Doing Great Work

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, at least at some time, wrestle with issues of conflict between dealing with the pressing and urgent in their work and the need/ desire to give quality time to work that’s important but less pressing, immediate and urgent.

We have never worked in more connected ways. Even when we’re not meeting or interacting face to face, today’s work day is punctuated by a continual flow of emails. One of the problems, in my experience in most organisations is people don’t openly talk about expectations with regard to these issues. If, for example, somebody sends an email, by when should they anticipate or expect that it will have been seen and a reply received? On the subject of emails, are companies training their people in effective email etiquette and best practices? My suspicion is that very few do. And yet, within most companies there are vast hidden costs being incurred through inefficiency and lost productivity and effectiveness. All this also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety, especially for employees who want to be productive, to achieve and individually and collectively take their organisations forward.

One of many examples is where people (and I’m not going to claim innocence on this type of thing!) send multi-point emails. If I send someone a mail asking four different questions, and they can only answer two immediately, what are they to do? Answer on those two and make a commitment by when they will answer on the others? Hold off answering any of the points and keep the whole mail pending? There’s no easy answer.

Worse, the answer will vary within an organisation depending on who were the sender and the recipient. There are all sorts of issues about rank and status, but different people tend to operate with different practices and expectations (while all their colleagues have to figure out what’s expected).

Another very common issue with email is where people find it ambiguous about expectations when mail is sent outside work hours. Personally, I’ve often sent mails out of hours, but partly so that the mail would be available to the recipient as soon as they get in to work on the next day (or after a weekend). However, i do recognise it’s important to tell people that I’m not expecting them to be working out of hours. This particular issue has been perceived so negatively that France and other European countries have passed legislation prohibiting the sending of work related mail outside working hours. I personally feel it’s rather sad that it had to come to such a prescriptive ‘blunt instrument’ approach in those countries. people should have flexibility and an ability to work in the ways that suit them best, but we need to find better ways to make that fit with others’ working needs.

Emails are one of the bad interruptions that disturb our ability to carve out real quality blocks of time in the working day to do meaningful, high quality work. One of the others is face to face interruptions. it’s a very rare organisation where people stick to the rigours of using calendar scheduling to fix mutually agreeable times to meet, even for 10 minutes. Instead, you have the infamous, “I just need two minutes,” that invariably turns in to 15, which is then followed by 15 minutes of confused and muddled working as the individual tries to regain their focus on what they were immersed in the moment the interruption came. In the worst cases, your interruptions can get interrupted leaving you completely confused. I confess, one day last week i got home after a long day in the office, only to realise that an important email I’d started writing at 11.00am was still open on my laptop, nearly finished along with two others from during the afternoon that were barely started!

In open plan and glass offices it’s become fashionable to suggest that all leaders are duty bound to keep an ‘open door’ policy. However, i believe that if this is at the expense of failure to carve out decent blocks of time to do meaningful and important work, then it’s counter-productive. The urgent cannot always have precedence over the important. We have to be willing to have the conversations with our colleagues and team members about how to give each other the space and time to do meaningful blocks of work. Otherwise, we finish up filling each others’ days with urgency, leaving us no choice but to sacrifice personal time away from the office to do the truly important work in less disturbed circumstances. haven’t we all found that in two hours at home, we can complete more than we would in 8 office hours and to a better standard. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way and at the expense of personal space and time.

Another area where we struggle is with meetings. Meetings have been universally disliked for as long as i’ve worked in my life. yet, they can serve valuable purpose and cannot/ shouldn’t be avoided. Again, there need to be process discussions that ensure people understand what’s expected of them so that meetings can be truly effective;
a) people owe it to each other to come prepared. Too many turn up to meetings poorly prepared and meeting time is then spent getting people up to speed with where they should have been on arrival,
b) Focus needs to be on the meeting – not on laptops, mobile phones and other external things. We have an interesting challenge coming up with video conference technology installed for remote meetings. In the past, skype calls with groups have been messy and disjointed because people had the habit of leaving the room(!). Even those who stayed in the room sometimes took the opportunity to complete other, non-related work. If those meetings are to be effective, we’ll need more self-discipline than that!
c) Agenda creation for meetings can be a minefield if team members seek to ‘stack it’ with their personal agendas. People can be fond of requesting fixed finishing times for meetings, but go off at tangents, ride hobby-horses and use time wasting as a tactic to avoid decisions they disagree with. On the other hand, overly rigid meeting protocols stifle meaningful discussion rendering meetings sterile and mundane. It takes real effort on the part of all to find a happy medium.

I’d like to finish here, sharing a fun piece from Fast Company in which some senior employees from Tech companies share their thoughts on the habits they want to break so as to be more productive and efficient in their work;

Fast Company – Kicking Seven Work Habits

Right, I’m finishing there, because i acknowledge that habit 6 is most certainly one for me to tackle!

Beyond Performance Reviews

If you had to create a system from scratch that would contribute to having higher levels of work engagement among employees, would you create a conventional, traditional performance management/ review system as exists currently in most organisations? My guess is that few of us would choose to do that, at least without skepticism and a certain degree of sadness that we wished we had something better. Why - because we know of enough reasons why conventional performance review systems don't contribute to improved or increased engagement and more often, we know that they can be highly demotivational for a significant proportion of our team members.

Who would willingly choose to engage in a process that is ostensibly intended to improve performance, to drive up standards across an organisation and keep 'all the fishes' swimming in a common direction, where the evidence actually suggests that the process demotivates many and leaves others ambivalent about the process, their longer term career and life aspirations and the contribution they make to the organisation?

In knowledge-based organisations and professional fields the process of finding, recruiting and integrating new people is an enormously expensive one. It doesn't necessarily appear as a defined line in budgets, so many of these costs are concealed and hidden in other working costs. In addition, turnover of people, the inevitable times when there are gaps when a position is left vacant because a suitable person can't be identified all act as further hidden costs. It's even worse than that, though. Finding people who are a perfect fit is almost impossible. So, people are taken in to the organisation and considerable time and effort goes in to helping them to fit the roles for which the organisation needs them. In those circumstances to either lose the person or (maybe worse), to have the person stay but never really fulfil their potential is a massive cost. When it happens too often, you have an underperforming organisation that can never really be all that was dreamed or envisaged.

So, we have to be open to all ideas and possibilities about how to lead knowledge workers effectively, in ways that are respectful and respected. To lead people in ways that enhance people's potential contribution, make them feel certain that they're in a place where their personal and organisational goals can be aligned and to see that their future dreams can often be achieved in some form in the organisation (instead of believing that they must go elsewhere).

Ironically, i suspect the lack of meaningful discussion with employees about the future - their futures - is one of the reasons that so many reduce their organisational existence down to just a discussion about money. If i believe the organisation isn't interested in me and the future i dream of for me, then i might as well at least get as much money from the organisation as i can for the limited period that I'm going to stay.

As Russ Laraway highlights in the video above, and in this Fast Company article the biggest shortcoming of performance management reviews (when they happen and even when they're done well) is that they are inherently backward looking. Worse, to my mind, is that they don't look at the past from the perspective of what was important to the individual, but according to a checklist of tasks or deliverables that the organisation wanted from the individual. Laraway acknowledges that the past is an important part of career discussions, but from the context of the person's whole past and especially those aspects of the past that hold clues to who the individual is and their priorities today.

I wrote yesterday about the millennials and how they are different - requiring different approaches from us in the workplace. This is a classic example. As highlighted in the video shared yesterday, they want more attention to be made to them as people. Attention to their aspirations and dreams is something they want, so this approach makes sense and will strike a chord.

We live with a new reality. Workplaces have changed in the last 20 years or so. Leaders cannot be making assumptions that because they issue an order or instruction or declare that something is to be done in a particular way (or even the statement of a vision or mission) that it will be blindly followed, obeyed or done as stated. This isn't to say that millennial employees are willfully disobedient. It's more that they see the workplace and a job as something more transactional. In those circumstances, respecting the individual has dreams, taking time to understand them, their past and those dreams for the future fits right in with the sort of attention they seek in return for their professional contribution.

The Death of Performance Management?

“Well that was a ***ing waste of time, as always. Why do we go through this stupid charade every year,” muttered my colleague as he slumped across his desk. He had just returned from his annual performance management meeting with ‘the boss’. That was in a private bank in the UK, circa 1986.

Whiz forward 25 years – it’s 2011 and I’m in New Delhi, India remembering that conversation as I sat through the umpteenth meeting where the leadership team of a very highly regarded group of schools wrestled with the question – could we introduce a performance management system that would be fair, viewed positively and make a positive contribution to standards of education delivery? These meetings and all the preparatory work for them went on for well over a year. We were not willing or prepared to do anything that had even the slightest risk of spoiling what was already good or great in the organisation. The result was we felt so much more comfortable staying on the fence rather than plunging in to something we could regret.

I sometimes compare performance management systems with formative assessment for pupils in schools – motivational for the few high achievers, demotivational for everyone else. We need to take a step back and think about why we’re doing it. It seems the starting premises is – people will only work hard if we drive them with sticks and carrots. If they’re not controlled, they won’t give good work. Today, this is not seen as the right approach to motivation for students, so why should we settle for this when it comes to how we lead our adult employees who are pivotal in the quality of what we deliver.

The problems with PM are many. For example, it’s a rare manager who, when citing evidence to an employee can quote examples that are more than a few weeks old – even when it’s supposed to be a review of their performance and contribution over a year. It’s not even just the case that those having their performance appraised get uncomfortable – I’ve also known so many managers who found it a very uncomfortable experience to go through.

If we want processes that motivate, inspire and guide people to give their best contributions to their work, to understand how best to contribute and what’s expected of them, then they have to be based on far more timely communication. We also need to have very firmly in our minds when looking at the systems we apply in schools that education establishments are not the same as other employment environments. By way of example, I think it was quite reasonable that a group of teachers once challenged me as to why schools have systems that focus on individual performance, at the same time as emphasizing the importance of teachers working together effectively in teams. There are arguments both ways on this, but we do need to be having such debates in an open and transparent manner.

In our schools today, we say that we want exceptional high calibre teachers to excel. However, by and large, we have tended to adopt populist approaches whereby the differential between how we reward the highest achievers and the rest are very marginal. Another debate we need to be having is whether we are prepared to have remuneration systems that significantly differentiate between high achievers and others. The reality right now is that when the remuneration is linked to the performance management system in our schools we’re spending a very large amount of time, work and effort in to making tiny differentiations between people. If what we want is a system that motivates and inspires stars, encourages others to significantly raise their performance levels and keep our best people – do we need to have more courage? Or, would our leaders be uncomfortable about whether staff would trust their judgements when identifying the top achievers? I often sense a steak of ‘socialist fervour’ running through educators. So, whilst they might know in their hearts that in the school there is a small handful of people whose contributions are massively bigger than the average, even the top achievers/ contributors favour an approach under which all are paid close to the mean. Standing out isn’t applauded.

The result is that we finish up with performance management systems where we seek to tease apart the 1 or 2% of difference in performance from the mean of the vast majority of employees. It’s almost certainly doomed to failure as most of those people want to be told that they’re amongst the 1 to 2% who are above the line, not the ones below. Further, the vast majority of the leaders are those who want to do the easier job of telling all their direct reports that they’re among that above average group (and, to be fair, haven;t really been trained or incentivized to do the harder task of frank, open and honest feedback).

here is a fascinating and detailed exploration of these key issues by McKinseys;

McKinsey – Ahead of the Curve – The Future of Performance Management

After you have read the McKinsey article you’re left with a full understanding of just how complex this issue is throughout business and how much remains to be done to find solutions that actually provide a positive contribution, let alone eliminate all the negative implications. When we move to the environment of schools and educators, i believe the issues are even more complex. For example, we’ve seen increasing trends in US and UK for part of remuneration of teachers to be lionked to student exam performance or ‘value added.’ However, these trends sit very uncomfortably with a lot of good, passionate and dedicated educators who even see them as inherently immoral – motivating short-termism, teaching to the tests and acts which are not in the best long term interests of the learners. Not only has this demotivated a lot of educators – it’s even driven some out of the profession. maybe worse, however hard you go and look, you’re hard pressed to find any positive improvements that the practice has brought.

Business people want to believe in a world where, if you can find a measure for something, you can get more of it, make systems more perfect and thereby raise standards (reducing or even striving to eliminate human imperfection). This is a hangover from industrial Taylorism and is a flat denial of the fact that, even in business, success and achievement are not all systematised and beautifully planned out in advance. Achievement is messy and inexact. it needs to flow from a combination of forward planning and intention with the ability to react and respond effectively and with skill and finesse to changes in circumstances.

As I write, i don’t believe I have the answers. Nor do i believe we will get to better answers without being prepared to challenge orthodoxy, challenge and question our own beliefs and test ourselves. What I am sure is that the best work will come from schools and workplaces where trust is in large supply, where integrity, honesty and a shared desire to fulfil vision and mission are the clues that each and every employee uses daily to determine where best to apply their efforts, their skills and their passion.

Quest To Build The Perfect Team

Google set out to conduct a vast meta-analysis of what works (and what doesn’t) to create the best teams, figuring that as more and more of people’s work involves collaboration with others, it is critical to increase the likelihood of teams being successful.

This New York Times article is fascinating for the insights in to how they went about it, and what they discovered.

New York Times – What Google Learned From Its Quest To Build The Perfect Team

As the article mentions, teams are a critical part of how modern schools work and as leaders we are always seeking more effective ways for teams to harness different people’s capabilities to enhance the overall leaning experience for students. Teams are also a vital part of how the leadership of a school ensures that all parts work effectively with each other and make effective use of resources, space and time.

I also found it fascinating to read the piece from the perspective of how we are preparing children for their future roles as team members in companies and organisations. From this perspective it was disturbing as I felt that still way too little of what’s happening is really geared to enabling students to build the critical skills necessary.

What the article identifies, very clearly, is that for people to function effectively in teams (and for those teams to be effective) empathy, sensitivity to the feelings and needs of fellow team members are critical. Children will not grow up with high levels of these skills if talked at endlessly by teachers in pursuit of standardised test scores, or playing endless hours of computer games and watching youtube videos!

Being a Maker, Not Just a Manager

An interesting perspective on managing time effectively in our busy working lives, from an employee of Google. I understand it started out as something he shared with colleagues within the company, that then in time reached a wider audience.

Fast Company - Google Email About Time Management Strategy

I'm sure that some reading this are going to perceive that their ability to apply the ideas depends on the extent to which they have control over their own time in the workplace. There's no doubt that some people, in some roles, have limited time over which they have planning flexibility. Also, some will consider that the extent of their freedom depends on the extent to which others have power and authority over their time.

However, I've sometimes challenged myself to be really blunt with myself about whether this can sometimes be an excuse. If it meant better quality work and deliverables, are we really not in a position to negotiate our control over our time?

Something to ponder on during the seasonal break.

Welcome to Project Jacquard

Something to get your imagination going.

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It’s no surprise to me that we’re seeing increasing focus on experimentation with alternative models for schools, aimed at delivering a better and more effective education to prepare young people for the Twenty First Century.

Here’s a new one from a former Google Exec – called AltSchool. Most of the alternative models have common themes; harnessing IT, greater personalisation of the learning experience, more relaxed environments, students working at their own chosen pace driven by their own objectives.

CBS News – AltSchool – The Next Generation of School?

One aspect that is sometimes emphasised in these kinds of projects is about school size (and/ or class size). However, I believe that this may prove to be a red-herring and contributes unnecessarily to stretching the costs of such education beyond the reach of many. Internationally, most research on class sizes has given very weak or ambiguous results. If we look at the US education system as a whole, as the US sought to address issues of weak relative performance on tests like PISA and TIMMS, a lot of money was pumped in to cutting class sizes (and school sizes). However, this brought little or no gain in relative performance in these international comparative tests. Then, as the economy turned down and funds became tight, so class sizes went back up, but this had little or no discernible negative impact.

Do Google ever worry that their company is getting too big to be ‘personal’ or to get the best out of all the people who form its community? I believe this is looking at the wrong issue. I believe that school size doesn’t have to be a driver/ decider about ability to personalise education. In fact, a bigger school can offer students more flexibility in terms of subject choice combinations etc., especially in higher classes. It also offers the economies of scale that facilitate costly investment in IT infrastructure, online curriculum development etc.