What would the boss say?

I have been involved in a few conversations in recent days where the subject of what the boss would say came up in conversation. It’s fascinating  that employees  fuss over what the boss will think. It shows a lot about the culture that operates within such organisations. In some cases careers may rest upon pitching it right. Is this what the boss will want to hear? Atfer all bosses only want to hear good news don’t they!

In the instances discussed it appeared to make doing the right thing impossible, or at least as far as that employee was concerned. The shadow left by the leader lasts long after they have moved on. In one of the discussions the leader was no longer even in the business, but their image left a lasting legacy and this was having a material impact upon current operational performance.

When I delved deeper into the conversations I find that the truth is that many people do not actually know what there boss would actually say or do. Folklore makes up the gap. People exaggerate experiences to warn others off from crossing the line and questioning the bosses thinking. Hierarchy plays its part. Looking down  its can be in the best interests of bosses to allow the myths to prevail because its suits their purpose. Possibly to climb the greasy pole, or perhaps to keep others in check. ‘I know the boss well – she would not like to hear that’. Like gossip this is passed on and embellished along the way for effect. The truth becomes distorted and if we are not careful everyone believes the rhetoric –  sometimes even the boss! Looking up the hierarchy all you see is a metaphorical brick wall.  It’s easier to follow the crowd, keep your head down, and do as you are told. Conformity is the name of the game.

Then you get to meet the boss in question, and they are nothing like the character portrayed by the stories that you have heard. They are keen to learn; to engage; to understand how the business works; and how things might be improved.

The problem in todays corporate world is that it is too easy for leaders to become detached from the real operation. In their place comes stories generated by others in the hierarchy often to suit their own purposes that cause the leaders messages to get distorted, or even replaced with the words of others.

The way for a leader to resolve this is simple.  Get out in the work as a routine part of your day, build trust and confidence, and find out what is really going on out there. When you find things that are getting in the way, or that others cannot sort or fix act to resolve the issue. Generate a true image of who you are and what you stand for. If you have the customer at the heart of your thinking and understand what matters to them you will not go far wrong.

Get started tomorrow by blocking time out and go and do some action research. You will be amazed what is really going on outside your glass box.

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Sheep dipping or feathering nests?

A friend of mine called Jane mentioned to me that HR have finally got their programme of courses out for the year, not bad it’s only August. Now she has the task of trying to link the results of her learning and development reviews to the courses on offer. I know that there is usually a bit of a rush on to book places on the courses as the dates are fixed for the year.  Jane admitted that if she was being honest back in February when she was doing her reviews she had no real idea of the development needs of her team because she had not finalised the business plans that had started being written back in November of last year.  Surely, it would make more sense to concentrate learning and development effort based upon the demands placed upon employees by the customer? In that way training monies would be spent at the right time on the right support.  Not on a standard set of events determined remotely by someone in HR months before they are offered.

Anyway back to the story… The Policy team had messed about with the dates for publication in previous years; leaving Jane and her colleagues in the dark about requirements and timescales. This year she told me that she had tried to get ahead and start the conversations with her team and start pulling plans together. Since last year Jane has had to enter all the plans in to an on line system. So, quite rightly she thought that her action was doing the right thing, until Policy decided that yet again they needed to change the format of the plans to make it easier for them to produce the corporate plan for the organisation. I could see by the expression that Jane gave me that she was fuming! Quite rightly so in my view. All of the work that she had already done was in the wrong format, and according to them (Policy) she had to re- enter the information in their new format. Jane admitted that she tried to ignore this requirement for a while, as her plans were already in the system.  Ironically, she said she never used the online system apart from having to enter her performance data once a month. Like most of us, Jane acknowledged that she fudged the numbers to make them look ok, and had not been caught out so far because ‘no one really looks that closely at the data’.

In the end Jane’s name came up on the naughty girls/boys list, and she got a stern email from the Chief Executive’s Office telling her to get her finger out and get her plans in the right format.  Brilliant! You cannot beat a bit of extrinsic motivation to kill morale.

Anyway, Jane decided that she could avoid the issue no longer, took the ‘bull by the horns’ and copy and pasted the detail from one part of the system to the other. A waste of time and effort! I was chatting to another friend the other day and he was telling that a similar thing happens in the organisation in which he works.

What is going on in the world? Can organisations really afford to waste resources messing about changing templates and entering plans into corporate systems? Reality proves that plans get compromised after month one and become a work of fiction as people fudge the system to show progress again objectives that have been rendered worthless in view of changing priorities. The problem is that the new priorities do not replace the last set, they get added to them.  All this planning and monitoring is little more than a smoke screen. We all know that the real work gets done off plan and often by getting around the system to make it happen in a timely fashion.

If leaders took time to understood the true purpose of their organisation in customer terms, and then designed and managed the work around that purpose they would soon learn that all this corporate business planning and performance reporting added no really value to the bottom line. In really it has the reverse impact. Money down the drain!

However, such action takes guts and determination; and too few seem prepared to do what it takes. Sad really!  Leaders are happy to feather their own nest at the expense of others. Not really leadership at all is it!

Room service

I have been using a hotel recently on business and have managed to strike up a good relationship with the local staff. My business priorities changed after I had made a booking locally at the hotel. No worries I thought I will ring them and let them know that I need to change my plans. That’s when the fun started. How hard can it be?  Well I was about to find out!

I googled the hotel to find the number and make the call. I hit an IVR system, I thought this is strange –  the hotel is not that big and an IVR system seemed a bit over the top. I started musing about the IT salesperson the had flogged them an overly specified system for the purpose. A large bonus would have resulted and you would have not seen him/her for dust. Anyway, back from my day-dream and  having chosen the bookings option I was then surprised to hear that I was 5th in the queue! It started to dawn upon me that this was not a call that was going to be answered by the hotel reception, but by a call centre somewhere in the world. To cap it all the message playing advised me that I was being charged 10 p a minute by the hotel for the call and I was still 5th in the queue. At this point I thought stuff it! I put the phone down and emailed the local sales manager at the hotel to make her aware of my experience and to change my booking. She answered first thing the following morning and all was well.

Upon my arrival at the hotel the sales manager immediately apologised for my experience and said that they had no control over the phone calls. The hotel group to which they now belonged had centralised it call handling facility some time ago and that there was nothing that she could officially  do. However, she then whispered that I could have the local number for reception which is managed about 20 hours a day and that they would be very happy to help me in future. Of course she was quick to let me know that this was against company policy,and she could be shot for giving the number to me. Shot for doing the right thing!

The conversation then went on to reveal that the centralisation of the booking system causes all sorts of problems for not only the customers, but also to the local staff. She said, Imagine trying to book a conference or a wedding through a call handler somewhere else in the world who does not understand the local hotel, its provisions etc.  It causes a lot of problems which have to be sorted out once the hotel become aware of the booking, causing duplication of effort and frustration for the customer who is keen to ensure that their event goes off well. As is always the case the local team pull together and do their best to make sure that the customer gets what they want on a way that best suits their needs, but at what cost to the business and its hard-working employees?

Another classic case of a bunch of suits in an ivory tower somewhere in the world thinking that they can save money by centralising and standardising their approach to customer enquiries. Of course they will be using a bunch of metrics that tell them that the system works wonderfully and probably also helps to justify the decision to invest in the IVR system and call centre operation. If only those guys got out of their tower and came to study and understand the reality of their decision through the yes of the customer and colleagues in the workplace they would understand that all was not what it seemed. Until then I will use the local phone number to sort out my accommodation. However, the obvious frustrations and morale of the staff will continue to suffer along with the reputation and lost business to the hotel and others in the chain until someone is brave enough to wake and realise that this does not make good business sense.

Nodding dog Syndrome

I was sat in a coffee shop the other day enjoying a refreshing cuppa,  well on my way to earning my free cup, and reflecting upon what I call nodding dog syndrome.

I just have one more stamp to go and then i get a free drink.

The power to comply with the rules and win the bonus is really strong isn’t it. I know that a free cuppa is not going to change the world, but the principle is sound. Follow these rules and you can get a prize or a bonus.

I am more likely to go back to get the prize than pass over it. After all I have earned it. My behaviour has in a small way been affected by the hook of a free drink. The parallels with the working environment are strong.

Let’s take the all important performance data reporting as an example.

So the pressure is back on to make the numbers fit the plan. We are all well in to the  quarter and probably already starting to panic about what stories we can make up to cover the slippage or the short fall.

Everyone in the chain is keen to make the numbers look good, and come up with a form of words that will fit the highlight report to show that everything is on track. Doubtless some of us will also have to remember to log on and fill in the blanks in the computerised software that pulls our performance into the all important dashboard.

Now where did I put my password again?

I have to confess that  I only log in to the system once a month because I find it tedious, long winded and unhelpful.

The information does not help me or my team to learn and improve in the work, but because everyone is obliged to fill in the blanks, ( it’s in my objectives) audit, and/ or nod through the numbers it has become an inevitable routine to endure once a month.

I can see everyone pawing over the keypad dreaming up fine words, or thinking of who or what they can blame for the problem.

I have asked around and I don’t seem to be in the minority, and yet this is the core system that the organisation uses to monitor performance. I’ve been told  that it provides a good audit trail and a narrative that can be pulled out and fed in to the series of important meetings that are held each month to determine that performance is on track. Critical to business performance or so they think!

The trouble is that few people seem to acknowledge that the data keyed in to the system is manipulated to fit the target. The aim here is to make it look ok for the boss.

Bosses like green flags!

If you make it amber or red you need to write an essay on what has gone wrong and how you will put it right, and the boss will have to fill in lots of boxes and answer lots of difficult questions too. No one wants that do they?

The quarterly one to one review will be a nightmare if anything is not green. So, it’s just easier to make it look ok and nod it through. As long as the boxes are populated on time and are green then everyone is happy.

How can this be the way to do business?

The trouble is that targets  do not help us to understand how effectively we are delivering our service against customer expectation. By this I don’t mean the data from the annual customer poll or the generic customer panel that was run a few months ago.

I am thinking real-time feedback.

The other problem is that by the time the ‘big wigs’ get to view the scorecard the information, even if it was useful, is long out of date –  lagging behind what is really happening at the sharp end.

Making the whole process a massive waste of time. Time that could be spent in the work with front line colleagues understanding how to improve the system to enable a great service to be delivered every time.

I can remember a time when i had to go and explain why I was behind on a key performance indicator. The meeting took place two months after the data had been prepared rendering the cross-examination pointless.

Nevertheless the top brass took turns to ask me very detailed questions about the slippage. There was no interest in learning or improvement, just a determination to find someone to blame.

I tried to show them a control chart which ably demonstrated that the variance was normal, and therefore  to be expected, but  the meeting turned a little sour.

My hard evidence was unwelcome as it blurred the issue. Never let the facts get in the way of a good row over data! We cannot learn anything useful from such an exercise, other than to keep your head down and make the stats go green.

Make it up, do what it takes; find a way to fiddle the numbers.

We are feeding a machine with data like a hungry beast to keep it quiet, not using live data based upon what are customers are asking for in the moment to help us learn and improve at every opportunity.

So, if you want the bonus that you have ‘earned’ be a nodding dog –  better to keep your head down and make the numbers fits the plan at all costs.

Alternatively, you might be curious about using real data to help deliver excellent services, at lower cost, and to improve the mood and engagement within your team.

As a leader the choice is yours.

Confessions of a public sector director

I have missed my deadlines!

I should have completed all my end of year reviews by the end of last month.

I am late putting the final touches to my business plan, and the performance team wants to know the reasons why my numbers were down for quarter 4.

It seems to be getting harder each time. The last management review removed three of my colleagues and I inherited two extra reports to go with the six that I already have.

The performance objectives that had been set for the new guys have been passed on to me together with the outstanding objectives from two of the managers that did not survive the last jobs cull.

Everyone seems to me to be trying really hard, but according to the latest guidance from HR I need to score three of my team as under performing. This means that they will miss out on a bonus, and I will have to fill in a detailed improvement plan with each of them, which I have to monitor on a monthly basis.

If I fail to do this then my boss will put me on to an improvement plan! I am drowning in paperwork; well I tell a lie some of it is paperless.

We have a new on line web based portal to update our performance metrics on each week.

Honestly I spend more time staring at my computer screen up dating forms and scorecards than I do actually trying to do my job. Is this what I joined this business to do? I talked down the pub with a few of my mates and they mainly seem to be caught in the same trap.

The end of year reviews are all based on the revised competency framework, revised again this year by HR, and also have to link into the business plan targets for the team.

Mine are linked to the team and to my boss, and so on.  It’s a maze. I am not sure that anyone really understands what it all means.

The online guidance and video blogs don’t help much with explaining what we need to know, I just need someone to talk to in person, but the HR team now operate out of a contact centre 400 miles away.

The game at the end of the year is to come up with smart words to show how what we ended up doing looks like it fits with the original plan. I have become pretty skilled at making things look ok.

In truth what we actually do and what we put into the plans are very different, but as long as the right boxes are filled in and we can come up with a sensible reason why we missed target we can usually get away with it.

What a way to run a business!

I sometimes wonder whether everyone is up the same trick? Is the MD also spinning the numbers with the board? He must be! As long as the board is happy then we live to breath another day.

As for this years business plan, well everyone else seems to be rolling forward last years ideas and adding a bit at the margin on performance targets.

You have to do it to survive, but it feels like cloud cuckoo land to me. It feels more and more like a losing streak when betting on the horses. A few of my colleagues have let all this get to them and it has starting to impact upon their home lives.

One of my colleagues had her longstanding partner walk out on her the other week, because she was hardly ever at home. The culture of presenteeism means that we have to be seen to be at work crunching the numbers.

Two of my colleagues are off with stress, and I am not sure that one of them will ever come back. Maybe it’s for the best, at least he will end up with some sort of deal to keep him quite and the company out of the courts!

I have to sit down later this week with one of my reports,  to talk to him about his performance this month.

It’s going to be a difficult conversation you see because he is very good at his job and brings in great results; in fact he is ahead of target. The problem is he is ahead on the wrong target.

Let me explain a bit further – the powers that be have decided that we need to review ten clients a day, and this is the target that we get measured on.  Well Alan has only been hitting around five a day for the last three months, so things are not looking too good for him.

The problem is that he has actually converted more of his reviews in to new business than any other member of the team, but the other team members regular hit their target for reviews.

How can I explain that one to him? The business needs new business to survive, but the target is for numbers of completed reviews. The big bosses don’t seem to realize the implications for the business.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the bonuses they are due at the end of the financial year?

However, I am not sure that it has to be this way. I was reading an interesting article the other day by a chap called John Seddon. In it he talked about that fact that targets always drive the wrong type of behaviour in organisations.

When I reflected upon my own experience I could see what he meant. He also argued that business planning, and annual performance reviews were a waste of time and energy. Well I agree with him there! He argues that such processes are entirely arbitrary and add no value to the business what so ever.

So, why I am finding myself having to doing more and more of this stuff?

The article says that as a manager I need to connect with the work and my team and to understand what my team is about through the eyes of the customer and then to work with them to design and manage the work on the basis of what matters to the customers.

It sounds simple enough; I would love to find the time to have a go.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.