Sunday, January 27, 2008

Leading and Managing in the Age of Ambiguity

The Age of Aquarius of my youth is gone, seemingly replaced by The Age of Ambiguity. Everywhere I look I see multiple option sets without a clear “correct” choice. Life, it seems, has become much more complicated. More than ever navigating and succeeding in this environment seems to depend on identifying a range of options, not one single right option, then giving each a bit of nourishment until the winner or winners become clear. Doing so requires a different mindset and skill set, and can sometimes feel like playing a bluff hand at the high stakes table. There are some things you can do to help guide your organization through times of ambiguity when the way forward may not seem clear. Try these on for size.

Give people a voice. One of the things I really enjoy is bringing a group of people together to brainstorm or discuss a unique problem. Often times the discussion will wander off topic but I find even this can be beneficial. This type of open, possibly even chaotic dialogue can yield results – a new use of a proven tactic, an “off the wall hairbrained scheme” that has a nugget of wisdom to it, or a clearly spoken redefinition of the issue at hand. All are valuable and all are encouraged by bringing people, lots of people, together.

Define acceptable outcomes. Here my thought is centered on system behavior. It seems to me that organizations and systems that define acceptable outcomes or behavior but do not focus on policing methodology provide a more creative environment, allowing freedom to develop new tools, methods, and solutions. This type of open architecture is not right for all organizations or systems, of course, but would be a breath of fresh air to many.

Look for centers of energy. When the types of interaction anticipated above occurs it is natural that some ideas or concepts will begin to generate buzz. What that is telling you is that the idea is attractive. People are energized by it, attracted to it, and they will bring others with them. When you see this happening you know that people are engaged and committed, and can expect the idea to iterate itself naturally until the “marketplace” of the group agrees optimization has been attained.

Encourage different views. Diversity of ideas is always a good thing. Don’t limit what people are willing to bring to the table by moving too quickly or discarding suggestions without fair evaluation. Let people talk, let them explain. Challenge them with open questions, not ones with assumptions behind them. Think of it as a debate among equals and look for common patterns and thoughts to build upon.

Set the right environment and look for emerging consensus. Complex contexts often require new solutions. The leader’s job is not to create the solution and then mandate its implementation. The leader’s job is to establish an environment that will encourage the emergence of a good solution, one that solves the problem without violating boundaries and behaviors that have been established. When you see it emerging then your job is to nurture it and encourage its development.

My Dad used to pay less than twenty cents a gallon for gas. World politics was rather simple, you knew who the good guys and bad guys were. And, life roles were clearly defined in black and white. The world is different now in virtually every area and every way. “Complexity” and “ambiguity” define our world now. Living, working, managing, and leading in this environment isn’t as simple as is used to be. But you know what? I wouldn’t want to go back. I enjoy the energy and challenges we face today, the opportunities we have now that didn’t exist then, and the diversity of thought and contribution that surrounds us.

Ambiguity? Bring it on!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Affinity Matrix for Project Teams

If you have ever done programming for a large development project then you know about affinity matrixes that define degrees of interaction between parts of an organization, helping inform the design process and optimize spatial arrangement. Okay, that’s old hat to architect’s, interior designers, and FM’s. But what if we thought of the affinity matrix a bit differently? What if we used the same concept to help understand project team relationships or identify knowledge matches and misses? Let me give you an example of what I’m thinking about.

Let’s say you are the Program Manager for a large project. You have internal division VP’s as your customers, and architects, contractors, and PM’s on your team. At the beginning of your project you would want to make sure everyone understands the team’s interdependencies. You might, for example, want to make sure the architects and consulting engineers are all in synch on information sharing. One way to understand if they are or not would be to survey them independently and record and plot their responses on a matrix. You could use different symbols for matched interfaces, expected but not provided interfaces, and unexpected but provided interfaces (the former representing unmet information sharing needs and the latter representing unplanned but beneficial communications that are occurring organically).

This matrix would be very simple, listing all team elements on both axis. You then survey each team member and ask them who they expect to give information to and who they expect to get it from. Next you plot each element’s response, and finally overlay them together. Where the groups have properly understood the requirements you have expectation matches, one expecting to get information from one who expects to give it. Where they differ you will have either unmet or unplanned information transfers. These represent opportunities to catch and correct communication gaps before they do damage, and to take advantage of information that would have been available but unrecognized earlier.

Identifying the mismatches is important, but deciding how to cure them is even more important. Sometimes curing may require a different reporting relationship, new communication protocols, or finding a common technology. One suggestion would be to form small teams to investigate and advise on critical mismatches that are discovered and, of course, communicating the issues and solutions is key.

Large projects are fun but no two are alike. The challenges differ, the clients differ, the teams differ. Never assume everyone has the same goal or expectation. Exercises like this one can be beneficial in identifying opportunities for disappointment before they happen.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Keeping Alliances Aligned

Over the years business alliances have become much more prevalent in our industry. Design-Build and Joint Ventures are both examples of what is a lengthening list of solution alliances, and that’s just on the development side of our equation. When you think about outsourcing and increased alliances on the services side it can be mind-numbing. So, if alliances are this important to us, how do we assure they remain healthy and beneficial? They are, after all, supposed to be win-win, or in some cases win-win-win-win. This is really interesting since companies may be part of an alliance on one project and in direct competition on others. Strategies which prove helpful in maintaining alignment of partners major in emphasizing common needs and benefits while taking advantage of strengths one partner may offer that others don’t.

The business plan is less important than how you work together. Stated another way, an alliance who’s success or failure is tied to meeting an elaborate set of goals is more likely to experience loss of focus and failure than one which is structured primarily around key performance outcomes and how the groups will work together to achieve them. Knowing how you will work together requires knowing how each works internally so you can craft guidelines for working together that are not doomed by the landmines of corporate process and culture. Ideally alliance partners should act and feel as if they are working for the same company when engaged in the alliance. In other words, it’s a relationship thing.

What gets measured gets done. Ever hear that one before? It’s true, you know. So, while you are busy developing metrics that measure process, quality and cost, don’t forget to measure progress toward alliance goals. Also, be wary of pressure to show immediate positive performance on details at the outset. Alliances take a while to find their sea legs and develop “normalcy.” Expecting them to deliver on target the first month can be unrealistic. In the early days focus on the attributes of success and report those. If you’re doing well there you are building in the right direction. Think of these as start-up metrics that will be replaced once the operation is geared up.

Conflict can be a good thing. When different companies team up it is natural that they will not always be in synch, especially at the beginning. And, there may be a tendency to interpret “compromise” as “do it our way.” Alliances are formed because no one company has all the attributes required to meet the need, and because the potential benefit of teaming up outweighs the risk of not participating. Often, however, once the alliance is made the differences that motivated its creation become roadblocks. A key to overcoming this obstacle is to make the conflicts visible. Very visible. Instead of hiding them in the name of being a “good team member” you will serve everyone, including the client, better by identifying them and helping the alliance deal with them openly and fairly. Escalate when you have to, talk candidly but fairly, and pose the conflict as a lost opportunity that represents lost goodwill and/or revenue. My favorite governance model for alliances is a group of key executives representing all partners but essentially sitting as the “Board” of the alliance. When issues get escalated they come to this group which presumably has the best interests of the alliance at heart, not to individual corporate domains where the alliance has little standing and no voice.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. It seems silly to say that, like I am overstating the obvious. But it is true, collaboration is the key to alliance success. Yes, there will be a governance system and all the other trappings of business, but at the heart of it it’s about people working together. Spend more time and effort on unbiased investigation and analysis of issues and joint discovery, and less time and effort on assigning blame for problems and failures, and you will be a lot better off. One way to encourage collaboration is to establish collaboration rules of the road that describe how conflict will be communicated, how objectivity will be maintained, and how communication will be both consistent and constructive.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

FM Leadership Development

As the importance of FM as a strategic lever is recognized by more organizations the expectations of FM leaders are ratcheting up accordingly. More and more, strong business and entrepreneurial skills are as important as strong FM-specific knowledge. Good advice to younger FM’s who are now maturing in the profession includes encouragement to develop these elements of their personal portfolio along with more traditional FM areas of interest.

Analysis of current FM executive hiring indicates that companies expect more value from their FM groups, expect them to think and act strategically, expect them to understand and support the business of the business, and expect them to drive large scale change quickly and dramatically instead of incrementally. Strategy, business acumen, and change leadership are key skillsets which a lot of non-FM executives have, helping to explain why more and more we see non-FM’s assuming leadership of FM organizations.

FM’s who aspire to executive leadership positions should take a balanced and business-centric approach to their personal development. Specifically, they should…

Know the business of business. Be able to think, talk, and act with strong business knowledge.

Know the business of your business.
Know and understand the key business drivers in your specific industry and company. Know how things get done and how decisions get made. Understand and use the financial language, standards, and protocols of your company.

Cultivate important relationships. Know who the influencers and decision makers are in your company and be intentional about spending time with them on a consistent basis. Become an asset to them, a problem solver they can depend upon.

Share the wealth. As you develop yourself and move through the ranks take pride bringing others with you. Make staff development and succession planning a part of your personal development strategy. In other words, prepare others to lead as well as yourself.

In this age of increasing specialization it is tempting to pick those specialties you have the most affinity for and drill deep. That’s fine, if you want to be a technician or recognized knowledge content expert. Being given the reigns to a large complex organization with substantial financial responsibility, however, requires that you know how to think and act in the larger context. Preparing yourself by doing things like those listed above to develop your non-FM skills is just as important to your future.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Mass Communication Systems Improve Emergency Response

A number of specific instances can be cited from just the last couple of years which showcase the advantages of well designed mass communication systems. Virginia Tech, Katrina and the Southern California wildfires are all examples where these systems were either used or needed.

Mass communication technology has now evolved to the point they are user friendly, reliable, and affordable. You can now communicate with your constituency, whether they are students or parents, employees, or volunteers – and you can do it in near real time. All of the major market systems allow you to cover the basics.

  • Prepare pre-recorded messages for anticipated events and/or send real time information updates
  • Send via multiple channels (email, text, phone, fax, desktop) with end user defined preferences
  • Discreet who you send to (geographical region, individual business unit, etc.)

Most of the systems on the market today can tell you how many people actually received the message, some can provide feedback capability. For example, companies use these systems to communicate with employees who may be working or traveling in areas where disaster or political unrest strikes. The company is able to pulse the employee via the network and the employee is able to respond that they are ok or need assistance and whether they are in the office, at home, or on the move.

One large decision to be made when considering such a system is whether it will be in housed in-house in your data center or outsourced to an Application System Provider (ASP). There are pros and cons to each. Outsourcing makes the system much more affordable, provides routine software upgrades, and improves reliability since the system is not housed at a corporate location that may be the scene of the problem and therefore be off-line. On the con side, outsourcing requires putting sensitive staff information on servers that you don’t own, operate, or control. Additionally, bringing the system in-house adds ongoing staffing and training expense.

As with any technology system it’s all about understanding your requirements, technology options, operability, reliability, and cost. Do your homework well and think hard about including this type of system in your Business Continuity Plan. They work, they’re fast, and they improve your intelligence about your constituency and your ability to communicate critical information to them in times of need.

Here are just a few web links to providers.