Monday, April 27, 2015

Communicating with Clarity

Recently a truck was allowed in our plant with serious gaps in safety requirements. The root cause - Clarity in communication. The concerned Manager had asked to change priority for loading a truck. The security sent the vehicle even with the gaps in safety assuming the instruction from the manager could not be questioned. In another organization, at a different time, the same root cause led to charging of a wrong material in a batch resulting in an off-grade.

In the first case, the concerned security person was called and counselled. The incident was shared with all other security people to ensure that learning was not confined to a single person. It was stressed that the safety superseded everything else.

In the second case, the organization incorporated a long clarifying statement in all of their product SOPs. The Panel operator would confirm from the Field operator if he had charged X kg of Y material in vessel Z and the Field operator was required to reconfirm verbatim that he has charged X kg of Y material in vessel Z. This action successfully eliminated the charging of wrong material in any future batches.

Both the organizations learnt from their mistakes and moved on. Many organizations today find themselves spending time on conducting root cause analysis for similar incidents and trying to find corrective ways to seemingly insurmountable problem.

We have very clear understanding of our ideas in our own minds and we think that other person has understood what we have said or what we want. However it is like the game of Tappers and Guessers. 

In this game the tappers are asked to tap a tune of a well-known song and Guessers are supposed to guess it. Since the tappers know the song, as they tap they can clearly hear it in their heads complete with rhythm and lyrics. When asked about their thinking on the probability of Guessers guessing the correct the song and they would respond "Ninety five percent". However the average score of this game is only "Three percent". What is clear as a bell to the tappers is just disconnected dots of sound to Guessers. You need to connect the dots.

One method, that I have found useful in this situation is to confirm the understanding of the other person.

Simply ask “What’s your understanding of what was just discussed?”

Some people resist this idea of asking. They think this displays lack of trust or raises the question on another person’s understanding. It can be easily dealt with if you think that you are actually checking your own ability to explain rather than other person’s ability to understand.

This goes a long way in making our communication clear. It will also take you closer to the art and science of leadership.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Create Sense of Urgency

John Kotter in his book “Leading Change” calls creating a sense of urgency the first step in the change process. Many organizations fail in implementation stage as they have not created enough buy-in among the stakeholders for the need for change. The change could be initiated either to take advantage of an identified opportunity or to overcome a threat. Without urgency, the organization becomes complacent. As the people do not see the need to change, projects take unreasonable amount of time to complete, and at times could lose their relevance by the time they get to see the light of the day.

To motivate people to take immediate action, people need to see the need for change. Having an honest dialogue with all the stakeholders in the organization about the opportunities and issues that need to be addressed in the early stages provides initial understanding for the need to change and can provide solid foundation for it.

A SWOT analysis at this stage is vital to assess the current situation. It will answer the questions related to:

1.       Current organizational performance.
2.       Organization’s strengths and how it can capitalize on them.
3.       Organization’s weakness and how it can improve.
4.       The external and internal factors affect organization in future.

Since any change will impact individuals, it is important to consider how it will impact individuals and to engage both minds and the hearts of the people. Change could initiate an emotional response from the people and therefore must be addressed early on in the process.

It is equally important to understand why status quo is not an option, what will happen if the organization does not change and what will be the benefits of the change.

To create sense of urgency, the leaders need to paint an inspiring picture of how the future could look like.  Communicate the benefits at all levels. Once sense of urgency is established, the organization can move on to next stages of the change.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Changing Behaviors

How behaviors change

In this ever changing world, change is the only constant. When we as leaders identify development plan for our reports, giving them tools to achieve it is equally important. Most of the leaders include antecedents like providing standard operating procedures and training to achieve results. Research has found that these methods yield results but are effective only up to 20%. The 80% of effectiveness comes from the consequences following the behavior. 

Designing an effective consequence requires hard work. Once a specific behavior is pinpointed, consequences that are encouraging or discouraging, delivered immediately, are important and are highly likely to occur will increase or decrease likelihood of that behavior repeating in future. However if the consequences are either delayed, or are not important or is unlikely to occur will not change the behavior.

Like all other processes the behavior change has four stages. The four stages are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence

1      Unconscious Incompetence – The Enthusiastic Beginner

This is a stage when you don’t know what you don’t know. The most often quoted example in literature is that of learning driving. The first time you get on to the driver’s seat, there is lot of excitement but it is extremely difficult to manage hand and leg coordination. The competence level is low but the commitment level is high. This stage is also called The Enthusiastic Beginner. At this stage the leader needs to provide high level of direction but low level of support. It does not take much time for this enthusiastic to get to the next stage.

2      Conscious Incompetence – The Disillusioned Learner

In this stage, you know what you don’t know. You realize how bad you are at driving. You start creating self-doubt if you will ever be able to learn driving. With sustained practice, you start developing some competence but the commitment level drops to low. The leader needs to provide coaching - both high level of direction as well as support. With practice you start getting results and then it is time to move on to next stage.

3      Conscious Competence – An Emerging Contributor

This is the time when you start replacing old behaviors with new behaviors. However you have to think about them. In the driving example you start acquiring skills like talking while driving. If you do not think, you fall back to old behavior. At this stage you have developed moderate level of competence but commitment is variable. Sometimes you would feel like quitting. Another day you would start with renewed vigor. Leaders at this stage should turn down direction but continue to provide high level of support.

4      Unconscious Competence – A High Performer

You are now a professional. You don’t have to think about what you are doing. You can drive and listen to songs. You can talk to your co-passenger. You have acquired high level of competence as well as commitment. The leaders should turn down both direction as well as support. The new behavior is now a habit. The job can now be delegated.

One small advice. You do not want to overwhelm the person. Start small. Focus on a very specific behavior and you are well on your way to getting better at the Art and Science of Leadership.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Asking Questions

We had made an off-specification batch. The team was conducting the root cause analysis. The discussion had been going well until I came in and started inquiring about the incident. Suddenly the atmosphere changed. People were no longer open. They became defensive. This sudden change in atmosphere would have fascinated behaviour scientists, unfortunately I was no behaviour scientist. I could not even sense the change. I had stifled the discussion which was proceeding so well before I entered that room.

What is wrong here?

Over several years I have learnt that being an engineer I have tendency to ask lot of “why” questions to satisfy my curiosity. A “why” question elicits defensive response. After four back to back questions one finds oneself against a wall. After that people stop answering your questions. This seriously derails the communication process. Then, what is the alternative?

The alternative is surprisingly simple. When I first read it, I was amazed at the elegance of the solution. The “why” questions can be substituted with “what” questions or just a phrase that encourages the other person to continue. For example, if you want to ask a person “Why did you do that?” you could instead ask, “That’s interesting, what was the thinking behind that?” or “Tell me more about that”. Or you could further encourage explanation by saying “I am sorry, I still do not understand, could you please elaborate”.

Another type of questions that stifle discussion are closed ended questions. Closed ended questions are those questions that elicit yes-no or fill-in-the-blanks type response. They do not give chance to the responder to expound. A typical example of this type of question is “Is this approved?”

You guessed this right. The simple alternative to this is to ask an open ended question. That sounds simple. However, it is not. People struggle to come up with open ended questions. The good news is that it is not rocket science and can be learnt with some practice. The phrase, “Tell me more about that” could be a life saver. To benefit from people’s thinking you need to learn to listen as well.

It’s always good to conclude a discussion with asking the other person’s understanding on the discussion. This may not sound like a good idea but will help bring all involved on the same page.

Learning to ask right questions will move you closer to the Art and Science of Leadership.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Delivering Feedback

"When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates." said Thomas S Monson. It is not without reason that most of the midsize and large organizations establish elaborate Performance appraisal systems. However, in most of the organizations, this becomes an annual ritual instead of becoming a tool to continually accelerate performance improvement.

Many experienced leaders avoid delivering feedback to their employees till the mandatory annual performance review. In general, the employees know how they are doing but at times, the feedback comes as a surprise. 

Why do these experienced leaders avoid giving feedback?

The primary reason is that most leaders think feedback only in terms of negative feedback and they avoid upsetting the employees and they themselves are uncomfortable delivering it. The employee gets no feedback when doing his job as per expectation and is confused about how his performance is viewed by his leader.

Feedback is your gift to your employee. It should not be just once a year but should be all year long in small packets. In her book, "Unlock Behaviour Unleash Profits", Leslie Braksick mentions that the effective leaders maintain a ratio of 4:1 for positive feedback to constructive feedback. When the employee is accustomed to hearing both positive as well as constructive/developmental feedback he is more likely to accept it and will not be surprised when it comes up in annual review. 

To be able to deliver meaningful feedback to their employees leaders need to ask themselves for each of their employees, what should this person continue to do, what should he start doing and what should he stop doing to make him more effective in his job.

This also helps them identify both the strengths as well as developmental needs of their employees. 

To overcome their own discomfort in delivering feedback they need to ask themselves following three questions:

1. Who helped them grow in their own career? Were they leaders who appreciated their work and gave constructive feedback or the ones who micromanaged them constantly fearing that they would fail.
2.  What is their real intention? If their real intention is for the good of the employee then why should they hesitate to provide feedback and finally
3.     Would their feedback help employee achieve what they want him to achieve.

Once they have answers to these questions they will be comfortable delivering both type of feedback: positive as well as constructive and they will be well on their way to skillful display of the Art and Science of Leadership.

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Perseverance and Leadership

I recently received a quote by Napolean Hill on Whatsapp "A quitter never wins and a winner never quits" that got me thinking. It is like a person who is digging for gold and does not know when to stop. Who knows, he may strike gold in the next hit or he may continue to labor for indefinite length of time.

When faced with repeated learning experiences or failures, the person starts to have doubt in his own capability. This causes stress. This stress can consume significant part of the person's capability to perform and the performance will usually suffer resulting in reinforcing of the self doubt. This is a downward spiral. Once a person gets caught in this it is difficult to get off this spiral. It is like getting off a speeding bullet train running at 300 km/h. The only way to get off is to slow down this train and wait till it stops. 

I have failed many a times. We all fail. There is nothing wrong in failing. It is just a feedback. However keeping oneself focused during such times is hard. How does one keep oneself focussed at task without worrying about outcome of one's efforts. I read a transforming mental image that one of my favourite  executive coaches had developed. Imagine you are on edge of a large pond and you are next to a large pile of nice round stones. Your job is to throw one stone at a time in the center of the pond so that they will accumulate in the center of the pond till one of the stones will finally appear on the surface. You do not know how many stones will it take to accomplish the job for you do not know the depth of the pond or the height of the pile that you have formed under the water. Any stone that appears above the surface is job well done.

Each stone is important. Every stone has the possibility of breaking the surface but since you do not know which one, you have to focus all your effort on throwing the stone in hand. You cannot be distracted by the stones already thrown or the ones that will be thrown later. Nor could you be distracted by the thoughts related to the rewards that you will reap or disappointments you will have if the stone happens to appear or not appear on the surface. You have to believe that every stone made a difference and that they were accumulating  under water even though you could not see them. 

It is easy to get in self doubt. Your capability in accomplishing the task. The time it will take to accomplish the task. Just keep throwing.

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Quality and Leadership

There are four important goals that contribute to success of any project. They relate to - Safety, Quality, Time and Cost. Given that safety is non-negotiable, it is not a variable in the equation. Of the remaining three, many a times I have seen quality being sacrificed at the altar of time and cost. 

I was in a dilemma. One of the key vendors who had assured me delivery of a critical piece of equipment in time, at the time of ordering, was now dragging his feet. He said, "I can only deliver it by end of the month". We were just in first week of March and that meant three weeks of delay. Considering a week's float in the project schedule later, it still meant two weeks of actual delay.

My project team had worked overtime and found an alternative. With our float completely consumed and with some luck, we would be able to meet our time target with marginal increase in cost but significant difference in quality. My team was pushing for a decision while I was struggling with the dilemma.

What should I do?

Project managers across the world are faced with similar situations everyday and more often than not they decide in favour of time and cost.

There could be other considerations. A friend recently shared a story with me. A large bearing manufacturer required a very high quality wash to remove small particles remaining in the ball bearings which otherwise would erode the bearings over time. If the wash medium could be cleaned further by an order of magnitude the performance (wear and tear) of the bearings could be guaranteed by a factor of 10 X implying that you may never have to change bearings of your Car unless it is damaged in an accident. The cost of doing this was prohibitive and therefore there were no takers.

Enter new disruptive technology. The wash medium could now be cleaned at an affordable price to the level one could have only aspired before. You thought every ball bearing manufacturer would fall for it. Surprise! Surprise! Still no takers? Now the manufacturers are worried about the volume of business that they will get if the quality is improved by 10 X. A significant segment of their business, the spare parts market, will vanish in no time.

Though cost, time and other business considerations have their own benefits in short term, the benefits of choosing quality over these far outweigh in the long run. So ask the question what will be cost of my decision over the life cycle of the project or how will it serve my customers. 

This is what I did. I renegotiated the time for project completion. What? Am I grateful for it? You bet.

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Apologies and Leadership

It was exciting time. We were building  a new plant in India. We were all busy expanding our team and training the team for a successful commissioning of the plant. We were all longing to get into this brand new plant and start. Several months had passed before I got an opportunity to visit the plant.

Geoff, the Project Manager, had been kind enough to agree to give us a guided tour of this new facility. Geoff, had been explaining, which equipment would go in which location and how much time it would take for us to get it all done. All was going well until I noticed that one of the key equipment was missing a cover. I was concerned that something may get inside it and may become difficult to clean or remove after installation. I brought it to notice of Geoff and I could see suddenly his facial expression change. I thought he had understood my concern, as he immediately called someone to put the cover in place, until my boss summoned me next day to his office.

"Rakesh", he said, "what happened during the plant visit yesterday". I had almost forgotten about the incident. He told me that I have ruined my relationship with Geoff forever and it was because of the way I rubbed the people wrong way. That got me thinking. That afternoon I was in Geoff's office. I told him I was sorry. I explained to him my concern about something falling inside the equipment causing damage later and that my intention was not to blame. He was a generous man. He accepted my apology unconditionally and to my amazement our relationship improved tremendously.

Fast forward twelve years. I no longer work for that company.

Recently I was listening to a podcast, in which the author spoke about four types of apologies two that enhance the relationships and two that diminish the relationship, and this incident flashed before my eyes.

Today I want to share these four types of apologies with you.

Apologies that enhance relationships:

The first apology that enhances the relationship is when you have different preferences and the other person is disappointed because of the choice that you made. It acknowledges that the person is upset without changing your choice. This is one of the most difficult apologies. It seems like that you are responsible for the other persons disappointment, when in reality it is just a matter of preference.

The second apology that enhances relationship is when you actually goof up and say I am sorry. It is when you own your mistake and ask for forgiveness. Not apologizing when you keep your team waiting for ten minutes for a meeting will damage your relationship with your team, whereas apologizing for it will build it.

Apologies that diminish relationships:

The first apology that diminishes relationship is continuous apology for poor performance. This apology though appropriate diminishes relationship because they signify unkept promises or substandard performance. The good news is that the person making them is aware of his or failings and has a better chance of improving. Actually in this case it is not the apology that adversely impacts the relationship but the behaviour that requires continuous apology.

The second apology that diminishes relationship is the one where a person apologize for things outside his control as if it was in his control e.g. someone in his organization not responding to my email, or that I was stuck in traffic jam for two hours while travelling to his office. It signifies weak grasp of reality.

Using apologies is a craft. Both abundance as well as lack of them can damage relationships whereas appropriate use will help build strong relationships. Skillful use of apologies will move you closer to the Art and Science of Leadership.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Communication and Leadership

It was a quite Sunday morning. I was sitting in my favorite chair enjoying a cup of green tea along with the daily dose of newspaper humor when my phone rang. It was Asha. She sounded upset. I calmed her down and asked her the cause for her rage. I had known Asha for several years now. She was calm, collected and a smart person. Hence I was surprised to hear her tone on phone. 

She shared that her manager had called and he was agitated. It was about an email that she had sent a day before. Her second level supervisor, the CEO, had contacted Asha just when she was about to leave for the day. He had been trying to contact her manager but could not reach him. He wanted a status report urgently. Asha had promised to take her teenage son out  that evening. She grudgingly stayed back, updated the report and sent it to him with copy to her manager and  her colleague who had helped her to put together that report.

In her email she wrote, "as per our discussion this evening, please find attached the status report". Her manager had received a terse email from the CEO asking for his analysis. From her email the CEO assumed that the report was prepared solely by Asha. She had failed to mention the contributions of her manager and her colleague.

I asked her to meet me in the evening.

Image result for communication images free download

I met her that evening. She asked if she could have done anything better. Instead of answering her closed ended question I explored the situation with her in more detail. Here are four specific questions that we discussed:

1. What is the purpose of the communication?
2. Who are the target audience?
3. Who are the other stakeholders? and,
4. What is the preferred communication culture in the organization?

In the situation described above Asha knew what the CEO wanted and she did well by including all the target audience and the stakeholders in the address field, however she failed to appreciate the communication culture in the organization. The CEO preferred that only his direct reports write to him. She had not followed that unwritten rule.

With practice she started developing the habit of asking these questions before any communication. Whenever she would not have answers to these she would go back and seek clarification. This one change moved her closer to becoming better at the Art and Science of Leadership.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Listening and Leadership

There is a reason why we have two ears but only one mouth. It was not until I had made one of my worst career mistakes that I became aware of this.

I had just been assigned the role of the head of the newly built technology center in India. In my earnest desire to earn my salary through hard work and contribution I started pushing my team. Equipped with a fast-firing supercomputer brain, or so I thought, I would complete people's sentences before they had a chance to air their views and opinions. Sometimes I will notice a flash of disapproval on their face but I would dismiss it without giving it a second thought till one day my boss delivered the feedback. Change or else... Well not exactly in those words but it meant same none the less. I had no clue what I was doing wrong.

I never thought that I was alienating my own team by my lack of listening abilities. My inability to keep quite and listen to other ideas became my biggest stumbling block.

As soon as one of my colleagues will come with a problem I had ready solutions. I would immediately jump in and offer solutions without even understanding that he only wanted to share the solution that she had come up with.

My Aha! moment came when one of my colleagues explicitly asked me if he could complete was he was saying. He needed some space and once I gave him that, things changed. Not surprisingly, he was willing to listen to my ideas with open mind after I made a sincere effort to hear his thoughts. I had read Steven Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" long time back but had never experienced firsthand the power of the fourth habit "Seek first to understand and then to be understood". It was a defining moment for me.

What I learnt from this  experience and my reading on the subject is that we have a strong urge to make contribution and are afraid that by the time our turn come our ideas would have been already expressed by someone else and we may not have anything new to say. Trust yourself. You will deliver the goods when its your turn.

Two techniques I learn't from executive coach Tom Henschel are Creating Silence and Resisting offering solutions too soon. Both these techniques allow another person the space to express himself. Continuing to explore the problem may reveal solutions that are better than the ones you had come up with initially and as a bonus helps you improve your relationships with other people.

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