!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: May 2006

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Using Simulation in Flight Training

The four immediately preceding posts discussed some of the ideas civilian organizations can pick up by studying training done in the US Marine Corps, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. In today's post I want to highlight an area where the Air Force has provided considerable insight, namely the use of simulation to hone skills.

As with civilian airlines, Air Force flight simulators have had a tremendous impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of pilot and crew training. Air Force trainees use simulators to practice procedures for handling both normal and emergency situations; experienced personnel rehearse missions and refresh and refine their skills.

In Air Force simulator training, a wide variety of situations are presented. Normal scenarios include tasks like maneuvering in formation and carrying out mid-air refueling. Emergency scenarios involve such problems as engine failure and avionics malfunctions. In setting scenarios up, the simulation instructors can vary weather and visibility, and they can incorporate enemy action.

When students make mistakes, they can try again as often as necessary to achieve mastery. Needless to say, there are generally no human or equipment casualties sustained in the process.

Other benefits of use of flight simulators include:
  • The simulator is not constrained by the logistics and cost of scheduling opposition aircraft, range time, warning areas, etc.

  • A simulator scenario is not constrained by safety, environmental, diplomatic, security, and other real-world limitations.

  • A simulator scenario does not have to contend with unrealistic physical requirements. For example, when simulated aircraft are shot down, they can be immediately removed from the scenario.

  • The design of a simulator scenario can be more flexible, which means it can more easily be tailored to situations that are particularly important or to situations that the student is having difficulty with.

  • The simulator can provide the student with more trials in a given block of time by eliminating tasks that are not central to the training objective (e.g., launching, refueling, repositioning).

  • The instructor's critique of the student's actions can be more precise because the instructor has an accurate reconstruction of what happened.

  • The instructor can provide the student with cause-and-effect feedback almost immediately, when it is most effective.
Just as the civilian sector is increasingly using simulations to teach both hard and soft skills, the Air Force is using simulations not only to build its crews' technical skills, but also for strengthening non-technical skills, notably in the areas of strategic thinking and decision making. I will have more to say about non-technical simulations in later posts.


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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Coast Guard Grad School

Having marked the long Memorial Day weekend with posts dealing with training in the US Marine Corps, US Army, and US Navy, I want to round out this series today and tomorrow with some thoughts prompted by recent training reports concerning the US Coast Guard (today's post) and the US Air Force (tomorrow's post).

As a Navy brat and a member of the US Naval Institute, I have long-time exposure to the culture of the military. As I suspect most everyone knows, the military culture includes a very serious approach to training, since effective training is so fundamental to successful military performance.

Earlier this year, the US Naval Institute Proceedings published an article by Francis J. Sturm, a Coast Guard captain, titled "The Coast Guard Needs its Own Grad School." Sturm's central point is that
The Coast Guard needs a staff college that allows junior officer specialists to transition to senior officer generalists, a staff college that will help break down inter-program stovepipes, and one that will serve to educate rising leaders as strategic thinkers and analysts. It must also stand as the service's center for strategic analysis and research.
Sound familiar? The need to help employees acquire high-level skills, such as strategic thinking and big-picture analysis, is certainly not restricted to the military. Nor is the need for research and analysis facilities that support innovation.

In fact, there is a clear parallel between what Sturm is saying and the growing number of companies that have set up their own corporate universities. These companies aim to provide progressive training that fits the company's values, mission and strategies, and is very much embedded in the industry-specific environment in which their professionals are working day-to-day.

The most productive corporate universities use a combination of distance learning and classroom sessions to build critical thinking, management, and collaboration skills. They support networking among participants. And they maximize the real-world, company-specific content of the problems participants tackle in their training.


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Monday, May 29, 2006

The US Navy Overhauls Training

In 2000, a specially chartered team led by retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn took a comprehensive and critical look at how the Navy was handling training. As recounted in the July 2003 issue of the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute:
The most revolutionary recommendation was to shift the Navy's training philosophy to one that holds the sailor, not equipment, as the primary customer. This means training sailors how to use equipment to successfully perform tasks rather than training them to operate equipment. For example, instead of producing a fire control system and determining training requirements from the engineered capabilities of the system, trainers would examine the tasks sailors are expected to accomplish while using the system. Those tasks would be broken into the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to complete them. Trainers would then evaluate the best methods to convey those elements to trainees.
The Navy adopted a "vector model" it calls the Sailor Continuum to help in planning individuals' training.

A task force dubbed EXCEL (Excellence through Commitment to Education and Learning) was charged with implementing the review team's recommendations, including the recommendation that the Navy take a lifelong learning approach to training. The task force defined five major growth and development areas:

Professional Development — What the Navy asks a sailor to know that is directly related to mission accomplishment.

Personal Development — Includes life skills and personal areas in which sailors need competence in order to be successful. Examples: management of personal finances, physical fitness, progress toward a college or university degree.

Professional Military Education & Leadership — Covers critical thinking and other skills needed for leadership at whatever level of responsibility is relevant for a particular individual.

Certifications & Qualifications — Unit-level requirements and industry certifications that are related directly to job proficiencies. For instance, a sailor in IT might qualify for a Microsoft network certification.

Performance — Parameters that measure overall technical abilities (job-related), and personal abilities (more generalized). These data are compared to defined proficiency requirements for each pay grade as part of the process of deciding on promotion.

Each of these five development areas has its own vector for marking progress through four stages of expertise: Recruit, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master.

This Sailor Continuum represents a major change for the Navy:
[U]nlike the path the Navy took in the past — when organizational improvement was expected to drive personnel development — this process develops people to their potential and results in organizational improvement.
Civilian companies can pick up some useful ideas from the Navy's vector model, especially in today's environment of flattened organizations. Employee retention is significantly enhanced when a company has something to offer in the way of career pathing. With promotion possibilities limited, defining a lateral career path based on growing mastery and growing responsibility can be a meaningful and attractive alternative.


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Sunday, May 28, 2006

After-Action Review

The US Army has long been using after-action review (AAR) to draw lessons from activities and events.

Various corporations have adopted the AAR process. Unfortunately, as Marilyn Darling, Charles Parry and Joseph Moore point out in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, corporations have generally not emulated the rigor with which the Army ensures that lessons extracted from a particular activity are applied and validated in subsequent activities.

In explaining how corporations can do a better job of implementing AAR, Darling, Parry and Moore recommend that a project team have a before-action review (BAR) at the beginning of each phase of the project, and then a corresponding after action review at the end of each phase.

This phase-by-phase combination of BAR and AAR creates a feedback loop that helps maximize team performance, while also promoting a learning culture.

In the BAR meeting, the team addresses these questions:
  • What are our intended results and measures?

  • What challenges can we anticipate?

  • What have we or others learned from similar situations?

  • What will make us successful this time?
The corresponding questions for the AAR meeting are:
  • What were our intended results?

  • What were are actual results?

  • What caused our actual results? (Note that the Army has found that flawed assumptions are the most common cause of flawed execution.)

  • What will we sustain or improve?
Darling, Parry and Moore emphasize that certain fundamentals must be in place in order for a corporation to have an AAR process that measures up to the effectiveness of the Army's use of AAR:
  • Lessons must directly benefit the team that extracts them.

  • BAR must begin the process.

  • Lessons must link explicitly to future actions.

  • Everyone — managers and employees at all levels — must be accountable for learning.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Semper Fi

To mark the Memorial Day weekend, I'm highlighting lessons one can draw from how the US military handles training. (I introduced this theme with a post on Michael Abrashoff's experiences as captain of the USS Benfold.)

Today's thoughts come from work Jon R. Katzenbach and Jason A. Santamaria described in a valuable 1999 article in the Harvard Business Review. The question was how to energize frontline workers. As Katzenbach and Santamaria describe the situation:
Because their work is monotonous and their chances for advancement are limited, most frontline employees work for a regular paycheck and nothing more; they never emotionally connect with their employers, let alone care about the company's long-term performance. Yet their impact on the customer's experience — not to mention the company's profits — can be enormous.
Research carried out jointly by McKinsey & Company and the Conference Board, found that the Marine Corps uses five practices that businesses can adapt to their own needs.
  • Overinvest in cultivating core values — For the Marines, the core values are honor, courage, and commitment, and they are reinforced heavily in recruitment and training.

  • Prepare every person to lead — "The Marines don't distinguish between followers and potential leaders; they believe every member of the Corps must be able to lead." Not only does training everyone in leadership have direct importance for preparing for the unpredictabilities of battle, but it also has a strong positive impact on morale.

  • Learn when and how to use teams — "A real team ... draws its motivation more from its mission and goals than from its leader. Members work together as peers and hold one another accountable for the group's performance and results."

  • Attend to all employees — Working with everyone, including those who are performing below expectations, can pay off by substantially reducing the costs of employee turnover.

  • Encourage self-discipline as a way of building pride — "The Marines respect discipline as control and punishment, but they also see it as an opportunity to build pride. ... [I]n their approach to discipline, the Marines are demanding that everyone on the front line act with honor, courage, and commitment. When people do so — on their own and as a group — enormous energy is unleashed."
In adapting the Marines' practices to civilian settings, the key considerations are making sure you have a meaningful set of core values that really do guide your organization; you have effective leadership training for employees at all levels; you know when a team approach is suitable for getting a task or project done, and when a leader-led group is more effective; your supervisors are trained in managing employees at all levels of performance; and, last but not least, you have a top-level commitment to encouraging self-discipline and group-discipline.


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Friday, May 26, 2006

What Not to Do When Teaching

On Wednesday I had the chance to interview Inés Arrubla, a professional flamenco dancer, for an article I was writing for our local paper about an upcoming series of performances she's putting on in Northampton (the city where I live).

Inés told me about how she progressed to her current postion as an independent performer and teacher. Here's the story she told, as I wrote it up for the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
“Are you a dancer?” That question from a visitor to her gymnastics class in Bogotá, Columbia, got sixteen-year-old Inés Arrubla to wondering. So far, her strong need to move had always been satisfied with athletics, but maybe dance was a good idea. At least she could give it a try.

Arrubla already knew which school she’d contact. Every day her school bus passed Las Zapatillas Rojas (The Red Shoes), an academy with a tempting display of shoes and costumes in the front window. She gave the school a call and arranged to start attending ballet classes.

But when she arrived for her first class, a visiting Spanish flamenco teacher said no, no, no, she mustn’t take the ballet class. She was obviously meant for flamenco and should come to his class instead. Since he was so insistent, she agreed. and quickly found that the intensity and rhythms of flamenco were indeed a natural fit.

After her first teacher returned to Spain, Arrubla began studying with another in Medellin, where she was attending college. In short order, she was spending the bulk of her time practicing and rehearsing. Her teacher invited her to be part of a group he was taking on tour through several eastern Mediterranean countries.

Arrubla wanted to go, even though it meant dropping out of school. Her parents were not happy. As a counterproposal, they suggested that if she was really serious about flamenco, she go to Madrid to study at Amor de Dios, the best academy for both aspiring and fully fledged professionals.

In an interview this week in Northampton, where Arrubla is preparing for a three-performance run of her new “Son Flamenco 2006” show at the Iron Horse, she described the rigors of her training in Madrid. The teachers at the school were practicing professionals who felt no need to nurture. The students, at all levels of proficiency, had to make what they could of the instruction and the chance to observe the most accomplished of their fellows. “The fact that I survived was proof that flamenco was my vocation,” Arrubla says.

Arrubla made friends with several advanced students, one of whom was from Holland, which is why, looking for a change of scene after five years in Spain, she knew enough about Amsterdam to decide it would be a good place to live. She stayed there until moving to Amherst in 1998.

Arrubla speaks animatedly of the “ completely different culture” she encountered in Holland. In contrast to what she was used to from Columbia and Spain -- passionate, impulsive people all talking at once -- she found herself dealing with “very individualistic people” who controlled their passions and listened to what she had to say without interrupting. Most important, they were respectful to her as a person, without preconceptions based on the fact that she was a woman and a dancer.

The discovery of a new culture, combined with the value placed on the arts in Holland, led to a new depth of self-discovery. “I learned who I am, what I like, how I like to move, how I like to dress,” Arrubla recalls. Especially , she realized that she liked melding elements of Latin music with the gypsy music of traditional flamenco. “I want to open up my Latin heritage, use it, not ignore it,” Arrubla says. “I want to pull the best things of all cultures together.”
A key point that didn't make it into the Gazette story is that Inés's difficult experience at the Amor de Dios academy became a guide for her concerning what not to do in her own teaching.

Somewhat to her surprise, she has found that she has a gift for teaching, and central to her technique is giving her students the feedback they need in order to know when they've got something right, and when they need to keep working on something to get to mastery. There's a lesson here for all of us.



Thursday, May 25, 2006

Self-Assessment of Coaching Skill

Anyone who fills a coaching role, whether formal or informal, should periodically do a self-assessment. The following questions can help you identify any aspects of your coaching that need improvement:
  • Do I monitor day-to-day performance so I can address concrete events and behavior?

  • Do I obtain feedback from customers concerning my employees' performance?

  • Do I plan my coaching conversations?

  • Do I create a non-threatening climate?

  • Do I treat each person as an individual, taking into account his/her behavioral style and motivational profile?

  • Do I maintain an attitude of respect?

  • Do I listen actively when an employee is talking with me?

  • Do I describe expected performance in clear, specific terms?

  • Do I recognize good performance and discuss how to build on it?

  • Do I both invite and offer suggestions for improving performance? Do I encourage people to be their own problem-solvers?

  • Do I admit my own mistakes and make it clear that honest mistakes are learning experiences, not black marks?

  • Do I keep employees informed about our organization's goals, strategies, tactics, challenges, and progress?

  • Do I represent my group effectively in interactions with other groups in the organization?
Every year or so, consider doing a 360° evaluation of your coaching and other management skills. I.e., in addition to assessing yourself, seek feedback on your performance from your own boss, from trusted peers, and from the employees who report to you.



Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sound Performance Objectives

Most people have had at least some exposure to the concept of SMART performance objectives. There is more than one way to spell out the SMART acronym, but the one I find most useful is:
Specific — E.g., "resolve at least 95% of customer issues within 24 hours."

Measurable — As in the example above, it must be clear what level is to be achieved in order to satisfy the objective.

Attainable — Objectives should be challenging, but realistic.

Results-oriented — As opposed to input-oriented. I.e., "Get all the cows milked by 6 pm," not "Spend at least 2 hours in the dairy barn every afternoon."

Timebound — A deadline for meeting the objective is essential; dates for reaching intermediate milestones may also be appropriate.
It is important to recognize that there are criteria related to business effectiveness that must also be met in order to end up with a sensible set of performance objectives. That is why boss and employee should answer the following questions while discussing the employee's performance objectives for the coming year (or whatever other period applies):
  • What are the department/division objectives that the employee's objectives will support?

  • What are the major ongoing responsibilities of the employee's job that will be incorporated in the objectives?

  • What other job responsibilities will be significant priorities?

  • If the employee achieves the objectives under discussion, will he/she have added value to the organization's work?

  • How can the employee incorporate some of his/her developmental needs in the objectives?
Answering the above questions thoughtfully, testing proposed objectives against the SMART criteria, and identifying appropriate success criteria for each objective (e.g., "cleanliness is maintained throughout milking operations") will ensure a sound performance plan.


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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Hollywood Model

At companies producing products and services in multiple versions for different customer segments, and intent on rapid innovation in order to stay competitive, the "Hollywood model" is increasingly used. As with Hollywood studios, which hire almost everyone for any given movie on short-term contracts, companies in a wide range of industries are now contracting with freelancers (or with partnering vendors) to create ad hoc teams for specific projects, rather than trying to have all needed skills and experience represented on-staff.

Indeed, as people become increasingly adept at working with collaboration tools, such as groupware and video-conferencing, virtual teams — teams tapping in-house and out-of-house talent in multiple locations — become practical for more and more companies.

Contracting for talent on a project-by-project basis not only provides the benefit of assembling a finely tuned mix of complementary skills, but can also offer significant benefits on the cost control front. For instance, a recently released video game produced using freelancers for about 75% of the workhours, came in with costs 35% below what they would have been if the game had been produced entirely in-house.

I won't pretend to cover in this post all of the pros and cons of using the Hollywood model. (There is a detailed discussion by an experienced movie producer of how-to's, along with pros and cons, here.) Rather, I'll highlight the skills that participants in a mixed in-house/out-of-house team need to master in order to make the most of this approach.

It goes without saying that leadership, project management, and collaboration skills are crucial. And the usual suspects of communication skills and conflict resolution skills are also top-priority. Here are other skill areas to assess as you aim for optimum results from Hollywood-model project teams:
  • Problem solving — finding and addressing root causes of problems

  • Holding effective meetings — focused, with everyone contributing

  • Constructive group dynamics — e.g., reaching agreement on norms and ground rules and sticking to them

  • Building good working relationships with people with different behavioral styles

  • Time management — e.g., tips on focusing energy in a multi-tasking environment
For strengthening some skills, such as managing group dynamics, training in a group setting is a natural fit. Your group will likely include people with divergent levels of skill. Ideally, you will be able to distribute the most adept individuals across groups of 4-6 in the training sessions.

For other skills, such as time management, only individuals with a clear need to improve need be steered toward suitable training.


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Monday, May 22, 2006

Matrix Management II: Conflict Resolution

In my first post on matrix management, I talked about the issues that arise most frequently and the skills needed to manage these issues effectively. Among the essential skills is conflict resolution & problem solving.

I encourage you to use the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) for insight into your own preferred style for handling conflict. There is a quick overview (in pdf format) here of the five conflict-handling modes — avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising, and collaborating. (The TKI is available for purchase from CPP, Inc.)

In this post, I want to concentrate on the collaborative mode of handling conflict. The mnemonic A.G.R.E.E. provides a convenient way of remembering a proven process for deploying the collaborative approach.

The A.G.R.E.E. process involves these five steps:
  1. Acknowledge the conflict and get all parties to the table.

  2. Set Ground rules. The most critical ground rule is to separate the people from the problem. Address substantive issues. No name-calling, no blame game.

  3. Reframe the conflict from individual (perhaps truculent) positions, to a neutral, mutually acceptable statement of the issues. Reframing is the most critical step in conflict resolution.

  4. Explore options for resolving the conflict. Exploring multiple options gives the parties room to negotiate and supports a problem-solving focus.

  5. Evaluate the options and decide on a solution.
If you find that your organization is doing an inadequate job of conflict resolution and problem solving, establishing training and coaching centered on individual insights from the TKI and on learning the A.G.R.E.E. process, can bring a huge payoff in terms of improved organizational effectiveness.



Sunday, May 21, 2006

Business Acumen II: Basic Economic Concepts

There is a surprising lack of overlap between what you learn in economics (my college and graduate school major) and what you learn in business. At the same time, I would say that a bit more of an overlap than is typical would be a good thing. Which is to say, businesspeople at all levels benefit from having a grasp of a short list of basic economic concepts.

In addition to the notion that market prices and quantities in a market are determined by supply and demand (which are themselves driven by more or less market-specific factors that are important to identify for markets relevant to your business), here are the concepts I'd recommend everybody get a handle on:

Opportunity cost — the well-known principle that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. For example, if a company is trying to decide whether to invest in a new phone system, it will weigh the benefits of the new capabilities the phone system would provide, against the benefits of whatever alternate investment, perhaps a software upgrade, is foregone. So the opportunity cost of doing something is next best thing you could do instead.

Sunk costs — money that you've invested in something, e.g., research on a new pharmaceutical, that can in no way be recovered. It is a mortal sin to "throw good money after bad." In other words, if your research on the new drug is showing scant promise, you should not say, "We've spent so much. We've got to keep going." You should end the project and put further investment funds into something else that has a reasonable (risk-adjusted) promise of return.

Elasticity of demand — Should we maybe increase our price? Or maybe we should decrease it? How to tell? Pricing is a complicated issue, in large part because of uncertainty concerning how competitors will respond to changes. Still, it is important to understand the basic consideration of whether, at the current price, demand is elastic or inelastic. If demand is elastic, reducing the price will lead to such an increase in demand that overall sales revenue will rise (assuming nothing else significant changes, which may or may not be a safe assumption). Conversely, if demand is inelastic, raising the price will cause some dropoff in demand, but the dropoff will be small enough that sales revenue will increase (again, assuming no other significant changes).

Diminishing returns — Just because doing more of something, such as fertilizing a farm field, pays off in terms of increased production relative to the cost, you cannot assume that doing even more will also pay off. Eventually, as you add more and more fertilizer, the increased output is not worth enough to offset the cost of the added fertilizer.

Comparative advantage — the area in which a person, an organization, or even a country is especially productive. For instance, if a person's abilities, compared to other employees, are strongest in sales, it makes sense to have the individual concentrate on selling, rather than having him take on other functions, such as writing advertising copy. This holds even if the person has a flair for writing copy. If the person's comparative advantage is in selling, somebody else should be assigned to producing ads.

Monetary policy — a country's approach to managing its supply of money. For example, in the US, the Federal Reserve makes monthly decisions that play a central role in determining how rapidly the number of dollars in circulation will grow (both physical dollars and dollars on deposit in financial institutions). The growth rate of the money supply, in turn, influences interest rates and the inflation level.

Fiscal policy — the taxing and spending policies of a country's government. Views concerning the relationship between fiscal policy and business conditions are quite divergent. Wikipedia provides a brief overview.

Since discussions of economics are notorious for boring and/or frightening people, it is obviously important to address this particular area of business acumen in an engaging way -- but then that principle applies to every topic covered in your training.



Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Leader's Role

There was a time not so long ago when it became trendy to distinguish between people who are "leaders" and people who are "managers." Though it is certainly true that some people are more effective in one of these roles than in the other, I never bought the notion that the two roles ought to be embodied in different people. I'm happy that this artificial distinction seems to have died down. Now, it is commonly understood that any willing manager can be assisted in strengthening leadership skills.

In developing a workshop for managers on coaching and leadership, I found it helpful to provide participants with an overview of their leader role. (During the workshop, we also talked about managers' coach, facilitator, and talent-developer roles.) The overview divided the characteristics of a leader into three areas: what the leader is, what the leader knows, and what the leader does.

A leader is respected.
  • Professional — loyal, takes personal responsibility

  • Has strong values — honesty, candor, commitment
A leader knows:
  • Self — strengths and weaknesses of character, knowledge, skills

  • Human nature — needs and emotions, how people respond to stress

  • Own job function — even though much work is delegated, functional expertise is essential for competent decision-making

  • Organization — where to go for help, the organization's culture
A leader exercises judgment and takes action
  • Provides direction — articulates a vision, gives employees a reason to believe in the vision so they unite around it, sustains values, sets goals, facilitates problem solving, makes decisions, plans

  • Implements — communicates, coordinates, guides, coaches, evaluates

  • Motivates — gets people engaged so they apply their minds and abilities to reaching the goals, accomplishing the mission

With this overview in place, each workshop participant can construct an individualized picture of what leadership entails in their particular part of the organization.



Friday, May 19, 2006

Like a Trip to the Museum

Even people making a real effort to control how many gadgets they carry around with them are putting an iPod on their short list1, along with a cell phone and/or a PDA (personal digital assistant).

The growing prevalence of MP3 players such as the iPod is fostering an explosion of podcasting. In an earlier post, I talked about using podcasts in sales training as a replacement for the venerable audiotape. In addition to training, the growing success of podcasting in a whole array of other applications — education, book publishing, news, entertainment, marketing, keeping in touch with family and friends — is quite astonishing.

In today's New York Times, Randy Kennedy talks about how museums are using podcasts to guide visitors through their galleries, and even to communicate information about their collections to people who aren't actually able to get to the museum.2 As a representative of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art puts it, "We made a conscious decision that this was going to be a kind of audio art zine. And we weren't going to draw any hard and fast boundaries about whether you listened to it in the museum or during your commute."

Podcasting museums offer some ideas that trainers can borrow.
  • Have employees make podcasts for peer teaching. For example, a group of employees might go out and record brief interviews with customers for sharing and discussion.

  • Use podcasts to communicate updates and other information from the organization's leaders and top experts that everyone in the organization needs to be familiar with.

  • Train marketing personnel on how to use podcasting as a medium for reaching particular target audiences in an engaging manner.

  • Use archival material, such as vintage radio ads, to illustrate themes of change and continuity at your company. (This is a natural for marketing communications companies.)

  • Distribute podcasts that refresh and update learning from a training course.
And, similarly to the way some museums are selectively distributing podcasts sumitted by members of the public, companies can invite employees to suggest ideas for podcasts, and then help produce those that whatever group is responsible for screening suggestions agrees will be useful to co-workers.
1 You can find a wealth of information on MP3 players, suitable for storing and playing podcasts at this page maintained by PC Magazine.

2 Randy Kennedy lists several websites where you can sample museum podcasts. My personal favorite is the podcast released by the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia.


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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Eliminating Unnecessary Work

In an earlier post, I talked about how working smart — avoiding low-priority and no-priority work — helps with employee retention.

Today's Wall Street Journal provides some further ideas for how to eliminate activity that doesn't add enough value to be worth doing. In an article by Sue Shellenbarger, managers and employees at several companies describe steps they have taken to increase productivity while also improving work-life balance by reducing workloads.
  • Cummins, Inc. set up two teams "to figure out how to jettison low-value tasks." The process involved identifying redundant work and then cutting it back as far as possible. Among the activities targeted: unplanned phone calls and reports that contained information available online.

  • At Alcan, several top executives were coached on "how to be better role models, partly by speaking up about their own challenges managing workload." Employees were encouraged to push back when they believed they were being asked to take on too much.

  • In staff meetings, CarMax regularly includes discussion of work that is "stupid, unnecessary, or doesn't make sense." Employees are encouraged to suggest time-saving ways of getting necessary things done.

  • Boston Consulting Group tracks consultant hours. When someone is beyond a certain weekly level, the powers-that-be check to see whether the long hours are the consultant's preference, or are the result of undue pressure. "Also, managers who burn out their teams hurt their chances of promotion."

  • IBM has a Web-based tool used to survey employees about what activities they believe are unnecessary and why they are doing these things. Managers review the data to decide what work is too low in priority to continue. Some of the changes that have resulted: fewer meeting requirements, improved testing equipment, automated server updates for customers, and consolidation of two labs to eliminate redundant efforts.
These examples make it clear that "working smart" is not pie in the sky. Any organization can free up time to better serve customers, while also getting employees home for dinner, by examining what tasks can be streamlined or eliminated entirely.



Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Matrix Management I: The Issues

Matrix management ... The dilemmas of reporting to two different bosses can all too often make it seem like matrix madness.

The goal of the matrix approach is to have the advantages of strong functional expertise and efficiencies, without the disconnects and inefficiencies associated with working in “silos” rather than cross-functional teams.

In other words, a matrix system aims to address simmultaneously two interdependent goals:
  • Maintaining up-to-date functional expertise, a key organizational resource, and

  • Producing and marketing the organization’s goods and services in tight alignment with the organization's strategic objectives.
It's the inevitable conflicts over resource use, and the predictable difficulties with communication, that generate the heartburn associated with matrix set-ups.

The FEIs -- frequently encountered issues — arising with a matrix approach will vary in their specifics from one organization to another. In general, one can anticipate issues relating to:
  • Reaching and sustaining agreement on priorities and success criteria

  • Ownership and accountability, roles and responsibilities — Who has authority in deciding/negotiating how employees will allocate their time? How do you reconcile differences between two bosses in financial and non-financial performance objectives?

  • Speed in completing tasks and projects

  • Flexibility in handling tasks and changing requirements

  • Communication — e.g., clarifying priorities, coordinating operational plans and changes

  • Cost control — e.g., in administrative support areas

  • Learning and improving
Reading through the above list suggests what skills managers and employees have to particularly cultivate in order to be effective in a matrix set-up:
  • Aligning goals — With two bosses, the likelihood of incompatible demands that need reconciling is high. For example, the functional boss may press for top-notch quality, while the project boss is insisting on rapid turnaround.

  • Communication — Employees need to be good at eliciting input, explaining their POV, uncovering and examining assumptions, anticipating what others need to know, collaborating across geographic distance.

  • Building and maintaining healthy working relationships with all sorts of people; developing an informal network of colleagues

  • Negotiating resource use

  • Reaching decisions collaboratively

  • Conflict resolution and problem solving
To assist in making a matrix system work as intended, those responsible for employee training and development need to assess existing skill levels — as far as practical on an individual basis — and determine the best way to address skill gaps.



Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Collaboration ... we know it when we see it

Ask someone to define "collaboration" and you'll probably get a reasonable explanation of the term, along the lines of "working jointly with others."

For purposes of fostering effective collaboration in a business setting, this general characterization is not enough. We have to go beyond the general definition of "collaboration" to specific success criteria that are relevant to a particular organization's activities. That's the only way we'll have enough detail to be in a position to identify any skill gaps that are detracting from the effectiveness of employees' teamwork.

What got me thinking about collaboration today was a report of a study carried out by a Johns Hopkins-led team that looked at attitudes of members of hospital surgical teams to the work environment of their ORs.

Not only did the study indicate that the members of a surgical team tend to differ in how well they collaborate — surgeons on average are lowest on the scale, and nurses are highest — but it also showed that surgeons and nurses don't even agree on what teamwork is.

"Nurses often describe good collaboration as having their input respected, and physicians often describe good collaboration as having nurses who anticipate their needs and follow instructions," the researchers reported. At a minimum, one hopes that surgeons and nurses, once alerted to this divergence in perspective, will talk to each other about the practical steps they need to take to maximize their teamwork, in the interests of patient safety and achieving the best possible surgical results.

For our purposes, the point here is that both the context — the specific work setting — and the various participants' roles and responsibilities determine what collaboration "looks like" in a particular organization. Therefore, it's not enough to set an expectation of "teamwork" with employees. Managers and employees must also pin down criteria that will enable everyone to agree on where teamwork is happening, and where it's in need of a boost.

As an example, here are the sample behaviors a company in the healthcare industry has defined for its employees to satisfy in order to meet the requirement that they "foster collaboration within and across traditional organizational boundaries":
  • Defines shared accountabilities and performance objectives.

  • Works with others, both within the unit and across boundaries, on a basis of equality, regardless of the partner's level or organizational affiliation.

  • Shares information and resources readily across organizational boundaries.

  • Listens carefully to identify the needs and objectives of their partner and acts to satisfy them.

  • Calculates the potential impact of decisions on partners.

  • Solicits partner feedback and acts on it to improve results and relationships.

  • Identifies and resolves conflict openly and facilitates a resolution that strengthens relationships and advances goals.

  • Stimulates high levels of participation by functional and regional partners.

  • Avoids functional silos.
Again, I emphasize that the above items detailing what collaboration "looks like" are specific to the organization that compiled them, following careful discussion with experienced in-house advisors.

Your organization's picture of "collaboration" will have its own distinctive nuances, which you will identify by consulting with insightful colleagues.



Monday, May 15, 2006

21st-Century Journalism I: New Ways of Consuming News

The recent sale of Knight Ridder's newspapers has been seen as a particularly stark sign that the newspaper business is weakening.

But then you read stories like one today in the New York Times that reports robust growth in enrollment at US schools of journalism. This trend suggests that the distress in the industry is actually part of a quite healthy shift to making good use of all the possibilities opened up by digital technology.

I'm sure my own recent experience is typical for people who are regular consumers of news.
  • Papers I used to buy daily I now mostly read online. All the online news sites are free, except for the Wall Street Journal, to which I have a subscription, and the site for my local paper, which I continue to buy daily from racks around town.

  • I have a small group of blogs that I read daily, mostly to keep up with discussions of political affairs. The blogs I give time to are run by people who are serious about accuracy, good writing, and logic.

  • I have a Yahoo page set up to receive RSS feeds from news sources I want to check daily.

  • I check Google news from time to time during the day to see if there is any breaking news I want to catch up on that I haven't been alerted to on my Yahoo page.
According to the Times' report, the students enrolling in journalism schools are optimistic about long-term opportunities. As Lee B. Becker, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, says, "Students are interested in writing. They're interested in the broader sense of what the media are and what role they play in society, and those are the things that drive them, not hearing about Knight Ridder dealing with a stockholders' revolt."

For me as a training specialist, one particularly significant aspect of this story is its flip side, namely a reduced ability of newspapers to provide adequate on-the-job training. Partly, this is due to lack of on-staff expertise at the cutting edge of new media techniques and technology. Partly, it is due to budget cuts that reduce time experienced staff are able to devote to training and mentoring.

It is to newspapers' credit that they are seeking out graduates who have been schooled in both the basics of journalism and the "attitude of working in teams and producing content for different audiences" that journalism schools are fostering. (The quote is from Mike McKean, chairman of the convergence journalism faculty at the University of Missouri.)



Sunday, May 14, 2006

Jessamyn West's Mother

In 1931, when she was about to turn 29, the author Jessamyn West was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. She spent the next two years in a sanatorium in Los Angeles, after which she was sent home to die.

Instead of succumbing to the disease, she recovered after another thirteen years of illness. West recounts the story of those years in the first half of The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death. I read this book right after it came out in 1976 and have ever since cherished its account of how West’s mother Grace cared for her in a way that sustained her both physically and spiritually.

Grace West did not accept the terminal diagnosis the doctors had given her daughter. She threw herself into nursing Jessamyn, and also into entertaining her.

The entertainment took the form of stories about the Quakers of Indiana among whom Grace had grown up and with whom Jessamyn had lived until her family moved to California when Jessamyn was seven. These stories became the inspiration for West’s first published work, short stories collected in The Friendly Persuasion, published in 1945 and later turned into a film that was nominated for the Best Film Oscar in 1956.

Grace’s relationship with her daughter has become for me an exemplar of what dedicated, and generally anonymous, mothers do for their children. To mark Mother's Day 2006, here are some excerpts from The Woman Said Yes that show how Grace literally enabled her daughter to become a successful author:
Grace knew, though no word of mine told her anything, the limbo in which I lived; somehow, without words, she knew. Since I had no life of my own, past or future, in which to live, she gave me her own life , as a young woman, as Grace Milhous, a Quaker girl on a farm in southern Indiana at the turn of the century.

I was still not strong enough to follow a book, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, to its conclusion. But I could listen to short stories, and their narrator, a former elocution prize-winner. ...

Little by little, living with Grace, like the frog kissed by the maiden, I became human again. Not the human I once had been; my own past and my own problematical future were still areas too painful for me to enter. But Grace's past I could enter and explore and live in. It was better than movie-casting; her story was real and she, the heroine, sat by my bedside with her own gestures and accents. ...

While I lay in bed, with no life of my own to look forward to, or that I could endure to look back on, I was given this other endurable life to live in, to wonder over, to speculate about. Not yet to laugh at, though there was much Grace said that was funny. I was afraid to laugh. It would be tempting fate. It would be whistling before I was out of the woods. Grace expected me to get well, and talked to me about the time "when you are well." ...

Moving forward in time to the period just before Grace passed away ...
She died seventeen years after that operation [a mastectomy] of a disease not connected with cancer, but which did affect her memory.

In the week before her death, I, trying to identify myself to her, said, "I'm the oldest of your four children."

"The oldest?" she repeated.

"The one who wrote those Quaker stories."

She misunderstood my words, but her unconscious led her to an insight deeper than my words.

"Oh," said she, "did I get those stories written?"

"Written and published," I said.

"I always wanted to write them. But I married early and wasn't well. It slipped my mind that I did it. I thought I just dreamed I did it."

"It isn't a dream."

"I remember now. The horse race and the son's fighting in the war."

What she thought she remembered was purest fiction, something that never happened. What
had happened, the clink of her mother's wedding ring as she washed dishes, her grandfather's love of music, the whisper of snow, the rustle of shawls and full skirts in the Meetinghouse on First Day: these, the realities of which she told me, had been my dreams. It was a strange exchange. She accepted my fiction as real. Her memories and long-time musings had become my fiction.

"I'm so glad you told me," she said. "I haven't been well, and my memory's got holes in it. It makes me feel better to know I wasn't just a dreamer." ...

"I never could have done it," Grace said, her mind still on the writing and publication she had "forgotten," "except that you encouraged me by listening."

"What else could I do," I asked, "bedfast and you standing over me?"

Grace laughed. "What's the word for that?"

"Captive audience."

"We had some good times in spite of everything, didn't we?"

Jessamyn West’s husband encouraged her to submit her stories to magazines, and they started being accepted in 1940. She lived to the ripe age of 81, having become a prolific author over a period of four decades.



Saturday, May 13, 2006

Why "Streamline"?

Twenty-plus years ago, when I had to come up with a name for my newly established company, it didn't take long to settle on "Streamline."

In previous years, working for others, I had been exposed repeatedly to molasses-like processes for getting from Point A: We need some training to Point B: We've launched our training.

Going forward, I was determined to do what I could to encourage focusing time and energy on tasks and methods that had clear links to the quality of the training and documentation produced. I would resist productivity-killing bureaucratic processes.

I hasten to add that I almost always work in collaboration with others, so this was not a one-woman crusade. It was more a philosophy that I looked to share with like-minded people.

The ideal of streamlining also appealed to me as a guiding principle for what training should "look like" — tightly tied to specific agreed objectives and structured to allocate as much time as possible to practice. No tedious "learning contracts" and such, no hokey touches that leave participants wincing. Instead, steady attention to sound adult learning principles.

The final consideration in choosing the name "Streamline" was aesthetic. The clean and efficient lines of streamlined vehicles and, in fact, objects of every kind have always appealed to me.


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Friday, May 12, 2006

Exit Interviews

"Exit interviews invade an employee's privacy and insult his intelligence. Employers can't possibly believe they're going to get credible information in such a meeting."

or ...

"'What do I care [why a person is leaving the company]? If I saw that I had a big problem--like a whole office leaving--then I would be interested. But one person? Nah. Just look him or her in the eye: 'OK.' There's nothing else to say."

or ...

"Done correctly, exit interviews can be a win-win situation for both the organisation and the [job] leaver. The organisation gets to retain a portion of the leaver's knowledge and make it available to others, while the leaver gets to articulate their unique contributions to the organisation and to 'leave their mark'."

The trick in reconciling the above quotes is to note that the first two refer to exit interviews used to probe for the reasons an employee is leaving, while the third refers to exit interviews aimed at capturing expert knowledge from employees before they go out the door.
  • Nick Corcodilos, a long-time headhunter in Silicon Valley, is the author of the first quote. He dismisses "what went wrong?" exit interviews for several reasons, emphasizing the likely lack of candor and intrusion on the departing employee's privacy. What he says makes sense.

  • The second quote is something Michael Bloomberg said while he was still CEO of his news and information company. In Bloomberg's view, once an employee has decided to quit, he's history.

    Other employers might not be as implacable as Bloomberg concerning "disloyal" employees. But, again, it's plausible to argue that taking time to discuss the reasons behind the departure won't yield a substantial pay-off.

  • The third quote reflects a view of exit interviews that has emerged as part of the maturing of the knowledge economy. Companies are recognizing that it is a serious loss when employees who have accumulated specialized and valuable knowledge leave, especially if all that knowledge leaves with them.
We can conclude that exit interviews are important if they have a genuinely productive focus, i.e., they deal with the specialized knowledge departing employees have accumulated. Here are some further points to keep in mind:
  • Have people familiar with your company's knowledge management processes do the interviewing.

  • Be selective. Interview those with specialized technical knowledge and/or knowledge of the networks of relationships, internal and external, that are involved in producing commercial ideas and getting projects completed. You want to capture as much knowledge as possible from people who "know the ropes," especially in the case of individuals for whom there are no groomed successors in place.

  • Store the information on your intranet in easily accessible form, such as in a wiki. For key lessons, you may want to make an extra effort to get the word out through means like knowledge maps and online performance support tools.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

In the Grip of Conventional Wisdom?

Sometimes, what many people see as good old common sense, others view as misguided conventional wisdom in need of debunking. How to decide?
  • In the medical field, efforts to capture and analyze data on outcomes are steadily expanding. The aim is to get away from using treatments and therapies that have the weight of precedent behind them, but that, upon examination, prove inferior or even contraindicated. Similar efforts are underway to try to expand data-based knowledge of how to achieve good educational outcomes.

  • Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Bill James, baseball managers can turn to sophisticated statistical analysis to decide how to maximize their odds of winning. For example, conventional wisdom favors going for a sacrifice fly with a man on first and no more than one out. Careful study of the stats says the batter should try to hit safely.

  • There's at least one website dedicated to steely-eyed investigation of urban legends. The siteowners systematically examine the facts related to each claim. Some of the claims turn out to be true (you can get free directory assistance by dialing 1-800-FREE-411), but many are false (Bill Gates will not give you a cash reward for forwarding an e-mail message to all your friends and acquaintances).
What these examples have in common is that people are questioning assumptions and submitting them to critical analysis, not just taking them for granted.

Questioning assumptions, and looking for evidence that enables distinguishing true beliefs from false, is the focus of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer's and Robert I. Sutton's most recent book, published in March. Pfeffer and Sutton are also the authors of The Knowing-Doing Gap, one of the suggested readings listed at right.

Among the popular management practices Pfeffer and Sutton question in Hard Facts:
  • Casual benchmarking — "The logic behind what works at top performers, why it works, and what will work elsewhere is barely unraveled, resulting in mindless imitation." Thoughtful analysis is essential for productive benchmarking.

  • Doing what (seems to have) worked in the past — "The problems come when the new situation is different from the past and when what we 'learned' was right in the past may have been wrong, or incomplete, in the first place." You need to investigate whether the practice you're considering was actually a factor contributing to past success, and whether the current situation is a close match to the past situation.

  • Following deeply held yet unexamined ideologies — "Beliefs rooted in ideology or in cultural values are quite 'sticky' — they resist disconfirming evidence and persist in affecting judgments and choice, regardless of whether or not they are true." You need to ask yourself whether you're gathering and considering relevant evidence, rather than simply acting on the basis of intuition.
A helpful mnemonic advises that decision-makers need to act on evidence that is accessible, accurate, actionable, and applicable.



Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Just Common Sense

It should come as no surprise that a lot of what experienced managers and consultants say is "just common sense." It stands to reason that common sense is a fundamentally good guide to decision making.

But it's also important to recognize that common sense can seem, at first blush, to point in more than one direction. The advantage of obtaining advice from experienced hands is that such experts can advise on which particular nuggets of common sense apply in a particular situation.

For example, suppose a company is trying to decide whether to set up a team to handle a project. Common sense might suggest, Yes, use a team. That way you'll have the advantage of a variety of skills and perspectives. You'll end up with a result that's better than any one person could produce.

On the other hand, common sense might lead one to think, No, give the job to one person who will be responsible for getting the results we need, and who will do so quickly because s/he won't be hampered by a lot of time-consuming meetings and discussions.

An advisor who is knowledgeable about the dynamics of teams, will have an internalized set of criteria that allow sorting through the pros and cons in the given situation. Such a person's advice will be commonsensical, but it will also reflect an optimizing choice among plausible possibilities.

The other point leaping to mind when I hear, "That's just common sense," is that deciding on the best direction, i.e., deciding on the basic strategy for handling an issue, is just a start. As we've all heard, "the devil is in the details." Assembling and analyzing those details, and then deciding on a plan of action, requires work that uses a whole variety skills in addition to common sense. Usually, the person who advises on the best direction to go is fully aware of how much remains to be done in order to accomplish something valuable.


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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Business Acumen I: A Pretest

In the business world there is increasing recognition of the power of getting everyone in an organization aligned with the organization's goals and strategies. Promoting alignment involves a number of activities, notably regular communication concerning mission and strategic direction, and a system for performance management that sets individuals' goals so that they directly support business-unit and company-wide goals.

Another key element for achieving alignment is ensuring that everyone in the organization has basic business acumen. Naturally, the depth of an employee's understanding of financial, logistical, and other practical details of keeping a business going can vary depending on the employee's responsibilities.

To make sure everyone has at least a basic understanding of how your company makes money, you can offer one or more workshops (2-4 hours) for employees who need to close a knowledge gap in this area.

In designing such workshops, I've found it effective to start with an informal quiz. Participants team up in groups of three or four and answer as many of the following questions (or similar questions) as they can. (Note that some of the answers depend on the particular details of what your company does.)
  1. How long can a company operate without cash?

  2. Which of the following items are on our company income statement? dollar amount of profits; dollar amount of sales; dollar amount of debt; dollar amount of inventory

  3. What are fixed costs?

  4. What is the "margin" on a sale?

  5. Does letting customers pay with credit cards — rather than sending them invoices — tend to increase or decrease a company's liquidity?

  6. What is the difference between revenue and profit?

  7. Which of the following are assets? a loan from a bank; accounts receivable; profits; office supplies in our supply room; our employees' expertise; leased warehouse space

  8. When does a sale get recorded on our books?

  9. How much were our sales last year? How much were our profits?

  10. How much did our biggest competitor sell last year? How profitable were they?
By starting the workshop with this interactive quiz, participants get into a groove of talking with and learning from each other. When it comes time for full-group discussion, the training leader invites answers from volunteers. If nobody is sure of a particular answer, the leader can ask for a guess, or just go ahead and provide the answer, placing it in the context of the learning objectives for the workshop.

In sum, the goal of launching the basic business acumen workshop with a group quiz is to get people talking about some of the concepts they will be dealing with more systematically in the rest of the workshop, and to provide a natural bridge to the first segment of the training.



Monday, May 08, 2006

Developing Expertise through Deliberate Practice

Intrigued by an article about the work of Anders Ericsson, I decided to read up on the research of this well-respected psychologist at Florida State University. Specifically, I wanted to know more about Ericsson's answer to the question, Just how important is innate talent for becoming an expert at something?

On the basis of research he began almost 30 years ago, Ericsson has concluded that talent is much less important than many people believe.

As an example, Ericsson points to amateur golfers. Many of us have observed — firsthand or secondhand — how the typical amateur seems to reach a plateau and stay there indefinitely. The golfer may take the philosophical view that "I've reached the limit of my golfing ability," or she may nurture a lingering hope that if she just keeps playing, she'll eventually get her handicap down.

Ericsson begs to differ. He reports that any golfer can keep bringing her handicap down, but to do so it's not enough to just get out on the links regularly. The golfer must engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is focused training. The process involves setting specific goals, getting immediate feedback on what you've done well and not so well, and paying conscious attention to technique.

So, for instance, an amateur golfer can practice frequently with a pro at her side to advise on what skills to focus on, and to provide feedback. She doesn't need to bring marked pre-existing talent to the effort. What she does need is enough interest in golf that she is happy to spend time working on her game instead of spending that time on any of the myriad other things she might be doing. I.e, it's critical that she care a lot about her golf game so that she's motivated to work hard on improving it.

Note that Ericsson is not saying that Joe Blow, if he just works hard enough, can take on Tiger Woods. Talent does have a role; some people have greater potential as golfers than others. What Ericsson is saying is that Tiger cares enough about golf that he has worked hard at his game, and continues to work hard at it, and that's why he has realized his potential to be among the world's best players. And Joe Blow, if he is able to engage in regular deliberate practice, will be able to keep improving, even if he's never attains the PGA level of performance.

Ericsson's finding concerning expert performance applies to the workplace. An employee who gets suitable training and spends significant time practicing tasks (often, in the form of doing a job day in and day out) while receiving effective coaching, will steadily become more expert.

Ericsson's bottom line: "[T]he development of expert performance will be primarily limited by the quality of the training environment and individuals' engagement in deliberate practice," not by a shortage of talent. (emphasis added)

As suggested in an earlier post, matching people to tasks they welcome (or that they can be persuaded to commit to with sincere enthusiasm) is a powerful way of improving the odds of success.

Similarly, when hiring, it pays to seek evidence that the candidate finds the roles and responsibilities of the job in question positively appealing. (In the case of entry-level jobs, much of the appeal can be the prospect of advancing to greater responsibility as the employee builds expertise.) Of course, evidence of caring about the job needs to be accompanied by evidence of stick-to-itiveness, openness to the perspectives of others, and consistent follow-through on commitments.



Sunday, May 07, 2006

Laughter is the Best Medicine II

Today's New York Times Book Review has an entertaining short essay recounting a sidewalk experiment in "hand-selling" books. Henry Alford describes how he set up a sales table in front of his Greenwich Village building to see how quickly he could unload a group of books he and some friends had decided they could bear to part with. These select items — priced at a dollar for hardcovers and 50 cents for paperbacks — included:
  • A 1986 edition of "I Love New York Guide" (one of several well-aged travel guides)

  • "Homeowner's Guide to Fastening Anything"

  • "The Importance of Scrutiny" (an essay collection from Scrutiny, a British literary journal)

  • Two volumes of thriller writer Jeffrey Archer's prison diaries

  • "Beginning Greek" (1961 edition)

  • "Michigan Folk Art"

  • A collection of drawings filmmaker/writer Rebecca Miller made without looking at the page she was drawing on

  • "Moderato Cantabile" (in French; allegedly impenetrable even when translated)

  • "Pruning Simplified"
You can read Alford's full account of his eloquent sales efforts here — and perhaps pick up a little inspiration for enlivening your next sales training class.



Saturday, May 06, 2006

Using Podcasts in Training

For many years, salespeople and others who spend considerable time in their cars have been listening to training tapes as one way of making their travel time more productive.

Now that the audio tape has pretty much gone the way of the LP, filling the audio training niche with podcasts — mp3 recordings posted online and downloaded to users' computers — is a smart move. Employees can transfer the podcasts to their mobile mp3 players and then listen at the time and place of their choosing — at the gym, while running, while riding the subway, whatever.

In outline, these are the steps for producing a training podcast:
  1. Use a pre-existing recording (e.g., a speech), or write a script for the podcast. If you are preparing a script, consider having two or more people talk to each other to make the podcast more engaging. Generally, it's good to keep the overall length to no more than half an hour.

  2. If you are recording a script, your computer needs an attached microphone, and the room the computer is in should have good acoustics. In any case, the computer needs speakers and an Internet connection. Once you have your recording, upload it to your intranet (or to your external website if you want the podcast to be publicly available).

    If you need an audio production program for recording your podcast and saving it as an mp3 file, you can find free software here. Information on how to use Apple GarageBand software to produce podcasts is here.

  3. Set up an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed so that employees can subscribe to the podcasts. Once subscribed, employees receive the podcasts as automatic downloads to their computers. (If preferred, you can have IT techs set up the subscriptions on employee computers.)

    For $40 (as of 5/06), you can obtain a program called FeedForAll that automatically creates code for RSS feeds. You can read more about the FeedForAll software here.

  4. Employees can transfer the podcasts to their mobile devices — iPods, mp3 players, and cell phones with audio file capability. They can also download to CDs.
For additional podcasting ideas and a more detailed explanation of how to cost-effectively produce professional-sounding podcasts, you can have a look at this article at the website of the Society for Human Resource Management.

PS. Some companies are beginning to use video podcasts in training settings where employees can watch as well as listen.



Friday, May 05, 2006

"Don't Be Judgmental"

Like many popular pieces of advice, "Don't be judgmental" can be a good reminder of how to handle yourself in various interpersonal situations. But, depending on circumstances, it can also be off the mark.

How do you tell when you should reserve judgment about something a person is saying or doing, and when it's fully appropriate to go ahead and make a judgment?

Let's start with words. If you're involved in a conversation with someone, and you're tempted to offer a judgmental comment, first ask yourself:
  • Do I need to encourage the person to tell me more so that I can really understand his point of view?

  • Offering negative comments punishes the person for speaking frankly, with the result that your dialogue becomes guarded and less informative. If you need to hear more in order to understand, reserve judgment.

  • Is the person expressing values that are acceptable, or at least that don't detract from our organization's efforts to maintain a healthy, ethical culture?

  • If yes, you may be best off holding your peace. For instance, most everybody agrees that it's smart to think twice before getting involved in discussions of religion and politics. On the other hand, if the person's statements are at odds with company policy, pointing this out calmly is generally appropriate.

  • Is the person seeking advice?

  • If yes, you have permission to judge. Of course, you need to make sure you have all the relevant information first, and you need to calibrate how bluntly to offer your advice, which will depend on things like the personality and mood of the other person in the conversation.

  • Do I have my emotions under control?

  • If not, count to 10 before proceeding.

Now for actions. Since it's not possible to cover all conceivable scenarios, let's look specifically at one common work situation, namely a supervisor unhappy with something an employee is doing (or failing to do). The key here is to follow a process that puts first things first.
  1. Plan — Collect relevant information and decide what you want to accomplish in your discussion.

  2. Understand — Explain briefly what you want to talk about, and then listen to what the employee has to say. Play back what you've heard to make sure your understanding of the employee's point of view is accurate.

  3. Assess — Only at this point has the time arrived for making judgments. Probe for the employee's rationale and for his/her proposed solution. Decide on the completeness, reasonableness, and relevance of what the employee has said. Respond by explaining your own perspective, in light of all you now know.

  4. Act — Work with the employee to define the results needed, how the employee will approach achieving the results, and how to get started. Agree on a plan for tracking progress.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

You've Got Some 'Splainin' To Do

I'm sure there are people who don't love "I Love Lucy," but I suspect the number is tiny. For instance, judging from the current popularity of Ricky's line, "Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do!" the sitcom is alive and well in the popular imagination. (Oddly, cognoscenti say that Ricky's 'splainin' line is apocryphal, but that doesn't matter since what we're dealing with here is how people of today are talking to each other.)

Usually, the call to "do some 'splainin'" has a more or less jocular tinge of accusation. I want to talk about more neutral situations in which people in a business setting share their opinions without 'splainin' why they believe their opinions are sensible.

What I'm thinking of are group situations, such as team meetings, in which, all too often assertions are made with no sort of accompanying rationale. Unless the other people in the room prompt the person making an assertion to explain why she thinks what she has said is true and relevant, the discussion can quickly deteriorate into an unproductive argument. The odds of reaching a poor decision or no decision at all go way up.

I've seen this "naked assertion" phenomenon repeatedly in a management simulation I've been helping facilitate off and on for over ten years. In fact, one of the key reasons the simulation teams have facilitators is to encourage them to get into the habit of explaining their thinking.

Of course, we all know that business and busyness are pretty much inseparable. Therefore, decision-making involves triage — only decisions with significant impact require careful identification of options and reasoned examination of each option's pros and cons.

Bottom line: Leave unsupported claims and assertions for talk radio. Instead, help the team by explaining how you view the available information, and encourage others to do the same, so that collective wisdom can actually emerge.


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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Symptoms of Employee Engagement

According to research conducted by The Gallup Organization, the 12 employee expectations listed below form the foundation of strong feelings of engagement at work. Engaged employees are loyal and productive, and — as Gallup's data confirmed — they make above-average contributions to their companies' profitability and customer satisfaction.

Which of these items are true for your organization? Or, what's your best guess as to how employees at your organization would respond to the list?
  • I know what is expected of me.

  • I have the resources I need to do my work right.

  • Every day I have the opportunity to do what I do best.

  • I receive recognition for doing good work every week.

  • My supervisor seems to care about me as a person.

  • There is at least one person at work who encourages my development.

  • My opinions seem to count.

  • My company's mission makes me feel my job is important.

  • My fellow employees are committed to doing high-quality work.

  • I have a best friend at work.1

  • Within the past 6 months, someone has talked to me about my progress.

  • Within the past year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow.
For ideas on how to stimulate employee engagement, I highly recommend "What Creates Energy in Organizations?" by Rob Cross, Wayne Baker and Andrew Parker, published in the Summer 2003 issue of the Sloan Management Review.

1 As explained here, "Gallup discovered ... that the strongest agreement with this item occurred in the most productive workgroups. Because some employees had difficulty with the item, Gallup went back to those groups and softened the word 'best' to 'close' or 'good,' or excluded the word 'best' entirely. When this was done, however, the item lost its power to differentiate highly productive work groups from mediocre work groups. This suggested that the question’s use of the word 'best' actually pinpoints a dynamic of great work groups."



Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Work Ethic MIA?

A column1 in today's Wall Street Journal talks about rising attrition among young associates at law firms. According to author Ashby Jones,
More and more associates at law firms across the U.S. are second guessing whether they want to sign over their lives to their jobs. Some are working fewer hours. Some are losing interest in making partner. And they are leaving big law firms in droves.
Is the work ethic fading away? Since law firms are still churning out contracts, briefs, estate plans, and everything else they produce, it's hard to conclude that slackers are taking over.

Instead, it makes sense to look at what else is changing and see what adjustments astute firms are making. This is exactly what Ashby does, and, in reading his article, I was struck by the applicability of what he describes to a range of occupations, not just law.

It is certainly true that many contemporary jobs, especially in the service sector, are more labor-intensive than one might imagine when musing about the nature of work in the "knowledge economy." Just as in olden times, excellent performance requires substantial time and effort. Employees who are looking for ways to earn a comfortable living without exerting themselves better hope they win the lottery.

On the other hand, the shift toward a service economy, along with the intensifying competition associated with globalization, are driving companies "built to last" to focus on the finer points of working smart. Brute-force approaches are not viable over the long haul because competitors will win business by achieving greater efficiency.

For individuals, a big part of working smart is getting involved in work you truly care about. (One example Ashby cites is a young couple, both lawyers, who "plan to depart for Europe this month to pursue a business plan they began dreaming up after they realized life at a big law firm wasn't for them.")

For companies, working smart means giving concerted attention to distinguishing between efforts necessary to assure quality, and busy work, i.e., efforts that, in the customer's eyes, simply don't add value.

Another lesson law firms are beginning to learn that has broad application is the importance of rethinking what high-performing employees can be offered in the way of career advancement. For instance, Ashby reports that the ratio of associates to partners at big law firms is rising. If advancing to partner is the only career path offered, there is an obvious incentive for associates to bail out if they doubt that partnership is in their future (either because the odds are against them, or because they don't relish partner roles and responsibilities).

What sorts of alternate career paths are possible? The options depend to an extent on the particular industry, but Ashby's report on what some law firms are doing is again suggestive. For instance, he quotes a second-year associate at one firm who believes expanding associates' responsibilities can help retention. He also cites a law firm whose high associate-satisfaction survey results are in part due to the extensive training the firm provides.

In sum, here's what we find upon taking a closer look at apparent fading of legal associates' work ethic: We're actually dealing with a situation in which performance and retention are enhanced by matching people to responsibilities they care about, encouraging them to work smart as well as hard, and structuring incentives to fit their individual motivational profiles.
1 "Law-Firm Life Doesn't Suit Some Associates," by Ashby Jones, Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2006, p B6.



Monday, May 01, 2006

Ron Zemke, Trusted Guide

When I learned in 2004 that Ron Zemke, Senior Editor at Training magazine was sick, the news was very worrying to me, even though I had no personal acquaintance with him. I had come to admire Zemke from a distance through the "Unconventional Wisdom" columns and the feature articles he contributed to Training. His work invariably struck me as spirited, wise, and amusing. I made a point of taking his advice whenever it fit something I was working on myself.

Ron also wrote books. His best-known are probably those in the "Knock Your Socks Off Service" series, of which the "flagship" is Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service. The third edition, co-authored with Chip Bell, was published in 2002.

Another valuable book is Figuring Things Out: A Trainer's Guide to Task, Needs, and Organizational Analysis, co-authored with Thomas Kramlinger. You can get the flavor of the Zemke approach to sharing his expertise from this small excerpt:
Start Your Study as High in the Organization as Possible and Work Your Way Down. This is another of those concepts we've talked into the ground, but rarely seem to apply. When you start and end your problem analysis at the performer level, you never know exactly how the problem is perceived organizationally. Nor do you find out who is and who isn't concerned. And you never know what the problem is costing the organization, or why someone really cares enough to solve it, or if, in fact, you are playing the goat for someone in the organization who doesn't want the real problem solved.
As you can see, the writing is substantive and vigorous. With informed expertise and wit, the authors are taking you along a path that will get you to the point where you can confidently perform an accurate, persuasive needs analysis. This practical and engaging style always inspired me, and continues to inspire me.

Ron Zemke died of cancer in August 2004 — a very big loss to the training profession. Thankfully, his substantial legacy remains with us, supplying a wealth of broadly useful lessons. As one last example, you can't do better than taking a look at an article, "Thirty Things We Know for Sure About Adult Learning," that Zemke wrote with his wife Susan and published in Training in June 1995. You can read through the list of thirty items by clicking here, here, and here.