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Archive for November, 2010

How not to motivate staff – nag

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

This falls into the category of don’t do stupid things on purpose.

We recently all received a request to complete a routine piece of admin work. This happens quite often, and usually we have to do it at short notice. Unusually on this occasion we were given a full month to comply, my initial reaction was “great, for once they’ve recognised that we are all busy and have given us a sensible length of time to do it”.

At this point I was working flat out on two separate pieces of work with deadlines within the next two weeks, on top of all the usual tasks to keep my team working. Immediately after that I was on leave, so I also had to resolve various issues so my team were clear about their work while I was away. So I took the view that I would deal with it on my return, as I would still have over a week remaining.

I was a bit surprised when a week later we all received quite a sharply worded reminder from my unit head complaining that so far the response had been “very poor”. A few days later we received a separate reminder from the COO explaining the rationale, and also a gentler reminder from my immediate manager.

On my return from leave, I found my inbox filled with increasingly strident reminders from my unit head, complaining that too few people had responded, even by only half way through the month at which point “only” 31% had responded. I would say that was actually quite a good response rate by then. The next reminder contained a list of all those who had not yet complied. Overall I counted no fewer than 9 reminders to complete this relatively trivial task.

Did this bombardment help?

Of course not.

As my wife knows, nagging only serves to get my back up and my immediate reaction was to delay responding until 17:29 on the last day of the month. In fairness to my immediate boss I didn’t quite delay that long, but I would undoubtedly have responded sooner otherwise.

It also led to quite a lot of unproductive chat in the office, diverting attention from the real work, and reinforcing yet again the general feeling that some management just don’t have a clue.

Personally, I objected to being treated like a nine-year old, particularly having my name circulated to all members of the unit as if I was a miscreant when in fact ultimately I complied with the request in good time. There is a danger that if you treat people like children not adults, then that is how they will behave.

Fixing the wrong problem

In fairness, response rates to requests like this are historically poor. This is because in the past nobody has ever been rewarded for complying, or penalised for failing to. As one of my team said, “what are they going to do if I don’t do it – sack me?” The official line is that meeting objectives concerning internal admin contributes to your performance rating, which in turn contributes to your next pay rise. Any old hand knows this is a myth so there is no incentive to bother.

Because the system doesn’t work, some managers feel that they have few options available to them other than volume.

What I would have done?

As there was clearly a need to show good progress early, rather than shout and nag people into submission, I would have adopted the following approach:

  • Request compliance by an earlier date, say the 16th, explaining why an early response was preferred (to give time to process the outputs, manage workload etc). Ask people on holiday or with some other genuine reason why they were unable to meet the deadline to agree a date with their Line Manager.

  • To encourage early participation, enter everyone responding on time into a prize draw for some shopping vouchers.

  • Send out a reminder 4 working days before the deadline.

  • Deal with individuals failing to respond on time personally

I know you don’t need to hassle people because I send out a single reminder to complete timesheets by the end of the month; stating clearly when it is to be done, and my team do it on time.

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Michael Vaughan on Leadership

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

As a bit of light relief on my commute on the train, I’ve been reading Michael Vaughan’s autobiography, Time to Declare (2009).

It is a typical sportsman’s autobiography, in the informal folksy style that ghost writers use to try to capture the voice of the nominal author. At first glance there might not appear much that a project manager might learn, but of course you don’t remain England cricket captain for very long if you are not a good leader. Getting the best out of the very disparate set of personalities thrown together solely by sporting ability is not a skill everyone has.

The book runs through his career in historical sequence, and does not glance aside much from that timeline to look at specific aspects of the game or leadership, but there is one chapter On Captaincy which has a few interesting items. The “job involves being, in no particular order, a diplomat, strategist, spokesman, babysitter, actor, selector and disciplinarian” (p205) – a PM has to be all those, too.

Reading the whole book does reveal several threads running through it. One of these is vision – Vaughan’s overwhelming goal was to improve the team’s performance to compete against the then all-conquering Australia (after 15 years of regular heavy defeats against them), which of course culminated in his Ashes triumph in 2005. In the first couple of years of his captaincy there is a theme of how best to build up the team, particularly how best to handle removal of the old guard. He wanted to replace the older ‘scarred’ players (or at least, retaining no more than one) with younger, hungrier ones who were not intimidated by previous demolitions by the Aussies, but gradually and at the right time for the players and the team.

There was also a thread on making sure the team dynamic is right. It’s not just ability that counts, but also personality – the team has to gel as a whole. Some characters need careful handling, but Vaughan’s view was that while you don’t want too many primadonnas, you do need some to add spark. The same is very much true in IT.

Other things I noted:

Vaughan learned some lessons from observing his predecessor, who could be grumpy under pressure, and whose sometimes abrasive nature didn’t always get the best out of people. Vaughan made a conscious effort to be approachable whatever his own feelings. He also emphasised the need for personal security, to enable people to express themselves (i.e. perform to full potential) without fear of failure.

On arrival of a new coach (Moores), Vaughan criticised his Positive Mental Attitude theories as being over the top. Moores liked everyone to use positive language at all times. Vaughan’s view was that a bit more honesty was sometimes needed “in leadership positions you need people who are natural and stay on the level whether you win, lose or draw” (p332) and prefers appropriate behaviour in response to situation – whether a rollicking, being upbeat, or making a joke.

Vaughan was also reflective on how he was dealt with pressure at times towards the end of his career – how he used to note it in a diary, and his unhealthy tendency to bottle it up.

Finally, given that the England Management briefly opted for Pietersen to succeed Vaughan with explosive results, it was also interesting that when he ran through his team of 2005 to illustrate how each was best managed, of his eventual successor Strauss he simply said “needs no management at all”. A sign of a future leader in any team?

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