Ed Muzio shares how teams can function better through smarter iteration.
- How many organizations are planning poorly
- Approaches for greater clarity
- How to make wiser group decisions
Ed Muzio is CEO of Group Harmonics and an award-winning three-time author. An expert in the scientific study of measuring and modifying human behavior, he is a sought-after consultant to business and industry worldwide and a popular media source. His new book is Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team (An Inc. Original, 2018). He can be found at IterateNow.com.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: Learn a new language anytime, anywhere with Babbel
- Ed’s firm: www.GroupHarmonics.com
- Ed’s book: Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team
- Research: Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation
- Tool: Ladder of Inference by Chris Argyris
- Book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Book: The Insightful Leader: Find Your Leadership Superpowers, Crush Limiting Beliefs, and Abolish Self-Sabotaging Behaviors by Carlann Fergusson
Ed, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Hi Pete, thanks for having me.
Oh, well, it’s good to have you. I’m excited to chat about your good stuff, but first tell us a little bit about you learning the piano at the same time your kindergartener is learning the piano.
My kindergartener had a talent for music, so we got a piano and got him in lessons. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, so I asked the instructor in the one-on-one lesson, “Can I take lessons as well?” thinking he would say, “You’re kind of too old for this.” He said, “No, adults can learn. It’s a little different.” We go every week and he does his lesson for 30 minutes and I do my lesson for 15.
What I can tell you is I’m ahead of him now Pete and I’ll be ahead of him I’m guessing another six months to a year because I can take on more complex concepts, but he’s going to get ahead of me and never look back because he has no problem with repetitious activity. He’ll keep learning. He has no problem making mistakes and trying because that’s just how kids learn. They fall down, get up again.
He has a sort of infinite patience in the sense of he does get frustrated, but it’s sort of like his whole life is about kind of bumping your head and going on, so he has no hang-ups at all. Plus his brain is so flexible. I’m watching him get better and better. I’m going I have six months, maybe a year and then he’s going to just be amazing and I’m going to be still pecking away at one note at a time kind of a thing. That’s going to be it after that.
Well, I have a feeling he’s going to love that moment. I can remember when I beat my dad in chess and I knew he didn’t let me win. It was powerful in the sense that it’s like, “Whoa, I am capable of learning and growing to a point in which I have never been able to attain before.” I read a lot of books about chess from the library along the way. It’s like, “Wow, there’s something to this learning, this discipline, this sticking with things that yields cool results.”
That sort of try, fail, try, check, try, fail, try again loop is human powerfulness in learning action. He’s doing it. I think you’re right. I think when the day comes he’ll be pretty happy and I’ll be pretty happy too honestly.
Cool. Well, you talk about try, fail, try, fail that’s about as good a segue as you can ever get. You’ve got a book. It’s called Iterate. What is the story behind it?
Well, Iterate, it’s that same idea. Iterate is take a step, learn everything you can from that step – assuming the step was in the best direction you could figure out – but now check in again and see based on what you’ve learned what your next step should be. It’s a general concept.
Iteration is used by software programs that produce models for aircraft flight or weather. Iteration is used by plants as they grow. It’s incremental adjustment and it’s a learning loop, kind of like learning the piano, which is take what you’ve learned and incorporate it into the next step. My book, Iterate, is about what we know that management teams in really strong organizations do in that space to make sure the whole organization is iterating.
Excellent. Well, so that sounds like a prudent, wise thing to do in terms of as you’re trying to accomplish things and make them happen. What’s sort of the alternatives that folks tend to try with less effectiveness?
Well, I like to talk about sort of the story of – you maybe have seen this in the book, but the story of walking to your car. You walk out the door of the office or the mall and you’ve got three minutes to get to your car. You start walking. What I just said happens. Every step is the best step you can take from there.
But what’s important about that is as you’re going along, you’ve got your feet, which is the workforce, and they’re detecting changes in the surface or they’re detecting it’s wet or something. They’re able to adjust without calling the CEO, which is your brain. Your brain set the pace and direction, get to the car in three minutes, but your CEO is not involved too much in the work of your feet.
Your feet use a resource. That’s blood oxygen. They can call to middle management, which is cardiovascular, get some more. If they need a whole lot more, that gets escalated even further. Then you do get the message in your CEO office, which is breathe harder or walk slower. At the same time you’re looking out over the horizon. You’re trying to see is that my car that I’m walking to, is there an obstruction in my way. You’re feeding information down.
You’ve got this sort of metaphorical organization, where information is flowing both up and down and it’s meeting at the right places and decisions are getting made at all levels just so that every step you take is the next best one from there. When you notice, for example, that you’re headed toward the wrong car, that’s the moment you change direction, not two steps sooner and not five steps after.
That’s the model. The alternative and what we see in a lot of organizations unfortunately, is this sort of make a plan and then manage people as if sticking to the plan is the goal. You make a plan, you start walking on the line, and then you have this scenario where the people are sort of metaphorically saying we’re not heading toward the car anymore and yet the institution can’t seem to turn.
That’s management by one strict plan at the beginning of the year. It is the alternative; however, it does not produce nearly the observable levels of growth or agility or market dynamic receptiveness or any of those kind of things than an organization, which can actually turn in small ways and big ways when new information comes out.
Well, so you mentioned a few potential indicators of performance or result. Can you share maybe any studies or research you’ve done that show what kind of a difference it makes when you iterate versus stick doggedly to the original plan?
There’s all kinds of anecdotal stories out there. What this book is based on is it’s based on actually about 70 years of research and experience. The research actually goes back to something called The Institute for Social Research, which was post-World War II, literally following managers around and writing down what they were doing and looking to see does management actually make a difference. Does it matter how you manage.
Then it tracks all the way up to we have information coming to us today about self-organizing systems like ant colonies out of the neuroscience field, which say ants kind of can find their way back and forth in these long lines because they leave a trail and they leave indicators of where they were and where to go next. That’s called … I believe. Don’t quote me on that.
We’ve got this sort of long line of research that all kind of comes together and says natural systems, computer systems, we know this is an effective way to solve problems. It’s intuitively obvious. You can go find the big bears in any space, like you’re look at sort of Intel for example. I used to work there during their growth years.
The famous sort of anecdotal story about Intel is in their early years they were competing with Motorola and someone from Motorola – this is folklore really – but someone from Motorola said, “I can’t get an airplane ticket approved in the time it takes you to adjust your entire approach to our market,” because they could just take this whole big company and just shift it.
That’s what we see in these inner shift companies is once we get these managers doing these simple five practices and doing them consistently, we start to see this agility emerge where we can stay the course for as long as we need to, but as soon as we need to turn, we can turn.
What are the five practices?
Well, the first one is called output and status broadcasting. I should say before I start, these are my words. One of the challenges in this work is language because if I say something that sounds like something you’ve heard of before, you’ll sort of assume I’m talking about that and that becomes problematic because really what we’re trying to do is describe behaviors.
As I talk through these, Pete, you have to sort of think about the behavior I’m talking about as opposed to the terminology. But just broadly speaking, there are five of them. The first, output and status broadcasting is managers are clear and repeated with their teams, everyone else about what they’re trying to produce with the resources they have under their control.
Secondly, they produce dashboards and plots and a particular kind of forward-looking data that shows two levels of the future, so they can sort of show graphically “Here’s where I thought I was trying going to go. Here’s what I now think is going to happen. Here’s the difference between those two things,” so that conversations can be held about the difference. That’s number one.
Number two is what I call work preview meetings. That’s those conversations. That’s management teams getting together saying where do we see this future variance, where do we see a difference between the goal we’re trying to achieve and the likely outcome of the path we’re on and what might we do with our resources to compensate for that.
One of the great sort of tragedies I think of North American management in general is that so much time is spent in meetings looking backwards, “Here’s what was done,” “Here’s a graph of everything I made up until this week,” “Here’s a list of all the things that got done last year.” Some of that is fine, but all you can do as a manager is move resources around at this moment to affect what happens in the future.
If you’re not mostly spending your meeting time talking about that, how do we change the resources around or not based on what we now understand about the future that we didn’t understand before, you’re having a problem. That’s work preview meetings.
That also gets into the third one which is called group decision making. That’s just the issue of once you’re in one of those meetings and you detect a variance, it becomes complicated what you should do about it and there’s some particular information about how to make good group decisions, things like, for example, voting is not a rational way to make decisions because people get focused on obtaining support rather than good information. It’s all around sort of coming to a good decision.
That leads into the fourth one which is called linked teams. We can talk quite a bit about this one, but the idea is that it’s not an org chart. We don’t have a set of individuals each with their own goals. We have a set of teams run by managers and each management team has a set of goals and works as a team so that everyone’s looking up at their manager’s goals instead of fighting with their peers on their own goals. That way those teams link together and do the work for the organization. All of that is necessary.
The last thing is the fifth practice and that is what we call frontline self-sufficiency. That’s the idea that an individual contributor, someone on the frontline has what they need to do their job and to do it efficiently and is so empowered to do it – I hate to use the word empowered. It’s more specific than that. But the net effect is they have what they need, nothing is in their way.
They’re so enabled I guess I should say to do that work that they can actually forecast their output. We don’t have frontline supervisors telling the staff how it’s going; we have the frontline staff telling the supervisor, “I’m on track,” “I’m ahead,” I’m behind.” That’s what leads to those forecasts that I was talking about because that’s how management ultimately knows what’s going on.
That set of five things really keeps the organization always taking a step, looking forward, saying, “Here’s what we thought was going to happen. Here’s what we now think is going to happen. What adjustments should we make? Here’s our decision to make them. Let’s do that and move on.” Then just iterating that cycle over and over again as they chomp away at their goals.
Let’s dig into a little bit of this now. When you mentioned having dashboards and you have two levels to the future, what do you mean by that?
Well, dashboards, by the way, is one of those dangerous terms because everyone has one and they already think they know what it means. I do use the word, but I always kind of worry about that. Here’s the concept. Let’s take a really simple example.
This can work for complex things too, but in a simple example, I’m producing something, the line that I run, and I’m supposed to make 100 a week. In a typical sort of North American management situation, I would come to you Pete if you’re my boss and I’d have a graph. It would show week by week how many I made up to today.
Maybe if it was a good graph, it would also have some kind of a plan or forecast line that would show, “Hey, I’m supposed to stay flat. That’s the plan,” or “I’m supposed to do 10% more every week until I ramp up to this level,” so that’s the future. That’s pretty standard in management.
The problem with that is, of course, what you’re going to ask me is, “Ed, are you going to hit that forecast?” Then there’s going to be a long narrative discussion in which I sort of opine about that. Then you try and sort of figure out if I’m trying to hide anything. It becomes this very ceremonial dance.
What we need instead is I need to have a second future on that graph. I need to have what’s done in the past. That’s fine. I’ve got my plan line. This is what I’m supposed to deliver. Then I’ve got a second line that says based on my best intelligence today, here’s what I think is going to happen.
Now that second line might be right on top of the plan line, in which case there’s nothing to talk about, or maybe it varies. Maybe I’m saying, “Look, I’m not going to get as many as I thought,” or “Hey, I’m going to overrun.”
If that variance is big enough, that becomes something that you, me, and my peers and your management team need to talk about because someone else may need to adjust some resources or I may need to adjust some resources to deal with that fact, whether it’s good or bad. Even if I’m ahead of the game, it’s still potentially an issue for somebody who’s going to get overwhelmed by my output. Difference is difference and difference needs attention.
You said that there’s the plan and then the projection is your best guess as to how things are going to unfold here. I guess what gets interesting there is that there’s – you mentioned the dance, there’s all these layers associated with expectation and authority and punishment, shoot the messenger activities or not.
It’s almost like you have to have a somewhat mature and respectful culture to even deal with the fact that a variance exists. They might just be like, “Ed, no, Ed. Do the thing we agreed that you would do.”
Right. It’s funny. The North American management – I always call it the North American management model – we have this sort of mythology. It’s beautiful mythology. It says, Pete, you’re my boss. You say to me, “Ed, look, these are your goals. Go and get them. I don’t want to hear it, just go and get your goals. Don’t bring me forecasts that are different. Just get your work done.”
That’s the mythology. By that mythology you tell my peers the same thing. Then we all bring you our goals and you knit it together into what your boss wants.
The problem with that is that I am going to have variance and my peers are going to have variance. At some point I’m going to come to you and say, “I can’t do this unless you give me some of Fred’s money.” Fred’s going to come and say, “Don’t do that. I need more of Ed’s money.”
You’re going to become – and you know this if you’ve worked in any kind of management space – you become the referee. You’re almost like a parent in a dysfunctional household, where everyone is bringing you their problems, everything is framed as mission critical, and it’s your job to sort it out.
Meanwhile, your boss is looking at you saying, “Is it going to happen?” Your boss is looking down at you, you’re looking down at me and my peers, and everyone is trying to sort out kind of are these people lying to me, are they telling me the truth. It’s a very non-trusting culture, but it’s also a very preoccupied culture with trying to sort of sort out information.
What I’m saying is, you’re right, it is a cultural shift. We sometimes start it by saying, look, no news is bad news because we don’t know what’s going on, bad news is good news because we want to see variance early, and good news is no news because if there’s no variance, we don’t need to talk about it.
What that looks like sort of mechanically is on that graph that I have, I’m going to carry my past production and my past forecasts. Part of what you’re sort of looking for from me and expecting from me is that my forecasts are pretty good.
I’m not allowed to change my past forecasts to match my past production, so over time you’ll see, “Hey, Ed’s pretty good at forecasting his work. When he says this is going to go off the rails, I have a reason to believe him, the team has a reason to believe him. We probably should adjust to that.” Otherwise it just becomes like you said, sort of a fingers in the ears, don’t bring me bad news and don’t tell me – just go fix it kind of thing, but that doesn’t really work.
I’m right with you there. On the second practice, the work preview meetings, can you give us some perspective or tools on what are some great ways to provide previews?
One of them is that graph. I’m going to come in and I’m going to say, “Hey Pete, I’ve got this problem. I’ve got some variance. I need to talk about it.” Once you’ve got a team that’s presenting that to you and recommending to you what goes on the agenda, that sets you up to say, “Okay, of all these different variances, I’m going to put this, this and this on the agenda.”
One of the practices is as the manager of managers, have people tell you 24, 12, whatever hours in advance, “Here’s my biggest variance I want to talk about,” and then you be in charge of building the agenda and say, “Okay, from my perspective, these are the most important ones.”
Once you’re in the conversation, we have something called the OSIR – O-S-I-R. It’s an acronym – the OSIR report. That just stands for objective, status, issue, and recommendation. You manage me to make that kind of report.
You say, “Ed, you’re going to make your report now. Tell us about the variance.” I’m there with you, my boss and my peers. I’m going to say, “My objective is X, Y, and Z as you know because you’ve heard this from me before because of my output and status broadcasting. My status is here it is on my graph. You can see the variance. You’ve seen my graph before. You know how to read it,” so that takes a minute.
“My issue is the root cause of my variance,” whatever that is. “I’m short on people,” or “Things are happening differently than I thought.” “R is my recommendation. I recommend to the team that X, Y, Z happens,” “that Fred give me some of his resources,” “that you relax my deadline,” “that I do this or that thing.”
What that does is in about 3 minutes, it tees up the conversation. It’s not 10 or 15 minutes of me talking about reasons and root causes. It’s me talking for a very short period of time, putting a recommendation on the table, a strawman, and then saying “Okay, now here’s what I think we should do. What are we going to do?” You’re the boss, Pete, but we as a team are going to decide together what are we going to do.
That is helpful certainly, especially because if your variance is bad, it’s probably very natural temptation to make excuses and to share numerous reasons, external factors that can contribute to it just so that the folks who are reporting to you don’t think that you are underperforming because you’re maybe sensitive about it. You’re not delivering on what you hoped to be delivering.
But when you sort of summarize it in terms of this is the expectations that we go in this format, it’s going to take three minutes, I think that could really go a long way in reducing the length of long meetings.
Well, it does. One of the pieces that’s important is we always say discussions of status and discussions of history are minimized, not eliminated, but minimized.
We do in that same meeting – the first thing that will happen for the first let’s say five minutes is me and all my peers will just put up all our graphs all at once, that’s that dashboard concept, and say, “Here’s what I’m doing. This, this and this are going well. This one we’re going to talk about in a few minutes.” My next peer goes and says, “We’re all on track here.” Next peer goes and says, “These three are a little behind. We talked about that last week.”
There’s this very brief kind of quick status update that takes maybe ten minutes out of the hour if that. What that does, to your point, is it starts to let people see, so my peers and you to some extent, start to see, “Hey, Ed’s house isn’t on fire. He’s not just a collection of problems. He’s running this whole thing. It’s mostly going okay. Now he’s asking for help in this area.”
It’s a way of building trust because you’re right. If all we ever did was bring in our problems, then what happens is pretty soon my peers see me as nothing but a collection of problems. Then we lose trust. That little brief status at the front end, which educates us by each other’s graphs also educates us as to the fact that we’re trustworthy. Then from there we can go into that brief format and have a conversation. That’s right.
Cool. Well, then let’s hit the group decision making piece there. You mentioned voting is not the greatest of means to arrive at decisions. What are some key ways that we arrive at optimal decisions?
I always feel like I should preface this by saying this is not political commentary. This is business, small group decision making, but voting produces irrational result. Now, some people have said, “Well, we think that’s true in politics as well,” that’s to the listener to decide.
But what we know is if we put a group of people together and say, “We’re going to vote on the best answer,” then the focus turns to garnering support. I’m not going to worry too much about information. I’m going to say, “Hey, peer number one, if you go with me on this one, I’ll go with you next time. I’ll owe you a favor,” kind of a thing. That may be good for me and peer number one, but that’s not so good for the organization. We can’t do voting.
Consensus, which is we don’t do anything until we all agree has been shown to produce good quality decisions; the problem is the time. By the time we get everyone to agree, we’re too late for the business cycle.
We go into what’s called a consultative mode. Now traditional consultative decision making is Pete’s the decider, we’re all not the decider, we each talk to you one-on-one, and then you make a decision. That’s okay, but what we know is in these complex scenarios where everything is interdependent, I actually need to hear my peers talking to you and you need me to hear my peers talking to you because they’re going to raise an issue that I have information about.
We do what we call group consultative, which is each of us has a job to teach you what we know. That’s important. You basically say to us, “My agreement at this moment is off the table. Here’s how I’m leaning or not, but my agreement is off the table. Teach me what you know.”
Then I say to you, “Pete, if we don’t do this, X, Y, and Z are going to happen.” You say to me, “Ed, I think what you’re telling me is from your perspective, if we don’t do this, this, and this then X, Y, and Z are going to happen. Do I understand that?” I say, “Yes, that’s it.” Then that part of the conversation is done. It relieves me of the stress of feeling like I have to convince you to go my way. It also puts the focus on the information transfer.
You learn as much as you can from all the team members. In the process, they’re learning from each other. Then as the decider, we already know before we start it’s going to fall to you to make the decision. The decision you make is not necessarily the most popular decisions. It might or might not be.
It’s not a vote. It’s not a who spoke the loudest or who spoke the most. It’s you saying, “Hey, I’m the person in this seat and I’ve got the role of decider and based on what you all are teaching me right now, here’s my decision.”
Here’s another tip your listeners can use. Your decision isn’t done until the team can say it back to you both what was decided and your rationale for it. Not only Pete decided to give X number of dollars from Fred to Ed, but because he and we believe that Ed’s work in this area is higher priority or more immediate, whatever.
That’s important because we’re talking about managers, the managers have to be able to take that decision back to their teams and say, “Here’s what we as a management team decided and here’s why.” I call that commissioning. The decider makes sure to take the time that everyone understands both the decision and the rationale before we consider the decision to be complete.
Okay, now when you started that conversation, “Hey, teach me what you know,” you said “I’m putting agreement to the side,” what do you mean by that?
Well oftentimes, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences and many of us have, we may know that you’re going to make the decision, right Pete? I’m going to say to you, “Pete, you’ve got to go my way and here’s why.” You’re going to start to detect some emotional content in there. I’m going to be animated and I’m going to maybe not even stop talking because I feel like you haven’t come around yet.
But once you say to me, “Look, we’re not at the part of the process where I’m going to agree with you or not. We’re just at the part of the process where my job is to understand you. Let me say back to you Ed what I think you just told me. Do I have it right?” If I say, “Yes, you have it right.” Then you say to me, “Well, do you have anything else to add, other information I need?” I go, “Yes, here’s some more.” We do that until I finally say, “That’s all the information I have.”
It’s a way of getting the information out of me while sort of relieving me of both the pressure and stress and also the reality of trying to convince you because then you can literally turn to me and say, “Ed, thank you. Thank you for the information. I’m going to consider that. I can appreciate that you’re – not only is this difficult for you logistically but it’s going to be really kind of an emotional thing for you. I’ve learned that as well. But I need to move on now and hear what the others have to say.”
It opens up the air time because everyone has something to contribute in terms of facts and information. Nobody feels that need to sort of filibuster until you come around.
Yeah, understood. That is helpful when you segment or separate those dimensions from each other. Now I’m curious, when it comes to frontline self-sufficiency, what tend to be the bottlenecks, the obstacles that mean we don’t have the frontline self-sufficiency, the recurring things that folks need but don’t have so they can’t do what they need to do?
On one level the frontline self-sufficiency is one of the easiest, maybe the easiest of the key practices to understand because the components all kind of tie together very simply. It’s really three things that lead to a fourth.
But your frontline employees need to have clear output goals, just to say that they know what they’re supposed to do and they can count it. They know what it is. That’s one’s pretty easy to understand.
Self-managed feedback, which means they are tracking their own work more frequently than management is tracking it. It’s not a question of management telling them what’s going on; it’s a question of them already knowing how they’re doing.
Then the third thing is what I call control of resources. That just means they have what they need to do the job. If there’s material or something they need, they can get to it. Again, that’s not always easy to do, not too hard to think about.
But the formula is goals plus feedback plus resources equals forecasts. What happens is once you have a workforce that’s equipped that way, they know what they’re supposed to do, they know if they’re doing it and how well they’re doing it, and how fast they’re doing it, and they have everything they need at their disposal to do it, then they start to be able to make those forecasts.
They start to be able to say when the boss asks on Tuesday or Wednesday, “What are we looking like for Friday?” They can say, “I’m on track. This is typical,” I’m a little behind, but it’s recoverable,” “I’m way behind.”
That’s the information that gets rolled up into that second forecast, that second future line where I say, “Hey boss, hey Pete, here’s what I know is going to happen in the next two to six weeks,” I’m getting that from the frontline because they’re the ones that actually know where we are. Without the frontline self-sufficiency, forecasting becomes sort of academic and hypothetical and the process does not work nearly as well.
Understood. I’m also wondering when people don’t have those things, the goal is unclear or the feedback is incomplete or the resources are also incomplete, what are the things you see time and time again are among the most common things that are incomplete and missing from the self-sufficiency picture?
In terms of specifics, it varies, but I’ll give you a couple examples. One of the ones that’s often missing, not surprisingly, is clear goals. We have someone who they know their job is to let’s say get these orders filled, that’s a goal, but there’s not really a how fast or turn time or anything like that. If you sort of ask them how it’s going, they go, “It’s okay.” If you say “Are you on track, ahead or behind?” they sort of almost can’t answer you because it’s not a clear enough goal. That’s one failure mode.
Another one is maybe the foal is clear, but the resource control is an issue. It’s like you have to get these orders filled or whatever, but there’s a step in your process where you have to get approval for a shipment let’s say. Sometimes that approval takes two hours and sometimes it takes three days.
Then when I ask my frontline for a forecast, they’ll say, “Well, I’m okay, but I don’t know what’s going to happen because I’ve turned this thing in so it will be Wednesday or Friday.” That’s an issue of control of resources. It’s a different thing but it’s also in the way of that forecast.
It’s a good way to kind of look backwards and say if you can’t get a fair forecast or reasonable forecast, you can look back and say, “Okay, why can’t they do it? Is it because they don’t know what the goal is? Is it because they don’t know how they’re doing at it? Or is it because there are these things that are out of their control in the way?” It’s always one of those three.
Right. That’s a helpful framework in terms of segmenting that into discrete pieces. I guess I’m thinking about sometimes we have no idea because we’ve never done this before. It’s new stuff. I guess sort of like feedback is missing and maybe not so much from management but just from almost like the work itself. It’s like we’re entering new, uncharted territory and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to learn how to do this thing or to build this thing we’ve never built before.
Yeah, that’s a reality. That can actually happen just like that, but one of the things we also know is there’s a whole major category of work out there that we call troubleshooting work, which is the phone rings – you think of a call center for computer repairs – the phone rings and the problem is put in front of me. If I’m the frontline worker, I don’t know what the work is until I get the problem.
In that kind of scenario, although it’s true that I can say, “Well, I don’t exactly know how long the next one is going to take because I don’t know what it is,” there are still tools we can use around those goals and feedback and resources to make forecasting possible.
One of the tools we use is batch queues. I can say, “I have this many issues, which are received and undiagnosed,” meaning it’s in my queue to figure out the problem, “I have this many issues, which are diagnosed but unsolved,” meaning I know what the problem is but I’m not done implementing it yet, and then “I have this many that are solved.”
Sometimes people will further segment those into something like category A, category B, whatever. These take longer than those. But when you start to see individual contributors who work on that kind of work use those kind of systems, what starts to happen is they can, again, start to make forecasts.
You’ll say midweek, “How are you doing?” now they can’t tell you what the next thing on the phone is going to be, but they can say, “Normally by this time of the week I have 15 things that are received and undiagnosed. Right now I have 42, so I am behind,” or “Normally I have this many of type B solutions to implement and I only have 10% as many right now, so I’m ahead.”
Even though we’re all doing things to some extent we’ve never done before, you can start to work around that a bit and still get some intelligence of the system about within some broad bounds, what does this week look like relative to your other weeks of doing things no one’s ever done before? We still need that information.
When it comes to forecasting, you mentioned being fair and you used the term ‘a fair day’s work forecast.’ What precisely does that mean and how would you contrast that with the alternative?
Well that I do a fair day’s work forecast is once I have those three things, if I’m a frontline worker, I’ve got those goals, self-managed feedback and control of resources, then I can know what I can accomplish reasonably.
I think traditional managers will be afraid of this, say, “How do I know they’re not going to sandbag or how do I know they’re not going to lie?” But what we know about humans is they tend to try and perform pretty well most of them. Once I sort of know what I can get done in a fair day’s work, I can start to make a forecast and say, again, “I’m ahead,” “I’m on track,” “I’m behind.”
That’s contrasted with in the North American management model, the boss tells me how much to do and then I either do it or I don’t. What happens? Well, for one thing, I can only do so much. My capacity doesn’t change by my boss’s opinion; however, my presentation of what I’m doing will change.
You’re going to tell me, “Get this much done or not,” and if I can’t reasonably do it and I want to survive, which I do because I have that reptile part of my brain that’s geared toward survival, then I’m going to paint a picture or tell a story or find a reason why that wasn’t possible and I’m going to sort of make it okay. If the boss is really setting unreasonable goals, nobody can do it, then whoever has the most reasonable story gets to keep their job. That’s how it plays out.
But now we’ve got some really bad information in the organization because we have these quote/unquote expectations that first of all aren’t realistic and now we’ve got this layer of storytelling on top of it, which is here’s how you get around that and that will get trained to new people.
This is where management ceases to be functional and starts becoming ceremonial. Now we’re getting the work done despite management instead of thanks to the feedback and adjustment of management. That’s what we’re really trying to avoid.
Yeah. I think it takes a pretty good level of understanding in terms of what’s really on your plate and what you’re really committed to in order to have those. I think there’s a lot of people in work/life experience almost sort of like a chaotic sea of just too much and it’s kind of just all a big old cesspool of requests and action items. For many it’s a matter of what is latest and loudest, the most urgent and terrifying fire that they need to handle. It’s not a really fun way to live.
No, it’s more than that. … your cesspool quote. It takes years off your life. It’s not even funny. It literally does.
That goes back to that output and status broadcasting, which is one of the things we advise managers at all levels is you need to have three or five or seven things which you can use – it’s almost like an elevator pitch – to summarize the output you’re delivering. That output and that story and that summary needs to be presented over and over again to your next level, your next level so that people understand what they’re doing because we’re all subject to overload. We’re all subject to that cesspool of endless stuff.
If there’s not a clear drumbeat from management saying here’s what we’re measuring, here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re forecasting on, here’s where we’re going, then it’s just easy to get lost.
Well, Ed, tell me anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think probably the last thing I would say is as you think about this, as the listeners think about this, I’ve found that there’s some confusion in that we need some more language around managing.
When you become a manager you start reading and getting advice about how to manage people, I like to call that managing with a capital ‘ing.’ That is true for anybody who manages people. You have to set goals, you have to deal with compensation, you have to help them solve their issues, you have to help them develop. That’s all tremendously important.
There’s another category of work that I call management with a capital ‘ment.’ That is being a member of the broader team of managers who together work in concert with each other and coordination with each other to coordinate and adapt the resources of the organization to achieve its goals.
I believe that most of what’s written for managers is written about managing with a capital ‘ing.’ My book, Iterate, is written about management with a capital ‘ment.’ I think it’s complimentary and equally important and often overlooked.
Thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
One that I really like is – it’s from Pema Chodron, who’s actually a Buddhist, but she says, “We’re all capable of becoming fundamentalist because we get addicted to other people’s wrongness.” I like that kind of on a personal level, but I also like it on a group meetings level. We’ve all been in meetings where someone was a fundamentalist because they were addicted to everyone else’s wrongness.
Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?
There was a study done years ago by a very famous guy named Asch. It was about social conformity. The idea was five people are around a table and you show all five people these different lines. Two of them are the same length and you ask them which two. The first four people give the wrong answer, but they’re in on it. The fifth person – the question was will the fifth person speak out against the group or will they go along. Overwhelmingly they went along.
But the piece that I find myself quoting is that thing’s been – that’s from the ‘60s. It’s been redone a lot of times, but somewhere around 2005 – 2006, somebody did it again with an MRI machine on the subject. The question was are they just sort of rolling over and they secretly know the answer, but they’re not saying it or is their perception being changed.
Asch, himself, always thought it was just a question of people – they just didn’t have the something, the courage or the stamina to speak up. What we found out was it actually changes your perception.
Group think is more than we thought. It’s not just about a lack of courage. Your perception changes. That just I think highlights the importance of if you see a difference, speak out in a group because even if you’re wrong, just you speaking out might help the next person who actually sees the real thing to actually be able to see it. You’re actually helping the perceptiveness of the group.
Oh, that’s a nice implication to highlight. Thank you. Yeah. How about a favorite book?
I’m just finishing up a book called The Insightful Leader by Carlann Fergusson. It’s about – it’s sort of the flip side of the coin to play to your strengths, which is how any one of those strengths, like results orientation or something, can become a hindrance. I think she did a really good job of explaining it got you here, but also it can become a hindrance and how to sort of keep your strength and not overdo it.
And a favorite tool?
A couple. Ladder of Inference by Chris Argyris. If you don’t know that one, you can Google it. It talks about how we build sort of our perceptions of what’s going on around us.
The other one is if you don’t know Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I won’t try and spell it, but just look for Flow. It’s about sort of having these great experiences of enjoying ourselves and it has to do with challenge and knowledge or ability being held in bounds. Those have been useful to me personally, but also professionally.
My hat’s off for correctly pronouncing his name. I imagine you’ve practiced it before.
I did one of my whiteboard videos – I have a series of whiteboard videos. I actually called his office and said, “Please just say his name to me enough times that I can get it because I don’t want to say it wrong.” Now I’ve got good notes on it.
I’ve Googled it myself. Well done. How about a favorite habit?
It’s sort of boring but I live my life by my calendar. I’ve got my calendar on a separate monitor next to me at all times. I schedule everything from meetings to things I have to do. I think I would be I would guess 80% less effective if I didn’t live by my calendar. I feel like that’s a good one.
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks who are listening to you?
It’s from my mentor actually. The quote is “You can’t make a pie one slice at a time.” His name is Bill Daniels. He taught me a lot of this stuff when I first got into this space. It’s about that idea of those linked teams, which are you can’t assign Ed to one thing and Fred to something else and Pete to something else and then knit it all together later. If you’re a team, you have to act like a team. You can’t bake a pie one slice at a time.
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
A couple places. IterateNow.com, that’s just I-T-E-R-A-T-ENow.com. That’s the site for the book. It’s got my bio and my social media handles and things like that. My firm is Group Harmonics and GroupHarmonics.com. That’s where our offerings and classes and stuff are.
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
I think the thing I would say is we’ve been talking about without talking about culture, the culture around us. I think people tend to feel powerless. On that walk to your car, it’s like the culture is the weather.
But the culture really isn’t the weather; the culture has actually been clearly defined by people who have thought about it a lot as the collection of habits we took forward from the past. The implication is what you’re doing now is going to become the culture of tomorrow. If you’re walking to your car, it’s not the weather; it’s your habits. It’s how you swing your arms, it’s whether you smoke a cigarette, those kind of things.
I think my challenge is if you’ve got a world where it seems like management is more ceremonial than functional, don’t just say “Oh that’s the culture, nothing I can do,” and throw your hands up. Instead say, “Oh, that’s the culture. What can I do differently today that people will notice and repeat tomorrow so that I can change the culture?”
Lovely. Well, Ed, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you tons of luck with your book, Iterate, and all you’re up to.
Pete, thank you, likewise. Enjoyed the time and good luck with your show.