Jamie Notter

Consulting: Targeted projects to strengthen your culture and improve performance.

Speaking: Keynotes and concurrent sessions on social business, conflict, and generations.

Writing: Two books (Humanize and Generational Diversity) and an industry-recognized leadership blog (see below).

The Problem with Smart People

comedydramaWhat do you do with that person in your organization who is incredibly smart, incredibly knowledgeable, and incredibly good at their job–but also has very negative behaviors like bullying others, constantly criticizing, hoarding information…(fill in the blank)? Most of us end up tolerating the bad behaviors. We try to coach them on it. We bring it up in performance reviews (but not too harshly; what would happen if they got mad and quit?!). We frequently create alternate structures and processes to do end runs around this problem person. This all takes time and energy, but we convince ourselves that it is worth it because of their expertise, skills, etc.

But I’m sure you think to yourself every now and then (or perhaps daily), is all that really worth it? If you have to ask yourself that question, then I think you need to do some more work on clarifying your culture.

Everyone has both positive and negative behaviors in their repertoire, and everyone needs some coaching and feedback to improve. I’m even okay with being flexible around processes to play to people’s strengths. I don’t expect everyone to have the same level of skill in all areas. But some “negative” behaviors are more important than others, and the way you rank them depends on your culture, which, in turn, is based on what drives success for the enterprise.

So you have to be honest: if that smart person hoards information, how important is information sharing to your culture? How much does the free flow of information actually drive your success? If it’s truly critical, then you need to fire that smart person who hoards information. Period. Find another smart person who’s willing to share information freely. But you have to do the hard work of clarifying what is important and why. You can’t just pick a list of nice-sounding values (including sharing information). You have to take a stand on what is most important and why. Then you can hold people accountable to it. Then you will know if it is worth putting up with “negative” behaviors in order to get access to the smarts.

The “Right” Organizational Structure

structureThere is none. Sorry to disappoint you, but I think it’s time we admitted the truth here. There is no “correct” organizational structure. Deep down, we crave that right answer, that perfect solution to the problem of structure. Should marketing people report to a marketing department, or to a business unit manager? And what about these new software companies that seem to be abandoning structure altogether and have everyone working in one, noisy room. Would that really work at my organization?

Maybe, but maybe not. Or, to put on my consultant hat: it depends. There just isn’t a “right” answer. I’ve seen organizations succeed in a fairly strictly centralized approach, and I’ve seen them succeed in a decentralized one. Even though I believe that most organizations would benefit from embracing decentralization, I don’t think that means there is only one correct structure solution.

It starts with culture. Your culture should be tied directly to what drives the success of your enterprise, and your structure should flow directly from your culture. How you organize people and their work should be reinforcing behaviors that you’ve already identified as critical to your success (i.e., what is valued in your culture). And that’s not static. What is valued will evolve over time with the growth of the company, so I think we should expect both our culture and our structures to evolve over time as well.

If you’re struggling with a structure problem, then just pick one and run with it, and be willing to change it if it’s not working. Give up on finding that one right answer, and start actually creating solutions that work.

Generations Are Part of a System

generationsEvery 20 years or so, we get all flustered as a new generation enters the workforce. A few years ago (and continuing today) that was the Millennials, and back in the late 80s and early 90s it was Generation X. When that happens, the topic of generational differences comes up to the foreground and we study this odd, new generation. When we think we know them well enough, the topic fades a bit, and obviously it will come back when the next generation hits us in a few years. We file our knowledge about that generation in our memory banks and get ready for the new one.

The problem with this approach is that each time a new generation enters the workforce, the previous generations are now in a different life stage. Gen X isn’t the same today as it was in the early 90s. We’re older and typically in positions of more responsibility in our organizations. We’re still Gen X, mind you, but we play out those basic values and characteristics in different ways. So do the Boomers. And so will the Millennials when they hit 40 and start cursing out these new, young, whippersnappers (whatever they will be called) who are entering the workforce and changing things! So it’s never enough, really, just to learn about the new generation that one time when they are in their 20s entering the workforce. You need to keep your eye on the whole system and understand how the generations are relating to each other as they move through different life stages. This is the only way you will be able to leverage generational diversity to your advantage.

Bottom-Line Growth Isn’t Enough (Friday Quote)

growthThe third of the four human elements we discuss in Humanize is “Generative.” This has always been the one people are initially least clear about, as generative is not a commonly used word (in any context, let alone the business context). The short definition of generative is the capacity to produce or create. In our context, we were expanding the definition to make that capacity sustainable, like a species being able to propagate and thrive. And then, inspired by social media, we also added in the element of being able to achieve that sustainable capacity to create by embracing constant change. Being generative as an organization requires an ability to grow and change and evolve in ways that are connected to (and involve, really) the rest of the system in the process. It’s not just about YOU creating and changing, it’s about you and the system doing that together. As we say in Humanize (p. 189), this requires a different view of “growth”:

Growth can no longer be only about growth in our individual bottom lines. If you view your organization as completely independent from the rest of the system, then an exclusive focus on bottom line growth is fine. That one graph looks great, all by itself, with the line trending up. But human organizations understand systems better than that, and they know that their growth is not independent from the growth and development of others in the system, from employees to consumers, to whole communities, and even to competitors. Securing growth for yourself at the expense of others in the system is frequently not sustainable. Generative organizations recognize this.

Let People Be Themselves

authenticI spoke to a CEO this week who intentionally focuses the culture of his small organization around authenticity. He said people shouldn’t have to be a different person at work compared to how they are at home, or when engaged in their hobbies. And he backs that up. He has a mostly open office plan, but there are some cubes with high walls, and one staff person has an office–not because they are the boss, but because they do better work in an enclosed space. True, he’s got a small staff, so he has some flexibility on this, but I’ve seen plenty of small organizations that would claim that this kind of differential treatment won’t work. It’s too hard. People will be resentful.

It can work, and it does work. And it requires a real commitment to authenticity, not just lip service. That can be scary. Letting people be themselves means there might be some times where they will behave in a way that is different than what you (the boss) want. It can be less predictable. It can require more relationship navigating. We’re not used to doing that at work (in most organizations, anyway), so there is a cost to this approach.

This boss finds that the benefits outweigh the costs. The benefits of having people that work really hard because they love their job so much. The benefits of people who have real ownership and get things done without waiting for permission. That kind of engagement is fueled by people who are given the freedom to truly be themselves.

It’s not ONLY about authenticity, mind you. You don’t unlock the true potential of people in your organization simply by flipping one switch. But it definitely requires flipping some different switches than the ones we’ve been relying on for the last 100 years.

Know What You’re Fighting About

fightingwolvesI’m delivering a webinar for a client tomorrow on conflict resolution, and the title above is the first of my six tips that I will be delivering. This tip wasn’t in the session originally, but I added it, realizing that sometimes we need to be reminded of the basics. When we’re in conflict, we tend to argue about proposed solutions. I want the window open in our shared office, and you want it closed. We can both argue til we’re blue in the face, but I doubt one will convince the other, and, of course, in this case there is no suitable compromise. The window is either open or closed. While this would be considered a fairly minor conflict, it does seem intractable.

But the important question in many conflict situations is, Why? Why do you want the window closed, and why do I want the window open? Asking these questions helps you to understand the interests behind the positions that we each hold. While our positions are certainly in direct conflict (open v. closed), our interests may not be. Perhaps you want the window closed because you don’t like the draft, and I want it open because I think the office is too stuffy and I like the fresh air. If we focus on solving the problem at the interest level (rather than the intractable positions), we might discover that there is a window we can open in an adjacent office that allows fresh air in without a draft.

It’s the classic “win-win” scenario.

It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often we fail to ask those questions and dig into the interests. And this can be used in more complex conflicts too. It was critical in some breakthroughs during the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. The source to learn more about interest-based negotiation is the classic from Roger Fisher and Bill Ury: Getting to Yes. And don’t forget, I have a free white paper on Making Conflict Work in your organization.

Focus on Decisions

crossroadsElizabeth Engel, Leslie White, and I put out a White Paper last week on risk, strategy, and implementation. Although not in the title of the white paper, conflict is a big piece of what we write about. We need to make sure that risk analysis is adequately baked into what we do, at all levels of the organization, and as we do that, we are going to surface disagreements. If we can’t handle those disagreements, then we end up avoiding the risk conversation, and that’s definitely not a good thing.

Towards the end of the paper, we offer four quick tips on how to move through conflict conversations more effectively. One of them is to focus on making decisions:

Difficult conversations done right take time, which will probably frustrate your action-oriented team members, but this means it is critical to reach a clear decision that will generate action. As you approach the root of the conflict, there is a very real danger that people will retreat back to their conflict-averse behavior, leaving the whole conversation open-ended. Be disciplined enough not to let this happen. Push through to decisions and be clear about actions and follow up. Don’t rush through the conflict, but don’t let the conversation peter out without coming to a decision, either.

Want the other three tips? Then download the PDF!! It’s free! The link takes you to the paper; you don’t even have to give us your email address.

The Two Pizza Rule

twopizzasBoth Amazon.com and Intuit have both declared publicly that their work teams should be no larger than a group that can be adequately fed with two pizzas. They do this to stay fast and nimble. I think the co-founder of Kayak was saying the same thing when he said “No innovation happens with 10 people in the room” (hat tip, Eric Lanke). Smaller teams, these leaders argue, make better decisions and they make them faster.

Turns out there’s a lot of research to back this up, as reported by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao in their new book, Scaling Up Excellence. In this LinkedIn post, Sutton gives examples from the software industry, a hospital emergency room, and the U.S. Marines that all illustrate the power of smaller teams. When teams get to be 10 people or more, the “cognitive load” becomes too much to handle. Your brain is trying to manage the web of relationships and issues, and it just can’t. Conflict grows. Efficiency stalls. The software maker Pulse started encountering problems when it’s staff went from 3 to 8 people. They ended up dividing into teams of three or four and stayed in teams of that size as they grew to 25 people. When the hospital emergency room divided their large group of 30 doctors and nurses into “pods” of six people, the average time per patient dropped from 8 hours to 5 hours (without adding staff people).

Large teams suck, as Sutton’s post declares. If you’ve got a large team, look for ways to divide it up. Or, alternatively, you can continue to plod along slowly. Let’s see how that works out for you.

Book Review: Joy, Inc.

joyincJoy, Inc.: How We Built A Workplace People Love

by Richard Sheridan

Portfolio/Penguin, 2013

This book is by Richard Sheridan, who is the CEO of Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’ve been covered by Inc., NPR and others, partly for their radical ideas of (a) having all their software programmers work together in one big room (no offices, not even cubes), and (b) actually having two programmers per one computer. Yes, they believe in collaboration so strongly that they have people write code in pairs, sharing one mouse/keyboard. And they switch their pairs on a weekly basis.

Those are certainly notable innovations, and I see why they get the attention, but there are more important messages in the book:

Learning. One of the reasons they switch their programming pairs constantly is to ensure that everyone is learning. All the time. Quickly. Yes, this means you have to update your new pair on what you were working on last week. Is that a waste of time? Not according to Sheridan, who realizes that forcing yourself to recap what’s been going on is actually a great discipline. It actually helps you see the forest from the trees. And they don’t just learn internally. They learn a TON about their customers. They go out and hang out with the end users of the software to find out what they’re like and how they operate. None of them ends up being THE expert on java or any other interface. According to Sheridan: “We believe that relying on deep expertise stifles innovation. We may need to learn a new programming language or software tool for a client’s project; our organization is built to handle this.”

Decentralization. When they are hiring, they start with a group interview of maybe 30 candidates (there are only 50 people in the whole organization). They have them do simulated work in the interview–in pairs, just like they would if they got hired. Except in the interview they have an observer (one of the current Menlo staff). That means 15 staff members are involved in the process. They are not the senior managers. They are not the supervisors. They are 15 people on the team. And they get to vote up or down the candidates, not the boss. That’s decentralization. By the way, if candidates make it past the first group interview, they are invited in to work (paid) for one day. If that day goes well, they come in for a three-week contract. If THAT goes well, then they are hired. It’s really hard to tell if someone is a good fit for your culture just by interviewing them.

Experimentation. Sheridan makes a key distinction between a culture where people “feel safe” versus one where they are focused on “being safe.” In a culture where people actually feel safe, they will run experiments, they will learn from their mistakes, they will not need to ask permission. All of this enables learning (see above). In a “being safe” culture, people only run experiments that they know are going to succeed. Just to be clear: those are not experiments. If your experiments don’t fail sometimes, then you’re not doing them right. Or, as Sheridan points out, if the rate of failure of your experiments starts to decline, then perhaps fear has gained some ground in your culture, and that needs to be addressed.

Do those three concepts sound familiar? They are 3 of the 12 principles we identify in Humanize, which is one reason Maddie and I have booked a trip to Ann Arbor in May to do a tour of Menlo and talk to some of their team members. And there’s more in the book, too. The description of their project management system (which uses mostly index cards posted on a cork-board wall) is very interesting, and I also liked how their clients are in their offices on a weekly basis, helping the work prioritize what gets worked on (I could have had a paragraph above on collaboration, another Humanize principle).

This book is a MUST READ, particularly if you are interested at all in organizational culture, but I think it’s a great resource for any leader (at any level).

Risk, Strategy, and Implementation

white paper coverDoes everyone in your organization understand risk in a similar way? Have you even talked about it? When you choose a strategy, have you considered the risks (and that includes the risk of foregoing opportunities, as well as the more obvious risks attached to your chosen course of action)? And do the people who are implementing your strategy ever consider risks?

These are questions that my colleagues Elizabeth Engel and Leslie White and I grappled with in a White Paper that we just released, titled Risk: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy to Implementation (it’s free and the link takes you directly to the PDF).  Leslie is a risk management consultant, and Elizabeth and I do a lot of work on strategy, so we’ve been playing around with the idea of how to help leadership teams work through some of these issues, and we decided to start with a White Paper that sets the stage.

And one of the key pieces for managing risk better is dealing with conflict. At the strategic level, this includes a more nuanced understanding of what it means to reach “consensus,” and at the implementation level, it simply means having your conflict conversations all the way, instead of the more common half-way approach. That means when it comes to running programs, your staff can actually weigh the risks and work through the silo-based disagreements so your strategy gets implemented. From the paper:

When your organization is ill-equipped to deal with conflict, the individual or department with the greatest internal clout tends to win. That usually means very little actually changes, since that same individual or department probably also had all the clout last year, too. The end result is that your critical strategic imperative goes nowhere.

The bottom line is that risk analysis is everyone’s job, but none of us will do that job well until we have some shared understanding of what risk even is. The sooner you start those conversations, the better.