Building Engaged Teams with Power of Appreciation

Appreciation is a fuel that helps others move forward in direction of their goals, yet we often see that managers take others/their work for granted thinking, “So what if they’re doing it – they’re paid to do just that.” When organizations establish 1:1 link between outcomes with pay, they breed mediocrity because people will also reciprocate by doing minimum that is required to get that paycheck.

They forget that people work for reasons beyond pay. They want work that challenges them. They want to contribute meaningfully and make a difference. They want to grow and learn. They want a ‘connection’ with organization’s vision, values and their own peers. When they are striving hard and run out of fuel, they need someone to pat their back and validate their direction. They seek acceptance.

In a tough business environment, managers need to be even more aware about focusing on this very important aspect – recognition beyond pay. Intentional appreciation is one of the tools to achieve that. It is equally crucial for business leaders to build a culture of appreciation.

Here’s why appreciation is important:

  1. Appreciation fosters ‘self-esteem’ of people. It affirms their worth and value to make them more credible.
  2. Appreciation motivates like nothing else. Simple things like thank you notes/cards can go a long way in keeping the team energized.
  3. Appreciation shows that we (the managers) are human. It brings out strong emotions and establishes connection faster than anything else.

The act of appreciating has to be a genuine one. It has to go beyond the usual “Great Job!” and point out specific skills/actions that made a difference. It has to transfer positive energy! Appreciating others also sets precedence on behaviors you value. You will get more of what you appreciate.

So, here’s a critical question: In your family, within your friend circle, at work place and with your customers, when did you last offer a heartfelt genuine appreciation? If you did, what did you experience?

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Communication: Too Direct or Too Subtle?

Michael Wade explores communication dynamics in organizations with his post “When Direct is Needed”. He says,

The practitioners of subtle don’t realize that the folks who practice extreme directness don’t take hints and aren’t in the market for nuance. They want the message without the bark on. If you haven’t told them directly, you haven’t told them.

When it comes to managerial effectiveness and organization leadership, this is such an important issue. I have seen leaders hiding their real intentions behind too indirect clichés like “Lets focus on our key priorities for this quarter” or “people are our real assets” when their actions reveal something totally different. They end up giving vague (and often ‘good-for-the-ears’) messages that don’t mean anything tangible in reality. When people are expecting business leaders to be direct, such inflated statements can be very damaging.

On the other extreme, I have seen leaders who are direct but often fail in sharing the perspective and listen. While they use clear and definitive statements, they also end up enforcing their ideas on others.

Managers are naturally inclined to be either too direct or too indirect. They operate in a default state.

What do people want? People definitely prefer direct/clear communication and clear expectations along with a perspective on how their actions fit into a larger picture. People also want regular feedback on their actions.

Leaders maximize their ability to influence when they are conscious about balancing both. Ability to make a conscious choice about communication style and not being driven blindly by our default inclination is crucial.

Bottom line: Always be direct in your communication. Relentlessly clarify expectations. Share feedback frequently. Never try to avoid important messages by hiding behind the clichés.

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Never-Ending New Beginnings: Interview with Lisa Haneberg

Lisa Haneberg is a great friend who is an expert (and a lifelong student) on the craft of management. I have been following her blog and her work since last six years and she has greatly influenced my own blogging journey so far. Lisa is an expert in the areas of organization development, management, leadership, talent management, and personal and organizational success. With over 25 years of rich experience in providing departmental leadership, consulting, training and coaching solutions for manufacturing, health care, high technology, government, and nonprofit organizations, Lisa has written 13 business books and speaks on a broad range of topics of interest to leaders and managers.

Lisa recently released a new book titled “Never-Ending New Beginnings – A Manifesto on Personal Impact” which features 69 best posts from her blog Management Craft. It was my long term wish to bring Lisa’s thoughts to the readers of this blog and I grabbed this opportunity to catch up a conversation. Here is goes (emphasis added on important lessons):

[Tanmay] Lisa, I have enjoyed your blog since many years and I am so glad you have compiled a book with “best from Management Craft” posts. Tell us a little bit about your blogging journey so far and how blogging helped you evolve.

[Lisa] I started blogging in August of 2004 and I had no idea what I was doing or what great blogs looked like. I became a blog reader and a blog writer at the same time. I don’t recommend this! My learning curve was steep and I had to learn a lot of lessons. Eight years later I can say that blogging has helped me develop a unique voice and greater authenticity. When I write books, the publisher often wants a fairly formal treatment of a topic. But the blog is informal and therefore more me. So my blog helped me find the real me.

[Tanmay]  At QAspire, I write on the “human” aspect of leading others for excellence. I loved the post where you say that all of us are “beautifully flawed persons”. What according to you makes these flaws beautiful?

[Lisa] I think that flaws are beautiful when we get things done in spite of them. The leader who builds a great team even though he is shy.The manager that struggles against her defensiveness to be more inclusive. Our most interesting qualities are usually productive flaws. And I think we are beautiful when we work well with people regardless of their flaws or ours.

[Tanmay] How do you see the role of manager evolving in a knowledge-intensive world where teams are distributed across the globe?

[Lisa] I think we need to be better at showing the love. Really. As our ways of working become more physically detached, I think we need to try extra hard to create connection and build ownership. Managers need to become expert connectors and they need to learn to show warmth, care, and support through the phone, email, IM, and social networks. Not easy!  – not a set of tasks to do. We help people do their best work.

[Tanmay] How was your experience curating and editing “The ASTD Management Development Handbook”? Any lessons from that journey that you would like to share?

[Lisa] I was honored to be asked to select and work with a collection of nearly 40 authors. The best part was finding and inviting people. The toughest part was keeping them all in the loop. If I were doing it over, I would have done a better job with communication. Perhaps I need to apply my own advice from the previous question.

[Tanmay] If there was one key message from “Never-Ending New Beginnings” that you had to share with today’s manager, what would that be?

[Lisa] That we will enjoy a better career and impact more people if we constantly reinvent ourselves. Always look inside yourself first to discover the path to catalyze breakthroughs in organizations. That is why the name of the book is what it is – there is no single post with this title, but it is the central idea. Never stop reinventing.

[Tanmay] Thank you Lisa, for your thoughtful responses. Thank you also for inspiring me at various points in my blogging journey so far. I am pretty sure readers of this blog would find your blog/books useful and inspiring.

[Lisa] Tanmay – thank you so much. I have enjoyed reading your work, admire your thinking, and look forward to seeing what you do next!

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Graceful Leadership 101: Free PDF Book

People are promoted to lead others based on their seniority in technical areas. Others become managers after getting a management degree from a b-school that never taught them the fundamentals of dealing with people. They end up putting off people through their behavior and set a wrong example for their subordinates to follow.

In a business setting, the cost of having such leaders is invisible, but often huge. When they try to “drive” others through their narrow views and focus too much on “monitor and control”, they kill initiative. Over time, this builds culture where people don’t own things up, pass the buck, blame others and cruise along the status-quo – exactly opposite of what we need in an initiative-led and innovation-oriented business environment.

Leadership is a privilege, a huge responsibility and a glorious opportunity to add value – to business, to team members and customers. In my view, many competent and well-intentioned managers today can elevate their team performance only if they become a little more graceful. More considerate and kind.

Graceful Leadership 101 (Free PDF Download) is a running list of simple (and common-sense) ideas that can help leaders become more graceful. You can call them “managerial manners” or “leadership etiquette”, these are 101 simplest ways to add remarkability and result-orientation to your leadership style.

How can you use this list?

  1. Share this list with all your senior managers, middle managers and technical leaders. This should serve as a good starting point for focusing on the “human” aspect of work. Use this as a part of “new manager induction”.

  2. Hand this over to any one you know who aspires to be a manager/leader. Share this with MBA students you know.

  3. Tweet about it, share it on Facebook for the benefit of people in your network.

  4. – – – – –

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9 Simple Ideas for Employee Engagement

My last post emphasized on balancing processes and practices with emotion when leading projects. HR folks know this as “employee engagement”. In simplest terms, people have a choice to do a great job or a mediocre one. They exercise this choice based on the emotional connection with purpose of project/team/organization.

Why all this buzz around employee engagement, you may ask? Consider this: A Gallup study estimated that lower productivity due to disengaged workers costs the U.S. economy about $328 million. It is more than a pronounced fact now that level of employee engagement has a net direct impact on a company’s business bottom lines. On the brighter side, engaged team members delivered 12% higher customer satisfaction scores, 18% higher productivity and about 12% higher profitability. A 2010 study by AON Hewitt also confirms this.

Actively engaged team members are the greatest source of creativity, innovation, quality and improvements within an organization. In a knowledge world, only engaged team members go out of their way to delivery great customer experiences. If you are a leader at any level within the organization, your primary job is to build a culture of consistently high engagement. How do you achieve that?

Clarify the purpose continuously: People need to know the grand purpose to which they are subscribing. Constant reinforcement of purpose and matching that with team member’s individual aspirations is a great way to keep them engaged.

Show how they contribute: Most people working on various initiatives/projects want to know how their work contributes in achieving the purpose. Show them the results, give them a broader perspective, share feedback and let them understand how customer perceives value. Once this important link is established, people are more equipped to deliver better outcomes.

Be a “potential mirror”: I am not sure if there is such a word like “potential mirror”. But whenever you share feedback and communicate, nurture their self-esteem. Criticize constructively and show them their potential. Help them identify their unique strengths and how to put them to use.

Set Them Free: Align values, give them a purpose and then set them free. Autonomy is a great driver of employee engagement. Team members need a space where they can exercise their ideas and be creative. Let them make mistakes, but handhold them so they learn. Setting them free is also a great indicator that you trust them.

Involve Them in Leading Change: People often get into comfort of their work with time. Involving them in meaningful change/improvement initiatives is a great way to keep them alternately engaged. Sometimes, when people get bored with routine, such change initiatives can be reinvigorating.

Foster Communication: Build an eco-system where communication is free. Management methods like SCRUM do this nicely where team members do a daily stand-up meeting. It keeps them aligned and accountable. These daily forums are also a great way to share progress and feedback.

Use External and Internal Feedback: Allow people to share their feedback. Listen intentionally. People want to be heard and understood. Let customers speak about their perception of team and what can be improved. Internal and external feedback can often show you the right path.

Act on it: Show that you care by acting on the feedback. Better yet, involve people in implementing those actions. Taking feedback and not acting on it is a costly mistake that can quickly disengage people.

Celebrate: Team works hard and engaged people always end up walking extra-mile to get things done. Do not forget to celebrate the team, their achievements and their hard work. A team that works together and celebrates together, performs together.

Bonus Resources:

  1. Employee Engagement for Managers: In One Sentence” (free eBook) by David Zinger – a thought leader and authority on the subject of employee engagement.

  2. UpstartHR’s Guide to Employee Engagement (where I contributed a chapter.

9 (More) Ideas for Effective Trainings

Trainings are at the core of most knowledge-oriented organizations and often considered to be key driver of employee behaviors, and hence culture. It is a lot of hard work, a lot of time, effort and energy spent. It better be effective. Here are 9 (more) ideas to ensure that trainings are effective (related ideas in links below):

  1. Training is not a silver bullet. Sometimes, business leaders over emphasize on trainings when other things are not working. One example: Providing a detailed training on roles and responsibilities to a team member may not work when the problem is how people are being managed.
  2. Often, we end up imparting detailed trainings on processes that are faulty. Even if people religiously follow the process, it may not yield desired business results. Before imparting training, ensure that your processes/content is accurate enough to yield desired business outcomes.
  3. Given our shrinking attention spans, long, detailed and tedious trainings will never help people. Good trainings that are poorly designed will also take a toll. Trainings are change agents and for that to happen, map training to real time actions. Show them how to do something, stir their imagination, raise important questions and then provide answers. Better yet, let them participate in finding answers and then reinforce lessons.
  4. Timing of the training is crucial. If you impart training on something which people may not use for next two months, the lessons will soon fade away. Impart training when it is most needed and can be used readily.
  5. Trainings that are done just because some external standard (like ISO) demands is a huge waste. Standards never tell us to conduct trainings at the cost of effectiveness.
  6. We don’t need trainers who speak like robots. We need humans, who bring their emotion to the training, share their personal stories, provide us perspectives and drive our imagination. If training is repetitive by nature, create a recorded version instead.
  7. The #1 job of a trainer is to focus on them – the participants. It’s not an opportunity to show how much you know about the subject, but how they can use that in their unique context.
  8. Manage the energy in room. People think training is about “flow” – continuity of ideas and speech. Yes, it is. In fact, it is also about "engaging change”. If a trainer speaks continuously for more than 5-7 minutes, the energy in the room loses to monotony. To add an element of change, throw up a question, show a video, share a story, ask audience to share their story, outline their challenges or let them do something. It re-aligns the energy in room.
  9. While you may not have a best sense of humor, it helps to lighten up things a bit during the training. Formal trainings have a bad reputation of being serious, and hence boring. If you (as a trainer) are not having fun, you cannot expect the audience to have it either!

Other Training Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

5 Ideas To Ensure That Trainings Effectively Deliver Value

Training: The Change Agent

Training Middle Managers On People Management Basics

Training and Development – A Holistic View

Team Performance: Keeping Ego at Bay

Ego is a strong emotion and often, success feeds it. As we evolve as professionals and accomplish more, we tend to accumulate beliefs about ourselves (and the world around us). Soon, we start looking at world from the lens of these beliefs and decide what is right or wrong. Unfortunately, our world view is often skewed when it is only seen from the lens of our egos and limited beliefs.

By definition, ego is a false and emotionally charged image of the self. At work place, personal egos between peers often result in situations where work takes a backseat. He thinks that she should have initiated that difficult conversation. She thinks why would he not initiate? If he delayed it by one week, why should I walk the extra mile and complete it on time? People in meetings try to protect their forts and drive meeting through their egos. They avoid confrontations and often resist change.

End result? Things don’t move and progress stalls.

Here is what works for me: When you encounter an ego situation, quiz your goals. Ask yourself (and others) this question: “Am I (are you) focusing on ‘who’ is right, or doing ‘what’ is right?”. In teams and projects, doing what is right (and actually doing it) is more important than proving who is right.

Secondly, while individual accomplishments are important for your self esteem, you need to check if they are helping the team. Higher technical proficiency or better individual traits are of no use if they don’t help the team achieve the desired outcomes. If you are known as a best designer or coder, but your projects still fail then being the best may not be as important.

Finally, business leaders need to keep a constant check on the ego-index of middle management. You can work hard to hire best people but if they are being led by ego-driven managers, their spirit and enthusiasm will quickly fade out. People who cannot manage their own egos are not the good ones to manage others.

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Join in the Conversation: Have you encountered ego situations at your work place? What advice would you share with a manager who is struggling to keep ego issues away in the team?

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In Praise of Comprehension and Meaning

We live in an “instant” world. People want to do everything instantly, including understanding, comprehension and making sense of something.

I remember having attended a strategy meeting where head of the department (call him boss) was explaining a new strategy that none of us had heard about before. He completed explaining and requested the audience to ask questions if any. One of the fellow team members instantly uttered, “This sounds interesting!”.

Boss gently smiled and cautioned, “When you say it sounds interesting, I am assuming that you have complete understanding of what I just said.” Further discussion revealed that the team member did not actually grasp the concept in its totality. She just uttered something because she had to, not because she really meant it.

How many times do we end up doing this? Saying something when we don’t really mean it. Our quest to sound intelligent and respond instantaneously forces us to sacrifice meaning. Wanting to be perceived as ‘smart’ takes precedence over wanting to be ‘relevant’. This becomes even more crucial when we work in a knowledge world where comprehension, contextual clarity and ability to communicate are central to our success as individuals and teams. I have seen many projects that failed, people who were put off, customers who were unhappy just because someone on the team didn’t care to understand things completely.

It is important to realize that understanding and comprehension of our work is at the core of our success as professionals. In fact, the more time we spend in fully understanding our approaches, the lesser time it takes in executing it.

One of my significant lessons in communication is: when communicating, you should not only strive to understand the logical and informational aspects of what is being said, but also emotional content behind them. How something is said, what words are used and what tone – these reveal the emotional background to some extent.

Comprehension is important. Understanding nuances of your work, its implications and clarity on overall context is as crucial in knowledge world as understanding others on the team. Style can enhance the presentation, but without substance, style itself cannot make you a better communicator.

Productivity Reminders…

… For Managers

  1. In knowledge world, productivity is hard to quantify. If you try to adopt old “command and control” style of management to drive knowledge workers, they get even less productive. Don’t command, empower. Don’t control, but lead them instead.
  2. Understand that knowledge workers cannot always be productive between 9 to 5. They have their creative zones and routines when they are most productive. Give them a mental space, when they can concentrate.
  3. Equate productivity, not with how much work is done, but how well.
  4. Give them autonomy and challenge them through work. Clarify what is expected out of them and set them free. Facilitate and support, but don’t spoon feed and micro-manage. Enrich their job by allowing them to focus on the core aspect of their work. Eliminate waste from their routines. Define what performance means.
  5. Provide them constant feedback. Feedback is the compass they use to drive their performance. Recognize their efforts.

… For Individuals

  1. “Busy-ness” is not equal to progress. Passing/pushing papers, constantly responding to emails, constantly checking social media and attending endless meetings is NOT productivity.
  2. Understand the context. You can work better when the bigger picture is clear to you. Understand clearly what needs to be done, why it needs to be done and then figure out how it needs to be done.
  3. It also means identifying what should *not* be done. Eliminate busy work and additional activities that add no or little value. E.g. A sales person should focus on sales/customer service more than she focuses on filling out reports and doing logistical activities involved in sales.
  4. When working, be ‘with’ work. Social media can wait. That new email notification screaming for your attention can wait. Other low priority items can wait. Multi-tasking kills concentration – one of the key elements of personal productivity.
  5. Learn continuously – the more you learn, the more you know, the more productive you get. Seek training, read blogs (better yet, write one), read at least one book in your area of work in a month, meet people, attend conferences/webinars. Learn.

In his book “Managing For The Future (1992)”, Peter Drucker said that raising productivity of knowledge and service workers must be an economic and social priority in twenty first century. Almost twenty years after that was written, it is a truth that we cannot afford to ignore.

Being productive at work is not just an organizational, economic or social priority, but a personal one too.

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Related Post at QAspire: Getting Work Done: Flow and Distractions

Effective Facilitation 25

  • A novice manager tells people what needs to be done. A wise manager listens, questions and challenges.
  • People are not interested in what you tell them to do (command and control). They are interested in what they control and learn from what they are doing (empowerment).
  • Facilitation helps in both. In getting things done and ensuring that team members learn from that process.
  • The purpose of facilitating is: to get something done and to ensure that the person who is executing learns something valuable from the process of doing.
  • Facilitation is the key to developing people. A tool to lead.
  • Further, effective facilitation is also the key to build a great team.
  • If we are dealing with professionals, why do they need facilitation? They need facilitation so that they can work together as a team, do it better, faster, more creatively and more effectively.
  • Facilitation helps people reach their potential and elevate performance.
  • If you are a manager who is facilitating a team, you are not more powerful than them. You serve them, so that they become better and make you look good.
  • The act of facilitation should make things easy for them. If you are not conscious about how you are facilitating, you can make it difficult.
  • Facilitating someone in doing something is a great way to learn newer aspects of your work. Remember the rule? We learn only a bit of what we are taught, we learn a great deal of what we do and we learn the most when we teach someone.
  • In a group, facilitation starts with a common objective that everyone understands. That is #1 job of facilitator.
  • If common objective is not understood/defined, facilitation helps them achieve consensus on the goal.
  • You can facilitate someone on three key areas: The purpose of work (Why), the process of achieving that purpose (How) and specific tasks in that process (What).
  • Additionally, you can facilitate someone so that their expectations are managed, understood and communicated. To address their real concerns.
  • People will only allow you to facilitate them when they see value. Ensure that they see the value early in the facilitation process.
  • The art of facilitation also involves knowing when NOT to facilitate. Facilitation does not equal spoon feeding. Show them the way and let them run.
  • The starting point of facilitation is listening. Acknowledging the experiences of the team member, appreciate what they say and encourage them to be open.
  • Clarity is at the heart of good facilitation. If you don’t understand their problem OR are not able to provide clarity to them on your viewpoints, facilitation does not help. Confirm, clarify and reflect.
  • Questions are your tools to clarify – open ended questions that bring out the real thing.
  • In a group situation or meetings, it is very crucial for the facilitator to balance between the extremes of clarity and ambiguity. To remain focused on the objective without getting impatient or biased is a challenge.
  • Sometimes, facilitation also means that you have to let go of the agenda and focus on an individual/team’s real problems.
  • Facilitation is about designing conversations that really matter and make a difference.
  • People make mistakes. Allow them, for their mistakes are their opportunities to learn. Share feedback.
  • Facilitation is at the core of modern day management. Teams need facilitation, clients need facilitation and individuals need facilitation. On a second thought, all the fundamentals of effective facilitation are also the fundamentals of effective management. No?

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Join in the conversation: As a manager or a leader, do you see yourself as a facilitator? What are your lessons? Share them here.

Diversity, Group Think and Few Ideas

Group dynamics in a team is a strong force. People on the team are used to work in a certain way. They always encounter/expect some specific/known behaviors from their colleagues. They have a fortified belief system about how things should be done in the team. There is a specific way of communication and often the one that pleases people higher up in the order.

Group dynamics kick in when someone in the team dares to think differently. When the new member exhibits better skills or a different way of communication. Team members go on a back foot and critically analyse the difference. Often, they end up preaching about how things should be done. The fear of getting criticized/ridiculed keeps the team members from expressing themselves fully and completely. The group tries to convert fresh thinking into compliant thinking, and the spark of fresh thinking just fades into this group that we call team.

This force limits the ability of team members to openly acknowledge differences – therefore undermining a team’s capacity to learn about and improve on its strategies, processes and practices. Group think stalls improvement and keeps people from identifying strongly with their work.

So, what can YOU do?

If you are a manager, make conflicts constructive, value different perspectives and approaches, ensure that team learns/unlearns constantly through experiences, expect high standards from your team, stimulate/encourage personal development, value people who think differently and be open in communication. Reduce bureaucracies so that team has direct access to the senior folks. Have formal brainstorming sessions with the team, and moderate the discussion to ensure that ideas are openly assessed.

If you are a team member, don’t let group thinking conquer your unique opinion. Identify first with your work, and then with the team. Be polite and firm while presenting your viewpoint. When you think your opinion is important, take due care in how you present it. Have humility to accept if your viewpoint is negated with reasonable justifications and don’t let it keep you from expressing yourself next time.

In lean terms, group think is another waste. Diversity is the key to success, and building a culture where diversity is valued has never been as important as it is today.

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Join in the conversation: Would you like to add any more ideas to help managers and/or individuals foster a culture where diversity in thinking leads to improvements?

Better Execution With ‘No-Follow Up’ Culture

The primary focus of lean organizations/teams is to “eliminate waste”. In an increasingly complex work environment where execution is distributed between teams and geographies, one of the biggest wastes I have seen is “following-up on things”.

A typical manager’s task list will feature about 30% (or even more) tasks which are simply following up (read ‘pushing”) with others on status. I think this is a huge waste for a few reasons.

The need to constantly follow-up only means that people in the team are not clear of their priorities (or priorities are not clearly communicated). It also means they are not disciplined and accountable.

Time spent on following up is never estimated when you delegate the work. It is not accounted for, and hence results in further delays. The act of following up negatively impacts both parties – the one who is following up and the one being followed up.

When things only happen after follow-up, it gradually results in a culture where nothing is completed unless someone chases it.

So, how do you build a culture of “no follow-up” in your team? Here are a few things that I have seen working:

  1. Set expectation: When you delegate a task, define the expectations clearly and establish a “no follow-up rule”.
  2. Establish rituals: For time critical assignments/projects, set up a checkpoint ritual periodically, where you schedule a fixed time for seeking status update on different tasks. Program your team to feed you with progress details at a regular intervals.
  3. Be disciplined: Set the right example by delivering your own work without the need to follow up. Do not follow up unless absolutely required. Be persistent in your approach.

Bottom line:

Once-in-a-while is fine, but otherwise, a culture of constant follow-ups is a huge waste. When you continuously strive to build a culture of no follow-ups, you will have more accountability and empowerment in your team. Time saved for both managers and team members is a bonus!

Join in the conversation: What methods do you employ to ensure that you and your team do not require any follow-up to get things done?

Team Success – Insights from Conversations

I have been a close observer of team dynamics in a project environment. In last 13 years, I have seen a number of teams that were highly successful, teams that failed initially and then succeeded, teams that succeeded only when there was a fire in the project and teams where success was constant and incremental.

Here is some of what I have gathered talking to successful teams.

  • “We were successful because each one of us exactly knew what we had to do.”
  • “There was chaos, but then, we all knew how important the the job was and why.”
  • “Our project manager made it enjoyable, despite all the challenges.”
  • “As a team, since roles/responsibilities were clear, we valued each other’s contribution. We trusted each other.”
  • “There was no power game. Our leader was never bossy.”
  • “Everyone was fully involved.”
  • “Expectations and communication was clear, and it only helped us deliver what customer expected.”
  • “The team was not really a team, but a bunch of great friends. We hanged out together to ensure that we work hard and we party harder.”
  • “We were treated as ‘humans’ who were ‘engaged’, and not as ‘resources’ who were simply ‘deployed’.”
  • “Some tough calls had to be taken and were willing to take some calculated risks on our project.”
  • “We did think a lot about processes in the project initiation. We also ensured that all stakeholders understood the process.”
  • “Our leader gave us a lot of space to try new things and experiment. A few such successful experiments resulted in a lot of improvement in our performance.”
  • “The project manager exactly knew the strengths and weaknesses of our team members. People were only assigned to tasks they were good at.”
  • “The decision making process was participative.”
  • “Yes, we had conflicts and differences. But at the end of it all, I think our differences allowed us to think differently.”
  • “As a project lead, I had to ensure that team does what they are supposed to do. My role was to ensure that all peripheral issues are managed so that team remains focused.”
  • “I was held accountable for whatever I delivered and this was expected from all.”

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P.S: Did you check out my new Tumblr blog? That is where I share short bites of insights and wisdom from my friends in blogosphere. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Change: From Vision to Execution

Leaders establish a lofty vision for a large scale change initiative and then strategize to align the team. Sometimes, the team gets over-excited by this grand vision and get stuck. They cannot define a strategy or a plan of action that takes them closer to that grand vision.

Planning for a change is a tricky thing. Vision is broad,  actions have to be specific, team needs to remain motivated throughout and uncertainties have to be managed.

Based on personal experience, here are some of the broad strategies that helps when planning and executing a change:

  1. Shorter “plan-do” cycles: Linear planning with long list of activities is almost dead. Long linear plan can bog the team down and doesn’t help in keeping all aligned. Shorter plan-do-feedback cycles help in executing work in smaller chunks and collect data/feedback that can help in further planning.
  2. Keep the plan simple: Every change initiative will face a lot of uncertainties and will get messy at some point. When smallest of details are planned, these uncertainties will throw you out of track. Planning for change has to be simple, with key milestones and broad activities. It gives a lot of space to the team in managing uncertain situations.
  3. Involve team in planning: Simple yet very effective strategy, that ensures buy-in from team and gives them a broader roadmap to execute.
  4. Plan early and often: In long-term change initiatives, constantly planning/re-planning is important. Milestones have to be moved and activities have to be re-prioritized. Review the plan at the end of every sprint and realign team’s focus.
  5. Keep communication clear: When plans change, it is important to keep communication lines clear. Teams and stakeholders need to know the impacts and risks.

I have felt that implementing large scale/strategic changes is like walking through a forest. You know where you want to go, but the road/map to reach there is not clear. This is also true for significant personal change (like switching to a new career, starting a business etc).

The critical part: You need to be constantly on top of your plan, learn and re-align.

The fun part: The quest to find the best route and eventually, if done right, the joy of reaching there!

In Communication, Substance Comes First

Services world revolves around communication. In projects/initiatives, knowledge has to be transferred, issues have to discussed and expectations have to be managed.

A lot of young professionals I meet want to improve upon their communication skills. A few of them also think that good communication is all about having a great style, good language, impressive vocabulary and so on.

I tell them: In effective communication, substance comes first. Style without substance is just fluff, because it may impress others but can never change them for better. This means a few things:

Communication (written or verbal) is transfer of energy. If your communication does not transfer any positive energy (or worst yet, sucks energy from the other party), it is not going to work.

Substance comes first. Great communication has power to change others – but they only change when they are able to relate and find a deeper meaning.

Be yourself. Effective communication demands that you need to be yourself first. Ability to express your thoughts and ideas most meaningfully is a critical skill. You have to come out through your communication.

Style is a by-product. When you consistently deliver substance through your communication, have a positive impact and be yourself, style evolves. Style is not the goal, but a by-product.

Purpose strengthens communication. People express themselves on many things that don’t matter. When you have a strong purpose, your communication gains focus and becomes more effective. Goal of our communication is to serve a purpose and have a stronger impact.

These are important lessons I have learned from people I have worked with. These are the same lessons I share with people I work with.

Whether you are into sales, technology, project management, teaching, training or mentoring – remember, in effective communication, substance comes first!

Join in the conversation: What important lessons you have learned in effective communication? What advice would you like to share with young professionals who want to become better communicators? Tell us in the comments.

Effective Management: 5 Critical Skill Areas

Managing effectively is not just one skill, but a mix of different skills. It is a combination of different kinds of intelligence we have as human beings, which makes it an art and a craft.

Have you seen a manager who is highly skilled in technical areas but lacks empathy for others? Or the one who is highly people oriented, but easily loses the sight of goals?

If you are a manager at any level in the organization (or an aspiring one), here are some of the most critical skills you should work on.

Technical Expertise: Broad understanding of the subject (meta-cognition), various components involved in getting work done, links between those components, technical awareness and problem solving skills.

Analytical Intelligence: Ability to gather facts, understand the goals in numbers, compile data into information, measure, see trends, predict the outcomes, go to the root cause and base decisions on facts.

People Intelligence: Understand people (and how they feel), practice empathy, motivate them, align them to the goals, coach and mentor, create a positive influence, understand inter-personal dynamics, communicate (and connect) and understand verbal/non-verbal communication.

Operational Intelligence: Ability to define work as series of interconnected actions, detailed planning, constant alignment of process, improving, seeing waste (and eliminating it), provide a process platform to teams, define rituals, review everything, provide clarity and manage expectations.

‘Big Picture’ Thinking: Ability to see the larger picture (the whole) and visualize its parts, visualize impacts of change, identify new possibilities, align ideas to the larger goal, identify/foresee required changes/trends, define the future, communicate the vision, experiment and be comfortable with ambiguity.

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Join in the Conversation: What skills areas would you like to add? Do you look at these skill areas while hiring? What are you doing today as a manager to gain better understanding of these areas? Feel free to share.

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Only Practice Is Not Enough!

Practice makes a man perfect”, they say.

Only practice is not enough. In business, have you seen people who have been doing something for a long time and still not very good at it? If practice was enough, these people should have been rock stars in their work, right? But they aren’t.

So, what’s missing? I think, feedback.

Imagine that one of your team members is working on an important assignment for a long time, and there is no feedback. People treat no news as good news and end up assuming that what they are doing is correct. This can be dangerous.

Then there are people who constantly want to know if they are doing the right thing, and regular feedbacks not only help them improve, but also keep them aligned and motivated. People don’t want to wait for one year to know their “areas of improvement”.

As individuals, when we practice our art, we need to constantly look for feedbacks. We are our first source of feedback, since we invariably “feel” about how we have performed. Our gut is the strongest feedback system we are equipped with. Look for your internal feedback, and you mostly get the answer.

Practice only makes us perfect (and helps us improve), when there is a frequent supply of high quality feedback so that we can quickly do necessary course corrections, adjust our game, deliver better and hence learn.

Bottom line:

– If you want to build a constantly learning organization, build a culture where feedback is shared early and often.

– To find greatest level of success in an organization, professionals need to remain open to accept feedback, analyze it positively and use it for their further actions.

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Check out: July Leadership Development Carnival hosted by Dan McCarthy – an excellent collection of high quality content on leadership and executive development. Carnival also features my post “Leading People? A Few Core Lessons”.

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Related Posts at QAspire:

> Setting Expectations On Behaviors You Value: 5 Pointers

> 5 Pointers For Effectively Dealing With Negative Feedback

> An Informed Team Works Better

Review: “Love Presenting…” by Nicholas Bate

Love Presenting Hate (badly used) Powerpoint

In an ever-expanding new world of work, leaders have to reach out to more people and spread their ideas. A lot of leaders do presentations of all kinds (sales/training/conferences) but are not sure how to make them really effective.

Nicholas Bate delivers what the world really wants – an effective guide titled “Love Presenting Hate (badly used) PowerPoint” on creating and delivering presentations that get people to act.

Here is the basic premise of book, in author’s own words:

We’re going to restore the joy of attending a presentation and re-discovering what it is to present with passion. We’re going to remember that there is a reason for having the very expensive gathering of people in that room: it is to get people to do something. And finally we’re going to remind ourselves there is a very thin line between chaos and creation in a presentation.”

Design and content organization in the book is a great example of an effective presentation. Vibrant cover, hand-drawn illustrations (more on his blog) and succinctly presented content (with a lot of lists, of course) makes this reading experience a very pleasant one.

Here’s what I have observed in many presentations attended: there is too much of “information” and too little of “inspiration”. Without inspiration, it is very difficult to get people to do something. Isn’t it? Like any other art, the purpose of presentation is simple: to transfer the energy and emotion, not just information. A presentation that does not do this, fails to make any mark.

This book is a quick read with less than 100 pages, and the one that you might want to refer before every presentation you deliver.

Managing Virtual Teams and Communication: 6 Pointers

I wrote earlier about 10 Key Lessons in Managing a Virtual Team.

Here are a few more pointers:

  • Business is a contact sport and management is a social act.Lisa Haneberg said this in 2006, and it is even more relevant today when managers are struggling to get their geographically distributed teams aligned to project goals.
  • Understanding unique personal characteristics of individuals and then work the way through those differences to achieve the goal is one of the biggest strengths of a manager. One to one communication and contact with the team members is at the core of managing well. With increase in volume of work, the need to deal with larger teams, get more done in a distributed work environment – managers often compromise on this core element of managing. It only helps managers understand people, their unique ways of working, their communication preferences and their motivations. A sensible manager tends to get a lot of clues about a person by “listening” to their team.
  • Even with remote team members, don’t try to drive entire team as one unit that follows same set of rules. Don’t treat them as machines who would take instructions and get them executed. Team members hate managers who hide behind technology and push difficult decisions to team via emails and text messages. Be open and honest enough to share your perspectives in difficult situations. Team members have to sense that your intent is right.
  • Management is a contact sport – and it is a “context sport” as well. Managers are obliged to provide a context, a larger picture that helps team members in driving their actions. As human beings, we want to know the impact of our work, what problem does it solve, how it fits into a larger context and how it makes a difference. It is a manager’s job to fulfill this need. Technology can be an enabler, but is certainly not an alternative to one on one communication in the team.
  • Lack of energy in communication irks more than anything else. When on call with your remote team, ensure that you maintain energy in conversation and seek participation via open ended questions, eliciting feedback, facilitating and summarizing the information when needed.
  • As far as possible, try to build consensus before taking decisions. Team members will own the outcomes if they were involved in planning process. Not involving teams in planning and simply pushing tasks to them is a mistake that makes people dispassionate about the outcome.

I think the management abilities required to manage a virtual team are no different than the ones to manage any other team – but communication and collaboration takes a front seat when dealing with remote teams. It is important to be able to reach out to people and align them to the vision of the project/initiative.

Unless that is done, team members will never be able to think about how they can deliver quality in their outcomes.

Join in the conversation: What ideas would you like to add? What are your lessons in communication aspect when dealing with remote teams?

8 Pointers On Balancing Improvement and Efficiency

When leaders undertake process improvement/change initiative, they walk on a tight rope.

On one hand, they have to improve the processes to deliver positive business outcomes. On the other, they have to ensure that improvement/change initiative does not slow down the current work and bring the overall efficiencies down.

Both are crucial and striking the right balance between improvement and business efficiency, between standardization and evolution is a big leadership challenge. Based on my recent experiences in implementing large scale changes, here are a few lessons I would like to share:

  • Avoid Big Bang implementation of major changes. When it comes to processes and changing habits of people, there are no direct cut-overs. People (and culture) need time to change.
  • Improve Incrementally by implementing high priority (and high value) changes first. When people start seeing value in those changes, implement a few more.
  • Have a Strong Purpose behind each change being implemented. People will not subscribe to change unless the purpose of the improvement initiative is clear. People want to know how improvements will help them do a better job.
  • Keep Communication Tight during the change implementation. On going trainings, one to one facilitations, interactive audio/video based training go a long way in ensuring that people are aligned.
  • Focus on “Value Delivered” when looking at a change/improvement. There is a lot to improve, but focus on improvements that have direct impact in value delivered to the organization/customers.
  • Understand People because effective change implementation is not possible without understanding how people operate. With this understanding, managing resistance becomes a little easier.
  • Innovate In Process itself, without getting fixated on best practices. The “wow” customer experiences delivered are always a combination of remarkable people and innovative (yet simple) processes that makes customer’s life easier.
  • Look For “Exceptions” because they are the opportunities for improving and simplifying. When people don’t follow a process consistently, it may be a process problem.

Additionally, here are 5 things a leader should avoid when implementing any significant change. Read more about insights on managing process improvements and change.

Join in the conversation:

What have been your lessons in implementing change? What best practices would you like to share when it comes to balancing improvement and business efficiency?