Essay

Pugil Sticks and Candid Conversations

One of the cool parts of running a basic combat training outfit is watching young trainees experience things for the first time. For many, Basic was full of firsts: first time away from home, first time someone really yelled at them, first time without a cell phone for more than a few hours (this was usually the most traumatic thing for them)… the list is really long.

One first that many trainees experience is actually hitting another person. Hard. And the psychological impact of hitting someone hard has an interesting effect on people. The other first for many is being the recipient of that blow. This also has a psychological effect in addition to the obvious physical impact.

When I first saw trainees don football helmets, chest pads, and hockey gloves and pick up pugil sticks (they resemble a giant Q-tip) I wondered why in the world we were still doing this. This didn’t seem like a particularly useful skill on the modern battlefield. But, it turns out, there is a point to this exercise.

It’s interesting how people take to it. Most folks are really hesitant at first, not wanting to make the first move. It often takes a lot of yelling from the instructors to get them going.

When most people hit someone for the first time a few things go through their mind. First, “OMG I just hit someone. This just got serious.” The response to that thought typically goes one of two ways. A fairly common second response is, “I think I should do that again before they hit me back.”

But the other response I saw time and again was that many people stopped and apologized.  Now I think it’s nice that we have raised people to generally be polite, but there comes a time when you have to get past niceties. Combat training is one of those times.

Either way, most people became very emotional once contact was made. Some got scared, frightened about what they just did. Others were scared about the retaliation. And some got angry. They felt that if they started it, they had to finish it.

The people who tended to emerge victorious from the pugil bouts were those that kept their heads and didn’t let their emotions dictate how they acted. This composure normally only came after a bit of practice and coaching.

I sense that there are similarities to the emotional responses to pugil hits and the interaction we sometimes have at work. We shy away from verbally hitting others, we try to avoid being hit ourselves, and when first contact is made we have a fight or flight response that doesn’t make sense in a business setting.

Because of this, we too often have benign meetings that don’t have any conflict. These are probably not the most productive meetings. Polite meetings, where everyone nods along with the narrator, are generally useless, leaving unresolved issues floating out there and eating up valuable leader time having secondary meetings to resolve the issues.

Other times there is too much emotional conflict. Someone critiques someone else and it’s “game on” like a couple of 18-year-old privates swinging at each other out of emotion instead of cool reasoning.

The same thing happens when supervisors have to deal with an underperforming employee. When we have to be critical of others, many leaders simply shy away, avoiding the confrontation. Of course this leaves them with unresolved issues and an uncorrected employee who isn’t going to improve. So tension builds up, and makes things worse. When it gets to the point where they can’t stand it any longer, the supervisor tends to hit harder than they probably wanted to, and the employee either leaves or stays and works out of fear. Neither is an optimal result.

Like the pugilist, those leaders with a calm head and control of their emotions during tense moments tend to emerge victorious. And, just like the privates learning to confront their fears with composure, leaders benefit from practice and experience. The more you practice both giving and receiving candid criticism, the better you will respond when conflict arises.

Of course this kind of interaction requires a culture of giving and accepting honest feedback. Fostering this culture and hiring people who share these values will go a long ways in cultivating a place where healthy conflict thrives.

So, leaders, don your helmets and pick up your pugil sticks for some practice rounds so when it really matters you can be the victorious one with a cool head.

Essay

Standing Desks and Math Problems: It pays to take care of your workforce!

A few years ago I took over as the new leader of a largely civilian organization. One of the first things I did was rearrange my office, including getting a standing desk. I often prefer to work standing up, especially if I am just doing email. I also became a big fan of Dr. Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World that points out that sitting is an occupational risk we can do something about.

Once my new desk was installed (and adjusted by our talented industrial hygienist) I got a few comments about it. A couple of our senior leaders questioned the purchase. “Those are too expensive!” “Now that you have one, everyone will want one, and it’s not in the budget.” “Don’t we need to go through reasonable accommodation to authorize those? Don’t you need a doctor’s note?” “We can’t afford to get these for people.” “This is just a fad!”

I was surprised at the negative response to the standing desk. I know that not everyone had read Deskbound, but certainly the smart folks here could see the wisdom of getting standup desks? But I guess the fear that everyone would want one and the impact on the budget was a legitimate concern after all.

Or was it?

I sat down with one of these leaders and did some quick, back of the envelope math.

Let’s assume 50% of our 700-person workforce will want a standing desk. That’s 350 desks. At about $300 per unit that comes out to $105k. That is a lot of money, especially if you didn’t budget for it!

But how much is it costing us not to do it? And what would $105k actually be buying us?

Is sitting the new smoking?

Well, if meeting an employee’s request leads to fewer medical appointments, we will see a savings. If they have fewer long-term health problems, they may take fewer sick days, thereby increasing productivity. If they are feeling well, they may actually work a little longer for us. If they feel like we care enough about them to try meet their needs, they may stay a whole lot longer. If we can delay the cost of replacing an employee by just one year we have more than paid for the standing desk. By the way the average cost of replacing even the least skilled employee is 10x the cost of a standing desk. Most replacements cost a whole lot more!

What about requiring a doctor’s note before we buy them a standing desk? Well, I think the cost to the organization for getting said note actually exceeds the cost of the equipment just in lost productivity and paperwork. Processing “reasonable accommodation” requests also takes time and money. Not having to pay for that paperwork drill alone will pay for the standing desk.

I recognize that there is some debate over the benefits of standing desks, especially when people don’t use them correctly. And I know there are varying degrees of cost and quality in the standing desk market. But the simple math is this: this particular purchase pays for itself rather quickly and several times over.

So how many other little things does the math work out like this? I’m not sure, but it is worth asking the question when an issue like this arises.

The problem, as I see it, is not whether this is a budgetable item or whether or not employees should be standing at work. The problem is that too many of us look at taking care of the workforce as an expense rather than an investment. Too often, we default to seeing the bill instead of seeing the payoff.

I’m not suggesting that companies need to go off the deep end and hire private chefs to provide free meals to employees around the clock or anything like that. I am suggesting that there are small investments you can make for your workforce that will pay for themselves, and that leaders that won’t even consider them will find themselves spending more time and money hiring their employees’ replacements.

Leaders have a responsibility to manage company resources wisely. Many of us publicly state that our people are our most important resource, yet we consistently fail to invest in them in ways that may increase their productivity and reduce turnover.

Too often this is because we value the budget more than we value our employees, and we haven’t really done the math.

So break out the stubby pencils and the backs of envelopes, and stand up for your workforce.

Essay

Wash the Windows: Appreciate the World Around You

A few months ago I was visiting a hydropower plant in the Northwest. The people that keep the federal hydropower plants running throughout the nation are an incredibly smart and hardworking bunch. You would have to be to keep this aging infrastructure functioning in spite of dwindling budgets and increasing costs.

By their very nature, hydropower plants are generally located in some really beautiful places. Hydro plants overlook rivers, and the one I was visiting was nestled in the Columbia River Gorge. This gorge is the largest national scenic area in the US, and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year because of its natural beauty.

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Essay

Leading While Distracted: 5 Tips to Better Focus

Last year I attended a Bon Jovi concert. The band was amazing, and they showed that some folks can age well and keep rocking. Most of the crowd had not aged as well as the band had, but most of us were having a great time remembering back to the first time they heard Livin’ on a Prayer (go ahead and click the link… the walk down memory lane is worth it; we’ll wait here). It had been a while since I had been to a concert, and I was more than a little surprised by how many people who paid good money to see the show spent more time on their mobile devices than actually watching the show.

I don’t begrudge the world the amazing tool these devices are, but I can’t help but wonder when we decided that whatever is on there is more important than what is right in front of us. When did we as a species decided that we are good enough at life to dedicate only a fraction of our attention to what we are doing?

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Essay

Old Jokes and Zombies: metrics that need to go away

zombie 4_My grandfather had a wonderful sense of humor. Sadly, he only knew a half dozen jokes, so we got to hear the same ones over and over. I may have inherited this trait, much to my kids’ chagrin.

One of Grandpa’s favorite jokes was about a fellow that comes upon a drunk stumbling around underneath a street light, apparently searching or something. This fellow asks the drunk what he’s looking for.

“My keys!” The drunk slurs.
“Well, are you sure you lost them over here?” inquires the helpful fellow.
“Well, no,” says the drunk. “I lost them in the alley next to the bar.”
“Well why in the world are you looking for them over here?”
“Because the light is so much better here.”

Ok. Maybe Grandpa wasn’t as funny as I thought he was when I was eight.

But this joke comes to mind far too often when I’m having conversations about corporate metrics.

I frequently get the sense that many of the things we measure have little to do with our core business. Rather too many metrics are the equivalent of our inebriated friend choosing a search location based on visibility, not on the likelihood that it will contribute to success.

In short, many of us measure what we can, not what we should.

I’m not sure why this has become so prevalent, but nearly every venue in which I’ve discussed this phenomenon I get resounding agreement from those who have suffered the tyranny of corporate metrics.

Why is that? Why is there such disconnect between what we measure and what most people think we should measure? Most of the people I’ve met who determine, track, and analyze a company’s metrics have been really bright people. Maybe we just don’t understand them.

Perhaps it’s because most of us don’t see the connection between a particular metric and our overall success. It appears to those of us who can’t connect the pieces that the corporate “counters of things” are simply channeling our key-searching friend and measuring what they can see because they lack the ability to find what really matters.

I think there are two possibilities here. First is that the metrics actually do contribute directly to our success in some way but the link between measurement and success is invisible to most of us. If that is the case, increasing communication about the why of these metrics would go a long way in motivating the workforce to help collect reliable data for that metric and for achieving positive results in that stat.

The second possibility is that we really are measuring what venture capitalist and author John Doerr calls “zombie metrics.” These are metrics that are disembodied and disconnected from meaningful life. They exist without a soul or purpose but refuse to die.

Sadly, I think the second possibility is more prevalent. I’ve sat through enough Key Performance Indicator (KPI) assessments to know that there are few cause-effect linkages between most KPIs and an organization’s overall success. I have observed hard-working employees spend countless (expensive) hours measuring things that only serve to change the color on a PowerPoint slide thousands of miles away from red to amber but have no other inherent value.

So where do zombie metrics come from and why do they persist? I think there are a couple of possibilities. Some of them, I believe, used to be useful, productive metrics whose utility have has disappeared. They are no longer relevant but refuse to Rest in Peace. I am not sure, for example, why some government agencies continue to pay to measure “leadership effectiveness” through an online test even though the results are not used to make hiring decisions. Old habit?

Zombie metrics can also arise from flawed assumptions about cause and effect. Managers rationalize that if a certain activity takes place (cause) than a specific outcome is assured (effect). If we incentivize the cause, we can predict a positive outcome. In mechanical systems this is a pretty reliable model. Unfortunately, in complex systems (like those involving humans) cause and effect relationships aren’t nearly as clean. People systems are just not as predictable as mechanical ones, and actual cause and effect linkages are really hard to nail down.

Another source of zombie metrics is akin to availability heuristic. Much like the drunk looking for his keys we measure what is available instead of doing the difficult work of determining how to measure what matters.

So, what to do?

First, determine if the metric actually provides value. Is there a real, provable link between what you’re measuring and what you are trying to accomplish? Can you communicate that link in a believable way to your workforce?

Second, figure out if it’s actually worth measuring. That is, figure out those things we are spending money measuring and compare the cost of measurement to the value of information gained by that measurement.

This means that managers need to be able to quantitatively articulate the economic value of information. I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that many of the metrics we chase have an information value somewhere around zero.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of metrics: far from it! I think leaders should always seek the best information possible to inform decisions. I just don’t want to spend any more money on measuring things that simply don’t contribute to creating value. If a metric can be reasonably tied to a value-producing decision, it stays. If we measure something only because it’s under a streetlight or if the metric resembles the Walking Dead, it has to go.

Essay

Shut up and Color! But maybe Color Outside the Lines… it’s the key to moving forward

71zauao-ael._sl1470_The Army has a saying. Actually, the Army has lots of sayings, but a really common one is, “shut up and color.” I think this is a throwback to kindergarten when teachers would implore kids to focus on their artwork in a vain attempt to gain a few minutes of quiet.

In the Army it usually means, “I understand that you don’t like the order you were just given. Go do it anyway.” Or, it is a self-imposed resignation as in “I was going to push back on this thing because it doesn’t make sense but the guy in charge was really hot about it. I decided to just shut up and color.”

Either way there seems to be a lot of crayon work going on.

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Recommended Reading

The 32 Best Books I Read in 2018

2018 BooksWith millions of titles to choose from, figuring out what to read can be a challenge. With only so many hours in the day there is a limit on how much one can consume. In 2018 I read over 40 books and hundreds of articles. Most of them were worth reading. When do I find the time to read? Well, I cheat.  I have a 30-40 minute work commute each way, and I listen to audio books. I take notes with a hands-free voice recognition feature on Evernote. Books I actually read are typically on Kindle, and I rarely sit still for 5 minutes without reading something. Planes, airports, doctor’s office waiting rooms… never pass up an opportunity to expand your mind. Continue reading