Culture eats strategy, but…

A key part of my new job is vision and strategy development and then aligning our roadmap to that strategy. Right now, there’s a great vision, but there are gaps in the strategy that I need to address.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter Drucker

Within a few days of starting, this quote popped into my head (and then was repeated by the CITO just a week later, so now lots of us are thinking about it). The implication is that no matter how good your strategy is, culture is what determines success. I think this quote cuts a few different ways:

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Work Ethic

You do the job that’s in front of you. This phrase has been at the forefront of my mind for the last several weeks, ever since I was promoted to Lab Support Administrator. There is a tremendous amount to do, and it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes,* but I’ve been making a list and just working my way down it. Start a task, finish a task.

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Ever tried recording your thoughts?

My friend Brian loves his digital audio recorder. He has a terrible memory so he carries it with him everywhere and grabs it when something comes to mind. Throughout the day he’ll record snippets and ideas, and then sit down in the afternoon or evening to transcribe the thoughts into his journal.

I’ve done a few of these, but while I can handle the first step of recording my thoughts pretty easily, I have a lot of trouble with the second. I’ve put some audio notes into Evernote, but I never go back and listen to them. And last night I spent over thirty minutes recording some story ideas I had, but I worry I won’t actually do anything with those notes.

The act of saying the ideas out loud helps me to remember, and I don’t have too much trouble in that department to begin with. But I’m curious about your experiences: have you tried audio recording for ideas, and do you have any tips to share?

Proof that I am not the tyrannical despot you think I am

From Twitter earlier today:

I hate the management / disciplinary part of my job, but as cliché as it is, somebody has to do it. Now that it’s done, back to tech stuff.

to which @rcburrell replied

@dmmagic Solution: fire people you have to manage

I don’t do the management stuff because I enjoy it. Rather, I do it because it needs done, and because I feel that our staff deserves to have it done. What’s more, we will never improve if people aren’t held to higher (or, to be honest, any) standards.

It sucks to hold people to standards and have to discipline them when they don’t meet those standards, and I don’t like doing it. Writing people up doesn’t make me happy–it’s upsetting, frustrating, and a bit depressing. But it’s important we be clear about things: you’re expected to do a job, and if you don’t do it, there will be consequences.

And to be perfectly clear, Ryan‘s not alone in his feelings on the matter. There are a lot of people, particularly higher up, who wouldn’t tolerate some of the stuff we do. There wouldn’t be a warning, there would just be a lot of student workers out of jobs.

My overriding principle and guidance in all things is fairness: I want to give people a fair shake. Sometimes that involves warning and disciplining people when they don’t do as they have been told they should, with the goal of trying to help them do what they need to be doing so we don’t actually have to fire them.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m no tyrannical despot who enjoys this stuff. I’d much rather be playing with web pages and figuring out how to make stuff work. It’s just something that has to be done sometimes.

The Danger of Devil’s Advocate

I am the type of person who likes to challenge people’s knowledge, pushing them to answer questions and defend their stances. It’s part Socratic method and part Devil’s Advocate, with the goal of learning more about the person and asking them to learn more about themselves. I suppose on principle this is OK, but in the last few years I have been withdrawing from these methods. The more I practiced or experienced them, the less effective they seemed to be to me.

The problem with playing Devil’s Advocate, where you take the opposite stance of someone even though you may not personally agree with that stance, is rooted in cognitive dissonance. There are two ways in which this comes out, both usually at the same time, that I believe make the model ultimately unfeasible. I will relate these methods by way of example, because that’s easiest.

My first example is in conveying theological precepts, perhaps from pastor to congregation. I have seen several church leaders play Devil’s Advocate to try and stir up their congregation, to push them to deeper thought and committment to study. On the surface, it makes sense: your congregation believes X, but they can’t exactly say why. So, you question their belief and challenge them to dig deeper, to study more, and to find the answers. You don’t necessarily want them to just believe everything you say, so the ideal is that they’ll go out and learn on their own.

The problem with employing the Devil’s Advocate style in this situation is that it is deeply confusing. A person in a position of authority and trust is challenging without providing answers, and what’s more, they are taking a stance opposite what one might expect. When a pastor brings a can of beer to the service and says, “What’s wrong with drinking this?” then gives lots of examples of how it’s not wrong without any example of how it is… not only is it unBiblical, it’s also emotionally confusing. The hope is there, on the part of the pastor, that the congregation will think for themselves and challenge him/her, but they are listening out of a relationship built on trust, and Devil’s Advocate undermines that trust.

Second, and similar, is the relationship between a manager and his/her employees. I used to see this a lot more, where the manager would oppose the employees to make them think more about their stances or requests. The manager’s goal was to represent all the questions and challenges the employees might encounter from upper management, but the method had an unintended consequence. It communicated to the employees that the manager was their enemy, and since the manager was already in a position of power/authority, it upset the balance between them. The manager can more easily exert their authority, so the employees feel like they have been placed in an even greater position of weakness. They have no allies left but one another.

The more I see the Devil’s Advocate method used, the more I am convinced there are simply better ways to teach or get a point across. In a very limited form, I think the same questions can be asked to challenge people, but the next step should be to answer and solve them collaboratively, to engage people in discussion, and to make sure they know they are not alone. It is not Me vs. You when I ask you a challenging question. Rather, my desire would be that I ask You the question, and We solve it together. Between us, we can perhaps come up with a more complete answer than either of us could have on our own.

Its basic undesirableness is built into its name. Don’t play Devil’s Advocate to the full, for it will completely undermine trust and relationships and leave your students/employees/etc. uncertain of you. Rather, pose the questions, but do it in a collaborative sense. By solving these problems together, you will build an even greater level of trust and likely learn something yourself, rather than just trying to pass knowledge one way.

In Business and Faith: Establishing Standards

I am currently embroiled in a 4-day Supervision Boot Camp (which is actually the first half of an 8-day training that will conclude in October) that covers both basic and advanced concepts needed by managers. We’ve been discussing leadership, working in teams, generational differences, coaching, and a variety of other topics, all of which have been extremely helpful. On Wednesday, we began talking about the quality of our staffs, and specifically the 80/20 concept.

When most people hear 80/20, the saying that pops into our heads is that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. The consultants providing the training broke this down further by using the results of a survey. The survey showed that most companies have a mix of employees, with 30% of the employees being complete super stars. These employees were self-starters who always pursued excellence. 50%, or the majority, of employees met criterion and might be considered rising stars. They were doing what was asked and perhaps a bit more. These employees have the potential to move up to super stardom, but might need some guidance. The last 20% of the employees were falling stars, and these were your troublemakers or slackers.

When looking at these three groupings of employees (super stars, rising stars, and falling stars), we were asked what the minimum section we would tolerate was. As a whole, we all agreed that we would tolerate the 50% that met expectations, but we would not tolerate the falling stars. If you consistently can’t do the work, you shouldn’t be there.

And yet, the consultants asked, how many of us employ falling stars? How many of us still have that 20% hanging around who consistently fail to meet expectations? The truth is, the minimum we will accept is not that 50% group. The minimum we will accept is the minimum we have.

To put it another way, the behaviour you accept becomes the standard. If you accept falling star behaviour, then their output and their slacking, becomes the standard against which everything else is measured.

The problem with accepting that low standard in management is twofold. First, the falling stars will drag down the rest of the employees, impeding their progress and harming output and profit. They cause more rework, more retraining, and pulling the standards down hurts morale. Why should a super star continue to shine if they can get away with falling into the mud and doing nothing?

Second, your super stars will begin to leave and go elsewhere. They’re the self-starters, the ones who really care about the quality of their work, so they’ll be attracted to others who feel the same. If their supervisor doesn’t hold all of their staff to the level the super stars feel is appropriate, then the super stars will find someplace that does.

As we considered this in terms of management and supervision, my mind immediately jumped to theology and my personal life. What aspects of my lifestyle are in that bottom 20%, that grouping of falling stars? And for how long have I tolerated and accepted that minimum?

Though I may be doing pretty well in some aspects of my life, those falling star sections drag the rest down. I can’t worship, serve, or study as freely if sin is weighing on my mind. Each time I fail my Lord, that failure’s reverbations affect me for days until I am constantly living under a cloud of sin. The bottom 20% robs me of my time with God and the freedom I know I should be feeling, but can’t because of my guilt. I know what I should do (not tolerate that 20%), yet I let it slide. It’s easier to focus on the positive and ignore the negative, so I don’t pursue disciplinary action.

If I continue to ignore that 20%, letting it establish a permanent foothold in my life, I will eventually lose the super star aspects of my faith. Sin will drag me down until I can no longer serve God as I have been called to do, and like an anchor it will stop me from moving forward. Just like falling star employees will drive off better workers, so too will sin poison my joys.

Therefore, as hard and unappetizing as it is, we must pursue disciplinary action. Falling star employees need to be coached, counseled, and if all else fails, dismissed. Likewise, we might need to seek the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ to address our sin, we need to work diligently to overcome it, and if all else fails, we must cut the temptation out of our life completely.

If we have trouble with spending too much money, we should cut up our credit cards and stop carrying cash around (or, as a friend of mine does, only carry cash around to put a limit on what you can spend). You might have to stop watching certain movies, stop listening to certain music, or unplug yourself from the Internet entirely. Whatever it is that keeps you from God needs to be addressed, and fast before it drags you down too low.

Though the concept is taught in an expensive class for managers, it’s also just good common sense. We can’t go on accepting minimum quality as our standard. I know that I don’t want a minimum quality of life, and it’s surely not what God wants for me. Therefore I must be disciplined and address that 20%. The behaviour I accept becomes the standard, and if I want to be holy as my God is holy, then my standards simply need to get better.