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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