Movies about space missions that result in catastrophe can teach us a lot about how not to manage a project (the "successful failure" of Apollo 13 comes to mind). Yet there are actual space mission catastrophes — the loss of the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO), for example — that also offer valuable lessons in preventing fundamental mistakes.
The MCO was the major part of a $328 million NASA project intended to study the Martian atmosphere as well as act as a communications relay station for the Mars Polar Lander. Famously, after a nine-month journey to Mars, the MCO was lost on its attempt to enter planetary orbit. The spacecraft approached Mars on an incorrect trajectory and was believed to have been either destroyed or to have skipped off the atmosphere into space. The big question naturally was: What caused the loss of the spacecraft?
After months of investigation, the primary cause came down to the difference between the units of output from one software program and the units of input required by another. How, the media asked, could one part of the project produce output data in English measurements when the spacecraft navigation software was expecting to consume data in metric?
Those of us involved in expensive and high-risk projects would ask the similar question: How could this happen? What follows are a few findings from the Executive Summary of the Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board (MCO MIB), with lessons for us all.
- The root cause of the loss of the MCO spacecraft was the failure to use metric units in the coding of a ground software file used in trajectory models. Specifically, thruster performance data in English units were used instead of metric units in the software application code.
- An erroneous trajectory was subsequently computed using this incorrect data. This resulted in small errors being introduced in the trajectory estimate over the course of the nine-month journey.
I was recently going through my notes, preparing to give one of my workshops on the subject of Personal Effectiveness. In preparation for the workshop each participant is requested to read some background material so all who attend have a passing understanding of (1) what the Best Practice looks like in action, (2) what it contributes to the business, and (3) if it's truly beneficial, how a business team would put it to work.
The material I pondered that caused me to start writing about it in this article is a Harvard Business Review article: Beware the Busy Manager by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal.
The authors ask an intriguing question — Are the least effective executives the ones who look like they are doing the most? Hmmmmm.
Of course, being seasoned scholars, the authors backed up their observations in their article with some impressive research. For about a ten year period they studied the behavior of busy managers in companies in the US, UK, Germany and Switzerland, interviewing hundreds of managers. Their findings were not particularly encouraging. They report fully 90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. In other words, a mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner. Okay, what does that look like?
Sometimes, a description of what something is not helps to also describe what it is.
This past week, we had another Lead Change Tulsa breakfast dialogue and the topic was Effectively Leading Diverse Organizations. Over 40 people, many new to Lead Change, joined us for this discussion.
Teri Aulph (@TeriAulph) generally enlists the panelists and we allow each to open the dialogue. Chery Gegelman (@GianaConsulting) moderates and facilitates with grace and involves everyone in the room to the extent they're comfortable. Their skill at managing these events enables me to relax and think.
This day, I chose to study the people because the group was more different from me than any other breakfast discussion we've had. The topic of diversity almost by itself brings out a more diverse crowd. The stories and the ideas shared opened my mind and challenged my thoughts.
What makes a leader? What path were these people on to develop as leaders?
"Diversity is simply hearing every voice." Teri Aulph
As a committed contrarian, I was reminded of ideas I've shared before about followers and leaders, about acting out roles vs. who we really are (character), about positional authority vs. character-based authority.
Like many companies in many industries, and practically every human being I know, the insurance world can be change-resistant. We fight natural laws even as we recognize the very need to adapt and grow. When it comes to adopting technology — a topic I hope to explore in future contributions here — change is particularly difficult.
So how do you get your organization to change, to adjust, to transform? How can you promote and ensure a change in direction or propel a faster change? A few key lessons found in Newton's Laws can shed light on some good answers.
In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton published his work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, what we commonly call Newton's laws of motion. I am sure you remember Newton's laws of motion? Here's a layman's version (with apologies to Sir Isaac):
- First law: A body (mass m) in motion stays in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force (F). Picture a big boulder rolling down a shallow slope, just enough slope to keep the boulder rolling but not enough for the boulder to gain speed.
- Second law: A body will accelerate if pushed in the same direction as it is moving, i.e., F = ma (we'll need the formula later; I know, you were told there would be no math). Same boulder, now rolling slowly so you catch up to it and push it from behind, causing it to go faster.
- Third law: The forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal and opposite. This means that whenever a first body exerts a force F on a second body, the second body exerts a force -F on the first body. F and -F are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. Our boulder example again, only this time it runs into another boulder, which causes the first boulder to slow or stop and the one it hit to steer off in the opposite direction of the hit.
So that's what you already knew. What I bet you didn't know is that Sir Isaac Newton spent a lot of time at Edward Lloyd's coffee shop in London (Lloyd's of London). Sir Isaac was a professor, after all, and was nothing if not observant. For years he listened in on the conversations of insurance professionals as they talked about their businesses while sipping his nonfat vanilla lattes. He soon postulated the three laws of business:
- First law: A business (mass m) will remain on its course, good or bad, profitable or unprofitable, forever if no new forces act upon it.
- Second law: The larger or older a business is (big mass m), the more force (change agent F) it will take to accelerate its course.
- Third law: If a force (F) is exerted on a business (mass m) to try to change its course, expect some pushback (-F).
Sound familiar? Think about your own organization. Now do these "laws" ring a bell?
It is important to note that I love the insurance business and have been studying the industry from the inside for 34 years. That said, I do think Newton's laws of business have a stranglehold on our industry. While there are exceptions, many companies are in a "state of uniform motion," and too many companies struggle to change course. Still others try but are forced to give up when change is not well received by those affected.
So what can an organization do to overcome Newton's laws or, in reality, use the laws to their advantage? Let's tackle them one at a time.
Winning Them Over
In Part 3 of this series, safety officer Ken Malcolm talked about the importance of building trust between hardnosers and those who try to change them. To this, Malcolm adds respect.
"Give them [hardnosers] respect," he says, "and problems go away. They might not like you, but when you handle people accordingly, someone is always watching, and that tough but fair method gets you respect."
Trust and respect form the pivot point that directs difficult employees away from dysfunction, toward responsibility. Hardnosed workers will never trust or respect you more than when you demonstrate to them that you have their best interest at heart.
You do this when you create intentionally interpersonal safety training to meet the intensely interpersonal weaknesses of workers.
Intentionally Interpersonal Safety Training
Not all worker resistance is of the severe magnitude experienced by the desperate general manager described in Part 1. But to any manager who suddenly realizes that "good employees" in his organization are on the verge of spinning into the Cycle of Rejection (see Part 2), the situation can seem as serious.
Such was the panicky attitude of a global manufacturing company's operations excellence director when he realized that his plants' safety representatives, were, for no apparent reason, beginning to resist his carefully crafted 5-year safety excellence plan. Midway through the plan, he found that the ability of his safety representatives to engage employees — younger employees in particular — was less than he initially believed.
Turning The Corner
Admittedly, Part 1 and Part 2 of this series may be a bit discouraging to the solution-seeking reader. But as a wise professor states, "There is no implementation without, first, evaluation."
So what has our evaluation revealed?
First, the dysfunctional nature of the average hardnosed worker employed in traditionally change-resistant work sectors is representative of his greater employment family, both labor and management. It is not the portrait of an isolated employee or two. The nature is systemic, as are its crippling effects.
Second, the extent of potential behavioral dysfunction in hardnosers is staggering. The research data points past the occasional whimsical, inane antics of the passive-aggressive worker who simply annoys others. It directs us to the darkly devious behavior of someone, or a bevy of someones, who is self-destructive, emotionally unengaged, and constantly looking to jump off the ship after lighting the fuse that may blow it up.
Third, management has largely failed in its attempts to wrestle control of the workforce away from hardnosers. Traditional quick-action employee management strategies lack the foundational understanding of both the cause of defiant behavior and the dysfunctional team dynamics that it creates.
Last, management has often chosen the wrong method to seize control of hardnosers. The preferred tactic has been to tighten control through the repeated issuance of compliance standards. Such "what to do" and "how to do it" standards stiffen the hardnosed worker's resolve to reject management's ploys.
Engineering consultant Kevin Sorbello fittingly compares the change-resistant workforce to a dysfunctional family in which "those making the rules unconsciously see themselves as adults in charge of children." Conversely, he notes that workers of lower rank see themselves as being "treated like children by unfit elitists. The fact that this scenario is so ubiquitous," he says, "is disheartening."
In light of this stark portrayal, what can be done to heal a defiant and dysfunctional employment family?
Righting The Ship Wrongly
For torturous purposes, let’s say that you are an executive manager who has inherited the type of hardnosed workforce described in Part 1 of this series.
Your laborers are largely emotionally repressed, unsympathetic, narcissistic, uncontrollable and prone to permanently go AWOL. Ditto for your supervisors and managers. Collectively, your work force constitutes a change-resistant barrier that thwarts every attempt at achieving continuous improvement.
As risk strategist Greg Pena suggests, you set about to correct the obstructionist nature of your workforce. Otherwise, your best management efforts are "doomed from the start."
Which quick-action strategy do you choose?
- Create and enforce more rules designed to secure better worker behavior?
- Implement a system of rewards and awards designed to reinforce good behavior?
- Pursue an aggressive program of quality assurance that requires strict behavioral compliance and reporting?
- Institute a behavior observation program that results in establishment of improved work procedures and oversight?
This is not a trick question.
To begin, you might start by quickly doing what others have traditionally done in similar situations.
- Assess where the most "damage" is being done by the most resistant workers.
- Speed headlong in pursuit of the holy grail of gaining control of those workers.
You do this because you've been taught that lack of control is the foundational cause of rebellious behavior. Control is considered a weapon. To heck with human resource management laws and employee management policies. They are slow, ineffective weapons of change. You need something that works quickly.
So to gain instant influence, you deploy whichever of the quick-action strategies (above, a–d) that you think will give you the fastest results. Each approach promises control; all are known quantities. Together, they constitute the bulk of management's current wisdom in wrestling control from hardnosers.
Our 'Troubled Kids'
The tone of the general manager's phone call to the author of this series of articles revealed the deep defiance to authority that he sensed in his workers.
"Are you the camp program that helps troubled kids?" he asked gruffly.
"Yes," came the reply.
"Good. I have some for you — they're my employees."
The manager was desperate enough to ask help from the author's wilderness camp program that rehabilitated troubled youth. But he was also sincere in the belief that the hardnosed behavior of his employees closely resembled that of juvenile delinquents.
He proceeded to state that most of the drivers in his transportation company were acting irresponsibly, dragging morale down to a level that affected safety performance and caused high rates of personnel turnover. Nothing he had tried seemed to stop their dangerous immature behavior. He needed help, and he needed it soon, before one of his truckers precipitated more than a crisis of immaturity.
The complaint sounded familiar to the author. Hundreds of juvenile authorities, unable to control their charges, sought to place troubled youth in his "tough love" camp program. Each sounded as desperate as the manager.
But was the manager simply a grump who was reaping the just "rewards" of his poor employee management skills? Or when he placed the call to the author in 1992, was he in the vanguard of recognizing a disturbing trend sweeping through the labor force?
To find out, the author agreed to help the manager. What he uncovered, and what we should do about it, forms the body of this series of articles.
Boardroom protocol is being exposed every day on the internet. Does Rupert Murdoch really think we can't see beyond his prepared remarks to determine for ourselves the "tone at the top" coming from his boardroom?
Imagine what happens when 100 million people on Twitter can now get involved in the conversation happening in the boardroom from the outside in.
I know that many people in the boardroom are still on the sidelines about social media. What will it take to get your board ready to tackle their willingness to learn what is happening on the internet? Will it take seeing your company's name in the news before you add digital literacy to your director's education? I can see the incredulous look on the directors' faces when the board is called on for their oversight of digital issues.
I can only imagine a board being characterized as:
- "illiterate": showing or marked by a lack of personal knowledge with the fundamentals of a particular field of knowledge.
- Or maybe a board will be portrayed as "ignorant": Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular: "ignorant of social media."
Worse yet is as a board leader to know that it is true. So I ask, when are you planning to get digital and social media on your agenda? Who is going to be responsible for taking action to get it on your fall board agenda? Whatever title you have in the boardroom (board chair or lead directors), you are setting the boardroom agenda. Are you waiting for your CEO, Corporate Secretary, Corporate Counsel, Audit Committee Chair to bring resources and spend budget to get this to happen for you and your board?
Time To Learn Where Your Customers Spend Their Time
Social media accounts for 22.5 percent of the time that Americans spend online, according to "State of the Media: The Social Media Report." This is compared with 9.8 percent for online games and 7.6 percent for e-mail. You can read more in the New York Times.
This is a voluntary opportunity for you to keep your board current and relevant. If you're waiting for a regulatory push to get your boardroom thinking digitally, you may not be ready to take action and learn what is happening 24/7 on computers and mobile devices around the world.
It's hard enough to get the business started on a sound foundation; it's oftentimes much more challenging to continue operating and transitioning into an adult/mature business. The key to success is establishing and maintaining a "trust-centric leadership" model.
Notice that I haven't used the term manager, or management or manage.
Leadership is much different. Leadership helps others advance to a higher level.
Management, in effect, manages the checkers on a checker board. Leadership helps businesses become thriving organizations.
Management stifles creativity, creates meaningless tasks and frustrates employees, while at times satisfying the manager's selfish desires to be in charge. Leadership doesn't focus on being in charge; it focuses on effectively getting an organization to an important place.
Micromanagement is leadership gone bad. You never hear the term micro-leadership unless you are talking about a very short leader.
The following diagram presents a model for Trust-Centric Leadership.
This can be described from two different perspectives: that of the leader and that of the subordinate or staff person. Both are critical to high performance.