A Week as "Guest Faculty"

November 21, 2008

I had the honor to be asked to serve as “guest faculty” at a Management Excellence event this week.

I learned as much, I think, as the participants. It was a terrific experience, and I got to practice some skills myself by virtue of knowing I should at many times listen to how things were said rather than what was said.

I also led some sessions. My first session was on managing up. I started with a scene from the movie Gettysburg — a film well worth watching in its entirety, BTW. In the scene, Southern General Longstreet — Lee’s #2 guy — orders General Hood to “take that mountain” (Little Round Top). Hood recognizes it is a poor tactic and proposes an alternative — a tactic Longstreet himself preferred. But Lee had ordered Longstreet specifically to capture the hill. And so Longstreet passes the order to Hood, who is later unable to execute successfully.

My obvious intent was to focus attention and to provide two examples of managing up, a direct one (Hood to Longstreet) and an indirect one (Longstreet reporting on his failure to convince Lee). We had a good discussion on the scene as metaphor that led to analysis of manage-up tactics, concepts, etc.

But what I found really interesting was the number of times later in the week I or others would refer to that scene. It became a metaphor for a number of items — management vs. leadership, the difference among mission, vision, and goals, and more.

It reminded me — again — of how powerful storytelling and metaphor are as management tools.

Leaders lead by telling stories — not battle stories, but personal tales of your vision, future histories of a better world. Steve Jobs is famous for his “reality distortion field,” but all leaders do it.

Think of Reagan and “morning again in America,” or Clinton and his “bridge to the 21st century.” They’re memorable phrases, but they stem from stories in which the speakers believed and wanted us to believe. And they’re powerful visual images, too.

Management may often be words and numbers, but leadership is pictures and vision. If visuals are a powerful teaching tool, as I rediscovered, think how much more powerful they are when they’re part of your story.

Oh — and if Lee had listened to Longstreet or Longstreet to his heart, all us Yankees might live in a narrower nation of but 35 states. (It makes an intriguing alternate-history debate over a few beers if you’re a history buff.)

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Kaizen, Nietzsche, and the Fly Lady

November 21, 2008

As I was driving into the office yesterday morning listening to local talk radio, the host mentioned ‘creative destruction’ in a segment on the need for government to retool and purge itself of outdated ideas (and legislation). Creative destruction is a term made popular by economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the creativity that springs forth from the continuous cycle of destruction and rebirth.  The philosopher Nietzsche also used this idea in his writings, but with an existentialist (and slightly less 200px-FWNietzscheSiebe optimistic) perspective. I was familiar with the concept, but it got me thinking — about both my own team, and Microsoft at large. Creative destruction is, in management terms, the process of innovating over bad design. Or less efficient design. This is, as the Japanese refer to it, Kaizen: the act of continual improvement.

The concept is simple enough: every product or process has a lifecycle. An idea is formed, a prototype is created, it is introduced to the market, it grows and matures, it goes into decline, and then…

Well, if it’s a policy or process that we’re all used to because “that’s the way things have always been done,” then nothing usually happens at the logical end of its life. Occasionally someone brings out a can of fresh paint and spruces up that old process with a fresh coat, but it’s still outdated.

Think about how you are managing your team, and whether this describes your modus operandi. Are you throwing fresh paint on a tired process or bad habit? Or are you constantly throwing away what clearly doesn’t work, looking for incremental improvements? Are you taking time in team meetings or in your 1 on 1 sessions to get some real feedback about what you or your team are doing right, areas where you can improve, and processes that you can retire?

Jumping to the third item in my cryptic post title: my mother in law introduced my wife and I to the Fly Lady a few years back. I don’t flylady_toonexpect many people reading this to have heard of this self-help system for de-cluttering your home, but my wife and I really took to it (we are HUGE fans of the control binder). Something that I have incorporated into my professional life, in a way, is the concept of “de-cluttering”: simplifying your life one baby step at a time, identifying and ridding your house/office/life of clutter. The idea is that once a week you find 27 items to throw or give away. I don’t know the magic behind the number 27…..so find the right number for you, and just do it. Make a conscious effort to simplify your life, your team processes, and your product solutions.

Hopefully you can see how these things all fold together. At least they did in my mind in the short time it took for me to turn from Novelty Hill onto Avondale while driving toward the end of 520.

Find what is broken, what has stopped working, what has no value and get rid of it. Embrace the creative destruction, find your inner Fly Lady, and maybe get a little existentialist.

And I’ll try to focus more on the road next time…