Friday, May 29, 2009

To Be of Use, a poem by Marge Piercy.

Marge Piercy (born 1936) is an American poet, novelist, and social activist. She says, "I began writing both poetry and fiction when I was fifteen, right after my family moved into a house where I had a room of my own with a door that shut – in other words, when I had privacy for the first time." When asked about the difference between poetry and fiction, Piercy says, "Poetry comes far more directly from my life. Basically I get to exorcise my autobiographical impulses in poetry. I explore other people’s lives in my fiction. Often for me fiction embodies the choices I didn't make, the paths I didn't follow. Poems are built out of sounds and silence. Rhythm and sound values are far more important in poetry than in fiction. Images are central. Poetry to me is more organic, more passionate, more spiritual, more intense. Fiction is about time – what happens if you make one or another choice. What happens next. And then and then and then, as a result of every choice made, what happens? Fiction to me is an art of empathy and imagination. Each novel is like a small world I inhabit for a period of two or three years, and then move on to another small world. The way the I work, I learn each time about different things – areas I would never have studied for my own life."

To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Using biological, not mechanical, models of organization.

Most people are familiar with genes, the biological code-carriers in our DNA profiles. Some years ago, the biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene, coined the term “meme” to describe how humans escape the tyranny of their genetic scripts. Memes are core thought packages that copy and replicate themselves throughout society. They exist in our psycho-social world, in the realm of attitudes, beliefs and values. They travel from mind to mind through child-rearing practices, education and mass communication.

Sociologist Charles Cooley noted we become what we will be to a large extent by the feedback we get from the social system in which we live. Identity and self-esteem are greatly influenced by interactions with significant others in our lives. Our memes, as well as our genes, shape us as people. They impact organizations and institutions, create social conflict and confluence, and produce large-scale change and transformation.

In the future, we need alternative models (biological rather than mechanical) to help us understand the unusual, keep track of the erratic, time the unpredictable, and give shape to the shapeless. Complexity creates the unexpected and, beyond a critical value, it’s a destabilizing force. To cope with this, we need to develop organizations where systems of truly divergent components can work together as a whole. This can only happen in network organizations where control without centralized authority is made possible by cheap coordinating technologies.

Network systems are guided, like a shepherd driving a herd of sheep, by influencing crucial leverage points and by subverting the natural tendencies of the system so it seeks new ends. Networks can absorb the new without interruption. They don’t become overloaded or dysfunctionally complex as they grow. However, developing organic complexity takes organic time. These complex organizations are slow to start and boot up.

Companies in the future must be allowed to develop not so much by planning as by experiential learning. They must be allowed to develop through a process of spontaneous self-organization. Long-term futures will emerge from the self-organizing activities of loose, informal, destabilizing networks. Companies that survive and thrive will sustain themselves by achieving a state of creative tension on the edge of instability. Companies with ambitious strategic intent may well be outperformed by a seemingly disorganized and aimless network of enterprises teetering on the brink of collapse.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Evolution and personality.

The historical direction of evolution has been to move toward greater complexity, more richly processed information and more elaborately pursued purpose. Complexity appears to rise inexorably and to pass through a threshold every once in a while where parts are integrated into new wholes.

One way to think about evolution is as a rise in complexity, control and consciousness. Stuart Kauffman, in At Home in the Universe, points out that the range of self-organization and spontaneous order in nature may be much greater than we’d previously supposed. Kauffman contends that complexity itself triggers self-organization, or what he calls “order for free,” so that if enough molecules pass a certain threshold of complexity, they begin to self-organize into a new entity such as a living cell.

Laws of complexity generate much of the order in the natural world and it’s only then that Darwinian selection comes into play, further molding and refining. According to the late Nobel Laureate in economics, Friedrich von Hayek, “Order generated without design can far outstrip plans men consciously contrive .... Evolution leads us ahead precisely in bringing about much that we could not intend or forsee.” The chief vehicle that moves economies and civilizations forward is unplanned experimentation among billions of people who don’t know one another.

Learning from experience, in the sense of acquiring new response patterns, doesn’t alter unconscious structures, according to psychodynamic theory. But if those parts of the personality that aren’t dominated by unconscious processes are sufficiently expanded, then there is a change in the relationship of the conscious to the unconscious and hence a difference in a persons overall functioning. Research in many different institutional settings and in many parts of the world, shows that those who adhere to more extreme political positions have distinctive personality traits separating them from those who take more moderate positions in the same setting.

The formal content of a person’s political orientation - left or right, conservative or radical - may be determined mainly by education and social class, but the form or style of political expression - favoring force or persuasion, compromise or dictation, flexible in policy or rigidly dogmatic - is apparently largely determined by personality.

A person’s personality is generally formed rather early and then tends to be relatively stable for life. Although people can and do acquire new skills and knowledge triggering significantly new behavior, central tendencies such as being extraverted or introverted, for example, are likely to persist.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rain, a poem by Hone Tuwhare.

Hone Tuwhare, (1922–2008), is New Zealand’s most distinguished Maori poet writing in English, and also a playwright and author of short fiction. He spoke Maori until he was nine, and his father, an accomplished orator and storyteller in Maori, encouraged his son’s interest in the written and spoken word, especially in the rhythms and imagery of the Old Testament.
Tuwhare was named New Zealand's second Te Mata Poet Laureate in 1999. At the end of his two year term he published Piggy Back Moon (2001) which was shortlisted in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. He was among ten of New Zealand's greatest living artists named as Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artists in 2003. Also in 2003, he was awarded one of the inaugural Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement for poetry. He has won two Montana NZ Book Awards, and holds two honorary doctorates in literature.

Rain by Hone Tuwhare.

I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence

If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
and shut

And I
should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind

the something
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
the ground

the steady
drum-roll sound
you make
when the wind drops

But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see

you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Analogy learning.

When you use use analogy learning, you figure out how current situations or problems are similar to previous ones. Then you can improve planning by looking up a general plan for solving a range of similar problems, and applying some or all of the general plan to the specific problem you're facing. Recognizing patterns in the environment allows an organization to take advantage of them by means of strategy. If you can’t recognize a pattern, there’s no meaningful distinction between tactics and strategy. Organizations can gain competitive advantage by looking for the patterns that connect and inventing bridges that form new patterns not previously in effect.

Self-organizing entities learn by looking at their environment, finding underlying patterns and remembering the patterns they encounter. They then learn to recognize these patterns even when distorted or incomplete inputs are all that's available. With a big enough library of patterns acquired from direct experience, they can guess what to do with the unique, one-off patterns they encounter.

Complex adaptive systems also often have leverage points where a small perturbation can produce far-reaching results. A small vaccine injection can make a huge trillion-cell organism immune to measles. The challenge is how to find the points where a small intervention makes a big difference. To begin, look for common properties and mechanisms in various complex adaptive systems. There may be some hidden order, some common interaction pattern inherent in all these systems. One system may use building blocks from another system in new ways. For example, the internal combustion engine is composed of parts used in earlier technologies that have been recombined to lead to a whole new transportation system.

To transform organizations, you first need to understand the natural change processes that are embedded in all living systems. Once you have that understanding, you can design processes of organizational change accordingly and create human organizations that mirror life's adaptability, diversity, and creativity. Applying the systems view of life to organizational learning enables us to clarify the conditions under which learning and knowledge creation take place and to derive important guidelines for the management of today's knowledge-oriented organizations.

Transformation involves moving from one area of possibility into another area with an entirely different set of possibilities. In moving organizations forward, what’s important is the collective pattern of many simultaneous actions. This messy pattern of interdependent and interlinking events produces an exponential number of possibilities. Positive feedback leads to increasing order. Small failures get lost in the shuffle; the key is to avoid large failures. The capacity to tolerate small failures makes fertile ground for unguided learning as individual variation and imperfection leads to evolution. Some level of lack of understanding is OK - stuff happens. You don’t need to know exactly how a tomato cell works to be able to grow, eat, even improve tomatoes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Positive feedback.

As different elements in a system aggregate, they can do together what neither could do alone. In a tropical forest, trees and parasites such as Spanish moss, collectively retain nutrients in a way that neither tree nor parasite could do separately. A study of ants demonstrates that following a small number of very simple rules can lead to extremely complex behaviors. A dozen simple rules (such as if an ant finds food, it lays down a scent) followed by every ant produces an ant colony that looks intelligent as it puts out probes to exploit its environment, defends itself, and lives far longer that any single ant. Similarly, neuron cells following a few dozen simple rules can create a human brain.

There are no general rules or principles in business because living organisms (organizations) are medium-sized objects which are not governed by the simple rules of physics. Rather, they're a connected series of a large number of weak forces. When an organism stops being the interaction of a large number of weak forces and instead becomes dominated by a single force, biologists say that object is sick.

Chaos refers to the behavior of a system - like the weather - which is governed by simple physical laws but is so unpredictable as to appear random. Consider an irregularly dripping tap. As each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediction apart. Non-linear systems are governed by this kind of positive-feedback mechanism. In a linear relationship, any given cause has one and only one effect. But in a non-linear relationship, a single action can trigger a host of different effects. The interactions become so complex that the links between cause and effect disappear causing the future of non-linear feedback systems to be inherently unknowable.

A double-glazing company installed patio doors for the editor of a national newspaper. The doors didn’t fit and the company refused to remedy the defect. The editor publicized the situation in his newspaper and his article triggered hundreds of letters from other dissatisfied customers. As a result, the company’s business collapsed.

Long-term business strategy can only be planned if each business action has a limited number of predictable outcomes. Most strategies fail, not because they’re badly conceived or poorly implemented, but because in today’s world, the outcome of many actions are unpredictable. Tiny events can lead to fundamental changes. Forecasting is no longer possible when non-linear, chaotic processes govern the world and small changes produce large, unanticipated outcomes.

Unpredictability is the result of the system’s extreme sensitivity to initial conditions so tiny variations are amplified into huge consequences. Much of human life is governed by positive feedback. The actions that we take result in experiences that inform our understanding and so feed in to the choices we make.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Uncertainty and non-linear systems.

For the past 400-years, science has advanced by using linear mathematical approaches to examine smaller and smaller pieces of the world on the assumption that, when these small pieces were assembled, they would explain the whole. But the world today is filled with complex phenomena that don’t behave in a linear fashion and can’t be explained by reductionism. Adding up the parts doesn’t give a good picture of how the whole behaves anymore because the interactions between the parts are as important as the parts themselves. In the real world, rather than having simple causes and general phenomenon, “everything depends.” There's no ultimate reality. We never have all the data and we influence the data we do have by our presence. A different kind of mathematics using a nonlinear approach is needed.

Measurement supposedly makes the ”indefinite thing definite.” But according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, if you can only predict the outcomes of different kinds of measurements in terms of their probabilities, then you won’t be able to obtain at the same time all the information about an object or an issue that you might want to know. In theoretical physics, new insights into the behavior of complex systems have made it possible to begin to understand how assemblies of many interconnected objects can behave in collective ways that are by no means obvious or easily deduced from the behavior of single events in isolation. Here it helps to understand the mathematical properties of wave functions and how measurement probabilities are derived from them. This leads to the concept of “decoherence.” - (see Where Does The Weirdness End? by David Lindley, Basic Books, 1996). Today, the fundamental assumptions behind “reality” no longer hold true. In a dynamic world, there are no final solutions. The only way to grasp the general or the universal is in the particular and you can only get that from experience. Risky judgment rather than precise measurement is needed because the facts which have traditionally been the baseline for measurement no longer apply.

The bionomic view that solutions to the complex problems of the information age must be allowed to evolve from experience instead of being engineered in advance offends many managers and specialists. But self-organization is widely distributed. A system like the internet is the essence of life, innovation and progress. When the environment changes, this model thrives rather than self-destructs. Traditionally, we looked for an elegant solution that achieved a powerful result with a minimum of irrelevant complication. Today, we have to live with adaptive challenges - that is, problems without any apparent solution.

As G. K. Chesterton wrote in his essay on Orthodoxy in 1924, “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality, yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

Success in the future pivots not on information but on interpretation - the ability to make meaning out of still-emerging patterns. The truly important events are not trends, but changes in the trends.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Change and biology.

Last week, I gave a presentation on managing change to a group of local business owners. This triggered a thought that it would be instructive to explore theories of evolution and change from a biologist's point of view. After all, “We learn nothing from the things we know” according to the American composer, John Cage, and I've never formally studied the biological sciences. So let's see where this takes us......

University of Michigan business professor Karl Weick reminds us, “Adaptation precludes adaptivity.” The better we are at something, the harder it is to adjust when circumstances change. Firemen are most likely to be killed or injured in their 10th year on the job. By then, they think they’ve seen everything there is to see about fires so they become less open to new information. All organisms act to defeat natural selection, to escape from evolution.

When natural selection is continuous, evolution begins only when individuals in a population can't adjust to environmental stresses with their existing abilities. Mutations whose effect can be overridden by the normal abilities of individual organisms spread randomly and eventually become part of the genetic load of the species. We expect genetic change to be rare and when it does occur, it’s proof of incompetence, of extinction barely avoided. Successful life forms don’t evolve noticeably because they’re competent in dealing with environmental change. To be a “living fossil” is the hallmark of biological success.

The problem with Darwinian evolution, where death eliminates the ineffective, is that change takes evolutionary time, often millions of years. The theory of “punctuated equilibria” popularized by Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, suggests that instead of changing gradually, species remain unaltered for long periods of time and then evolve very rapidly. Speed is the revolution in evolution. Evolution can be speeded up significantly when we add the capability to learn.

Many companies today are being overrun by a fast moving forest fire. Leading-edge companies experience dramatic transformational changes that make them obsolete almost overnight. They think they have their world under control, but it suddenly explodes and they have to go into a totally different mode to cope with it. In this kind of world, linear models of cause and effect don't work any more. Tomorrow, I'll examine the alternative - using non-linear systems.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Six key design insights.

Here are six key insights about designing high performing teams that I’ve learned through my professional practice:

- The basic assumptions underlying the team’s design choices determine the behaviors, activities and relationships of people who end up working there. Traditional assumptions produce traditional performance and traditional problems. You can only generate different behaviors and better outcomes if you think differently and use other models and design processes.

- Design begins with a clear vision about “what you want your teams to be when they grow up.” In a fast changing world, vision determines direction, not destination. The race to the future will belong to the swift and the adaptable, so design choices must embrace agility and flexibility. As Santayana observed, “No specific hope about distant issues is ever likely to be realized. The ground shifts, the will of mankind deviates, and what the father dreamt of, the children neither fulfill or desire.”

- The design of high performing teams isn’t so much a process of invention as an ongoing process of discovery and collaboration. Good design draws the most advantageous use from all available resources and is always conscious and comprehensive. It’s built on knowledge and insights about all relevant internal and external patterns and relationships. It involves not so much looking for ”the answer,” but selecting the most sensible alternative for a given time and place, with the certain knowledge that when the current contexts change, another answer will probably be more appropriate.

- The process of designing high performing teams involves making choices, allocating roles and responsibilities, specifying task assignments and job content, and defining the relationships between them. Without a disciplined way to do this, managers base their decisions on little more than opinions, past experiences, personal biases, desires for personal power, and untested assumptions. These are a poor replacement for a proven process of open investigation using validated data.

- Searching for a “silver bullet” that will painlessly resolve all existing difficulties is a distraction rather than a step in the right direction. Adopting other people’s solutions won’t work either unless you understand exactly how they’ll help you address and avoid the real causes of your problems.

- Design considerations should always bear in mind that people support what they help create.

Since many aspects of the world we live in today change at lighting speed, successful companies need to be able to change quickly as well. Survival in an uncertain world calls for discarding organizational structure as an end in itself. There’s no right way to organize any more, no final end-point to structure. What matters is the capacity to recognize, adapt to, and sometimes take the lead in inventing continuous change.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Ten Commandments of High Performing Teams.

1. Thou shall understand the nature of teams, their strengths, weaknesses, processes and structures.

2. Thou shall not wander in the desert for 40-years without knowing where the team is going; thou shall develop performance goals, and team operating rules and stay focused on them.

3. Thou shall communicate openly and have no hidden agendas.

4. Thou shall be patient, but thou better do something that quickly delivers meaningful results.

5. Keep thy meetings meaningful; make sure people have a reason to show up.

6. Let thy meetings be fruitful and multiply, but use sub-committees when appropriate.

7. Thou shall make sure all members share a common sense of accountability and responsibility for achieving the desired outcomes.

8. Thou shall strive to know each other and understand each other's point of view.

9. Thou shall know thyself and periodically ask other team members, "How am I doing?"

10. Thou shall love thy team with all thy heart, since commitment is the most critical element in a successful team. Forget the first nine commandments if the members’ commitment is missing.

High performing teams have been shown to produce much higher levels of quality, productivity, innovation and creativity while at the same time lowering costs, reducing levels of supervision, and encouraging flexibility.

However, perhaps the most important thing teams can do is attract and retain quality employees. Once a real sense of teamwork is in place, people will fight to work for the company because it capitalizes on a fundamental human need to be a part of something larger than themselves. This is why families, tribes and communities are so important to us. We can draw on that need in a work setting as well, thus providing great benefit to ourselves and to the company.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How employee involvement creates successful mergers.

One of the key concepts behind high-performing teams is employee involvement. Therefore when merging with or taking over other companies, don’t move to immediately eliminate duplicate departments and positions. Instead, set up cross-company teams to decide who has the best skill-sets and which company has the best processes. It may take more time and cost more, but it results in better outcomes. In a variation of this approach, some merging companies developed a survey program to uncover industry ‘best practices’ as perceived by the combined customer base of the two companies. The survey, which was very qualitative in nature, gave respondents lots of freedom to say what they liked about each company and where they felt there were opportunities for improvement. These findings were then used by integrated implementation teams to introduce changes into both organizations.

When ATTCC management bought the company from AT&T, it couldn’t share much information with employees while the deal was being finalized. So employees were given an 800 number to call where they could review all the information that could be shared with them. This information was updated weekly and additional news was immediately advertised and broadcast in meetings, on bulletin boards and in memos. As the divestiture process took longer than expected, the 800 line featured ATTCC’s CEO talking about the change, explaining what he was personally experiencing and how he and his family were dealing with it.

Newcourt Credit Group subsequently acquired ATTCC, bringing the combined assets under management to $21 billion. Immediately, an integration office with six senior management members was established to lead and manage the work of 12 dedicated integration task forces comprised of more than 60 individuals selected from among the employees of both companies. An executive vice president with extensive previous experience in mergers, acquisitions, divestitures and reorganizations, was in charge of the integration process. The full integration of the two companies was accomplished over the following 18-months.

On a local note, the San Diego Union Tribune has just been acquired by Platinum Equity, which subsequently announced it will lay off 192 of its new employees. If you were planning to buy a troubled organization, particularly an information company, whose greatest asset was its trained and experienced workforce, would you:

1) Take possession, put some of your own people at the top, assess the situation first-hand, then meet your layoff goals? Or,

2) Leave the reduction in force to the current company management that got the paper into the very mess that allowed you to come in and buy it?

Platinum chose #2, which suggests that it's more interested in the Tribune's real estate holdings than the newspaper itself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Using teams to expand the business.

Continuing last week's story, AT&T Capital Corporation (ATTCC) expanded aggressively through mergers and acquisitions so that six years after introducing high performing teams, it had grown to include eleven strategic business units managing combined assets of nearly $7B. With its early acquisitions, ATTCC left the companies it bought virtually unchanged. Managers in the newly merged companies attended a roadshow that explained how the acquisition fitted into AT&T’s business strategy and how ATTCC’s high-involvement high-performance team culture contributed to its spectacular success. However, there was no direct order telling them to manage their businesses differently.

As a result, nothing much changed after the companies were acquired. As cultural differences festered over time, the situation gradually became more and more difficult to deal with. It was finally resolved several years later by changing the leaders in many of the businesses when ATTCC finally acknowledged that these managers would never voluntarily adopt the high-involvement team-based way of operating that ATTCC valued.

In its later acquisitions, ATTCC learned to be more directive. Once an acquisition was made, it was very clear in stating, “Here’s what we think the future state of this company should look like and here’s the change timetable we expect you to follow. We acquired you because we believe you have great possibilities. Here’s how we plan to explore these possibilities and this is the framework we’re going to use. We assure you we’ll keep and honor the good things you’ve done in the past and we’ll involve you in the process of working through any changes that are judged necessary in the future.”

ATTCC knew from previous experience that employees often feel that, “Everything that we did that made us good is going to be taken away from us and we won’t be given enough time to demonstrate our strengths in the new relationship.” To deal with this, ATTCC set up transition and integration teams immediately after acquisitions were completed. These teams included representatives from both organizations and began by announcing a list of the issues they planned to work through together.

Typically, these issues involved the physical consolidation of facilities, the integration of information systems, reconciling differences in policies, practices and standards, agreeing on common financial reporting formats, establishing equity in pay and benefit plans, agreeing on common job classifications, criteria and titles, dealing with uncertainty about careers and identifying positions to be eliminated.

Friday, May 8, 2009

At the Seminar, a poem by Dennis O’Driscoll.

Dennis O’Driscoll was born in Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1954. He has written eight books of poetry. His awards include a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the 2005 E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2006 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies in Minnesota. A member of Aosdána, the Irish Academy of Artists, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, he works for Irish Customs and has worked as a civil servant since the age of 16.

In a recent interview, O'Driscoll said, "Having spent over thirty years in busy full-time jobs, I have more recently - thanks to the generosity and encouragement of the Lannan Foundation - been experiencing the luxury of a part-time working routine; achieving at last the perfect balance between life and art, between my Customs desk with its reams of laws, tariffs, regulations and instructions and my poetry desk where the pages are blank, instructions are irrelevant and every new poem is a law unto itself."

At the Seminar by Dennis O’Driscoll

An electronic blip from house-martins as they pass
an open window at the conference centre; frantic birds,
on errands of mercy, transporting relief supplies to tricorn beaks.
We sneak a glance at our mobiles for text messages.

Crawling across the hotel lawn, sun puts mist in the shade:
a transparent morning now, our vision unhindered for miles.
A golfing party, armed with a quiver of clubs, aims
for the bull's-eye of the first hole; others, near a pool
blue as our EU flag with its water sparkle of stars, dry off:
shrink-wrapped in towels, they sink back into resort chairs.

For serious objective reasons, we are informed, our keynote
speaker is delayed; the Chairman's interpreted words
are relayed simultaneously through headphones:
In order to proceed to a profitable guidance for our work
which will be carried out with a feature of continuity and priority . . .

I see the lake basking in its own reflected glory, self-absorbed,
imagine turquoise dragonflies, wings wide as wedding hats,
fish with scarlet fins, water-walking insects.

I intervene. I associate myself with the previous speaker's views.
Discussions go on in all our languages at once, as we unscrew
still mineral water, bottled at some local beauty spot.
Certain administrations suffered cuts as they weren't entrusted
with new attributions likely to fill in the logistical gap
resulting from the inference of the frontierless economic area . .

In two hours (less, if – with luck – that stupid clock has stopped)
our final workshops will convene in the break-out rooms.
Then it will be time to draw conclusions at the plenary,
to score evaluation forms, return to our respective floors
to dress down for the bus tour of the Old Town.

Now the rapporteurs start synopsizing
the workshop findings on felt-tip flip-charts.
The Chairman is summing up: New challenges
overlook the world scenery in our global stance . . .

Lily pads strut across the lake like stepping stones;
fish risk an upward plunge; martins – plucking
sustenance from thick air – lunge at their mud nests.
Hold the world right there. Don't move a single thing.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

High-performing teams in action.

Here's an example of what can happen when you remove the impediments that get in the way of high-performing teams.

AT&T Credit Corporation (ATTCC) was established to provide finance and leasing services to AT&T’s customers and others acquiring telecommunications products. The company was organized into two divisions: the General Markets Division (GMD) which handled high volume, small ticket business, and the Business Markets Division (BMD) which took care of small volume, middle-to-large ticket items. Both divisions were organized according to traditional work design principles, emphasizing top-down hierarchical control, functional separation and a high degree of task specialization. Credit approval, funding and collection functions for the GMD were sub-contracted to an outside vendor.

It soon became apparent that smaller customers weren't getting the personal service and flexible financing alternatives they wanted from the GMD. ATTCC didn't "own" their customers' accounts because the subcontractor's leasing processes weren't traceable by AT&T staff. ATTCC's management felt the subcontractor's operations were inefficiently run and unnecessarily costly as a result. Customers lacked a single point of contact for leasing and customer service. Employees had no sense of how their efforts contributed to satisfying customers since work was divided into small, separate tasks and processing groups were functionally organized.

Some managers were familiar with a work reorganization initiative undertaken by AT&T's American Transtech when it moved its operations from New York to Florida. Impressed by the dramatic improvements in service and productivity that resulted from Transtech's high performing team-based work design, ATTCC decided to pursue a similar approach.

ATTCC started by taking back the high volume GMD business, hiring their own employees and operating it themselves. They set out to give the employees ownership and accountability for costs and customers throughout the entire leasing process. While the BMD continued to operate traditionally, the GMD was set up to operate in eleven self-managing teams, each accountable for a specific geographic assignment. Area Sales Managers were also assigned to corresponding regions. Sales agents and processing teams worked together to establish a personal relationship with their customers. Each team took care of all four aspects of the business; credit evaluation, funding, customer service and collection, all of which had previously been managed separately. The new arrangements eliminated the shuffling of calls between different departments and encouraged team members to take responsibility for solving any and all of their customerís problems. Thus, a culture developed that, "Whoever gets the call, owns the problem."

In two years, it was clear that the new GMD organization was a success. Teams were processing 800 applications a day, up from 400 when they started. Instead of taking several days to approve credit, the teams did it in one day. Teams scheduled their own time off, reassigned work when people were absent and interviewed prospective new employees. Team members could now relate their own success and their team's success with ATTCC's success. Employees who previously had individual, parochial goals shifted their thinking to supporting broader team goals. Sales representatives were no longer just interested in "doing deals." They now had a greater incentive to write "good deals," which fully satisfied the requirements of the team members who made credit approvals. This resulted in lower delinquency rates and fewer write-offs. As a result, ATTCC's business grew at a compounded annual rate of fifty percent a year.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Removing impediments to better teamwork.

In many organizations, processes are handed from one department to another across the company like a relay race. R&D starts and passes the baton on to Manufacturing, who in turn pass it on Marketing and so on. This baton passing is seen as an efficient way to move a process forward across a siloed organization. However, linear processes that are designed this way act to foster separateness and competition and cut off opportunities for employee cooperation and collaboration, which is key for high performance and innovation.

Tivo, which is known for its innovative products, brings product managers, marketers, designers, engineers and user advocates together to work closely on projects. It finds ways to bring teams together to collaborate on specific projects rather than simply checking and reviewing each other's work. Coordinated processes are more efficient — collaborative processes are more innovative.

I see two different kinds of team development initiatives. One tries to improve teamwork between employees within existing organizational boundaries. These kind of initiatives emphasize training to improve interpersonal interactions, such as listening, open communication, positive feedback, conflict resolution and good meeting skills. It's assumed that the firm's current structures and policies are OK as is. You'll certainly get some bang for the buck by teaching people to interact more effectively together. However, many of the barriers to true cooperation come from how work is currently set up and rewarded in the first place.

For example, employee evaluation systems that focus only on individual performance and tie pay and rewards to this foster competition rather than collaboration. Why should I take the time to work with you if in the process I lessen my own "star" status? Sales people are often rewarded this way - the person with the most sales gets a vacation in some lovely place they wouldn't normally go to. As a result, they're unwilling to share what they know about customers and sales processes with their colleagues in case one of them might win the prize instead. This continues even though research has convincingly shown that overall sales would increase significantly if everyone shared what they know rather than keeping it to themselves.

Similarly, physical boundaries, time boundaries and task boundaries interrupt work process so people end up with tasks that have no clearly measurable output. As a result, they can't be held accountable or receive meaningful feedback about how well they're doing. And this encourages people to spend their energy in finger-pointing and pass-the-blame tactics instead of trying to improve how they work together.

When I write about building high-performing teams, I mean team building initiatives that change structural processes and impediments as well as teaching people to interact together more effectively. This is where significant performance improvement of 5X to 10X or more can be achieved.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Building high-performing cultures.

Every company has a culture. The key to building high-performing cultures is to get all employees aligned and focused, with clarity and agreement about the "what" and the "how" needed to get the company where it needs to go, in spec and on time. The following are some of the bases that need to be covered to make sure this happens.

Clearly define what winning looks like:
- Management must model the behaviors they want to see practiced.
- Involve employees in defining the operating principles that will lead to success.
- Define what winning looks like from a variety of perspectives (sales, finance, operations, R&D, etc).

Measure what matters and what employees can relate to regularly, on a monthly basis:
- Involve them in setting up and tracking these measures.
- For example, how well customer leads, orders, returns and inquiries are handled.
- The appropriatness of collaboration or individual effort in getting work done.
- Success in meeting employee and customer retention targets.

Develop an ownership mentality and encourage intelligent risk-taking:
- Make sure everyone knows where the company aims to go.
- Educate employees about acceptable behaviors and boundaries.
- Give them freedom to make decisions and to take action on their own initiative.
- Use mistakes as learning opportunities.

Involve employees in watching the external environment:
- Build deep relationships with suppliers and customers.
- Learn their perceptions of what's going on in the marketplace.
- Keep tabs on competitors and developments in your industry.
- Look at what actions other industries are taking.

Be sure all employees are properly set up for success:
- Ensure they have the tools and information they need.
- Provide them with timely training, coaching and feedback.
- Share ideas together and encourage open candid discussions.
- Practice accountability and positive feedback in order to build trust.

The majority of employees want to be part of a compelling future, want to know what's most important at work and what excellence looks like. Creating a high-performing culture fosters loyalty from customers, partners and employees, and creates advocates who promote the company positively to others.

Monday, May 4, 2009

High-performing teams.

High-performing teams are teams which produce exceptional performance and are also deeply meaningful to the participants. While examples have been around for decades, the conventional wisdom still remains that:

• High-performing teams are mysterious - we don't know how they emerge. They're like falling in love - they happen unpredictably, by "luck" or "accident" or "chemistry" or when "lightning strikes."

• High-performing teams aren't really such a big deal, because although high-performance teams are better than good teams, they're not a whole lot better. They are not a game-changer.

Steve Denning has a new book coming out in 2010 that refutes these beliefs. Some of the principal findings of Denning's research are:

• High-performing teams aren't rare: in fact, they're quite common nowadays.

• These aren't teams of extraordinary people: they're usually ordinary people who've found ways to act in an extraordinary manner.

• Hundreds if not thousands of companies have already created high-performing teams in very large numbers.

• High-performing teams usually don't die of natural causes: they die because they're killed by management.

• High-performing teams are geographically distributable and scalable, so that large projects and even whole organizations can be being run on this basis.

• The improvement in performance that comes from using high-performing teams is dramatic. These are significant differences in scale: they're many-times more productive than traditional ways of organizing work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Words, Wide Night, a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Poet, playwright and freelance writer Carol Ann Duffy was born in December 1955 in Glasgow and studied philosophy at Liverpool University. Today, she was named Britain's poet laureate - the first woman to hold a post that has been filled by William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ted Hughes, among others. A witty and popular writer whose work is widely taught in British schools, Duffy is also the first openly gay laureate. She said she'd thought "long and hard" before accepting the job, which now has a 10-year term. She said she'd given the final decision to her 13-year-old daughter who said, "Yes mummy, there's never been a woman."

Britain's first official poet laureate was John Dryden, appointed in 1668, although the tradition is centuries older than that. Until 1999, laureates were appointed for life. The laureate traditionally receives a "butt of sack" - about 600 bottles of sherry, donated by the Sherry Institute of Spain.

Duffy has received an Eric Gregory Award in 1984 and a Cholmondeley Award in 1992 from the Society of Authors, the Dylan Thomas Award from the Poetry Society in 1989 and a Lannan Literary Award from the Lannan Foundation (USA) in 1995. She was awarded an OBE in 1995, a CBE in 2001 and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. She currently lives in Manchester.

Words, Wide Night by Carol Ann Duffy

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I'm singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine the dark hills I would have to cross to reach you. For I am in love with you

and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.