Saturday, March 19, 2011

Seek Forgiveness or Beg Permission?

I have a friend who is engaged in a very particular type of activity as part of the Intelligence Community. This activity requires, by definition, particular types of behavior. My friend, who is quite a capable individual, recently came up with a novel approach to performing his duties. Without giving away any details, suffice it to say that his boss balked. In short, his boss was afraid that HIS boss might object (without ever asking, just an apparent ‘gut’ response) and so told my friend to stop his operation.

What can we learn from this?

First, the simple truth is that many people in positions of authority are more afraid of loss then they are desirous of success. Thus, they spend a fair amount of time making sure nothing goes wrong rather than trying to make something go right. The end result is that they stifle the creativity of those who work for them.

Avoiding mistakes is always one way to go through life, but it hardly ever satisfies anyone. And the truth is that virtually any plan has risks, even doing nothing. If you are satisfied in a bureaucratic cubbyhole you can choose the path of inaction and remain comfortable. But in every other case, you will find you must act and let those around you act. That will mean risk and you, as a leader, must learn to embrace that risk. Are there ways to mitigate risk? Certainly, through the selection of good people and the development of a decent planning process. But there will always be risk – if you want out of your cubbyhole.

Second, people in leadership positions who are afraid of new ideas will also usually be afraid of creative, aggressive people. In extreme cases they will extend this to the point of convincing themselves that their subordinates are plotting against them, trying to usurp their power and take their position.

Good leaders on the other hand encourage their people to experiment, to try new ways of ‘doing business,’ and will ‘run interference’ from higher up to ensure they have the freedom to try. Good leaders know that in any decent organization the top leadership will look into the ranks and when they see that bright, talented and creative folks keep popping up out of one particular office, they will reward the middle manager who is producing all the new talent.

If you find yourself at first a bit put-off by one of your subordinates ideas, ask for a detailed explanation – not a bunch of briefing slides, an explanation, face to face. Then ask yourself why you are uncomfortable. If it is technology, that’s your problem and no one else’s. You need to get smarter on technology. It is also the reason you have other people working for you: you can’t know everything. If you trust your people at all, you should let them try it.

If you are uncomfortable because you think something is against the rules – real or implied (whether the law, corporate ethics, or simply the rules your boss came up with), you should investigate a little before you say no. Is it really against the rules? If not, then let them try. If it clearly is against the rules, tell your people. I think you will be amazed at how hard they will work to find a legal way to do things.

What if it is in a gray area, not clearly against the rules, but it looks like parts of it may be? If you have a large organization it will have a legal support office of some sort. Go sit down with someone – face to face, not by e-mail – and see what the legal office thinks.

The point here is that your job as boss is to make things happen. So, when someone comes to you with an idea, your job is to figure out how to say “CHARGE!” It is most definitely not to say “WHOA!”

Alternatively, you can go back to your cubbyhole.

Third, great successes usually come from doing things differently. Doing the same thing over and over again, without change, will eventually lead to stagnation and then failure. The competition will eventually ‘figure it out’ and you will lose whatever advantage you once held.

But you will never come up with all the possible ways of doing things differently. That is what all those folks do who work for you. Some of those ideas may be a bit ‘off the reservation.’ Don’t throw out the idea. Instead, take a close look. See if there isn’t some way to ‘tweak’ the idea so that is can be used. Remember, your job as boss is to help those who work for you do the real work of your organization – in a very real sense you work for them.

There is an old saw that it is better to seek forgiveness than to beg for permission. Real progress – in any field – comes from doing things differently. And every time you do something differently someone somewhere is going to cry ‘Foul.’ The fact is that you have all sorts of people you can use to make sure you don’t break the law, without stifling creativity. By stimulating that creativity – and by sending the clear signal to your people that you will support them – you are going to get people to open their minds and explore new and better ways to use your technology, use your assets, and develop new solutions. And then when some naysayer whines about your new project you will find yourself standing in front of your boss saying “look at what my folks have done” and handing him the prize. If you had asked before hand it is just as likely he would have said ‘no.’ But if you bring success, seeking a little forgiveness for stretching the rules will seem a worthwhile effort.

Or you can climb back into your cubbyhole. The choice is yours.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fundamentals - Intellect Part 1

There are many dreamers and visionaries, and there are many managers. But one of the key traits that set real leaders apart from both is that the real leader builds a ‘path’ between the vision and the real world. Between crafting a vision and identifying a goal on the one hand and actually moving towards the full realization of that vision, lays the process of making the vision into something more than ‘pie in the sky.’ The central trait in turning the vision into reality is intellect.

But, you will say that intellect is something that you are born with. While you can pursue education, read the great books and surround yourself with smart people, in the end you aren’t going to make yourself smarter. My answer to that is an unequivocal yes and no.

It is quite true that you are born with certain mental abilities (IQ, whatever – I don’t want to argue about how to measure intellect, there are many ways, you may pick your favorite), but the key question is whether you can improve those elements in your intellect that would allow you to develop clearer goals and visions, as well as the means to achieve them? And the answer to both those questions is yes.

Creating Visions and Goals

The first issue is simply this: how do you develop a new vision? This may sound like an order to ‘come up with a new idea’ as if they are found on the new idea trees in the town square. But, in fact, there are several fairly simple processes that can be used to come up with new goals.

1 – Pump Up the Standards

Perhaps the most obvious means to come up with a new vision is to simply add to the old one. This sounds terribly obvious, but there are a fair number of folks in the world who seem to forget it when placed in a position of having to develop new goals. Simply put, if the organization is running well, and there are few strains to the system, and the environment does not seem to be changing into a threatening one, you can keep the organization moving forward by simply expanding on the existing goals. In short, just ‘aim higher.’ For a company, increasing your market goals while improving quality and reducing costs all provide viable goals. Those same type of ‘marks’ can be used for nearly any organization: a football team can win the Super Bowl and when pre-season conditioning begins the goal is to not only win the Super Bowl, but to go undefeated; for the defensive line to give up fewer yards, and to produce more quarterback sacks. For the offense it can be to score more points with fewer turnovers and a more balanced attack. Each player’s performance can be similarly dissected.

Such an approach, whether in sports or in sales or service or engineering performance or in any other area, can provide meaningful challenges and meaningful motivations to the people of the organization, and provide the added benefit that they aren’t disruptive to the organization.

2 – ‘Steal It’

This may sound a bit odd, but it is in fact more than likely that you will ‘steal’ your goals and vision from someone else. Simply put, its all been done before. One of the greatest leaders of all time – Alexander the Great – based his specific vision of a world empire ruled through merit, a meritocracy, from the teachings of his tutor – Aristotle. (It does help to have one of the smartest men of all time as your tutor). As a leader you should be constantly trying to ‘improve your game,’ and one of the best ways to do that is to read what other leaders have done and said; autobiographies and biographies are fertile hunting ground and should be under constant search.

There is a nearly limitless stream of commentary on the internet, as well as a wide range of professional journals in every possible profession, and the availability of books via the internet or via a book store or ordered on line should allow you to find a range of authors that strike a cord with you and from which you can pull ideas. This will take time, it is the study of a lifetime, but it is also an incredibly rich study.

3 – Ask the Right Question: What If?

The easiest way to explain this is with a short story, told to me by one of my math professors many years ago about one of the great mathematicians of the 19th century, a Russian named Viktor Bunyakovski (1804 - 1889). Bunyakovski was a brilliant guy (he submitted three different doctoral dissertations at the university in Paris in 1825, and over the period of his life he submitted more than 150 papers on various mathematics proofs and issues in mechanics.) In fact, he became somewhat famous for his reputation for producing a steady stream of new ideas. When asked how he did it, he reportedly responded that he simply asked the question ‘What if this equation were changed?’ His most noted work – known as the Cauchy-Schwarz-Bunyakovski inequality for the three different mathematicians who independently developed it – was begun when he put a simple equation on the board and asked the question: ‘what if a times b didn’t equal b times a?’

The point isn’t to make everyone a fan of higher order mathematics. Rather, the issue is to ask you to take all those things that you have been told in your field that are so, and question them. Take a look around your industry or your field. Write down all the commonly accepted “truths,” those remarks that might begin “Everyone says…” or “You can’t…” or “We will never…” Now, ask yourself what would happen if any one of those could be proven wrong.

4 – Eureka!

Keep a note pad handy. Leave one in your car, another by your bed, another in your jacket pocket. When a stray thought that seems to fit strikes you, don’t hesitate – write it down. Keep these ‘manna from heaven’ in a convenient pile at your desk and flip through them from time to time. Many will mean nothing, but some will rise to the surface. When they do, you will know it.

5 – Engage Your Trusted Friends, Your Kitchen Cabinet

Finally, talk to friends, particularly friends who aren’t in your ‘business,’ your type of work. What do they think? How do they see your world? What do they think is missing? They have a fresh and very real perspective that you and the people at work do not. You need to plug into that perspective.

This is the first part of what I mean by intellect.

Next: How do you turn the vision into tasks?