Great Managers Play Chess…

Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess. In checkers, all the pieces are uniform and move in the same way; they are interchangeable. You need to plan and coordinate their movements, certainly, but they all move at the same pace, on parallel paths. In chess, each type of piece moves in a different way, and you can’t play if you don’t know how each piece moves. More important, you won’t win if you don’t think carefully about how you move the pieces. Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and they learn how best to integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack.

But There’s a Catch…

This is the exact opposite of what great leaders do. Great leaders discover what is universal and capitalize on it. Their job is to rally people toward a better future. Leaders can succeed in this only when they can cut through differences of race, sex, age, nationality, and personality and, using stories and celebrating heroes, tap into those very few needs we all share. The job of a manager, meanwhile, is to turn one person’s particular talent into performance.

Managers will succeed only when they can identify and deploy the differences among people, challenging each employee to excel in his or her own way. This doesn’t mean a leader can’t be a manager or vice versa. But to excel at one or both, you must be aware of the very different skills each role requires.

First, identifying and capitalizing on each person’s uniqueness saves time. No employee, however talented, is perfectly well-rounded.

Second, capitalizing on uniqueness makes each person more accountable.

Third, capitalizing on what is unique about each person builds a stronger sense of team, because it creates interdependency. It helps people appreciate one anothers’ particular skills and learn that their coworkers can fill in where they are lacking. In short, it makes people need one another.

Finally, when you capitalize on what is unique about each person, you introduce a healthy degree of disruption into your world.

Sustained Collaboration

From the latin collaborare, meaning to work together.

Often, leaders think about collaboration too narrowly: as a value to cultivate but not a skill to teach. It’s not for lack of trying; open offices and listing collaboration as an organizational goal, for example.

The problem is these methods are superficial and do not produce sustained collaboration.

What is needed is a psychological approach. Sustained collaboration is marked by common mental attitudes: widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both colleagues’ work and the mission’s outcome. Most people display the opposite mentality, distrusting others and obsessing about their own status. Leaders must encourage an outward focus in everyone, challenging the tendency we all have to fixate on ourselves—what we’d like to say and achieve—instead of what we can learn from others.

Here are six training techniques to foster sustained collaboration in your organization.

1. Teach People to Listen, Not Talk

Our whole lives we are taught to speak up for ourselves. That competitive tendency becomes a liability. All too often when others are talking, we’re getting ready to speak instead of listening.

We fail to listen because we’re anxious about our own performance, convinced that our ideas are better than others’, or both. As a result we get into conflicts that could be avoided, miss opportunities to advance the conversation, alienate the people who haven’t been heard, and diminish our teams’ effectiveness.

When we really listen, on the other hand, our egos and our self-involvement subside, giving everybody the space to understand the situation—and one another—and to focus on the mission. Listening can be improved by these practices:

Ask expansive questions.

This is one of the behaviors encouraged at the animation studio Pixar. People stepping into managerial roles are required to take, among other courses, a 90-minute lunchtime class on the art of listening, which is held in a conference room decorated with posters of movie characters reminding participants to “Stay curious” and “Build on others’ ideas.”

In one exercise participants practice asking their partners open-ended “what” and “how” questions—which prompt people to provide more information, reflect on their situations, and feel more heard—rather than yes-or-no questions, which can kill conversations. For instance, instead of saying to someone “Did you try asking others who’ve worked on similar projects for advice?” participants are coached to ask “In what ways have you reached out to others for advice?”

Focus on the listener, not on yourself.

In another exercise, two coaches act out conversations to illustrate the difference between active listening and not really listening. One coach might say: “I’ve been so sick, and our calendar is so full, and I have this trip planned to see my family. There’s so much to do and I just don’t know how I’m going to pull it all off.” In the not-listening interaction, the other coach responds, “At least you get to go to Europe” or “I’m going to Croatia in two weeks, and I’m really excited.” In the active-listening version, she says, “That sounds really stressful—like you’ll feel guilty for leaving work and guilty if you don’t visit your family.” The coaches then ask the class to share their reactions and try the more effective approach in pairs.

Become comfortable with silence.

This doesn’t mean just not speaking; it means communicating attentiveness and respect while you’re silent. And it’s a challenge for those who are in love with the sound of their own voices. Such people dominate discussions and don’t give others who are less vocal or who simply need more time to think an opportunity to talk.

2. Train People to Practice Empathy

Think about the last time you were in a conflict with a colleague. Chances are, you started feeling that the other person was either uncaring or not very bright, my research suggests. Being receptive to the views of someone we disagree with is no easy task, but when we approach the situation with a desire to understand our differences, we get a better outcome.

In successful collaborations, each person assumes that everyone else involved, regardless of background or title, is smart, caring, and fully invested. That mindset makes participants want to understand why others have differing views, which allows them to have constructive conversations. Judgment gives way to curiosity, and people come to see that other perspectives are as valuable as theirs.

3. Make People More Comfortable with Feedback

Good collaboration involves giving and receiving feedback well—and from a position of influence rather than one of authority. The following methods can help.

Make feedback about others’ behavior direct, specific, and applicable.

At Pixar and other organizations, employees are asked to follow three rules for feedback: Be straightforward in both how you address a person and what you say about him or her; identify the particular behavior that worked (or didn’t); and describe the impact of the behavior on you and others.

Add a “plus” to others’ ideas.

Whenever a Pixar employee comments on a colleague’s idea or work during a brainstorming session, he or she must offer a “plus”—a suggestion for an improvement that doesn’t include judgment or harsh language. Pixar employees told me that this approach draws on three principles of improv comedy: First, accept all offers—that is, embrace the idea instead of rejecting it. Second, to ensure that you’re building on someone’s idea, say “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” Third, make your teammate look good by enhancing the scene or project he or she has started.

Provide live coaching.

Though tactics like plussing are well understood at Pixar, it isn’t always easy for employees at the company to put them into practice. For this reason, coaches there attend brainstorming meetings to reinforce good approaches and point out lapses. If a comment or a question doesn’t show “collaborative spirit,” the coach will ask that it be rephrased.

4. Teach People to Lead and Follow

A lot of attention is paid, in the literature and in the practice of management, to what makes a truly effective leader. There has been much less consideration of how to follow, though that, too, is an important skill. In interviews at American Express, I learned that the company’s best collaborators—those known for adding value to interactions and solving problems in ways that left everyone better off—are adept at both leading and following, moving smoothly between the two as appropriate. That is, they’re good at flexing.

5. Speak with Clarity and Avoid Abstractions

In any collaboration there are times for open discussion of ideas and times when someone, regardless of whether he or she is a leader, needs to cut through the confusion and clearly articulate the path forward. When we communicate with others, psychological research shows, we are often too indirect and abstract. Our words would carry more weight if we were more concrete and provided vivid images of goals.

6. Train People to Have Win-Win Interactions

Try this: Ask teams to work in pairs to think through how to divide an orange. Each partner is told, without the other’s knowledge, a reason for wanting the fruit: One needs to make juice, and the other needs the peel for a muffin recipe. If they fail to explore each other’s interests, as most pairs do, the partners may end up fighting over the orange. Or they may decide to cut it in half, giving each side an equal if smaller-than-ideal share. Some people even quit when they can’t get the whole orange.

Leaders who are frustrated by a lack of collaboration can start by asking themselves a simple question: What have they done to encourage it today? It is only by regularly owning their own mistakes, listening actively and supportively to people’s ideas, and being respectful but direct when challenging others’ views and behavior that they can encourage lasting collaboration. By training people to employ the six techniques, leaders can make creative, productive teamwork a way of life.

Survive an Earthquake

I’m a firm believer in disaster preparedness. I lived through the Thomas Fire, and though my emergency kit was prepared with an earthquake in mind, I distributed every dust mask in my kit to neighbors. This video debunks some common earthquake myths and the emotion behind them, and is entertaining at the same time!

Nancy Jones on Conan – Survive an Earthquake

Tech Value – 5 Questions

Where does all the money spent on technology go? More importantly, are the dollars getting a return, are they adding value to the organizations? Here are 5 questions we as CIOs should ask, and the answers we should be getting to ensure we are spending our technology budget the right way.

5 Business Technology Questions

  1. What are the business/organization problems technology is solving for us now?
  2. Who in our organization is helping technology solve these problems (and who’s not helping at all)?
  3. Who are the vendors helping us solve the problems (and the ones not helping at all)?
  4. How are we doing with digital transformation (and the emerging technologies that enable DT)?
  5. How are we measuring the return on our technology spending?
What are the business problems technology is solving for us now?

The question refers to operational and strategic problems. Operational problems are what way too many executives define as “technology” – email, MS Office, ERP systems, networks and laptops. While these all are necessary, they are not sufficient to technology optimization. Strategic technology supports manufacturing and distribution, finds customers, services clients and optimizes the entire product/service value chain. While the trains have to run on time, they also have to stop at the right places. If you cannot directly link operational or strategic technology spending to a specific problem, you’re wasting money. You also need efficiency. You need to “rationalize” your entire technology inventory every year. I guarantee you’re upgrading and supporting 50% more software applications than you need (or even use). You’re also probably not spending enough on data, data integration and data analytics. You need to make sure your networks, databases and applications – everything – are secure. Hard questions about security (and privacy as GDPR extends to your company) must be asked every day: you are one event away from a major financial disaster.

Who in our organization is helping technology solve these problems (and who’s not helping at all)?

Do you have professionals with the right knowledge, demeanor and ambition to acquire and leverage digital technology? Really? Who are they – and why are they so special? Who are the operational technology experts who know strategic technology well enough to grow your business? You need professionals who see the technology world through operational, strategic and disruptive lenses. You also need absolutely clear governance structures and processes. Who “owns” technology at your company? Is it a central office of the CIO, or is ownership shared across your business units? Do you pride yourself on strict technology standards, or do you “allow” business units to explore the operational and strategic technologies that contribute the most to growth and profitability? How many members of your team deeply understand your business “domain”? How many understand the nature of digital transformation Does the team understand the trajectory of business and that digital technology is changing almost quarterly?       

The answers? Technology cannot be owned by one central organization. Business models and processes change too fast. Centralized “IT” should only include operational plumbing. The rest should be strategically compatible with the plumbing, but acquired, deployed and supported by business units focused on traditional and (internal and external) disruptive competition. This means that you must assume the business model and processes that generate revenue and profit today will change dramatically over time (and sometimes over a very short period of time). Technology is the new fulcrum. Track it, leverage it, fear it. If you have Luddites on your team, eliminate them. If you have managers and executives who need to control technology for undisclosed reasons, remove them from all governance teams. If you have professionals weak in either domain or technology expertise, replace them, and if you have professionals who know very little about industry and technology trends, replace them immediately. “Seek-and-destroy” technology cheapskates, skeptics, dilatants and terrorists. They have no role to play in business enabled by – and now completely dependent upon– operational and strategic technology.

Who are the vendors helping us solve the problems (and the ones not helping at all)?

It’s always time to hold your vendors’ feet – and fees – to the fire. This continuous task is job one for companies (like yours) that outsource some, part or all of its technology products and services. List the operational and strategic vendors on your payroll. Examine the costs and benefits of each one. But do so strategically. For example, how fast are you moving your infrastructure and applications services to the cloud? Assess your vendors’ contributions to an aggressive data strategy. Which ones understand your business and technology architectures? Eliminate the ones that compete for your business even when they’re sleeping. They’re only mission is to increase revenue, not improve your business. You are the final arbitrator of value – not your vendors. Be careful not to abdicate responsibility for your business model and processes to vendors simply because they’re “informed,” glib or fun. You must own the business technology strategy of your company. Real vendor “partnerships” are hard to find. Remember that the marriages between you and your vendors are arranged and defined completely by the size of the dowry – nothing more and nothing less.

How are we doing with digital transformation (and the emerging technologies that enable DT)?

How attentive are you to your traditional – and disruptive – competitors? Probably more the former than the latter because it’s hard to see what’s coming at you from left field. So you focus on the competitors you know, which is a huge mistake. Digital transformation (DT) is about both kinds of competitors. It’s a matter of how far you look into the future and how encompassing your peripheral vision is. Some of you will look to the next quarter, while some will look several years out. Where do you sit on the DT spectrum?

The first step is modeling current processes followed by simulated models of future processes. What will these processes tell you? Find the inefficient processes, simulate new ones and then pilot the digital technologies most likely to enable the improved processes. Managers, executives and other stakeholders should require quarterly updates on DT projects, programs, successes and failures, which requires piloting emerging technology-enabled processes and sometimes even whole business models.

Are you piloting the contributions these technologies can make to improved business processes and models? If not, why not?  (AI, mobile, etc.?)

How Are We Measuring the Return On Our Technology Spending?

First, the easy answers. Reduce the number of applications you have in your operational and strategic technology portfolio. Make sure that business unit strategic technology spending is compatible with enterprise operational technology spending. If it’s not, you will pay handsomely to get technologies to work together:  “technology integration” makes vendors richer. Hire some independent consultants – none of your current technology vendors– to develop ROI models of operational and strategic technology effectiveness. The metrics for both categories are well known, such as the # of security breaches (for operational technology) and social media advertising customer conversion rates (for strategic technology). The metrics should be refreshed on a real-time dashboard for everyone to see. This project team should be treated as an “independent counsel” to the entire business technology environment of your company. No one with a vested financial interest in technology delivery should own any part of it.

Effective Meetings

Rule #1 – Ideas can come from anywhere. Attendees are there for a reason, because they can add value–knowledge, expertise, or stakeholder value.

Rule #2 – Act on facts, research hunches. Force participants to back up their statements with reliable evidence before making a play on their input. Slate hunches for background research.

Rule #3 – Stay focused on the agenda item at hand. Establish talking points ahead, set the agenda and guide people back when the conversation strays.

Example Agenda Outline:
I. Introduction
II. Statement of problem
III. Ground rules
IV. Problem Discussion – 15 minutes
V. Solution Discussion – 30-45 minutes
VI. Action Items

Facilitate Solution Discussion:
1. Open – Write down all ideas and all reliable evidence to support each idea
2. Narrow – Debate. Vet ideas for solvency and doability.
3. Close – Rank and prioritize the next best play.

Rule #4 – No Distractions. Send a signal to side talkers by standing in between them. Invite participants to turn their phones back on after the meeting, no electronic note taking, checking emails etc. This means the meeting should be relevant and adding value to all invited. If that is not the case, invite them to engage in a more valuable activity. Really.

Rule #5 – Co-authored and unique to organizational culture. For example, no one bring a topic that seems to always come up and is not constructive in nature.