Tuesday, March 23, 2010

importance of deep conversations

A few days back I wrote about leading by talking. The main idea in that blog was to engage with broad number of participants to understand the actual situation of the organization. Most of the time organizations seem to fail after they start thinking that they have figured out how to do stuff. The world is always changing so the belief that we have figured it out, is a sure way to fail.


The book One Strategy: Organization, Planning, and Decision Making by Steven Sinofsky and Marco Iansiti talks about how 2 strategies (explicit strategy by top management and execution strategy by those who are involved in execution should be same and to make it happen there should be communication top down, bottom up, and middle out.


One of the authors Steven Sinofsky who has implemented this strategy in Microsoft during the development of Windows 7 used his blog to communicate with his team. To read more about the book, see HBS Working Knowledge article: One Strategy: Aligning Planning and Execution by Sean Silverthorne.




Thursday, March 11, 2010

leading by talking

Whenever I came across the term leadership, I used to think that I understand what leadership means. But I could never articulate to me or to others what it really meant. What I understood by the word leader was someone who could convince others to follow him / her. And I also thought that it mostly applies to a leader who is political.


Then I started reading leaders and leadership in context of business, and thought that it mostly means someone who is boss of other people. So after a long confusion I decided to find the correct answer. IT was not easy, because it seems that leadership means different things to different people. For a few people leadership means taking initiative. For others it just means ability to boss around others. Stephen R. Covey in his book the eighth habit says leadership is the ability to help people to achieve their potential.


My next stop was Harvard Business review articles. I found that John P. Kotter, in his HBR article "What Leaders Really Do" puts it better. He says “the function of leadership is to produce change” And to achieve these changes, leaders have to find the direction of change, align people to work in that direction, and motivate those people to overcome obstacles. This definition seems broader than Stephen Covey’s definition, as the change could be either in people or in some situation.


Well, that leads us to an important question. How should one do these things? I.e. how to find the direction, align people, and motivate people? Often it happens by accident. Some big event convinces us that we need to do something to make a situation better, and that gives us our direction. Still most of us find it hard to align people and motivate others to work in that direction. But in a situation in which we are responsible to find a direction, the Serendipity method does not work.


The answer seems to be dialog. Dialog with the outside world, dialog with the people who are working with us in a particular direction. So if we talk to the world we get a better idea about the direction. And if we talk to the people who are working with us we may be able to find out what makes them tick and what are their apprehensions. What excites someone gives us an idea about how to align their passions with the chosen direction. And sometime we may also realize that the alignment is not possible at all. Knowing about someone’s apprehensions gives us early understanding about what could go wrong in a particular scenario. Our brain is very powerful. It can do pattern matching without taking notes. So if we keep the dialog open, we can sense intuitively what we should do in a given situation.


Given the above understanding, I find it amusing that many leaders in organizations don’t talk to their subordinates as much as they should do. Often people just communicate superficially, talking about the project in review meetings, or just talking formally about job issues. Unless people can talk to their leaders frankly (without worrying about impressions), leaders can never get true picture. Often leaders pretend to be busy. And don’t show up. And even if they show up, they just do it for the sake of formality.


My view is that in such an environment, sycophancy develops. Because the leaders might be talking to only those subordinates with whom they are comfortable, and those subordinates may just be behaving in order to please the leader, leaders end up alienating others. Many of us can readily find incidences in which the entire team seems to know that someone is good with his / her boss, but not so good with others, and the seniors seem to be oblivious about such traits.


Informal conversation with the broader population is the key for leaders to develop better understanding about the world and about their organization. In the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck, most of the discussion is around how to create more and more dialog among the employees. The book describes how dialog is institutionalized in GE, Honeywell and EDS. The central theme is dialog at various levels of the organization.


So leader’s main job is talking or making talking possible for others, and if the leader is working on other things, then leader’s job is being ignored.



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

technical experts as managers?

Management literature discusses incidences about wrong promotions that result from appointing a technical expert to managerial position. There are certainly some problems in such promotions, but there are some positive sides as well. My objective is to bring out the similarities between technical and managerial processes.


I should first point out that technical covers a broad range of professions. Some of the examples of technical  professions are: accountents, trainers, software developers, lawyers, writers, analysts, business developers, directors, so on and so forth.


One very important issue in technical vs management is that someone who has spent years in developing technical skills leaves that field and starts in a new profession. It takes time and effort to develop skills, which is an investment for the organization and the person. Because once someone moves to managerial position from technical position, he / she rarely comes back. So  organizations as a whole lose because they lose a good technical person and get an untrained manager.


Another point is that the skills required to achieve managerial results are often different from the skills required to achieve technical result. A technical person succeeds by specializing more and more in a given area, where as a manager has to have a broad perspective.


But I believe that we are missing a very important point. A technical person is not often very different from manager. For example, software development requires an engineer to learn what is called software development life cycle. In software development life cycle, one must analyze the requirements, develop designs, then create implementation and at the end test the implementation. IN management one must plan (analyze and design), organize and direct (implementation), monitor and control (testing)


Above software development life cycle is also known as waterfall model, as there is no feedback loop. Hardly any organization would be using such a method, because problems are complex and understanding them at once is very difficult. so there is another method, which is a slight variation of the waterfall model. Instead of doing the entire life cycle at one go, it is done incrementally. So in the first round we start with the prototype and apply the life cycle On it. Then in each consecutive rounds feedback from the previous round is taken and new features can be added. This way if there is any change in our understanding about the problem, we can change the path and be flexible.


The same method can also be applied in management. Apply the management process incrementally, and it should not be very difficult to manage large and complex projects.


Of course there is big difference in working on your own and getting the work done with people. so technical specialist must be evaluated for communication and interpersonal skills before they are considered for promotions. At the end, I would agree with the statement that just because someone excels in technical role, he / she should not be promoted to a managerial position. there must be separate career ladder for technical people.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Disability: an opportunity to develop leadership skills

A couple of days back, I read an Article in Harvard Business Review “Crucibles of Leadership” by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas. I had read this article around 7 years back as well, but As it often happens that reading something second or third time leads to different understanding than the first reading, it happened this time as well.

When I had read this article the first time, I concluded slightly incorrectly that to be a good leader one must go through adverse situations in life. At that time I had faced almost heart wrenching situations. I had a dream to be a software developer in Microsoft. I tried hard and with the Help of one friend I got an opportunity to work as an intern. I thought that being an intern was just the first step to get a full job, but later I realized that I am not going to get a permanent job. It wrecked me internally though I remained somewhat ok from the outside. Now I understand that the reason that I got so much upset was that I had defined my worth by being part of a big label. Only after a couple of years later I realized that label doesn’t matter, the quality of work and how much we learn in our work matters. But at that time, it was a big blow to my ego. Second incidence was a real heart break. I started liking a girl, but she did not feel the way I felt for her. I would not go in details about it, but it is sufficient to say that it was an equally hurtful event.

Around that time I had read this article and I concluded that I have 2 Crucibles, so I am a good candidate to become a leader. But after 7 years and some mind opening events, comes a twist in the situation. What this article really says that the way one deals with adverse situations is an indicator of how good the leader he or she could become. It is clear from the following excerpt from the article.

Our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”

The same point is also explained by John P. Kotter, in his HBR article "What Leaders Really Do"

Individuals who are effective in large leadership roles often share a number of career experiences.

Perhaps the most typical and most important is significant challenge early in a career. Leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both triumphs and failures. Such learning seems essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change.

Later in their careers, something equally important happens that has to do with broadening. People who provide effective leadership in important jobs always have a chance, before they get into those jobs, to grow beyond the narrow base that characterizes most managerial careers. This is usually the result of lateral career moves or of early promotions to unusually broad job assignments. Sometimes other vehicles help, like special task-force assignments or a lengthy general management course. Whatever the case, the breadth of knowledge developed in this way seems to be helpful in all aspects of leadership. So does the network of relationships that is often acquired both inside and outside the company. When enough people get opportunities like this, the relationships that are built also help create the strong informal networks needed to support multiple leadership initiatives.

Then I thought oh my god, I have missed an opportunity to deal properly with adverse situations. But then in a flash, I got another very powerful idea. What if anyone who is disabled gets to learn this concept and takes disability as an opportunity to develop leadership skills?

It could be useful equally for those who are dealing with disability for a long time and still find it difficult to accept and for those who are new to the shock.