Friday, March 22, 2013

Remote Working and Yahoo: An Either/Or Decision in aBoth/And World

It's been a while, but I'm not dead yet! Just resting. Ha!

The media has been all over Marissa Meyer (CEO of Yahoo) for deciding to recall remote workers back to the office. This is in an effort to promote collaboration and innovation. We'll see.

Marissa Meyer has a very tough job on her hands.  She joined a company that was/is in trouble.  According to the San Francisco Chronicle (SF Gate, July 20, 2012)), Yahoo is faced with “declining quarterly revenue and market share, a downtrodden workforce, and a dearth of talent within its depleted engineering corps.” They quote former Yahoo manager Michael Smith who wrote on his blog a few months ago, “Yahoo could easily cut 20 to 25 percent of its staff without actually cutting much of its capabilities.” And so, Meyer’s move, as suggested by some observers, is in part an attempt at stealth layoffs. Some remote workers will choose not to return to the office. 

Unfortunately this ‘back to the office’ decision is very heavy handed. Although there are conflicting reports,  it seems to be an all or nothing decision. It will be interesting to see if it is sustainable in the freewheeling culture of Silicon Valley.  Yahoo already has a reputation as “a dreary place to work” (SF Gate), and if work flexibility is taken away, the likelihood of top talent being attracted to the company is somewhat slim.

This is not to say that remote working in Yahoo wasn’t in need of a radical makeover.  According to a source who spoke to Business Insider:

·         Yahoo has a huge number of people who work remotely – people who just never come in

·         Many of these people “weren’t productive”

·         A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo

These statements don’t paint a pretty picture, but it is the design and management of the program that is to blame, not remote working itself.  It’s well proven that remote working has many benefits for both organizations and employees, but it needs to be managed carefully.  Not every employee is mature enough to work outside the office and be accountable, and not every manager has the skill set to make it work efficiently and effectively.  Remote working is not an either/or issue.

I asked a neighbor of mine (a remote worker for a US bank) how well she thought she was managed.  Here is what she said (in bullet form):

·         It’s very rare for my manager to contact me

·         His communications are always vague and sloppy

·         He gives me no feedback

·         He makes me feel marginalized, that I’m not really part of the company

I suspect that there is an epidemic of bad management when it comes to remote working. Gary Griffiths – a SVP at Cisco – says, “They opened up the flood gates on remote work without fully understanding the impact on management.”  Banning remote working in Yahoo will not solve its problems.  Face time is not a remedy for slacking or for promoting better collaboration.  Better management of remote working will not establish a culture of innovation, but it would be a positive step forward.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fukushima: Cultural Explanations Aren't the Whole Story

On July 5th, the Japanese parliament (Diet) released the English version of a report by an independent investigative committee into the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.  The setting up of an independent investigative committee by the Diet was itself precedent breaking in Japan.

Surprisingly, the report was highly critical of certain aspects of Japanese culture.  The Commission’s chairman – Kiyoshi Kurokawa – said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Tokyo on July 6th that “reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority, devotion to ‘sticking to the program,’ groupism and insularity” were root causes.  This cultural self-criticism is remarkable for its openness.  As Kurokawa san said at the press conference:

“We owe the world an explanation on how could this happen in Japan . . . The truth is very painful for us to admit, but it is difficult to grasp without intimate understanding of how our society works. That is why I am making an effort to explain this to the global community.”

He went on to explain that the “collective mind-set” that led to the Fukushima disaster wasn’t unique to the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) or involved government agencies, but is also in workplaces throughout Japan.

One lesson from Fukushima is that we should develop greater awareness of how our own cultural orientations can become dysfunctional.  Every cultural orientation can be a positive force or negative force; they typically become negative when they are pushed to their extremes, are unquestioned, and are applied rigidly regardless of context.

Another lesson we should take from the Fukushima report is that though ‘culture’ is a deep and powerful force, we should not be satisfied with a purely cultural explanation of events.  We have to consider the role of other factors. For example:

Structural/Institutional Issues: The same agency that was tasked with promoting the use of nuclear power was also the agency regulating the safety of nuclear reactors. There were overlapping interests between the regulators and the industry.  The regulators also had no authority to implement any changes. What should have been a productive collaboration between government and industry - in the interests of the public - became a collusive relationship which prevented real oversight.  Regulators did set a deadline of 2009 for a safety evaluation based on new seismic standards, but TEPCO decided made the decision internally and unilaterally to push the deadline to January 2016.

Economic Interests: A number of systems failed because improvements were not made to the plant.  The plant was run for a profit, and retrofitting systems to meet new seismic standards was low on the priority list.

Political Interests: Japan has little in the way of its own energy resources and so after the oil crises in the 1970s, Japan decided to drive for greater energy independence.  Nuclear power was chosen to fulfill that goal. Bureaucrats and politicians had committed themselves to the view that nuclear plants were safe and became resistant to actively creating new regulations.

All I’m trying to say here – in too many words – is that situations tend to be complex, and any analysis should respect that complexity.  There are typically many forces at work, and while culture might influence how these forces manifest themselves, they are forces in their own right. I often hear ‘culture’ used in all-encompassing way - blaming or praising culture for everything under the sun. regardless of what structural, economic, political, and even psychological factors are at work.  I am not accusing Kurokawa san of making such a mistake.  His commission has done an excellent job of teasing out the many variables in the Fukushima disaster and revealing its complexity.  Culture is a tool to aid understanding, but it is only one tool among many.  The bad decisions taken before, during, and after the earthquake and tsunami cannot all be laid at the feet of culture – economic, structural, political, and  psychological factors must be given their due.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Global Leadership: What Is It?

Last week I spoke at a conference in Germany focused on the topic of global leadership.  What surprised me most was that none of the other presenters offered a definition of global leadership.  Is the concept now so commonplace that we all share a common understanding?  I don’t think so. Maybe I’m old fashioned in my view that we should define our terms.

One assumption that did seem to be shared by many was that when we talk about a global leader we refer to someone at a high level in an organization – someone at an executive level who has clear, global responsibilities.  In my view, this conception is too narrow.  The global and the local realms are becoming increasingly blurred.  When it comes to making the best decisions for the organization it is critical that leaders at all levels and locations have both a global and local mindset – that they see the local impact of global decisions and the global impact of local decisions.  The responsibility for anyone influencing and taking decisions should be to optimize results for the whole organization rather than promote global or local at the expense of the other.

The types of decisions made by different leaders will vary by level. Those at the top of the organization will be responsible for more strategic decisions while those in the middle will be focused on more tactical decisions.  Those at lower levels of leadership will be primarily responsible for operational decisions. What are the differences?

·         Strategic Decisions (Long-term): Concerned with deciding on the what?

·         Tactical Decisions (Medium term): Concerned with deciding on the how?

·         Operational Decisions (Short term): Concerned with deciding on how – right now?

Whatever the type of decision, the outcome should be beneficial to global and local interests.  And so, my definition of a global leader:
“Any individual or group taking responsibility for making decisions - strategic, tactical, and/or operational - that aim to optimize global and local results.”
Positional power is not a factor in this definition of global leadership, and neither is location.  Being given responsibility is also not a factor while taking responsibility is. 

From this perspective, most organizations will need a far greater number of global leaders than they currently have.    


Friday, May 25, 2012

Collaborating With ThinkLets

Do you know the term ThinkLets?
If you don’t, read on.

Before I define ThinkLets, let me step back to the field from where the concept emerged - Collaboration Engineering (CE).
In any collaboration there are certain patterns of deliberation/collaboration.  Although the language changes slightly among practitioners, CE identifies these patterns of collaboration as:

Diverge - moving from having fewer to having more concepts with which to work
Converge - moving from having many to a focus on a few concepts deemed worthy of more attention

Clarify - moving from less to more shared understanding of concepts and labels

Organize - deriving understanding of the relationships among concepts
Evaluate - increasing understanding of the instrumentality of concepts

Build Consensus– move from having less agreement among stakeholders to having more agreement among stakeholders
In the words of two of the pioneers of CE, Gert-Jan de Vreede and Robert O. Briggs, ThinkLets are “a means to express elementary processes to create patterns of group interaction in a predictable and repeatable way.” (1)  In other words, ThinkLets are re-usable and transferable collaboration activities for facilitating the creation of the collaboration patterns described above. 

The names of ThinkLets are descriptive of the pattern of collaboration to be generated. For example, ThinkLets for the Diverge pattern include: Leafhopper, Branchbuilder, and OneMinuteMadness. Each ThinkLet is documented in a format that includes: when to use and not to use the ThinkLet, an overview, inputs and outputs, setup, steps, insights, and success stories.
If you want to learn more about ThinkLets, I recommend ThinkLets: Building Blocks for Concerted Collaboration by Robert Briggs and Gert-jan de Vreede published by Colophon in 2009. It’s not available on Amazon but you can order it from Lulu

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Creativity, Control & Benign Structures

Creativity and control are often thought to be incompatible. But are they?  It depends on how these two terms are framed.  Look at the following:
Creativity: chaotic, wild woolly, haphazard, anarchic, incoherent

Control: power, domination, regimentation, subjection, repression

Framed in those extreme terms, they have nothing to offer one another.  Anyone who has been involved in creative activities, however, knows that some form of controlling limitation can be a great aid to the creative process.  The controlling limitation can be a strong vision, a required format, a theme, a problem, a limited amount of time, a framework or process, scarce resources, a set of ingredients, a script, and so on.  Unconstrained open-endedness can paralyze creativity. 

Film making is a highly creative and controlled process with the director working the tension.  Read what people say about Martin Scorcese’s style:
“. . . if Scorcese is one of film’s grand conductors . . . then there’s one important twist to the kind of orchestra he leads. It’s sometimes playing jazz. His leadership style is equal parts structure and improvisation, reverence, and irreverence.”

“Marty’s very, very prepared,” says Irwin Winkler a producer of several Scorcese films including Raging Bull. “He knows what he wants so he has the freedom of improvising . . . like a jazz musician.”
Many actors . . . credit this mix of structure and creative flexibility with his success as a leader on set.  “It was loose and methodical at the same time,” Ellen Burstyn says of the process. Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Marty is the best at providing an atmosphere where actors can do their best work.  He trusts actors, and involves them.”

Robert de Niro remembers a similar technique of finding ‘a structure for improvisation’, in Mean Streets as well as Raging Bull.”
“The freedom of expression Scorcese provides each member of his team acts in concert with, and toward the greater goal of, his vision.”

All quotes are from Martin Scorcese: Il maestro by Mary Pat Kelly, The Washington Post. February 24, 2011.
Francis Ford Coppola relies on theme as a controlling limitation.  He says, “When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words.  Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In ‘The Godfather’ it was succession. In ‘The Conversation’ it was privacy. In ‘Apocalypse’ it was morality . . . Knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.”

Quote from Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration by Ariston Anderson in The Washington Post, February 24, 2011.
Structure is a word often associated with forms of control. Organizational structure, for example, refers to how roles, governance, procedures, authority, decision-making, and other control mechanisms are configured – factors that limit or influence individual behaviors.  When looked at this way, structure and creativity would seem to be antithetical to one another.  Does this always need to be the case?

I recently came across some work –developed a couple of decades ago - by two academics at the University of Manchester – Susan Moger and  Tudor Rickards. Their work focuses on creative leadership in teams. In their model, the creative leader introduces structures (protocols) that facilitate the creativity of the team. They call these structures ‘benign structures’ – benign in the sense that they don’t impose structural impediments to creative development and systems change. They are not structures aimed at maintaining the status quo.  A benign structure can be a creativity technique. The technique will have codified and explicit protocols (rules), but they operate “to establish habits against habits” (a quote from S J. Parnes, co-founder of the International Center for Studies in Creativity).  Think of what Robert de Niro said about Scorcese’s technique of finding ‘a structure for improvisation’.
With collaborative creativity and innovation being very high on corporate agendas, I think the idea of ‘benign structures’ needs to be looked at anew.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Riding the Virtual Wave

 I am always sceptical of company sponsored research, especially when the results are extremely supportive of the company's line of business. That having been said, however, sometimes we just need to suspend our scepticism for a while and just look at the results.

Wrike is a social project management platform company that in December of 2011gathered input from 1,074 respondents. They represented organizations of all sizes, and they were asked about their current and expected work practices, particularly around virtual collaboration among remote teams.

Here are some of the main findings:
  • 83 percent said they are already spending at least a few hours a week working outside their office
  • Two thirds said they expect their offices to go fully virtual withi the next few years
  • 43 percent said they now work more virtually than they did just 2 or 3 years ago
  • The higher the position in the company, the more time the person spends working outside the office (Business owners - 30 percent, Executives - 20 hours, Managers - 10 hours)
  • 89 percent rated the opportunity to work remotely as an important fringe benefit. To work remotely respondents would be willing to:
          - forgo free meals offered by employees (78 percent)
          - forgo employer-paid cellphone plans (54 percent)
          - accept a reduction in paid vacation (31 percent)
          - accept a reduction in salary (25 percent)
  • Time savings, increased productivity, and the opportunity to focus on work rather than be distracted by office politics surfaced as the top three benefits of remote collaboration
  • 37 percent said a lack of direct communication is the biggest obstacle to efficient remote collaboration
  • 21 percent said hindered data accessibility was the biggest barrier
  • 19 percent identified poor visibility into colleagues activities as the main barrier
I don't know if all the respondents were US-based. It would be interesting to compare these results with workers in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Death to PowerPoint. Long Live PowerPoint

While reading Frank Frommer’s book How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid, New York: The New Press, 2012, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the main arguments were available on a PowerPoint slide deck in SlideShare.  You see how corrupted I’ve become.

I’m not a great fan of PowerPoint, and for many of the reasons pointed out by Fromer, and earlier in a critique by Edward Tufte in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.  No technology is neutral, and PowerPoint can encourage:
  • The drive for efficiency (via shortcuts) over effectiveness
  • The view that a meeting means a presentation
  • Showmanship and salesmanship over content and problem-solving
  • The reduction of complexity into default and simplistic bullet points
  • Simplified text
  • Lazy and uncritical thinking
  • Decontextualization of data
  • Sloganeering and use of vague, empty language
I’ve witnessed all of these, and been guilty of some myself.

I was enjoying having my feelings about PowerPoint mirrored back to me, but found myself becoming resistant.  While Frommer’s arguments were compelling, I began to feel they were too strident, too one dimensional.  Not every problem in business or anywhere else needs a high degree of reflection, intense critical analysis, and prolonged debate. The challenge posed by PowerPoint lies as much in the lack of media literacy among managers as it does in the software.  When people find something convenient, they tend to overuse and abuse it, but that doesn’t negate all of its value.  Apart from finding the book overzealous in its condemnation, something else was troubling me.  I was feeling that there was a cultural defensiveness roiling beneath the logical arguments.  How else should we take a statement like this:

“A language of universal communication, the English language thus imposes its constraints and a specific mode of linguistic construction. The omission of some connecting words; the modification of word order, notably the inversion of nouns and adjectives; and morphological changes in some words,  notably words with the suffix – isation that have become relatively in  French, all demonstrate that this Anglo-American contamination is nothing new.” (my bold)
Franck Frommer is a French journalist, and having worked a very great deal with the French, I recognized certain cultural tendencies driving his arguments.

I have no wish to stereotype (a fixed perception with no room for individual variation), but in my experience, a French cultural tendency is to respect intellectual debate. Every problem is treated as being unique, and deserving of its own analysis and solution – anything else is superficial.  I once gave two groups – one French and one Japanese – 10 minutes to come up with 5 questions that they would like to ask the other group (to identify differences in their organizational cultures).  The Japanese group finished in 5 minutes; the French were still debating what precise questions to ask 45 minutes later.  I greatly respect the French cultural tendency to go deeply into issues, but I also respect the American drive for action.  Neither approach is appropriate all of the time.  Both can add value at different times under different circumstances.