HOW SMART MANAGERS LISTEN (2020.How Smart Managers Listen)

Published in The Smart Manager, February 2020

IDEAS: Organizations need to constantly evolve to meet new challenges, but there is one key component that gets lost in the upheaval—listening. Without an open culture which encourages and responds to feedback—in all its positive and negative forms—a company-wide transformation will fail before it has even begun. Successful organizational change unfolds in three general phases.

  1. First is defining the goal, purpose, and value of the change.
  2. Second is planning for implementation of the change, often bringing in mid-level managers or consultants, or both.
  3. The final phase of organizational change is implementing the plan to accomplish the changes in operations, processes, and transactions – with respect to their planned timing, sequencing, and budgets.

That third phase is where the human aspect becomes most visible, as the changes touch people’s jobs, roles, and interactions. The primary role of leadership in organizational change is to facilitate employee engagement at every level, across all departments and units that will be directly or indirectly touched by the change.

Dialogue and discussion are the tools of good leadership to formulate and prepare for a change, and to see the change through to a successful conclusion. Your leadership strategy will be to engage the resistance – that is your best access to engaging employee participation in productive conversations and, ultimately, in effective actions for a successful change.


Published in Waste Management Symposia, 2018.  The WM Symposia would like to congratulate you on achieving the rating of a “Superior” paper at the WM 2018 Conference, Paper # 18462 “Organization Change: Leadership Speaks the Future, Management Makes It Happen” was presented in the session for Innovations and Performance Solutions to Workplace Management.

IDEAS: Many organization changes touch multiple units and processes, often requiring unplanned inter-group communications and collaboration. Different types of communication are necessary to be effective in making those changes.

First, leadership communication focuses on presenting the idea for the proposed change as a purposeful and worthwhile process that will deliver benefits to the organization, its customers and its stakeholders. A series of discussions with personnel can clarify the change objectives, success metrics, and timelines, and it engages them in productive participation in the change process.

Another other type of communication is from the change managers, designed to ensure that the actions taken will be effective in accomplishing the intended results and delivering the desired benefits of the change.

Examples of leader and manager communications are included in this paper. Change leadership communications are usually delivered by high-level people but can be delivered by individuals at any level. They speak a vision for a possibility, i.e., a new future, in a way that engages people in its value and desirability.  Change managers often head up departments, teams, or smaller groups. Their communications are with group members to refine the organizational change goals into (a) team goals, measures, and assignments; (b) collaboration with key players; and (c) tracking and updating elements of the change process as it progresses toward completion.

This work is often more daunting than the leadership phase, due to forces of increasing detail, complexity, and disorganization over time, such as unexpected interruptions, changes in resources, and new requirements for coordination.

UPGRADE YOUR WORK PLANS FOR BETTER PERFORMANCE (2016.Upgrade Your Work Plans & Perf. Circle)

Published in Waste Management Symposia, February 2016

IDEAS: Most work plans involve at least two basic elements: a list of things to do plus a timeline for doing them. These “tasks-and-times” plans can be used for managing a project, an organizational change, or the implementation of a strategic objective. But given the high rate of plan failures – often cited as ranging from 35% to over 80% – something must be missing.

Three ideas for upgrading work plans have demonstrated higher success rates than the time-and-task method alone. First, maintain a “GPS Scorecard” of the Goals, Performance metrics, and Schedules for accomplishment. Second, maintain a Performance Circle Register of all key players, and the key deliverables to and from each of them that will ensure success. Third, implement all three parts of an accountability management system, collectively referred to as “T3”: Tracking, Team assignments, and Talk-times to update status and progress against the plan. Why bother to take the extra steps to strengthen work plans? Three reasons:

  1. Traveling without a map is risky in times of high change in infrastructure, staffing, and technology,
  2. “Expectations” do not guarantee delivery as reliably as well-defined agreements, and
  3. “Accountability” is a management practice, not a personality trait.

Together, implementing these three ideas can provide for clarity of purpose, guidance in establishing the productive relationships necessary for success, and a system of supporting accountabilities for all participants, both on the team and with others inside and outside of the organization.


Published in Waste Management Symposia, February 2015

IDEAS: One definition of management in business and organizations is: “the function that coordinates the efforts of people to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.” Unfortunately, what it takes to coordinate (literally, to create order together) is beyond the scope of today’s management tools (the top five are listed in the article). Those tools are useful tools in business and organizations, but do not help managers coordinate the complex performance networks of agreements with resource providers, team members, and internal and external user-customers and authorities required to accomplish group or organizational goals.

How do we manage such a network? While coordination is increasingly necessary in today’s world of work, it is also a much neglected area of serious study because it is, almost literally, an invisible phenomenon. We can observe people inside groups, as well as their activities and results, but coordination is a product of managing what is going on between groups, not inside them. The challenge is making that in-between visible and actionable – it is not just “white space”.

A solution: define a Team’s performance as agreements for products, services, and communications – the things that move between a Team and its immediate circle of resource providers, customers, and authorities relevant to a goal. This approach has been shown to reduce operational costs while also increasing team members’ recognition of their interdependent responsibilities. Managers and Team leaders can then turn any Team goal into an opportunity for accomplishment in three steps:

  1. Define “performance” in terms of deliverable products, services, and communications for every goal,
  2. Keep performance status current and visible to all team members, and
  3. Debrief and update performance status routinely.

Teamwork and engagement in goal accomplishment require a focus on Sender-Receiver agreements, productive communication, and timely and accurate status-tracking and feedback. Sustaining the context for accomplishment is not about managing people – it requires supporting coordination for the network of agreements in which people operate.


Published in Waste Management Symposia, February 2014

IDEAS: Traditional management curriculum tells us that management means “coordinating the efforts of people to accomplish desired goals using available resources efficiently and effectively.” We overlook that key word “coordinating” in our haste to focus on people, goals, schedules, and resources. A more effective approach to management emphasizes (a) deliverables, (b) productive communication, and (c) performance agreements.

The starting point is redefining what we mean by “performance” away from people doing things to watching the delivery, receipt and assessment of “deliverables”, i.e., the products, services, and communications that move to and from goal-relevant individuals and groups. Measuring performance in terms of deliverables can be measured in three distinct ways, depending on what we want to accomplish:

  1. Efficiency-Productivity – Measured by taking the ratio of a group’s goal-relevant “inputs” to its goal-relevant “outputs”, i.e., the types and values of some or all of the resources coming in to a group and the types and value of some or all of the resulting outputs dependent on those resources.
  2. Quantity-Quality – Measured by evaluating the goal-relevant outputs in terms of specific standards or expectations regarding the quantity or quality of those products, services and/or communications.
  3. Impact-Effectiveness – Measured by the value of a goal-relevant product, service or communication after it is received by its user-customer. Measuring this type of performance requires setting up a feedback mechanism to obtain the value of the deliverable as determined on the receiving end of the transaction.

None of these locations of “performance” happens inside a group of people. In this model of management, deliverables are the basic unit of performance; productive conversations are the basic unit of management; and agreements for deliverables are the basic engine of performance management.

These three elements move us away from the socio-technical view of work groups linked by their “shared values, human behaviors, and informal social and personal relationships”, and move us toward the importance of deliverables that move between them. It is now possible to get back to business and focus on giving people an opportunity to accomplish something instead of putting their attitudes and feelings as the highest priority.


Published in Waste Management Symposia, February 2013

IDEAS: Management has evolved a long way from its original meaning of “governing a horse”. The industrial revolution of the 1800’s fostered “scientific management”; the 1930’s Hawthorne studies discovered that people’s social interactions could alter productivity; and the dawn of the computer age in the post-war 1950’s brought general systems theory into management thinking. Today, mobile wireless connectivity aims to transform ever-changing networks of players, mandates, and markets into something that can be “managed”.

So why is there no clear and simple recipe for how to practice management? This article develops three standard practices for managing in a network: (a) dialogues for productive relationships, (b) scoreboards for goals and deliverables, and (c) feedback for performance. These ingredients are useful for more than reaching goals – they also support cross-boundary work and more productive meetings. Together they constitute a recipe for managing in a networked world.

So why is there no clear and simple recipe for how to practice management? We talk about financial management, safety management, and operations management, but surely the “management” part of those endeavors will share the same set of practices. Instead, we are still arguing for “management” to include everything from developing people to negotiating contracts. A manager’s job may include many things, but one of them, the job of management, needs to be nailed down. Three standard practices for managing in a network are developed:

  1. Support the dialogues that connect people vital to accomplishing a goal or objective.
  2. Develop and sustain the scoreboards that serve as a roadmap to reach the goal.
  3. Control the feedback to “govern the horse”.

These three practices are useful for more than reaching goals. They also support coordinating across boundaries and running productive meetings. The dialogues for productive relationships, scoreboards for goals and deliverables, and feedback for performance together constitute a recipe for managing in a networked world.


Published in Waste Management Symposia, February 2011

Traditional project management tools, including process mapping and workflow design – are useful design tools, and can support the clarification of specific activities or routines that will constitute elements of a project. But they are not useful performance tools or the people who will do the work to fulfill project objectives. A closer look at activity-based management tools shows that their emphasis on doing work, rather than delivering work products that are assessed with agreed-upon standards, skews attention toward being busy rather than toward planning and producing the products, services, and communications that contribute to project success.

Project management tools are useful to designers and planners for displaying intersecting activities that can be streamlined and scheduled to create efficiencies. They are seldom useful to either the people who do the work or to those attempting to coordinate efforts among sub-teams while satisfying multiple customers. Using a network approach to Project Management, however, makes deliverables and sub-deliverables visible and accessible for discussion, planning, and agreement on the particulars of features and functions.

The evolution of a “deliverable-network” approach to project management supports the management of agreements and results ahead of tasks and activities. The challenge for today’s Project Managers is to design, implement, and synchronize a network of performance agreements that will achieve project objectives. The intention is to re-frame projects in a way that will deal effectively with “scope creep”, project communications, change management, and status reporting. A list of the “top ten tips” shows how to conserve a Project Manager’s time, talent, and temper by managing a project as a performance network.


Published in Organizational Dynamics, 2010

It’s true that resistance can be irrational and self-serving. Still, it is an important form of feedback: resistance can be a valuable resource in the accomplishment of change. Accessing its benefits, however, requires a shift in managers’ tendency to blame resistance for the failure of change. This may be difficult – blaming resistance for failures in change is easy to do – but there are three reasons to start using that resistance:

  1. Blaming resistance can be dysfunctional for managers who perceive resistance as threatening. Becoming competitive, defensive, or uncommunicative may alienate potential partners in accomplishing the desired change.
  2. Blaming other people for their apparent resistance behaviors presumes that resistance is a unilateral phenomenon. It’s not: it is inaccurate and simplistic to view resistance as coming only from ‘‘over there, in them,’’ gives only one side of what must be a two sided story.
  3. Blaming resistance ignores the functional value of resistance. Such a purely negative view of resistance is not found in other fields of study, e.g., mechanics, biology, and electronics, where resistance is an operational factor. In those fields, resistance is inherently neutral and only takes on a value of ‘‘functional’’ (e.g., in space heaters) or ‘‘dysfunctional’’ (e.g., excessive air drag) depending on what one is trying to accomplish.

A more complete and balanced view of resistance can provide more flexibility in the field of managing change.

DECODING RESISTANCE TO CHANGE (2009.Decoding Resistance to Change)

Published in Harvard Business Review, April 2009

IDEAS: You announce a change initiative, and some employees are silent while others complain. You bristle at this “threat” and determine to squelch the resistance. But wait: Resistance is a form of feedback from people with deep knowledge about your company’s daily operations. Treat their concerns as useful information, and you will gain important ideas for communicating and executing the change initiative. And by having a dialogue, you also win buy-in essential for success.

One example: A manager proposed merging the Billing group with her Call Center to create a larger and better integrated customer-service unit. Because this required cross-training in both areas, everyone balked at the extra work. But when she asked them for suggestions to implement the change, they perked up. One idea – Billers and Callers training each other and drafting updates for both processes – struck gold and fostered real collaboration post-merger.

When change initiatives run aground—as they so often do—change agents can be quick to point a finger at the people who didn’t get on board. The assumption is that they resisted a perfectly rational move, so people lose sight of the goal and miss the chance to discuss the implementation process. Those discussions can identify the plan’s missing pieces and faulty assumptions to make the change process more effective.

It takes a strong leader to step up and engage when a change effort meets with pushback. If you can gain perspective by paying attention, both understanding and learning from behaviors you perceive as threatening, you will ultimately deliver better results.

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