Raising the average (2)

The basic principle is that when you’re recruiting, you should be seeking to raise the average of your team, bringing in people who increase the level of energy, skill, and possibilities available – and who raise the bar in terms of commitment to your aims and values.

This is a helpful rule of thumb, but there are two problems with it:

  1. The more successful you are at raising your average, the harder it’s going to be to keep doing it.
  2. As you get better at what you do and grow as a team, it’s also going to get harder to find people who raise the average in what are presumably key areas.

So it’s inevitable that you’re going to lower some averages, some of the time, if you want your team to grow. It’s doubly inevitable if you’re seeking to build an organisation that increases the average, both internally (as individuals learn and grow and as the team works better together) and in the workforce (as people move on and take what they’ve learned to make a contribution elsewhere).

I think the answer is to make sure that you’re clear about which averages are non-negotiable, and which of the others are most important at a given time:

  • Values and integrity
  • Enthusiasm / energy
  • Commitment to your vision
  • Maturity – consideration and care for others
  • Skill in a key area. This could be something you deliver, like training or a technical service you provide for your clients – or a support function like accounting or managing infrastructure.
  • Readiness (and ability) to learn and grow

It’s worth being clear first about the non-negotiables of values and attitude (that is, character) – and the energy that you need a new team-member to bring to the team.

You also need to know which missing skills you’re seeking to add to your team from the outset, and whether you expect these to arrive fully formed (how will you tell?) or are going to help your new teammate acquire them (you need a training plan, and you need to make sure that you carry it out).

Beyond that, a lot depends on the stage of development of your team, and whether your priorities are growth into new areas (finding people to create possibilities and help you do things that you can’t already do), increasing capacity (adding people to help you do more of what you already do) or consolidation (adding people who will help you do what you already do better). It’s worth bearing in mind though, that the two types of growth create a need for consolidation, and consolidation creates the potential for growth.

Responsibility

Whether you’re improving your own work or helping others improve theirs,* it pays to spend time talking about who is responsible for what – and what you hope people will take responsibility for as they grow into their roles.

There are layers of responsibility.

1) Given all the necessary inputs…

Do you take responsibility for getting your job done?

2) If an input is missing…

  • Do you shrug your shoulders and put down your tools?
  • Or do you take responsibility for passing the problem to the relevant person – a colleague, supplier, manager?
  • Do you take responsibility for chasing up the solution?
  • If needed, will you work with the relevant person to make it easier for them to fix it?
  • Will you give thought to whether this problem is likely to happen again – and think about what you can do on your side to fix it (by, say, allowing more time in your process)?
  • Will you take responsibility for the breakdown in communication or process – by talking about it, asking for help, trying something new?

3) If the inputs are fine and the process is working…

  • Will you ask how it could be done better?
  • Will you think about whether you could entirely replace the process, or do away with it entirely?

4) Above and beyond the level of processes…

  • Will you take responsibility not just for the defined outcomes of the process, but for what those outcomes are actually supposed to achieve?
  • Will you set an example of excellence in the quality of your work…
  • Including how you treat people while you do it, both in and outside your organisation?
  • Will you take a degree of responsibility for other people do these things – that is, for setting and improving the culture?**

Basic competence in a defined task is just the start – taking that as given, members of your team become more valuable the further down this list they go.

There’s a world of difference between managing someone where you responsibility for their work, and working with someone who takes responsibility to make sure the right things get done in the right way – and helps you and others to do the same. Find more of those people.

*it’s usually best to think about both at once

**No-one likes a meddler, but most of the time most of us make the mistake of not taking enough responsibility for making things better.

More about that monkey

This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.

Where Is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.

The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)


William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review

Step out of the picture

If you’re up to your eyeballs, and your team isn’t getting the job done, it’s sometimes necessary to do the work yourself so that it gets done and done right.

Sometimes necessary. Always dangerous.

You’re taking work back – work that presumably you took time to spec and explain to someone else – but worse than that is taking the responsibility for getting things done.

Often you’ll find that if you explain whose job it is to get something done, point them to a resource or two, and step out – remove yourself from the picture – people find amazing ways to get things done.

Do whatever you can to make sure that whoever’s got the monkey keeps it.

Spec-ulation

If you’re asking someone to do something for you, an appropriate spec goes a long way.

A good spec saves everyone time and effort* and demonstrates that you value the work and other people’s time and energy.

You might include answers to the following questions:

  • Big picture, what needs to happen?
  • Why is it important – what will doing this thing achieve?
  • What are the details that you need to specify? (Mainly focused on the outcome. This will vary depending on the task, the skills of the person doing the job and your relationship to them – i.e. what can you take on trust – but must include anything that would cause you to reject the product.)
  • What are the details you don’t care much about? (Probably about the process.)
  • What suggestions or resources can you provide?
  • When should it finished by?
  • Who is responsible for getting this thing done?

The last question is critical – it’s really easy to hand over a task and still have it be your responsibility. In which case you will be the one filling in the holes and chasing up last details, which defeated the point of getting help in the first place.

*Perhaps that should read “a good spec given to a competent person, where competence includes knowing how to read, follow and question the spec where needed.”

The hard part: other people

Your work probably has several hard parts, and one of them is almost certainly other people.

If only they would…

… do their jobs properly / be vaguely professional / relate to each other as grown-ups / take responsibility / have a little consideration / not bring home issues to the office / leave you alone …

… you life would be much easier.

But if you didn’t have to work on any of these these things…

… they’d probably be bored / you’d have a too-exclusive team / they wouldn’t be people / they wouldn’t need you.

If you’re a manager or leader, these things are at the centre of your contribution:

  • Helping people do their best work
  • Creating a culture and ways of working that enables your colleagues to manage themselves and each other
  • Knowing them well and supporting them personally
  • Taking time to help them with the abstract and emotional and with the nitty-gritty of their work
  • Finding training, tools, relationships that will help them to thrive
  • Having uncomfortable and very specific conversations about what needs to be done and by when and what is and isn’t working …. and dealing with the fact that people don’t always like being told
  • Doing it regularly – being accountable to yourself for your responsibility

If you’re not having fairly regular “Why do I have to deal with this crap?” moments, you might be very lucky, but it might be a sign that you’re not doing something very hard.

Crunch time

… isn’t the push to meet a tight deadline, or what you do under pressure.

Crunch time is when you have a bit of time, space and discretion about what to do, and you don’t really feel like showing up.

  • It’s paying attention to people and processes when they’re doing well, long before they break down
  • It’s committing a bit of time every week to work on the important, non-urgent tasks that will bear fruit (or suddenly overwhelm you) down the road
  • It’s going to the gym and doing something when you feel a bit off-colour
  • It’s about being a pro – about showing up and shipping the work – rather than being ‘authentic‘ or following your feelings in the moment

Crunch time about is what you commit to, under what conditions, and how you set things up and get the work done long before the crisis, so that crunch time in traditional sense rarely happens.

If you can keep your momentum when you’re not feeling great, when your motivation wanes, when there’s an interesting distraction… then you’ve done most of the hard work. The easy days will take care of themselves.

Peter Drucker on social responsibility

A business that does not show a profit at least equal to its cost of capital is irresponsible; it wastes society’s resources. Economic profit performance is the base without which business cannot discharge any other responsibilities, cannot be a good employer, a good citizen, a good neighbor.

But economic performance is not the only responsibility of a business any more than education is the only responsibility of a school or health care the only responsibility of a hospital.

Every organisation must assume responsibility for its impact on employees, the environment, customers, and whoever and whatever it touches.

That is social responsibility. But we also know that society will increasingly look to major organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, to tackle major social ills. And there we had better be watchful, because good intentions are not always socially responsible. It is irresponsible for an organisation to accept – let alone to pursue – responsibilities that would impede its capacity to perform its main task and mission, or to act where it has no competence.

Peter Drucker – Managing in a time of Great Change

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

Machine. Ecosystem. (4) – Marc Andreessen on Systems Thinking

Think about it [systems thinking] through the lens of a new tech product, which is kind of the centre of what we do [at Andreesen Horowitz]… If you’re not a systems thinker basically you say “I’m going to build a really great product, and then I’m going to have a really great product, and it’s going to be great, because it’s a really great product.”

The systems thinking more is that that’s just the first step because it’s not just about the product. It’s about okay, now the product is going to enter into the marketplace, and there are going to be customers that are going to have a point of view on your product, and there are going to be competitors that are going to be trying to take you out with a better product. And you’ll put your product in retail, and the retailers are going to try to gouge you on price, and make your product uneconomic to manufacture, and the press is going to write a review of your product, and maybe the reviewer is going to have a really bad day and he’s going to say horrible, horrible things… and your employees are hard at work and they build the first product, and you assume they’re going to be with you to build the second product, and maybe they will, or maybe they won’t, because maybe someone else will hire them.

And so with any kind of creative endeavor, with anything we do in our world – and this is for products or for companies – they’re launching into technically what is called – there’s actually a mathematical term – a complex adaptive system – the world. And inherently it’s not a predictable system, it’s not a linear system, it doesn’t behave in ways that you can expect, kind of by definition. So they say “complex” because there are many, many dimensions and variables, and then “adaptive”, like it changes. Things change. So the introduction of a new product changes the system and then the system recalibrates around the product.

And so as a consequence, to launch a new tech product and have it succeed you have to have a keen awareness of all the different elements of the system. You have to have a willingness to engage in the entire system, and it’s a gigantic problem generally if you’re in denial about that, if you’re not willing to think in systems terms.

Marc Andreessen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman*

*Full transcript here.