Archive for the ‘Management Issues’ category

Beware, there is another Chasm…

March 15, 2014

In recognition of the Ides of March, and in honor of Geoffrey Moore’s re-released and newly-revised Crossing the Chasm, I’m driven to the soothsayer’s role, for there is another Chasm to be crossed.

Beware, the (Other) Chasm, for it is hidden from the innovator’s view.

The other Chasm is deeper and more ominous than the first (the one that devours unsuspecting start-ups), and more dangerous, too, for it consumes unsuspecting institutions of any size, and its canyon floor is cluttered with the wreckage of the once-profitable, the blindly passionate, and the silicon proud:  it is more dangerous because it is taboo.  It has many names yet none, and it can suddenly appear beneath one’s feet on the very edge of success.  Indeed, many have prevailed in the crossing of Mr. Moore’s Chasm, only to teeter and fall into this second, the Other – the one they never saw coming.  Early symptoms are easily dismissed – an unhappy customer here, a missed deadline there – rationalized as the unfortunate side-effects of a necessary velocity.



Too many ignore the stop sign at the intersection of Velocity Way and Velocity Way (which is an actual location), falling into the second Chasm.  As we descend, accelerating in proportion to the gravity of our business, more symptoms appear:

  • Communication becomes increasingly difficult.
  • Team conflicts go unresolved.
  • Organizational architectures buckle under the weight of too many mergers & acquisitions, or the heightened expectations of second-wave executives.
  • Things go awry in the field, and revenue targets are missed.
  • Management consultants are hired to identify root causes.
  • Company culture begins to unravel, until it is reduced to mere motto.
  • Finally, the “best and brightest” begin to quietly look for their next professional opportunities.

I once surveyed an audience of 100+ CIOs on the primary reasons for failed initiatives and their resounding answer: 95% of project failures were caused by “people problems,” not by insurmountable technical or business issues. As one colleague remarked at the time, “Technology problems are easy – just a matter of time or money. People issues? We don’t have a clue.”  And yet, we strive for the latest technologies, and delegate organizational development responsibilities to HR.  We’re much more comfortable rebooting servers, configuring databases, and searching for memory leaks than confronting our dysfunctional teams, our feuding layers of middle management, and our fraying organizational culture.

“The level of contempt in meetings is startling,” another colleague recently confided, “it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about…”  His situation is emblematic of a disturbing trend in our industry, the widening tension between the hubris in Silicon Valley and the Occupy-style resentment it engenders.  It is the tension between those who invest millions of dollars in a quest for disruptive inventions and those for whom disruption is a bad thing, something to be avoided whenever possible.

Some of you may argue that there has always been a gap.  Visionaries pull society forward.  Economics (have’s and have not’s) become political and polarized.  Why, you might ask, is this particular Ides of March different than 2004 or 1994?

Geoff Moore’s revised work offers an answer.

In the new Chasm commentaries, Geoffrey notes something very different about the current business environment:  barriers to adoption have been lessened, and it is now much simpler (and far less expensive) for a small group of engineers to have an immediate impact – no longer constrained by the cost of infrastructure (now we can rent what we need), coupled with the ubiquity of social media that allows for blazingly fast adoption by an engaged audience.  In this new world, the Chasm of his original book “…is much shallower than it used to be.”  A shallower chasm and wider availability of bridges toward adoption, in turn, has a concurrent and dramatic impact on the Enterprise, and we are now in the middle of a period of transformation (think: Enterprise 2.0) that is challenging us to re-define the borders of an institution to include the broader and more diverse world of social technologies.

There’s the rub, like the physics of displaced liquids: as one Chasm shallows, the other Chasm deepens.

Organizational mechanics has always suffered from friction, turbulence, and inattention.  Readers of this occasional blog well know that I’ve been singing this song since “The System is a Mirror” was first published in 2007.   The reason for my renewed concern is the phenomenon of shallowing-deepening, and a worrisome side-effect – teams are now moving at such velocity that they do not have Time to learn the more mundane basics of management.  Exacerbated by the equally-dangerous fad to “fail fast and often,” even less attention is being paid to core management and team skills.

In order to benefit (rather than suffer from) the transformation currently underway, greater attention must be paid to the basics, to the core skills such as problem-solving, decision-making, and effective communication (which includes listening).  To reach the potential of Enterprise 2.0, we need Governance 2.0.

Without it, beware of the other Chasm.  It’s a long fall, and a hard landing.

As my friend, Geoffrey, so generously concludes his various blogs: That’s what I think.  What do you think?

Breaking my silence…

March 7, 2013

I have to say this, despite the many good reasons to avoid the fray.

I have to say this, despite my belief that uninformed criticisms from the “outside” (defined for these purposes as non-employee, non-customer, non stockholder) border on the very edge of irresponsible citizenship.

I have to say this, despite the fact that too many people have jumped into the fray with myriad opinions and this entry (howsoever well-intentioned) will have as much impact as a whisper in gale force winds.

  1. Melissa Meyer is doing her job.
  2. Every mature company struggles with the notion of the extended enterprise.
  3. Transformation is neither easy, nor can it be judged “in progress.”
  4. Working from home isn’t an entitlement.
  5. This has nothing to do with technology: it is a management issue.

See:  (Yahoo’s Telecommuting Problem Is Management, Not Collaboration ) from CIO Magazine.  There are many examples of true collaboration with participants around the world, and there are just as many examples of poor teamwork among employees under the same roof.  For any CEO to announce such a dramatic reversal of policy, one must assume that other (smaller, internal) efforts have not yielded results.  However, most “outsider” have missed an essential element of Yahoo’s current dilemma (which, actually, is a polylemma because of multiple root causes): the core foundation of success with any distributed workforce begins with a management team that understands how to supervise, monitor, and communicate with their employees.  The ability of one’s supervisor to manage across time and geographic distance is critical to anyone who wants to work from home, or from any work location other than corporate headquarters.

In between the lines of the leaked Yahoo email, there are important issues about the Middle Management layer at Yahoo.  Anyone considering a similar reversal of telecommuting policy should first examine their management team, for it is unfair (and counter-productive) to force individual employees (and their families) into weeks/months of upheaval when, in the end, the root cause of your problem lies, instead, with managers and directors.

Why Don’t We Train Our Managers (Part 5)

July 28, 2012

This week marks the 125th anniversary of Esperanto, the “universal” language comprised of unique combinations of world vocabularies and dialects.  We should applaud the vision, and lament its poor adoption, for we continue to struggle with communication – in personal relationships, within teams, between supervisors and worker bees.  I’ve often thought that any executive seeking a solution to the poor communication in her company ought to hire an Esperanto linguist and insist that everyone learn the new language and use it exclusively in meetings.

Apparently, many prefer the post-Babel confusion in their organizations because of a cynical or fearful belief that poor communication between and within working groups is a universal rule, like gravity or the inexorable physics of plant life.

And yet…

When a recent client (COO, great person, well-respected, sincere) complained about the communication within his organization (“…a perennial problem here…”) I asked him the following questions:

  • Do you have regular one-on-one’s with your staff?
  • Do you hold weekly meetings with the entire team?
  • When was the last time you convened an All-Hands meeting?
  • Do you travel to the company’s remote offices?
  • How often do you speak with customers (internal/external)?
  • How current is your departmental information on the company’s intranet?
  • How often do you simply “walk the halls” for casual (drive-by) conversations?
  • Is there a practice of cross-attendance between teams?

He sighed, and admitted that he was so busy, these things rarely happened – so many fire drills, so many unexpected demands, a relentless stream of urgencies that began Monday morning as soon as he walked in the door and continued until late in the evening on Friday.  He skipped lunches, answered email until midnight every night, often worked on the weekend simply to catch up.  He was exhausted and overwhelmed, and couldn’t imagine finding the time to try one of those suggestions.


The secret to solving organizational communication issues is not by trying one or another of the practices listed above, but all of them.  Consistently, so that everyone can begin to depend upon the (eventually) steady flow of information.  As for finding the time to do these things atop an already burdensome workload?  The truth (so plainly obvious, yet so easily ignored) is that 90% of the fire drills and unexpected requests (et. al.) are symptoms of poor communication practices – improving the bi-directional information flow within a system (engineers know this as a set of communications protocols between functional modules) improves the performance of the overall system.  In other words, he needed to solve the root cause of his organizational chaos rather than remaining preoccupied with the symptoms that seemed to require so much of his time.

Ultimately, communication is a participatory challenge, not the obligation of one individual.  By assigning one solution to each of his team, the entire group became responsible for communication, not just “the boss” although that was a good place to start.

Why Don’t We Train…? (yet another entry)

March 18, 2012

It seems that I’m not alone in my concern for our industry re: training programs (at every level).

Rob Preston (VP and Editor-in-Chief, Information Week) is the latest astute observer to challenge our institutional neglect of All Things Educational.  Responding to the oft-heard complaint that skilled workers are hard to find, the eminent Mr. Preston rightly points his editorial finger back at the executives who moan-and-groan about the skills shortage yet fail to fund training budgets and/or support career development plans for their current employees.  From his February 29 editorial (

If “people are our most important resource,” as employers are wont to proclaim, why do most of them expect this precious asset to show up gift wrapped on day one, and to increase in value with little effort on their part? In InformationWeek‘s most recent IT Salary Survey, whose full results we’ll release in April, only 28% of the 13,880 IT pros we polled said they expect to receive additional education or training as one of their employee benefits this year.

Something’s wrong here, and it has nothing to do with a skills shortage.

My experience, as the readers of this occasional blog already know, has focused on a sub-set of this issue: the paucity of consistent management training in an industry that cherishes technical skills but is confounded by the inability of supervisors to adequately manage those that have them.   Mr. Preston’s over-arching sermon equally applies to leadership:  good managers do not “grow on trees” nor are they miraculous fruit from profitable company orchards.  While some of us have greatly benefited from an association with management excellence in our careers and have learned by modeling those behaviors, the great majority of technology managers stumble through their crisis-ridden workdays, wondering (sometimes aloud) why tech teams (projects/schedules) go so stunningly awry.

One engineering manager recently told me, “I’ve never been coached,” and his supervising director sidestepped his responsibility by confirming that he had never attended any trainings, either.  “We learn by making mistakes,” he said unapologetically. 

In another department of the same company, I asked a 9-person management team (averaging 5+ years in their current role) if anyone could identify the 3 primary decision-making methodologies, and when each was appropriate.  No one could answer the question, nor could their COO – in fact, the only person in that company (as I expanded my inquiry) who knew the answer explained that she was previously a lawyer and prepared for her interview by reading a Gartner article.

15 year-old students are given a Driver’s Handbook. 

17 year-old grocery clerks understand prioritization when they re-arrange cereal boxes for maximum sales. 

Even young Little League umpires are matched with a volunteer mentor in their first season wearing blue. 

And yet, we’re likely to promote our most senior technologist (whether or not they aspire toward management) to leadership positions on the assumption that peer respect can alchemically transform new managers into sound business decision-makers.  And we wonder why so many projects are late, so many products have bugs, and so many startups fail within 24 months.

As with any profession, management in a technology environment has a set of skills (i.e., learned behaviors) and our literature is replete with lists and guides and handbooks that go largely unread because every new manager is thrown into the fray without time to learn, even if they are motivated/inclined to do so. 

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that a country in which the quality of public education is at an all-time low, and in a state (California, for those readers elsewhere) in which education funding has been dramatically reduced for twenty years, businesses also reflect this short-sighted disregard.  But as Rob Preston as scolded, there is something quite wrong with this disregard for training (at all levels). 

And it has nothing to do with a skills shortage.

The Secret Revealed

June 30, 2011

When a Basic Truth of the industry is spoken, it is a cause for celebration – and acknowledgement.

In the August issue of CIO Magazine, one of their staff writers has finally declared this unspoken principle of successful project deployment. (Her name is Kristin Burnham, and the topic of the article was how to sell executives on Google Apps, but the little gem applies to the launch of any new project or application.)  She quotes the CIO of Dominion Enterprises who disclosed 5 lessons he learned during their recent launch – there it is, at the bottom of the page, in black and white for all to see: “Sell it to your administrative assistants first.”

They are the gatekeepers to successful adoption.  They are the pathway to executive acceptance.  Nurture them as you would your most important stakeholders, for they may be your salvation.

Best Innovations of 2010

December 29, 2010

One recognizable impact of recessions is muted worker creativity – we take fewer risks, content that we still have a job – and companies, too, can lose their spark as they pare expenses. Retrenchment is often the opposite of spontaneity, and an absence of spontaneous thinking limits new ideas.

True innovations in such an environment are worthy of applause.

With a disclaimer that the actual innovative thinking for these product enhancements likely occurred in 2009, I offer The Best of 2010 because, as a consumer, I noticed them in the past 12 months.

What I find most interesting is that both innovations are evidence that improved usability (of a product) can also lead to a measurable reduction of operational cost – a paradox that should inspire anyone who is asked to do more with less.

  • ATM User Interface – How many of us (in previous years) have used our bank’s ATM machine, completed our transaction, and walked away without retrieving our ATM card?  The problematic behavior cost the banking industry hundreds of thousands of dollars annually because of replacement costs and the diminished productivity of bank employees distracted by customers who lost their cards, or turned in someone else’s card that they found in a nearby machine.  It used to happen 1000’s of times in most bank branches, but no more. Kudos to the usability designer who recognized that this was actually a business process problem – one that was completely solved by simply changing the sequence of tasks during our transactions.  We are now asked to remove our card before the transaction is finalized.  This small change in the order of instructions has almost entirely eradicated the CLB issue (Card Left Behind) and has been adopted as a “best practice” by all major ATM vendors, saving the consumers and the banking industry both time and expense.

Now, that’s good thinking.

  • Hotel Hand Soap – Originally noted by visitors to Yellowstone National Park, I discovered mine at the Turkey Run Lodge in Indiana: a bar of soap without a middle (soap with a hole in it) that is much easier to handle and, for the hotel industry, the solution to their WDWDWTWS problem (What Do We Do With This Wasted Soap).  It has been heralded in other columns as a “green” or eco-friendly innovation, however, I’m inclined to consider the cost reductions for the manufacturer: each bar of soap uses 30% less material, allowing them to produce the same number of items while dramatically reducing their cost of goods.  Kudos to the engineer at Green Natura soap products for their solution to the paradox of reducing cost while simultaneously improving the product.

Now, that’s good thinking.

As managers, we need to give our employees some breathing room because it is possible to reduce costs and also deliver an improved product.  As employees, we need to give our bosses a break when they dare to assign us the impossible task, because it is possible to reduce costs and deliver an improved product.

Why Don’t We Train our Managers to be Managers? Part Three: Listening

August 13, 2010

Easy advice to give others, not so easy to actually follow yourself.

I had a harsh lesson in this topic when, after years of executive-level consulting in which I taught managers how to listen to their teams (even purchased stethoscopes for one group to be prominently displayed in their offices, provoking their employees to ask Why The Stethoscope, and inviting a conversation about listening skills) one of my dearest colleagues stopped a meeting and told me to get my stethoscope.  I wasn’t listening.

Metaphors abound, all telling the same story.

I once met a truck driver in Pennsylvania who always rolled his window down when his rig entered one of the Fort Pitt tunnels.  They were an echo chamber, he said, for how well the truck’s engine is doing.  He claimed that he could hear an emergent transmission problem weeks before a mechanic could find it.

Good listening skills are more than important tools in your organizational relationships.  They help us hear the emergent problems in the mechanism of our departments.  As any first year Mechanical Engineering student knows, it is critical to recognize (and compensate for) the smallest vibrations in the construction of (for example) a suspension bridge, rather than waiting until the entire bridge fails from increasingly strong resonant vibrations.

Executives are so accustomed to fire-fighting (shifts in the market, unhappy customers, competitive risk) that they can lose sight of the too-small-to-be-noticed-until-there-are-flames problems.  They presume that their employees will attend to them, but the absence of listening skills (no one wants to hear bad news) replicates itself through the hierarchy.  Have you been surprised by the sudden departure of a key staff member?  Missed project milestones?

Here are a few (of the many) things you can do to encourage the information flow in your organization:

  • Town Hall meetings:  Bring everyone together with the sole purpose of answering anyone’s questions, and do this regularly.
  • Skip-level Lunches:  Invite 4-5 randomly selected individuals to lunch and listen to the conversation rather than dominating it.
  • Cross-attendance of Team Meetings:  Encourage (or even insist upon) “outsiders” in each departmental meeting where the visitors are tasked with taking news back to their teams.
  • Walk the Halls:  Don’t wait in your office for people to come to you with an issue (classic open door policy) but take the time to roam, and engage.
  • Check-in with your colleagues, visit your remote offices, launch an employee satisfaction survey, give an award for the Best Question of the Week.

We know how to monitor the health of our servers and can respond to email notifications alerting administrators when a server is a 95% capacity and on the verge of failure, but what methods do you use to learn that an employee is at 95% capacity?

Why Don’t We Train Our Managers, part two: Decision-making models

July 2, 2010

Over 20 years of management experience (and countless books, several well-written), this is the most concise-yet-useful definition of decisions, and how they are made in organizational settings, that I have found.  While the broader issues of Governance can be complex, there are three basic decision-making models appropriate to this discussion:

  • Direct decisions (executive declaration, appealed only to the Board of Directors)
  • Delegated decisions (management declaration, by the accountable parties designated by the executive)
  • Consensus decisions (consultative decision by identified team of experts)

Some of the myths about these models that should be addressed in one-on-one or group management training sessions are:

  1. Every decision is ultimately a direct decision of the CEO as the ultimate party accountable to the Board.  In dysfunctional organizations, large and small, every issue is brought to the CEO (like kids who run to daddy or mommy because they can’t agree).  Not true.
  2. Delegated decisions are rarely effective because someone always runs to daddy when they disagree with the intermediate manager’s call (leading to countless “appeals”) Not true.
  3. Consensus decisions are time-consuming and can slow down any progress (one juror prevents the verdict)  Not true.
  4. No model works in a) companies that are in rapid growth mode where “Just do it…” reigns, b) large institutions with political fiefdoms, c) teams in which passive resistance is prevalent, or d) during major transitions such as merger/acquisition initiatives involving two different corporate cultures. Not true.

There is a corollary to these models, and herein lies “the trick:”

Few companies/organizations use only one model.  The key is to utilize the correct approach for each issue, and to do so, there must be a “framework discussion” among all stakeholders in advance of any specific issue.  This framework discussion occurs before any debate, and agreement is reached before anyone’s vested interest emerges.

By agreeing in advance upon how the decision will be made, the members of the team commit to an approach.  The framework discussion might only require a one-hour meeting, while the absence of any framework often leads to delays, detours, disputes that may add weeks* of unplanned confusion.

* I have recently observed a single technology decision (estimated for three weeks to review/decide) that ultimately consumed nine months of counter-point , arguments that cost thousands of hours of lost productivity, all of which could have been avoided by holding a single, one-hour framework meeting at the outset of the review period.

Yes, politics and urgency and new leadership and corporate culture all play mitigating roles, and few significant business decisions meet unanimous approval.

However, if all managers/directors/VP’s in a company were offered an initial training course in these models (with vocabulary appropriate to the company), the leaders would have a shared constitutional process, a basic mechanism that can be optimized for 80-90% of the issues they will face in their teams and departments.

Where models are defined and framework agreements occur with regularity, organizations operate effectively.  Without any constitutional discussions, and lacking any similarity of approach at the executive level, projects fail.  Schedules slip.  Initiatives drift off course, and most importantly, our finest employees (the ones who should be spending their time building and fixing things) are left waiting in the hallways while their managers argue endlessly.

Why Don’t We Train Our Managers to be Managers?

June 29, 2010

Of the many ills impacting the Tech Industry, this is one of the most common questions asked by my clients. As a business coach, it quickly becomes the key complaint of executives who were once very successful individuals, only to be promoted to management with little (or no) training to help them bridge the obvious gap between excellence at the individual level and excellence as a manager.

The reasons are many: budget and time constraints, understaffed HR departments, a focus upon execution (as if team leadership is only a minor contributor to operational success). More often than not, however, it is a common blind spot on the part of executive teams composed of individuals who, in their careers, learned management techniques by observing others and not from any specific training sessions.

Some of us have been fortunate to work, at some point in our careers, for a superb manager who served as our role model. Mine was at Cadence Design Systems in the 90’s, and I still recall his lessons as I coach others. And the more fortunate are those of us who have actually worked for companies with formal management training: the 3-day offsite for new managers that I completed at Synopsys in the late 90’s included a curriculum that continues to serve me well. I mention these personal experiences, not to applaud my own background but as evidence that solid management training is not “black magic” but can and should be provided to new leaders in every company.

The components of a “best practice” curriculum?

  • Decision-making models
  • Prioritization techniques
  • Conflict resolution
  • Interviewing skills
  • Active listening
  • Teambuilding practices
  • Communication strategies

In the days ahead, in response to a request from one of my current coaching clients, I’ll comment on each of these and offer some “tricks” for those who know, in their hearts, that they could serve their employees better but don’t know where to begin.