Designing Teams

Whilst driving back from a customer meeting yesterday, I was listening to a debate on the radio. The discussion was about the number of women in government, specifically: should there be ‘quotas’ to ensure a required percentage of government officials are women? Some countries have taken this approach. As you would expect from a debate, the panel was split 50:50 for and against.

I don’t like quotas. They risk demeaning the person in role: “Oh, she only got the job because they needed more women…” That is such an annoying statement to make because the same base argument can be used against most people in most roles. It makes the huge assumption that the woman is there instead of the ‘best possible person for the job’. How often is the ‘best possible person for the job’ actually in the job? As opposed to the one with the right connections to secure the position. I’m not saying that idiots are allowed to hold positions because of who they know (although… no, I’m not even going there). Rather, there are plenty of people sharing roughly the same level of skill and expertise. Out of them, the one who gets the job is most likely to be the one with the right connections or is the right ‘fit’ for the team.

This applies in pretty much any scenario. Think of the last conference you attended. Was every presenter the absolute leading authority on their subject matter? Probably not. At the conference I attended last week, the final presenter (Jim Benson) made the following comment, to reiterate the value in social networks:

“I’m here because of my blog and social networking, nothing to do with how well I did or do what I do.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t any good. The organisers weren’t just dragging people off the street to present. Rather, he had connected with the organisers first and foremost through social networking tools like Twitter. They didn’t have firsthand experience of his skills, but his reputation and connections provided enough confidence and trust to ask him to present.

Many human systems have an imbalance of power at the top, usually weighted heavily towards middle-aged white males. Rather than try and force change through quotas, I’d like to see a different approach. First, identify the make-up of your audience (be they citizens, employees or customers). And make-up isn’t just about gender, race and age. It should include aspirations, issues and preferences. (Are Apple products designed for boys, for girls, or for people who love gorgeous gadgets?) Then compare the ratios to your leadership team. Do they match? If not, why not? Have you explored all channels to find people for your team? Or have you relied too heavily on your inner circle (and/or rewarded contributions that got you to where you are).

If the make-up of people at the top of an organisation doesn’t remotely represent the make-up of people at the bottom or the target audience, it is unlikely that the organisation has the ‘best possible people for the jobs’ in the jobs. Either because of corruption or because the current system deters the right people from coming forward. Neither reason is good. You can get away with it, as long as you don’t have any competition… (as depressingly demonstrated in Zimbabwe this week.)

I don’t like quotas, I would rather see leadership teams resolve their imbalances for the better good of the organisation. But in the absence of incentives (particularly true in government), are quotas the only way to break traditions and redesign the ‘fit’ for the team?

Imaginary monsters

…are less scary than real ones.

JK Rowling delivered this year’s Harvard Commencement Speech. And a brilliant speech it was too! Thanks to the joy that is YouTube, you don’t have to be at Harvard to have seen it.

“I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction…”

“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something. Unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default.”

Link to Part 1 on YouTube

Link to Part 2 on YouTube

“I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”

And the closing comment quotes Seneca:

“As is a tale, so is life. Not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters”

Who should run the company

I’ve been sorting through my off-line digital library this weekend (I tend to store interesting articles for personal reference) and stumbled across an old Business Week article from October 2004 – ‘This Way to the Future‘ (still available online). I remember reading a quote from it at the time and wondering if it described the position Microsoft was in. (I was then working at MS and disagreed with some of the processes being put in place.)

The article included a question put to Steve Jobs:

“What can we learn from Apple’s struggle to innovate during the decade before your return in 1997?”

The response:

“How are monopolies lost? Some very good product people invent some very good products. [But] what’s the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself? So a different group of people starts to move up. And who usually ends up running the show? The sales guy. Then one day the monopoly expires, for whatever reason… but by then, the best product people have left or they are no longer listened to. And so the company goes through this tumultous time, and it either survives or it doesn’t”

At the time, it felt like the statement described Microsoft. 2.5 years later, it’s interesting to observe the changes (more so now that I’m an outsider again). Microsoft is still very much being run by the sales guys when you look at Vista and Office but is also dabbling heavily in new strategies, mostly involving the word ‘Live’ (see: Web 2.0 dots). Will they survive or not? I wouldn’t underestimate the effort they will spend trying.

Failure is not OK

Michael Johnson was one of the keynote sessions at the Microsoft SharePoint conference held last week. Mr Johnson made a speech that showed interesting parallels between what he did to become a successful runner and how organisations could become more successful.

1. Winning is personal

The speech opened with this comment and I think it is an element often forgotten within organisations. Every individual has their own goals, even when part of team (a team will struggle to succeed if it contains individuals who aren’t really bothered) and every individual chooses how successful they want to be (or not) within their own realm. When individuals are given ‘objectives’ from above, how involved do they feel in the organisation’s success? It’s an important element that will determine how successful the organisation becomes. I remember seeing wise words once (can’t remember where): “treat your employees like they are your number one customer”.

1. Focus on goals

Big ones supported by smaller goals that keep you moving in the right direction because you are unlikely to achieve your ultimate goal over night. Those goals need to be achievable and realistic. Once you achieve a goal, don’t sit back happy and rest on your laurels, you move on to the next goal. Michael went from wanting to be fastest in school to fastest in college to fastest in… right through to the ultimate goal – fastest in the world.

2. Committing to the plan

Everyone will tell you that you have to commit to your goals but, far more importantly, you have to commit to the plan – the work required to achieve that goal – and that is much harder to do. Every day you don’t give 100% to the plan is an opportunity lost that may prevent you from achieving your goals. And you can’t give up, you can’t take short cuts. Michael Johnson’s career lasted from 1990 to 2000 and it took him 9 years to break a world record.

3. Never stop learning

You have to be 100% honest in evaluating progress against the plan, you need to identify weaknesses so that you can fix them. You have to keep learning because there will always be new challenges that affect the plan. Learning enables you to adjust your strategy, to change the plan if required. Michael described how he was injured shortly before the Sydney Olympics in 2000, meaning he would miss his tune up races. So he had to adjust the strategy – he had to be able to win without the tune up races. And he did.

4. Failure is not OK

When asked about accepting failure, Michael’s response was: “I’m never happy about it. You’ve got to be able to cope with failure and not winning, but you never accept it is OK.” I loved this one. I’m not a fan of the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ brigade who seem to think that competition is a bad idea in schools because it demoralises those who don’t win. Losing is an opportunity to learn (see point 3) but only once you have mastered the art of turning a loss to your advantage. Being able to cope with losing is good, accepting that losing is OK is not.

Closing thought:

It was a great talk and begs the question…

How successful is your organisation? What would happen if it came up against an organisation that consisted entirely of Michael Johnson clones. One hundred percent focused on being the best, totally committed to the plan, ruthlessly honest about weaknesses in order to fix them as quickly as possible, continually learning and adjusting the strategy to guarantee success. How long would it take that organisation to win your customers? (All of them – paying and/or salaried)

Lessons from Football

Article in The Independent (print version), 29th September 2004, quoting from the final interview with Brian Clough (UK football manager who had recently died – he was talking about a new manager he admired, can’t remember who)

“…like me, he doesn’t believe in the star system. He’s consumed with team spirit and discipline… The players have to fit with his vision and pattern of play, which is right. Don’t confuse footballers – keep it simple.”

That one comment is text book ‘Good to Great‘ and I’ll bet he never read the book!