The Leaky Umbrella

In my perfect world leaders would not be umbrellas for their teams.

The classic modern organization is hierarchical. The hierarchy provides understandable order, a default span of control, and easily created tribes. In a hierarchical world leaders can talk about ‘their team’ and thus have a distinction between internal and external communication, decision making, and often, culture. One of the common definitions for a leader’s role in such a system is protecting their team. From whom? From the rest of the organization, from the management chain, and from customers.Business unbrella So leaders resort to acting as buffers and blockers of messages, requests, and requirements sent to their team from various stakeholders. This is often referred to, pardon my French, as ‘the shit umbrella’.

But what happens when leaders can’t contain things completely and some of the messaging, requests, and requirements trickle through? Then what you have is a leaky shit umbrella, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all. Because the parts of the message that did trickle through tend to be random and they seem to the team as arbitrary and lacking any context. Team members, who up to this point thought they were doing the right thing, suddenly get exposed to complaints, anger, and dissatisfaction. This sort of random leak causes the team to feel like they are not set up for success since they had no idea these messages, requests, and requirements were out there and hence did not have a chance to address them.

So why not just be a better buffer and make the shit umbrella not leak? Because leaders are humans too and they don’t really have a shot of hitting a 100% cover for their teams. Leaks are simply inevitable.

In my perfect world leaders are creators.

I do not believe in the umbrella as a model. Leaders are not supposed to be pipes for messages and requests – they need to be creators. Creators of vision, creators of frames, and creators of priorities. It doesn’t matter that they actually use what they get from their management chain and from the rest of the organization as input. When they deliver a message to their team it should be a message they created and one that they wholeheartedly own. Instead of trying to block and tackle, leaders should create and communicate a mental model of the world. The big upside of taking this creation-based approach is that it seems to draw people in and serve as a leadership boost. Teams tend to follow leaders who have compelling messages that are clearly their own. Conversely they tend to ignore or bypass leaders who only serve as conduits. 

Great leadership is absolutely possible in reality. Taking care of people, making sure they have the opportunity to grow, and generating the value the organization needs is doable. It doesn’t mean the pressures of the world don’t exist. It means leaders need to incorporate them into the broader leadership imperative of building a great team and generating a sense of purpose. Great leaders manage that by creating and communicating an integrated world view that helps frame all of the messaging, requests, and requirements that are constantly thrown at the team. Great leaders are also able to turn to their stakeholders and help them see the balance between short-term and long-term needs and integrate the creation of a sustainable competitive advantage through continuous investment in people and culture. Buffering doesn’t help – framing does.

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Promote for Potential, Not for Behavior

In my perfect world promotions would not be about the past.

When you hear managers and HR folks talk about promotions and job ladders, a common principle is to promote people who are already performing at the new level. The rationale seems solid – once you perform at a certain level, have a certain degree of influence and impact, and exhibit the behaviors expected of the new level, is when you get promoted. This is a seemingly risk-free approach since the promotion simply acknowledges reality. This approach is also supposed to provide a degree of clarity on the path to promotion – the team member needs to behave like a person at the next level to get promoted. Simple, right?Raw Uncut Diamonds

But when you turn to the evidence all around you the story is not as rosy. Ask folks in your organization, peers, managers, practically everyone, when they think about the promotion process. Ask how happy are they with their prospects of getting promoted and with the visibility they have into what it takes to get promoted. I’ll bet that nine out of ten times you’ll see frustration and confusion. Why is that? Why doesn’t the simple, understandable, almost self-evident principle make things better for everyone?

At the root of this discrepancy are two biases that distort managers’ behavior – attribution bias and expectation bias. Attribution bias leads us to assign all the credit or blame for the outcome to the actors involved and none to environmental effects or simple chance. The credit we assign is therefore a function of the outcome instead of the influence an actor had on the outcome, which is the actual value they generate. Expectation bias leads us to see what we expect to see. So if we expect a team member to behave in accordance with their level/role, we notice only behaviors that fall within that range and tend to disregard or fail to notice other events. These two biases combined weaken the relationship between what team members do and how they are evaluated and leads to a them feeling under-appreciation and lacking of visibility into promotion decision.

In my perfect world promotions will reflect potential.

The solution for this problem is promoting team members based on their potential to succeed at their new level or role. A simple way to think about this approach is that every promotion is followed by a trial period where the team member has to validate their ability to successfully operate in their new role. The act of promoting the team member effectively engages and commits both the team member and their manager in actively managing the transition and success in the new role, as opposed to forward looking growth plans that rarely get sufficient attention. In healthy organizations that execute continuous performance management this is true by default for every person all the time.

Applying this principle calls for more skilled leadership but has significant return in reducing the level of frustration and anxiety experienced in the organization. It also sends a positive message of possibilities and opportunities to team members rather an a restrictive and defensive one. People tend to do a lot better and perform at a higher level when they are trusted and are expected to succeed.

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Culture isn’t Preserved – It Evolves

In my perfect world culture would emerge and evolve.

When we think about culture in the social context the idea of ever-changing fads, new memes, and random evolution is quite intuitive. We witness a constant cultural flux that seems impossible to stop and just as hard to influence  in a structured, predictable way. But make no mistake – there’s big money in preserving culture. A static culture allows existing ideas and brands to sink deeper into people’s minds and increase in value and reach. A static culture, by definition, preserves the existing power structure.Old and New That sounds like a really good deal if you are the one already in power.

Companies are concerned with preserving culture for the exact same reason. Externally they care about preserving (or building) their brand with their customer base. Internally they often tout their culture as the core of their success and justify an effort to preserve it. In order to do that you see leaders try to codify behaviors into processes and enforce them.  You see leaders talk about making hires that are ‘a good culture fit’ but, in fact, bias hiring toward candidates that are similar to the folks already in the organization. And all that is done under the assumption that what has worked in the past will keep working in the future. But that turns out to not be quite true.

In my perfect world leaders would embrace cultural evolution.

Trying to preserve an organization’s culture is about as reasonable as pretending that your product/service/business-model is future-proofed. Instead leaders should recognize the need for change and work to help their teams adapt their culture in face of that change. Changes that trigger cultural change are typically related to either growth within the organization or large shifts in the market. Very often the culture that worked well for a small team stops being effective as the team grows. Leaders, and for that matter everyone on the team, should recognize that the old practices, ceremonies, and behaviors don’t work quite as well anymore and figure out how to adapt them instead of insisting on keeping them untouched. What should be preserved instead are the core principles and beliefs that shaped the culture to begin with.

Consider a startup culture that was originally built around high degree of ownership. This environment often asks members of the small team to take on a wide range of duties and responsibilities. You do whatever it takes to get product out the door, get the next sale, or fix a customer’s problem. As the company grows this culture of doing whatever it takes doesn’t work anymore. As complexity grows the team needs people who go deeper on one aspect of the work and stop doing other tasks. The original team might find this sort of behavior offensive to their sense of ownership and reject or expel these specialists. But should they? Instead I suggest the team should recognize the gap between culture and context and shift to a distributed decision making culture, reflecting the basic value of ownership, but expressing it through deep accountability and authority instead of through unbound scope. Same underlying principle but a different expression that better matches the current state of the team.

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Creating Space for Innovation

In my perfect world leaders would create space for innovation.

Everybody says innovation drives their businesses. Even airlines, direct mail processors, and ERP companies. But when you look at how most companies set themselves up and the environment they place their people in, you can’t help but wonder.

A good place to start looking, as any accountant will tell you, is the incentives system. What are we rewarding people for? achieving goals, delivering on tasks, showing up for work at a reasonable hour, doing as they are told. This all seems to make perfect sense until you realize that this entire framework has nothing to do with innovation. The typical incentive framework has to do with predictably making incremental progress under the assumption that the goals set (by management) and the tasks assigned will always lead to business success. While that assumption in itself is questionable at best, it most certainly has nothing to do with innovation or creativity.

Some business leaders are smart and observant enough to realize that their behavior is incongruent with the values they taut. So in an attempt to compensate for all the systemic momentum around predictability they introduce new systems geared at creating incentives for innovation. They put together investment funds for corporate-intrepreneurship. They create bonus plans for creating new products. They hand out the innovation of the year award. And in doing so they ignore much of the research that is out there on what motivates and drives creative behavior.

In my perfect world leaders would behave very differently.

Innovation and creativity can not be called upon and produced on schedule. But they can be stifled easily and predictably. Think about the worst environment for creativity you have ever experienced. I’m betting you are thinking of either a classroom, a barracks, or some discipline driven workplace. The underlying reason is that tightly controlled systems concentrate all of their energy into preventing people from overstepping their role. And when all you can do is perform your predesignated role there is very little room for innovation.

In order to create innovation we need to give it space. This has many implications. It means giving our people time to do undirected, not deadline or delivery driven work. It means providing physical space and time where they can work, uninterrupted, on things that only they care about. It means acknowledging people for swinging for the fences, whether they end up hitting a home run or not. And it most likely means not creating extrinsic reward systems that bring about monetary/status/physical gain when people do come up with that brilliant idea. Innovation is its own reward. The joy of creation is so much more satisfying than anything we can give people. Just seeing the figments of their imagination take form and come to life at the hands of real users is all it takes. Because frankly, it doesn’t get much better than that.

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Ooyala Hackathon 2010

This is a copy of my blog post on the Ooyala blog.

Ooyala’s engineering team never ceases to amaze me. Strike that: the entire Ooyala team. Let me tell you why.

A month ago we announced internally the first Ooyala hackathon event. The hackathon was a two-day event starting on Friday morning and ending on Saturday evening. The idea: let engineers and other team members come together and build something cool and useful in 36 hours. We gave everyone complete freedom in choosing their projects, forming their teams, and, in fact, over whether they wanted to participate at all. The entire event was fueled by volunteers and enthusiasm.

Over the next four weeks teams started to self-organize. Some of them formed around ideas that had been floated in the past. Some were formed by non-coding Ooyalans who jumped at the opportunity to work closely with engineers. Some were stealth projects as their members gathered in closed meeting rooms and made plans in hushed voices.

To my great delight, 8 teams stepped up. The teams had members from all over the company and across four continents, representing every Ooyala group and a wide range of skills: product design, marketing, business planning, usability, and, of course, coding. This coming-together was brilliant to watch and led to some of the most innovative product ideas we’ve seen in a while.

The starter’s horn went off Friday morning at 10:30 am. Each team huddled and worked frantically through the process of designing, building, testing, and polishing their products. As the hours went by you could feel excitement building and adrenaline pumping as people worked through the night (while some of us tried to distract them playing Rock Band 3 and Dominion). By Saturday afternoon the products were starting to really come together. We saw many team members shifting to work on presentation and marketing materials while others coded frantically to beat the looming deadline.

Saturday at 5:00 pm the horn sounded again. We gathered the teams and had many other Ooyalans join us (on their day off, mind you) to see the products demonstrated. I can’t go into details of the eight brand-new products we saw, but in the words of Jay Fulcher, our CEO, they all hit it out of the ballpark. We saw a huge range of products: from direct improvements to our consumer offering, through amazing improvements to our analytics and business applications, all the way to operational tools that will help us scale our system and our business.

At the end of the day we awarded top accolades to three of our teams. Team N.E.R.D. won the “Best in Show” award. Team Siren picked the “Most Innovative Product” award. And Team Data is Power won the “People’s Choice” award based on the votes of everyone who participated in the hackathon.  Then everyone went out for a well-deserved cold one, and Jay got stuck with the check.

Immediately following the hackathon it was clear that several of the projects were bound to see the light of day as Ooyala products. The extreme level of innovation, execution, and entrepreneurial spirit the teams exhibited left us no other choice. Looking back now, I would simply say that the level of engagement, creativity, and talent exhibited by the Ooyala team is remarkable and quite rare.

And if you’d like to experience it firsthand and join our next hackathon, you should check out our careers page. Cheers!

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Give a Shot

In my perfect world companies would give candidates a shot.

Hiring people into your company is hard, especially when you are in a small company trying to fill a critical role. Too often we end up rejecting dozens of candidates because they don’t fit one of the many criteria we have defined for the position, because they missed one of the questions we expected them to get, or, more often than we’d like to admit, because they didn’t click with one of the interviewers. We justify this behavior using two distinct arguments – first, the role is critical and a bad hire decision is going to take months if not years to correct; second, we are choosing from a large pool of candidates and the right one might very well be only a few interviews away.

The rationale behind the Meaningless Endless Search Syndrome is very simply false. Correcting a hiring mistake is indeed costly but it can easily be done in 90 days or less. And the choice we are making is not from a pool – it is whether we want to hire a particular candidate or not. The alternative to not hiring is not finding another candidate – it is not having anyone fill the supposedly critical role. This is a classic case of Hobson’s Choice where if you don’t take the horse you are offered, you end up walking.

In my perfect world companies would behave very differently.

Companies can and should give almost-perfect candidates a shot. And in doing so they need to address both concerns – handling hiring mistakes and framing the hiring decision more realistically. The later is very simple – instead of making the hiring question ‘should we hire this candidate for this role’ we pose the question ‘would we rather have this candidate in the role or no-one at all’. This simple change can help interview teams get past minor reservations (both real and imaginary) and steer them into considering the consequences of both possible decisions.

Addressing the hiring mistake problem is important since giving candidates a shot means higher likelihood of bad hires. Solving this problem is fairly straight forward and is, in fact, already being exercised by many companies today in the process of hiring for a very different role – interns. Internships are not just a form of cheap labor, they are actually two or three months long interviews. Its a great win-win arrangement where the intern gets experience and exposure to a professional environment, and the company gets a chance to deeply assess the interns’ skills and pick the ones it wishes to hire once they graduate. The cost of making a bad hiring decision (when picking which students are granted internships) is two or three months of pay (maybe) plus the time it took to train the intern minus the amount of useful work they have done in that period. Costly? A little. Fatal? Absolutely not.

Companies can apply the same approach to almost-perfect candidates. First, clarify to the candidate that their job is not guaranteed - they would have to work hard and be successful to keep it (that should actually apply to all employees, but that’s a different discussion). Second, explicitly state that the role requires the candidate to step up beyond what they have done in the past and prove that the chance they are given is well deserved. Finally, the hiring manager should be accountable for personally and routinely assessing the candidate’s performance and managing them out of the company in less than three months if they do not meet the job expectations and deliverables. Getting to these simple agreements would remove much of the risk involved in hiring, and in fact is likely to scare away some almost-perfects that were in fact less-than-perfects. It would give great candidates the shot they deserve and a chance to astound their new managers.

But that may only work in my perfect world.

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Moving Around

In my perfect world it would be easy to move in an organization.

Moving Around

Common sense dictates that every company would prefer to have people move internally rather than leave. It makes perfect sense – instead of losing talent, you give your people (maybe your best, maybe the rest) a chance to try new things, break out of their routine, and grow professionally. Who wouldn’t do that, right?

Wrong. In the vast majority of companies moving internally is harder than quiting and getting rehired into the new team. Let me say that again – too often it is actually easier to quit, interview for a new job at another team and get an offer, than it is to move internally. Sounds a little crazy, but lets think about it for a second. When trying to fill an open position on a team the incentives for everyone involved -recruiters/ interviewers/hiring managers, are well aligned – they all want to find a good candidate to fill their position so that they get paid/share the load/deliver on their goals. But for internal moves within the company the picture isn’t as pretty. The employee’s current manager has a lot to lose in the transaction, and the new manager and other interviewers often know too much about the past performance of the employee, which likely exposed some shortcomings (who doesn’t have any?). The end result is that internal transfers are often stymied by the old and the new teams who both prefer keeping the employee in their place and bringing in an unknown (but untainted) candidate for the open role.

In my perfect world people will behave very differently.

Great leaders have strong and ongoing coaching relationships with their team members. They develop a level of trust that allows members to openly discuss their expectations, hopes, and fears without concern. Leaders therefore know when an individual’s aspirations and growth needs are not met in their current position and are obliged to act on that information and help create the right environment for the individual regardless of whether it happens to be in their organization, somewhere else at the company, or even in the outside world. They do it because its the right thing to do and because they expect nothing less from their managers. Its a simple application of the ethic of reciprocity (aka the golden rule). Great leaders understand that this is a price they pay in order to have a level of trust with their team that breeds cohesion which in turn generates clarity of goal and clarity of purpose. That clarity and its effect on team performance is one of the only sustainable competitive advantages accessible to managers at the age of free information flow (much more on that in Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book – The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive). It is a price worth paying.

Great hiring managers (and great interviewers) understand that people behave differently in different environments and under different expectations. Whatever a candidate did in their past life has very little to do with how they are going to do in their new role. This is especially true when significantly changing the type or the scope of a person’s role (Paulo Coelho put it nicely). So knowing someone’s past in great detail, which inevitably entails knowing more about their shortcomings compared to a total stranger, should not be used as an excuse to turn them away. The only things that really count are talent and team fit. And since team fit is very hard to assess in a 45 minute interview, internal candidates are a often much safer bet.

But that may only happen in my perfect world.

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