A Business Technology Place

The reality of now

Yes, but what about the reality of now?

I played that card recently in a conversation with a colleague while we were discussing his vision and objectives for a more efficient work flow. I hated to do it. But it’s something that can’t be ignored to sustain a healthy business. Business does need a vision. Business does need to look for continuous improvements. But business also needs to take care of the here-and-now. The customers see and feel the here-and-now. Customers make decisions about who they’ll partner with here-and-now. That’s the cash that funds the vision and future.

Steven Brown writes about focusing on problems over objectives in his book 13 Fatal Errors that Managers Make.  His point is that we can get pulled into spending most of our time on problems that influence a small amount of our overall productivity as a business.

Brown offers an illustration to show how successful managers use the environment and business conditions to work through problems while focusing on larger objectives. If someone finds themselves thrown off a boat that is some Swimming to Shoredistance from the shoreline then they will not succeed if they fight the water by thrashing or trying to swim too fast. In this manner they’ll surely lose all their energy and drown. They are fighting against their current environment and conditions. To successfully get to shore, the person will first float or tread water. This person is using the environment to sustain themselves while they determine a proper shoreline destination to swim to. At that point, they will move with measured pace towards the shoreline goal. In this, the successful swimmer uses the environment and conditions to achieve success. They work with their environment and not against it.

Can we use a problem filled environment to sustain our efforts?

I asked myself this question and thought through my experiences for a few examples. The answer is definitely yes:

Case #1

Problem: During a production system outage customers are unable to use systems to communicate and transact business.

Use the environment: Communicate clearly and frequently with customers about the situation rather than making excuses and placing blame. I have found that in times of service outages that customers appreciate knowing what has happened, when it started, the expected time to fix and what is happening to resolve it. No one is happy about a system outage, but customers tend to have a reasonable response if they are informed.

Overall Goal: Provide uninterrupted service to customers for system availability.

This is often expressed in terms of a service level agreement (SLA) or system uptime goal as a percentage of time. Get to the goal by focusing on what can be done and how the team is progressing to fix the situation rather than focusing on all the reasons for failure. There will be a time to examine the failures after service is restored.

Case #2

Problem: The programming and business teams are missing project delivery dates because they are stuck with a high number of “bugs” discovered during testing.

Use the environment: I have found that it is best to use the scope of the project as the decision matrix to determine how to treat software bugs. Use the original scope to communicate clearly with the business owner and classify bugs as “must haves” or “can be deferred”. Use the value of the current scope as an influencing factor to deliver a solution sooner to the business.

Overall Goal: Deliver the defined scope of the project to the business/customers to provide the stated value of the goal. This is often expressed in financial terms, efficiency gains, or additional features. Get to the goal by focusing on the scope to attain it and moving other benefits to future iterations of the project.

Is this the reality of now?

So what about the reality of now? It’s important. We can’t just completely punt and fight it. We have to use it, to help move towards our goals. When I first gave the answer to my colleague a few weeks ago I didn’t think about it in these terms. But the reality of now requires using the good, the bad, and the ugly of our current environment to get to our intended target. Think about that.

Onward and upward!


Photo credit: Instabeat.me

The distraction inside the annual performance review

Tis the season to be writing.

Annual performance reviews are upon us. It’s a topic that most employees I know loathe. They might even rank it up there with public speaking for most feared and disliked events in life. So last year I tried to give some practical advice on getting value from the annual review process. Most employees only have to write their own self-review whereas managers write multiple. But even so, many of the employees choose not to document information in a self-review. They supply the minimum amount of information necessary to check-off their requirement and wait for their manager’s assessment.

I told a group of co-workers this year that your self-review is a chance to be who you want to be. It was a fun play on words. I wasn’t saying to make up accomplishments, but rather that this was their opportunity to self-assess for their own personal growth as well as to highlight accomplishments that they felt were most significant. Paint your portrait.

Managers, are not immune to disliking the process either. Throughout my professional career, I’ve listened to managers complain about various elements of the process. The results are often reviews without much content or waiting until the last minute and rushing through the form. Unfortunately the employee is the one penalized if this happens because they deserve to have an honest assessment of their performance.

I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to performance reviews. I do value the intention of the process.  I do spend quite a bit of time working on them. But I also have weekly one-on-one meetings with my reporting staff. So communication is constant throughout the year. There is one thing that bugs me though…..

The distraction.

The ratings are a distraction to the review process. I know they are necessary and well intended because they provide a measurable result of achievement. But they typically take away from the meat of the review which is the qualitative feedback on an employee’s performance during the year.Performance-Review-Questions

Through the years I’ve see multiple types of rating scales from the HR form. The consistent thing is that employee expectations and the definition of the HR scale don’t agree which is what creates the distraction. Employees think of the scale as if they were in school. The highest rating is equivalent to an A. The rating associated with “you did your job as expected” is thought of as a C.  The creators of the scale and HR have the mindset that if you tell an employee they have done their job fully that it’s a good thing. So most employees should have this rating. The psychology of “meets expectations” vs “exceeds expectations” could be it’s own blog topic.  But it’s not the upper end of the scale I want to explore.

What about “partially meets expectations”?

When the rating is for an objective that is associated to a project that didn’t complete or a metric that was was not achieved, is it OK to give a rating of “partially meets expectations”? Or would that offend the employee and send a message that they don’t work hard enough? For much of my career, I would list all the reasons why the project wasn’t completed. On some occasions, I would even ask that a goal be removed if the business made intentional decisions during the course of the year to allocate labor to other projects.  I think these are good steps as a way to document and discuss.

In more recent years, I’ve been prone to rate myself as “partially meets expectations” when I don’t deliver goals that were written and agreed to. I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m comfortable raising my hand and saying that I didn’t accomplish the goal that we set to out to complete at the beginning of the year. But not everyone can do that. Not everyone is happy with a rating like that either. People react negatively to such a rating. They attribute it to failure and that they didn’t care.

But goals should be challenging to meet right?

If we achieve or exceed all our goals each year then have we set the measuring bar too low? If we don’t fail on some projects then are we learning as much as we should? Do we learn more from failures than success?

In my mind, having a couple of “partially meets” ratings is not necessarily a negative thing. It signifies we created a stretch goal. It signifies we may have failed and learned. It signifies we may have made decisions to allocate our time different than what we originally expected to do. Or it could be as simple as we bit off more than we could chew. Whatever the case, let’s have the emotional maturity to admit it and discuss it. Then it’s time to learn, re-rack, and start again in the new year.

5 No-Brainers for Business Alignment

t’s that time of year when we deploy our yearly goals and objectives (business or personal). Businesses should already have been through planning processes to decide the goals. The challenge now is how to deploy the goals and turn them into objectives for each group within the organization. The objectives of each group should bring them into alignment with the overall company goals.  In my experience, I’ve seen organizations struggle with different aspects of this. Some create the goals well. Some deploy the goals well. While others maintain a dogged persistence to stay focused on the goals. But it’s a neat trick to put it all together.  It takes organization, persistence, and flexibility to keep yourself in alignment with the goals and objectives.  With that in mind, here are Bob’s 5 no-brainers for business alignment of your goals:

1. Communicate the goals to all employees/stakeholders

It seems so simple to say and you’d think a given in the equation. But run a quick informal survey of employees about what the business goals were last year or are for this year and you might be surprised at what you find. This step means delivering the goals down to each individual employee through their management chain. Document the goals in a meaningful format that employees understand and will be able to keep on the top of their daily heap. Most importantly, show the employees how their individual objectives help the overall company achieve its goals.

2. Press forward to the goal  by looking ahead

Ask yourself these questions.  Am I planning my daily and weekly activities toward based on the stated goals and objectives?  Can I articulate how my actions are contributing to achieving the goals and objectives? Looking ahead means being able to plan optimally by knowing the goal in front of you and planning your steps. As with a race, when you look behind you or to the side you’ll slow down or even stumble. This isn’t to say, you shouldn’t pause to reflect on lessons learned from the past. But don’t dwell on mistakes made in the past or you’ll run the risk of misalignment.

3. Base status reports on the objectives

This is very important because it serves as a weekly check for managers and employees to make sure their weekly activities are focused and aligned. An added benefit is that it allows you to review and measure progress. How many times have you come to the end of the year and then decided to measure if you obtained your goal? Worse yet, you don’t know how to measure if you are successful!@#! Aligning your status report documentation with the goals and objectives creates accountability for yourself to stay focused and to make sure you are measuring your progress.

4. Look for different routes to solving  the goals

If top level management is setting the higher level goals, then let those closest to the work decide how to solve the goals through specific objectives.This is about trusting your employees to solve problems. It’s about trusting your employees to serve your customers. It also promotes diversity of thought and strengthens employee involvement and satisfaction with their job.

Another potential way to setting specific objectives is to ask your customers how to do it? Yeah, put those surveys to good use. Read them, listen to your customers and provide value to them. Would you rather copy a competitor because they have something you don’t have or create something your customer is telling you would provide value to them?

5. Be prepared to adjust the goals or objectives

The last thing you need is to be locked into a goal that becomes irrelevant. Be flexible and prepared to change goals if they no longer add value to your customers or provide for the betterment of your employees. Perhaps in the periodic measurement you see that you are not going to meet a high level goal for the year. You might add an additional objective that pull different resources to help achieve the original goal. Examples include a new product launch, different product makeup, additional service offering, etc. Even macro level factors could change your goals such as a merger/acquisition, introduction of a substitute product on the market that reduces demand, or sudden changes in interest rates that reduce/increase customer demand. The easy part of this equation is to be flexible. Everyone is flexible if they realize they need to change something to meet a goal. The key is to ‘be prepared’ by monitoring your progress throughout the year. Be ready to adjust if necessary.