Corporate Scarcity – The manager’s mindset

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In previous posts I talked about the history of corporations and the contributors mindset. In this post I will discuss the mindset and challenges of being a manager in a corporate environment.

The manager, whether that is project, product, program or resource manager, is continually faced with the prospect of knowing the directions the team or teams is to go, but must turn that vision into a strategic plan as to how to get there. This is primarily done with either too few or barely enough resources to get the job done. During this execution the manager must fend off the pushes and pulls of peers and higher ups, which always want more, if it’s going to have an adverse effect on the teams immediate goals.

When looking at the manager’s perspective it is important to also note that they still have most, if not all, the scarcity aspects of the contributors. On top of that they must also face the challenge of productivity management, resource allocation, aligning and prioritizing varying objectives, positioning and communicating their teams value and finally being a knowledgeable and effective leader.

Productivity Management

Productivity management is assembling, cultivating and maintaining a team to achieve a specific role in an organization. The more productive a team is, the better it, and its management, look. The limiting factor here is that the team size is limited to often being just enough to get the job done. This creates a scarcity environment where individuals are held to a standard mold of expectation of productivity. An individual’s value therefore is based primarily on how well they match the mold, with a secondary basis on their talent.

One place I worked at was a highly political environment, where perception of success was more highly regarded than actual success. In this environment those whom were adept at political maneuvers, even at the contributor level, were regarded as the most successful. ¬†At another company, the definition of success was based on how well you worked with others. A third company I worked at based success on how much you produced as an individual. These are just examples of how varied the mold’s expectations can be.

Hiring

Having a team understaffed or improperly staffed leads to failure of projects and future assignments going elsewhere, or existing direct reports feeling overworked and leaving. As a manager you are expected to hire the right individuals for your team, which often means a specific skill set, a compatible mindset to your team and organization, the right amount of relevant experience and willing to work for the amount the company is willing to give. This makes finding the right people in a timely manner that much more important. This often limits the talent pool making the job that much harder. Add to this that the manager usually has to use an interview system which gives only a fraction of the information needed to make the “right” decision, and a vision as to the perfect fit can become a crapshoot. Many interviewing strategies have been developed, but there are still huge risk factors which can include: how well the candidate interviews, the type of stresses the candidate is under external to the interview, and what preconceived notions you and the other interviewers have. This tends to result in an interview system which results in a period of uncertainty for the company’s productivity, and the individual being hired. In the worst scenarios, the company sinks a lot of money into the individual, with very little productivity and fires the individual, resulting in financial troubles for the individual as well.

Cultivating

As a manager it is not enough to just hire and fire, you are expected to cultivate the team’s talent as well. Lack of talent growth by the team members tend to cause them to look elsewhere to gain those talents, and ultimately can cause them to leave the team. Another consequence a manager faces here is that they are only given a limited headcount, which is one of their largest scarcity aspects, which must be capable and talented enough to handle their role in the company. Growing talent is one way to fill in the skills needed without requiring more hiring. Managers challenge and grow the individuals on the team, aligning skills needed with people they already have.

The difficulty here is that the number of “challenging” projects are often seen as desirable by the entire team, but tend to be outside the team’s primary responsibilities. This creates an aspect of scarcity as you much choose how to grow individuals without creating discontentment with the rest of the team. In rare cases you may run across a scenario where the a team member feels entitled to one of these projects, but doesn’t have the skillsets required, or isn’t chosen. This results in the same discontentment even if they have other opportunities.

Another aspect of cultivation is performance reviews. Depending on the company you work for, performance reviews hold a lot of sway as to the employees’ compensation and future. The problem with reviews at most companies is that artificial limitations are placed on teams and organizations as to how many people can be evaluated as excelling or failing. These limitations once in the organization then get divvied out based off of team perception and politics. This ultimately can lead to a scenario where individuals don’t feel adequately compensated for their contributions, and if the philosophy is made public, an environment where someone’s success hurts others come review time.

One company I worked for had a review come around, and a limitation that worked out to only one individual being given an exceeds expectation grade. The past year I had saved a project, got a multi million dollar deal, and played the key point person for a large international customer, while not being paid for most of these responsibilities. Due to the project, which previously had been seen as a failure, with a customer super cautious about who it worked with, created a scenario where another’s achievement were seen as more desirable than my own. Ultimately the project I turned around became the primary project of the company, but by then it was too late for me. This scenario happens a lot, both from the reviewee and the reviewer side. As a reviewer you must make decisions as to whom you’re going to reward and who you’re not. Often times these decisions are made based off of fear of losing resources, rather than purely a review of the individual.

Over time discontentment turns into turnover, which a manager is expected to limit. A failure to limit higher than normal turnover can cause the manager’s manager to question their ability to lead a team.

Maintenance

Maintaining a team can be challenging. This is probably one of the few aspects which is not scarcity related. Working with people to get better cooperation, help with personal and interpersonal issues can be very rewarding. The difficult part comes in when its time for someone to move on. While this isn’t necessarily scarcity based, it does have aspects of loss aversion. This can create scenarios where someone is under performing or out of alignment is retained longer than they should be. If not let go, the team loses morale and respect for leadership, if let go then a contributing resource is lost or possibly other consequences based off of social circle fallout as well.

Resource allocation & prioritizing objectives

One aspect of a manager is to allocate people’s time according to new projects, initiatives and maintenance. Due to the nature of business there is never enough collective time to do everything. This creates a scarcity aspect around resource skillsets and time. New projects tend to gain more visibility and political points, but increase the required maintenance in order to stay afloat. Initiatives, either peer or directed, help with longer term organizational goals. Maintenance comes with little visibility and political points, but lack of it will lead to epic failure given enough time.

Managers must then balance all of these, communicating what is necessary, and understanding when it’s more prudent to use a pocket veto (not opposing, but taking no action to fulfill). As a manager this is where a lot of time is spent, navigating the various expectations and agendas.

Positioning & communicating team value

In business, perception is reality. While in an ideal world, there’s never enough time for directors and above to fully understand all the details. Rather they rely on the manager to communicate those aspects they need to know. If a team meets objectives, but is never heard about, then evaluation, promotions, bonuses and increases in salary will be distributed eslewhere. Part of being a manager is evangelizing the problem space your team is in, the value they produce and the individuals who excel.

Being a knowledgeable, effective leader

One of the biggest misnomers which contributors expect from a manager is that the manager is an expert in all aspects the contributor is expected to work in. While this may be true in some cases its often artificially created by the manager’s hiring choices, choosing people who aren’t beyond their own comprehension in aspects they’re less knowledgeable about themselves. The other way managers manage those more skilled than them is limiting the comments and involvement in those areas. By not commenting or interacting, the reports assume they’re in agreement and therefore don’t lose respect.

Another aspect which contributes to effectiveness is the ability to lead appropriately. This means understanding how to lead different people differently. Distance of power is used to describe how people expect to be managed, on a sliding scale with extremes being low distance of power and high distance of power.

People expecting a high distance of power want to be told what to do, and in some cases how to do it. They perceive that their manager is an expert in what they do, and any suggestion they have to make is a failure of their manager’s ability to lead. Often times these people respond better to being told their suggestion is wrong, even if the outcome is not as optimal.

People expecting low distance of power perceive their manager as an equal, with a different set of responsibilities. They tend to self manage more, and expect that their suggestions are a contribution to their environment, and not a failure of their manager. If a good suggestion is ignored then the individual starts questioning their ability to lead.

Book Review – The Power of Habit

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Overview

From personal habits to corporate habits, our lives are made up of them. They can lead to higher efficiency and higher stability or even cause lack of vigilance, attention to detail and mistakes. In our modern world understanding what habits are, and how to how to leverage them is crucial, as they can even effect your sales numbers. This book discusses what habits are, how they are formed as well as how they can be changed.

Personal experiences after reading

I first was introduced to this book by my mother, who like I has a temperament to continuous education. After a couple of months of procrastinating I finally gave in and read the book. What was fascinating to me is that it helped me rationalize principles I already believed in as what they really were, organizational habits. Things such as automatic code reviews before check-in, consulting with QA as the feature is being developed and even updating of task status. Instead of seeing them as one more process which had to be intellectually sold I now had a view point which made me want to figure out how to change them into habits. The other thing it did for me was to help me self reflect on my own habits, really taking a look at what habits hindered and which ones helped. While I still struggle with some negative habits, I now have a better understanding of what they are.

Conclusion

This book was a great read, and really was fun as they supplied real life examples of habits and systems which help break them. I would highly recommend this book to individuals who are or are looking into management, as well as individuals struggling at work or looking to make life style changes. Click here to go to amazon for this book

Book Review – Speed Of Trust

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Overview

I started reading this book during a time I was managing a team of around 12 software engineers. I was instantly sold on the concept as it touched on how trust affects the relationships inside and outside of work and business.

The main points I took were:
1. Trust can be measured and quantified.
2. The lower the trust level between individuals the longer it takes for things to get done.
3. Processes are a result of trying to fix failures in trust relationships, and result in less opportunity for future creative solutions which solve the same problem space more efficiently. (This does not mean get rid of all process)
4. Trust must be given to be received.
5. Provide smart trust, not blind trust.
6. I definitely always want to work for an organization where there is a basis in trusting each other.

Personal experiences after reading

With any good educational book I believe the only practical evaluation can only be given after seeing how it changes you and your perception.

The fascinating thing to me was after I read the book I started seeing the workplace around me in a whole new light. Some of the frustration with team members started showing areas where the contributor class had lost trust in the management and executive classes. This trust had eroded years before I had ever gotten there, and the contributors had developed habits around the interpretation of what the executives and management said.

There were trust barriers between our internal organizations as well which were causing tasks to take far longer than they needed to. It ultimately came down to people in different departments didn’t work directly together, even if they were working on the same feature.

Finally there seemed to be a disconnect between the interpretation of what the executive class was saying and what the contributors were hearing. I remember having a passionate debate with my team about whether the corporate values were a sales tool or if we were supposed to embody them. The team vehemently believed they were nothing but part of the sales pitch, where the executives expected we were living by them.

Since then I’ve tried to include the principles of smart trust, as well as giving trust before I expect it. I also have been heavily influenced by this book when developing my theories around Community Style Business.

Conclusion

This book is a great read, although they do re-iterate the same points over and over again. I would recommend this as a must read book for anyone considering going into people management ,project management or taking part in a Community Style Business.

Speed of Trust on Amazon

Community Style Business – An introduction

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I first started asking the question two years ago.

How do I work in an environment where all my contributions are valued?

The problem I faced at the time was that I was working for a professional services software company and had just secured a multi-million dollar contract. After working with the customer and rebuilding ties I had my review, where I was given a small increase in pay, and no promotion, even though I was being billed as multiple titles above my current pay grade.

At first I thought it would be enough to step up in the corporate ladder. That’s when it was driven home to me about how much of “middle” management was corporate politics and posturing. That was definitely not what I enjoy.

I then tried both joining a couple of startups as well as creating a business of my own. It was surprising to me how different organizations varied, both in skill sets as well as personal philosophies. But there was an underlying trend of scarcity and in some cases wild financial bets where one wrong step would mean I would lose my house and my finances would be shot.

The one good thing during that whole duration was that I was continually studying. Business, people management and even psychology books became part of my daily routine. Eventually I started working out what I really was looking for in a workplace environment, and titled it Community Style Business.

What is CSB (Community Style Business)

The simplest definition of CSB is:

A group of individuals working together as peers to create value, with the rewards of that value distributed to the community members based on the extent of the individual’s contributions.

This style of business borrows heavily from the organizational structure of agile, in which the members executing define how work gets done, and the inception members (product owners and researchers) work to identify what customers value and how much.

I personally come from a software background, and so the following will be heavily focused on the definition as it pertains to software, but that doesn’t mean a variation can’t be applied to other domains.

Distribution of rewards

Members of this system are rewarded based off of efficiency and completion of work. These pieces of work are given point values based off of risk, complexity and effort in relation to what it would take a competent individual skilled in the craft. This value is then voted on by the community of individuals on the team, much like agile’s planning poker.

Once a unit of work is finished, it is reviewed by the team and at least one member of the inception team. If the work is approved then the points associated with the work are rewarded to the individuals who worked on it.

It is generally considered a good practice to define lead measures as part of a unit of work. Lead measures are measurable behaviors which when done tend to ensure high quality results.

As the product is purchased, and value is transformed, all non-contributor based expenses are paid first. Items such as rented servers, or the power bill and Internet, at face value. After that any community agreed finances are taken care of, such as putting together a rainy day fund. Finally the remaining is distributed based on the percentage of points an individual has as part of the whole.

Leadership

This is one of the main differences from this style of organization to others. The way leadership works in this style is through evangelizing ideas, and gaining community buy in, although depending on the size this could be as simple as convincing a team to consolidate around the idea.

Often times this will come from the inception team, but any member of the community has the ability to become part of inception, even stepping outside of their current role to do so, although it’s important to note that they shouldn’t do it in a way which will cause their current team to fail on the current iteration.

A fundamental principle here is that an idea or vision by itself is worthless, and shouldn’t be directly rewarded. The true value of the idea comes through the researching, flushing out and implementation of the idea. Usually this means many people are involved, from the high level vision all the way down to the details. To that extent those who want to lead with vision become part of an inception team, and are given the opportunity to gain support from others.

People management

Since value is created by each person which should be directly relational to that created, there isn’t a need for the typical oversight of individuals. A member who doesn’t want to work that much will be rewarded with little, and the more workers creating value leads to more value created. If there is limited value which can be obtained, more value created leads to a faster realization of that value, allowing the team to move more rapidly towards more valuable goals.

Those who do not feel they receive enough value for their lifestyle will tend to leave a group on their own. These individuals are often referred to as dead weight in other organizations. In this regard reviews, performance management and classic hiring/firing practices do not apply to the CSB. If a member is not performing enough value, others can be added without detracting from the community.

Pay scale and peer to peer pay comparisons also becomes a moot point in the CSB. Since the system rewards based purely on value contributed, individuals can achieve any pay amount they’re capable of, either through efficiency, talent or brute effort.

Individual responsibilities

In the community model the individual is given a lot of leeway as to how they want to work. The only requirement of this model is that individuals are required to self educate and take part in community obligations. It is up to the community to decide what these obligations are. Examples of items which should be discussed are: insurance, time off, office space, etc.

Individual Community Obligations

A good rule of thumb should be that obligations directly benefit all members of the community equally, if that’s not the case then it’s a good idea to ask if that’s an individual’s responsibility.

An example might be offices of different sizes. If one individual prefers a larger office to himself but others double up on office space then the office space doesn’t directly benefit whole community. In this case, it might be a good idea to allow individuals determine how much of their own distributions they’re willing to give for their working environment. This would allow those that need larger offices the ability to get them, but does not create a pecking order as there is no downside for those who it doesn’t directly benefit.

Self education

In this style of business it is up to the individual to stay informed in order to create the most value possible. This can be done through self education, team discussions, and a suggested high level cross training which gives the individual a concept of other areas of responsibilities and research which is ongoing.

This high level training of research and concepts will allow the community to better understand how to help each other out. Due to this nature there should be an increase in the volume of applicable value across the community.

Community iterations

When I was a manager one of my direct reports told me something to the effect of, “In agile you should be okay if we fail”. While this can sound bad, what he was trying to imply was that in an environment where the group is expected to self improve, harsh accountability regardless of the circumstance will drive away the willingness to try new things.

In the community model, mistakes are expected to happen, people aren’t perfect. The community should pick durations by which it can review and change the way it functions, even trying out new ideas to see if they will work. This iterative process allows for course correction as the community evolves and the business evolves or individuals in the community’s priorities change.