Is Disorganization the New Normal?

disorganizationI have had a number of conversations recently with people who were lamenting the state of disorganization in their companies. The stories revolve around people spending too much time getting stuff done due to a lack of process or an inability of others to follow process. Apparently this results in much crazy making and general confusion.

I thought back to places I worked years ago and I must admit until recently, disorganization was not as much of a problem. Things didn’t happen as fast and changes weren’t needed quite as often. So when disorganization occurred as it inevitably did, there was enough time to sort it out before it became soul destroying.

But I have worked in several places recently that were crazy places and in one in particular, process was not valued so the place just got crazier the more people there were. This was supposed to be a good thing as it was supposed to foster innovation. I guess some people think they thrive in a state of constant turmoil.

I’m working now with a client that devolves into confusion on a regular basis as the company grows and experiences new growth pains. Each new situation results in disorganization but the difference is that the people there actually like the addition of process as they see how it reduces complexity and saves them time. So whenever there is confusion, we work to add small light processes to eliminate the nonsense.

The difference between the two places though is a willingness to embrace process, people who will step up to develop it, and an appreciation of how to implement process.

And I think that this is the essential difference between sanity and crazy-making. There are not enough workplaces in the knowledge economy that embrace process and as these organizations grow they become more and more disorganized. In these places, disorganization is the new normal.

Leadership Fears all Relate to Vulnerability

FEAR1There is a great post in Inc Magazine that discusses five common leadership fears and how to get over them. These are the fears they have identified:

  • Criticism
  • Failure
  • Making Decisions
  • Speaking
  • Responsibility

I like the list as it’s a good summary of leadership fears but in my mind these fears are all related to one central fear and that is fear of failure.

  • If you don’t listen to criticism, you will never find out that you have failed.
  • If you don’t make decisions, you can’t fail.
  • If you shut up, no one will know you’re wrong.
  • If it isn’t your responsibility, you haven’t failed.

Now the post goes on to recommend how people can get over each of these fears but since they all relate to a fear of failure, there should be one central way of overcoming the fear of failure. To get there we need to look at why people are so afraid of failure.

I think it all comes down to an inability to be vulnerable. Now here I am talking about this mushy emotional intelligence stuff again but it really does help to be aware of what’s going on emotionally as there isn’t always a logical solution to a problem. And while you can be aware, it doesn’t mean you have to deal with these random emotion things, just acknowledge the source.

So vulnerability, Brene Brown’s favourite subject, rears its ugly head again. Vulnerability as defined, refers to the inability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment. That’s what happens when you fail, the environment gets hostile.

But there is an easy way of getting over the problem of vulnerability at work and that is by realizing that no one cares about you anyway, they really only care about themselves. These other people who might be criticizing you are just letting you know what their needs are.

They want to be recognized, to be heard, to be listened to and to be right. If you play to their needs, it really won’t matter that you failed. Just listen to them, acknowledge that they are right, that you were wrong and that you failed and you will have met their needs.

I guarantee that they won’t remember that you failed but instead that you are a good listener and very agreeable, someone who makes them feel better by meeting their needs.



5 ways to improve your Ad Hominem arguments

Ad hominemI often feel there should be rules about arguing specifically to prevent Ad Hominem fallacies in arguments. Something like the ones the Marquess of Queensbury adopted for boxing. In my fantasyland of arguing, the red card would be reserved for these fallacies.

Now I know in using the term Ad Hominem I’m committing all sorts of blogging faux pas by using Latin words but you can think of it simply as meaning “Against the Man” (or woman.) An Ad Hominem is a logical fallacy used by a cheater when he or she has no other way of winning an argument.

Instead of attacking the argument, the cheater attacks the person doing the arguing. This is actually a logical flaw in an argument that should render the argument invalid but it seldom does.

Types of Ad Hominem arguments:

  • The standard Ad Hominem attacks the character of the person making the statement. “What would you know, you’re blond?”
  • Poisoning the Well discredits a person upfront. “Don’t listen to Charles, he’s blond”.
  • An Abusive Ad Hominem attacks the arguer’s background as in: “What would he know, all his friends are blond.”
  • A Circumstantial Ad Hominem points out irrelevant circumstances such as a vested interest. “I wouldn’t trust Charles, he owns shares in a hair colouring company.”
  • And finally a Tu Quoque says something must be invalid because the arguer is guilty of it herself. “Don’t tell me my hair looks like straw,  you die your hair blond too.”

In my imaginary world of arguing I would be quick enough to be able to see an Ad Hominem across the room and render any attempt at one invalid. “Hey, that’s unfair!” I would say, “You just committed a Tu Quoque!”

But alas, I’m not that smart. I frequently find myself thinking what I should have said, if only I had thought faster. I have a term for this and it’s: “I Thought to him!”

If you aren’t any good at catching these things in flight, maybe you could learn to use them in arguments yourself. After all, if the average person is lousy at spotting a gratuitous Circumstantial Ad Hominem then maybe they are a good tool on their own.

So here’s what you should do: Review the list of Ad Hominems above and practice using them in arguments. Surprise and confound your friends and loved ones with arguments that can’t be countered. If you get really good at this you could even consider standing for election as this seems to be the prevalent technique in politics today.



Confirmation Bias


Several weeks ago I was ruminating about various types of bias and I ran into one recently that I thought to be very interesting in terms of its implications. This is Confirmation Bias.

According to some definition pulled from somewhere “In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.”

When I was at MaRS Discovery District, (or should I say, when I was on MaRS) the then VP of Operations, Don Duval used to report that more than 80% of respondents to their survey gave MaRS a 4 or 5 out of five in rating the service they got from MaRS. Now at the time, not thinking about this stat very much, I thought this was an OK result.

The measure on the surface looks like a good one but I have since learned that if your average on customer satisfaction stats is a 4.2 or so, this is actually not a good result. The way I learned was by conducting a workshop where I got an average score of 4.2. I knew that the workshop, while not totally stinking, wasn’t very good. (These things happen.) But the participants were kind enough to give me a 4.2.

At the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, where I teach a course on Strategy Execution, my most recent score was a 4.8 and that I consider reasonable but now I don’t find it superb.

The problem is confirmation bias. People who have selected you as a supplier are subject to this confirmation bias as it is a hard thing psychologically for someone to admit they made a mistake. Having invested time in a supplier, a customer will want to confirm their own choice by not rating a supplier as poor. The way they get around this is by scoring someone as 4, not great, just OK. In the parlance of performance evaluations this is probably a “low meets.”

If your survey population is subject to confirmation bias you should be looking for an average above 4.5, not down around 4. And if you’re doing these types of studies, a better methodology to use is Net Promoter Score because it eliminates confirmation bias.

Avoiding Biases with Statistics

biasesIn the world of biases, I know myself that I’m guilty of recency bias as I have a habit of giving the most credence to that which I learned latest. (Or it could be that I have a bad memory and can’t remember anything I learned earlier.) Whatever it is, we’re all subject to biases in making decisions.

A recent Globe and Mail article on How the Leafs Learned to Love Analytics (no link because it’s behind their pay wall) outlined five types of bias. These were confirmation, recency, information, sample size, and simplicity.

I was impressed thinking that these were a good summary of major types of biases. But then I went to Wikipedia to see more on the subject and was overwhelmed. Their list of types of bias has over 150 entries. Everything from subjective validation bias to reactive devaluation bias.

You really should scan the list to see what you suffer from. I laughed at the last one, being guilty of it myself. This can be like a new type of hypochondria…spot the bias.

Back to the article. The proposition in the article is that statistics can help you avoid the effect of a bias. Now on first blush, that seems a reasonable proposition but I’ve been thinking about it and have decided that it just won’t wash.

Biases are for the most part, an emotional response to a particular situation. Statistics on the other hand are a logical response. Now I don’t know about you but for most people, in a battle between the two, an emotional response trumps a logical response any day.

And this got me wondering, maybe this is why people just don’t pay attention to statistics or analytics. They will just create cognitive dissonance between their emotional bias and the results of the analysis.

Don’t worry, be happy.

So Much Busy Work

Busy WorkLet’s face it, if you’re working more than eight hours a day, you’re not being effective. Lots of studies show that productivity declines rapidly after about eight hours of work. And much of what we’re doing in a day is busy work.

You might have heard of the term busy work but let me explain how I see it. Busy work to me is anything that doesn’t materially help you achieve your objectives and result in success. Let’s take that one slowly as there are a few thoughts embedded in here.

If you don’t know what success is in your role, then you’re doing busy work. In fact in this situation, all the work you’re doing is busy work. After all, if you don’t know what leads to success then what on earth do you know what to do when you get into work?

If you’ve done a good job establishing what success is in your role, then you have probably also figured out what objectives you have in place to achieve that success. If you’re doing anything that doesn’t tie into those objectives, directly then you’re doing busy work.

Next point. If you doing something that ties into your objectives but doesn’t help you meet those objectives in a material way then you’re doing busy work. Why would you do something that’s meaningless and immaterial in any case unless you’re trying to stay busy?

To bring these thoughts home, you should read an article from the Harvard Business Review about Why We Humblebrag About Being Busy. Let’s stop celebrating how much we work and instead start bragging about how little we have to work to get shit done.

Are your co-workers helping or hindering?

co-workersThere is a great study that has been published by the Harvard Business Review that attempts to look at what is going wrong with strategy execution. Some of the results are surprising but given what we have all experienced, they shouldn’t be. One of the things that the study is saying is that a large part of your ability to get your job done, of getting strategy implemented hinges on your co-workers, those people in other departments who you rely on to get things done for you.

The study asked whether people can rely on others around them to meet their promises, to get things done that they committed to. Fully 84% of respondents indicated that they could rely on their boss and direct reports all or most of the time.

But when it comes to relying on other people in the company to meet their promises, shockingly only 9% of managers can rely on co-workers in other departments. Their commitments are only just as good as those given by external parties.

And when they can’t rely it results in duplicated effort, letting promises to customers slip, delaying deliverables, or passing up attractive opportunities. This inevitably leads to conflict that is badly handled.

There is no easy fix to this problem as it appears to result from companies trying to do a good job executing strategy by aligning departments to specific tasks. When peel are hyper-aligned to their own set of tasks, and helping others out doesn’t contribute to getting your own done, then co-workers are left sucking air.

Now I know that none of you reading this blog would be guilty of letting co-workers down but all those other people out there better get their sh*t together right?

Fake It Till You Make It – Redux

keep-calm-and-fake-itI love the stuff that comes out about leadership as so much of it doesn’t make much sense. That’s why I was pleased to see this quote which reminds me of something I was told along time ago: Fake it till you make it.

This quotation comes from the book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader

“The fallacy of changing from the inside out persists because of the way leadership is traditionally studied. Researchers all too often identify high-performing leaders, innovative leaders, or authentic leaders and then set out to study who these leaders are or what they do.

I have found that people become leaders by doing leadership work. Doing leadership work sparks two important, interrelated processes, one external and one internal. The external process is about developing a reputation for leadership potential or competency that can dramatically change how we see ourselves. The internal process concerns the evolution of our own internal motivations and self-definition. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather, in our relationship with others.”

I’m now wondering if this applies to everything that we learn to do, that we really can’t learn unless we’re doing it and until then we have to fake it.

Change and Ambiguity

mainimageIn the last few days I’ve had a few great examples of why companies both big and small can’t see the competition coming, can’t innovate and frequently get bested by much smaller firms. The point was really driven home by a meeting I had recently with a company which shall remain nameless.

This company is loosely in the media industry. They have had declining revenue for ten years now. In fact revenue has been declining in double digits for that period. As you can imagine, after 10 years of double digit decline, there isn’t much left.

Meanwhile, new upstarts in the same area of the media industry have had double and even triple digit growth, have become the companies that everyone talks about and have been invested in by the world’s best venture capitalists.

So what is it that makes the difference? Two things. The older companies have been around for a while and are populated by people who fundamentally don’t like two things: change and ambiguity.

When a new form of competition enters the market, the first thing an established company has to do is to change. But if it has employees who don’t like change then without replacing all its employees, it is hard to create the type of change that is necessary.

The next problem is ambiguity. Even if people like to change, you have to like changing from a clear situation to one with a great deal of ambiguity. The challenging upstarts are exploring new ways of doing business, new business models, and new products. Creating these things is a highly ambiguous exercise. When you start out, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

Many people who would embrace change are reluctant to embrace anything ambiguous. They want to know what’s at the end of the change process if they commit to it. They are reluctant to change to an ambiguous situation and with that, entropy sets in.

The lesson to me is that if you’re starting a company or are in one that is being pummelled by new upstarts, look for people who like change and ambiguity or you’ll end up running the equivalent of a buggy whip maker in the automotive age.

Performance hurdles and ceilings

I was looking at a performance plan and bonus scheme for someone today and noticed a rather problematic hurdle. That’s one of those statements that says you get a $10,000 or whatever bonus if revenue exceeds $1 million. These weren’t the numbers but I blanched at the amounts as the bonus was large and the hurdle was high. It was so high, it was almost a cliff.


I’ve worked with people before, who when they realize they don’t have any chance of meeting their bonus, sandbag sales in order to shift them into the next year. The same thing happens with ceilings. In the old days IBM had a rule that no one could earn more that the President. That stopped more than one sales rep from selling late in the year.

The problem is, what do you do about performance hurdles and ceilings? I think ceilings are stupid. You can get burned one year without a ceiling but you can change the comp plan the next year so the expected revenue is more in line with reality.

But hurdles are another matter. How do you set a minimum standard without a hurdle. I don’t think there is any way to deal with them except through one of my favourite tools, trailing 12 month averaging. Paying every quarter or even monthly based on the last twelve months results doesn’t penalize or benefit anyone for sandbagging and you can adjust the hurdle rate to make it more realistic on a regular basis.

I know one company that pays bonuses based on weekly results. You can have an off week and it won’t affect the rest of your month. It also means that you can’t slack off for very long as you’re being measured all the time. They have hurdles and they work when measured weekly.

Complex to administer, maybe but it gets rid of quarter and year end stuffing which inevitably leads to operating issues and it keeps people on their toes all the time.