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July 28, 2009

I Have a Question for You—Do You Have Any for Me?

Blog cartoon 7-29-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If your company's employees are lucky, their bosses are all-purpose solution centers—similar to an IT help desk except understandable and efficient. That's not to say the bosses, who are doing duty as these one-stop-shop question catch-alls also are lucky. I guess they're pretty unlucky to be saddled with so many questions, come to think of it.

But regardless of whether bosses are able to provide solutions, that's how employees view them, and that's why there's usually a line waiting outside their door or in their cue of unanswered e-mail. For that reason, companies that want their managers to operate at their best—and most profitable—should teach them in leadership classes not only which questions to answer and not to answer, but which questions to ask. Most of the time, if not all the time, employee questions should generate equally provocative questions from managers.

For example, say a sad employee wants to know whether they'll be raises and promotions this year (a common question during a recession). Instead of the boss simply giving him the party line from the company's human resources department about the hiring and salary freeze, the manager might want to ask a few questions of her own. "Are you feeling under-appreciated?" she should ask. "Because if you are, you should know that's definitely not the case. I've noticed all the great work you've been doing, and as soon as I'm able to, I'll push for you to be recognized by the company in the form of a raise and promotion."  Or another good one might be: "Are you feeling overwhelmed by the workload?  Things are tough now, but I think if we can pull through this hard time, there may be rewards down the line. Let me know of any ideas you have to reorganize your work flow. Maybe there's a way we can jigger your commitments so they're more manageable."

Questions regarding the organization hierarchy also should inspire questions. How about when an employee consults with the boss because she isn't sure who to send a customer request to?  Maybe that confusion signals a departmental structure that isn't working. "Would it help if that work function (let's say product development specialist) had a point person designated for our division?  Let me see if I can do something about that.  I'll at least float the idea during the next managerial meeting, and you never know, we might get our wish."  Another question that should spring from questions about organization structure involves the extraneous. "So, you don't know what Tommy does?  That's interesting. I wonder how many other people don't know what he does?  What are you hearing?  Maybe we need to meet with him to review the responsibilities he's taken on." 

Queries from customers are especially question-inducing-worthy. How about the times when an employee visits one of your managers' offices to tell him he doesn't know how to answer a customer's question. "When did you last receive training on the Giant Panda Retractor?" the manager should ask. "Maybe it's time for an update on that. Why don't you round up Sally and Henry, and next week, we'll sit down to go over the Giant Panda's capabilities and troubleshooting techniques, and how it differs from White Tiger Two, so you'll be able to up-sell better."  Sometimes the questions employees bring managers can be passed on as questions from the manager to the product and services department. "Why do you think that customer didn't like Sea Turtle Adapter Version 2.0 and wants to revert to Great Dane Navigator?  Maybe I should ask the product development team to incorporate the characteristics of Great Dane into the next version of Sea Turtle we release. Or maybe we could ask them to teach us a quick-fix you could give customers over the phone so they don't have to wait. What do you think of that?"

The worst is when the manager gets angry that an employee doesn't know something. Partly it's bad because in the future the employee won't bother to ask, and then will likely give wrong information to a co-worker or customer, or deliver a service to a customer that has flaws in it. Plus it's bad because it says something about the manager himself—it says that he's not open to trial and error, or rather, he's open to "trial" but not the inevitable "error" that occurs when new ways of doing business are explored. I bring up "error" because it's common for questions brought to managers to be about how to fix a mistake. It might be that a new idea for the Website ended up crashing the site or a new way of inviting business partners to a meeting didn't work and now those business partners are confused and annoyed.  Yes, it's aggravating for mistakes to occur, but there also are a lot of great questions that mistakes bring to the fore. "So, the new E-Invite technology is harder than we thought it would be?  What are some of your thoughts on how we can fix it so this doesn't happen again?  How can we make it even better so business partners in the future not only know about our events and are able to respond, but are given added help in booking flights and hotel rooms?" the savvy manager asks rather than openly fuming.

Then there are the boss questions involving needs for extra time off. "Oh, that's a shame. Is it hard for you to both put in a full day and pick up little Timmy from soccer practice? Would a flex-schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays work for you better?" the solicitous boss might ask.  Or how about the peach of a manager who's worried about a worker having enough time for himself (irregardless of the presence of a child in his life): "Why don't you pick one day a month to work from home and catch up on your own life for a change?" 

The best part is asking all, or any (or anything similar to), the above posed questions may negate the worst question of all: "Why are you leaving us?"

How good are your managers at asking astute questions in response to queries from employees and customers?  And how good are you at teaching them this skill?

Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds - a new book targeted towards enterprise

As of the end of July, searching amazon.com for terms "Second Life" +corporate (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=%22Second+Life%22+%2B%22corporate%22&x=0&y=0)  produces 43 results starting from The Entrepreneur's Guide to Second Life: Making Money in the Metaverse by Daniel Terdiman, to Handbook of Research on Virtual Workplaces and the New Nature of Business Practices by Pavel Zemliansky and Kirk St. Amant.  None of these books, unfortunately is really targeted towards a corporate user of virtual worlds in general and Second Life in particular. 

More narrow search for "Second Life" +"corporate training," (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=%22Second+Life%22+%2B%22corporate+training%22&x=0&y=0) leaves you with only three results left.  These books, however, mention training only in passing, if at all.

There are great books on the subject of virtual worlds and Second Life, but they are concentrated on entertainment value, use by hobbyists or small businesses catering to those hobbyists.  Moreover, many of the available articles and reports on the use of Second Life in corporate environment emphasize secondary, worthless, or even directly counterproductive aspects such as ability to create a three dimensional conference room or a copy of your corporate campus. They miss really important business-related features such as:

    * Expense avoidance

    * Highly effective procedural training, collaboration and support sessions

    * Great opportunities for effective collaborative work, unavailable by using other technologies

    * Expanding brand by building self-managing communities of loyal customers and outside developers

    * Increasing ROI by connecting training simulations with already existing training programs and Learning Management Systems

That is why when I was approached by McGraw-Hill with a suggestion to write a book on corporate use of virtual worlds, especially in training, I jumped on the opportunity.  Luckily, Gary Woodill of Brandon Hall Research agreed to co-author and share his expertise in emerging learning technologies.  Today I received a copyedited manuscript (that I am now reviewing for accuracy) and by December you should be able to pick Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds: How to Create Cost-Saving, Efficient and Engaging Programs on amazon.com, in Barnes and Noble, or another book store. 

Gary and I started with a mutual understanding that in business there is nothing more valuable than experience. We were extremely lucky in that we received unprecedented access to virtual world pioneers from the corporate community who, for the first time, candidly shared both the successes they had and the problems they faced, financial outlays, as well as best practices and recommendations drawn from real life experience in virtual worlds.  Then we proceed to discuss everything you need to learn about the business uses of virtual worlds, with an emphasis on Second Life: what it is, what you need to start a successful program in Second Life or other virtual worlds, what to expect, and how these innovative environments are used by a variety of well-respected corporate players. We pay special attention to security issues and concerns, as well as real-life implementations and use of simulations to achieve competitive advantage and high ROI.

There is more information on the book's web site (table of contents, excerpt, list of contributors, etc.) http://www.TheVirtualWorldsBook.com.

July 21, 2009

Creativity Crucible

Blog Cartoon 7-22-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Those in business who want to seem of the moment talk about innovation, and how they're promoting an "innovation culture," but there's irony in their claim. While they brandish the words "creativity" and "innovation" to the point they become slogans, these executives are the least creative, least imaginative people you can imagine. In fact, many will openly admit to an aversion to creativity and innovation in its purest form—in that of an artist. Be sure, many who tout their innovation culture will cringe and cough if you mention the business-taboo word of "bohemian."

How you can be in favor of letting lose the juices of creativity and inspiration, and cringe at anything labeled "artsy" is hard to understand. I don't know if you can tell, but I'm an "artsy" type myself, so I'm  biased on this subject of promoting innovation while maintaining a narrow mind that shuns bohemians. What's funny/sad is some companies that say they love creativity will reject applicants for jobs who don't seem "straight-laced" enough—meaning the sunflower tie or rainbow shoe laces at the job interview were "unprofessional."  That's because "professional" has come to mean nothing more than full of conformity and empty of imaginative sparks. Those with the brightest, most interesting ideas often go their own way, and see opportunities for doing things "a little different" in everything—down to the way they tie their shoes. Imagine what that love of doing things in their own way could mean to your business. As your competitors focus on following the tracks of the last company in your field to make a sizable profit, your rainbow shoelaces innovator will be treading her or his own path, deciding on a different shape, different defining characteristics, or different approaches to making "business" connections that will corner the market.

I always wondered, by the way, why businesses (especially TV networks with their formulaic sitcoms) release new offerings patterned on what their last competitor had a success doing?  I understand that they want to follow the path of a proven success, but you'd think they'd see the value of carving out their own corner of the market, focusing on delivering products and services their successful competitor wouldn't be able to match. Why would you want to take on another's niche?  In the training programs you create, teach employees to look for how they can be different, rather than scanning the market for "trailblazers" to copy-cat. One of my least favorite expressions is "following suit."  It's also important that you teach managers to think of personal variations, such as pants belts with tulip patterns, as a good thing rather than a sign the applicant failed to present a "professional image."  It's a touchy, frightening subject to bring up with conservative executives, but if they've told you they want you to work, from a learning and development perspective, on creating an "innovation culture," tell them nicely—maybe in leadership development seminars to de-personalize the message—that they're going to have to expand their perception of what it means to be "professional."  It might be that the word "professional" has come to mean "very adept at copying the behaviors of others, especially the behavior of others who frighten us."

Until your company accepts individualistic personalities, it will never have individualistic business plans that will set it apart from competitors. As I mentioned earlier, I'm already an artsy person who loves eccentric personalities (and is more than a little eccentric herself), so I would be curious to hear if any of you have good strategies for delicately explaining to top executives (or at least up-and-coming ones) that their framework for "professionalism" is too narrow for the company's good?  In a sense, you would be telling them they're uptight and close-minded, and need to change for the sake of their organization. Not the easiest message to hear from a lowly learning and development professional.

One idea I had is to take a page out of change management philosophy and find an open-minded artsy/eccentricity-accepting executive to deliver the message for you. He or she could be for you, and your innovation initiative, what change management specialists call a "champion."  Maybe the stodgy-minded in your midst wouldn't be overly offended if they were nudged to change by someone "at their own level."  What do you think? 

What if young innovators wanted to brainstorm for a few hours at a local coffee house, and then—much worse yet—present their ideas for the new product line in the form of a participatory folk song?  Would that be OK?  What if allowing them to do so resulted in the launch of a product line that made your company millions?  It could happen.

Is it OK for men to wear purple slippers to the office?  What if keeping their feet comfortable and warm allowed them to endure the office for an additional few hours so they would have more time to carve out novel marketing strategies?  If one of those strategies propels your company to the top of the public's mind is it worth the risk of a visiting client seeing an executive padding around in slippers he refers to as his "purple haze?" 

Innovation workshops for stuffy personalities with no intention of venturing beyond the stuffy is useless. What you need are more individualistic people who aren't afraid to show off their eccentricity. It's that "weirdness" that makes them uncomfortable to be around; but it's also that weirdness that may be so weird it could turn your company into a billion dollar business. As they say, stranger things have happened...

Do you have any strategies for opening the minds of your executives that you'd like to share?  How do you teach them to open your organization up to the individualistic personalities that will make it truly innovative?

July 10, 2009

Trainers' Fuzzy Numbers Antidote

Blog cartoon 7-15-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

I heard about an employee just recently who had a sad experience. As he trudged through his dreary recessionary work day (he was told there would be no raises or promotions this year due to the budgetary crunch and that there wouldn't be any money even for staplers and mailing envelopes), he happened upon a scene of horror.

Well, actually, not so much horror to the eye as to the senses. In the midst of his lean times suffering there was a well-appointed executive farewell party taking place a few floors below his own!  It was catered and included multiple bottles of wine. Imagine that. Paper clips, no; Merlot, yes. He wondered if he had gotten there a little too early, and the entertainment would be arriving shortly. His senses—to be specific, his sense of justice—experienced horror because it appeared not everyone at the company was short on mailing supplies. Or, to be less diplomatic, not everyone at the company was doing without workplace niceties. In other words, he was a have-not.

Or not?  I question it because what executives (those who would deign to answer a complaint about feeling like a have-not) might argue is the horrified worker is not a have-not, and that there are no have-nots at the company. It's just that this poor, uninformed employee doesn't understand the company's financial strategy—namely, that certain expenses (like executive farewell parties) are strategic, and directly connected to long-term gain.

Now, don't ask me to explain how an executive farewell party will bring in profits exceeding what was spent at a catered party with multiple bottles of wine, but the executive suite may have a point when it argues horrified employees don't understand the management of their company's finances. So when you think about what you, as a trainer, can do to help your workforce muddle through the recession, think about rolling-out a no-cost (not to be ironic) financial acumen program. Many of you already offer such coursework for those in new manager and leadership development classes, but what I'm thinking of would be for everyone. And it wouldn't be an e-learning program about business process improvement. Ideally, what I'm thinking of would be live, and would be as simple as an HR rep sitting down with work groups over the course of the next few months to explain the distribution of the company's finances. 

Emotional questions to be answered would include: Why are some employees still getting promoted and enjoying big raises and others aren't?  How is "strategic" defined as in "strategic promotions and raises"?  Why aren't those who carry out the hands-on implementation of the company's plans considered "strategic" players, deserving of a raise?  Why are the raises (and maybe even bonuses) continuing for those who need it least at the company (those with annual incomes in excess of $100,000); Why can't cost-of-living-adjustments be given to all who make under $100,000, so those above that level can endure the salary freeze in place of those who can't afford to? 

Less emotional questions that also should be answered include: Why does it seem like in the distribution of company finances, the small stuff is sweated, with a counterproductive result?  The C-Suite worries over the purchase of manila folders, and continues paying its executives multimillion dollar salaries even as the company turns in an unsatisfactory financial performance. Why hasn't the executive board absorbed the business 101 rule "you have to spend money to make money"?  What if spending a few hundred dollars on a business trip would enable an employee to create a product or come up with an idea that makes the company thousands or millions of dollars?  Or what if the company could sell many more of its products if only it would spend money to update its Website well enough so shoppers could easily find what they're looking for?

If your company has an honest, well-intentioned, and well thought out approach to its financial management, then providing answers to all of the above questions isn't hard. If they can't answer such questions, then not only are executives acting unethically; they're also acting dumb.  I should probably use a more sophisticated word than "dumb," but I think that best describes improperly distributing funds to a workforce while attempting to survive a financial meltdown. It isn't about being nice (though it's nice to be nice); it's about distributing money in a way that keeps your workforce motivated and your business services at the level your customers expect.

If executives can't give trainers putting together financial acumen coursework the answers to the questions managers have told human resources their employees are asking, then there's a problem. Trainers, with their background in education, are well aware that if you can't explain a concept or "strategy" to others, then you don't really understand it yourself. If your company's executives don't understand why and how the company spends the money it spends (or doesn't spend), then your company is in big trouble.

Nor is it a good thing if executives simply don't want to talk about it. Why don't they want to talk about it?  Are they worried about the competition finding out?  What if the competition (and customers, too) hear through the dissatisfied-employee-grapevine that its handling of its finances is unjust and doesn't make sense?  That's not good either. Not adequately explaining why the company spends what it spends or holds back what it holds back isn't excusable on the basis of it being proprietary information. There are ways around that, and often "proprietary" isn't actually "proprietary" anyway; it's just a label placed on whatever a company's management can't discuss because they know it would justifiably outrage its workforce and the public.

As a trainer, one of the best things you can do to ensure your employees' output remains stable and high-quality is teaching them about their company's strategy, especially strategies, such as those pertaining to finances, that most affect them. After all, shouldn't everyone be doing without paper clips?  How do you choose who doesn't get a stapler?

How well do your employees understand your company's financial strategy to surviving the recession?  Are you creating programming for them so they better understand it, and feel motivated to continue working hard?


July 07, 2009

About Your Poor Performance...

Blog Cartoon 7-8-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Since workforce management experts seem to agree that even a few shoddy employees out of hundreds or thousands can diminish profits, it would be good if you could create additional programming for managers on handling poor performers.

It's hard to imagine, but it turns out many managers are nicer than their subordinates think. Or maybe it's timidity that keeps them from confronting the one (two or three) on their staff who isn't pulling his/her/their weight. It's funny, but I think most of us know the archetype of the employee whose main work project for the day consists of traveling from his desk to the refrigerator or from his desk to the vending machine or from his desk to the delicatessen down the street. He is so consumed with his eating regimen (the health gurus he follows warn of the pernicious effects of not immediately gratifying hunger) that little else gets accomplished.

Or perhaps the work is being accomplished but not within the time frame his manager and co-workers had in mind. Even in the era of the skeleton staff, beware of the employee who always has a pile of work he can never get to the bottom of, while refusing additional support. It's counter-intuitive, but sometimes these disengaged under-achievers hoard the work they say they can't get to the bottom of. Why this is so remains a mystery, but I have some thoughts about it. Well, what if he's so inefficient that he doesn't know where on his computer or offline filing system the incomplete work resides?  Maybe he accidentally deleted it months ago—the level of work he has is so "overwhelming," after all, how could he possibly be expected to remember where it's all located?  Or what if he doesn't want to give any of it away  to, say, a junior staffer or intern, because said person would complete the tasks within a few weeks, embarrassing the under-achiever, aka "poor performer" or "PP" for short.

One of the worst things about PPs is they're usually not bad people. I long to work with an individual who is both incompetent and obviously unkind (have already worked with a person who was incompetent and slyly unkind). It's not that I'm a glutton for punishment. Rather, I know it's inevitable that, sooner or later, at nearly any job, you'll work with a less-than-stellar colleague. It's great if you can point out their lackluster performance to the manager, and have the manager say, "Oh, yeah, that guy is a real creep and a pain in the you-know-what. I don't much like him either, so if you (our high-performer) don't like him, and his presence is causing you grief, I'd just as soon get rid of him."  Let me tell you, that exchange between high-performing worker bee and worker bee manager about nincompoop PP doesn't happen often. Managers have a hard time dispensing with PPs because doing so makes them feel guilty. Who wants to lay-off a nice guy with a family to feed?  "He's not the world's best whatever-it-is-he's-supposed-to-be-doing, but I don't want his children to starve, or for him not to be able to go to his lake house as often this year," the well-intentioned manager will say to him or herself.

Whatever the cause of the guilt (children or limiting lake house access), new manager seminars need to show managers how to ignore it. It's hard to tell a poor performer to "shape up or ship out" (a favorite expression of my first manager, my mother). But it's harder for the diligent employee(s) to work side-by-side with a disengaged human slow engine. If you're revved up to start your day, and complete and exceed your assigned tasks, ask your guilt-ridden managers to imagine how it would feel to watch and listen to a PP sputtering along while earning the same or an even higher pay and title. To add insult to injury, PPs often end up with higher pay and title than more diligent workers as a result of recessionary reorganization.  Sometimes a work group inherits a PP with a set title and salary. When managers in their new manager or updated manager training are asked to consider this scenario, they may find they've been feeling guilty about the wrong thing.

The kindest way to handle poor performance is to nicely, but nonetheless directly, confront the lowly performer. Teach managers not to be afraid to point out the difference between their level of productivity and quality of work with that of a colleague(s). Even if you don't have forced ranking at your organization, it's a good idea because the reality of the work world is employees in the same business division are pitted against each other for corporate resources. Managers who want to do the right thing have to ensure those resources are getting distributed as fairly as possible. Ignoring an unfair distribution of dollars, title, and corporate niceties is a justified cause of guilt. So, first off, to get back to our discussion with the PP, teach managers to make it direct and draw contrasts to the worker(s) who is their star. Then, just to be nice (to assuage your guilt), tell PP you want to give him a chance to show his stuff. But that this (unlike his never-ending pile of incomplete tasks) is limited. Allow managers to give PP a three-month probationary period to demonstrate he can bring his work level up to that of whichever colleagues are being paid the same or less and/or possess the same or a lesser title. If he doesn't meet this challenge, then off he goes.

If ultimatums don't suit all your managers (and in the event that they're just as frustrated as PP's other colleagues), teach them to tell PP his position is being eliminated. When/if he asks why (PPs don't always have the most inquisitive, lively minds), tell managers to tell him the truth: We only have a small amount of resources, and the manager would prefer those resources (money, title, corporate niceties) to be directed to the highest-performing worker(s). If he asks about how the high-performer(s) will handle the additional work (she/he's a high-performer, but not superwoman/man), tell him another truth: You're planning to promote her/him/them into PP's soon-to-be former title and salary, and then hire an entry-level junior employee to pick up the slack. To make the conversation and transaction guilt-free, give PP a piece of good news: To ensure a gradual, organized transition, PP has three months left on staff during which time he will transfer his tasks to the high-performer(s), and look for a new job.

Beyond a lack of productivity, PPs most often are disengaged from their work. They're unhappy, so time-tabling them out is the kindest, least-"guilty"/least-risky thing your managers can do. Remember, PP can just as easily travel to the refrigerator on another company's payroll.

How are your managers trained to handle poor performers?  What do you teach them, and are they good at applying those lessons?