, as an employee, take a look at how much discretionary energy you give to your job. If you find yourself dreading work, excitedly looking for the end of they day and completely switching off when you leave the office, it would seem to me that you are not using it all. If that’s the case, you may need to start looking for something new and different (maybe somewhere else). It is, after all, a New Year, so why not start now? Find a place to put your discretionary energy to use!
It’s the first day of a brand new year. In some ways, it’s really just another day and seeing a new day is always something to celebrate. Yet, making it through an entire year is definitely something special and is worthy of its own celebration.
This is the time when people come up with resolutions and commitments. For many, its things like “losing weight”, “practicing the piano more”, “traveling”, “saving a little more” etc etc. It’s doing something new or better or different. For many, the commitments will only last a few weeks. For some, they will stick to their resolutions and become better for it.
This year I want to be a better leader. I want to be a better servant. I want to stand up against wrong doing more often. I want to stay out of the politics of the typical organization and focus on what matters. I want to be involved with people who are committed to improving the quality of life for the people around them. I want to help make the new year “happy” for others.
I want to be a better person. Please keep me honest.
Happy New Year everyone!
In my last blog post, I tried to differentiate problem solving and problem dissolving. This post continues to explore the differences. Problem solving is sweet, seductive and addictive. People experience a high when they solve problems. It’s exhilarating to have a problem that has stumped everyone and then come up with solution. Standard performance appraisals have a section where employees are rated on their ability to solve problems and employers reward employees that score high in this area and penalize those who don’t. Job opening descriptions list the ability to “solve problems” as a requisite for applying!
Once a pattern for solving a problem has been identified, it is reused over and over and over again. Because we can solve the problem faster, we tell ourselves we’re getting better at solving the problem. Our confidence rises and with it our level of cockiness. We begin to dare the problem to show up again. (For its own good, it better not).
Allow me to tell a little story that illustrates this. Recently, I worked with a team that had problem where user could no longer see some information. After some analysis, they identified what they needed to do to make the information available again. They had no idea why it had gone missing in the first place, but who cared? They made the information available again and made it available quite quickly. They had done it, they had solved the “missing user data” problem.
They then put a process in place to check if information was not available. They prided themselves in the fact that they were being proactive about it; before the users identified the issue, they would. They were sure that this would bode well in the annual performance appraisal exercise. So for 6 months, they tried to stay ahead by identifying and fixing the problem before their users did. As you can imagine, the results were mixed. Sometimes they identified the issue first and other times they didn’t. Additionally, the team didn’t like the fact that they had to monitor for this. They just wanted to write software. So someone came up with a brilliant idea, after all, they were software engineers. Instead of manually monitoring for the existence of the problem, develop an automated process that (a) identifies the problem exists and (b) fixes it when it does.
Before they could get to developing the solution, they decided to have a conversation about the problem again. The result of a one hour conversation was that a developer identified WHY data went missing and a couple of hours later, had made the necessary code changes that actually dissolved the problem.
Here is the kicker, they had spent over 6 months fixing the problem on a weekly basis but in a couple of hours they had dissolved the problem altogether. Early on, they had decided that the problem was complex and would require much time to figure out so they were better off quickly solving the problem whenever it appeared. There was no need to stop the presses and dissolve the problem. They did not consider the cost of not determining what actually caused problem. The cost of people checking the data daily, the cost of solving the problem, the cost of testing the solving, the cost of deploying the solution, the cost of having the end users look for their information. It all added up. Unfortunately, they can’t turn back the hands of time but they have learned a valuable lesson.
Buyer Beware: If you foster and develop a culture of problem solving, you are hurting your organization more than you probably realize.
In any type of system, there will be problems. In complex systems, complex problems tend to show up. Unfortunately, our invdividual and collective approach to problem solving is highly analytic in nature.
We decompose problems into their elemental parts as if they were math problems. We solve each part in isolation and then try to put the parts back together again in Humpty Dumpty fashion. We even get really clever and put brackets around some parts of the problem to ensure that we solve certain parts of the problem first before other parts.
And we’re successful (or so we think), in fact, we’re really good at this (most times). We end up with a “best practices for problem solving” and some of us go on to have illustrious careers peddling solutions for solving problems. In our performance evaluations, we are scored extremely high because we’ve developed a knack for “problem solving”.
But are we really successful? Has the problem really gone away or we just masking it with some wonderful masking tape? A classic example of problem solving in organizations is this:
We have quality issues. Our product is not as good as it should be so let’s see what we can do. Ah, we got it, let’s solve our quality problems by more quality assurance. Let’s inspect the end product more often. In fact, let’s hire inspectors who will make sure that we find our quality issues before our customers do.
This in fact, does (hopefully) solve the problem. The end product is better and customers are happier but the fact of the matter is that without that solution in place, there is still a big problem, a quality problem and a social/behavioral problem might have just showed up right behind it.
Let me offer you something better. About a year ago, I came across an approach to problems by Russ Ackoff described as “problem dissolving” that described how my outlook on problems had shifted over time. I believe it was from one of his lectures on Youtube but unfortunately I can’t find it right now. However, I will encourage readers to look him up if you don’t know who he is. As opposed to problem solving which doesn’t address the problem itself but just prevents it from being exposed, problem dissolving is all about getting rid of the problem.
To get rid of the problem, we need to move from analysis to synthesis. We need to move from dissecting systems into their component parts and fixing parts in silos to looking at the system in its entirety, understanding how its component parts interact and then identifying solutions that make the problems disappear.
(It’s not the thrust of this particular post on how to identify problems but rather shift our focus to a place where we’re really interested in problem removal).
So back to our earlier example of quality. What if we identified that the problem was that workers were always rushed and had unrealistic deadlines so the quality of their work suffered? Then problem dissolving could go something like this:
We as management are going to do a better job of strategic planning and communicating of what our commitments are. We are going to be transparent with all of our teams so they can also plan and make the necessary adjustments whenever they need to. We are going to focus on reducing stress and long working hours and thus the everyone will be able to do a better job.
Walk the gemba, understand your system and start redesigning to dissolve the problems that are preventing you from being as successful as you could be.
(This doesn’t only apply to your work life. Try problem dissolving in your personal life too!)