Author: Cynthia Low

Five Ways to Do More with Less – and Be Successful

Do you find yourself suddenly being asked to do more with less? Was there once someone in the office beside you whose job responsibilities have suddenly become yours? Are you feeling pressure from your boss to deliver, deliver, deliver?

It isn’t as if you were slacking off before. Between the meetings, the email and just doing your job there wasn’t a lot of time left over. So how, exactly, are you supposed to manage now? Here are five success strategies for getting more accomplished with the time and resources you have.

Success Strategy #1: Clarify your role and responsibilities. This is the first thing you should do. If you are taking on responsibilities that are new to you, it is critical that you spend some time with your manager defining what they are. While it can be tempting to rush over this because there doesn’t seem to be time, making assumptions about expectations can slow you down later. Questions to ask include: Why did you give me these responsibilities? What do you expect me to accomplish and by when? How will my progress and success be measured?

Success Strategy #2: Establish priorities. There is a pretty good chance you now have too much on your plate. You will need to look at your tasks and deliverables and start putting them into three categories: ‘urgent’, ‘must do’, ‘maybe someday’. One thing I advise people to do is make a ‘not to do’ list for themselves and their organizations – it helps us focus and be efficient when we know what we don’t need to worry about. Make sure you also think across the system – whose work might be dependent on your getting something completed? Once you’ve categorized things it is time for another meeting with your manager. Making sure the two of you are in agreement around priorities will save you time and effort.

Success Strategy #3: Identify what you need to learn. If you are taking on things that are new to you, you will have to invest some time and energy into your own learning and development. You should identify your gaps in three key areas: knowledge, skills and practical experience.

Knowledge is usually the easiest to acquire but can be time consuming. Figure out who can help you get up to speed or point you in the right direction. This is where having a good network inside and outside of your company can help.

Skills are tougher than knowledge – you have to actually do something. Maybe there is a quick course you can take to accelerate your progress, but that may not be realistic or in the budget. Think about how you have acquired new skills in the past and what worked for you. Some people like to start with the theory before they try something. Others like to start by experimenting and learn on the fly.

Even if you have the basic skills already, doing something well requires practice. Watch for these opportunities and seize them. Warning: this could push you outside your comfort zone! Finally, give yourself a break. This is new to you – don’t expect to be perfect.

Success Strategy #4: Ask for feedback. One item that frequently gets a low score on employee surveys is, “I get timely feedback from my manager.” Turn that around. Instead of waiting for someone to give you feedback, ask for it. If there is something you can do to be more effective or efficient, don’t you want to hear about it? It is up to you to create the conditions where others can give you good feedback – be open, listen, ask clarifying questions, say thank you, and put good ideas into practice. There is no better time to ask for feedback than when you can honestly say, “I’ve never done this before, I’m trying, but I would really like to get your suggestions on how I can improve.”

Success Strategy #5: Keep things in perspective. Yes, there is a lot on your plate and so little time. This can lead to a lot of stress, particularly if you are someone who strives to do everything well (maybe even perfectly). You are only human. Remember that others are feeling exactly the same way. What you can do is focus on what is most important and strive to get it done. If others see you doing your best, they will respect you for it.


Dr. Rebecca Schalm, who has a Ph.D in Industrial/Organizational Psychology is Human Resources columnist with Troy Media Corporation and a practice leader with RHR International Company, a company that offers psychology related services for organizations worldwide.

Men and Women and Workplace Communication

We know that men have a different workplace communication style than women – but does “different” mean better?

Well, yes…..and no!

There are obvious strengths and weaknesses in the communication styles of both genders. Based on a recent research project, in which I collected responses from 387 employees and managers in the United States, Canada and Europe, I found that both sexes identified the same set of strengths and weaknesses in themselves and each other.

On that, at least, we all agree.

This study reinforces other research I conducted for my book, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. As you look at the findings below, notice how much of what people call “communication style” is determined not by the words someone is speaking, but what their body is saying.

Top three communication strengths for females:
1. Ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues.
2. Good listening skills.
3. Effective display of empathy.

Top three communication weaknesses for females:
1. Overly emotional.
2. Meandering – won’t get to the point.
3. Not authoritative.

Top three communication strengths for males:
1. Physical presence.
2. Direct and to-the-point interactions.
3. Body language signals of power.

Top three communication weaknesses for males:
1. Overly blunt and direct.
2. Insensitive to audience reactions.
3. Too confident in own opinion.

To best understand these findings, however, it’s important to consider them in the context of workplace applications and implications:

For example, there is no “best” communication style for all workplace interactions. Women have the edge in collaborative environments (where listening skills, inclusive body language, and empathy are more highly valued), and men are seen to “take charge” more readily (and viewed as more effective in environments where decisiveness is critical).

In all cases, a strength turns into a weakness when overdone. (A female’s collaborative style can come across as indecisive and a male’s directness can be taken as callousness or disregard for other opinions.)

To a woman, good listening skills include making eye contact and reacting visually to the speaker. To a man, listening can take place with a minimum of eye contact and almost no nonverbal feedback. (Women often cite a lack of eye contact as evidence that their male boss “doesn’t value my input.”)

Men are more comfortable when approached from the side. Women prefer approaches from the front. Likewise, two men speaking will angle their bodies slightly, while two women will stand in a more “squared up” position – a stance that most men perceive as confrontational.

When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she is listening.

Female superiority in reading nonverbal signals during business meetings allows women to accurately assess coalitions and alliances just by tracking who is making eye contact with whom at certain critical points.

Men are judged to be better at monologue – women at dialogue.

A man’s ability to hold his emotions in check and to “keep a poker face” is viewed as an advantage in business situations. A woman’s tendency to show her feelings more outwardly in gestures and facial expressions is perceived as a weakness.

When a woman can’t read the person she’s talking to, it makes her anxious. Men’s ability to mask their facial expressions causes uneasiness in women, who often perceive this as negative feedback.

Men are larger, taller and, because we typically equate mass with power, they gain an instant sense of “presence.” Females can compensate by standing straight, broadening their stance, and even putting their hands on their hips in order to take up more physical space.

Women sound more emotional because they use approximately five tones when speaking – and their voices rise under stress. Not only do men have a deeper vocal range, they only use approximately three tones.

Male body language is more likely to emphasize stature, composure, and confidence. Men also send signals of indifference, disagreement or smugness far more often than women do.

As women make decisions, they tend to process and think of options out loud. Men process internally until they come up with a solution. This can lead to problems if a male thinks that the female’s verbal brainstorming means that she’s looking for approval rather than just thinking aloud.

Men’s discomfort dealing with emotion leads them to believe that there needs to be a solution, rather than understanding that sometimes people just need tbe heard.

Because they access the full message (words and body language), women are better at watching and listening for reactions. This allows them to ensure that they are being understood, and adjust accordingly.

In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who – when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women – replied, “learn to interrupt.”

Men make direct accusations (You didn’t do it!) while women use an indirect method (Why didn’t you do it?)

Women are viewed as less professional when they resort to girlish behaviours (twirling hair, playing with jewellery, etc.) or flirtatious body language (tossing hair back, crossing and uncrossing legs, etc.).

Men who don’t know each other well tend to keep a greater distance between them than women who have just met. This difference in interpersonal distance as determined by gender is even true in Web 2.0’s online communities (like Second Life) where many of the unconscious “rules” that govern personal space in the physical world can be found in the virtual world.

Women are viewed as lacking authority when they try to avoid confrontation and conflict, when they are unnecessarily apologetic, when they are too focused on pleasing others, when they smile excessively or inappropriately, and when they discount their own ideas and achievements.

So Venus or Mars – whichever you are – the trick is to know when your communication style is an aid to success. And when it becomes a deterrent. Comparing your strengths and weaknesses to these generalized gender differences is one place to start. And enlarging your repertoire of communication skills, so you can employ strategies that are most effective under various circumstances, definitely gives you an advantage.


Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Carol is the author of 10 business books. Her latest is The Nonverbal Advantage – Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. She is an HR columnist with Troy Media Corporation

Requirements Definition for Distributed Teams

Last month, we talked about Requirements Definition for Outsourced teams. In this article, we are going to explore a new dimension to requirements definition challenges that looks at the reality of today’s distribution of departments, personnel, and company locations. While there have been many drivers behind today’s distributed workforce, much of it has been driven by the record number of mergers and acquisitions in the past five years. IT teams are finding it “normal” to engage with peers and internal customers located in different buildings or even in different time zones. Gathering and defining requirements can be quite a challenge in this environment.

Automating and Empowering Critical Business Processes

Today’s business application software is relied on to automate and empower critical business processes. There is not an organization in the developed world that can process a sales order, hire an employee, or close their book at the end of a fiscal year without the help of business software. Software is not an accessory to the business, it is the business.

In today’s software development landscape, project teams are consistently being stretched to deliver against increasing business challenges to enable an organization to sharpen their competitive advantage. In a global market place, this continual pressure on IT is not just stretching team capacity; it is actually stretching the organizational structure as well. In fact, in 2009, over 70% of business and IT teams are geographically distributed and globalization is the business driver for the majority of new projects [1].

With geographical distribution becoming the standard operating procedure, collaboration between business and IT teams around project requirements has become a new focal point to control project team efficiency and effectiveness. Organizations must improve the fidelity and precision of their software requirements to ensure that IT delivers the right solutions that the business needs. Communication of project requirements must evolve to eliminate the cultural, geographic, and time-zone barriers that now exist between these separated colleagues.

This article explores how software projects are improving the collaboration between distributed IT and business teams by focusing on requirements communication. We will explore how visual requirements simulation plays a critical role to ensure understanding and to eliminate barriers to productivity that naturally exists within distributed, global teams.

Requirements Analysis: Becoming More Complex

Requirements are the blueprint to the functionality, interoperability, and integration of business software. As more organizations drive to streamline, consolidate, and modernize existing applications, the complexity of requirements is increasing. Analysis of requirements has become a job within itself, with an emerging dedicated stakeholder that services the development and communication of project requirements to business and IT stakeholders. This stakeholder is commonly referred to as the business analyst or business systems analyst.

As the world continues to get smaller and businesses expand to reach new markets and lower-cost suppliers, globalization has become a major driver of IT projects. In 2009, the majority of IT projects are designed to assist businesses scale to meet the needs of globalization. According to a recent CIO survey by Smart Enterprise on Globalization and IT, over 50% of IT teams are being asked to build systems for non-US supply chains, 40% are being asked to deliver software applications that leverage third party technology service providers and 60% of new projects are serving customers in a different country.

On top of the increasing complexity of IT projects driven by globalization, team distribution has become a critical operational challenge. According to a recent report from the IEEE, “key risk factors associated with IT development projects are magnified or multiplied when dealing with distributed project teams.” Distributed teams are largely in place due to business impacts from globalization. Typical drivers include the increase in mergers and acquisitions, the need for new talent pools, the leveraging of lower-cost resources, outsourcing, and overall business geographic demand. According to the IT Strategy Center, the most significant impacts of distributed teams are directly related to communication of business context, the implementation of language barriers, time zone separation, the lack of physical exchange, and the reliance

on batch oriented communication.

CIOs can adopt new requirements definition practices and techniques to appropriately eliminate the risk associated with distribution. These practices include shifting away from the heavy use of natural language expression and moving toward the use of multi-aspect requirements definition with visual simulation and validation. Multi-aspect requirements definition enables organizations to standardize on rich requirements that eliminate ambiguity and imprecision that often exists in the geographic separation of teams.

Levels of Geographic Distribution

My company’s customers range across four distinct levels of team distribution. Each level creates a unique set of challenges for defining and communicating project requirements. Figure one illustrates these four levels of distribution.

At level one, business and IT teams are co-located within the same building and location. Just ten years ago, this was more common than any other level, but in 2009 this represents less than 30% of Fortune 500 IT teams. At level two, business and IT teams are distributed at a department level. IT is usually centralized and acts as a service arm to the business. At level three, business teams themselves, or IT teams themselves, are geographically separated, which increases the complexity and challenges of inter-department collaboration. Finally at level four, globalization has created the ultimate geographic challenge, with team separation and distribution pervasive across the globe. With globalization and the rise of outsourcing, this has become all too common.


Figure One: Four Levels of Team Distribution

As organizations evolve to embrace more distribution, the challenges to understand the context of application requirements increase significantly. These challenges include intra-teams functional capabilities, task understanding, gaining organizational consensus, and the cultural challenges to understanding. In Figure Two, we overlay how these challenges (and risks associated with them) increase significantly as teams become more distributed.


Figure Two: Challenges to Alignments of Distributed Teams

Challenges of Requirements Communication with Distributed Teams

As we discussed in the previous section, geographic distribution injects new challenges to IT productivity and alignment. Requirements communication fits squarely into the center of the challenges of distributed teams. Traditional methods of communicating requirements, which include enumerated lists of features, functional and non-functional requirements, business process diagrams, data-rules, etc., generally are documented in large word-processing or spreadsheet documents. When applied to distributed teams, this method of communicating requirements creates significant waste and opportunities for failure, as the barrier to understanding can become too great to overcome. Incorrect interpretation and the lack of requirements validation can create artificial (or false) goals which consume valuable team resources. Due to the nature of software development, these false goals usually manifest themselves into incorrectly implemented code, resulting in costly waste and rework.

Outsource providers often treat such rework as change, resulting in costly charge-backs to the business.

Multi-aspect Requirements Definition for Distributed Teams

To significantly reduce the probability of ineffective requirements communication through natural language documentation, IT organizations are transitioning to more precise vehicles to communicate requirements. One of these vehicles is the adoption of the multi-aspect definition approach to communicate requirements in a highly visual way. Multi-aspect definition provides detailed context capture through highly precise data structures. These definition elements used in these holistic representations include use-cases for role (or actor) based flows, user-interface screen mockups, data lists, and the linkage of decision-points to business process definitions. These structures augment enumerated lists of functional and nonfunctional requirements.

The benefits of this approach include the use of simulation to ensure requirements understanding. Simulation is a communication mechanism that walks requirements stakeholders through process, data, and UI flows in linear order to represent how the system should function. Stakeholders have the ability to witness the functionality in rich detail, consuming the information in a structured way that eliminates miscommunication entirely.

Multi-aspect definition and simulation also provide context for validation. Validation is the process in which stakeholders review each and every requirement in the appropriate sequence, make appropriate comments, and then sign-off to ensure the requirements are accurate, clear, understood, and are feasible to be implemented. Requirements validation can be considered one of the most cost-effective quality control cycles to ensure team understanding. Since requirements are the “blueprint” of the system, distributed stakeholders can make use of multi-aspect definition and simulation during implementation to gain understanding of the goals of the project. Simulation eliminates ambiguity by providing visual representation of goals which, in turn, eliminates interpretation.

Rich requirements documentation often is a specified deliverable for most IT projects for various reasons that include regulatory compliance (Sarbanes Oxley, HIPAA, etc.), internal procedural specifications, and other internal review cycles. Multi-aspect definition can serve as the basis of this documentation and next generation requirements workbench solutions (such as Blueprint Requirements Center) can transform models into rich, custom Microsoft Word documentation. Since these documents are auto-generated, the amount of effort required to build and maintain these documents is minimized.

The Solution: A Case Study

PAREXEL is a world-leader in biopharmaceutical research. Some of the world’s largest drug, biotech, and medical device firms make use of their clinical research, consulting and medical communications services. PAREXEL was in the early stages of a major $1.2M upgrade to their revenue forecasting system. This project involved project staff distributed across many countries. They were already using HP Quality Center for requirements management test planning and management. At this early stage in the project they were already noticing issues with the requirements they had defined. General observations were that the requirements were too ‘wordy’ and abstract. Clarity had been lost in the translation of original business need into system functional requirements, and there were numerous instances of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the requirements which, to that point, had been expressed using flat-file documents. During this early phase they took the opportunity to evaluate tools that might help with these requirements issues. Blueprint was one of the products considered and was ultimately chosen partly due to its capabilities to support distributed requirements definition teams.

The development results of the very first module defined using Blueprint Requirements Center was enough to extend its use to all enhancements of PAREXEL’s financial applications. The first module defined using Blueprint Requirements Center saved three months of rework effort.

The full extent of Requirements Center’s feature set is now leveraged to span the complete requirements lifecycle including requirements lists, use case models, user interface mockups, simulations, and the generation of assets automatically, such as tests and documents.

PAREXEL has established a corporate Blueprint forum and knowledge base and is currently in the process of expanding use of Blueprint Requirements Center to other departments throughout the organization.


Matthew Morgan is a 15 year marketing and product professional with a rich legacy of successfully driving multi-million dollar marketing, product, and geographic business expansion efforts. He currently holds the executive position of SVP, Chief Marketing Officer for Blueprint, the global leader in Requirements Lifecycle Acceleration solutions. In this role, he is responsible for strategic marketing, partner relationships, and product management. His past tenure includes almost a decade at Mercury Interactive (which was acquired for $4.5B by HP Software), where he was the Director of Product Marketing for a $740 Million product category including Mercury’s Quality Management and Performance Management products. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of South Alabama. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of South Alabama.

Preventing Disasters; How to Use Data to Your Advantage

The late Lew Platt, former CEO at Hewlett-Packard once stated, “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” This is a typical situation in large organizations, where far too often, disasters arise from lack of awareness. Critical information is available in the organization, but goes undetected, is not communicated or is blatantly ignored.

Take the recent mortgage meltdown, for instance. The banking industry has a wealth of data on consumers, robust credit risk models, as well as lessons learned from the past. Their analytics told them which loans were too risky according to traditional models. Yet, they decided to relax their standards, ignore the data…and the rest is history. Or, take the recent PR debacle around Southwest Airlines’ plane inspections. The FAA had inspection logs that could have told them that the planes were passing with flying colors at unprecedented rates, yet no one suggested conducting a site visit to see if the airline was actually performing those inspections. And when low-level employees reported issues to their managers, that information was not passed on. Fortunately, in that case, a tragedy was avoided.

If there is a question we should be asking in the current economic and regulatory environment, it is “Why does accountability so often fail, and what role does analytics play in preventing these disasters?” Organizations need to understand why they fail to detect early warning signs, how to filter and monitor available data to create actionable information, and how correctly applying analytics can turn data into knowledge. That knowledge can then prevent disasters and increase competitive advantage.

Why Accountability Fails

The repeated disasters that occur due mainly to failures in accountability arise for the following reasons:

  • Large, complex organizations (or environments) make it difficult to know what is happening “on the ground” and detect significant changes in the environment.
  • Very often, players in the organization (managers, employees, others) receive incentives only for presenting a positive picture and anchor on how things have worked in the past.
  • Organizations measure and monitor only past-focused, outcome measures, which only indicate a disaster once it has already occurred.
  • Many organizations lack the skills necessary to manage data, much less apply analytical techniques to make sense of that data and keep an accurate view of the current operating reality.

The Impact of Anonymity

The lack of awareness that often brings disaster stems from the anonymity that characterizes today’s organizations. A hundred years ago, most business transactions were conducted face to face. Business owners walked the shop floor. Customers who bought eggs from the village shopkeeper knew not only the shopkeeper, but also the farmer who raised the chickens. Loans where made to people the banker knew personally and regulations were made and enforced by local officials.

The more complex an organization becomes, the less transparency there is, and the more difficult it becomes to make good decisions. Consumers and producers don’t know one another. Decision makers and implementers don’t have direct lines of communication. By the time information reaches a decision-maker at the top, it is usually highly filtered, and often inaccurate. The information and implications have been spun so as not to upset management or cast dispersion on employees, and therefore fail to present the reality of the situation.

These conditions not only impair the organization’s ability to understand what is currently going on, but also remove any ability to detect change in the environment. Outside information can effectively be closed out in extreme examples. The U.S. automakers in the 1970s, who looked out the executive suite window into their parking lot and saw only U.S.-made cars, determined that Japan was not a threat. Meanwhile, dealers in California had significant early signals in their sales numbers that Japan was indeed a threat to the U.S. auto industry.

Incentives for Bad Behavior

An even more insidious problem is that disasters often arise because organizations have actually encouraged behaviors that lead to them. The filtering of information cited above is actually a very mild form of this. Employees and managers are rewarded for highlighting what they’ve done well, so why would they ever identify something that is going wrong on their watch?

We tend to blame those who bring bad news, whether they deserve it or not. Consider any major whistle-blower of the past. The amount of scrutiny, negative media attention and damage to their career is enough to dissuade most people from taking a stance. And yet those same people brought to light, and often prevented, significant disasters in the making.

So many organizations reward those who bring in good short-term results, prove out the organization’s current business model and don’t ruffle too many feathers. In return, we get exotic financial instruments in an attempt to make quarterly revenue, low standards on food or workplace safety and fudging on project and financial status reports. The contrarian voices pointing out the impending disaster go unheard and unheeded, and changes come too late to matter.

Driving While Watching the Rear View Mirror

The vast majority of the data that organizations look at represent outcomes that are past-focused. The traditional financial statements show the outcomes of business activities (revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, etc.) while nothing in those statements measures the underlying activity that produces those outcomes. Hence, nothing gives any indication of the current health of the organization.

Kaplan and Norton sought to remedy this with their Balanced Score Card approach. By focusing on the drivers of those outcomes, the organization should be able to monitor leading indicators to ensure the continued health of the enterprise. Relatively few organizations have fully adopted such an approach, and even those few have struggled to implement it fully. Too often, managers do not fully understand how to impact the metrics on the scorecard. And as time moves on, the scorecard can fail to keep up with changing realities, suggesting relationships between activity and outcome that no longer exist.

Numeracy?

“Numeracy” is the ability to reason with numbers. John Allen Paulos, Professor of Mathematics at Temple University, made this concept famous with his book Innumeracy, in which he bemoans how little skill our society has in dealing with mathematics, given how dependent upon it we have become. Organizations today struggle to maintain a workforce that has the skills to manage the data their operations generate. Once the data have been wrangled, the analytical reasoning skills required to make sense of that data are lacking.

Analytics provides powerful tools for dealing with massive quantities of data, and more importantly, for understanding how important relationships in our operating environment may be changing. But without a strongly numerate workforce, organizations cannot apply these techniques on their own and have a very limited ability to interpret the output of such techniques. A lack of good intuition and reasoning with numbers means that many warning signals go undetected.

What Drives Organizational Outcomes?

Organizations that want to prevent disasters and increase competitive advantage first need to define what constitutes critical information – in other words, what really matters to the organization. Prior assumptions have no place in that determination. Let’s say, for example, a company is proposing to increase its customer repeat rate by increasing satisfaction with its service. But does that relationship between customer repeat rate and satisfaction with the service really exist? And to what degree? Amazon.com, for example, does not simply assume that a person who buys a popular fiction book will want to see a list of other popular fiction books. Rather, it analyzes customer behavior. Thus, someone who is ordering Eat, Pray, Love might see an Italian cookbook, a Yoga DVD and a travel guide for Bali as recommendations because other people who bought that fiction book also bought those other items.

The steps to decide what matters are:

  1. Decide what the organization wants to accomplish.
  2. Identify the activities (customer behaviors and management techniques) that appear to produce that outcome.
  3. Test and retest those relationships, collecting data from operations to measure the link between activity and outcome.

Once an organization has identified what constitutes its key activities, how can it find the information it needs to monitor them?

Find the points in the value chain where the key actions have to occur to deliver the intended outcomes.

  1. Collect critical information at, or as close to, those points as possible. The closer an organization can get to the key points of value delivery, the more accurate the information it can collect.
  2. Continuously look for the most direct and unfiltered route to obtain the richest, most consistent information on each key point of the value chain.
  3. Keep testing each assumption by asking the question, “What surprising event could I see early enough to take corrective action?”

Stop Trying to Prove Yourself Right

Several traditional ways of doing business blind organizations to warning signs of potential disasters. First among these is looking for data that confirms that all is well. Although extremely counterintuitive, it is critical to look for evidence that things are not all right. Ask the question, “if something were going to cause failure, what would it be and how can it be measured?” If it can be measured, then it can be corrected early and failure can be avoided. Rather than indicating what has gone right in the past, these measures contain warnings of what could go wrong in the future.

To see the early warning signs, follow this process:

  1. Ask what assumptions are being made in the process of executing strategy to deliver value. For example, if the goal is to increase the efficiency of inspections, is there an assumption that inspectors will become more efficient while still adhering to the same high quality standards? Or, in a call center, is there an assumption that reps can decrease call handle time and still provide superior service?
  2. These assumptions are alert points where failure might occur. Don’t wait for the final outcome, but track, measure and monitor each assumption to make sure it is playing out successfully. This process is well known to project managers. They don’t just design Work Breakdown Structures and Critical Paths and then wait around for the end date to see if the project was successful. As soon as a task begins to exceed its scope, the impact is assessed all the way down the line.
  3. Keep testing each assumption by asking the question, “What surprising event could I see early enough to take corrective action?”

Organizations that do this well are not operating with a negative, doom-and-gloom perspective. Rather, they want their positive outcomes so badly that they look for data that might be telling them something is going wrong so they can correct it before it is too late. They are willing to “Fail Fast” and “Fail Forward,” keeping the failure small to ensure large successes.

People Power the Process

Creating knowledge from data to prevent disasters depends on both technology and human skill. Computers are powerful tools that can help collect, store, aggregate, summarize and process data, but the human brain is needed to analyze the data and turn it into actionable information. It’s this human factor where the biggest gap exists in most organizations. Finding people who can perform the required analysis is becoming increasingly difficult. A spreadsheet is just a pile of data until someone applies critical thinking, adding subjective experience and industry knowledge to derive insights into what the numbers really mean.

Organizations must invest in developing these skills in their workforce. Here’s how:

  1. Provide employees with the training, job assignment, education and mentoring opportunities needed to develop their analytical skills, industry expertise and decision-making acumen.
  2. Subject decision-making to evidence-based approaches, providing feedback to improve future decisions.
  3. Ensure employees have the tools they need to manage the volumes of data they are expected to digest and act upon.

Blame Is Not an Option

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge said that a “learning organization” depends on a blame-free culture. In other words, when a problem arises, people need to refocus from laying blame or escaping blame and start fixing the problem.

In today’s data-rich world, preventing disasters large and small requires monitoring and filtering through the large volumes of information that stream into organizations every day to find early warning signs of imminent failure. Intellectually, just about everyone will agree that it makes sense to look for what could go wrong. Emotionally, however, it’s another matter. It is both counterintuitive and intimidating to ask managers to search out constantly how the organization is failing. Establishing a blame-free culture is the final frontier to create a new awareness and encourage people to test assumptions, make better use of analytics and communicate information without fear.


Charles Caldwell is Practice Lead, Analytics, with Management Concepts. Headquartered in Vienna, VA, and founded in 1973, Management Concepts is a global provider of training, consulting and publications in leadership and management development. For further information, visit www.managementconcepts.com or call 703 790-9595.

Re-Focusing and Re-Energizing Teams

How would you measure your efforts to involve the entire workforce in resolving problems that inhibit productivity and their ability to succeed? Although there are exceptions to every rule, it is a relatively safe hypothesis that most people want some control over how they perform their jobs each day. A key factor in the success of teams assembled to analyze problems, define requirements and offer solutions is how management responds to those suggestions. If those suggestions are accepted and acted upon, this is often the catalyst for motivating the team to reach for, and achieve, higher levels of quality.

In my experience, teams that are most successful and have the longest life span are those with the fewest layers of “leaders.” Each leader added into the mix represents opportunity to compromise the effectiveness of communication within the organization. On high performing teams, leadership is a shared role. All members are developed to take a leadership role as required. This structure increases the feeling of responsibility for all members.

Reviving excitement in a team is a considerable challenge that can be accomplished if the team can be convinced their efforts are important and will be rewarded. The first step is to understand the causes of the team’s loss of focus. Successful teams often “cool-off” or lose interest more frequently than those who are struggling. The reason for the loss of focus is often boredom. Teams need a reason to remain excited and motivated. Each team is different and will be excited and motivated by different things. Your challenge is to understand what will excite your teams and motivate them to see the value and pay-off for the projects you’re advocating.

Many organizations complain about not having enough time to get their products out, and their inability to meet delivery schedules. In this case, the paramount question becomes: How can the performance of the teams be improved? First, it becomes critical to understand why there is a persistent problem in order to move forward with attempts to refocus the teams. Is the pressure to meet schedules due to insufficient staff to handle the work, a need for better processes, or people not adhering to the processes?

If the perception is that team meetings will only take away time required to complete the work, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to refocus the teams. This is a prime opportunity for management to evaluate the current situation, and solicit the help of the teams to reach viable solutions. If there are not enough people to complete the work, it is going to be difficult to address the problem through the efforts of the teams. However, if the problems can be addressed through process improvements, this is an excellent opportunity to return excitement and motivation to your teams by asking them to improve the processes. I have always found it necessary to know the members of a team as individuals in order to achieve optimum results. Coaching the managers closest to the teams to attempt to understand what motivates each person, and rewarding the person accordingly, will help keep the teams focused. It is also important to demonstrate that their outputs are important. This means that meetings must be treated as work. They must be scheduled the same as other tasks, with attendance manadatory.


Dr. W. Pearl Maxwell is a Principal Consultant at Advanced Management Services, Inc. (AMS), a full service management consultancy servicing an international client base. Since 1989, Pearl has developed a successful career as an organizational development practitioner, professional trainer and keynote speaker. Pearl has extensive experience working with process improvement and reengineering initiatives helping clients, such as SCC, Sprint, Rehab Care, Symphony Health Services, to create functional business models for enhanced organizational productivity.