Capability Insights Consulting



On Trust, Opinions and Being Judgemental

Posted on July 19, 2014 at 3:25 PM Comments comments (2)

There is interesting work being done to study trust and what makes us trustworthy as leaders, as employees and team mates.


Different groups break it down into various components. The components that resonate with me are:

- credibility

- competence

- integrity

- passion


Credibility and competence seem very linked. If I know what I'm doing, and do it well, and do it when I say I'm going to do it, others can begin to trust me. To sustain the trust that others have in me, I must be honest, must be and be seen to be true to what I've said and be consistent in my behaviour. For me to maintain credibility, competence and integrity, I must care about what I'm doing. Having passion for something makes trustworthy behaviour internally sustainable.


One trust model I've recently reviewed touches on the need for me to have a point of view on something in order for others to begin to trust my actions. Those actions will then be in the context of something vs. seemingly random - thereby building integrity.


I am a firm believer in having a point of view, an opinion. Wishy washy people make me want to run in the opposite direction! Too often, though, when we hold a point of view that is different from others we are called judgemental. And in our current society, judgemental seems always be a bad thing. I find this very disturbing.


For me to judge something means I have looked at and considered the available information, looked at and considered the sources of the information, considered how all this information fits (or not) into my current knowledge and then developed a point of view. In short, I now have an opinion. For me to have passion about something, I have to care enough about it to have an opinion! And I must integrate that opinion into the rest of my opinions in order to behave consistently.


Check out various dictionary definitions of judgemental as not all definitions are negative. Having a propensity to pass judgement should be a critical attribute of a leader. Think of judges. Our legal system holds the ability to pass judgement as foundational.


Worse, slapping the negative "judgemental" label on someone ends the conversation before it can even get started. Want to break someone's trust in you? Toss out a negative label!


So, instead of using the word judgemental in a negative way, and before accusing someone of being judgemental perhaps we need to think about our own reactions.

- Do I think the person has rushed to judgement, meaning that they do not have all the information needed to form a point of view and have an opinion?

- Do I have concerns about the sources of information that has led them to their current point of view?

- Do I think their consideration and analysis of the information is flawed in some way? Do I believe they have made an error in judgement?

- Do I simply hold a different opinion? What does it mean to me that I find someone else's different opinion distasteful or frightening?

- Do I not trust this person so assume they are being negatively judgemental?


When I understand my reaction I can avoid labels and explore the situation further. I leave open the opportunity for better understanding. I leave open the possibility that even if we end up disagreeing, we can still trust each other.


There is much more to explore around trust and leadership. For now I'm making a commitment to be thoughtful and diligent in forming my points of view and in checking my reactions if I'm tempted to label someone as judgemental. 






When Top Performers Slump

Posted on October 8, 2010 at 1:58 PM Comments comments (0)

How long is too long to carry a top performer who is not currently performing? And how to turn the situation around? The term top performer is not a title granted in perpetuity, but top performers must not be written off too quickly either.


Only very rare people are on the top of their game 100% of the time. Performance slumps happen. A performance slump is not a situation where an employee has clearly broken organizational or legal rules or standards and there needs to be immediate changes or consequences. A performance slump is when an otherwise top performer is off their game. Some examples:

  • A top sales rep whose numbers are dipping
  • A top project manager whose project timelines are costs have moved from consistently excellent to mediocre
  • A high-production claims clerk whose production is falling below normal
  • A supervisor that normally gets very high staff ratings is now garnering complaints


Studies show that most people leave their organization due to the relationship with their leader. How this situation is handled can define the kind of relationship you as a leader will have with your team.


There is no one answer to “how long” or “how to fix” but there are three steps you can follow to move this problem from a vague discussion about what to do, to a business driven decision that works for the organization and ultimately for the people in it.


Three steps: not hard, less pain and better decisions

Steps one and two below can be done concurrently and there is usually some interaction between these steps to get to the final decision on whether and how long to carry a top performer. Step one is often best done as a quick mental exercise vs. a long drawn-out process. Step two may require a couple hours work but most of that will be discussion and coaching with the person, already a key aspect of your leader role. Step three fits into and further leverages the good coaching and personal development processes hopefully already employed by your organization.


Step One – Set the boundaries

The purpose of this step is to understand the performer’s and the organization’s context and set boundaries on how long to carry someone and how much to spend in terms of time, energy and dollars.


The performer context. Bluntly this is about what this employee is worth to the organization. What do they have in their credibility bank? Ask the following questions:

  • Is this the first slump for a long-term top performer?
  • Is this someone who has had slumps before but has always managed to keep them short and get back on track?
  • Is this a new top performer that is showing tremendous potential and is hitting their first performance slump?

Strong affirmative answers to these questions indicate an employee that is truly worth some time and money. They have built up large deposits in their credibility bank. Affirmative answers to the questions below point to an employee that is likely not worth the ongoing effort.

  • Is this slump a repeating pattern where the organization has already devoted time, energy and dollars a number of times?
  • Is this a top performer that has other performance issues beyond this situation? For example have they been continuously unsupportive of changes, are they disruptive in the group, do they refuse to follow a reasonable process?

No organization is doing an employee a favor by keeping them too long. The longer the slump, the harder it is to get out of, the more demoralized the person gets and the harder it will be for them to succeed anywhere. Letting performance issues linger is demoralizing for the rest of the team as well.


The current organizational context. This activity assumes that you are dealing with an employee that is worth some time, energy and money. Next, you need to balance that perspective with a clear understanding of the current organizational limitations in terms of the time and money to spend. The current state of the organization, its revenue and expense needs must be part of the decision making. Answer the following:

  • What budget is available for training if that turns out to be required?
  • How quickly must this performance issue be rectified before the team/organization is put at risk? Larger organizations will likely have more flexibility with this than smaller organizations.
  • Given any other work, projects, recruiting, training etc., how much time do you as the leader have available to support and coach the person? How much flexibility is there in resetting priorities to provide the time needed?

Step Two – Determine cause & potential solutions

The purpose of this step is to dig into the situation and get to the “why” of the performance slump. Deciding how to help relies on a full understanding of the cause of the situation. This step requires you as their leader to talk to the employee; to ask questions, to listen and to probe.


While there may be many reasons for a slump, they are broadly categorized here into three main causes.


1. Product or process issues. Poor performance from top performers can be an early warning sign of:

  • Product quality issues
  • Products no longer matching customer needs
  • Process breakdowns
  • Customer service issues

Make sure to leverage this opportunity to check for any of these as contributing causes to the slump. It may well mean catching an issue that would otherwise get much larger. Top performers often hit product and process issues faster than average performers. Potential solutions in this case often extend beyond the scope of the individual employee and you. You can though gather ideas from the employee, acknowledge their contribution and work with them to improve their performance while other actions are taken to fix the larger problem.


2. Specific issues for the employee. Performance slumps that fall into this category can be precipitated by a number of things. Common situations are shown below.

  • Has there been a change that they are not handling well? Potential solutions will include formal training on a new approach or product and one-on-one coaching to ensure their understanding and setting goals for achievement. 
  • Has their past success caused them to skip parts of their work process? Success can breed a certain laziness around process. You may need to remind them and coach them through more diligent use of the process.
  • Has the employee been focused on key sale/project/issue that didn’t come through or ended badly? In short, have they been thrown off their game by what they see as a failure? Solutions will include reminding them of what they did well during that work and coaching them on next steps to move past this one focus.
  • Is the employee dealing with personal issues that are affecting their ability to focus on their work?

Key to this activity is determining the attitude of the employee. Have they or are they willing to take accountability for their role in the performance slump? Are they blaming anything and everything else instead? No leader can pull an employee out of a slump unless that person is keenly aware of their role and willing to do the work necessary.


3. Performer burnout. I do not mean the serious emotional burnout that is well beyond the scope of this, but rather the kind of burnout that happens when a top performer feels as though they have achieved all they can in the role, that they’ve faced all the situations they are going to, that there is nothing new under the sun, that they’ve beat their own past records too many times or that there is no challenge left.


This is a much tougher situation to handle and to recognize. It may well be initially disguised as the previous two triggers of slumps. Potential solutions for performer burnout all include providing the employee with a break from the “same-old”:

  • Having them provide some coaching, mentoring or training to new team members.
  • Having them work on a project to improve the team’s processes or technology that will leverage their skills for the long-term benefit of the entire group.
  • Having them take on a leader role either temporarily or long-term.
  • Helping them move on to another role in the organization. While no one likes to lose a top performer from their team, it is better to keep them in the organization than to have them decide to move to a different employer.

While the old adage “a change is as good as a rest” is true, you must also be prepared to set goals for activities during this time and timelines for when the employee will be back into their previous role or moved to a new role.


The final test for steps one and two is this question:

Is this performer replaceable with less time, energy and dollars than the time, energy and dollars needed and available to move them past the slump?

This is a business decision. Your employees expect you, as their leader, to make informed and fair business decisions. In fact, they are counting on it!


Step Three – Set plan of action and timeframe

The specific action plan will depend on the cause or causes of the slump. Use whatever performance action template you have available or make one up. What is important is that the actions, goals and timeframes are documented and jointly agreed to by you and your employee.


Make sure the document lays out how often the two of you will meet to check progress and that you use those meetings to continue to probe, coach and tweak the action plan as needed.



If it is decided that the organization can carry the employee for awhile, you are now in a position to know:

  • How long and at what cost.
  • What actions will be taken to change the situation .The plan lays out accountability and expectations.
  • When to reassess and move to an exit stage if required.

This kind of structured and tough, but fair, approach will set the culture within your group. Your team will know that they will be supported when they have the credibility bank needed, they will know that the organization manages itself and they will know their leader is willing and able to support them uniquely within a common-sense framework that they understand.





Goals, Magic and Common Sense

Posted on September 7, 2010 at 4:04 PM Comments comments (0)

Very recently a report on whether SMART goals are dumb came to my inbox (Are Smart Goals Dumb).  This report takes direct aim at the SMART goals that so many managers and organizations lean on. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.


This way of thinking through goal setting has been around for years. And I use the phrase “managers and organizations lean on” very purposefully. Way too often goal-setting exercises using SMART goals are a crutch. They are used to make managers and organizations feel good about their management prowess and have little to do with setting the organization, teams and individuals up for success.


One Report

In fact the authors of the study in the above report say, “we discovered that people’s goals are not particularly helpful. In fact, our survey found that only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things. And only 13% of employees strongly agree that

their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential.”


They further found that there was no correlation between SMART goals and individuals and teams achieving great things. Now perhaps goal setting isn’t always about the desire to achieve great things but most of the time it is about wanting and needing teams/individuals to achieve very good things! The study found 8 factors that did correlate with the achievement of great things. They are:

  1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers, the community, etc.).
  8. My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year.

One book

What I found startling about this list was the similarity between this list and the findings in the book by Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan, “Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results”. Bellman and Ryan list several things that extraordinary groups exhibit:

  1. A compelling purpose that inspires and stretches members to make the group and its work a top priority.
  2. Shared leadership that encourages members to take mutual responsibility for helping the team be successful.
  3. Just-enough structure to create confidence to move forward, but not so much as to become bureaucratic or burdensome.
  4. Full engagement that results in all members jumping in with enthusiasm, sometimes passionately and chaotically regardless of role.
  5. Embracing differences so that group members see, value, and use their diversity as a strength.
  6. Unexpected learning that translates into personal and group growth.
  7. Strengthened relationships among members characterized by trust, collegiality, and friendship.
  8. Great results, tangible and intangible.

The book has a great model on aspects of self, group and world (whatever the group`s definition of world is) that lays out what is needed in those 3 dimensions to affect transformation and create the environment for teams to achieve greatness.


A Little Magic

I’m always fascinated when researchers and experts arrive at similar places from different paths. In this case, both the report and book also ring my emotional bells. I have been on OK, good and great teams and was able to very quickly relate to what the report and book cover. The two lists are not identical as one is about goals and the other about aspects of high-achieving teams. Yet a few things pop out for me as I go through both lists:

  • A compelling purpose helps me imagine and vividly picture what it will feel like when I achieve my goals.
  • When I can see that my goals are aligned with the organization`s top priorities it helps create a compelling purpose and helps me want to make this work my top priority.
  • For me to be fully engaged I need to participate in creating my goals and share leadership in the group.
  • The compelling purpose must help me see how my goals will enrich the lives of others beyond me. Conversely, when the work will enrich the lives of others it contributes to the compelling purpose.
  • To achieve great results I need to learn, to be pushed beyond my comfort zone; I must achieve personal growth.

Both are really talking about tapping into the individual`s and team`s heart, not just head. The book talks about the magic that seems to happen when a team transforms itself and its result into something great. Having been there it does indeed feel like magic and sticks as a defining set of memories that I constantly seek to replicate.


And Some Common Sense (The Hard Part!)

Of course, not too many organizations are ready to manage by magic! Neither the report nor book authors suggest that either. The report outlines a different way of approaching goal setting (HARD: heartfelt, animated, required and difficult) and the book has many good suggestions for creating the best team environment possible.


But in spite of my concern about how SMART is implemented, I`m not ready to throw out SMART goals just yet. As the saying goes, let`s not throw out the baby with the bath water.


The concept of SMART is not all wrong:

  • Some level of specificity is needed. Look at number 3 on the report`s list. If you can say that meeting the goal is an absolute necessity for the organization you can probably specify it to some degree. The compelling purpose (point 1 on the book`s list) very likely contains some statements that will help derive some specific goals.
  • Having only goals that cannot be measured in any way won`t help with motivation or help sustain the groups energy. Number 7 on the report`s list (My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me) and number 8 on the book`s list (Great results, tangible and intangible) both speak to some level of measurement, sometimes. I will say though that not every goal needs to be measurable in a specific timeframe. The individual or team may have a goal of their work having a positive impact on customers for years to come. That can be made more specific by talking about the kinds of impact but those impacts may simply not be measureable in any reasonable timeframe. Allowing some room for intangible results gives individuals and teams room to expand and grow beyond what you – or they – can imagine right now.
  • Both lists clearly show that individuals must move out of their comfort zone and individuals and teams must learn something in order for great things to happen. Goals that are easily achievable and completely realistic today will not help! But, I`d argue that goals that are truly unachievable or unrealistic are simply de-motivators and can stop a team or individual cold. Individuals and teams must be part of the goal setting exercise and goal-setting cannot be something that is done once at the beginning of the year or the beginning of a project and cast in stone. As learning happens and as the individual or team is better able to assess the evolving reality and likely impact of their work, the goals should grow with them.
  • Having some goals that are achieved within a set timeframe can help the individual or team have a real sense of progress. Having these should be part of every goal-setting exercise. But insisting on a set timeframe for every goal is limiting the potential of the individual or team.

In the end, what is wrong is a slavish following of SMART as an annual or team start-up thing to do vs. recognizing that setting goals is one component of the larger picture; or saying that every goal must meet the SMART rule vs. allowing room for some goals that allow the magic back into the work.


Since the vast majority of work today gets done by teams, setting goals independent of setting a good team environment will not net us the results we need for the organization. I understand the desire for models and rules to help us manage and lead. But leading and managing is about using those models and rules intelligently, in context and with an understanding that they are never the be all and end all.


I won`t throw out SMART goals. I think they can live alongside HARD goals. And I will attempt to remember the purpose of goal setting is not so I end up with a list of things I can manage against but rather about one of the things I do with individuals and teams to enable them get the results the organization needs. There are no shortcuts!




12 Lessons in Leadership or Hitting Brick Walls While Gaining Gray Hair

Posted on August 24, 2010 at 6:48 PM Comments comments (1)

Leadership isn’t something that is available only to those of us with gray hair. But, there is something to be said for the lessons that the University of Life teaches us along the way to those gray hairs!


So, below are 12 lessons I’ve learned (or more realistically that I am working on learning) around leadership.


  1. The only way to grow power is to give it away. I have not yet met a leader who isn’t drawn to power. That does not make them megalomaniacs! It is with power that we can accomplish change, grow organizations, or improve situations. But power does not grow when hoarded by the leader. If you steal other’s power you leave them powerless. Powerless people accomplish nothing. And leaders need others to get things done. See lessons 10 and 11! So, to grow your power base and opportunity to accomplish things, you have to give those around you the power to meet their highest potential. Simply put, power shrinks exponentially when hoarded and grows exponentially when shared.
  2. To gain control, you have to first acknowledge that you don’t have it. Should be so obvious shouldn’t it! The problem is that many of us who like to “be in control” also suffer from the assumption that we are in control. This is especially true when things are going well; we must have things “under control” right? My experience says that is wrong. I do a better job as a leader when I recognize that I’m not likely seeing the whole picture. That I need to keep looking, keep questioning and keep digging so I can find the things lurking around waiting to sidetrack me, the team or the work. I can keep moving forward while I’m looking. This is about replacing control with awareness.
  3. Control and leadership don’t have much to do with one another. For a start, review lesson 2. Once you’ve accepted that you are rarely “in control” of things, you need to recognize that you are never in control of people. People will choose to follow you or not. You may have the illusion of control because of the position you hold but it is an illusion. At best when you think you are controlling people you are getting compliance, but never passion or innovation or commitment to the task at hand. Passion, innovation and commitment from everyone can grow your power (see lesson 1) to get things done (see lesson 10).
  4. If you want to speed up, slow down. “I want it done, and I want it done now. Don’t talk to me about issues or risks or anything else that sounds like negativity. Just do it!” The problem with this is that we’ll end up tripping over ourselves. Urgency is good, rushing is bad. As counterintuitive as it may feel, a little upfront planning and analysis will get things done faster. You will discover issues that could have derailed you and be able to deal with them before they take up much time. You’ll know what your major risks are and have a plan to handle them before they become time-sucking, soul-deflating crises. The people around you will take you seriously when they see you doing some planning for this project or change.
  5. Over-planning does not lead to over-execution. Yes, this is a contradiction to rule 4, so see rule 12. You can over do planning. Just enough planning is absolutely necessary. You need to leave some room for opportunities and changes to be brought into the fold. You need a plan with flexibility. Too much planning is all about the need to be in control. You cannot control everything. Review lessons 2 and 3.
  6. Managing up is not leadership. Being a “yes man” and taking orders may make you popular with the boss but won’t help you grow your leadership skills or your leadership power in the long run. Leading up is different. Being a model of good leadership won’t always be comfortable when dealing with those above you, but you’ll keep learning and helping everyone around you (up, down and sideways) to learn as well. Those that manage up well often do climb the organizational ladder very quickly. Then they find that no one wants to follow them once they get to the top – or even the next rung. So they struggle to get things done. See lessons 10 and 11.
  7. Leadership is not a sell job. This is not about having a great idea and selling it to everyone. It is certainly not about continuing to sell even when it’s abundantly clear no one’s buying. Having an idea is great, but it isn’t a great idea until it is punched around, tweaked and morphed into the idea that the whole team rallies around and plans for with passion and commitment. This may be one of the most humbling aspects of true’s not about me or my ideas. It’s about...well, see lessons 10 and 11.
  8. Leadership is not a democracy. Yes, this is another contradiction. This feels like the opposite of lesson 7, so see lesson 12. There are times, hopefully rare, when you cannot share all the information you have, you cannot wait for everyone to have an opinion and you are accountable to make a decision. You have to tell vs. influence, guide and lead. The secret is to let your team know this is one of those situations. If you have built up leadership credibility they will trust you. If this seems to be happening a lot, you are not being honest with yourself. Review lessons 1 and 2. Leadership credibility will soon disappear if it keeps up!
  9. Yes, you can kill with kindness. Not telling someone about a problem because it might hurt their feelings is not helping them improve their performance. Not being direct about a situation because you don’t want to deflate them, is leaving them to guess at what you are saying. Keeping someone who is just not working out is not kind. They feel like a failure on the job and the rest of the team gets resentful. No one wins. Constantly stepping in to make up for someone else’s non-performance means you do not have a team working at optimum power levels. You need power to accomplish things, see lesson 1. Getting things done is the purpose of leadership. See lesson 10. So, as hard and as uncomfortable as it may be, you just have to deal with people performance or behaviour issues. If you have done your best to provide remedial or professional development, coaching etc and it is not working... Stop it.
  10. The purpose of leadership is not to lead, it is to get things done. This one should be obvious as well, but often gets lost in the desire to lead, be seen as a leader, be acknowledged as a leader, feel the power of leadership etc. Having power is pretty lame if it isn’t used to do something. Getting things done is a pre-requisite for maintaining leadership for any period of time. Just try explaining to your boss that you might not have accomplished anything but you lead beautifully. And, getting things done requires more than just you, so see lesson 11.
  11. Getting things done takes more than a leader. Leadership involves getting things done through others. It is not a solitary endeavour. Just like there is no “I” in team, there is no “I” in leader either. That means attending to team dynamics, the individuals on the team, the collective strengths and weaknesses of the team etc. Review lessons 1-10!
  12. Leadership is often contradictory and messy and hard. And you’ll get dizzy following the lessons around. If it were easy there would not an entire industry around it. You can read about it, train on it and get advanced degrees in it. Check, check, check on my part so I’ve clearly been pulled into the messy vortex of this thing called leadership. About the only thing I’m really certain about is that these lessons are not the end for me, just the beginning.

Beware of anyone who tells you that leadership is easy for them, that they are a natural at it or that they don’t really work at it. They just haven’t hit their brick walls yet!




Process improvement benefits - where to look

Posted on August 17, 2010 at 3:14 PM Comments comments (0)

Identifying, analyzing and making changes to business processes takes time and effort, and incurs expense. Changing how things are done impacts roles and responsibilities and can trigger employee resistance. Before embarking on process reviews and changes, it is wise to consider the types of benefits you might gain.


Each organization is different and the actual benefit numbers will vary, but below are some common benefit areas to be aware of and better yet to plan for.


Revenue generating benefits. These are opportunities to change current processes and practices to directly or indirectly increase revenue. These benefits are often the hardest to achieve as the changes needed usually break current mindsets and can fundamentally change roles and responsibilities. They often also have the highest payback. Here are some examples:


  • Upsell opportunities. A telecom company wants to have its call center staff sell more products to existing customers whenever they deal with a customer. The process review, analysis and design work will focus on building in the analytic processes (and technology) necessary to ensure call center staff know exactly what products the client has and what products might be of interest, as well as adjusting the training processes and performance management processes necessary to skill and incent the call center staff.
  • Improved products and new product opportunities. In this example a retail organization believes its own customers hold the key to identifying improvements needed in the current products and in identifying new product opportunities. Given its target markets, the organization knows it needs to include social networks in its product development strategy. The process review, analysis and design work will focus on how best to expand its current engagement processes to leverage social media. The organization has proven in the past that customer-focused product changes and development leads to getting higher revenue per product and getting it faster.
  • Client experience and business reputation. In this example, a financial services organization wants to ensure its target market of high-wealth clients receives exemplary service. In their target market there is a strong correlation between the experience of the customer and their willingness to do and grow their business with the organization. In this case the process review, analysis and design work are focused on identifying the business processes from the customers’ perspectives, ensuring that all customer touch points are identified and that the internal functional processes are seamless from the customers’ perspective. The organization needs a reputation of service excellence, effectiveness and efficiency to attract and keep its target market.

These are just 3 examples. What examples can you imagine for revenue generating process improvements in your lead generation processes, your product placement processes or your sales processes?


Cost saving or cost avoidance benefits. These are process and practice changes that allow you to remove costs from the organization or to delay or avoid new expenses. This is where process improvement efforts are often focused. Every organization should be looking at running as efficiently as possible. Remember though that no organization has ever cost-cut their way to roaring success!


Here’s some benefit areas to look for:


  • Improve the efficiency of work in the office. Any changes and improvements to your business processes that make it simpler and faster for your team to get their work done or to coordinate on tasks results in time saved. That time saved my result in the need for less people or more often it frees up time for existing people to focus on higher-value and revenue generating work. Looking for efficiency involves looking for unnecessary hand-offs, storing of information never used again, unnecessary approval processes, processing rules that made sense once but are no longer of value and of course ways to use technology to reduce manual handling.
  • Get rid of invisible reporting processes. Over time, requests from management for information or reports can lead to tremendously time consuming efforts of questionable value. What reporting and information gathering is done in your organization? Are the reports used anymore? Is the method to create useful reports as efficient as it should be?
  • Onboard and train people faster. Documentation that makes processes easy to find and easy to use reduces the training time for new people and the people that have to train them. Getting new hires up and running faster means they are also working on client revenue activities that much sooner.
  • Reduce key-person syndrome. Improve the ability for the office to function effectively if one or more of the team is away. Small businesses are particularly hard hit when a team member needs to be away. Good process documentation makes it far easier for someone else to step in and handle their work.

Risk reduction or risk reaction benefits. There is little doubt that this is a growing area of process work. Benefit areas include:


  • Security of data, premises and people
  • Ensuring privacy of customer/client data
  • Meeting regulations

The ultimate benefit to risk reduction or being able to react to a realized risk, is maintaining the organization’s reputation. Fines can hurt but rarely kill an organization. But if customers, clients or funders lose faith in your ability to provide the product or service they expect, you may never recover.


Process review and redesign to build in the needed controls, checkpoints and governance are often required. The trick is to balance the cost of the process work, and the ongoing execution of the changed processes, with a realistic assessment of various risk scenarios actually happening. It is far too easy to paint emotion-laden pictures of horrific happenings that sway leaders to build in process controls that are just too heavy and ultimately hurt the organization’s ability to run efficiently. Worse, processes heavy with rules and controls are the ones people most often don’t follow, defeating the purpose of the process work in the first place. In some cases it is better to have a process to react to a risk when it happens than to have a heavy process that tries to eliminate or reduce the risk.


Measurement benefits. Process reviews and improvements provide an opportunity to define and build in key metrics for processes. It really is true that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. More importantly you can’t improve if you don’t know how things are currently working. Having the ability to measure current reality sets the stage for continuous improvement. As with process work to reduce risk, it is necessary to carefully assess what needs to be measured and ensure it can be done efficiently without adding unnecessary weight to the process. Beware the seemingly endless human desire to create and consume statistics whether they add real value or not!



Process review, analysis and redesign work can and must result in benefits that surpass the cost of the work to change the processes. Make sure you are looking in all the right places for benefit opportunities.




5 Things I Want From a Leadership Team

Posted on July 26, 2010 at 11:21 AM Comments comments (0)

It is election campaign time in my city. You’ve all been there, you know how it works. Each person claims they’ll be the best leader, that they have the “right stuff” to lead their area/ward/city.


Last week I was able to talk to three candidates covering three different areas of the city. It was an interesting conversation as they were not running against one another so political postering was minimal. None of them actually asked me what I as a constituent wanted from them but they got my opinion anyway! Hey, crazy to turn down an opportunity like that!


Now admittedly my city’s current council is borderline dysfunctional and long past any chance of coming together as a group of leaders to move our city forward. I hope the next crew gets it right.


I realized that what I was asking of them was somewhat different than what I ask – and usually write about – when thinking of a single leader.


  1. Hold on tight to a holistic view. While individual leaders must be strong, have vision, persistence and confidence, rarely in organizations do they work alone. They must be able to collaborate with their peers to ensure the whole organization moves forward. Sometimes that means not getting what they want for their area because the needs of another area are greater. It also means they cannot and must not try to please everyone all the time. I want my leader to make tough decisions - even those I will not always agree with - when they see a bigger picture than I do. Of course, they also have an obligation to help me see the bigger picture. No organization thrives if one area is optimized at the expense of the rest.
  2. Have a decision making approach and use it consistently. That same group of candidates was excitedly talking about gathering a group of candidates across the city wards together and finding 5 things they agree on to show voters that they can get along. I hope they do that as it is a good start; but it is not enough. Leaders coming together with other leaders to make decisions will simply not agree all the time. So in order to collaborate they actually have to work through a decision making process that they can use consistently. And slinging verbal mud or real pencils at each other does not qualify as a decision making process!
  3. Be an effective team. In municipal politics and in organizations leaders are both the individual leaders of their area and members of the team that leads the larger organization. Even a city mayor has only one vote on the team. Being a member of team requires that sometimes a leader becomes a follower. I want my leader to know about team dynamics and use that knowledge to make themselves and others on the team more effective. If the team needs help in working better as a team, I expect my leaders to get the help they need.
  4. Have a long-term view. Current issues and the decisions around them often have long-term impacts. I fully expect my leaders to look beyond the current term, beyond the next election, beyond the next quarterly or annual reporting period and to make decisions for the long-term health of the organization. True fearlessness in a leader is making those decisions that might not have the best outcome for them personally. Leaders do need to have a good sense of self preservation but they also need to be able to look beyond themselves when it really matters.
  5. Get things done. So, the whole point of having a holistic view, being a team, thinking about the long-term and having a decision making process is so that good decisions get made and things get done. It is action-oriented not study and delay oriented. Governments and organizations are buried in studies. Too often they fall into analysis-paralysis. There is no such thing as risk-free decision making.

Perhaps one of the hardest things a leader must do is work with other leaders. But without that ability our governments and our organizations will fail to achieve.


What would you add to this list?




Recognizing Potential Leaders

Posted on July 10, 2010 at 11:12 AM Comments comments (0)

There is no one type of leader. Nor do I believe that there is a definitive list of characteristics that define a leader. That’s one of the reasons it is hard to look at your teams and find the leaders lurking within them.

But there are some tips to recognizing those in your groups that could be the next set of leaders. A wise boss of mine once said to me, “Leaders lead. They can’t help themselves.” So, what then does that look like?


Five things to look for

  1. They often speak up and ask the tough questions during meetings. Typically they ask the questions that everyone else was thinking but not asking. The politically mature ones ask the questions more effectively, meaning they don’t put you on the defensive. But do not dismiss the ones that ask bluntly. They may not have learned the political art to questioning but they have an instinct to challenge things, to not just accept authority. No good leader is born from acceptance of all that is told to them!
  2. They ask the “what about me” questions during meetings or they corner you after with those questions. They are very fast at recognizing the topic/situation may have implications to them. We often think idealistically about leaders as altruistic, selfless beings leading for the greater good. Frankly, I prefer a leader who has a strong sense of self-interest. For me, that has a ring of honesty and sustainability. And those leaders that are able to quickly recognize impacts to themselves are often the best leaders at managing change as they understand that their people will need to understand what a change means to them.
  3. They challenge the team. They do not reserve all their challenges for management. They are equally as willing to challenge their team members on ideas, approaches and directions. The more organizationally mature of them do this as part of the natural rhythm of the team. They know when and how to challenge based on the team’s dynamics. The less organizationally mature tend to throw off the rhythm of the team and you’ll see some annoyance in the other team members. But both the mature and less mature are driven by a passion to see things done right, done efficiently, to improve things: all good qualities for effective leadership.
  4. They are the informal organizers of the team. This does not mean they are the social organizers of the team, though that is sometimes also the case. They are the ones that push the team to have some structure to what they do so it can be repeated, to store team documents and artefacts in a useful way, to reorganize some aspect of the work to make it better, to present or share their work with others in the organization to help make the team and team successes more visible. This push for organization is about being an advocate and believer in what the team does and ensuring it can be easily seen and accessed by others.
  5. They ask you about the future, about the organization or about what’s next for them. Again, there is a difference in how the more vs. less organizationally mature do this. The more mature ask effectively, ask with a visible and audible sense of curiosity and make it clear they care enough about the organization and their career to ask the questions. The less organizationally mature often seem somewhat “prima donna-like”. They can appear arrogant or selfish or the questions may present as challenging you or the organization. Step back from reacting to that arrogance. Recognize that more or less mature, these people display a restlessness and curiosity that can and should be leveraged. Leaders do need to challenge, they need to be wary of the current state and they need a certain level of restlessness in order to keep pushing the organization forward.

A person may not exhibit everything on the above list. But where you see a couple of these behaviours you need to watch more closely and start discussions with the person on their desired career path.


The ones that are clearly more organizationally and politically mature are the most ready for promotions, or lateral movements or special projects that will build their skills and visibility in the organization.


Those that still have many rough edges clearly require more work on your part. They will still need projects or team initiatives to hone their skills. They may not yet be ready for broad exposure on projects that create visibility throughout the organization. They need your help understanding the negative impact they can sometimes have while trying to move the team or organization to a better place.


But please do not drill the edge out of them completely! They will need it to survive a leadership role. And since most leaders still have leaders, they need to feel that questioning and challenging upwards is still appropriate.


In my view a good leader challenges their team with more tact then their upper management. Other good leaders can and should be able to handle more direct challenges and questioning. Far too often people are inadvertently groomed to be hard managing down and soft when managing up. To me that is completely backwards and ultimately hurts the organization’s ability to progress and innovate.


So, take a look at the people in your teams and groups in a different way. Instead of always seeing the star practitioners or the best people at specific work tasks, look for the behaviours that can indicate future leaders. You may be surprised how much you see!




The Lost Art of Why

Posted on July 3, 2010 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (3)

Has anyone else noticed that asking “why” has become a problem in our corporate/organizational world?


The parents amongst us remember well the phase our children went through when they asked why constantly. Sure, it could be a bit annoying at times but it also marked that very special time when we knew they were trying to understand how their world worked, what the rules were and where their boundaries were. In short they were learning. Many of their “why” questions forced us to rethink what we take for granted. I know some of those “why” questions left me wondering “why” as well.


As business has moved faster and as the economy has tightened, far too often those that ask the “why” of something are seen as nay-sayers or as people getting in the way of getting things done. I see it as a symptom of the lack of thinking happening in too many organizations. Taking the time to think things through is seen as “so yesterday”. The mantra seems to be “do, do and redo”.


I get it – agility is good, doing something is often better than doing nothing. Though I take issue with the idea that thinking about something, asking “why”, and digging for root causes is doing nothing!


Doing can be a way of thinking if we keep “why” in our vocabulary and treat our early doings as learnings and evolution. But even then there needs to be the freedom to ask why:

  • Why did we do it that way before?
  • Why isn’t it working now?
  • Why do we think this way will be better?
  • Why did our first iteration not get us where we need to be?

I now have to coach people to not ask “why” directly but rather to rephrase to “can you help me understand”, “what about this is concerning”, etc. When did we become such a defensive culture? We think of the business world as logical and rational, as strong and assured – yet nowhere is the simple question of “why” so frowned upon. No where else does it create the same level of defensiveness. Why?


For sure, those asking why must be respectful of the ideas and needs of others. “Why” should never, ever be an excuse for a personal attack. Asking why should always be about gaining understanding, about wanting to make things better, about wanting to surface any issues that could get in the way of implementation success.


I challenge all of us to get better at asking why and at accepting “why” questions. Why questions are not about tearing down proposals or plans, they are about gaining understanding and clarity; about exploring the edges of ideas or the core of how things have always been.


I challenge all of us to use “why” questions to uncover inefficiencies, easily avoidable risks, learn how others see a situation and to generally improve the success of our projects and businesses.


Hey, why not?!




Getting the Most Bang for Training Bucks

Posted on June 24, 2010 at 11:44 AM Comments comments (0)

When organizations spend real dollars on training events they deserve to get as much from them as possible.


In too many cases, everyone in the organization, from staff to leaders, assumes that the training event will impart great skills and that the training participants will go back to their desk and start applying those skills to the betterment of the organization.


Sounds great doesn’t it? Oh, were it so! I love the statement from John Maxwell, “The best teacher is an evaluated experience.” The reality is that the training event is necessary but insufficient to achieve changes in skills, behaviours and business effectiveness. What then is necessary?


Moving from training to learning to real improvement

There must be some discussion and evaluation of the new concepts/ideas/practices/tools and specifically how they will fit into your organizational environment. Simply put this is about figuring out what exactly will change as a result of the training. For example:

  • Will there be a new best practice implemented?
  • Will there be new deliverables as output of the business process related to the training?
  • How and when will the new tool or template be used?
  • What are the scenarios or situations where new skills will be applied and what exactly does it look like to apply those new skills?

If the training is for one person this may be a matter of some time in 1-1 discussions to help them put new skills or practices to use. When the training involves a whole group the stakes are higher. Significant dollars have been invested and the investment needs to pay off.


Below is a case study of a group that followed an easy but structured approach to move from training to real improvement. There were many side benefits for this group as well: stronger sense of team, improving their ability to collaborate, commitment to their personal development, sense that the organization was really supporting them and helping them grow.


Case Study

The situation

This group of business/systems analysts felt they needed to grow their skills and abilities in gathering and analyzing business and systems requirements as the core the services analysts provide. They made the business case to bring a 3 day training program in-house as the per person cost was significantly reduced both for the training and because they avoided travel costs. They would also be able to have discussions with the instructor that would be fully tailored to their environment. The training was planned well in advance and all projects were aware of the 3 days that people would be “off the job”. It was also planned for a time of year that was off peak demand time.


In this case the group as a whole was allocated a certain percent of their overall work time as non-billable hours for things like professional development, group meetings, best practice work etc. This training used some but certainly not all of that allocated non-billable time.


Then what

Once the training days were completed the group agreed to have a few more frequent team meetings for the following couple of months. Each of those meetings was designed to go through the training module by module to determine what it would mean to them in their roles and what changes they wanted to make as a group.


Six one-hour meetings were held. All the time spent fit in the allocated non-billable time budget. There was active discussion and debate on potential new activities, templates and best practices. Decisions were made at the end of each meeting and people assigned to take any action required to get new activities or template into their intranet site.


The results

The group added a few new templates to their toolkit with a clear picture of the situational need for each (when to apply). They related the training to some of their existing templates and deliverables and in a few cases made some modifications to those. They improved their part of the organization’s software development methodology to include some new activities and reference new or improved templates.


The end result was more consistent approaches and results for the work they were doing on their projects. Within 6-9 months of that training there was a marked increase in the credibility of the group and the demand for their skills on projects.


Sustaining the change

The training course that initiated the work was made a standard part of training for new analysts for the next couple of years. The manager of the group would then meet with the analyst after the training and show how the training was adopted into the organization.


Lessons from the case study

It comes back to the earlier quote, “The best teacher is evaluated experience.” Find a way to help the person or people involved in a training event to make it a learning process. Plan to do it within the organizational constraints you face. If the training is worth paying for it is worth allocating existing 1-1 or team meeting time to evaluate and discuss. Consider lunch sessions. Most people will give some of their own time when they see a real commitment from the organization to their professional development.


Professional development is not about what the organization will do for me as an individual. Your people must be part of the planning and must commit to spending the time and energy. Otherwise don’t bother. They’ll attend the training as a nice break from day-to-day work and nothing will change after. There is and must be mutual responsibility.


I certainly prefer a situation where I can plan this holistic approach as part of the business case for the training in the first place. But, sometimes you need to beg forgiveness vs. ask permission. The old Nike poster, “Just Do IT” held a prominent place on my wall for a long time! Just be very committed as a group to show real improvement from your approach.


I can tell you from my involvement with the case study above and many others that once you have shown the organizations and budget-holders what you are capable of doing as a group, getting ongoing dollars and time every year gets easier. To the point where you, as a leader, may have to take some barbs from your peers who are also fighting for dollars and time without the same success. That’s a problem I can live with!

What Does Good Sponsorship Look Like?

Posted on June 9, 2010 at 5:55 PM Comments comments (6)

Recently a friend of mine wrote an article for Project Times (From The Sponsor's Desk; In Your Face) on a project I led a few years ago. As he and I emailed back-and-forth about his article I was reflecting on went well with that project since successful projects are never just about the project manager.


We had a skilled and enthusiastic team and we had great sponsors. As I further thought about other successful projects I’ve led or been part of it seemed that great sponsorship was a consistent pattern. Strong teams and strong project managers may overcome mediocre sponsorship to deliver not-bad projects. Truly great projects need all of strong teams, strong project managers and great sponsorship. 


Of the many great sponsors I’ve been lucky enough to work with, few have had the same personality or business skill set. So, I started to think about what they did share. Here’s my list of things to look for in a sponsor or aspire to as a sponsor. I’m sure many of you can add to this list and I’d love to hear from you!


Clear understanding and definite dissatisfaction with the current state

  • They understand what is wrong or not working and why
  • They understand the business consequences of the issues
  • They believe the current state is untenable
  • They share this with everyone, often – not by blaming, rather by explaining

Clear sense of the future direction without preconceived notions of the final solution

  • They know what business results they need from the project
  • They believe the project can and will provide a solution that delivers the results needed
  • They trust the project team to come up with solution options and a recommended solution as part of executing on the project
  • They communicate all of this with everyone, often – with a sense of passion and persistence

Active in risk management

  • They are not head-in-the-sand optimists nor are they afraid of people that bring forward risks and challenges
  • They expect those identifying risks to also propose risk mitigation actions
  • They see risk plans not as pessimism but as the method to ensure realistic and sustainable optimism
  • They share that brand of optimism with everyone, often

Makes the right decisions

  • They set clear boundaries and a framework for decision making in partnership with the project manager and based on the needs and situation for that project
  • They do not usurp the project manager and team’s role in making the project-based decisions on how the project is run
  • They do make the decisions they are asked to make as quickly as possible to help the team avoid delays
  • They facilitate getting decisions made by others when (not if, when!) politics threatens to derail progress
  • They are not afraid to make decisions and they stand behind the decisions they make and that the project team makes
  • They communicate decisions needed or made as often as necessary to whoever is necessary

Willingness to serve the project and the project team

  • They expect the project manager to let them know when there are problems – yet they are not invisible until a problem arises; they check in to see how things are going not as micro-managers, but as servants to the team, ready and willing to help
  • They clear roadblocks that only they, with their authority and position, can clear
  • They do not take over problems the project team can handle; they trust the team to do its job
  • They provide a dome of protection and focus for the project team; they support the project manager in ensuring the project team is not raided for its talent or diverted to things that do not meet project goals
  • They keep the project visible and reiterate its importance to everyone, often

Expects results and is willing to pay for them

  • They set high standards of behaviour and action and expect the same from the project team
  • They do not set unrealistic or unachievable goals; yet they expect the team to be better than the sum of its individual members and to stretch themselves
  • They do not expect to get great results at bargain basement prices nor do they provide an open wallet
  • They provide that sense of balance on the path to results to everyone, always

Acknowledges results

  • They celebrate the interim results and the final results
  • They provide ongoing encouragement to the project team and to everyone involved in or impacted by the project
  • They deflect the glory to those that worked on the project in any capacity
  • They share their excitement and pride widely

I can think of many more detailed items but these are the key things I look for from a sponsor.  


Perhaps it is no surprise that this is a very similar list of things I look for in a leader!