Agility vs Accuracy

Is leadership about making the right decisions or making fast decisions? The easy answer is that it is a blend of both. But it is really difficult to find leaders who portray both these abilities. I have contemplated over this for a little while now and although I appreciate quick decision making, my experience leads me to believe that quick decisions are often made on limited and convenient data sets. Hence I question the credibility of the decisions that come out of such a process.

The right decision making on the other hands can be frustrating for the folks who are waiting for the decision to be made. And some times while you are waiting to collect the complete data set to make the decision, the context changes or the problem that needed that decision modifies itself and hence your data set does not remain relevant any more. But in the long run, a well contemplated decision has less chances of firing back.

The fast decision makers are often gregarious, aggressive and bold. I like to call them empire builders. They believe in act and conquer and move on. The right decision makers on the other hand are patient and more poised. They are bold yet at the same time more humane.  Personally, my radar is very sensitive to this differentiation. I instantly develop a preference towards the right decision makers and bring up a wall of caution against the quick decision makers. I take this distinction quite seriously and have observed my undying loyalty towards the right guy instead of the fast guy. In fact if I did not find enough right guys in the ecosystem I have chosen to quit the system and start afresh. I am at a point in my career where I need to pick my style and run with it. If only it was easy to choose.

On a more balanced note, I feel each situation calls for a different skill. Some decisions are best taken fast, at an impulse. And some demand analysis and contemplation.
I am decently skilled at taking fast action when needed and move things forward. I favor momentum over contemplation when it comes to trying out options to get things done. But what I need some help with is to fine tune the machinery of my decision making process as I pick my actions.

I try to chase any given problem from different ends and triangulate on it for some time before I call it done. The triangulation approach is my method of waiting it out. But when I have dependencies on others, that are not being met in due time, I get restless and chose to simply act since I don’t have the tools or data points needed to triangulate from their perspective. This results in the war between agility and accuracy. And it is this war that results in a certain restlessness (read impatience) that needs to be addressed.

As we move on with life, we will need to make decisions in tandem with others, and hence this impatience is a growing concern for me.

As I wind down in preparation for a new phase in life, and reflect on the recent innings of my career I will continue to record my observations on such topics. Life has given me a few moments to pause, and before I take the next exit back on to the freeway, I want to grow myself and prepare for the second innings.

Bear with me..

Should Leaders Ever Swear ?

I am a little disappointed by the content on one of the blogs that I religiously follow. And hence I am using this space to vent out, or may be just discuss.

Read this, before reading my post. The author, Dan McGinn, is a senior editor at HBR. And thus I doubt my reaction to his article. It almost seems like Dan wrote this post in his sleep, forgot to edit the rough draft, and hit the submit button accidentally.
In this post, he is justifying – usage of curse words in corporate world. He has also painfully wasted some words on covering up for Obama’s use of the phrase “Whose Ass to Kick”, in his comments on BP’s irresponsible and colossal blunder.
One of my first projects in the IT consulting world was with a market leader in entertainment industry, which was trying to launch an array of products and services based on the Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) model. Each an every consultant that I worked with on this project taught me a lesson or two about consulting. It was really the best “break” one could ask for as a beginner. But a big client, and a big project, always comes with bigger political chaos and bigger ego issues. I worked with some of the brightest people in the industry – but each of them was different and contrasting. I learnt a lot about handling different personalities in cross functional sessions on this project
One of the gentlemen, for whom I have much regard and respect, was also one of the bad mouthed leaders. He was courteous to me and other women around. But he was quick on cursing. The first time I heard him use the f* word in a meeting, I was stunned. I did not know how to respond. Of course it was not directed to me, but using such a word, did not seem appropriate to a fresh grad out of college.
I understand that in the examples cited in the original post, such as trading floors or some examples of blue-collar work, teams are exclusively men, and there swearing *is* a bonding thing — same goes for sports teams too. But corporate America is made up of a cross gender work force. And women take cursing as a serious offense. So I let it go the first time around. But slowly I noticed him using the word more and more.
Thus, one day, I took the liberty of making sure he understands that I am not comfortable with him using such words around me. I voiced my concern. And added, “I have a lot of respect for you and I really want to keep that image going. The cursing is not helping me here. You can now tell me to shut up, but I have voiced a legitimate concern.” I also told him that if it is a habit, then it can be worked upon. And that if he does use it unconsciously, he must apologize to the people in the room every time he errs. I was 23 then and he was 58. I did not care.
He apologized to me, and at least while I was around, I noticed him making an effort to change his habit. I still respect this individual and look up to him as a true leader. But the cursing was not acceptable. When you curse, you are letting your guards down. You are making yourself even more susceptible to attack – because the opponent knows that you are left with nothing more to say – hence the curse words.
I surely hope that Dan’s post does not encourage the leaders – coz I know for sure, there are not many people around, who will not hesitate to tell their seniors to stop cursing.
Cursing is NOT appropriate. And it will never be “a way to bond”. Not in cross gender teams anyways.

Thoughts on "loving your job"

To plan a wedding is quite similar to planning a project – there is a budget, stakeholders, audience, roles and responsibilities, estimations, facilitations and go-lives – and of course – post launch maintenance. So can an IT project manager and a wedding planner be swapped. .. Nope! 

You have to love what you do. Be it the smile that crossed your lips, when a module of code that you wrote, got compiled successfully. Or recognition for your work. There has to be more to it than to leave it at – “alright – this works, my job is done, I am heading out.”  Is it too much to expect more than just compliance from your job ?

Think about it – you studied to get this job. Spent hours studying for exams, and gave up on all the chills of life, to get this degree that enabled you to step into your current role. And now when you have landed it , you don’t even enjoy it ? This syndrome is not uncommon. May be it is our generation that is never satisfied with what we have.

On a similar note – I often hear from people around me how they think they need to do something different – and I have one question for them – “then why are you doing, what you are doing now ?” I am not denying that sometimes people realize what they want to do only after gaining some experience, and exposure to the various realms of the industry. I am simply questioning the real intent of statements like ” I want to do something else .”
I am in a very contented stage of professional life – but who knows, I might come across a phase where I am not liking what I am doing and I start wishing I was doing something else . But the methodology I will apply to my problem will be as follows —
  • first find out what is wrong with my current role  ? 
  • is it something I can control ? 
  • what are the factors contributing to this discontentment
  • Is it a people problem ? or a process problem ? 
  • Is there a fix – Yes/No 
  • If Yes – Fix it – give it a try and see if it works (set a target – don’t stretch targets)
  • If No –  Quit now (make sure you can support yourself for a lil while ) and quit doing what is not making you happy. 
May be it is not as simple as I laid it out – but thats my thought at this hour. And it helps me to get this on paper (I mean web) , so I can revisit it , when I am in need.

Seeing the complexity

 A certain CEO looked at a company’s project plan and said –” if it is this complicated , we are doing something wrong.”. When I heard about this my mind did an analysis and here was my thought process map– unless and until we accept the complexity involved in the task at hand, how can we estimate the time it will take to complete it. How can we be confident in our plan if we live in a world of denial and refuse to handle the complex issues. It is thus the understanding of the subject and acceptance of the degree of it’s complexity – that should fuel our actions and give us the confidence in determining timelines and roadmap.

How John Chambers Learned to Collaborate at Cisco

via by Morten Hansen on 3/4/10

In 2001, as the boom turned to bust, CEO John Chambers of Cisco saw a massive $460 billion of Cisco’s overall stock market value evaporate before his eyes. Game over? Not really. At that moment, Chambers started a reinvention of the company — from a “cowboy” mentality where people worked in silos to a collaborative approach. It has paid off so far. Revenues are up 90% since 2002, while profit margins are up to 20.8% from 16.3%. And Chambers earned the #4 spot on our best-performing CEO ranking, published last month by Harvard Business Review. Not bad.
Chambers created the following 5 pillars to drive collaboration, an approach we can all learn from. These amount to what I call disciplined collaboration in my book Collaboration: focus on business value, tear down barriers, and create a new organization architecture. (Full disclosure: last autumn I met with the top 50 leadership team at Cisco to discuss collaboration; the information here is all from public sources, however).
1. Change leadership style. It started with Chambers himself. You can’t create collaboration if you’re an excessively command-and-control leader. By his own admission, Chambers used to be just that. But as he told the Financial Times, “The hardest thing you do as a leader is to change something that is working well. And yet I believe that companies and leaders who do not change will get left behind. And so I had to move from a command-and-control leader (to collaborative).” Collaborative leadership means “letting go” by involving others in decision making, listening to ideas, finding common ground, and striking compromises.
2. Change incentives. Steve Kerr, former chief learning officer at General Electric, once wrote a famous article called, “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” In this case, that would be “rewarding individual work, while hoping for collaboration.” That doesn’t work. Early on, John Chambers told his senior team that he would start measuring them on how well they collaborated. As a result, some 15% of the top management team left — those who did not like the new approach or could not do it. You may think it is bad to lose that talent. I think it is good; the key is not to have just any talent, but the right kind of talent.
3. Change the structure. If your “org chart” makes you work in silos, then that’s what you get — silos. At Cisco, people worked in independent business units prior to 2001. Chambers changed all that. He broke it into a functional organization (development, marketing, sales, manufacturing etc.). But a functional structure can be just as siloed. Chambers thus layered on top of that boards and councils. They are essentially cross-functional groups consisting of 10-15 managers who join a group to pursue a $1-billion-plus (board) or a $10-billion-plus (council) opportunity. Each group pursues a new market opportunity, such as collaboration software, connected homes, mobility. By now, these groups are pursuing a staggering 30 new business opportunities.
4. Change how you work. To make sure collaboration in these groups didn’t become unwieldy, Chambers and his team invented a process. It’s called Vision-Strategy-Execution. First, develop a vision: what does success look like in three years? Then develop a differentiated strategy: how can we win in this market? Then move to execution: who needs to do what over the next 12 to 18 months? Work turns less collaborative as it moves to execution and specific functions (manufacturing, for instance). This process has a huge benefit: a common language. That clarifies and speeds up work. People can concentrate on the creative part of work, not how to work. Process provides a script.
5. Use new social media tools. In many companies, people sit in different buildings, locations, and countries. Work is spread out geographically these days. For Cisco, with its 60,000 employees, that can be a nightmare when collaborating. To solve this, Cisco uses its own high-definition video conferencing system about 4,000 times a week. They also use a host of other enterprise 2.0 technologies. Now people often meet virtually — that’s faster and cheaper.
The biggest benefit of this approach is that Cisco can pursue many new opportunities. It’s also flexible because the right people can quickly be put on a board. Executive Keith Goodwin explains how they rapidly moved into the small business segment:

“In the spring of ’08 we recognized we could tap a $10 billion opportunity by better serving organizations with fewer than 100 employees. In less than two quarters, the Council was formed and shifted $ 100 million budget and some 500 engineering, marketing, sales and services headcount to focus on that market.”

There are clearly risks to this 5-pillar collaboration approach, as some commentators have noted . I see two risks in particular. One is that managers get overloaded. As one executive explained; “I am on a litany of them — three councils, maybe six boards.” The other risk is over-collaboration: too many boards, until one day it tips over into chaos. Obviously, Chambers need to manage this diligently. The story is still unfolding, so we can’t yet declare final success. But it’s a fascinating organizational story to watch.

Morten T. Hansen is author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results and is a management professor at University of California, School of Information, and at INSEAD, France.